Country Yossi Family Magazine 3/94
By Paul Deckelman
The neighborhood's main stem, 13th Avenue, is dark and mostly deserted, its shops long closed for the night. Most of the local residents have already gone to bed, or will be going soon.
But inside one of the numerous kosher pizza stores that dot the landscape up and down 13th, the night is just beginning. A group of young people sprawls over the plastic tables and benches in one corner of the shop.
There are boys and girls there. Some are in their late teens, others perhaps 20 or 21 or so. They're Jewish -- a couple of the girls have little gold Magen Davids on thin chains around their necks, while most of the boys sport kippot on their heads. There are enough young men here for a midnight minyan -- but these kids have something else on their minds.
The talk is free and easy. In between bites of hot pizza and gulps of cold Coke, they talk about other friends who are not there at that moment. They talk about each other, as a couple of the boys "rank out" one another with snide putdowns about appearance, clothes, money, and what their girlfriends look like. Here and there, a four-letter word comes through the conversation, punctuated by boisterous laughter.
With each successive insult, the boys loudly guffaw. The girls giggle and nudge one another, exchanging whispers. Some of the girls press closer to the boys beside them. Some of the boys put an arm around the girl next to them. There's a pack of cigarettes on the table, and a couple of teens have lit up, despite a big NO SMOKING sign on the wall just above their heads.
Off behind the counter, the manager, an Israeli, scrapes blackened crumbs from one of the pizza ovens and swabs down the nozzle of one of the soda machines to get off any lingering traces of dried syrup, boredly going through his nighttime clean-up routine before shutting down. He ignores the teen scene over in the corner.
If it were during the day, when mothers pushing small children in strollers drop by for a slice, or during early evening when the family crowds come in, he would tell them not to smoke and to watch their language. But after midnight, there's nobody else in the place, so he lets them get away with a little more.
He knows these kids. They're regular customers of his, in late every night for a couple of hours of hanging out in the back booths, a little loud perhaps, but essentially harmless. Some, he's seen come in for years -- local yeshiva bocher types from right in the neighborhood. Others are newcomers, probably kids from other areas who drive down. He sometimes wonders why they never come in before about 11 or so -- and wonders what their parents must think of the kind of hours these young night-owls keep.
In many cases, the parents have no idea of how late their children are out, or where, or with whom -- because it may have been weeks or months since some of these kids last saw the inside of their own homes.
Some have been thrown out by parents unable to cope with their children's increasingly uncooperative or even defiant attitudes. Some decided not to wait until they were thrown out, and chose to leave on their own when the hassles became too heavy. Usually, they drop out of their yeshivas around this time -- that is, if they haven't been already expelled.
Yet others still live at home and are still in school -- but only physically. Amid increasing conflicts with their parents and teachers, they've already checked out mentally, and are just waiting for the opportunity to say "I'm outa here." Take "A" for example. That's not his real name, of course, but he is a very real kid, with very real parents -- and very real parent problems, He tells it this way:
"I got hooked up with the wrong crowd. My friend had this sister who was a tramp and she hit on (propositioned) me. That was the end of it. Soon, I didn't want to go to the Chanukah mesibos in yeshiva anymore. They were like boring and geeky when you have a girlfriend. It didn't last long, but by the time we broke up, I was already into the crowd, if you know what I mean. My parents totally couldn't handle it. I still live at home, but I don't get along with anyone -- not my brothers, sisters or parents."
"B" is another teenager from a religious home who somehow turned away from the straight and narrow. In her case, it was a major detour. "I had an abortion, was living off my Italian boyfriend, abused my body and was into everything -- and I mean everything," she recounts.
Or then there was "C," another wayward yeshiva student. Everyone around him could see he had problems -- big problems -- but "C" figured he was just fine. "I thought I was the coolest thing. I was totally out of control and everybody was scared of me ... (they'd) be so nice and gentle to me because they thought maybe they'd `lose' me if they fought [me], or maybe they'd be scared I'd do something [to them]. I was getting off on watching people who always looked down on me get so scared of me."
