Please Help Child Safety Advocates Warn Parents About His Whereabouts

By Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

ALERT: Yona Weinberg, a convicted, registered, New York State Level 3 Sex Offender currently living freely in Israel and no one seems to know where he is. Weinberg served 13 months in an American jail for seven counts of Sexual Abuse in the Second Degree and two counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child.

The New York State Division of Criminal Justice website describes a Level 3 registered sex offender, their highest level, as one who has a “high risk of repeat offense and a threat to public safety exists.”

When Weinberg moved to Israel several years ago, he initially settled in Har Nof, raising concerns among residents, as reported in Israeli’s Ivrit YNet. Weinberg eventually moved to Ashdod for a period, but has since left, and no one seems to know where he is currently residing.

In the United States, registered sex offenders are carefully monitored and are not permitted to live near schools. However, there is no public sex offender registry in Israel, which leaves Israeli children at great risk since their parents don’t have the information they need to protect them from these sex offenders.

Worded differently, you, my friends, are the only hope Israeli parents have to be warned when convicted sex offenders move to their neighborhood.

Just look at this recent story in the Times of Israel, where Malka Leifer, is accused of allegedly molesting a child in Emmanuel – despite the fact that she is in a high-profile battle to avoid extradition to Australia where she is wanted on 74 counts of child abuse!

Please help us keep Israeli children safe by informing us at ryh@thebrightbeginnings.com if Weinberg is living in your neighborhood, and please forward this to your social media contacts, and ask them to partner with you in this holy effort. I am the only one who reads these emails and your information will be kept in strict confidence.

This is not a call for anyone to harass or harm Weinberg – only to notify us so we can provide this life-saving information to parents.

Together, we can the world a safer place for our children and grandchildren.

Yakov Horowitz

My words of support for the students of Yad HaLevi at a barbecue at our home 7/30/18

Mediation is a voluntary confidential dispute resolution proceed in which a neutral third-party helps the disputing parties to communicate and negotiate.

Mediation helps the parties identify the issues, clarify and explore options for a mutually acceptable outcome.

As a mediator, even though a party presents a position and states they are not flexible.

A mediator needs to understand the position and interest to see if that can be obtained even after the inflexible presentation.

Goal and Benefits of Mediation:

  • Reduces costs
  • Reduces stress
  • Empowers both parties
  • Improves communication
  • Improves relationships
  • Results in longer lasting agreements
  • Improves the parties’ satisfaction

A common theme in the prophesies of Yirmiyahu (Jerimiah) and Yeshayahu (Isaiah) – read in synagogues throughout the world during the mourning period for the destruction of our holy Temple – is their stunningly harsh words for fellow Jews who were engaged in bringing sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem while relegating the core values of our Torah – honesty, integrity, and kindness – to the back burner.

This past Shabbat, we read about Isaiah (1:1-27), speaking in God’s name, and asking the Jews of his day, “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? (1:11),” and later Isaiah exclaims that God is “weary of your sacrifices (1:14)”, and that He “will not listen to your prayers (1:15).”

Jeremiah (7:22) similarly dismisses sacrifices when they are not accompanied by the core values of integrity and compassion; “I never instructed your ancestors when I redeemed them from the land of Egypt.”

At first strike, their words would seem to be puzzling in light of the fact that sacrifices were a core element of the Temple service. Additionally, back when one’s wealth was measured by the number of cattle he owned, donating animals to the service of God was analogous to someone nowadays taking a car off his driveway and donating it to the local synagogue.

In context, though, the intent of the remarks of our prophets become very clear. It was certainly laudable to purchase and bring sacrifices, but the message driven home by Jerimiah and Isaiah was that those positive commandments were mere adornments to the core values of our Torah. And they vividly describe what the Jews needed to do in order to redeem themselves. “Purify yourselves, seek justice, strengthen the victim, and take up the cause of the widow/orphan (Isaiah 1:16-17).

It goes deeper, though. Who brought sacrifices? Rich folks and the well-connected – the “people who knew people,” as they were the only ones who could afford to donate expensive animals to the Temple. They were also best positioned to support the weak and voiceless among us – or conversely had the power and connections to crush them underfoot.

I believe that the searing words of our prophets were directed to the prominent people who held positions of power in those days – those who were sipping fine wine in the “VIP Lounge” near the Temple as their choice sacrifices were being offered. “Don’t you get it?” implore Jerimiah and Isaiah! Your sacrifices are meaningless – indeed offensive to God – so long as you don’t use the blessings He gave you to help those who so desperately need your support.”

Forgive me for being so bold, but I am confident that Jerimiah and Isaiah would be directing similar expressions if not stronger ones to the evil and soulless people in positions of power who are giving aid, comfort and protection to abusers and pedophiles while intimidating their broken victims into silence, to those people who are raising money for the legal defense of these monsters and neglecting to support the therapeutic treatment of their suffering victims.

It is for that reason that our prophets exhort us to speak truth to power when need be in order promote social justice – for this is the very essence of Hashem’s charge to us that we follow in His ways. As the Talmud notes (Shabbos 133b; Shemos, 15:2) “Just as God is merciful and compassionate, so too, you should be merciful and compassionate.” This is how we “beautify” God – by emulating His attributes.

This was a central theme of an ELI Talk I gave earlier this year, titled, “No More Standing Idly By — Ending Child Abuse” where I mentioned a meaningful quote that had a profound impact on my life. It was from Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, one of the great Torah sages of the 19th century, who famously stated that one of the main functions of a Rabbi is to advocate for and support the weakest members of his community. Why would that be the case? Because powerful and well-connected folks rarely need the assistance of the rabbi to get what it is they wish. But the weak and the voiceless desperately need him to advocate for them.

May we merit to fulfill the timeless charge of Jerimiah (9:23) in the closing words of today’s reading, “For only with this may one glorify himself; become wise and know Me , for I am God who does kindness, justice and righteousness.

In the merit of our supporting the weak and voiceless among us, may God dry our tears and comfort us with the rebuilding of our holy Temple, speedily in our times.

Instructions for Barry and Harriet Ray Child Safety Awareness Campaign

Hey Kids!
You all want to be safe,
But you’ve got to know how,
Join our summer safety program –
You can start coloring right now!

When you’ve learned the safety rules,
And your coloring is all done,
You can win a “Let’s Stay Safe!” Teddy
And be so safe, while you have fun!

Dear Parents,
In response to neighborhood challenges, last summer the Barry and Harriet Ray Child Safety Awareness Campaign of The Center for Jewish Family Life sponsored a 5-week safety coloring contest for children ages 3 – 8 in conjunction with the YATED. Matzav and The Lakewood Scoop to teach children 5 important summer safety rules from our groundbreaking children’s safety book, “Let’s Stay Safe! If they successfully completed coloring in all the five safety messages, they were sent a free “Let’s Stay Safe!” safety Teddy Bear.

We’ll be happy to send a teddy to any child in the USA who colors in and learns all 5 safety messages. Just send us contact information to admin@thebrightbeginnings.com

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz,
Director, The Center for Jewish Family Life/Project YES

DOWNLOAD COLORING PAGES:

Revised Week 1 Safety Coloring Center Spread – Copy
Safety Coloring Week 2
Safety Coloring Spread 3 – Copy
Safety Coloring Contest Week 4 – Copy
Safety Coloring Spread 5 (003)

In the petri dish of polarization that we currently live in, apparently nothing is safe. Allow me to explain.  The black-and-white all-or-nothing lens through which the world is viewed by an ever increasing amount of people breeds in the social media world, primarily when political or sensational social issues are the topic du jour.  Under the premise of ‘dialog’ a predetermined conclusion is then reinforced by argument after argument and attack after attack until the day job beckons (hopefully).

 

Unfortunately, this all-in or all-out approach has been extended to play out with virtuous causes as well.  What starts as a meaningful mission to address a need within a community, small or large, can sometimes become a blind mission, losing the ability to see any weakness or faults in how the mission is run or the platform it was built on.  Over time it can develop a leaning to extremism to one side of the sand line. For comparison sake, any business that is unable to self reflect on what is working and what is not, instead digging their heels in to stay with their initial conceptualization without hearing otherwise, will ultimately fail.  Businesses and social movements led like this can be observed avoiding acknowledgment of any weakness or faults by doubling down via heated exchange, mudslinging, more cash investment, etc. etc. In poker there is a phenomenon referred to as the sinking ship, or Titanic syndrome, where a player who has already bet X amount on a hand will continue to add to that bet even though their hand is weak.  Since money was already invested they are holding on to the ‘sinking ship’ instead of bailing and cutting their losses. Down they go with the ship. It is unfortunate that this happens to businesses, organizations, and social movements that would otherwise be the catalyst for much good.

