"Help, I've Lost My Child!"
An Interview With Rabbi Shapiro Of Project ReJewvenation
Y.K., now known in the "hood" as Jinx, stands on the corner . . . waiting. It's 2:00 A.M. and his new friends have not arrived yet. They promised him that they were going to "party" tonight . . . hit the town. He suddenly notices an old Buick pull up and with a honk he runs to the opening window. Disappointment takes over as he notices, not a full car of teenagers, but a young bearded man with glasses.
"Hi, Jinx!" "Get in . . . we got to talk."
"I don't know you, man. Why should I get in?"
"Because I'm your best friend," says the Rabbi.
What may surprise you is that "Jinx" is a Yeshiva boy whose real name is Yanki and what will surely shock you is that the "hood" we are talking about is Boro Park!
The underlining secret that few are willing to talk about is that there is an alarming statistic of Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov students that heave tackled their personal problems by abandoning their upbringing and finding relief in the solitude of the streets. The following is an interview with Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, who is the Rav of the Agudath Israel of Bayswater in Far Rockaway, a Musmach of Bais Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, and the founder of Project ReJewvenation, the only organization dealing with the problem of troubled youth in Boro Park.
Can you give us an idea of the depth of the problem facing troubled youth in Boro Park and other frum communities?
Today, unless one is living in an impossibly isolated environment, our youth is faced with new and powerful Yetzer Horos and schmutz. In a society that at one time would have been considered ridiculously decadent now passes itself off as an understanding and progressive society that professes the virtues of openness and shamelessness.
It is an age where a school project in current events has a child writing about O.J. Simpson or Clarence Thomas as the most important issue taking place in society. We try to shield our children by not buying the daily newspapers and keeping the televisions out of the house, only to find our children fascinated by advertisements posted on the sides of buses and billboards. The short walk to Yeshiva will expose a child to more tumah than my grandfather in Cazenstechov was exposed to in his entire life. Children come to Yeshivas talking about the events taking place in the streets, proving to their friends that they are not "nerds."
The strong - the very strong - let it pass and grow greater in learning and Yiras Shomayim as they continue through life. But, throw in some domestic disarray - Sholom Bayis problems between parents, perhaps, or some other "growing up" problem, and there are those that are not strong enough. There are hundreds that are not strong enough.
Why isn't our strict Yeshiva educational system as well as the parent body preventing this problem?
We live in a community with Jews from all walks of life from which the student can locate the exposure to society that his parents may try to hide him form. The fact is that with all the yelling and screaming form our gedolim about the detriments of television and radio, many households still have them and those that don't, live near households that do. A child has no problem finding a friend who can share the evils of society with him without his parents knowledge.
Radio is not the way it was when we were children. Comic books are not the way it was when we were children. Today, you pick up "Spiderman" comic books and you read about all sorts of deviant and perverted sub-plots. This is considered normal today and we as parents think the world has not changed so much in the last 20 or 25 years. This often makes us disqualified in the child's eyes to talk to them about anything important to them.
Our parents may have come from Europe, many not even speaking English, so we knew that our parents had much less in common with us. But we feel that we have everything in common with our children. We went to the same pizza shops, the same clothing stores, the same barber, and we think that we are closer socially to our kids than our parents were to us. We are not. it is only an illusion of similarity. Many parents think thy know how to deal with their children's questions and concerns when they simply don't. It takes a lot of skill to gain the confidence of a child, skill that many parents take for granted.
In addition, the "domestic disarray" issue, which puts untold stress on a child is not alleviated by sheltering the child from society.
Mindy W. was sick of her situation. Her father was a rebbe in one of the finest Yeshivos and was very close to his talmidim, yet at home he treated her like an outcast. He expects her to fit in to the family structure and disregard her feelings and personal problems. She can't. Her marks in school have plummeted and she can't stand her old friends anymore. The principal of the Bais Yaakov asked her to leave. She thinks about yesterday when her father smacked her up for becoming a "bum". "I have to get out of here," she says as she packs a small suitcase.
Two days later Mindy is playing pool at a well known Flatbush billiards with her new friends - Joey, Mark and Marilyn. They are good friends, she says to herself. They care for her and treat her with respect.
What about the teachers?
