Rebels Without A Cause

In yeshiva, Yossi Silverman learned to study Talmud, to analyze biblical commentaries and to derive ethical lessons from the weekly Torah portion.

On the streets, he learned how to profit form "insurance flipping" of cars, to access other people's cellular phone accounts and obtain phony driver's licenses.

"I even got one under the name Jonathan Pollard once," he smirks.

The son of a prominent rabbi, Silverman dropped out of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Midwood at 14, living at various intervals with a girlfriend, a group of other kids--many from chasidic families, he claims--and even on the street.

"You name it, I did it by the time I was 15," he says.

Wearing a black, suede yarmulke and dressed conservatively in slacks, a sweater and sport jacket, the 16-year-old Silverman looks like any other yeshiva bocher in Flatbush. "I come from a very mainstream, very normal, very religious family," he says.

In fact, tales of street life coming from kids like Silverman are rising fast. (The names of the young people interviewed in this story have been changed). Communal leaders and social service providers active in the yeshiva world are battling a sharp increase in truancy, dropping out, juvenile delinquency, even involvement in sex and drugs among yeshiva youth.

In the Flatbush-Borough Park area of Brooklyn, home to perhaps the largest Jewish educational system in the United States, there are an estimated 300 to 400 at-risk youths between 14 and 21, according to the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush. That figure represents about 10 percent of the yeshiva high school population in more than a dozen institutions in the area.

But the problem may be much more widespread, reaching across the metropolitan area or even across the country, experts warn.

Some of the youths are lured by the seductions of a popular culture awash in hedonistic imagery. Others chafe against a rigid, demanding curriculum and what they see as inflexible teachers. Still others suffer from unstable or abusive family lives. All, though, are rebels, alienated from the insular society that gives comfort and meaning to so many off their peers.

"There is a growing concern in the community about the increased number of delinquent or wayward students that are gravitating to what we call a street life," says Rabbi Yechezkel Pikus of the Flatbush COJO. "This has affected even some of the most prominent families in the community."

Alarmed by the trend, Rabbi Pikus recently convened a task force to address the problem, with the help of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. "There has been a tendency to hush it up or play down the magnitude of the problem, but it's a reality we have to come to grips with.

"The consensus," says Rabbi Pikus, "is we cannot let it ride."

On most Saturday nights, there are enough Orthodox guys at Prime Time Billiards, a Flatbush pool hall, for a few minyans. Some try to hide their affiliation by wearing baseball caps over their yarmulkes, even tucking payot underneath. Others don't bother. Located in a safe neighborhood near the Kings Highway shopping center, the brightly lit Prime Time is a respectable business, far enough away from local yeshivas and shuls to make it a popular Orthodox night spot.

Under clouds of cigarette smoke and amid the sounds of jukebox music and the clicking of cue sticks against billiard balls, dozens of Orthodox teens meet here, impressing each other with beepers, cell phones, new cars and clothes--an environment markedly different from their demure day lives.

One of the few Jewish adults in the room sits at a table in the center of the action. His wide-brimmed black hat and dark beard stand out, as does his mobile office operating out of his briefcase. On one side of the table is his beeper, on the other a stack of his business cards, which read: "Rabbi Yakov Shapiro, Project ReJewvenation."

The rabbi is a regular here, mingling with teenagers many other rabbis would give a sermon to. But as the ashtray on his table fills with cigarette butts--theirs, not his--Rabbi Shapiro spends most of his time listening.

"I haven't been to yeshiva in two years," says Moshe Stein, 17, who says he now works as a warehouse manager since dropping out. "I was sick and tired of the rabbis smacking me around. I told my parents and they didn't do anything about it."

Stein won't mention the name of the yeshiva or the rabbi he claims hit him. On his last day of yeshiva, Stein says, the rabbi struck his younger brother. The brother needed stitches, and Stein says he gave back a taste of the rabbi's medicine.

"I got kicked out, but the rabbi is still there," he says.

