Viewing success, failure, and hope over ten years of youth crisis
By Avi Fertig
A 1999 study conducted by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty titled “The Incidence of At-Risk Youth in Brooklyn, New York,” found that Brooklyn’s 23,000-student yeshiva system includes some 1,500 at-risk youth.
According to the study, 6.6 percent of 14- to 17-year-old Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn are considered at-risk, with problems ranging in severity from drinking and drug abuse to feelings of isolation and learning disabilities.
Crisis, or Not?
A full ten years have passed since the expression “at-risk” first entered the vernacular. It was applied to the growing frequency of highly atypical behavior within some groups of Orthodox youth.
Within a short period of time, community leaders, parents and educators began to warn of a dire crisis. From the grim jeremiads, it appeared as if all youth, practically overnight, were being swept away by the most challenging threat since the so-called “Enlightenment” of Europe.
Were community elders correct to sound this alarm? After all, adults of so many generations prior have decried the lack of respect and motivation, diminished education and sagging mores of the youth of their day. What was so different a decade ago than from any period before?
Frankly, it was drug use that made such a difference. At that point, the Jewish community was suited to deal with most any crisis. From the Haskalah to the Holocaust, Jews have historically reacted, with variable measures of success, to preserve the survival and vitality of individual Jews committed to Torah and Mitzvos. But drug abuse was the shocking line in the sand parents and communal leaders never imagined having to cross.
From time immemorial, conventional wisdom dictated that Jews don’t drink; kal vachomer, drugs were not a problem. Nevertheless, growing anecdotal observation paired with hard facts supplied by police, Hatzolah, and reliable Torah educators led to the startling realization that drugs (and drinking) were now becoming an increasingly larger part of the equation.
But was drug abuse really so new? If history has taught us anything, it’s that Orthodox Jews are hardly impervious to the lures of outside influence. Without question there have been countless, albeit mostly invisible, cases of Orthodox Jews addicted to drugs and other stimulants. But also true is that in the not-so distant past, a typical yeshiva bochur or Bais Yaakov girl could easily go from kindergarten, well through Beis Medrash or seminary without ever so much as seeing a narcotic substance, let alone having to dodge invitations to get high on the roof or behind the yeshiva.
By the mid 1990s this was no longer the case. Secular society’s prevalent drug culture had entered the Orthodox community with vicious force and ensnared boys and girls from even the finest homes and schools. All types of drugs were available through the traditional drug trade and, most shocking, through a network of the newest, most dangerous players in this new reality: yeshiva students with seemingly no qualms about providing poison to their coreligionists.
Gradually it became less uncommon to see rowdy throngs of Jewish teens—clearly from frum homes, dressed in tattered jeans and oversized sweatshirts, with multiple piercings and odd facial hair—standing aimlessly along busy avenues such as Ocean Parkway, 13th Avenue, or Cedarhurst’s Central Avenue at all times of day and night.
It also became less rare for parents to silently endure the agony of an unfamiliar, often unpleasant child in their homes—literally a stranger to family and religion—while struggling to shield the rest of the family from their influence. Incessant late nights, furious expressions and hazed over eyes were replacing the innocence and cheinkeit of beloved Bnei and Bnot Torah at a frightening pace.
A Crack in the Status Quo
Perhaps we can establish that drugs represented genuine uncharted territory. And perhaps we can definitely conclude drugs were the result of secular influence. Still, the question remains: Why now? Barry Wilansky, executive director of the Tempo Group, and well-respected substance abuse counselor to families and school systems for over 30 years, believes the fault lies with a crack in the status quo.
Regarding the entry of drugs into the frum world, “it’s a complex issue, not due to any one specific event in the Orthodox community,” says Wilansky. “Rather the middle 1990s, which brought substantial changes in technology and media, and an across the board redistribution of wealth, caused shifts that had a catastrophic impact on our community.”
The Internet and cable television are Mr. Wilansky’s prime suspects. “These brought new, damaging, influences directly into homes.” Print and media, he feels, by practically erasing the limits and boundaries of promiscuity and behavioral dysfunction previously maintained by secular standards-bearers, also delivered new lows in negative values.
