A Speech Given by Yonah, 17, at a Project ReJewvenation Dinner, 2/95


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Yonah. I am 17 years old now. I grew up in Boro Park, and went to the most Chassidishe yeshivas. When I was about 8, I got a tiny glance through the peephole that Chassidishe people do not want their children to look into. Unpopular in the first yeshiva I attended, I changed to a less Chassidishe one, where I picked up many non-Chassidishe traits, that I thought were very cool. Such as saying "Boruch" instead of "Burich." Slowly, I found out about things that were even cooler than that.

Guns, pornography, drugs, girls. It happened slowly, mostly for reasons I don't want to go into, but what I will say is that I went from yeshiva to yeshiva, with different levels of frumkeit. Things that were acceptable here, were unthinkable there. Back and forth I went. I was angry, and dissatisfied. I got hooked up with the wrong crowd. Whatever different yeshivas I was in, there was still one constant: The troublemakers were considered the coolest. I wanted to be the coolest of the cool. I started using my hands to prove a point. I started becoming a "tough" guy, collecting weapons. I went further and further in that direction, until you wouldn't recognize me. My parents tried everything to straighten me out. They sent me to Eretz Yisroel. I got worse there. When I arrived back in America, I left home over a fight about a haircut.

I always wanted to join a gang. Eventually, I got together with a few guys and girls - also once religious - and we had our own gang. We would walk around Avenue J as if we owned the neighborhood. In a way, we did.

One day, I met a bunch of guys on motorcycles. They called to me, in Yiddish! These formerly religious bums got me into their group, and I was a real member of a real motorcycle gang. There was no greater feeling than driving around with a bunch of your friends together on motorcycles in the worst neighborhoods of New York.

I wasn't Yoni anymore. I called myself Kevin. It was a name that fit in nicely with my new-found life. I replaced my bekesheh with a motorcycle jacket, I wore a skull around my neck, and the heels of my boots were decorated with 6 live bullets on each of them. My hair grew longer than my payos ever were. I was constantly exposed to heavy duty drugs, until I was eventually talked into trying it. It did nothing for me, and I never went back to it. But I was still one scary teenager. It was such a kick having people cross the street when they see you walking their way. You feel in control when people are so scared of you.

But not everyone was scared. When I first met Rabbi Shapiro, I was schlepped into one of his meetings by a friend of mine. I came on my bike, took off my helmet, sat on the floor, and said "Sholom Aleichem." I was waiting for the rabbi's reaction. I was hoping for fear, or in the very least, a sense of his being helpless to deal with me.

Without missing a beat, the rabbi leaned over his desk, pointed at me, and said "You must lend me that outfit for Purim." I knew then that it was going to be an interesting relationship.

When I first met Rabbi Shapiro, I expected him to be hostile, like all other religious people were towards me. But he wasn't. He embraced me, he took me into his group, and he cared about me.

The reason I continued going to Rabbi Shapiro's group was not because I wanted to become religious. I didn't. Nobody did. But Rabbi Shapiro did a very smart thing. He became friends with the coolest guys around, and invited them just to hang out. We all wanted to hang out with the coolest guys, so we came. I even brought more kids into the group.

Rabbi Shapiro was a real friend. That does not mean he approved of what I was doing. He was my friend despite his disapproval. And he always treated me like a mentsch. Even when he had to take matters into his own hands.

I remember once, a little over a year ago, a friend of ours took a loaded .44 Magnum from me, and left it in a stolen car, that was eventually confiscated by the police. This guy - we will call him Mike - actually broke into the car while it was in police custody, and took the gun back. He went home with it, and pointed it at his father. His mother frantically called Rabbi Shapiro, who somehow got Mike to surrender the weapon to him. The rabbi took apart the gun, and handed the pieces over to the police to be destroyed.

What happened next made a powerful impression on me that will last for the rest of my life. The next day, Rabbi Shapiro approached me and asked me how much he owes me for the gun - and the holster. He explained that he took my property, and even though he had to do it to protect me, not to mention Mike's father, he has to pay me. So he asked how much the gun was worth. I told him and he paid out of his own pocket. Until then, when someone didn't like something I did, they either ignored it, were scared to say anything, or if they did say something - completely alienated me. Rabbi Shapiro could not have made his point of view more clear - he destroyed my gun - but he still gave me the respect of a human being. With his actions, he told me I was wrong - but I still count. I have rights, like anyone else. What he was telling me was, Yoni - no matter how messed up you are, we still care about you, and respect you. You don't have to join "that other world" in order to feel good about yourself. Then, when he told me that the reason he wants to pay me for the gun is because he is obligated to according to Halachah, it made me think that maybe I am not such a reject, even in the eyes of Hashem.

When Rosie Bleich joined Project ReJewvenation, I found the most understanding, warm, and kind person that Hashem ever put on this earth. When I needed to cry, to talk, or just to be silly, Rosie was there for me. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. I spent hours each day in her bungalow in Monticello this summer. After I became religious and put my life back together again, I was arrested on firearm charges for something that allegedly happened over a year ago. When I was arrested, Rosie stayed up all night with my family, calming them, giving them chizuk, and being a friend. She called lawyers, politicians, and anyone who she thought could be of help.

I remember walking in one night to a Project ReJewvenation meeting. There was the rabbi, Rosie, and all my friends - surrounding a birthday cake with candles. A big "Happy Birthday Yoni" sign was hanging on the wall. I was started to cry. I ran over and kissed the rabbi. It was the first birthday party I ever had. I was 17 then.

The rabbi and Rosie were real and loyal friends. They really care - for me and for all the Project ReJewvenation kids - and they show it. With their words, their thoughts, and their actions.

The rabbi and Rosie became my family. Whenever there were any problems with my father, he would call the rabbi or Rosie. They were always there for me.

Eventually I realized that the world where they come from is the world I want to be a part of. That's where I can really feel good about myself, and where my family and those close to me can feel good about me. That's where my future lies.

And so, Rabbi Shapiro can have my biker outfit this Purim, too, if he wants. I don't need it anymore. I don't need anything except my family, my friends, and my future. Thanks to Project ReJewvenation, that's what I have.

Thank you.