These kids are in big trouble, says Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro of Far Rockaway, rabbinic administrator for Project ReJEWvenation, a new organization aimed at reaching out to the "yeshiva children of the night" and bringing them in from the darkness of the streets -- or, better yet, at making sure they don't wind up there in the first place.
The reasons these kids decide to rebel and drop out, he says, "include, but are not limited to, problems at home, (such as) dysfunctional homes, in which the parents are not physically abusive in the clinical sense, but the kids don't get along with the parents and the parents don't get along with the kids, a sort of chronic `generation gap'."
Rabbi Shapiro has counseled dozens of such youngsters over the past few years. Some are from his own community, where he is the rov of Congregation Agudas Israel of Bayswater. Others are from elsewhere -- from Kew Gardens Hills, from Brooklyn, even Monsey. They hear about the young rabbi with a gift for talking to young people through the "yeshiva underground" grapevine and come to Queens to see him. Out of those outreach efforts grew Project ReJEWvenation, which opened for business in July.
"There are kids that get thrown out of the house for any number of reasons," Rabbi Shapiro says. Sometimes, the parents are being unreasonable -- as in the case one young man, whom the rabbi says "was thrown out of the house ten minutes before candlelighting Friday night because he wouldn't put on a hat -- not a yarmulke, (which the boy was wearing) but a hat."
Other times the parent may be fully justified in showing a truly unruly youth the door, particularly if his or her rebellious behavior might be a bad influence on other children in the household. "We know that Hashem agreed with Sarah when she told Avrohom Avienu that Ishmael had to be thrown out (to protect Isaac). Even when that does happen, there should be somebody on the street (for him). The kid is still Jewish and still responsible for his actions, and there should be someone there to make sure that even if he is living outside the home, he's still living."
Rabbi Shapiro was able to reach out to "A," "B" and "C" and get them to see how ultimately self-destructive their behavior was. Sometimes, as in the cases of "A" and "B", it was a matter of convincing them that somebody was willing to listen to them, so they didn't have to act out their rebellions. With "C," it was a more a matter of what the social service professionals call "tough love" -- winning the teen's respect by letting him know in no uncertain terms that you won't let him push you around. "Rabbi Shapiro was the first one who wasn't scared (of me)," "C" marvels. "He just treated me like a regular guy. Nobody ever did that before." Once he had broken through "C"'s wall of "bad dude" bravado by showing that he wouldn't be bullied and couldn't be conned, the rabbi found that "C" -- just like "A" and "B" -- was also looking for an adult friend who could understand the emotions pushing him into his "act."
Rabbi Shapiro and others are conducting outreach efforts among a fluid, nebulous population of indeterminate proportions. Nobody can say just how many kids from frum families have left those families for whatever reason and either strike out on their own and get an apartment (often moving in with a girlfriend or boyfriend), or just "bum around," staying a few days with this friend, a few days with that one. Rabbi Shapiro says according to psychologists and yeshiva principals, there are hundreds of such kids. "I know of dozens in the New York area alone."
Some try to stay in yeshivas, but others drop out when they leave home, spending their days at menial jobs like waiting tables.
One outreach professional who works with Rabbi Shapiro on Project ReJEWvenaton says another popular occupation among the dropouts is what some of them call "the stiff watch" -- hiring themselves out on a night-by-night basis to Jewish funeral homes to act as shomrim, to watch over the bodies of the dead and recite tehillim, as is required by halakah. It's not a very pleasant job, but it isn't too demanding, it does bring in some cash -- and the dead ask them no questions about where they live, why and with whom.
When they leave home, many are drawn to the bright lights of Boro Park. It's certainly a respectable religious community, but acts nonetheless as a magnet for the frum dropouts and runaways. There, they can lose themselves among the more than 150,000 people who live in America's largest concentrated Jewish community. They've heard there are others there like themselves, a support network of potential friends hanging out in late-night pizza parlors and other eateries.