 

A recent exchange with a client highlighted a recurring theme I have seen over the years.  It is related to the stigma often associated with mental health struggles. The issue of stigma is a topic that has been widely discussed and written about.  For demonstrative purposes just imagine the expectations and reactions people have to an amputee struggling as they inch their way through a half marathon vs the expectations and reactions to someone struggling to make it to work and through the day without a panic attack or depressive episode.  Historically, they have never been looked at the same. Medical and physical challenges and limitations elicit a response that is more understanding and compassionate.

 

For that very reason, countless individuals and organizations have taken the torch of reducing the stigma and normalizing the struggle one faces with mental illness.  Tremendous progress has been made. We are a long, long way from shackling those with mental illness to beds in out of sight institutions hoping they are forgotten. The discussion has been brought closer and closer to the dinner table.  Even slightly above hushed tones. This is amazing. Based on what clients have shared, I wonder if on some level our progress has brought with it a cost.

 

The following sequence is not that unusual.  A client comes in for treatment and engages in therapy.  The therapeutic relationship builds and they become more comfortable and vulnerable each session.  They are able to share their struggles and gain insight into the mental health disorder they are struggling with. The next step in treatment is to practice skills, moving them from where they were to where they want to be.  It is at this point they come in and express a sense of guilt. “For what?”, I ask. “I don’t think I am depressed enough to be allowed to say I have depression.” or “Is my anxiety really thaaat bad? I mean there are people I know who barely work or have no friends at all!  I have 1 friend, online at least. Who am I to make myself into a victim of mental illness when others have it much worse off.” I even had a client tell me a peer had asked in a huff, “Well, when was the last time you cut yourself? I was sooo suicidal last week. My mom wanted to take me to the ER!”

 

On the one hand we hope these individuals do not stigmatize themselves or identify themselves by their disorder.  On the other hand this ‘comparison of mental illness’ is a huge obstacle to further engagement in treatment and impedes their own progress.  So not only do they feel terrible about themselves from the outset, now they have to feel bad about feeling bad?! Seriously?! They already believe they are not good enough and now their mental illness is not good enough either? Rock. Meet hard place.  It is almost as if we transitioned from it being a stigma to being all the rage. “So have you picked up some of the latest Depression? What meds are you on? I take 3 different meds!” “ I have been in therapy for over 4 years! My therapist is awesome.  How good is your shrink?”

 

Obviously I am dramatizing this to bring out a point and this is more the exception than the rule.  We can likely analyze all day as to why certain individuals would behave this way. That is for another time.  Still, it is important to stay mindful of this. The objective of the professional is to create a space where the client can acknowledge and accept their challenges. Then work to move beyond that.  It is a stop on their journey, not a destination. Not to embrace mental illness as their new identity and feel stuck there. Not feeling the need to be more ill to merit engaging in this work.  They are not their mental illness. They are human beings who are facing challenges like everyone else who hope to move forward and see a better self tomorrow. Let us hope we can be the messenger that can facilitate such a journey.

“So what are you hoping to get out of therapy?”  Invariably, that question triggers a look of puzzlement on many clients faces.  “Umm.. I guess to stop- drinking, fighting, worrying, missing school, crying, cutting, (fill in the blank)?” Or perhaps panic “I have no idea! How am I supposed to know! Aren’t you supposed to tell me?  Stop pressuring me! Oh, the pressure!”

While we still have a way to go, it is obvious when looking into the rear-view mirror that quite a distance has been covered on the road to de-stigmatizing mental illness.  Be it how we view those who struggle with mental illness or the easing up on the resistance to seek help, as a society and a community we have made encouraging progress. We made it into the room.  Time to roll our sleeves up.

Hold up.

Winston Churchill once said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  On one hand, I agree with the sentiment of perseverance and never giving up.  On the other hand, I believe there is a perquisite to following through on the ‘keep going’ attitude; a why.  Even in midst of the most gruesome, tragic, and unfathomable tragedies throughout history, individuals have been able to tap into that strain of survival buried somewhere in their DNA.  I recommend picking up ‘Man Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankel which takes a fascinating observers perspective on why certain individuals somehow connect to that quality while others wilt and fade away.  Well worth the time. Back to Sir Winston. The only way someone will be willing to continue going through hell is if they have a reason to. Whether it be like Frankel posits, to find meaning within the journey, or like the chicken, to get to the other side, there has to be something.

What I have noticed from the other side of the couch, is that most people who make it into a therapist’s office have a form of one of the following 3 responses to this question; a) No idea why I’m here. There are at least 6 other places I can think of where I would rather be right now, one of them being the dentist. Someone else (parent, spouse, court is forcing me to be here. B) I know what brought me in.  This problem has disrupted my life enough to force me to take time out of my day and spend money to be here right now.  C) I am fully aware of what has brought me into this room, why I am here, and what I would like to get out of this process.  I have learned that the ones most likely to maximize the benefits of treatment fall in the latter category.

So what do I mean by a why and what does it look like?

A why is the true reason for taking the brave step of entering therapy and only that person can identify it.  There is no correct or incorrect answer. It can be anything from being a more present parent, to feeling good enough to pursue career advancement, or connecting with a spouse in more fulfilling manner.  It may take some hard, honest reflection to find it, but it’s there. I would argue that this is the most significant predictor of success in treatment. If there is no why, then time, money, and energy wears one down quite efficiently.  

Let’s play this out.

Dave comes in and shares his presenting concern is intrusive thoughts about the safety of his children.  Unable to sit with these thoughts, he submits himself to them by calling their school several times daily “just to check in on them”.  He also doesn’t let his children play at friends’ houses, go into the sandbox at the park, or ride the Ferris wheel. “You can never be too careful”, he posits.  “So what do you want to get out therapy?” I ask.

Pause.  The response to this is telling.

“What do you mean, what do I want?  I don’t want these thoughts!”

“Why?”

(Irritation beginning to fester) “Because its driving me nuts, that’s why!  I don’t get why you’re asking me this.”

“Let me clarify Dave.  What I mean to ask is, beyond the immediate relief of these thoughts controlling your life.  What will you gain when they’re gone, or in check?”

“Ohhhh.  That’s easy. Freedom.”

“Great.  Go on. What does freedom mean to you? What else will you gain?”

“I’ll be able to enjoy my family, be there for my kids instead of annoying them with so many rules, and just appreciate each day.”

Freedom.  Family. Present parenting.  Daily life. All fantastic whys.

 

“I can’t tell you it’s going to be easy- I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”

  • Art Williams

If you have a why that is.  

Find it. Name it. Pursue it.

 

A few tips on finding your why.  Ask yourself the following questions;

  1. What have a lost or missed out on because of this so called ‘problem’?
  2. Why would my loved ones want me here?
  3. How have they lost out because of this behavior?
  4. How would my daily life look compared to yesterday if this change magically occurred overnight?
  5. What new (and old) opportunities/feelings/thoughts/dreams/ relationships/goals would now be on the radar?

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz discusses if learning Gemara is the only path to a spiritual life. He answers the question, “What would the Baal Shem Tov say?”

 

 

Thankfully, we now have staff in place to screen crazy messages and even more thankfully, I don’t have any real people in my life who feel the need to control my religiosity, but most unfortunately, not everyone who grows up Orthodox can say the same. Indeed, the people who come to Project Makom have only experienced Judaism as a form of control.

They have felt trapped, unable to express their real opinions or desires. They have had fear of repercussions if they go outside of their community’s box. And when I explain to them that much of the Orthodox world is not motivated by controlling others’ observance, many of us are instead motivated by kindness, they are incredulous. Which makes me terribly sad that this is what Judaism looks like to many Jews.

It recently occurred to me that the Orthodox world is really broken into two groups – those who are motivated by kindness and those who are motivated by control. Sure – there are the outer trappings we normally divide Orthodox groups by: What kind of yarmulke? What kind of head covering? Beard or no beard? Long or short peyos. What kind of suit?

But those are superficial divisions. Those are outer trappings. The stuff that matters is the heart inside the suit. And the question is – what is the motivation of the mitzvah-doer?

Does he engage in Torah in order to increase kindness in the world, as it says in tehillim (Psalms) “The world is built with kindness”? Or does he practice in order to make others comply with his will?

Does he open his hand to give like the Almighty does: Pote’ach Et Yadecha U’Masbia Le’Chol Chai Ratzon (You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.) Or is the hand a vehicle used to force?

While the Torah does command us “hochei’ach tochiach,” (you shall surely rebuke), the second half of the verse warns us that our rebuke must never be done in a way that could hurt another person: “and you shall not bear a sin because of him.” If the would be rebuker does not know if his rebuke will be accepted, he is warned – in Mishlei (Proverbs) –  not to do it.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, the master of the Mussar (rebuke) Movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter, had some important thoughts on the topic: “A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.” 

Let’s be motivated by kindness, like Hashem is and leave free will up to each individual, like Hashem does.

