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TEEN ISSUES-----the at-risk problem

MODERATOR Posted - 18 December 2000 19:34

It is harder now to bring back wayward Orthodox youth than it ever was – and not because of the drug dealers.

It used to be that you could create a trusting relationship with a troubled teen, naturally exerting the good influence that good friends have on each other.

That was then. Now, they want to know who you are “working for”. What “programs” do you offer, do you give free suppers, or perhaps they ought to bring their “business” elsewhere.

Already distrustful teenagers are today even more distrustful, since they know they are commodities to organizations funded by government programs, community groups, and third-party payment sources.

You always had to prove that you were different than the other adults who, in their eyes, were the enemy.

But blood, sweat and tears were compelling evidence, then. Now you also have to prove that you’re not getting paid to bleed sweat and cry, like some actor on stage or some social work student putting themselves through college by moonlighting as a “helper” for troubled teens.

It used to be, we wanted to help troubled teens because we were their friend. That was then. Now, we become their friends because we want to help them. That doesn’t work. And the teens can tell the difference.

And there are more side effects of the new activity on behalf of at-risk youth. I remember a one-minute conversation I once had with "Dovie" (fake name):

“Dovi”, I said. “When are going to straighten out your life already?”

Sitting on the floor, his back against the wall of a 24-hour bodega on Coney Island Avenue, Dovi looks up at me and says, “Straighten out my life? No way!

“When I was frum nobody paid attention to me. Now I’m a celebrity. All the rabbis and adults ask me my opinion. They even ask me advice [regarding their programs].”

Negative attention is a known obstacle to improvement.

Yet another regrettable by-product of the fashionable trend to help troubled teens is the leveraging of parents’ and educators’ fear of losing their young charges, and, to add insult to injury, being blamed for it.

As Reuven (also a fake name) shot back at his menahel after being told he is expelled from school, “Yeah? So when I end up sitting in the train station with marijuana and a girl, you’ll be blamed”. The principal promptly found renewed hope for Reuven’s success in his Yeshiva.

Or the students – both in elementary and high school – who flapped a copy of the Jewish Observer’s at-risk youth issue in front of their parents/Rebbeim, exclaiming, “See? You’re not a good parent/Rebbe – it says so in here!”

Kids now use a veiled, and sometimes not so veiled, threat against their parents. "If you don't let me do what I want, I may just go off the derech".


But far, far worse than the consequences of backfired efforts is the atmosphere of hopelessness and even panic that has gripped our community in the wake of the failure of big organizations and big money to stem the tide, even a drop, of youth gone awry.

“Nothing is working” was the response of very prominent and very involved Rosh yeshiva in New York to a concerned layman in Montreal who wanted to know what their community should do for their at-risk youth. “Nothing they are doing is helping.”

So it would seem. Despite the increasing number of programs for at-risk youth here and abroad, the problem is not getting better. Individuals are being helped here and there, but the propagation of problem teenagers is accelerating at an unprecedented pace, the age of rebelliousness is getting lower, and the level of rebelliousness higher.

Programs often fail. Many institutions have abandoned intervention in favor of “prevention”, an easier course of action, and one where failure is impossible to prove. For no matter how bad the problem gets, perhaps it would have been “even worse” without your programs. You never know.

Parents give up hope after contacting program after program to no avail. “If these programs, advertised in newspapers and at conventions and sponsored by ‘major’ Jewish organizations did not help, what can?”, they ask themselves rhetorically.

These parents may then join a support group or two for parents of problem teens. Tzoras rabbim chatzi nechama. But the child? R.I.P.

Much of this is the result of the “awareness” crusade on behalf of troubled teens that generated more panic than perception. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater creates awareness, too.

Broadcasting the news of a full blown deadly epidemic taking place right under our noses that can hit “anyone, anytime, anywhere”, with no solutions provided and “no further information available” is not the way to help kids.

Now we have people and programs scrambling every which way, with some reaching safety, but most remaining trapped in the flames. Still others get trampled by counterproductive efforts.

Politics and public pressure are forcing organizations to “do something! Anything!” even if they have no idea what to do – or what they are doing. And vested interests, exaggeration, and wholesale misinformation are creating programs which are doomed to failure from the start.

Some efforts backfire catastrophically.

Take, as one example, a television broadcast in NY this past year that announced to the world the presence of 4,000 Orthodox youth at-risk for drug use in the Boro Park community.

The need for awareness notwithstanding, enlightening every drug dealer in Brooklyn to the presence of 4,000 potential teenage Orthodox customers in one neighborhood is not smart. (It had the same effect as organizational fundraisers suddenly discovering 4,000 potential donors within a 4 mile radius.)