And, of course, it's a Jewish community, with kosher eating places and familiar sights and sounds. For all of their sense of rebellion, these kids, raised in frum families and used to the yeshiva world, generally do not initially act out their dissatisfaction by heading for the bohemian attractions of Manhattan's East Village, with its heavy-metal music clubs and weirdly dressed punk rockers, or for the sleazy and dangerous Times Square district. For those from outside the community, Boro Park is far enough away to be exotic and big enough for anonymity, but still familiar and non-threatening.
It's significant that the dropouts seek to stay in a Jewish community. "These kids want to stay religious," an Orthodox psychotherapist who has worked with many such young people says, "but they want it on their own terms, and not on the terms of the adults."
In many cases, she says, these are kids "from `superstar' families -- "the father's a rov, the mother is an ayshis chayil, a sister is married to a kollel man, an older brother is learning in Lakewood. These kids don't fit in, and so they start acting out their dissatisfaction. Since they can't gain status in that world, they figure to get it in this `underground' society."
Nonetheless, at least in its initial stages, the behavior of these children is not, per se, a rebellion against Yiddishkeit so much as it is a revolt against adult authority figures such as parents and teachers, even though, of course, Torah emphasizes the twin mitzvos of kibbud av v'em and kovod talmidei chachamim.
While certain aspects of their lifestyle represent a complete violation of Torah standards, particularly in regard to the young people's easy slide into intimacy with the opposite sex without the benefit of the chuppah, even in this area the therapist says, a pintala yid sometimes continues to shine through. "Sometimes, you'll get a situation where a guy is about to leave the house and his girlfriend says to him `don't forget to take your tehillim (book)'," she says -- a sign that both are not completely lost and may yet be salvageable.
Rabbi Shapiro notes that young frum men who drop out and move in with their girlfriends almost always "stay basically within the Jewish family" in this regard, rarely taking up with Gentile girls on any kind of a long-term basis. Even though such a living arrangement is clearly an aveira, whom the former yeshiva bocher chooses can frequently be a very important factor in whether the two of them ever make it back into the fold.
When a yeshiva boy rebels and falls away, "unfortunately, it's the girlfriend who can either make him or break him," Rabbi Shapiro says. "She's got him on a leash, and can be either a positive influence or a negative one."
He tells the story of a young man we'll call S. His father and mother went through a bitter, messy divorce, badmouthing each other all the while "and S. believed them both." It wasn't long after they split up that he split too, heading for life on the streets at 16. "He had no place to live, so he was living on the subway trains, by his friends and or in his car for about a year. He dropped out of yeshiva. No Shabbos. No nothing," the rabbi says.
S. was just drifting along, feeling that nobody cared whether he lived or died. He didn't even care much himself. It was S.'s girlfriend who thought that he could do better for himself and she convinced him to believe it also. Rabbi Shapiro helped S. get his life back in order and straighten out his priorities. "Now he's learning in a big yeshiva in Israel. With his beard and his short hair, you wouldn't recognize him," the rabbi says contentedly. And S.'s girlfriend? "They eventually broke up -- but there were no hard feelings."
But for every happy ending like S.'s, there are other kids who fall through the cracks -- and just keep on falling. Take Reuben (not his real name), for example. He was an adopted child, living in a very religious family -- but not very successfully. After numerous battles with his rabbi father, he left home at 16, moving out of his family's apartment and into an apartment with his 15-year-old girlfriend -- who was also a runaway from a frum home. She threw in with Reuben, figuring that she'd get more attention and care from him than from her own family.
Too unskilled and too young to hold most kind of jobs, and too headstrong and rebellious to want to, the ambitious Reuben hit upon another way of supporting his new "family" -- he stole credit cards.