This past Friday night I did something I haven’t done in twenty years. I drove a car on Shabbos. Wait, wait – it’s not what you think. I had an infection in my arm that my doctor told me to watch closely. He gave me an antibiotic to treat it. If it got worse he said it could be life-threatening. When I spoke to my father that morning (he’s also a doctor), he told me this was very serious, and I should not take it lightly. I was duly warned.

I spent Friday running around in normal pre-Shabbos mode, but then on Friday evening, moments before Shabbos began,  I saw that my arm was becoming more inflamed from the infection which had spread. I headed straight to a local shul in a neighbor’s home to find a doctor to confirm what I thought I knew.

I pushed open the slightly ajar door and explained to the hostess that I needed to see a doctor for a medical emergency. Her response was amazing: “I don’t mean to pry, but if you let me know a little more about the nature of the issue, I can match you with the doctor of your choice. We have nearly every specialty accounted for in the minyan.”

I replied, “That line could be out of a sitcom!” Then said, “ER doctor, if you’ve got one.” She did!

The ER doctor quickly took me to a private room to examine me and said I would need to get treated right away. This was a life-threatening issue. He explained there was no time to consult a rav – he had gone over these issues many times in his position as a frum ER doctor. I had to go now, and I should  drive myself. He said, “Don’t call for a taxi, don’t wait for an Uber. Just get in the car and go.” I had to start a stronger antibiotic immediately, and if the situation didn’t improve within a few hours, I was supposed to go straight to the ER.

I came home to tell my family what had happened. I felt weird. As I explained the serious nature of my infection I wondered aloud what one wears to the pharmacy when one is breaking Shabbos in order to save one’s life. My daughter, who was very much aware of the gravity of it all told me, “Just go! It doesn’t matter what you wear.” She was right! So in a Shabbos robe I drove to Walgreens!

I grabbed my purse and sheepishly walked to my car. I knew technically that not only was I doing nothing wrong, I was doing something very right by performing the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh (guarding one’s physical health). But after disavowing driving on Shabbos 20 years earlier, it just felt strange to turn on the engine and pull out onto the street.

As I drove in the darkness, so aware of not touching anything extra in the car that didn’t need to be touched, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of how much Hashem loves me, how my Parent in Heaven’s greatest concern is my well-being. All over the Torah and Talmud we are told of the importance of mitzvos. We must perform them from the moment we wake up till the moment we rest our head. We discuss them, we put fences around them to safeguard them, but there is one exception – if those mitzvos could cause us grave harm, Hashem doesn’t want them. We are commanded to not perform them. Your health and survival is more important to Me than My laws. 

As I drove feeling the embrace of that love, my mind went to the flesh and blood parents who do not treat their children with the same kindness that the Almighty treats His. The parents who see their kids as not much more than the sum total of their mitzvos, as the children who they wish would not embarrass them with their “rebellion,” not as the children who they love unconditionally, that they will never forsake, no matter what they do.

Many of the cases we see at Project Makom are children who were thrown out of their parents’ home for lack of observance or even something as simple as changing their way of observing! Children need their parents! It’s a basic rule of humanity! And parents who live as religious Jews are supposed to spend their lives emulating the Almighty. They are meant to live by the same principle: Your health and survival is more important to me than Hashem’s laws (because Hashem made your health and survival more important than His laws.)

Nearly eighteen months ago at an Agudath Israel National Convention, I was chairing a Project YES session where the featured speaker was my dear friend, Rabbi Noach Orlowek. Fresh off a plane from Eretz Yisrael, Reb Noach spoke brilliantly about chinuch, teens, and parenting matters. After his presentation, there was an extended Q&A segment with questions posed to any of the five people on the panel. At one point, Rabbi Orlowek and I were sharing the podium responding to a series of hard-hitting questions when someone got up and asked us to share with the assembled delegates our thoughts regarding how parents ought to respond to the challenges posed by the Internet. At that time, there was a great deal of discussion in the broader Orthodox community about this subject and an immediate hush passed through the audience as three hundred sets of eyes focused on Rabbi Orlowek and myself. I boldly stepped forward, firmly grabbed the microphone … and passed it to Rabbi Orlowek.

Well, Reb Noach and I are very close friends and we often kid each other about the fact that we seem to always finish each other’s sentences. So, I was very curious to hear how he would reply to that loaded question.

Rabbi Orlowek was quiet for a few very long moments. He then responded by posing a question. What if a diabetic is invited to a fancy wedding where he will be surrounded with food that is terribly harmful to him? Reb Noach responded by noting that the only chance this person has to resist the temptations he will inevitably be faced with at the wedding was to see to it that he had a full and satisfying meal before he left home. Rabbi Orlowek said that we must accept the fact that each generation throughout our glorious history had its challenges and that the explosion of technology-driven temptations that our children — and we — face nowadays may very well be ours. More importantly, he pointed out that we must make peace with the fact that as much as we would like to, we simply cannot shelter our children beyond a certain age. Therefore, the only solution that we have as parents and educators is to see to it that our kids are “full” when they reach their teen years. And “full,” he explained, means having an appreciation and genuine love for Torah and mitzvos; nurturing, safe, and loving home environments; schools that are welcoming and inspire children; and rebbeim/teachers who develop deep and meaningful relationships with their students, in addition to teaching the timeless lessons of our Torah.

Rabbi Orlowek emphatically stated that parents must be very vigilant in protecting their vulnerable children from the immoral content of the Internet and other media venues. However, this defensive strategy only represents one component in our quest to raise observant, Torah-committed children in these challenging times. Moreover, the shelf life of this defensive shield is limited to the time when our children are young and primarily in the confines of our homes. Once they leave the shelter of our Torah homes, they will be extremely vulnerable to the temptations they will face if we have not successfully ‘filled’ them with a deep love of Torah and mitzvos.

I think that in the broadest sense, we ought to be thinking about fundamentally altering our mindset as it relates to the chinuch of our precious children. Those involved in kiruv (outreach) work fully understand that they need to spend a great deal of energy and time marketing their great ‘product’ or their prospective ‘customer’ may not be engaged enough to ‘buy in.’ With our own children, it often seems like we are mistakenly taking for granted they are lifelong customers — and therefore not spending enough time in the critical arena of ‘customer relations.’ We invest an enormous amount of time filling their minds and not nearly enough energy inspiring them and engaging their hearts.

When you think of it, what we really need are kiruv schools for our own children and a kiruv mindset in our own homes. As a wise mother once told me regarding the school experience of her children, “Rabbi Horowitz, my children need salesmen, not policemen.” In today’s climate, however, with so much pressure on schools to “cover ground” and with the exponentially increasing acceptance standards in our high schools, it is nearly impossible for our dedicated educators to find the time to market our Torah effectively to our children.

Rabbi Orlowek was expressing a profound thought in his analogy with the diabetic individual. For when our beloved children enter our schools in their formative years, we are in complete control of their environment. We monitor the spiritual intake of their neshamos — as we well ought to. However, we must always keep in mind that these dynamics will rapidly change, as our children grow older. Like it or not, ready or not, they will be thrust into a very challenging environment where their palates will be tempted by all sorts of appealing — and harmful — products. All we can do is hope and pray that we prepared them well with filling and nourishing meals when that time comes.

This was a direct quote from Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky Shlit’a who took precious time from his busy schedule and shared his da’as Torah with our listeners on Thursday night during the Project YES conference call titled, “Purim Parenting: Keeping Our Children Safe and Sober.”

I asked the Rosh Yeshiva to address this matter because many people who heard about our Purim program had asked me to clarify the words of our chazal (sages) “Chayav einish l’besumei be’puria ad deloi yoda bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai” which loosely translated says, that one is obligated to drink until he cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai.

“Chas v’shalom (Heaven forbid) that our Torah would consider getting drunk to be a mitzvah!” said Reb Shmuel. He explained that the word l’besumei is derived from the root word which means to sniff something – and said that this means that one should have only “a whiff” of drinking (wine only; he was clear to state).

The Rosh Yeshiva also shed light on the words “ad deloi yoda bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai” and said that when one sings verses of a song when he is in a heightened state of simcha (joy) he occasionally will sing the verses in incorrect order – meaning that he will sing the verse of Arur Haman in the place of the verse of Baruch Mordechai. It is inconceivable, he stated, that this is to be taken to condone drunkenness – which is in direct contrast to the teachings of our Torah.

There were many other important take-away messages gleaned from the words of Reb Shmuel and from those of our two other guests, Dr. Benzion Twerski and Professor Lazer Rosman, and I plan on writing them in detail next week. But I feel an obligation to disseminate the words of Reb Shmuel Shlit’a today so parents and educators can discuss them with their children over Shabbos.

This is an important discussion, one that will help us enjoy Purim in a safe and enjoyable manner.

Blending Families
In Loving Memory of our Father, Reb Shlomo Nutovic a”h

By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

These lines are written in loving memory of my dear father, Reb Shlomo Zev ben Reb Baruch Yehudah Nutovic a”h, whose first yahrtzeit is 7 Menachem Av. May the positive lessons learned from this essay be a zechus for his neshama. 