The same problem. They often do not have the knowledge needed to handle the problems facing these children, never mind the time. Our system of Yeshiva education and methods of authority are not always geared to deal with students facing family and hoshkofoh problems.
When a teacher or parent tries to talk to the child about negative peers, for instance, they are not trusted as being honest in their judgment because the child feels that he knows his friend better and the teacher is just trying to be a teacher or maybe looking at the outside of the person more than the inside.
When a Rebbe tells a child to stay away form a bad classmate, the child who is having problems of his own may not trust the judgment of the Rebbe and instead sees a friend who will accept him the way he is, unlike his parent who may be constantly putting him down.
Who can help these kids?
Psychologists are not the answer because number one, many of these kids are psychologically normal. They have Haskafa or Yetzer Horah problems. So what is a psychologist going to tell the child . . . be frum? The psychologist may not have the training to handle a Hashkafa problem. Secondly, these kids will almost never go to psychologists, so even in the many instances that they can help, they don't get the opportunity. The parents? The kids barely talk to them anymore. There is a "gap" in the community's social services, that leaves these kids largely untouched.
Another problem facing these children are a group of "undesirables" in the community who try to pass themselves off as experts in dealing with these problems. These people are often sick themselves and get their "kicks" out of befriending these lost kids and pretending to lead them back home. The problem is that sometimes they do. They prey on the weaknesses of these children and introduce them to things that are detrimental to their spiritual well-being. Some are simple low-lives who need attention themselves and others have beards and payos who have claimed to have helped kids but have utterly ruined them. Parents have to be very careful where they go for help. This is Dinei Nefashos we are dealing with.
What about the parents?
You have to understand that the parents are desperate, although there are some parents who don't care. Those parents need help themselves. But most see that they are losing their children and they want them back. So they go looking for help and sometimes go to inept or corrupt people, sometimes well meaning, sometimes not so well meaning. They forget that to deal with the problem you must be qualified, not to mention normal. They don't find out if the person is in chinuch, is he a Rov, is he working with daas Torah, is he strong himself. If the guy is a plumber or works in an electronics store, there is a lot of research that should be done by parents to assure that the person is also qualified to fix children - not that a job in chinuch automatically indicates a flair for dealing with problem adolescents, either. Instead, the parents try anyone who offers to help and meet with failure after failure. This leads to disillusionment on the part of the child, and when real help comes along, they aren't interested anymore.
Other parents don't realize that they are the problem themselves. Instead of diagnosing the problem themselves. Instead of diagnosing the problem that causes their child to develop these standards, they fight them head on and often lose the battle.
The two biggest crimes a parent can commit in their child's eyes is being a hypocrite and taking advantage of people. To a parent, that may not seem as bad as not washing your hands before eating bread but a child may say - "I may not wear a yarmulke anymore or eat just kosher, but at least I am not a hypocrite or a 'user'." The child's rationale may no be right but the parents do not understand where the problem comes form and certainly don't know how to handle it.
Lazer B. wanted so much to be a success. His past proved otherwise. he went through eight years in a chassidishe Yeshivah but did not do well and his father sent him to four other Yeshiva within the last two years. He tried to do his best but it wasn't enough for his parents or teachers. Only later would he be diagnosed with a learning disability.
So he finally decided to find a world where he can succeed and be looked up to. His new world was exciting and his new friends accepted him for what he was . . . and all he had to do was take off his yarmulke, grow his hair long and put on an earring.
Who are these kids?
These kids are formerly frum Yeshiva kids who come from regular frum families. they live in and around Boro Park and other frum communities and davened three times a day and some even went to the mikvah every morning.
Between 70 and 80% of these kids have problems at home. A disproportionate number have parents who are divorced, or who constantly fight. Some have parents who put too much pressure on them. The other 20% have parents who have fine households that should be conducive to a healthy upbringing, with parents who may be in Chinuch or Rabbunus themselves. And yet, these kids are lost. They bum out, finding terrible friends, talking less to their parents, cutting school . . . and soon they are wandering the streets, taking off their yarmulkes, not keeping shabbos, and putting on earrings, etc.
The problem often has different dynamics in the litvishe Yeshivas than in the Chassidishe Yeshivas, and the trouble boys and girls get into are often not the same. Girls may have more problems in the social scene whereas the boys tend to have more problems with the law.