Many of the kids already know Rabbi Shapiro, or have heard about his crusade to coax them back into the community. "My father spoke to you about me," says Lisa Cohen, a pretty 15-year-old wearing a tight black mini-dress and a silver dental retainer. "I just wanted to introduce myself."

Holding hands with her boyfriend, Lisa explains that she's been kicked out of a yeshiva near Washington, D.C., where she lived with her divorced father, and now lives with her mother while attending a Modern Orthodox girls' yeshiva in Queens.

"My mother doesn't understand me," Lisa says. "She keeps telling me I can't talk to boys, I have to straighten out. So I told her I'm at my friend's house for Shabbos, and I want to my other friend because she lives near my boyfriend."

Rabbi Shapiro seems to know dozens of Lisas, and dozens of Yossi Silvermans. A teacher a Sholsheles Bais Yakov Yeshiva in Queens and rabbi of Agudath Israel of Bayswater, he spend spends most of his free time immersed in their world.

Pained by horror stories of sex and drugs circulating in the yeshiva world, Rabbi Shapiro founded Project ReJewvenation, a Brooklyn-based outreach center for kids and resource center for parents, in 1992. In its first year, the program dealt with 70 cases. the number rose slightly the following two years, but now has more than doubled to 185.

"There's so many kids now, the parents are banging down the doors," says Rabbi Shapiro, who claims he's done everything form hanging out in pool halls to infiltrating a Nihilistic cult to connect with troubled Jewish kids. "I go to my machine and every day there are 25 more messages."

Rabbi Shapiro denies the increase is the result of simple demographics in a community that doubles every 13 years.

"It's not a per capita increase," he says. "The causes have increased with the decadence of society. Because those on the street are more visible, others are attracted. This feeds on itself and increases geometrically."

Some who are familiar with Rabbi Shapiro, who has no formal training in social work or psychology, criticize his for being too chummy with the kids, rarely asking them to call their parents or go back to school.

But he responds, "You have to deal with these kids on their level. If you walk in and order them to leave, you're gonna get nowhere with them."

A few blocks from Prime Time Billiards is Bissaleh, a kosher Israeli restaurant and popular night spot that stays open until dawn. There, too, Rabbi Shapiro holds court.

"Very few of these kids are bad kids," he says on the way to the restaurant. "They just got bad breaks. Lots of parents don't have time for their kids or they don't have any parenting skills. [But] the difference between a good kid and a bad kid is that a good kid has somebody that believes in him."

As he shmoozes with kids at the restaurant, most are eager to tell their stories. Many insist they have not completely abandoned Jewish observance, and hoped to raise their own children Orthodox. It is not the rigid lifestyle they object to but those who taught it to them, they say.

"I think the problem with yeshivas is the [teachers] don't have the proper qualifications," says Tzvi Herman, 18, who once left home to live on the Lower East Side with other Jewish runaways "who did a serious amount of drugs."

An aspiring surgeon who says his rebellious phase concluded with a short stay in the psychiatric ward of The Regent Hospital in Manhattan, Herman says "A teacher, or anyone in charge of helping mold the life of someone else, should have taken certified courses in psychology and should have more of an open mind. They shouldn't make you feel as though if you don't wear a hat and jacket you're the scum of the earth."

Calls to several principals of prominent ultra-traditional yeshivas in Brooklyn were not returned.

But Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, a teacher at Yeshivah Torah Temimah in Flatbush for 30 years, says the yeshiva world has not been blind to what he admits is "a growing problem," and is reacting appropriately. "The moment a rebbe sees a danger sign, the principal brings it to the attention of the parent, [often telling them] you must have professional help or we won't let the kid stay in yeshiva," he says. "It is the job of the yeshiva not to let a parent sweep it away." Rabbi Teitelbaum says that with this new reality, the responsibilities of a yeshiva rebbe have changed, and there is little tolerance for the "spare the rod' philosophy.

"Most schools today do not allow a rebbe to hit," he says. "You have to know how to speak with them and deal with them on their level. There is no question that [teacher] today are much better than we had 25 years ago. They are all professionals. But sometimes they must be helped by [outside] programs, because they are not all [trained] to deal with a serious problem."

