By Tzvi Abraham
Article in the Jewish Press
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.
It’s been ten years since the expression “at-risk” first began filtering upward through a group of concerned community leaders and terrified parents and educators. At the time, new and very atypical behaviors were being seen with disturbing regularity among large swathes of Orthodox youth.
But what has happened since the mid 1990s, when our community first had to address its largest crisis of youth since the so-called “Enlightenment” of Europe? What has taken place since then to secure the future and integrity of our youth? One decade is suitable milestone to look back at what happened…to see where we are and what we may expect in the future. It’s a perspective we need to have after a decade at-risk.
A Crisis or Not?
In the mid-1990s, community leaders, educators, and concerned individuals began to publicly warn that many frum youth were “in crisis.” Were they correct to sound this alarm? After all, adults for so many generations before have decried the lack of respect and motivation, diminished education and sagging mores of the youth of their day. What was so different ten years ago than from anytime before?
Frankly, drugs are what made this time different. After all, the Jewish community at this point was prepared to deal with seemingly every type of crisis. From the Haskalah to the Holocaust, Jews have been able to react, with various measures of success, to preserve the survival and vitality of individual Jews committed to Torah and Mitzvos.
However, drug abuse was the shocking line in the sand parents and communal leaders never imagined they would have to cross. From time immemorial, the official word and 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 frightening conclusion that drugs (and drinking) were now indeed part of the equation and with shocking regularity and severity.
But was drug abuse really so new? Clearly not. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Orthodox Jews are hardly impervious to the lures of secular society. Without question there have been countless cases in the past of Orthodox Jews addicted to drugs and other stimulants. But it is also true that in the past, the typical yeshiva bochur or Beis Yaakov girl could easily go from kindergarten, well through Beis Medrash or seminary without so much as seeing any drugs, let alone having to resist the invitation to get high with his or her buddies on the roof or behind the yeshiva.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
By the mid 1990s, painfully, this was no longer the case. The prevalent drug culture of secular society had entered the community with vicious force and was ensnaring boys and girls from the finest homes and schools. New types of drugs, weed, ‘shrooms, Special K, Ecstasy (marijuana, psilocybin, ketamine hydrochloride, and MDMA), among others, became widely available through the traditional drug trade and most heartbreaking, through a network of the most insidious player in this new reality: Orthodox Jewish drug dealers—average yeshiva students with seemingly no qualms about selling poison to fellow Jews.
Gradually it became less uncommon to see rowdy throngs of Jewish, clearly frum, teens (often dressed in tattered jeans and oversized sweatshirts, with multiple piercings and odd facial hair), standing for hours on corners of Ocean Parkway, 13th Avenue, Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, and other communal areas at all times of day and night.
Many parents suffered the anguish of sons or daughters who went well beyond any known parameter of rebelliousness. Rejecting Shabbos, Kashrus, Tzniyus, these adolescents’ parents found themselves silently enduring the shame of hosting an unfamiliar and rarely pleasant person—literally a stranger to family and religion—in their home, struggling to fend off the worst of their negative influence on siblings, and having all rules of civility and decorum flouted while there. Incessant late nights, dazed expressions and hazed over eyes were replacing beloved Bnei and Bnos Torah at a frightening pace.
A Crack in the Status Quo
While the above description may sound like the classic plot line from horror movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in truth what precipitated this crisis was far subtler. Barry Wilansky, executive director of the Tempo Group, which provides substance abuse counseling to families and many school systems for over 30 years, feels that drugs entered the community through a crack in the status quo.
“This is a complex issue, not easily seen as a result of a specific event in the Frum community,” he says. “Rather the beginning to middle 1990s, which brought expansive changes in technology and media, and a significant redistribution of wealth caused shifts that had a catastrophic impact on our community.”
The Internet and cable television are two of Mr. Wilansky’s prime suspects. “These brought new, damaging, influences directly into our homes.” A print and media industry, crashing through the limits and boundaries of even the secular community with promiscuity and behavioral dysfunction, also delivered attitudes that were previously foreign. “Greater and newfound wealth in our communities was also a huge factor,” he says. Suddenly, school age children were being seduced into materialism and a world of wealth that was foreign to us. At the same time parents were increasingly absent in their effort to generate the wealth. “The combination was corrosive and explosive.”