I have heard from street teens that pushers who in the past have dealt to non-Jews around the peripherals of Boro Park are, since that broadcast, now promoting their wares directly to our children.

The same oblivion which previously caused us not to see the problem is now causing us not to understand it.

We have not recovered from our denial; we have merely shifted it. First it was “Don’t worry - there’s no problem.” Now it’s “Don’t worry - we’re dealing with it”.

But the good news is that the failure to solve the problem is not due to the impossibility of the problem but the inadequacy of the solutions. The first step is to get the problem in perspective, identifying exaggerations and activities based on subjectivity and vested interest.

The “4,000 Orthodox teenagers found to be at risk for using drugs” is an example. Here’s the source for that figure:

In the fall of ’99, The New York Metropolitan Council for Jewish Poverty commissioned Yochanan Danziger MA, to ask a number of “involved” parties (rabbis, mental health professionals, educators, parents and youth) how many at-risk youth they believe exist in the Brooklyn, NY area. Opinions varied, and usually no documentation was provided. Who was surveyed was the sole discretion of the surveyor. “Speculation ranged between less than 200 and less than 3000”, the report said, with the largest percentage of opinions (39%) speculating less than 1,000. Hotlines, and those “on the street” for many years reported about 1,500. Another 1,500 – 2,000 were believed to be “at-risk” for such behavior.

US News and World Report (3/6/00 p.26, “A Scourge of Drugs Strikes a Pious Place”, Kit Roane) conveyed this as follows: “A December study commissioned by the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development found (sic) that some 1,500 Orthodox teenagers in Brooklyn . . . were using or dealing drugs, stealing, or engaging in other delinquent activities”.

So a consensus of varied opinions became a study that found 1,500 youth. No such youth were “found”, and there was no such “study”. It was a survey of mostly undocumented opinions, for which the Met Council received funding from the New York YCD.

The WABC TV figure of 4,000 is just a further inflated version of the same out of control figures.

But perhaps even more accurately than the number of local at-risk youth, the Met Council survey unintentionally reveals why only certain solutions are being implemented as opposed to other, reasonably more effective ones. The survey queried the involved parties for solutions. A number of views were recorded, from therapy to rehab centers to parenting classes. I asked the surveyor how many of those who suggested therapy were therapists. “Almost all”, he said.

We went over the whole pie graph this way and what emerged was that almost all surveyed suggested a solution that would just happen to boost their own careers.

So although a range of involved parties were queried, there was one answer shared by almost all: “The solution is me”.

If we disabuse ourselves of agendas, exaggerations, clichés and misconceptions, we can identify errors that are presently being made, and chart an effective course of action for the future.

Belief: The Problem Exists Even in the Best Homes

Reality: Yes, it does, but rarely, relatively speaking. More importantly is that when there is trouble even in the “best” of homes, the parent/child relationship is usually hostile, which is the greatest single warning sign of trouble.

So even though the overall family situation may be functional, a particular component of it is probably not. Furthermore, measurable at-risk factors can exist even in the best homes, such as adolescent isolation due to older parents and no similar-age siblings (see ). Teenage rebelliousness typically does not strike at random: Almost never is there a troubled teen untouched by measurable at-risk factors.

Belief: This is a drop out problem.

Reality: This is not a drop-out problem. Dropping out is a result of the problem. If children were motivated to drop out by promise of money, marriage, or enlisting in the Army, that would be a dropout problem, since dropping out in and of itself would be tempting.

But dropouts ruin their future, sever their relationships with their parents and peers, and are written off by society as overall “losers.” Any child who believes, rightfully or wrongfully, that what the street offers is worth all that, is already in crisis even before he drops out.

Additionally, framing the problem in terms of dropping out ignores the fact that deviant behavior exists even within the Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs. Just because a teenager is in school does not mean he is not part of the problem.

Belief: Most rebellious teenagers are driven to the streets by academic pressure in the yeshivos.

Reality: If this were true, the academically “lower pressure” schools in our community would have a significantly lower drop out rate than the academically “high pressure” schools, but this is not the case.
Further falsifying this notion is the fact that if not being “cut out” for learning a whole day was the cause, then the problem would have existed a decade ago in almost equal measure as it does today.

The daily yeshiva schedule and curriculum have not changed much in the past 10 years, but the drop out rate has.

To wit: No correlation between the drop out rate and Yeshiva schedule or curriculum.

Dropping out of school involves much more than freedom from homework – the stigma and degeneration that comes with it is not worth it – even if you can’t do well in school. Every school has students who can barely pass their courses.

But principals and teachers will tell you that they are not necessarily the ones who drop out.

Dropping out of school usually has less to do with school itself than it does with the home. There are A students in the street as well as D students, and with the exception of the learning disabled, they drop out in almost equal measure.