Although Rabbi Teitelbaum praises the "phenomenal success of today's yeshiva movement" in educating thousands of tomorrow's leaders, he admits "the curriculum has to be made more interesting for these types of boys who cannot take the hard, tough type of curriculum these schools have.

"There was a time when every father would teach his son on his own level. Now, sometimes a rebbe can't do it for each child in a classroom. A kid who isn't properly taken care of but keeps getting promoted will develop a poor image of himself."

Silverman, the 16-year-old dropout, stops short of blaming his school, insisting his problems began outside the yeshiva walls. "My teachers weren't as rough on me as I was rough on my teachers," he says. His troubles began when his father was diagnosed with cancer. During his father's illness, Silverman's mother spent most of her time at the hospital. His three older siblings are married, leaving him completely unsupervised.

"I was lost on my own, a wild little kid," he says.

But Silverman adds that personal attention or intervention at school might have made a difference. "The yeshivas today mostly focus on the mainstream student rather than expanding their horizons to cater to people with special needs. But most schools have 400 to 500 children, so it's impossible to cater to every student on their level."

The growing alienation of yeshiva students has not gone unnoticed in the Orthodox community. Neither has the spread of social ills long viewed as virtually nonexistent there. These realities are now forcing rabbis, professionals and parents to reassess the yeshiva system's methods of identifying and dealing with troubled students, as well as the communal response to the fallout.

Some of the solutions being explored by the Flatbush COJO task force include a big brother/sister program for troubled teens who lack role models and drop-in centers for street kids.

According to experts, disciplinary problems typically stem from an absence--either by circumstance or neglect--of parental involvement. Silverman's father says that at the time his son was most rebellious, "I wasn't able to be a full-time father to him."

Though still at a loss to explain his son's rebellion--"I'm not sure if his dissatisfaction was at home or at school"--Rabbi Silverman says he was counseled by several rabbis to show his son unconditional love and leave the counseling to professional--advice he followed. Now recovered from his illness, Rabbi Silverman says his son lives at home, goes to a yeshiva and is studying to be an emergency medical technician.

It was through Rabbi Shapiro's Project ReJewvenation that Yossi Silverman ultimately returned to his family, but only after his reckless ways nearly cost him his life.

"Last January ['95] me and three other guys were living in an apartment driving around in a '95 Q45," he recalls. "We had enough money put away not to worry about it for a long time."

Silverman had been warned by concerned friends and family to straighten out his life and "not wait for a sign from God."

But his "sign from God" came early last year on the FDR Drive, when the Infiniti luxury car--traveling at 120 mph, Silverman says--smashed into another car, landing him in the hospital with three broken ribs and a lacerated kidney.

While he was recuperating, Rosie Bleich, Project ReJewvenation's director, convinced him to move back home. "[Yossi] felt like Hashem gave him back his life," she says. "He turned himself around. All I did was trust him and answer his questions. I believed in him and didn't give up on him."

Observers cite several factors contributing to the alarming spread of youth problems: the inescapable influence of popular culture, the increase of single-parent homes and stress on families caused by the recent economic downturn.

But another prevalent cause may be learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. According to Ann Julian, director of the Brooklyn-based Jewish Association for Attention Deficit Disorder, surveys show that ADD affects 7 to 10 percent of the Jewish community nationwide.

But Julian, supported by many educators, claims that many yeshivas and day schools lack the will or the resources to properly diagnose and treat biologically induced disorders like ADD which prevent students from keeping pace with a high-pressure curriculum that includes intensive, complex Torah studies as well as secular subjects.

Rabbi Moshe Newman, principal of Bais Yakov of Queens, a girl's school, says many yeshivas "so not have the wherewithal to keep up with children who cannot handle the classes. There are very few institutions which address the particular problem of learning deficits and dyslexia. [Some yeshivas] are not equipped enough to handle these things."

Ignoring learning problems, or throwing out affected students, can lead to disciplinary problems, says Julian, adding that this problem is shared by the full-range of Jewish institutions, from ultra-traditional yeshivas to Modern Orthodox and Conservative day schools.