He also touches on the prevalence of white-collar criminal behavior. “Before the mid-1980s, it was almost inconceivable for a religious Jew to be engaged in criminal activity. The steadily increasing occurrence and celebration of such behavior has had a long-lasting, deeply ingrained traumatic effect on the current generation.” He underscores how attitudes toward drug use, a severe criminal offense, most likely became just one more of those rules that it’s OK to break.
Last, Wilansky points to the educational system and attitudes driving it. For generations in America, the goal of professional advancement was de rigueur among secular Jews. There’s more than a little truth behind all those classic Jewish mother jokes that center on doctors and lawyers. However, “as wealth and material comforts became more of a fact of life in the frum community, and less a vague goal of financial security to aspire to,” says Wilansky, “parents began driving their children to succeed, not as much for the sake of intellectual pursuits, but rather to afford a lifestyle to which they were accustomed.”
His view is that a wholesale shift took place, from the goal of academic (i.e. for the sake of Torah) achievement to education as a means to a material end. Thereby, the spiritual value of Jewish education in large part became diminished. “The pressure to succeed became as enormous as it was empty for some. It left many kids searching for something else.”
I Can’t Get No Validation
Wilansky’s explanation cleanly meshes with a theme repeated again and again by Rabbi Shaya Cohen. Rabbi Cohen is a reluctant visionary who, after establishing the education organization Priority-1—a Kollel, Beis Medrash and Torah resource center—in 1987, to bring greater heights in Torah learning and living to families and students, shifted gears in 1996 to address the growing problem of youths in-crisis.
This shift was precipitated by a daily phone call to Rabbi Cohen from one of his supporters; an astoundingly prescient man heartbroken by what he recognized was a gaping rend in the frum community’s fabric. Rabbi Cohen’s goal became stemming the tide of drug abuse and “at-risk” behavior, through an alternative high school setting that provided one-on-one attention and early intervention for at-risk youths and families.
Rabbi Cohen’s oft-repeated anthem was and remains: validation. “By giving Jewish kids validation, a sense that they have value and a personal stake in their success, they will inherently realize that drug, alcohol, physical gratification, criminal behavior, are a dead end,” he insists.
According to Rabbi Cohen, by draining the spiritual goal from Torah education, we have let our children down—and at the worst time possible. “Just when we start getting all these negative secular influences luring the kids to act out in ways never seen before,” he explains, “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 has created impossible molds in which few can fit while retaining their individuality. “We had created a generation of so many Jewish children who were starving for validation and turning elsewhere in their shame, misery, and frustration,” he says.
Defining Deviancy UP!
This is seemingly an unfortunate reverse of the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous warning against “defining deviancy down”; an admonishment to political policy thinkers to prevent deviant behavior from becoming a societal norm.
Clearly, at the worst time possible, when Jewish children need support against the influx of secular influence, when they are awash with money that allows them to pursue their interest in the outside world, the frum community had “defined deviancy up,” thereby closing the door on all those who fall on the fringe or below newly pronounced, razor sharp expectations of frum behavior, personal achievement, academic performance, and socioeconomic status.
So the only place to go, sadly, for too many Orthodox Jewish children, as they began by the mid-1990s to consciously and unconsciously realize, was out. And so they did.
In his best selling book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell—a former Washington Post reporter and New Yorker Magazine staff writer—sheds light on how minute, seemingly unrelated events sometimes lead to rapid, wholesale social upheavals.
With astonishing detail, Gladwell identifies the circumstances immediately preceding various social transformations such as the precipitous drop in New York City’s crime rate and the revolutionary impact of Sesame Street on pre-school education, among many others. He calls these lightening-fast, unforeseen social shifts “tipping points.”
Although Gladwell doesn’t mention the problem of at-risk youth, the sudden ubiquity of young, frum boys and girls eschewing frumkeit, family, and community for substance abuse and the worst depravities of secular culture, which surfaced in the mid to late 1990s, would have certainly qualified for inclusion. Indeed, by the latter part of 1999 and early 2000, the problem of youth at risk transfixed the Orthodox Jewish community.
All At Risk…All At Once?