“Non-academic” failure, at home, with peers, or in society, is much more likely to drive a child to the streets than bad marks on his finals. And when the school is a factor, it is probably not the academics:

A student who despises his Rebbe – or is despised by him – is much more likely to drop out than a student who cannot make the grades.

Belief: This is a drug problem

Reality: This is not a drug problem. Drugs are a result of the problem. Many have the impression that the availability and enticement of drugs causes otherwise straight-and-narrow youth to slowly ruin their lives. Not so. The path of rebelliousness typically begins with things like pain, anger, resentment and frustration. Then there comes a decision to dispense with part or all of the values they were brought up with. Then, with little or no principled opposition to drugs or other deviant behaviors, they are set upon by availability, peer pressure, experimentation, “coolness”, popular culture, et al. If drugs would disappear off the face of the earth, our problem would still not be much wise diminished.

Belief: This is a job for the mental health professionals.

Reality: Therapists have extremely little success bringing these teens back to frumkeit. And they only have a shot with those children who are willing to undergo therapy, which is often not the case.

Although therapists are trained to explore the decision making process and to treat mental illness, they are not trained to instill values.

Children who reject Torah values usually continue to do so even after successful therapy. (The theory that with the negation of acting out behavior the child’s desire to be religious will return typically does not bear out in actual practice).

Sometimes, successful therapy can actually make the situation more difficult. A rebellious teen and his parents will go for therapy, and the therapist will succeed in getting the parents and teen to live peacefully with each other, perhaps even to respect each other’s dramatically different lifestyles. Perhaps the therapist will even succeed in turning around the teen's street tendencies. But the teen is still not frum.

Contrary to popular belief the repairing of a teen’s general lifestyle usually is not the first step toward making him frum. More often than not, it is three steps back. The teen now has much less motivation to ever become frum; no more pain, no more hopelessness, no more family conflicts because of his choice not to be religious.

Becoming frum no longer benefits him the way it might have done before.

In addition, there are many teens who are in school, not engaging in any destructive or delinquent behavior, but have to one degree or another abandoned Torah and Mitzvos. They may eat non-kosher, be promiscuous (but safe!), and secretly break Shabbos, but have all intention to socially remain part of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Defining the problem as a “mental health” issue turns a blind eye to this element of the problem.

Often, the services of a therapist are indicated. But then the therapist should not be relied upon to accomplish anything beyond the mandate of his training. Additional intervention focusing on the frumkeit aspect of the youth should take place at the same time.

At the core of the problem is the mistaken belief that the problems of secular society have infiltrated our community. This is true only to the extent that the same acts and substances that are causing harm to adolescents in the secular world are also causing harm to ours.

But the problem is not the same. The secular world has a drug problem, an alcohol problem, a crime problem. We have a secession problem. The default value of a secular teenager is to be tempted by drugs. They must proactively resist.

Our children proactively reject their very upbringing before they take to the streets. If access to drugs, crime, and other deviations would magically disappear one day, the secular world’s problem would be over. Ours would not.

For if a child makes a decision to go “off the derech”, he is a casualty even without a biologically self-destructive lifestyle.

Rehabilitation centers, special ed, GED programs et al, are certainly necessary and should be available to all who need them. But treating our problem with these implementations is like treating a gaping hole in a bridge by building an ambulance under the bridge. Fatalities will statistically go down; people will be saved. But you didn’t touch the problem.

Rabbi Nosson Einfeld of Bnei Brak, a renown educator, faculty member of Kollel Chazon Ish, and student of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, understands this. The problem, he said, “is the natural consequence of a general erosion of an age-old chinuch principle.” That is, “that every mechanech must love and care for his talmidim as though they were his own children.

If he is unable to do this, his talmidim suffer, with some going as far as dropping out of yeshiva completely.” Everything else, he says, is “handling the symptoms, not curing the cause”. (Yated Neeman, 9/10/99, p.111 “The Dropout Issue, a Problem or Symptom?”).

And here, Rabbonim and the knowledgeable scientists concur. Declares the last paragraph on intervention in of the Met Council survey:

"There is a need for street outreach workers. This survey found that there is a suspicion amongst the at-risk youth of what they see as professionals. The at-risk youth are not interested in being studied. They are not interested in being approached by someone whose “career” is focused on “saving the youth”.

They see these people as artificial and not really caring. These youth do not see themselves as being in need of some type of salvation. What is needed is a network of caring and helpful individuals, possibly volunteers, who devote themselves to making and maintaining caring contact and relationships with these youth."