Nearly fifty years ago, our mother’s life was turned upside down with the sudden passing of our father one spring evening in 1963. Suddenly she was transformed from a happily-married young woman to the single parent of three children under the age of five. With the active support of both extended families, our amazing mother made it through those difficult years with incredible dignity and grace.

In the summer of 1965, she married Abba, as we called him, and for the next 46 years, built a beautiful home together in an environment of mutual respect, tranquility and joy. Abba had a son from a previous marriage, and in 1966 Hashem graced them with a daughter together – so our blended family had the quintessential “Yours, mine and ours.”

To their enormous and eternal credit, they raised three sets of children as one seamless family – so much so that people often could not tell which children “belonged” to whom. Over the years that Hashem granted them together, they were a source of strength to us during our challenging times, walked each of us to our respective chuppas, and celebrated the lifecycle events of our children and grandchildren.

When Abba passed away last summer, the three of us individually and collectively decided to honor him for his dedication to and involvement in our lives by tearing kriah at his funeral and observing shiva alongside our mother and our two siblings who were his biological children. We felt that since he never distinguished between the five of us, it was only fitting that we all honor him the same way: together.

Word of our decision spread and we each got positive feedback from friends and family – especially from members of blended families. With that backdrop, we thought it appropriate to record and share with the public our recollections of how our parents made their blended family a seamless nuclear unit in the hope that it will help others in similar circumstances. While some of these qualities are critical in any marriage, the fact that our parents achieved them despite the challenges of raising three sets of children is all the more remarkable and noteworthy.

As we collected and distilled our thoughts , the bedrock principles of their marriage (and indeed their lives) emerged clearly through our minds’ eyes – respect, tolerance, selflessness, emunahyashrusehrlichkeit and yishuv hada’as (faith, integrity, honesty and an overall sense of reflection/strategic planning in their decision making).

Abba and tlc”t our mother were so different in nature that one might have wondered how they ever met, let alone married and raised their families together. Abba was cerebral, reserved and proper; while tlc”t our mother is upbeat, funny, and spunky. Nonetheless, they navigated life’s ups and downs together in the most harmonious way. They genuinely respected each other and never disagreed in front of us. They modeled derech eretzin their reverential treatment of their parents during their golden years and in their interactions with all three extended families where we all attended each other’s lifecycle events, biologically connected or otherwise. They “kept” the Horowitz surname for the three of us, (which was not common practice at that time), and always encouraged us to maintain our close relationship with our father’s siblings and their families.

The term “step” child/parent/sibling was never used in our home and they both did their utmost to be even-handed, never distinguishing among their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren based upon which part of the family they came from. In fact, when Abba’s first biological grandchild was born, our mother remarked how happy she was for him now that he too reached this wonderful milestone in life, he remarked in all sincerity, “Dovid (born twelve years earlier) is my oldest grandchild!”

As we all reflect back with adult eyes, it is clear that everything our parents did was selfless and well thought out. Abba realized that kids never forget their birth parents and he very wisely never tried to “replace” our father. In fact, he encouraged us to respect and nurture the place our father held in our hearts and lives. Abba attended every one of the yahrtzeit gatherings held in memory of our father a”h, while our mother did not – out of respect for Abba. He drove us to our father’s grave on his yahrtzeit and even occasionally took us to the shul where our father davened to say kaddish so we would benefit from the affection our father’s friends showered on us.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the many bumps they each had in their lives, they were grateful, optimistic and full of thanks to Hashem who brought them together and gave them the fortitude to rebuild their lives. Abba’s material success later in life only magnified his humility and sense of responsibility to help others achieve self-sufficiency, which he valued so deeply. Abba was like the cars he drove; simple, rock-solid and reliable. In his low-key manner, he was extraordinarily generous to his children, extended family members and people in need. Though Abba very much appreciated his creature comforts, he and tlc”t our mother lived far below their means and nothing was ever done to impress others.

Our parents were not exempt from the shortcomings all humans experience, and of course, there are things we all wish we had done differently during our formative years. Nonetheless, our parents had both the wisdom and love to raise us as the unique individuals we are and to provide us with the stable and nurturing upbringing upon which we were able to build our own lives and families. Children could ask for no more.

Abba; Dvora, Reb Yehuda and I are forever grateful to you for providing our mother with the bedrock of support she so badly needed in her most vulnerable hour, for treating her with such extraordinary respect over the years, and for raising us as your own children.

I have no knowledge of the workings in Heaven and am always deeply suspicious of people who claim to, but I am quite confident that our father was the first to greet you in Gan Eden to thank you for taking such wonderful care of his three prized possessions.

May your memory forever be for a blessing. Yehi Zichrecha Baruch.

This essay was written with the active participation of my family; my mother Beile Ganz Nutovic; my siblings Isaac/Shifra Nutovic; Dvora/Chaim Ostreicher; Rabbi Yehuda/Etti Horowitz; Chantzie/ Volvie Rosenberg; and my wife Udi

Providing Your Children with the Skills

and Tools to Protect Themselves

By: David Pelcovitz, Ph.D.
Professor, Straus Chair in Psychology and Education,
Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration,
Yeshiva University

Research on abuse prevention has consistently found that parents can play a crucial role in keeping their children safe. This can be done in an effective way that conveys key points about successful protection to even very young children. A recent study found that children who participated in an abuse prevention education program were six to seven times more likely to demonstrate self protective behavior than children who had not.

This book provides an invaluable tool for having such a discussion with your child. In a structured and psychologically sensitive manner it can serve as an ideal springboard for engaging your child in an effective and non-threatening manner. Once the ice is broken by approaching your child about this topic a process can begin that guarantees that whatever might happen to them outside of your home can be safely discussed and dealt with.

The following three major points are the key ingredients that parents should communicate to their children regarding personal safety:

Your body belongs to you and if somebody touches you in a way that makes you feel funny it is O.K. to say no. The key point here is to let the children know that the area covered by their bathing suits is a private area. If anybody touches them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable they should tell their parent what happened.

This point can be illustrated by speaking of a time that a family member tickled them beyond their feeling comfortable. Giving one’s child a voice and the right to say no in such a situation – which is clearly not abusive – can help them feel more confident in the process of learning to respond actively in an abusive situation. Keep in mind that most abusers don’t start with inappropriate touching of the child, but rather start innocently and progressively move to more inappropriate things if the child acquiesces.

How to Say No: Our children are taught to respect those older than themselves at a very early age. It is therefore very difficult for them to say no in an effective manner. Parents should role play with their children different ways of saying no to inappropriate touch. Statements like, “Leave me alone,” or “You shouldn’t be asking me to do that,” or “No; my mother doesn’t let me do that,” can be practiced with the child. Parents should help their child act non-verbally as well, by matching their verbal response with physically moving away.

If anybody tells you, “Do not tell your parents,”- tell them right away:Abuse thrives on secrecy and threats. Children need to be taught that their parents will protect them from threats and that the difference between good secrets and bad secrets is that secrets with peers like surprise parties are different from secrets designed to protect somebody who is doing something that makes the child feel bad.

Talking to children about safety is an ongoing process — not a one-time event. This book can serve as a “teachable moment” that can serve to trigger ongoing discussions about child safety. The most effective prevention of abuse, takes place in the context of a parent child relationship that is characterized by warmth, open communication, and a general feeling on the part of the child that there is nothing that the child can do or say that can lead to the loss of parental love. Similarly, building into the routine of the day a check-in time where the parent asks the children how their day went, and the children know that their parent is truly interested in hearing about the details of their lives can serve as an important ingredient that makes it more likely that the child will share anything upsetting that might be happening in his or her life.

The basic building blocks of an effective child safety program can begin with the simple process of sitting with your children and engaging them in the conversation triggered by this book. It is hoped that this will begin a process that will foster an atmosphere where our children will grow enveloped by our love, safety and protection.

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In a previous post on the extraordinary gathering commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Auschwitz’s Liberation, I wrote about the searing Kaddish recited by Mr. Shmuel Beller in memory of his relatives who were murdered there. (Here is a video clip of his Kaddish.)

After Mr. Beller finished Kaddish, he took off his shoes as a sign of mourning, and sat Shiva on the floor for a few short moments, presumably because he never got to sit Shiva when his parents and siblings were murdered in the concentration camps.

At that point, an Israeli holocaust survivor approached Mr. Beller and told him in Yiddish to, “Get off the ground.” He said, “We cried enough over our loss; we are here now to celebrate our survival.”

I put my arm around the Israeli survivor, walked him away from that area and told him in Ivrit that they are both right, and they have the freedom to commemorate this observance in any way they wish to.

There is no single narrative to describe the monumental tragedy of the holocaust, but rather different accounts that reflect the lens through which the one telling the story views things.