Suddenly wherever one looked, in every Jewish newspaper and hanging on every street corner lamppost, one saw notices for conferences, family seminars and workshops, books, articles, and weekend retreats devoted to the subject. A low-grade urgency gripped Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, when it appeared any family could be struggling with some form of at risk behavior. Parents began looking at their own children in a different light, each, after all, could be a ticking time bomb.
Underscoring the pervading sense of crisis, The Jewish Observer, a monthly magazine published by the Agudas Yisroel of America, sent shockwaves through Orthodoxy when it devoted its entire November 1999 issue to the problem of “children on the fringe.” Page after magazine page described observations of the “at risk problem” by lay leaders and Torah educators, advice from gedolim and mental health professionals, and gripping accounts submitted by parents.
Throughout the magazine were articles describing the merits and methods of therapy, calls for cooperation between yeshivas on behalf of the greater Jewish community, and detailed warning signs of at-risk behavior and alternatives for intervention. Additionally, there were pages of ads sponsored by dozens of different Jewish outreach agencies, grassroots organizations, and alternative yeshivas offering services and resources to children and families.
Clearly, ‘at-risk’ was now a mainstream problem—everyone’s problem. But what brought about this sudden rash of awareness? More important, why did it seem that all of a sudden, everywhere one turned, there were frum kids falling off the derech into the deadly path of drug abuse, rebellion, and delinquency?
At Risk “Recruitment”
The answers to these questions contain a road map to permanently keeping the problem of at risk youth at bay. 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, indicates that the crisis seemed to appear almost overnight because it practically did.
He describes how shifts in economics, technology, education, and other areas in the early to mid 90s led a growing number of children to feel a sense of alienation from their upbringing. While it’s likely that initially, only a few turned to drug use, with meager community resources available to mitigate their problems, those few grew in numbers and visibility. “The more visible the disenfranchised youths were, the more ‘recruitment’ they can do,” says Dr. Pelcovitz. “From there numbers grow quickly and exponentially.”
Viewing it from a strictly mathematical point of view, the emergence of the at risk youth crisis took place relatively fast, just out of view, and fully surfacing within a few years from 1996 to 2000. In terms of how so many people became so abundantly aware of this problem all at once, the concept of critical mass was at work here, too.
Bringing the Drugs Out of the Closet
For some time, as problems first began to occur in limited, isolated areas, individuals—a parent, a rebbe, a concerned community member—would resort to creativity and sheer personality to breakthrough and connect with a specific troubled teen. At first, these efforts operated as islands, secluded and relatively unaware of one another. As more and more spontaneous start-up programs formed, and as more and more individuals became increasingly vocal about what they realized was the tip of the iceberg, momentum began to occur.
“I credit Rabbi [Shaya] Cohen as the pioneer of this whole effort to reconnect with at risk youths,” says Dr. Pelcovitz. “By devoting the resources of Priority-1 to open the high school (Torah Academy of Lawrence Cedarhurst), and so early in the game, he really took a leadership role.” Priority-1’s alternative high school program was initially geared to anyone with any problem. The high school offered a relaxed atmosphere, mentoring from Priority-1’s Beis Medrash and Kollel, and access to resources, drug counseling, and mental health professionals. The program became the standard that nearly every other alternative high school has been modeled after.
Despite the breakthrough approach, there was plenty of friction to withstand. “I remember when we first opened,” says Rabbi Cohen, “people used to scream at me for bringing drugs to the Five Towns. But after a while they changed their tone a bit. People started to realize what was really going on; they acknowledged that what Priority-1 did was ‘bring drug use out of the closet.’”
Other organizations were quick to follow. Agudas Yisroel, after being inundated with calls for help and resources from heartbroken parents and overwhelmed educators, established Project YES—a mentoring program targeting the needs of at risk youth. MASK (Mothers and Fathers Aligned Saving Kids), a resource and referral agency, was established by a single mother who wanted to prevent any other parent from having to face the heartbreak and isolation she felt while caring for a son who was at risk. Our Place, on Avenue M. in Brooklyn, opened it doors to at risk teens offering recreational facilities, food, job assistance and other services to keep them connected to the Jewish community and to a core of concerned community members.
Mental health professionals stepped up their involvement, too. Dr. Pelcovitz, who is also vice-President of Nefesh, an international network of nearly 500 Jewish mental health professionals, notes how the level of alarm among Nefesh members over what they term ‘children in crisis’ grew in the latter half of the 1990s. “If you looked at the growing amount of time we dedicated to this problem. You could clearly see that something big was happening,” recalls Dr. Pelcovitz.
