TEANECK, New Jersey — After witnessing her rebellious friends become religious after a year of study in Israel, New Jersey native Anna Wexler became intrigued. Quickly the question of why so many American teenagers come to Israel for the year and “flip out” became an obsession — and the basis of her first film.

“My friends went into a black hole in Israel and came out differently. I was very angry,” Wexler said, explaining her initial motivation for creating “Unorthodox.”

She wondered if her friends and others like them who embarked on a journey of spiritual renewal in the Holy Land had been brainwashed by their rabbis.

Then an undergraduate student at MIT, she set out to investigate the religious metamorphosis by following three “rebellious” teens from the New York area before, during and after their year in Israel. That was nine years ago.

The result is a deeply affecting film in which narratives are weaved together with Wexler’s personal story about breaking away from her modern Orthodox community in high school.

Still from 'Unorthodox' (courtesy)

Still from ‘Unorthodox’ (courtesy)

The story the teens tell is universal and is largely about the quest of every adolescent to find themselves and their ultimate place in the community and world. But it’s also about spiritual longing.

Typical Modern Orthodox parents see a year in Israel as a rite of passage before their offspring face the worldly temptations of college life. Parents of rebellious kids hope the year will shape their children up, Wexler observes in her documentary.

The phenomenon became a source of anger for Wexler, who spent her year after high school traveling through Asia, when she returned to find her friends transformed. She felt betrayed when her non-religious buddies for drinking, sex and drugs in high school came home from Israel wearing modest garb, eating kosher and praying daily.

When she expressed her resentment to her MIT advisor at a Thanksgiving dinner in 2004, one of the dinner guests, National Geographic producer John Rubin, urged her to create a documentary and agreed to be her mentor. An energized Wexler ran back to her dorm and enlisted classmate Nadja Oertelt to co-direct.

Nadja Oertelt, co-director of 'Unorthodox.' (courtesy)

Nadja Oertelt, co-director of ‘Unorthodox.’ (courtesy)

The pair completed the film at the end of 2013 after nine years of work and it premiered in November. Now Wexler is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at MIT and Oertelt is a Harvard Fellow creating education documentaries on topics within neuroscience. The film received a warm reception at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, DOC NYC film festival and the Montclair Film Festival, and the directors hope to bring it to Israel in the coming months.

“Unorthodox” follows Tzipi, who grew up in an Orthodox home and develops intellectual objections to Judaism, Jake, a talented musician who was accepted to a prestigious music school but isn’t sure how to reconcile his faith with his professional aspirations, and Chaim, a wild boy who goes to Israel because his friends are going and not because he is interested in spiritual growth.

Students typically undergo three phases during their year in Israel, says Wexler in the film. First they go wild with their freedom, and often experiment with drugs and alcohol. Several shocking scenes depicted in the film include yeshiva students getting high on various drugs in the halls of the yeshiva as their rabbis sleep in the rooms next door and getting drunk in downtown Jerusalem late at night.

The second phase is that they become bored with the partying lifestyle and begin to take Torah learning seriously. And finally, transformation begins, often accompanied by the observance of more Jewish tradition.

Four years later, the film follows up on how the students’ lives have changed. Some of the transformations are quite surprising.

The teens' return to religion is similar to Amish kids' sowing their wild oats, say the directors. (courtesy)

The teens’ return to religion is similar to Amish kids’ sowing their wild oats, say the directors. (courtesy)

Oertelt observed, “It’s a realization and return to things that these kids feel are important to life. It’s similar to what happens in the Amish community when they are allowed to sow their oats for the year and then return to their community.”

Part of the reason for the dramatic shift among teens who come to Israel is that they are “stepping out of the world they are used to and into a world that is focused entirely on Judaism and it gives them a chance to reflect on Judaism from a different perspective,” said Rabbi Reuben Taragin, Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.

“The kids are being presented with ideas they are inspired by and decide to make it a greater part of their lives. Learning Torah is very spiritual; especially when you learn how to learn it on your own and in the Land of Israel surrounded by the Jewish people,” said Taragin.

‘The film speaks to everyone because the fundamental question it addresses is one of identity and one of community’

In-depth textual learning as well as the strong student-rabbi relationship is, for many students, the essence of the yeshiva experience, yet the documentary doesn’t include footage of study. The film does, however, expose drug and alcohol use – including an overdose death — among yeshiva students.

Oertelt, who grew up in a Reform household, said she’s gratified by the positive response.

“Many of the people who went to Israel for the year felt it represented their experience. Viewers from outside of the community felt it’s real and interesting. Jews of all backgrounds as well as non-Jews can identify with it. The film speaks to everyone because the fundamental question it addresses is one of identity and one of community,” said Oertelt.

Wexler grew up in a religious family, attended Jewish day schools and placed nationally in annual International Bible Contest. But as a teen, too many of her questions went unanswered and her life began spiraling out of control. She started feeling her life was based on a lie and turned away from belief.

At age 16 she switched from her all girls yeshiva to a public high school. Her new community became other rebellious teens from the Orthodox community. She pierced her tongue, ate non-kosher and ran away from home to sleep on the subways and park benches in New York.

Throughout the movie, she reexamines her own life choices, just as the three main characters are scrutinizing theirs. And while the film portends to be looking at the experience of teens in Israel, it says more about Wexler and her own perceptions.

The movie does not directly answer Wexler’s question about whether those who spend the year a year of study in Israel are brainwashed.

“I was careful to leave that out” and let the viewers decide, she said.

Was making the film a catharsis?

“I’m not angry anymore,” she said. “I learned that each person has their own decision making process.”

‘I learned that each person has their own decision making process’

Though most of the film’s characters seem happier and more fulfilled at the end of their search, we sense sadness in Wexler. In one poignant scene, we are shown a hapless Wexler who waits at the Kotel for spiritual sensations to overtake her.

“I sat there and desperately tried to feel what I felt as a child, with that all encompassing sense of spirituality and belief….But I didn’t feel anything,” sais Wexler.

Wexler’s grandmother, one of the film’s more memorable characters, observes that the subject matter of Wexler’s film was no accident as no matter how hard she tries, she can’t escape her Jewish roots.

“You didn’t choose to follow the life of a crocodile. You chose something very close to you.” One day, she predicts, you will “come back.”