It was pretty easy, actually, once he worked out his system -- burglarize houses on Shabbos or Yom Tov, when he knew the occupants would be in shul -- and wouldn't have their money or cards with them. Once, he went upstate, to one of the big hotels offering a three-day Shabbos-Yom Tov package, and broke into a rabbi's room while the man was in shul, welcoming Shabbos. He not only got his wallet and cards, but his housekeys as well -- and high-tailed it back to Brooklyn, knowing that it would be another two days before his victim would call the police to report that his wallet and keys were gone. Reuben drove to the rabbi's house, went inside, and proceeded to make himself right at home. The neighbors suspected nothing. They saw a young man wearing a kippah -- Reuben may have been criminal but he was careful -- and just figured he was house-sitting. As Yom Tov was ending, Reuben cleared out just in the nick of time, a few steps in front of the law -- but not until after he had cleaned out his "host's' home.
Eventually, though, the law caught up with Reuben -- but he wasn't about to change his ways and become one of the 9-to-5 "squares." He began branching out from cards, selling drugs and running an insurance scam. He began recruiting helpers, most of them yeshiva dropouts like himself. He had a big car and fancy clothes, dazzling the kids by flashing around a big wad of cash, and teaching them his criminal tricks like a real-life Fagin. He married his girlfriend, and now, at 27, has set himself up as a sort of Jewish "Godfather," running all kinds of sophisticated scams and organized con games.
Sadly, Reuben's case is hardly atypical. Some of these kids are into the kinds of things that would make your hair stand on end. "Stealing credit cards. Stealing cars. Selling guns. Selling drugs," says Rabbi Shapiro. Once, he said, a young man from a well-respected Queens yeshiva told him someone was doing drugs right in the dormitory. Rabbi Shapiro told him to tell the school's principal. He did so -- and the principal told him "I can't believe it. Not by us!"
While most parents of kids being helped by Project ReJEWvenation "throw their hands up to Heaven and thank the L-rd the kid is speaking to an adult who happens to be a rabbi with a record of success in these matters," Rabbi Shapiro says, some are more interested in covering up the situation than cleaning it up.
"Occasionally, you have neurotic parents" who are troubled by the fact that their dirty linen is being washed in front of other people, he says. Sometimes, the reluctant parent may get abusive or even threatening, perceiving Rabbi Shapiro and the other outreach counselors as interlopers trying to undermine his own authority -- which has already been severely challenged by the rebellious teenager. Of parents like these, Rabbi Shapiro says, "their homes look fine -- on the outside. But they want to keep up the facade, and don't want the kid talking a rabbi or a counselor, even though the kid is practically begging for help. These are the cases which need help the most."
The phenomenon of denial regarding unpleasant social problems is common in society at large, but perhaps more so in the frum community, where some people are firmly convinced that teen rebellion (or you can substitute youth crime, unwed pregnancy, drug use, intermarriage, child abuse or wife-battering) is something that only happens among the goyim or may happen among non-frum Jews -- "but not in our circles."'
"True, it doesn't even compare with the problems going on in the outside world -- but it does go on," the Queens psychotherapist says. But she recounts instances where parents refused to believe the truth about their son, and where yeshiva administrators refused to acknowledge the problem of problem children. "This stuff does not make you popular with parents when you tell them it's their kid."
She said the Orthodox establishment had been approached to help -- but that help was, for the most part, not forthcoming. Tempting as it might be, however, for the frum community to look upon the dropouts as rebellious backsliders and simply wash its hands of them and leave them to whatever fate awaits them out on the streets -- even if it be, ultimately, drug use and jail, or worse -- "it's against Daas Torah for a community or its leaders to shrug their shoulders and say `oh well, these kids are not our responsibility'," the therapist says.
Rabbi Shapiro absolutely concurs. "The poskim, the rabbinic authorities, agree that this type of kiruv, or outreach, among religious kids gone astray is so important that it even takes precedence over trying to reach kids who never were religious."