As these grassroots efforts and the involvement by mental health professionals grew to become effective resources, the sense of shameful solitude felt by parents trying to manage a child at risk that characterized the earlier years began to lift. The community was responding with a level of acceptance and awareness that grew stronger and stronger with each passing month.
Help. Don’t Pity.
Seventeen years ago, Rabbi Dovid Weissman, founder of Yeshiva Toras Yisroel in Flatbush, an alternative yeshiva high school for boys, began working with a group of boys who, had they been born seven to ten years later, would have been called “at risk.” “Back then,” says Rabbi Weissman, “drugs weren’t really the problem. They serious issues I dealt with, for the most part were lack of emuna and waning interest in frumkeit. Drugs really became more of a problem in the 90s.” But this was the beginning of Rabbi Weisman’s long career helping at risk teens.
Today, still, boys in Rabbi Weissman’s yeshiva don’t abuse drugs. “You can’t work with a kid who’s on drugs. It doesn’t work,” he says. The only way to help is to get them off drugs first.” But Rabbi Weissman doesn’t view this perspective as uniquely his own. “This is something we all needed to learn when we first started working with the youth.”
Rabbi Weissman recalls how when the crisis was first widely identified, many entering the field favored the approach of taking pity and showering troubled youths with unconditional love and acceptance, but asking nothing in return. “The problem with this approach is you’re not solving the problem,” he says. “You’re enabling the problem.”
“Teens at risk are lacking 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.”
Handle With Care?
Another problem, explains Rabbi Weissman, is that he found youths who would start to emulate at risk behaviors because they saw it came with all kinds of benefits. Rabbi Weissman chuckles about a story that typified this attitude.
Told by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, the Morah D’yasrah of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere in his “Inspired Parenthood” lecture series about a rebbe who was in the unpleasant position of having to expel a student from a yeshiva Shabbaton for smoking marijuana on Shabbos, a violation, in one fell swoop, of the two previously stated, immutable rules of the event: no chilul Shabbos and no drugs.
The rebbe asked the boy, “Why would you do that? Now I have to send you home!” The boy responded, “You’d better be careful what you do to me, Rabbi…you know I’m at-risk.”
Rabbi Weissman doesn’t necessarily think the boy in the story wasn’t without his share of problems, but his point is that normal, well-adjusted kids were starting to see at risk as a means to an end. “It became: if I’m at risk, look at all this attention I’ll get.” Instead, Rabbi Weissman feels that working with a troubled youth must be a two–way street.
“They have to know that my attitude is, ‘This is your life. It’s your free will. I can give you confidence and show you that you have value and that your current state isn’t necessarily your fault. But you need to work to build yourself up again.”
Validation Is All You Need
Another drawback in the efforts to addressing the needs of at-risk youth was addressing the fears parents had toward at risk youths. Dr. Pelcovitz observed that the response of other people in the community who saw these oddly dressed kids with multi-colored hair and all sorts of odd piercings hanging out in the street would be to practically grab own their kids and run the other way. They were afraid their own kids would get dragged in.
But, according to Rabbi Shaya Cohen, this isn’t the case. “Drugs are not the problem. Their use is a symptom of spiritual emptiness and a lack of simcha in serving Hashem. When a child feels empty inside because his neshomah is crying out for some spiritual food, the mind misunderstands and tries to feed the hunger with drugs, and booze, and physical gratification.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Cohen says about a child who sees joy in his or her yiddishkeit, a child who feels 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 validation are.”
Dr. Pelcovitz agrees. “Kids who have joy in their lives typically don’t drift,” says Dr. Pelcovitz. He sees youths at risk as youths who are in pain and crying for help. “Once we posed a question to a group of teens I was helping,” says Dr. Pelcovitz, “I asked, ‘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 of them said they’d take it in a second.”
It was close to midnight one Friday night in April 1995. My wife and I were strolling along Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway enjoying the first hints of spring when we noticed a gaggle of rowdy teenagers up ahead, toward the middle of the block, smoking and talking loudly.