One thing is certain, though. For decades, the perspective of Orthodox Jews has been underrepresented in the recorded legacy of the Holocaust. Here too, there are probably various narratives to describe why this is the case.

But as the precious few survivors among us age, we must support efforts to fill this void by creating spaces and materials that are culturally congruent with our standards and which squarely address the complex matter of maintaining one’s faith amid unfathomable tragedy.

Previous posts on the 70th Anniversary of Auschwitz’s Liberation:

Kaddish for Kedoshim

What’s Inside The Box?

It Sure IS Important!

Rudolf; Ich Been Du!

Video #1 — Survivors at Gates of Auschwitz

Video #2 — Survivors at Gates of Auschwitz

 

Imagine that you and your spouse are deeply devoted to a lifestyle of only eating ‘health food’ and eschewing all forms of nosh. In fact, you feel so strongly about this that you both decide to raise your children with the healthful eating habits that you adopted.

When your first child was born, you began thinking about the best way to transmit this value to him. You realized that the first few years of his life will not present much difficulty. After all, you will be almost completely in control of his environment and the foods he is exposed to. You fully understand, however, that things will get far more challenging once he is enrolled in school, as he will progressively be in the presence of more and more of the junk food you want him to avoid.

At that early point in your new role as parents, there are basically two approaches you can embrace in order to pass on your healthful eating habits to the next generation. I like to think of these diverse mindsets in terms of If and When.

The If philosophy embraces the premise that If you can create the proper set of circumstances, you have a decent shot of protecting your children in perpetuity from negative junk food influences. The When mindset, on the other hand, assumes that despite your best If efforts, it is inevitable that your child will encounter any and all types of food throughout his life. Therefore, you channel your energy in preparing him for the When – the time when you will no longer be able to shield him from the elements.

If I may use another analogy; If is like creating a spaceship (an enclosed area where one can survive in an environment not conducive to human habitat), while When is more like a spacesuit (the type of protection that is portable and accompanies the person it protects.)

Should you decide to go the If route, you would simply eliminate your son’s exposure to junk food. That means no play-dates for your son in the homes of families that don’t share your eating habits, and no birthday parties where nosh is served. You might canvass the parent body of your son’s school for fathers and mothers who share your values and eventually start a ‘break-away’ school where all students will eat health food. If you are really into the If mindset, you might even decide to move to a neighborhood where all families are similar minded, travel on buses with health conscious people, and shop in stores that only carry foods you find acceptable.

Conversely, adopting the When outlook requires you to keep the long-term picture in mind from the very start and then work your way backwards. That means setting a far reaching goal of having your baby son eat well throughout his life – even When he matures into adulthood and starts his own family. To achieve that goal, you realize that you will really need to ‘sell’ the concept of healthy living to your son, not just limit his exposure to junk food. So you patiently teach him all about the human body, and devote a great deal of time explaining the rationale behind healthful living.

You would also do everything possible to encourage him to ask you any questions that come to his mind – even or especially those that challenge the philosophy you espouse. After all, you fully realize that he will, in all likelihood, be asking these questions as soon as the When stage of his life begins. With that in mind, you would much rather respond to them early on, lest they fester and erode his faith in your tradition later in life, when you have far less input into his life.

You would also do everything possible to make healthful living as attractive as possible to him, by preparing the tastiest meals from the foods you eat at home. And while you most certainly will quote research-based studies, that people who eat carefully have an enhanced quality of life and less illness, you will never make wild exaggerations and say things like, “All people who eat junk food die at a young age,” or “People who eat well never have any problems at all.” Why? Because you understand that this misinformation may carry the day in the If phase, but will never survive the When stage – and once your kids realize that you were less than truthful with them, they will turn cynical and perhaps reject even your accurate teachings.

As we do our very best to raise our children with healthy Torah values all the while surrounded by spiritual junk food, I suggest that we collectively and individually ask ourselves how much energy and passion we are devoting to If activities and how much to the When ones?

From my vantage point, a hybrid of the two approaches seems to be most logical and effective way to be mechanech our sons and daughters in these challenging times. For while only concentrating on When and allowing our children to be exposed to negative influences would be terribly irresponsible and harmful, relying on If only, is at least equally as dangerous.

Stepping back a bit; my generation was raised with very little If and a great deal of When, while increasingly over the past thirty years, we have, for all the right reasons and with the best of intentions, preoccupied ourselves with lots and lots of If. I think all the while, however, we let our guard down and looked the wrong way, as we’ve been neglecting the enduring When chinuch values that we got from our parents.

Could that possibly be a contributing factor to the growing list of problems we are having with our kids – many of which seemed to have been less of an issue to the children of our parents?

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Rabbi Horowitz,

What is your advice for ba’alei teshuva who are raising frum-from-birth children in terms of making sure that the children are well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews? As ba’alei teshuva sometimes it is easy to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim. If you can give a few pointers that will obviously need to be explored with our own rabbeim to tailor make it to our own families, it would be helpful.

Thank you!

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Your excellent question practically answers itself, and leads me to believe that you already have a deep understanding of the opportunities – and challenges – that you face in raising your FFB children. You hit the nail on the head when you noted that you wanted to raise “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews.” For that balance is exactly what you ought to be striving to achieve.

If you are a regular reader of these lines, you may know where my suggestions will start – with you and your spouse. One of my mantras is that most of the issues that we face when raising our children are reflections of our own struggles. I maintain that in order to raise “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish children,” you need to start with “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish adult parents.” That means that you adhere to the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and remain on the ‘golden path’ of moderation. After all, if you don’t want your children to be raised in an overly strict environment the best way to achieve that goal is not to go overboard in your personal lives.

Here are some practical tips:

Grow Slowly

Many meforshim (commentaries) suggest that the dream of our patriarch Yaakov (see Bereshis 28:12) where he envisioned angels climbing up and down a ladder is a profound analogy to our spiritual pursuits. The Torah describes how the legs of the ladder were placed on the ground while its top reached the very heavens. I think that the correlation is an insightful one for everyone – but is all the more relevant for ba’alei teshuvah. We ought to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground – all the while reaching for profound spiritual heights.

I would like to suggest that the reason that the image of a ladder was used in the dream (as opposed to, say, a road leading to heaven) is that you simply cannot run up a ladder.

So, too, spiritual growth needs to be a sustained and steady process.

Which leads me to …

Find a Rav Who Truly Understands Ba’alei Teshuvah Issues

Not all rabbanim have a deep understanding of the complex mix of halachic and social issues where ba’alei teshuva need individualized direction. Finding a Rav who understands them – and you – will provide your family with an invaluable resource. Similarly, it may be helpful for you to find a ba’al teshuvah couple ten years or so older than you who can mentor you as your family passes mileposts and lifecycle events, such as enrolling children in school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, high school placements, shidduchim, etc.

I recommend the BEYOND BT website www.beyondbt.com for ba’alei teshuva men and women. I am proud to serve as one of the rabbinic advisors of the website, and it has provided advice, camaraderie, and spiritual guidance for ba’alei teshuva around the world over the past few years.

Be Yourself

Ba’alei teshuva may be concerned that they are poor role models for their children since they are observing their less-than-perfect Torah and mitzvah observance. I think not. You are setting a wonderful example for your children by seeking to grow spiritually throughout your lives.

I encourage you to read and re-read a terrific article by my dear chaver Rabbi Bentzion Kokis shlit”a (Integration: Helping Ba’alei Teshuva be Themselves). You can find it on my website www.rabbihorowitz.com, and run a search for “Kokis”). Rabbi Kokis is an outstanding talmid chachamwith decades of experience in guiding ba’alei teshuva and his advice is equally outstanding. If I may sum up his thoughts, it is to refrain from jettisoning your personality, hobbies, interests, education, career – and sense of humor – as you embrace Torah and mitzvos.

Distinguish Between Mitzvah, Minhag, Chumrah, and Culture

In your question, you noted that, “sometimes it is easy to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim.”

Well, in order to gain a better understanding of when to be firm and when to be flexible, you must distinguish between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that is none of the three categories, but is rather a cultural practice.

  • Putting on tefilin is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of thirteen.
  • Refraining from dipping matzoh in liquids on Pesach (commonly referred to as “gebrokts”) is a minhag (a custom – one only observed in some communities).
  • Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbonim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
  • Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.

It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and as you guide your children.

More on this – and other practical tips – in the next column.

© 2009 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of previously unaffiliated Jews have become ba’alei teshuva through the outstanding work of kiruv organizations and outreach professionals. Numerous yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel and around the world have implemented programs designed to better appeal to the prospective ba’al teshuva. These programs have all delivered spectacular results – indeed, a veritable teshuva revolution. It is one of the remarkable success stories of the past half-century.

