Yaakov, 16

Did you ever meet a boy who was bright and handsome with a really likeable personality, but was thrown out of yeshiva after yeshiva until he ended up on the street?

Meet Yaakov, 16. When he first walked into my secretary's office, he was 15 and had been out of yeshiva for four months. He was in Chaim Berlin for 9th Grade, for about two weeks. Then he went to yeshiva in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, and lasted until the end of the year - they had refused to take him back for his Sophomore year due to behavioral and attitude problems. He was a bright and handsome boy, but seemed to lack the motivation, or even basic desire to cooperate with authority figures. He would always try to find the "easy way out" - cheating when he could have studied; stealing when he could have asked for money; getting thrown out of school when all he had to do was put in a modicum of effort.

But no. Disregard for rules seemed to come natural for Yaakov, whose life was quickly going nowhere, not that he seemed to care much.

He didn't get along with his parents, who gave up on him and let him know it. "You're useless," they would tell him. "You'll never amount to anything," they would say. Such sentiments usually become self-fulfilling prophecies. Yaakov started gravitating toward the street life, getting into the "wrong crowd." He started selling illegal long-distance pin numbers, experimenting with small-time drugs, making a mess of his life.

In the meantime, he was still living at home, and still considered himself frum, although his level of observance would sometimes suggest otherwise. He would always wear his yarlmuka, never eat non-kosher or violate Shabbos (despite much peer pressure), but would rarely daven, and was altogether oblivious of the halachos pertaining to tznius.

His parents would often throw him out of the house, but they would always take him back. "You find yourself a yeshiva by next week or find somewhere else to live," they would say. They would offer no assistance, however, and no decent yeshiva would accept him anyway - he tried a number of them, and became discouraged. He often had to sleep by friends, or in cars for a few nights until his parents were convinced to allow him back into the house. Once, his parents decided that their 15-year-old son had to pay rent. "Go find a job," they instructed him, "or you're out of here by next week." But he found that nobody would hire a 15-year-old 10th grade drop out with no experience at anything. I wonder why.

His relationship with his parents rapidly deteriorated, getting more and more hostile, until one day when his mother finally threw him out of the house permanently. He actually pushed her, when he lost his temper in the middle of a shouting match. "I'm scared to live in the same house with him," she said.

For a while, Yaakov was sleeping by friends, or in unlocked cars. I picked Yaakov up off the street and brought him into my home. I spoke to him about his life, trying to figure out how and why Yaakov's desire to perform became sour. I spoke to his parents, and did my own research into his past.

Sixth grade was the turning point in Yaakov's life. Until then, his marks were good, and there was no problem with his behavior. He had an English teacher then, a woman, with whom he developed a very strong and close relationship. To the other boys in the class, he was the "teacher's pet." Towards the end of the year, though, things suddenly took a 360 degree turn. He abruptly started "hating" this teacher, for no clear reason. The teacher, too, seemed to dislike Yaakov as suddenly and as seriously as he did her.

His parents complained to the school, hinting at possible abuse; the school rejected the insinuations, and blamed it on Yaakov. But whatever happened, Yaakov's performance, especially his behavior in school, has since dropped from very good to unacceptable. He managed to make it through elementary school, partly due to rachmonus on the part of the school, but he could go no further.

The first thing we did for Yaakov was to provide him with an accepting and caring environment. In my home, Yaakov was treated like one of the family, with the same respect, love, and expectations as everyone else. I gave him volunteer work to do for Project ReJewvenation, that involved basic decision-making and responsibility. He did his jobs very well, with enthusiasm and creativity. Yaakov seemed to be the type of child who would not bother to earn your trust, but would not betray it if you take the first step and trust him unconditionally.

At that time, a school called our office about a runaway teenager, last seen in Baltimore. Our Private Investigator was out of town on another Project ReJewvenation case then, so I told Yaakov that I am giving the assignment to him.

Yes, to him. Saul, our Investigator would closely monitor his actions and guide him through the task, but the job was his. We set him up with airfare to his destination, a motel room, and precise instructions regarding finding this lost youth.

Yaakov performed marvelously. This supposedly "useless," irresponsible street-kid suddenly kicked into action, performing carefully, effectively, and forcefully. Needless to say, the child was found. Yaakov saved a life. Saul was duly impressed. And, more importantly, so was Yaakov. For the first time in his life, he accomplished something important to so many people. When I saw the look on his face as the parents of the lost boy hugged him and thanked him for "saving their son's life," I knew that we had found a part of Yaakov that was lost since the sixth grade.

Sometimes all it takes for a child to respect authority figures, meaning adults, is for adults to sincerely respect and appreciate him. Yaakov really earned this appreciation, and he knew it was sincere and genuine.

Yaakov was a new person after that. He was more confident in his own abilities, and felt much better about himself as a person. We started talking about going back to school. We went through Torah Umesorah's Catalog of Day Schools in the United States, which lists every yeshiva in the country. We discussed the pros and cons of each school, until we narrowed down the prospects to two out of town yeshivos.

When we contacted those yeshivos, only one of them would even consider Yaakov, and only because we assured them that Yaakov had been in our care for 5 months and had changed dramatically.

We contacted Yaakov's mother, and informed her about this yeshiva, that would perhaps admit her son. She refused to even consider paying tuition. "My son is just going to get himself thrown out in two weeks," she said. No manner of persuasion could convince this woman that her son has changed. "Oh, please," she said. "He's just no good."

So we raised Yaakov's tuition. And we sent him to yeshiva. At the beginning it was rough - he almost got himself expelled once or twice for missing curfews or cutting class. But that could be expected - a child who has been out of school for almost a year will need to slowly get used to the discipline that comes with a structured yeshiva life. But the school worked with him, and he is doing better and better each day.

We monitor Yaakov's progress in Yeshiva, the way parents usually do. We speak to Yaakov regularly. When there is a problem, he calls us. We just received his report card in the mail - the school sends it to Project ReJewvenation.

Yaakov is back in school, back on his way to a normal, productive life.

And, it is not only Yaakov who has changed. I spoke to his mother recently.

"I'm proud of him," she said.