Hazy spirals of cigarette smoke obscured their faces. Glancing through the cars whizzing along Brooklyn’s busiest thoroughfare, I contemplated but nixed crossing the street. Ready to encounter a gang of trash talking Irish, Italian, or black teens, we kept walking and silently hoped they weren’t looking for a fight.
Imagine my shock when the faces we encountered turned out to be far more familiar than I had anticipated. In fact, I was shocked to discover that this “fearsome gang” was actually a few teens I had seen here and there over the years; in the neighborhood, in shul, in the pizza shop, and one was the younger sibling of a friend.
Widespread Awareness or Overexposure?
If you could fast forward that scene to 2006, it’s likely that this encounter would have come as less of a surprise. In fact, it’s most likely that after ten years of communal exposure, awareness, and virtual saturation of the “youth at risk” problem, seeing the vacant eyes and sullen faces of a group of unquestionably frum youths smoking on Shabbos and swigging from cans concealed in twisted brown bags would barely register.
Make no mistake. This is an extremely positive development. Such a blasé response to such tragedy is less the result of callousness, disinterest, or even overexposure. Rather, it’s the byproduct of many dedicated individuals who have significantly raised the level of awareness and intervention for at risk behavior.
Widespread awareness of the “at risk” problem is one of the great successes stories to occur in the decade since 1996. It was the first major step in stemming the surge of teenagers drifting further from family, community and tradition, and closer the street, jail, or premature death. It meant regular people—parents, community rabbonim, and educators—were gaining the ability to recognize when and where there is a problem and to respond.
Knowing Is Less Than Half The Battle
Over the past ten years, the level of awareness that not every child fits a particular mold has become widespread throughout the community. The decision of a parent who realizes that their child is better suited to an alternative yeshiva is less heart wrenching than at times in the past. Options abound and the process of arriving at the decision is less fraught with terror and confusion and more of speaking to a trusted educator to find the best option. A teen with addiction problems, though always tragic and devastating, is manageable due to more options for treatment clinics affiliated with the community, and staffed by sympathetic professionals familiar with the cultural needs of Orthodox clientele.
Barry Wilansky, a state certified substance abuse counselor and founder of the Tempo Group, which provides substance abuse counseling to individuals and school boards for over 30 years, sees a stark difference in the level of awareness today versus a decade ago.
“We are much better prepared today to deal with these problems,” he says point blank. He refers primarily to a greater level willingness to recognize problems and to intervene. “There’s an ever-growing availability of resources for parents, educators, and at-risk teens.”
But Mr. Wilansky warns that awareness alone won’t make the problem go away. Instead, “it will remain manageable pending our relentless vigilance.” He adds, “Kids have always gotten into trouble. But today, when the stakes are so much higher, the kids need our help quickly to get back on track.”
Excel By Knowing Your Limitations
Rabbi Reuven Kamin, the Columbia University educated General Studies Principal at the Torah Academy of Lawrence Cedarhurst (TALC), the alternative high school program of Priority-1, also speaks of the strides made in the last ten years. “Essentially, we’ve come to terms with what’s possible and what’s not possible,” he says. This seemingly defeatist comment actually contains great insight.
“When Rabbi [Shaya] Cohen first opened the high school,” he explains, “he was ready to take on every problem. The fact that we were there and willing to tackle these problems lead to a revolution in awareness. Everyone wanted to know more about what we were doing and we have many, many success stories. However, over time we took a page from our own playbook to realize that no one school can cater to every single student.”
Mr. Kamin describes how the Priority-1 program took a hard look at itself in recent years and successfully restructured itself into a highly effective alternative high school program for students who don’t fit into mainstream yeshivas AND as an invaluable hub for resources and referral information for students with addiction and other serious problems.
In the last ten years, TALC has accumulated an impressive reputation within the mental health and addiction prevention community. “We’re very often the first name people think of when a problem with a teenager becomes evident,” explains Mr. Kamin. He also refers to the vast collection of resources, information about programs and treatment options, medical professionals, and mental health practitioners to offer any child or family in need of an answer. “We’re happy to talk to any child or any parent of a child with problems,” he says. “But today, except for those students that we know will fit in the program from day one, we serve primarily as a resource. When they’re ready, they come back.”