The vast majority of ba’al teshuva programs and ba’al teshuva-oriented institutions, however, focus on the beginning of the ba’al teshuva lifecycle: transforming the unaffiliated Jew into a ben or bas Torah. There is very little “lifecycle support” for the ba’al teshuva individual who has been Torah-observant for ten or more years, and is now raising a family – with adolescent or shidduch-age children. Those who are fortunate to have attended a well-grounded ba’al teshuva yeshiva and continue to live in that community generally have the long-term assistance and support they so desperately need. Others are able to find a local Rav or Rebbetzin with whom they can bond and develop that special relationship that enables them to receive guidance and direction. But even those couples are but one relocation away from dissolving the life-saving rabbinical support that is critical to the stability of their family – possibly leaving them with little guidance and direction. Worse yet, they may come to rely on the advice of well-meaning individuals who have little or no experience in guiding ba’alei teshuva.

The Beginning of the Torah-observant Lifecycle

Ba’al teshuva institutions and programs have perfected the art of finding and bringing out the Pintele Yid in aspiring b’nei and b’nos Torah. They have the skill and experience to know exactly which blend of rational reasoning vs. faith-based hashkafa (philosophy) should be presented to potential ba’alei teshuva to open their minds and their hearts to accepting a Torah-based lifestyle. These institutions are experts in guiding prospective ba’alei teshuva to adopt the behavioral changes of a Torah lifestyle in slow and careful increments. On the other hand, many well-meaning individuals simply don’t have these critical guidance skills.

Happily, many new ba’alei teshuva are able to make the leap from a secular to a Torah-based lifestyle successfully at the time. To this set of new Torah Jews, the Torah-observant community has been increasingly accepting and nurturing over the past 20 years. These individuals are usually single and in their early-to-mid-20s. Often, their Rosh Yeshiva is able to help them find their mate and see them to the chupa. If not, they are able to enter a well-structured dating scene replete with community-based shadchanim, singles weekends, and other organized activities aimed at helping single Torah-observant people meet each other under the proper circumstances.

After the chasuna, after the first several years of marriage, after the first few children start to grow up and attend yeshiva, however, the ba’al teshuva couple, now – to external eyes – settled community members, are often still dealing with unique lifestyle issues, issues that the “frum from birth” (FFB) may never have dreamed of.

Having conducted more that 120 parenting classes in communities around the world in the past several years, I have found it painfully obvious that there is a great and vital need to provide meaningful assistance to these wonderful, spiritual couples in dealing with their unique issues, as their families grow and mature. Invariably, during the question-and-answer segment of the workshops, or privately, after the lectures, unique, ba’al teshuva-lifestyle-related questions come up. And they are difficult ones to answer:

Family relations

It is a fortunate development when a ba’al teshuva couple is able to relate happily and harmoniously with their non-Torah-observant relatives. Obviously, this is not always the case. The ba’al teshuva may be the only Torah-true Jew in his entire extended family. There is often very little support from family members. Sometimes there is open hostility or antipathy on the part of their non-Torah-observant relatives, or at best a resigned acceptance of the Torah-observant couples’ particular brand of “fundamentalism.”

Although elements from the past are often left behind when making the transition from a non-Torah-observant to a Torah-observant-lifestyle, there are some aspects of their previous lifestyle and relationships that cannot or perhaps should not be forgotten. These range from the strategic to the mundane, across a spectrum that includes how to relate to their parents (who are, after all, their FFB children’s grandparents) and how to deal with the visiting family members during the couple’s simchos. Even trickier is dealing with the extended family members as the ba’al teshuva couple’s children grow into adolescence (Simchos: to go, or not to go? What if my sister marries a gentile? What to do on Thanksgiving Day? Or Grandpa’s 70th birthday party? All the other grandchildren spend mid-winter or summer break at Grandma’s home in Florida. Why can’t we go?) The list goes on and on.

Chinuch and Yeshivos

The ba’al teshuva family also has a stress shock when dealing with Torah-observant schools for the first time. Growing up in America, the ba’al teshuva, particularly if he or she came from an affluent, suburban area, perhaps went through an outstanding public school system. Funded with tax dollars, the American public school offered the pre-ba’al teshuva an education replete with free music and art programs, low teacher-student ratios, extensive remedial programs, and a tremendous array of electives. Contrast that experience with the typical yeshiva, which, struggling with lack of funds, can offer little in these areas.

Ba’al teshuva parents living in communities blessed with a large Jewish population often have a number of yeshivos to choose from, presenting a variety of options. However, the parents in this situation are often unfamiliar with the distinctive attributes of the different yeshivos, and the nature of the admission process to mesivtos for their 8th grade bachurim.

Furthermore, as their sons (and daughters) mature beyond 4th and 5th grade, many ba’alei teshuva find themselves intimidated by the prospect of learning with their children. This is a significant issue that must be dealt with.

Yamim Tovim

Yamim Tovim (and Shabbosos) can be a source of stress to the ba’al teshuva couple as they struggle to learn the halachos and nuances of these special times of the year. Many newly-married ba’al teshuva couples often feel rather lonely as their FFB friends are packing up to spend Yamim Tovim with their parents (After the third child, invitations to sedarim at FFB friends’ homes seem to dry up).

Adolescence and Shidduchim

Now that the children of the first generation of ba’alei teshuva are reaching adolescence and shidduch age, they are dealing with new issues that require a great deal of guidance. While FFB couples deal with the same set of challenges, they often have a support group consisting of extended family members. They also have their own life’s experiences to help guide them. To the FFB, the Torah and halachic dimension regarding adolescent issues and the marriage of a child is frightening enough. But the ba’al teshuva has little guidance. There are no books on this issue, no tapes to listen to, and no forums or formal support groups.

A Call to Action

Our community has invested many millions of dollars and tremendous resources of energy in bringing ba’alei teshuva to Yiddishkeit. But the process cannot stop with the formal ba’al teshuva institutions. The process of becoming a ‘successful’ ba’al teshuva is not a one-, two- or five-year process. It is probably not even a 25-year process. It is a lifecycle process, and it might very well take two generations to be truly successful. We need to follow several guidelines to ensure that success:

1) We need to create awareness within our community that we must help acclimate these ba’al teshuva families. Just because a ba’al teshuva family has four or five kids and “seems to be doing all right” does not mean that they have mastered all the nuances and challenges of becoming integrated into the Torah world.

2) While numerous publications deal with becoming Torah-observant, the newly Torah-observant, and dating and marriage issues, there is a woeful lack of lectures, tapes, workshops, articles and books dealing with lifecycle issues for the ba’al teshuva. Our community and Rabbinic leaders should recognize the opportunity to bridge the gap and fill the void with a rich selection of educational options for the ba’al teshuva couple.

We should identify specialists within the ba’al teshuva movement who can become “senior ba’al teshuva advisors.” These leaders would have specific training in providing advice to ba’alei teshuva on many of the above-mentioned topics. These specialists would be available for consultation with Rabbanim as necessary.

Lay people (and perhaps even Rabbanim) who do not have many years of experience dealing with ba’al teshuva issues need to become aware of the fact that they should not be giving significant lifestyle guidance to ba’al teshuva families. A growing cadre of trained professionals in the ba’al teshuva lifecycle field is needed to bring sufficient support for the ba’al teshuva couple, ensuring that they have adequate resources to call upon in time of need or concern.

A Sacred Gift, and a Sacred Obligation

The Ribbono Shel Olam has given our generation a great gift – the thousands of sincere, committed, ba’alei teshuva and their children. We must do all that we can to assist our brothers and sisters – lach’sos tachas kanfei haShechina.

I vividly recall spending some time ten years ago with the talented and dedicated faculty members of Ohr Somayach of Monsey discussing the progress of a ba’al teshuva bachur that I had become involved with. Over the course of several meetings and phone conversations, I respectfully, but forcefully disagreed with the recommendations they made. Thankfully, I had the good sense to follow their advice, against my better judgment. With the benefit of hindsight – they were 100% correct in their assessment.

This article is of necessity focusing on the majority of ba’alei teshuva who are B’H able to find their mate. It is a sad reality that many ba’alei teshuva – as well as many FFB singles – are not able to easily find their zivug and start a life together. We must continue to support the efforts of Invei Hagefen and other such organizations who are assisting these singles.

For example, I am vigorously opposed to having ba’alei teshuva parents send their sons and daughters to Yiddish-speaking yeshivos – if they do not speak Yiddish themselves. In my opinion, this virtually guarantees that the fathers and mothers will never be able to learn with their children. I am well aware that many of my colleagues would disagree with me – as vigorously.

May I point out a possible solution that we implemented in our Yeshiva to assist ba’alei teshuva parents, or parents who simply don’t have the background to learn with their sons: I just started a series of weekly, half-hour Sunday morning shiurim in my yeshiva for fathers of boys for each grade above grade 4 – that covers the limudim that the rebbi of that grade will be learning that week. All of the sheets and handouts that the rebbi uses in class are given to the fathers during the shiur. The shiurim are delivered by fellow (volunteer) fathers of that grade level.

