The Myth of Seminary “Flip” Culture

By: Rina Shamilov  |  May 12, 2022

By Rina Shamilov, News Editor

What does it mean for a seminary student to “flip out?” What are the implications of this phrase? In a university where seminary culture is rampant and wildly celebrated, I think it is essential to understand precisely what “flip” culture is and how it affects the growing modern Orthodox communities.

“Flipping out” is a contemporary, Orthodox phenomenon in which young adults return home after a gap year spent in seminary or yeshiva as much more religious than they initially were. Oftentimes, this develops into a conflict between parents and their newly religious children because the level of religious observances varies greatly.

Likewise, in a review article of Shalom Berger and colleagues’ Flipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the Year in Israel, Shana Yocheved Schacter explains that there is a stigma associated with students who have returned from Israel more religious than they once were. This is likely the case because the process of religious change is unobservable. For some, nine months does not seem like a long enough time for someone to change their lifestyle forever and for this decision to be meaningful. 

But what exactly does it mean to be religious, and how do the seminary students at YU approach the topic of religiosity and “flip” culture? I sent out a short survey to my grade’s WhatsApp group chat to gauge how seminary students define religiosity and whether or not they became more “religious” after having returned from seminary. However, I would like to preface the remainder of this article by saying that my research is in no way efficient or empirical; I did not procure many responses, but I still think what data I have is necessary to begin the conversation surrounding this topic. 

Most students I spoke to defined religiosity as the relationship one has with God and Halacha [Jewish law], though there was also a strong emphasis placed specifically on believing in God. Each student who responded to my survey, however, claimed that they became more religious after seminary only because throughout their experience they learned more about Halachot and gained a deeper appreciation for the Halachic system as a whole. Most of my respondents came from Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim and Midreshet Moriah, both of which are rigorously religious institutions. Still, I think a student’s decision to start praying three times a day and covering themselves more cannot be solely attributed to indoctrination. 

A student (SCW ‘24) who wished to remain anonymous described how she has “the same mindset and values now as [she] did before.” She elaborates, “In practice, I may look a little different (cover my knees and wear shirts to my elbows) or take part in more religious activities, and that is because I am working to keep and follow halacha better. The main concrete difference for me would be that I am putting in more active efforts to follow halacha as opposed to before when I sort of just went through the motions.” 

Another student (SCW ‘24) shared with me that “there are areas of Halacha that I make sure to keep now that I did not beforehand, some in ways that seem natural to me now but would have felt drastic if they happened instantaneously. My growth was not and never has been linear. I continue and hope always to grow.”

These are sides to the story that we never hear. Until last year when I attended seminary in Israel, I had always assumed that people who returned from seminary more religious than they went in were putting on a show; I could never wrap my mind around the idea of changing so much in such a short amount of time. I went into seminary as an atheist, and I started becoming more religious over time. But it was my process, and it did not happen overnight. I do not believe that anyone is capable of making a life-changing decision overnight; seminaries simply provide opportunities for learning and growth that allow students to make their own deliberate, informed decisions. 

When asking students about “flip culture,” one response was unanimous: the notion of “flipping” is highly toxic because it does not account for anything that a person went through. It does not account for the process that one goes through when making an informed decision about how she wants to live her life. 

One student (SCW ‘24) who wishes to remain anonymous expressed her thoughts on the subject. She responded in the survey, “The culture of referring to or thinking of another or even oneself as a ‘flip out’ is incredibly toxic and judgmental.”She also stated that embracing the “flip” title usually implies that the credibility of a person’s religious change comes into question. 

What appears to be the most important when approaching this topic is to hear the experiences of people who have undergone a religious change and who are directly impacted by the stigma. Seminary “flip” culture is incredibly poisonous and detrimental because people assume a person’s lifestyle decisions are superficial. 

To disregard a person’s life choices as flippant or superficial delegitimizes every learning process. How can we blatantly assume that someone’s decision to become more religious is disingenuous if we were not a part of their process to get there? I think that the reinforcement of “flip” culture stereotypes is uninformed and toxic and gives way to unnecessary stigma and contempt, all of which are harmful to Jewish communities.

While this discussion does not by any means solve the stereotype surrounding religious change in adolescents, I hope that the issue of baseless judgment will be brought to life and spoken about.