Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Kiruv II

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 "Dovi" (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".

AWARENESS OR ALARM?

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, cliches 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. 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."

Amen.

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.

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The number of kids going "off" is outrageous, and
for the first time in Jewish history so many kids from fine frum families are
going off the derech not because of some alternative philosophy such as
communism or Haskalah, and not for some worldly benefit like money or glory,
but rather to wallow in the streets haplessly, sacrificing their relationship
with their family, their community, and their future in the next world and
this one too. For the first time ever, they are running AWAY from religion,
as opposed to running TO some alternative.

What you can do is:

1) Train yourself to be able to answer questions in Hashkafa for kids who are
confused and misinformed. Torah is clearly the Derech HaEmes, and if someone
realizes that intellectually it helps prevent them from going off. The
Skulener Rebbe ZT"L said that the reason so many kids are going off the
Derech nowadays is because they have just a pale, surface-level knowledge of
Judaism. It's sad that so little people nowadays can educate others in the
Truths of Torah. Note: You will not get such education in your school -
Modern Orthodox OR Bais Yaakov. You need to pursue it on your own. If the
school teachers would know the answers, there would be much less problems.

Start with Rabbi Avigdor Miller's Rejoice O Youth, Sing You Righteous and
Awake My Glory.

Then read Rabbi Lawrence Keleman's Permission to Believe and Permission to
Receive.

Get your hands on the Kiruv material put out by Aish HaTorah. That includes books
such as Eric Coopersmith's Eye of the Needle, the Discovery manual (you
should definitely go to a seminar), tapes, and publications. Browse their
website, www.aish.org (you can ignore the sections on politics, Kabbalah, and dating).

That's the very basics. You should also find a Rabbi knowledgeable in these issues to
talk to about them. If you tell me where you live I could perhaps recommend
someone.

That's half of what you have to do. The second half is care for every other
Jew the way you care about yourself. Pray for them to do teshuva - have them
in mind every day when you pray "v'hachzireinu b'seshuva shelelimah
lifanechah". Do a lot of Chesed NOT because you get Chesed points but because
the fact that someone else is in trouble hurts you. Learn to do Chesed for
THEIR sake, not for yours. Do not treat them like an opportunity to do
another Mitzvah with (like you treat an Esrog or Sidur), but as a human being
who is in trouble and you want to change that.

You do those two things - educate yourself and learn to care - and you'll be
way ahead, qualifications-wise, of most people trying to bring off-the-derech
kids back today.

---

You do not need to go through what the other person is going through in order to help them. For sure not. The biggest requirement is to care and love them. And sometimes, even, going through the problem that you are trying to help someone out of is detrimental, because you may not be objective about it, thinking that what helped for you will help for him and what didn’t work for you won’t work for him, or you may mistakenly project your needs or motivations then to his in his current situation, even though they may be totally different.

In fact, the Rambam says that one of the requirements for someone who is designated to help the people get back on the derech is that he be was always a "G-d fearing Jew even from his youth".

On the other hand, the seforim do tell us that there is an advantage to having gone through what you are trying to help others with. The Yetev Lev says this is what the posuk means when it says "Tov lishmoah l'zaaks chacham, m'shmoah l'shir kesilim" - meaning - it is good to listen to the rebuke of a wise man; but what kind of a wise man? A wise man who has heard the song of fools [and has himself gotten out of it]. The reason, he says, is because the person you are trying to change will listen to you more if he thinks you understand what he is going through.

Also:

1) Pele Yoetz ("Tochachah") says that the average Joe has even more of an obligation to straighten out his friends than the Rabbi does. The reason is, the Rabbi is perceived (whether the perception is true of not) to be unable to relate to the difficulty of straightening out, due to his high level. So when the Rabbi tells someone to change the person thinks "Yeah it’s easy for him to say, he doesn't know what its like to be like me". But when the average Joe tells another average Joe to change, the message is, "Listen, I know what its like to be where you are - I am there too, I am just like you. But I don’t do such-and-such. You can, too."

2) The Ben Poras Yosef (by the author of Toldos Yaakov Yosef) says that the reason for the custom that on Shabbos Shuva Rabbis give pilpulim (fancy Torah speeches) with some mussar or halachos at the end rather than all halachos or mussar to the people, is in order to show the people that they (the Rabbis) are also "human beings" like the people, and enjoy when people are impressed with their pilpulim. After the have shown that they are human also, and also have a Yetzer Horah like everyone else, then people will listen to their mussar more.

3) The Medrash says that when the Satan came to Avrohom and Yiztchok to convince them not to go to the Akeidah, he appeared to Avrohom as an old rabbi and to Yitzchok as a young man. In other words, people are more convinced by people who are like them.

In any case, it is a definite advantage to send the message to the person that you are helping that you understand his situation, or at the very least, his pain. That message is easily communicated if you went through want he is going through. If not, there are still ways to get him to understand that you understand.