"A child who has either a learning problem or ADD who did not pick up the basic building blocks of learning in younger grades, and then is faced with the task of performing more complex tasks . . . is naturally frustrated, anxious and tense. These kids are at higher risk for substance abuse [and other] social problems," she says.

The yeshiva community has responded to the problem, in part, by placing guidance counselors and therapists in some 50 yeshivas and day schools throughout the New York area. The specialists are part of Counter-Force, a state-funded, Brooklyn-bases program under Orthodox auspices.

"Counter-Force has been around for 25 years," says its director, Moshe Wangrofsky. "But it's only in the last two years that we're working so much with dropouts and throwouts."

The CounterForce professionals are trained to spot danger signals or provide a confidential venue for those seeding counseling. "We've unfortunately reached a point where an adolescent who doesn't make it and becomes a dropout or is thrown out of school knows where he can go to find other [such] kids," says Wagrofsky.

Despite Wangrofsky's use of the male pronoun, the number of at-risk girls has increased more rapidly than that of boys. According to Rabbi Shapiro, just under half of his 185 cases are girls. But the 90 cases are double last year's figure, and nearly triple the 35 cases of 1994.

Alan Sirote, director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services clinic in Borough Park, says "There is beginning to be more of a problem with some teenage girls who have wandered away from Orthodox homes and are aimless and sometimes out on the street looking for some direction."

Ten to twelve such cases a year now come to his office for counseling, he says. "That's much more than it used to be."

Sirote cites financial stress and the need for longer work hours and dual incomes as the most prevalent factor leading to abuse and neglect in Orthodox families. But he also says, "The influence of the community at large has impacted on the value system of the Orthodox community, to the extent that you find more instances of substance abuse, homelessness and sexual abuse than previously. Sexual acting out and pregnancy are also less unheard of."

While Rabbi Shapiro spends much of his time in Flatbush because of the concentration of cases there--and the abundance of hangouts--he is now getting calls from as far away as Baltimore and Miami.

"This area is simply a microcosm of every other Jewish community," says "Irv," a 26-year-old accountant and ex-yeshiva boy who frequents Bissaleh with mostly younger kids. Rabbi Shapiro and some of the kids refer to Irv as a minor drug dealer.

"What's going on right now is a large percentage of Jewish children between 14 and 25 have been completely alienated by the Jewish community because they can't deal with who these people are. They've been closing their eyes to these things for years, pretending it doesn't exist.

"But premarital sex, drug use, things that go on in the real world, are going on in the Jewish community. It can't be completely overlooked, so they . . . alienate a large section of the community. It ends up having tremendous negative repercussions for the future."

Irv, wearing a thick gold chain and tie-dyed grateful Dead T-shirt, is an example of an angry disenchanted teen who grows up to be an angry, disenchanted adult. "I come from a black-hat family, my mother wears a sheitl [wig] and my father learns daf yomi [daily Talmud] every morning. at one point in my life I made a siyum on shas mishnayos [a celebration of completion of the Oral law]."

Irv describes his days at numerous Brooklyn yeshivas as "an absolute disaster. They made me feel like s----. Rabbis couldn't deal with me. I'd go out of my way to p--- them off.

"My rabbi in my freshman year constantly said in class 'ask questions.' But whenever we would ask any meaningful questions about the religion itself, he would call us apikorases [heretics]."

Asked if he still considered himself Orthodox, Irv says yes. "But I don't go to shul anymore. I don't need people to judge me."

Rabbi Shapiro places a hand on his shoulder. "You come to my shul and I'll give you a seat in the front row, and nobody is going to judge you. Guaranteed."

Back at Prime Time Billiards, Yossi Silverman insists that "I don't come here much anymore," and just dropped by at Rabbi Shapiro's request. He considers his days as a yeshiva rebel past history. "It's not a reality for me anymore," he says.

He offers some advice for others who have strayed from the path: "Try to hang in there," he says.

"Find someone to talk to, because the grass is not greener on the other side. Take it from someone who's been there."