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Al Regel Achas… On One Foot
If we are going to have an impact on the frightening trend of young men and women abandoning the teachings of our yeshiva and Bais Yaakov system, we will need to improve the overall quality of our home life. There is a common inclination to lay the blame for these problems on families in crisis. This type of thinking, however, does not do justice to such a difficult and complex issue. We must avoid the tendency to attribute all of the blame on the “broken homes,” and work to minimize the tension levels in all of our homes.

Several years ago, at an Agudath Israel National Convention, Mori VerabiRabbi Avrohom Pam, shlita quoted The Steipler zt’l as having said, “Hatzlochamit kinder (success with one’s children) is 50% shalom bayis, and 50% tefilla.”

One thing is painfully clear. Our home life is under assault. It is not merely the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society and its effect on (even) our insular community. Our homes are under assault. Longer work hours for both spouses, the exponential increase of our simcha schedule and social obligations, and the increased burden of providing parnassa for our growing families are taking their toll on the tranquility and simchashachayim (joie de vivre) of our home life. Many of us are able to maintain this juggling act and keep all of these balls in the air at once. Many, however, are finding it very, very difficult.

Those who deal with at-risk teens almost unanimously agree that the greatest factor that puts children at risk is lack of simcha and shalombayis2 at home.

Yes, some children just seem to be born “difficult.” Some have an ornery disposition. Others have an innate propensity to challenge authority. Some are extremely restless and simply not cut out for a ten-hour school day. Many have significant learning disabilities.

Experience has shown, however, that children from warm, loving homes have the best chance of overpowering these difficulties and becoming well-adjusted adults despite having risk factors3.

But children can never get used to bickering. Stress. Unhappiness.Negative comments. Emotional abuse. These create unhappy, distracted children who are unable to concentrate in school. They develop an intense distrust of authority figures, and harbor a simmering rage at an adult world that cannot seem to get its act together and provide them with a peaceful environment in which to grow up and thrive. This holds true for all households – including two-parent ones.

So, a short response to the frightened parents who ask – al regel achas –what they can do to ‘protect’ their family from the ravages of the counter culture that threatens their boys and girls is the poignant comment ofRabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg a”jyls, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr4, that the most important thing that parents need to maintain in their home is a sense of happiness, simchas hachayim.

As vigilant as we must be to shield our children from the influences of secular society, ultimately, our greatest defense against this onslaught is to create a happy and stable home life for our children. We must keep our eye on that goal and do everything possible in our power to see to it that the quality of our home life is as good as possible.

A Time for Action

It is not the intent of these lines to discuss the broad-based issues related to the topic of at-risk teens. We do, however, need to implement some initiatives and solutions that relate to the topic of this article – the improvement of our home life.

1. Shalom Bayis Classes:

During shana rishona (the first year of married life) when a young coupleis at the critical stage of developing their relationship, it should becomethe accepted societal norm5 for both spouses to attend a series of four, six,or perhaps eight classes on shalom bayis. Although the newlywed couple maynot think so, this is the ideal time to do this. Young couples have areasonable amount of discretionary time, and can begin to prepare their hometo be a resting place for the Shechina and a nurturing environment for theirchildren to thrive in.

Many young men and women lack proper role models for establishing arelationship based on mutual respect and trust, or simply were not exposed tothe positive influence of the parents’ home during crucial years. Traininghelps. Education helps. More so, a good mentor will provide an opportunityfor young couples to seek guidance when the inevitable bumps6 will occur.Many couples are uncomfortable going to their parents for direction at thiscritical stage in their lives.

2. Parenting Classes

Here, too, education is the key. It would be naïve to think that any oneperson has all the answers to the difficult questions that parentingrequires. Many, many parents, however, have told me how their home life wasimmeasurably improved as a result of attending parenting workshops.

At a recent symposium, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita related the storyof a young woman who was experiencing significant difficulty at home and inschool. Professional counseling was recommended. After several sessions, aremarkable improvement was noted by all. Reb Shmuel related that thetherapist told him that he had instructed the mother to take her daughter outof school for lunch in a restaurant and spend at least one hour together,conversing, prior to each session. This, the therapist felt, was far moreeffective than his time with the young woman.

Similarly, it is great training for a young couple to spend time togethergrowing as parents and sharing in the raising of their children7. Thepractical tips and skills that are imparted at these sessions greatly improvethe quality of the home life as parents are trained to deal with the manyissues and challenges that they face on a daily basis.

Yes, our parents seem to have done a decent job raising us withoutattending lectures or reading books, but times have changed and our childrenare faced with temptations that we never had.

Good parenting skills do not always result in wonderful children.Effective parenting, however, can significantly improve the likelihood that adifficult child will grow into a well-adjusted, productive adult.

3. Strengthening the Kehilla

A woman approached a colleague of mine at a public gathering. She had beenrecently divorced and asked him to arrange for someone to take her school-agesons to shul on Shabbos. He related to me that his initial reaction was thata situation like this would be unthinkable in a small town, or in akehilla-type shul setting. People often speak about children falling throughthe cracks. The reality is that all too often, it is the families that arefalling through the cracks.

In large metropolitan areas, where most Orthodox Jews live, one can davenin several shuls throughout the week without being a member in any of them.Although this may be very convenient for the individual mispallel, the family– lost in the anonymity of city life – forgoes the unique protection that thekehilla has to offer. An involved Rabbi and Rebbetzin guide young couples andtheir children through the inevitable difficulties that they will encounter.They are there to notice troubling tendencies in shalom bayis, the chinuch ofthe children, or any one of a host of issues.

It is critical in the development of a Torah home that the family belongto a kehilla, attend shiurim, and above all, to actively nurture arelationship with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the shul. Doing so will add manystrands to the communal safety net that we so desperately need.

4. Simcha Schedules

People are always asking what has changed so dramatically (regarding theat-risk teen issue) in the past decade. There are some obvious answers – andmore subtle ones. One of those that fall into the latter category is that weare more “stressed out” than any generation ever was. Please allow me torephrase this. We are not home enough. Our family life is unraveling. We areworking longer hours in more stressful situations. Perhaps much of this isunavoidable, with the enormous pressure to provide parnassa for our growingfamilies. One area, however, where significant improvement is not onlypossible but absolutely necessary is our simcha schedules.

Our gedolim have – for years now – been requesting that we limitconspicuous consumption at our simchos. Although there are some exceptions,as a group, we have been reluctant to take their advice8. If we cannot orwill not bite the bullet for the sake of a lifestyle of tzeniyus, then aseilemaan tinnokos shel beis rabban – let us do so for the sake of our children.

Every evening that we dress up after a busy workday and travel a half hourto wish a young couple mazel tov at a lechayim (to be followed by a vort,wedding9 and Sheva Berachos), we are depriving our own children of desperately,desperately needed quiet time with us.

While I am not recommending that we all become social dropouts and refuseto attend any simchos, it is clear that we need to limit our time away fromhome. Our primary obligation, after all, is to raise and nurture the childrenthat Hashem blessed us with and whose upbringing He has charged us with.

5. Shabbos and Yom Tov – an island of tranquility… hopefully.

Shabbos Kodesh. A time for spiritual and emotional rejuvenation. A timefor children, relaxation, and family. No telephone calls, no appointments, nodistractions. Your children can now get your individual attention as you –and they – unwind from the pressure-filled week. Me’ein Olam Habba10.

Sadly, the hectic nature of our lives is unfortunately spilling over intothe last bastion of our home life – Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim. After aforty/fifty-hour school week, when most children would treasure some downtime with their parents and family, or simply the luxury of being left aloneto unwind, many are subjected to long Shabbos meals with company present,where they are expected to behave in a picture-perfect manner. This despitethe fact that the entire conversation at the table is geared to the adults11.Children who are naturally shy are pressured into reciting divrei Torah infront of strangers. Parents go Kiddush hopping until well past noontime –with the unrealistic expectation of coming home to a clean home and relaxedchildren; or leave their children12 with friends or relatives to attendweekend Bar Mitzvas.

It is of great importance that we pause and take stock of our objectivefor our Shabbosos. We must strive to create – at least once a week – thiszone of menucha (tranquility) in our homes so that our children can relax andlook forward to this special day with their family.

The ‘Broken Home’ Component

Allow me to state the obvious. Children’s needs are best served growing upin a two-parent household. Chazal’s comment that the mizbayach “sheds tears”when a couple divorces needs no elaboration13.

Having said that, divorce in and of itself does not consign a child to ableak educational and social future. While statistically, children frombroken homes are in a high-risk category, it is only so, in my opinion, whenthere is strife and unhappiness in the child’s life. Children can adjust tothe painful reality of growing up in a single-parent household – when bothparents maturely put their own feelings aside for the sake of the children.