The problem spans all types of Yeshivas and all types of teenagers. But it appears that there are relatively more Bais Yaakov girls who go off the derech, in comparison to chassidishe girls. The group doing best, in fact,is the chassidishe girls. They are often a lot less confused then litvishe girls who learn of the primacy of good Midos in the scheme of Yiddishkeit and then meet a boy going off the derech who seems to have great midos. Sometimes the girl can't relate to the severity of the problem that the boy doesn't put on teffilin anymore. The girl looks at the fact that he is kind, won't speak loshon horah, he is nice to other people . . . they try to look at these good points and downplay the fact that he may not keep shabbos anymore. To a chassidishe girl, however, this boy is a shaygitz and they stay away. Midos are, of course, the key, but the girl sometimes misunderstands the whole picture. The ability to point a finger and say "Shaygetz" is sometimes a safeguard.
What about the kiruv programs like JEP and NCSY?
These programs - all wonderful - are geared for the kids who were never frum and may be turned on by a shabbaton. The kids we deal with used to keep Shabbos just like you and I. It's a different industry totally.
Do the Yeshivas know that there is a problem?
Of course they do but it's very hard for them to solve it. Among other obstacles, we have a serious problem in our community. That is, if you deal with a problem, everyone thinks that you are the only one with the problem. If a Yeshiva makes special programs for kids that need help, everyone would right away say - that the Yeshiva has kids that need help and others don't. The Yeshiva would get a bad name instead of the approval they deserve.
The Yeshivas are in a stranglehold by the community that insists on standards based on ignorance, otherwise they won't send their kids or their money to that Yeshiva. A Yeshiva is afraid to open a resource room because the public will think that their kids need a resource room and you can't send your kids to that Yeshiva because it might be bad for shidduchim. We live in such a fear of what people are going to say because people will indeed say bad things, so we have no choice in the matter and we just learn to live with the problem. We are just hurting each other by not letting our mechanchim work without fear of public opinion.
At what age can one detect a problem in a child?
In the sixth grade you can usually detect a problem by the boys and a little later by the girls. The problem may not be as outstanding initially and parents will not seek help right away but by the time there is a serious problem and the parents finally do seek help, the child is a teenager, with a mind of his own.
Suri felt very alone. Her older sister and brother were already married and out of the house. Her parents were older people and simply didn't understand her. She could barely relate to her mother and her father never noticed her or spoke to her for that matter.
So Suri retreated into her favorite past time - books. She found excitement in the women's journals and even found an interest in mini-novels that took her into the outside world she now craved.
her craving soon drove her to venture into the outside world for herself. Suri found a friend who would take her to the movies and to the local hangouts. Within a month, Suri (now Sarah) moved out of her parents home and took her own apartment in the city.
The telephone rang one evening and an old man asked "May I please speak with my daughter, Suri?" Suri answered, "There's no one here by that name." Then she hung up the phone.
What are the first symptoms?
The fist symptoms can usually be seen in the child's attitude. Once his or her attitude towards school work declines and the grades drop, it is a sign of some sort of problem. If the child - and this is true for some reason particularly by the girls - begins to mutter that doing Mitzvos is "not her"; if the child starts becoming interested in events happening in the streets, starts complaining about how outdated his clothing looks, suddenly has a difference of opinion with anyone of authority, starts to stay out late at night, decides to find new friends, etc., then we have a problem.
How fast can a first symptom turn into a serious problem?
A child can turn form being a regular Yeshiva bochor to not keeping shabbos in a matter of two months. What happens is that the kid leaves or is thrown out of Yeshiva for a number of reasons such as he cannot take the pressure, he cannot keep up academically, he has become a trouble maker and the Yeshiva asks him to leave or he is simple sick of school and wants to drop out. He now does nothing all day and develops a low self-esteem but he likes it better than the pressures he had in school. He has created an alternative life-style and has decided that it is not crazy anymore to leave school. Other kids in many neighborhoods are doing it and it is an option even for this frum kid. These kids may be weak, may have problems at home, or feel neglected, and this leads the kid to make bad decisions.
How do you know how to help these kids?