“Greater and newfound wealth in our communities was also a huge factor,” he says. Suddenly, school age children had access to a degree of wealth and consumption that simply did not exist for previous generations. Meanwhile, parents, in their efforts to generate and perpetuate this prosperity, were increasingly absent. “The combination was corrosive and explosive.”
Mr. Wilansky also fingers Jewish white-collar crime. “Before the early- to mid-1980s, it was nearly inconceivable for a religious Jew to be publicly connected to criminal activity. The increasing occurrence and celebration of such behavior has had long-lasting, deeply ingrained traumatic effects on the current generation.” He underscores how attitudes toward drug use, a severe criminal offense, may have become just one more rule that was OK to break.
Last, Wilansky points to the educational system and attitudes driving it. For generations, the goal of professional advancement was de rigueur among American Jews. There’s more than a little truth behind all those classic Jewish mother jokes about doctors and lawyers. However, “as wealth and material comforts became more routine among frum Jews, and less a vague goal of aspiring to financial security,” says Wilansky, “parents began driving their children to succeed, not as much for the sake of [intellectual pursuits], but rather to afford the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.”
His view is of a wholesale shift, which left the spiritual and intellectual goals of traditional Jewish education taking a back seat. “The pressure to succeed became enormous. It left many kids searching for something else.”
Crying For Spiritual Food
Wilansky’s explanation cleanly meshes with themes championed by Rabbi Shaya Cohen. Rabbi Cohen, a reluctant visionary who in 1987 established an interconnected Kollel, Bais Medrash and advanced Torah resource center called Priority-1—shifted gears in 1996 to address the growing problem of youths in-crisis.
Rabbi Cohen credits the switch to a daily phone call from one of his supporters; “an astoundingly prescient man who was heartbroken by what he saw was a gaping rend in the frum community’s fabric,” says Rabbi Cohen. Rabbi Cohen made his goal to stem the tide of drug abuse and “at-risk” behavior through an alternative high school that provided one-on-one attention and early intervention for at-risk youths and families.
Ever since, Rabbi Cohen’s oft-repeated anthem has been: validation. “Give Jewish kids validation and a sense of value and personal stake in their own success” he declares, “and they will inherently realize that drug, alcohol, physical gratification, criminal behavior, are a dead end.”
According to Rabbi Cohen, the unconscious trend to drain authentic spirituality from Torah education was a serious case of “letting our children down at the worst time possible.” He explains how, “just when all these negative secular influences were at their strongest, leading Jewish kids to act out in ways never seen before, the whole focus in education shifts to ‘who is the best learner, who are the top bochurim, who is dressing the way he or she is supposed to, and rejecting any and all who isn’t, aren’t, and doesn’t.”
Rabbi Cohen shrugs his head as he describes a community that created impossible molds which few can fit and retain any shred of individuality. “We spawned a generation of Jewish children who are starving for validation, and in their hunger turn elsewhere in shame, misery, and frustration,” he says.
Defining Deviancy UP!
A point Rabbi Cohen likes to make about preventing youths from teetering toward the edge of at-risk behavior is that parents and teachers have to make them feel good about being religious. “When a child is brought up frum, their religious identity is a significant part of their being,” says Rabbi Cohen. “If you start indicating that they’re a failure at being frum, the hurt cuts deep.”
When connecting dots like these, it makes sense why the changing focus of the mainstream to superficial attributes such as dress, material advancement, and proven endurance in learning left otherwise fine, erliche Jewish teens reeling. What choice would they have but to feel unfulfilled and worthless as Jews and by extension, as people? Especially when compared to coreligionists who excelled at maintaining these new standards.
The scenario brings to mind the wise admonition of the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who warned against “defining deviancy down.” The Senator’s admonishment was to prevent liberal policy thinkers of the time from allowing deviant behavior to become a societal norm, thereby labeling deviants as normal.
