This Review by Rabbi Gil Student originally appeared in Jewish Action (Winter 2016).
Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo’s Learning To Grow is billed as “a spiritual guide to your year in Israel” but do not be fooled. This book is a guide to a meaningful life regardless of your circumstances. The structure of the book revolves around the progression of the year in Israel, from the initial flight to the return home. This framework, in addition to the occasional expert tip on living in the country, makes the book uniquely valuable to someone attending a gap year Israel program. However, the vast majority of the book consists of important guidance to anyone looking to grow.
Rabbi Shmalo, who teaches Jewish philosophy and law at Yeshiva University and serves as educational director of Meor NYU, offers a light mussar touch to the year in Israel. For most students, the year after high school is one of challenge and maturation. Reaching an age of adulthood, living in a new environment, studying with a newfound independence, receiving influence from unique personalities—everything about the year speaks growth. Students need to evolve responsibly, focusing on the most important aspects and proceeding steadily. Lasting change comes slowly and thoughtfully, with a careful plan. Focusing on oneself can lead to narcissistic religious change, which is both wrong and unstable. True religious growth requires concern for others.
However, we all need to improve our behavior, not just the yeshivah student in Israel. We all can improve our prayer, better control our appetites, reflect on our daily successes and failures. Every Jew needs to focus on the themes Rabbi Shmalo addresses: listening to wise authority figures while resisting controlling personalities; developing oneself both emotionally and intellectually and making a Kiddush Hashem. Rabbi Shmalo teaches every adult how to live a more purposeful and committed Jewish life without taking drastic measures. If we improve our various religious devotions even a little, we transform our lives. Little steps add up to cover a lot of ground.