Inspired by Harry Maryles' recent post on the matter, I thought I would try to organize my thoughts with regard to seminaries.
As one who did not attend seminary, none of my thoughts can relate to the experience itself. I have not been there. I have not had my year in Israel, nor do I wish to have one- or at least, not in this capacity. Therefore, my thoughts can only reflect what I have heard from others, and my impressions from the frantic machinations of teachers and faculty.
Seminary, a popular trend (and almost a mandate) in today's Orthodox Jewish world, refers to an Orthodox Jewish female high-school graduate's "year in Israel" most frequently, and upon occasion a year in any Jewish institution of higher learning (located in places from England to Montreal to Cleveland.) When I refer to seminary, however, I refer to the most common phenomenon- the year in Israel.
How is seminary approached in high school? Well, as far as my experience allows me to judge, it is presented as a given. You will finish high school, and then you will attend seminary. Hence, the great majority of one's junior and senior year of high school is spent in attendance at various speeches where heads of seminaries (or their public relations department) stop by your school, inform you of all the attractions of choosing their school over anyone else's, and sometimes even conduct interviews. The excitement, worry, confusion and happiness reach fever-pitch. The only word you hear, rolling off of almost everyone's tongue, is seminary.
Seminary, as I understand it, has both pros and cons. Ideally, seminary is a place-
1. Where one engages in an intensive academic atmosphere, suffusing oneself in Torah and Judaic studies (sometimes, perhaps most frequently, to the exclusion of secular studies) for the period of one year
2. Where one is able to explore different avenues of thought and experience different types of religiosity and commitment to religiosity than those one has grown up with/ been previously taught
3. Where one has the opportunity to assert one's independance and learn to make choices for oneself
4. A maturation experience- not only in the fact that one is independant for the first time, but one most also learn to interact with others who may not be like them, in a culture that is different from theirs, and a different land
5. Suffusion in the rich experience of the country that is Israel. Tiyulim of various types (guided trips and hikes throughout Israel), Shabbatons (staying over for Shabbos in various places in Israel) and visiting relatives are all wonderful experiences
6. A time of introspection. This combines maturation, independance, and perhaps all the other factors formerly mentioned into one overarching idea.
Ideally, seminary is a wonderful experience for the female Jewish student. She is able to study Torah on a very high level (if she is interested in academics), or, in contrast, choose a school which focuses more on hashkafa (philosophy) and giving over love, warmth and acceptance. She is experiencing the land of Israel and all the riches it has to over. She forms close friendships with other girls and perhaps has some borderline problematic experiences as well (all part of growing up.) She learns about herself through learning about others. When she returns to America, she is prepared for college, having completed a step in her growth.
In contrast, however, there are cons to seminary-
1. Choosing a seminary for shidduch purposes. Many girls go to seminary in order for it to "look good" on their resume, so that their future husband will find them acceptable and marry them. (I personally find this to be a ridiculous bordering on sad practice. If the first question the man asks is what seminary the girl attended, does he desire to marry the girl, or the institution? What has seminary to do with one's character traits?)
2. Price. A year in Israel is expensive, and not everyone is able to afford it. There are certainly scholarships and the like, but not enough of them (and not everyone qualifies for them.)
3. Indoctrination. Many people go off to seminary confused, as it were, lacking a defined and clear understanding of Judaism and their own commitment to Judaism. Once in Israel, their seminary instills certain values in them. These values are not necessarily good. Spending a year away from home without a clear sense of self makes you very vulnerable.
4. A year without secular studies. One of the reasons (I have heard this whispered by the student body) that people who do perfectly on the AP English test receive no credit from Stern is because they spend a year in Israel, forget how to write papers, come back and do miserably in English classes. Taking this "gap year" or break may really be a disservice to students who want to be revved up and ready to go when it comes to college. Many students have told me they "forget how to work." To be more charitable, it may not be that people forget how to work as much as they work differently in Israel to suit the different types of classes there.
5. Family relations after seminary- Some people come back from Israel totally changed (and this can be either a good or bad thing.) Their family does not know how to relate to them anymore, because the person is revolted by and denigrates many of the things the family practices. This can cause tension and unhappiness between family members. (This is part of the phenomenon often referred to as "flipping out.")
6. Matching a person to the right seminary. This is much harder than it seems. Many times schools actively "push" for certain schools over others, and almost force students to attend those schools as opposed to any others. This can be reason for a pretty miserable experience.
At my school, there were certain seminaries that were "acceptable" to my administration, and others that were frowned upon (or even actively disparaged.) My school pushes girls to go to the frum seminaries- BJJ, for example, although this one only accepts the creme de la creme of the religious crop, Michlala, Darchei Bina and the like. Seminaries that teach Gemara (gasp) are often viewed as being of lesser quality (if of any quality at all!) Girls who want to attend Shalavim, Brovenders, and the like have to search out and complete applications for themselves, as the school hands-down refuses to help them in the application process. This is, in my opinion, very unfair.
Best of all are the long talks the principal has with the high-school students. "You don't want to go there...no, you really don't want to go there...I know best...I know this school would be better for you...do you really want to be in that kind of- environment?" This even borders upon the offensive when the principal takes it upon himself to tell your parents how he knows better than they do, and you should attend School X.