---

It’s great that you found Orthodox Judaism. The reason it gives you that feeling is because Orthodox Judaism is what the soul of a Jew lives from. And you’re so excited about your newly found soulfood that you just want to share it with the world, and straighten everyone out. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to share the wealth, which is why G-d was generous enough to give us Orthodox Judaism to begin with. But part of what the Torah tells us is how we are supposed to make other know about our religion. We are supposed to not tell anyone they are doing wrong if we know they will not listen. Even more so if we know they are just going to get annoyed. That’s part of what the Torah teaches us. That’s what Hashem wants.

You see, Hashem has a plan for everyone, including when and how each non-religious person is going to be provided the opportunity to become frum. If Hashem said not to lecture them when they won’t listen, that means hearing that lecture from you right then it not the time or the way for them to get the opportunity to be frum, according to Hashem's plan.

So it’s like Hashem is telling you now is NOT the time that I want them to hear this. Let it go for now, and leave it to Me.

It's like an army, where the general decides when and where to strike, and the soldiers can’t just go around attacking on their own. Hashem is the general and he said, if someone will not listen, "Hold your fire!". When and where Hashem will decide to strike, and which soldiers He will use at the time is up to Him. We're just soldiers. And part of our duty is NOT to shoot until we are told.

So just bear in mind that by NOT saying anything you are doing your part in fulfilling the will of Hashem, and trust Hashem that He will deal with the situation in the best way possible.

You can be mekarev them, however, by being a role model and making a Kiddush Hashem. If you’re non-religious, and even non-Jewish friends see that you are more honest, moral, and a better person because you became frum, that will be a Kiddush Hashem and will make the strongest possible impact on those around you.

Of course, if you feel that one of your non-religious friends may be ready to listen to what you have to say, by all means, then is the time to do so.

---

Very, very important: Lots of love is not an "approach." It’s a natural, automatic, from-the-heart behavior that stems form your love and caring for someone else.

The more people make this into an "approach" the less it "works". You cannot synthesize love, although you can try to fake it. This is the blunder made my many "organizations" that deal with or tried to deal with, so-called "at-risk youth.

It's like saying in order to get back your estranged wife use a "lots of love" approach. If the idea is that you now realize that "lots of love" should have been your lifestyle, then fine; but if you’re using it as a way to get someone to do something that you want, it wont work.

As a gauge to see whether your lots of love to your off-the-derech brother is real or contrived, see if you use an equally lots-of-love "approach" with your other siblings who are not off the derech. Siblings are siblings, and we care and love them all.

Of course, the solution to such a "love inconsistency" is not for you to show your estranged brother less love; it is to show your other siblings more.

The lots of love "approach" works because people take a lead from those who care about them. But it only happens if the caring is real.

---

As far as which is better, Torah or Kiruv etc, as a general rule, there is nothing greater than Torah learning - talmud torah kneged kulam. But there are 2 standards here:

1) Who is a greater person - the Kiruv person or the Talmid Chacham. Of that there is no question, the Talmicd Chacham is a greater person - higher level. Even Mordechai, who took out time from his learning to save the world, Chazal say, went DOWN in level because he had to interrupt his learning.

2) The proper thing for a person to do. Sometimes, g-d puts a person in a situation where he must do the mitzvos - kiruv included - and not learn. That, too, was Mordechai's lot. Fulfilling the will of g-d is paramount, even if by doing so you go down in level.

---

Show her your happy, fulfilling family life.

Show her your idealism and happiness that comes from a sense of accomplishment.

Show her how much more you enjoy every breath of air and every bite of food because you know it is a gift from Someone Who loves you.

Show her how much more meaningful life is to you because you know you have a purpose, as opposed to being a randomly evolved organism in a randomly developed world.

Show her how much more life is worth to you because every second has eternal value if utilized properly.

And love her, very very much.

She will catch on quickly.

---


Rabbi Miller's moshol at the end of Rejoice O Youth, when the youth who was just inspired to become great decides he wants to go into Kiruv, is that if you feed someone unripe apples they’ll get sick. You’re an unripe apple now - wait till you get big and juicy and mature and ready then feed others.

The best people in Kiruv are those who are the strongest themselves. Not those who are weak. You don’t run off into a war until you’re done with your training. You can get yourself killed that way.

If you want to go into Kiruv, go to some Kiruv training school, later. At this stage in your life you’re growing. Grow big and strong, mature, and then go out and fight Hashem's wars.

It is possible you wont get influenced - not everyone who crosses busy streets at a red light gets hit, and not everyone who smokes gets cancer, its not sound advice.

And it’s hard to say whether you’re influenced or not. I am sure you can tell if you went down to the level of the others, but who's to say you wouldn’t have been better had you had a better environment?

Noach surely was not "influenced" by his generation - he was the only one saved! But we also know that had he been in the generation of Avrohom, he would have been a lot better than he was.

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