by: Tzvi Abraham
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.”