Lose the Battle and Win the War
For those the TALC program can help off the bat, a loosely structured program that makes demands in terms of behavior and progress serves as a lifeline to happiness, validation, and ongoing personal achievement. “A student with an emotional issue will thrive here,” says Mr. Kamin. “We can help the students work through the pain they feel while they find validation through spirituality and meeting goals.”
One of the numerous aspects of Mr. Kamin’s educational approach is his astute approach to picking battles. “The official goal of TALC is helping every Jewish child succeed. So we give them rules that make sense. ‘No Drugs’ makes sense. It’s enforced during frequent and random drug testing. So does no cell phone calls during class, and strictly enforced attendance and punctuality. But we don’t stand ceremony on dress code because it isn’t essential to their success.”
In terms of eradicating the problem of at-risk youths, Mr. Kamin is in agreement with Barry Wilansky of the Tempo Group. “We don’t see an total end to the problem of “at risk.” Mr. Kamin does believe that a responsible yeshiva and community infrastructure can effectively limit the numbers and long term effects of kids who are at risk.” He likened the problem to cancer treatment.
“Cancer is a disease that destroys lives. It’s tragic and heartbreaking, but, thank G-d, in the last fifty years, the medical community and individual people have gotten better at recognizing early signs. Treatment is more effective and every year, more and more people survive. At risk will require the same close attention and constant innovation. As long as we are vigilant at identifying problems early and never giving up on an child, over the years, we’ll see less at risk youths.”
Are We There Yet?
Mr. Kamin also warns against premature back patting. “We’ve come quite far,” he says, referring to a greater degree of understanding as a community. “But there are so many more things we haven’t gotten to yet.” In particular he points to the tendency “to be too judgmental.”
“Things are usually not what they seem,” he warns. “Life for kids today is very complicated—someone who is 50 years old can’t even begin to understand what kids face today; the fast pace, the pressure.” He suggests that parents and educators have more tolerance and be more accepting during the middle and high school years. “Teens need to feel respected, and not be reminded to feel like the awkward teen they are. It’s normal for teens to feel out of place, but if we can make them feel accepted it goes a long way.”
Rabbi Dovid Weissman, the founder of Yeshiva Toras Yisroel in Flatbush (an alternative yeshiva high school in Brooklyn), knows plenty about the issue of being too judgmental. He strongly advocates providing structure, but knowing when to bend a bit. He tells a story about the parents of a boy who was having a very hard time. “I told [the parents] them they were being too hard on him, that he was a good boy. So the mother says to me, “But he’s going to movies.” I was surprised that this was the point she was stuck on; I mean he was veering into the territory of drugs and other issues. I said, “You know, it may not be acceptable to go to the movies for a yeshiva boy, but you could go to the 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 a parent must always be looking out for their children, but sometimes, “you have to close an eye and remember there’s a bigger picture.”
Without Happiness, We’re All At Risk
With all the talk about mental health, intervention, awareness, at risk, and the myriad other words and concepts that have seeped into our collective vocabularies over the past decade, it always comes back to most basic human desire: happiness. Teens whose behavior places them at risk are basically crying out for happiness. Some people are naturally able to find happiness while others must search. It’s the search that often leads to such disastrous results.
Rabbi Cohen from Priority-1 continues to repeat a simple Torah concept that he says has guided thousands of people closer to happiness. “The shoresh of the word Osher—fortunate (an advanced manifestation of happiness), is Asher—validate,” he explains. “In loshon Hakodesh, the shoresh defines the essence of a word. Indeed, here, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the architect of loshon Hakodesh, hints to something of unfathomable value: validation is the root of happiness. If we feel validated, if our lives have validity—then we feel happy.”
To help teens find validation, Rabbi Cohen urges parents and rebbeim to do what they can to make children feel “successful at being religious.” Religion is a critical factor to happiness in Jewish children. Being part of a meaningful system is the ultimate validation. “Kids with a connection to Yiddishkeit, who feel loved and valued by Hashem—they feel ultimate validity. If they feel that they are failures at being Jewish, then where do they go from there?” he asks.
His advice: Talk. Listen. Answer questions. Identify the presence of Hashem in the world. Elevate the concept of Hashgacha Pratis. Rejoice in Mitzvos. Demonstrate joy in being Jewish and serving Hashem. “With these,” Rabbi Cohen says, “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.”
Tzvi Abraham is a freelance writer.
Other parts to this series: A Decade At Risk