by: Tzvi Abraham
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.”