For one thing, he says, these kids -- who have been taught Torah in their yeshivas and their girls' seminaries -- are thus responsible for their own actions, whereas those who are ignorant of Torah are not. By rescuing them, you save them from a fate worse than the other kids face for unknowingly committing aveiras. Secondly, he notes, as long as these kids are out living the street life, each has the potential for corrupting other impressionable young people and luring them astray -- just like Reuben, the former yeshiva student turned con-man king, did.
A third reason, the rabbi notes, for supporting this kind of outreach, is it's doing a chesed, or act of kindness, for all, because "you never know whose kids are in danger."
Other rabbinic authorities, such as Rabbi Moshe Sternbach, of Jerusalem, and Rabbi Shabse Wigder, of Monsey, add that by helping these lost youngsters, you bring relief to broken families as well.
It was for those reasons, Rabbi Shapiro said, that Rabbi Avrohom Pam shlita, the respected rosh yeshiva of New York's Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaas, gave his full blessing to Rabbi Shapiro's outreach efforts among the fallen-away frum kids, which include one-on-one counseling and the establishment of a new hotline telephone number where kids who tire of the street life can get help. (The hotline number -- which features a 24-hour emergency referral number as well -- is (718) 868-2068).
Just recently, Rabbi Shapiro was in Israel, conferring with Rav Eliezer Schach and other respected gedolim on this matter. "One ground rule had to be established before we begin -- everything must be done through the perspective of Daas Torah, in conjunction with our gedolim. The ends, no matter how wonderful, never justify the means." Rabbi Dovid Goldstein of Jerusalem notes that the problem of frustrated, alienated youth is prevalent not just in New York or America, but in frum communities across the globe, which he says have been "plagued by an unprecedented rate of teenage alcohol and drug use." He warns that two out of five yeshiva dropouts ultimately lose all contact with Torah and mitzvos. "They throw away their yarmulkes and tzitzis and stop putting on t'fillin. Of these, another 20 percent intermarry."
HaRav Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg shlita, the rosh yeshiva at Jerusalem's famed Yeshiva Torah Ohr, agrees that "without immediate attention, the shocking fact is that many of these young men will forsake Torah and mitzvos (and) some will even become involved in immoral and criminal activities."
Another prominent rabbi alarmed at the situation is Rabbi Noach Weinberg shlita, the rosh yeshiva at Israel's Aish HaTorah baal tshuvah yeshiva. "It is well known within the Torah community the need for kiruv rechokim (reaching out to those who are far away). But there is another, less-talked about need that requires our urgent attention -- kiruv krovim (reaching out to those who are close)," he says.
Rabbi Weinberg warns that "our generation is witnessing the loss of beautiful Jewish children from Torah yiddishkeit. There are far too many young men from Torah families whose spiritual lives are threatened by the overwhelming negative influences in today's society. Having found no simcha in their own Judaism and failure in their Torah learning, these precious Jewish souls are turning away from the heritage of their forefathers."
Noting his own work with baal tshuvas from non-religious backgrounds, Rabbi Weinberg says "I personally know and feel the tragedy of the thousands of unaffiliated Jews who have not yet become spiritually reconnected to our Torah and tradition. For a religious Jew to become disconnected is an even greater tragedy!"
A number of other rabbis are also active in trying to reach out to the disaffected yeshiva youth and bring them back to the fold -- or better yet, trying to address their concerns before the breakoff with home, parents and yeshiva becomes inevitable.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum is one such activist. Using his s'forim store in the Catskill community of Woodbourne as a base, he reaches out to young people he meets in the town, which in the summertime acts as a magnet for youth from the whole Sullivan County area who come there to hang out. One admirer says of the blunt-spoken Rosenbaum "he's tough, a bulldozer," whom the kids respect for his candor with them. "Those kids can spot phoniness from a mile away," he says.