I have seen hundreds of at-risk youth “brought back” to the fold. I have seen more go lost. The odds are against us. But those who beat the odds are the ones who had someone in their lives – parent, teacher, friend – who believed in them, loved them, cared about them, and were willing to go the extra mile for them, regardless of the cost.

Does this mean Poof! No more problem? Of course not. This is but a beginning.

Solving the problem will take much time, effort and commitment, and will entail many changes in the way our community does things.

But at least now, we are aware of the problem.

Lost Soul Posted - 20 December 2000 17:43

Its so true Mod!! Many of you know me on here, but whatever....before I did what I did (I cant say what it is for secrecy) no one paid attention to me.

After I did it, I found out how many 'friends' I had. its a bunch of BS.

This rabbi is all of a sudden interested in my well being, some teens who spitted in my face, because I wasn’t religious enough for them (meaning I didn’t dress like them, the white shirt black pants, or the long sleeves, skirt below the knee scenario.) All of a sudden call me to see how things are and maybe we should hang out sometime b/c after all, "they are my friends"

With friends like them, I don’t need enemies. these people should have been there for me before I did something drastic like that!!

Mod, I agree with you 100% and more!

Rasco Posted - 12 December 2001 15:47

Should we feel a sense of guilt when classmates and friends go off the derech?

I've had, unfortunately more than a few instances of this, and I always feel so guilty, like I should of done something or paid more attention to them.

But by the time we awaken to the fact that a friend or classmate has a serious problem, its always too late and the damage has been already, and whatever efforts we make are for naught, because the persons issues are beyond us.

How should we respond to our guilty feelings, and how much are responsible for their rebellion?

MODERATOR Posted - 13 December 2001 17:58

That depends on the reality. Could you have really done something? I mean really.

If so, then you should have, now you learn your lesson, make up to do better the next time, and that’s Teshuva. The chances are, however, that you couldn’t do much about it. If that’s the case, you of course should feel bad that a frum girl, esp a friend of yours, went off (its like being killed, the only diff is that if you go off the derech you can return, IYH), but that doesn’t mean it was your fault.

Remember, too, that even if you could have influenced her, the decision to go off r"l was hers, made through her Bechirah. When all is said and done, it is her decision.

You should always try to be a good influence on your friends, but you have to be realistic and keep in perspective the amount that you really can and cannot do.

what2do? Posted - 05 May 2002 18:47

I think that a lot of teens go off the derech b/c they have a lot of questions and doubts and no one to answer them.

When girls in my school have serious questions about basic things in Judaism the teachers tell us to go speak to our local orthodox rabbi. but obviously none of us do.

We don’t have our own rabbi, (unless you consider you’re parents rabbi you're rabbi) and the rabbi's we have in our community don’t seem like pple you could talk to about problems such as drugs, abuse, etc. pple like to pretend that these problems don’t exist.

So no one is really encouraged to ask their rabbi if they have a question. and b/c of this their doubts grow until they give up their Jewish belief completely and go off. People need to be encouraged to go to their rabbis. a lot of teens just wish that they could have someone to talk to, to ask what the Jewish perspective is on a certain problem etc. Rabbis are supposed to be our leaders. why aren’t they doing their job???

MODERATOR Posted - 05 May 2002 20:52

Its true that teachers often do not answer important Emunah and Hashkofa questions. This is either because they don’t know (usually) or because they don’t want to encourage such questions, cuz they think that its bad to ask them (that’s messed up).

The problem is, nobody taught them. Schools are not equipped to do many things outside of what they are designed to do, namely, teach the curriculum that they teach. Just like a Rebbi in a Yeshiva may be a Lamdan but not know Halachah L'Maaseh on nearly the same level as Gemora, so too in a girls' school the teachers may know Rashi, but not much about Emunah issues.

You have to get answers to such questions from outside your school, usually.

I would suggest the Hashkafa books of Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZTL first and foremost.

Punims Posted - 06 May 2002 16:54

Hypothetically, I have a friend and I'd hang out with her. She sees a religious lady walk into the store and my friend said, "Now see her, THAT'S the kind of lady that I do not wanna turn into."

And what if, right now I'm working very very hard to stay 'on the path', cuz I've been there, done that and as you said, had the right type of ppl who cared... and whenever I hang out with that friend, she talks about her new jeans, the non-kosher food that she's tasted... and if I talked about MY life, it wouldn't interest her in the least.

And what if she hits on every guy that passes us and starts a conversation with every cute guy around and I happen to feel very very uncomfortable with this.

What would a person in this situation do? I DO care about her, but it's just very very hard to talk and hang out with her and just listen to her brag about her life all the time.

MODERATOR Posted - 09 May 2002 17:10

You should remain her friend until and unless you find she is adversely influencing you. If her behavior is rubbing off on you, then get out. Chayecha Kodmin.

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