Seminary ought to be about choosing the school that is best for you, the school that completes you, that fulfills your interests and has what you are looking for, in the same way that the college one attends ideally ought to be the one that is best for you and not necessarily an Ivy League school (though, of course, an Ivy League school might be right for you!) The emphasis ought to be on your personality and which school will work for you. Instead, the emphasis that most Jewish high schools put on the matter concentrates upon the schools and tries to maneuver you to fit into them. Needless to say, that doesn't always work so well.
As a tangential issue, Jewish high schools as a whole, I believe (or perhaps it was only mine) put much more emphasis on finding the right seminary than finding the right college. In fact, my school only had seminary speakers. We had Rabbi after Rabbi come to talk to us about seminary, but nobody came to tell us about college and our options there. While my school claims not to discourage people from attending college, they offer little help- none, really. Many of my classmates (especially eldest children) don't really know how to go about college applications, and a lot of them are in seminary this year rosily thinking that "they'll apply to college later." While that may work, it's really wrong of the school (again, in my opinion) to mess with people's lives this way. Why should one year be so much more important than one's future career?
That, of course, leads us to the fact that many schools don't imagine that girls should have future careers. Acceptable schools like TI or Stern, fine. Other schools, like the University of Pennsylvania and the like, not so fine, but at least they have a large Hillel. Schools without large Hillels- the girls are doomed. They will all leave Judaism- that's the impression we receive, anyway. Or why go to any school at all? Go to seminary, come back home, marry some nice boy and file papers at some Jewish office. Why not?
But that, as I mentioned, is a tangential issue.
Regarding seminary- I am convinced that some people can go to seminary and have a wonderful time, learn a lot, mature, and come back home ready to pursue higher studies (or ready, if this is their hashkafic bent, to get married.) I am also convinced that some people go to seminary, hear all kinds of things and accept them as truth- because isn't this really religious learned person the one telling you these things?- and come back home to find their parents don't operate this way. And then, because they respect the teachers more than their parents, family relations are strained and unhappy, the parents curse their decision in sending their daughter to seminary, the daughter retaliates, and it's not happy. Those are extremes, of course. There are also people who fall into the middle category- people who weren't so happy at their particular school, but enjoyed Israel very much, people who were homesick but also had fun, etc.
Why didn't I go to seminary? This has to do with me, personally. My personality, my experiences, who I am and who I was. I didn't go to seminary because I was disgusted with all it represented- to me. To me, it represented superficiality, a kind of trophy you needed in order to marry successfully. I am frightened by the idea of going to a different country only to discover I hate my school, or my hashkafa is not in accordance with the school's hashkafa and I have to battle my teachers every day in order to remain true to myself. I don't want to have to deal with that- it drains me, and it exhausts me. I also do not feel that I need a maturation year. For various reasons, I've already had my maturation year (perhaps years?), two years worth of refreshment, intellectual entertainment, interesting topics and fabulous teachers. For me, the experience of seminary can only represent negative things- negative emotions and hatred. Even to be judged a certain way- because of going to seminary- disturbs me. And so, I could not, or perhaps would not go to seminary. There was no question, there was no discussion. I would not. The benefits I might have received had I gone to schools that would have interested me- and yes, I know they exist- like Brovenders- would not outweigh the evils for me. Even to be there- to be in a place where there are no secular studies, where the only thing I am learning is Judaic studies- would make my skin crawl. Having tasted of one extreme of Judaism, I personally need to avoid it- for the sake of my own sanity. I well understand how some people can come to hate their own religion. I myself have to battle that type of feeling- not hatred but disgust with various attitudes. Having been placed in an extreme environment- extreme for me- in terms of the Jewish high school I attended- I need to avoid it at all costs.
I have to say that I do not mark any great difference between myself and other Seminary-returnees, unless it is the fact that I don't have a group of chattering friends who follow me about and go into raptures when remembering various incidents that occurred in Israel. I know some people who have definitely grown from the experience and have figured out some things for themselves. I also know people who seem to be the same as they were when they graduated high school. And I know people who will quietly say that the year in Israel is overrated- when in truth they are scarred, but know that the majority opinion leans against them.
In the end, I say that you have to have a strong sense of self or a strong group of friends in order to go off to seminary and be able to hold your own. If you can make a list, mentally or figuratively, of certain values that are important to you, understand them thoroughly and realize that there is little in the world that can make you doubt these things- these are your unshakable beliefs- then you should be fine. Because then you'll go off to Israel and be able to judge, to take the good experience from the bad, to sift through what you're given. You have the confidence and ability to do so.
But if you are confused, vulnerable, don't really understand your own religion or commitment to it, are trying to escape from a dysfunctional environment, or are in any way fickle- think hard and well before you go. Figure out why you're going. Is it peer pressure, or do you really want to go to seminary? Try to figure out what's important to you before going off to have your entire belief system (possibly) shaken or remade. There are people who go off to seminary, thinking that all is fine, come back with a niggling sense of unhappiness but assume the problem is with them, and then, only years later, realize what caused them this unhappiness- and understand what really went on where they thought they were learning. You don't want to be one of these people.
Everything I have said could really go for any school- elementary, high school, and probably most accurately college- but seminary is harder because you are physically removed from your support system, your family, whomever you usually talk to when you are trying to work things out or understand what you think. Of course, if you go to college out of the country, you deal with the same situation. So, as Socrates said, "Man, know thyself." And all shall be well.