Rabbi Yehuda Fine became known as "the Rabbi of Times Square" several years ago, due to his efforts to get runaway Jewish kids off the mean streets of Manhattan's sleazy 42nd Street vice district. Rabbi Fine became a familiar figure to denizens of "The Deuce" as he cruised up and down the neon-lit strip every Thursday night on behalf of the Covenant House youth shelter, seeking to encourage Jewish kids who had left home to abandon that Sodom-like world while they still could walk away from it.
His experience in trying to keep those young Yiddishe neshamas out of the clutches of greedy pimps and drug dealers, stood Rabbi Fine in good stead when he began working on his own to keep families from breaking up and to offer a sympathetic ear for young people who felt nobody was listening to them. As a natural outgrowth of that work, Rabbi Fine and his wife, Elliesheva, have embarked upon a new project -- one aimed at preventing the kind of heart-breaking scenes he used to see on 42nd Street.
They've started a magazine, "Life's Good Stuff," aimed at Jewish teenagers and their parents. The magazine is geared to the entire family. The new publication will seek to counsel families on practical aspects of growing up and encourage the strengthening of family ties -- but in a credible (to youth), entertaining way, walking the fine line of trying to transmit a moral message without sounding uptight and preachy.
"Life's Good Stuff" made its debut in late July, its premiere issue including some straight talk from three yeshiva girls detailing some of the ups and downs of being a modern teenager, other articles emphasizing the need for people to have a concept of self-worth these teens are sadly lacking, and a poetry corner where young poets can get their feelings off their chests, either in rhyme or otherwise. Rabbi Shapiro and others are working with Rabbi and Rebbetzin Fine on the publication.
If the problem of dropouts from the frum community can be compared with a fire in a building, suffice it to say that while it has not reached four-alarm status, with flames shooting from the roof, as has the problem of assimilation and intermarriage, at the very least, the frum dropout problem has gone beyond the "smolder" stage and has burst into open flame -- a small flame, to be sure, but one which is likely to get bigger and bigger if left unattended. Just as a fireman will tell you that the easiest way to stop a four-alarm fire is to not let it begin in the first place, the rabbis and other professionals battling the frum dropout problem say the key is defusing troubled situations and heading off family breakups before they occur -- rather than trying to pick up the pieces afterward.
Rabbi Yaakov Mosbacher, formerly the director of Yeshiva Yesod HaChaim of Brooklyn and Massena, N.Y., emphasizes that the time for dealing with an attitudinal problem is when it first surfaces, rather than let it fester. In his work with troubled and under-achieving children, he has found that "I prefer dealing with the child while the parents are still involved with the child. When it's at a point that there's another person there because of the tremendous failure of the nuclear family to deal with (problems), then there's another whole set of problems to deal with that really are extremely difficult."
Sometimes, he says, the problems still be dealt with at that stage -- when the child "is not really semi-delinquent but on the road to becoming semi-delinquent" -- but as a general rule, he says, "I don't like that. I much prefer dealing with the child who is a little bit younger or a little bit less experienced, right before the breakdown in (his) value system."
There are certain signs that a breakdown is coming -- certain ways in which a child acts and questions authority beyond the usual assertion of independence as he grows older which should act as warning signals. Rabbi Mosbacher says the time to move is when those questions start. "I can take a child that's headed toward a breakdown in his value system and is starting to challenge --`why go to school? What's the purpose? I'm a failure any way. What family? What religion?.' I'd rather deal with it right before the breakdown and really try to rebuild and prevent a real breakdown, rather than deal with a child that's experienced and being used to real failure."
It's high noon in Boro Park.
Along busy 13th Avenue, there is bustling activity. Cars crowd the streets and shoppers throng the sidewalk. The pizza store is crowded. It's lunchtime.
The manager swabs down the counter and gets ready for the next order.
None of the late-night crowd is there now, of course. They're wherever they call home, with whomever they now call "family."
The manager remembers that when he closed up in the wee hours of the morning and the kids were all leaving, one of them paused by the cash register, and took a card from a pile that a young rabbi had left on the counter the other day. The kid looked at the card and put it in his pocket.