You have to understand that these kids are in our community and number in the hundreds. a few years ago, a group of mechanchim got together and decided to go into the subculture of these kids, into their world and see what's doing over there. We did it to learn who the enemy is and then deal with him. That's how Project ReJewvenation started.
You can only fight something you understand. Those who fight the Jews For J---- don't go into battle without knowledge of the New Testament. Those who fight cancer first learn everything they can about the disease.
You can't do anything about the problem unless you learn about the problem and no matter how "with it' you are no matter how much experience you have as an educator and no matter how many kids you successfully brought up, you are not going to know what to do about this problem until you know the culture you are dealing with. Their culture is a million miles away from us and we can't help them without knowing where they are coming from.
How do you reach out to the kids?
The same way their bad friends do. On the street corners, in the parks - wherever they hang out Sometimes a rebbe will send them to us, sometimes a good friend will tell us about them and many times a frantic all from a mother will let us know where to find them.
We have an outreach program where we pull the kids off the streets. We talk to them about their problems and become their friends. The biggest influence on kids today is peers and we become their peers. We have also created a presence within this counterculture so that these kids know that if they have a problem or just want to talk, we are there for them. Many of these kids are desperately looking for someone to save them. They know they can trust us and that we will be on their side. They do not want help becoming frum again, but they may want help getting into a school, dealing with their parents, finding a job, or with legal problems or personal problems. We have learned hew to relate to the kids and understand what they are saying. We have learned how to relate to the kids and understand what they are saying. We have bridged the gap but retained our own level and identity. In other words, we have dropped the "walls of chashivus" and kept the "walls of erlichkeit". The concept of being a role model through chashevus works only with the regular Yeshiva student because you have to lift yourself above your students and show and example. With these kids, the fact that you are a human being who is completely sincere is what they recognize as loftiness.
Once we have gained their trust, we address the problem. Sometimes it takes a few weeks or a few months; sometimes it takes a year and sometimes much longer. But sooner or later the kid sees that we will truly help him.
A Boro Park Bais Yaakov principal called the office of ReJewvination and left this message - "This is an emergency - You must save this girl. The girl is Lina who is a Russian immigrant who went to Bais Yaakov. She was thrown out and now hates Jews with a passion. Her boyfriend is a young black man who she lives with and she now wears a cross and a matching nose-ring. Her mother is crazy, her father non-existent . . . can you please take her in . . . please . . . please!
And they did.
It was discovered that this girl needed help because there was a local gang after her, so Rabbi Shapiro went with her to the gang leader and negotiated for them to leave her alone. He and his wife took her in and accepted her - not agreeing with what she was doing - but there for her with any help she may need.
After a few months, Lina turns to Rabbi Shapiro and says, "You know, the only three people I trust are Orthodox Jews. I want to go back to being religious. She is now back in a Bais Yaakov.
Any creative advice for parents?
The worst thing you can tell a child is - "I accept you for what you are". To them it means, "you are inadequate and I am a Tzadik". If a husband came home and the supper was burned, the house was a mess, the children were filthy and he turned to his wife and said - It's O.K., I accept you for what you are - would she feel good? Of course not, because you are not saying anything good about the wife, you are saying something good about yourself. Parents think that they are making the kids feel good when in fact they are putting the kid down.
There is no child who wants to be a special case. Every child deserves the concern and understanding they need and expect from parents.
Project ReJewvenation is backed by Gedolei Yisroel, including the Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshivos on their Rabbinical Board. Writes Rav Avrohom Pam shlita about the program, "The influence of a culture alien to a Torah life has wreaked havoc within the Jewish community . . . too many children feel lost and are looking for meaning in life . . . Project ReJewvenation is the organization that addresses these problems. They provide a warm, secure based on Torah idealogy. They . . . reunite families and elevate them . . . Assimilation, alienation, drugs and the like are eating away at the Jewish people at an alarming rate . . . Rabbi Shapiro and his organization must be assisted in their magnificent work."
Rabbi Shapiro's weekly ReJewvenation lectures take place in Cong. Tomchei Torah (Rav Faivel Cohen shlita, Morah D'Asra). Tapes of the lectures are available from Cong. Tomchei Torah or Project ReJewvenation.