In our case, by perpetrating the very opposite, which is defining deviancy up, we have labeled normal Jewish teens, as they struggled with lures and influences that were unimaginable just one generation ago, as deviants. By demanding unrealistically high standards of excellence, the mainstream has closed doors on teens who needed help—simply because they needed it.
How do so many Jewish children become at-risk of being lost forever? It’s because these are the ones who fell beyond the boundaries of newly redrawn expectations of frum behavior. These are the ones who found little choice but heading in another direction.
Help. Don’t Pity.
Seventeen years ago, Rabbi Dovid Weissman, founder of Yeshiva Toras Yisroel, an alternative Mesivta in Flatbush, was asked to work with a group of boys who, had they been born a few years later, would have been labeled “at risk.”
“Back then,” says Rabbi Weissman, “the serious issues were mostly related to emuna and poshut frumkeit. Drugs became more of a problem in the ‘90s.” Still, this was the beginning of Rabbi Weisman’s long career helping at risk teens.
Even today, Rabbi Weissman’s bochurim don’t abuse drugs. “You can’t work with a kid on drugs. It doesn’t work,” he says. “The only way to help is if you get them off drugs first.” Rabbi Weissman doesn’t view this perspective as uniquely his own. “This is something we all learned after we started working with at risk teens.”
Rabbi Weissman recalls how when the at-risk crisis was first widely identified, many favored the approach of showering troubled youths with pity, unconditional love and acceptance—but asking nothing in return. “But this isn’t solving the problem,” he says. “It’s enabling the problem.”
“Teens at risk lack the personal validation they need to function as happy, productive people,” he continues. “If you only give pity and unconditional benefits, they’re not growing. In addition to love and understanding, they also need conditions, demands, goals, structure, and responsibility. Everything, but pity.”
For parents, Rabbi Weissman strongly advocates structure, but knowing when to bend. He tells a story about the parents of a boy he taught. “I told [the parents] they were too hard on him, that despite his difficulties he was a very good boy. So the mother says to me, ‘But he goes to movies.’ I was surprised she was stuck on this point; I mean he was already veering towards drugs—really serious issues. I said, ‘You know, it may not be the best thing for a yeshiva boy to be going to movies, but he could go to movies and still be frum.’” Rabbi Weissman shakes his head as he says, “The mother looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’” He says parents must always be looking out for their children, but “you have to close an eye sometimes and remember the bigger picture.”
Validation Is All You Need
Rabbi Shaya Cohen mentions another, very illuminating way to view the problem of drugs in the frum community. “Drugs are not the problem. Rather a symptom of spiritual emptiness and a lack of simcha in serving Hashem. A child feels empty inside because his neshomah is crying out for some spiritual food. Often the mind misunderstands and tries to feed the hunger with drugs, booze, and physical gratification.”
Conversely, Rabbi Cohen feels that for children who see joy in their yiddishkeit—who feel validation, purpose, and meaning, “you could dump all the temptations and filth and drugs and secular depravity over their head and they’re capable of withstanding the temptation. That is how important and how powerful happiness and purpose are.”
To help teens find validation, Rabbi Cohen urges parents and rebbeim to help children feel successful at being religious. How? He says, “Talk. Listen. Answer questions. Elevate the concept of Hashgacha Pratis. Rejoice in Mitzvos. Demonstrate joy in being Jewish and serving Hashem.” With these, Rabbi Cohen has observed, “the only “risk” your children face is losing the sense of pointlessness and purposelessness in life and religion so many teenagers wallow in. Instead, they find and feel joy, happiness and validation everywhere they turn.”
David Pelcovitz, Ph.D., the Straus Chair Professor in Education and Psychology at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, and a leading expert in family trauma and at-risk youth, agrees. “Kids who have joy in their lives typically don’t drift,” he says.
Dr. Pelcovitz sees youths at risk as youths who are in pain and crying for help. “A colleague once asked a group of at-risk teens, ‘If I could give you a pill that would transform you overnight into a normal, functioning member of the community, who fits in and feels comfortable with other people, would you take it?’ Every single one said they’d do it in a second.”
Other parts to this series: A Decade At Risk