Please allow me to share with you two incidents regarding children frombroken homes that I am currently involved with14. With the help of Hashem, Iam confident that the first child will mature into a self-confident,well-adjusted young woman. I hope that I am wrong, but I do not share thatoptimism about the teenager in the second story.

Aviva is a bright six-year old girl attending first grade in a local BaisYaakov. Her parents divorced four years ago. Aviva lives with her mother, andspends most weekends with her father, who lives in the same community. Herparents are both very involved in her chinuch and secular education, evenattending Parent-Teacher Conferences together. Recently, Aviva went through adifficult week when she was quite rude to her mother. Her mother’s responsewas to call her ex-husband and discuss the matter with him. Twenty minuteslater, the doorbell rang. It was Aviva’s father. He took Aviva for a driveand discussed with her the importance of treating her mother with respect.Throughout the following week, Aviva’s parents conversed nightly with eachother to monitor the situation.

Yossie’s parents divorced three years ago. It was a messy divorce, withendless litigation about joint assets, custody and visitation. Yossie’sfather threatened to withhold a get until he would receive favorableconditions in the asset distribution. Yossie, then thirteen years old, andhis three siblings were made to appear before a judge to respond to highlypersonal questions about their relationship with the two parents.

This past Yom Kippur was not on the father’s court-mandated visitationschedule. (All nine days of Succos were.) Yossie’s father asked his ex-wifefor permission to spend Yom Kippur locally (he has since moved away from hisformer community) and meet Yossie in shul for the davening so that “Yossieshouldn’t be the only child in shul without a father.” This reasonablerequest was refused, and he was informed that any attempt on his part tofollow through on this plan would result in court action.

Yossie is currently a bitter young man who has been in several yeshivos inthe past two years. He spends his nights “hanging out,” and has a strainedrelationship with both his parents.

It is of paramount importance that in the event of a divorce, all partiesdesign a plan of action that will provide the children with the most pleasanthome environment that is possible under the circumstances.

The Third Partner

For the record, I do not think that children from orphaned homes areincluded in the high-risk category. Aside from the pledge of the Ribbono ShelOlam – the Avi Hayesomim – to watch over his special children, anecdotalevidence would indicate that the overwhelming majority of yesomim grow tobecome well-adjusted, very often outstanding young men and women. Fired inthe crucible of the pain and loneliness of losing a parent, they oftenoutgrow the inevitable “why me?” phase, mature earlier than their peers, aremore sensitive human beings, and become exceptional spouses and parents,having learned at an early age to appreciate life to its fullest. And yes,they usually develop an incredibly close relationship with the survivingparent who raised and nurtured them under such difficult circumstances.

Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov

It is interesting to note that the initial attraction to Yiddishkeit formany chozrei b’teshuva is not a beautiful d’var Torah or deep thoughts ofhashkafa, but rather their participation in the warm atmosphere of a Jewishfamily sitting around the Shabbos table. Throughout the generations, ourhomes have always been the anchor in our lives and one of the primary sourcesof the transmission of our Mesora to future generations. And it is in ourhomes – down in the trenches – that our generation’s milchemes hayeitzer(battle for spiritual survival) is being fought.

May the Ribbono Shel Olam grant us the wisdom and siyata diShmaya tocreate the type of home life for our children that will inculcate them withTorah values and prepare them to transmit our timeless Mesora to yet anothergeneration.

Rabbi Horowitz, Menahel of Yeshiva Darchei Noam (Monsey), and director ofProject Y.E.S., was last represented in these pages by his tribute to RabbiMoshe Sherer zt’l, “Basic Training” (June ’98).

Imagine that you work in a pharmacy during the summer months. All day long, day after day, people hobble into your store suffering from the effects of painful sunburn injuries. Well, you are a compassionate person, so you dutifully guide them to the section of the drugstore where they can purchase the various sprays, creams and lotions that treat sunburn pain. One would imagine that after a while you would be quite motivated to direct all customers to purchase a tube of sun block and a hat. After all, for a tiny investment of time and money, one could prevent sunburn rather than treat it – and avoid many days of horrible anguish.

Ten years ago, when Project YES was created, I was given a sacred mission by the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and the legendary President of Agudath Israel, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z’tl – to help the children who were not making it in our glorious Yeshiva and Beis Yakov school system.

I am very proud of the lifesaving work that our Project YES staff members and volunteers have done over the past ten years. I am inspired by the outstanding work of the many organizations who have dedicated resources and energy to help our precious children succeed – in school and in life. I am touched by the generosity of the overwhelmed donors who have responded magnificently to requests to fund these programs.

But even a cursory analysis of the teens at risk scene begs the question: “Why aren’t we spending more time, effort, and resources on prevention rather than intervention?” Surely there are reasonable steps that we can take to avoid at least some of the heartache of teens at risk – if we have the fortitude and courage to honestly evaluate how we parent and educate our children.

The first step in this process would be to spend some time reflecting on the factors that place our children at risk. Then, moving forward, analyze each of the risk factors and decide what can be done to address them before they become full-blown problems. The challenge with that process is that we all approach this issue with our life experiences and biases.

I was once travelling in a subway train from Brooklyn to Mid-town Manhattan with a close friend of mine who had lived in Eretz Yisroel all his life. He had just arrived in America for medical treatment the previous evening and was rather overwhelmed by the organized chaos of the rush-hour scene in the New York City subway system. After observing several successive stations filled with many hundreds of people trying to squeeze in our packed train, he asked me in all innocence, “Don’t you have k’vishim (highways) in America?”

Well, if you think about it, the response of many or most people to the question, “What is the primary cause for the teens-at-risk crisis?” is rather similar to that of my friend in the subway train. For it is part of the human experience to view things from one’s own perspective. A family counselor might tell you that poor parenting or lack of shalom bayis are the leading causes of teens abandoning Yiddishkeit. A stay-at-home mom will inform you that the explosion of day care caused by growing families, financial demands and working mothers are causing our children – and their issues – to be neglected. A mental health professional may claim that molestation and abuse are leading causes, while the manager of a charity organization will point to grinding poverty as a terrible risk factor. A kiruv professional may inform you that some children just aren’t finding fulfillment in our Torah lifestyle the way it is currently being presented to them.

As we can well imagine, the truth lies with all – and none – of them. For each of the risk factors noted above are genuine ones and need to be addressed if we are to make a significant dent in the number of children dropping out of our Torah society. But no single one of them is the only factor, and it does a disservice to this complex matter to assume that solving any one of the issues noted above would bring the teens at risk crisis to a screeching halt.

I, too, plead guilty to the syndrome noted above. For, although I wear many hats, I am primarily an educator, which invariably affects my view of things. With that in mind, it is entirely understandable that ten of the first twelve columns in this series addressed educational aspects of the teens at risk issue.

However, as the primary focus of this series of essays is to prevent what I see as the clear and present threat of an exponential increase in the number of our precious children abandoning Yiddishkeit in the years ahead, we would probably be better served to broaden the theme of these essays and to scan things from a wider lens in the weeks and months to come.

As is the case with all matters of consequence, we will need the wisdom and guidance of our gedolim when considering how to adapt to the changing landscape of parenting children in these challenging times. But rest assured that if we simply move forward doing exactly what we have been doing in the past, increasingly greater numbers of our beloved children and their parents will come staggering to our at-risk ‘pharmacies’ in indescribable agony – begging for pain relief.

Whatever your personal view regarding the melting ice pack and rising temperatures across the globe; in the arena of parenting our children, the trend of ‘global warming’ is here to stay.

Sun block, anyone?

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Almost ten years later, I can still vividly remember the pain, confusion and heartbreak in the eyes and voices of Yossi and his wonderful parents. When I met them, Yossi was a sincere, well-adjusted thirteen-year old bachur. He loved to daven and enjoyed learning chumash and halacha. So why had his parents called my house repeatedly begging my wife to clear some time in my calendar to meet them? I soon found the cause of the understandable agony that Yossi and his parents were undergoing at that trying time in their lives. Over a period of a few endless weeks, Yossi had been rejected by all the Mesivta High Schools he had applied to. Why, you ask? Because, despite his many fine qualities, Yossi had a ‘deal-breaker’ flaw. Truth be told, Yossi was … um … er … an average boy.

Average in gemorah, that is. Over the course of our conversations, I found Yossi to be far above average in middos and yiras Shamayim (interpersonal relations and spirituality) and flat-out superior in mentchlechkeit (decency and integrity.) In short, Yossi was the type of young man that we would be proud to have as a son – or son-in-law.

A few months before the Mesivta-application nightmare began, Yossi found a wallet in the street with over $400- in cash. Without hesitation, he returned the wallet to the owner. When the grateful owner gave him a reward, Yossi immediately gave it all to tzedakah!! (FYI; Yossi’s parents were of modest means, hence the money would have been very meaningful to him.) Yossi even wrote a beautiful letter to the menhalim who rejected him. He mentioned the story with the wallet, described his love for davening/learning, and begged to join the few Mesivtos that his friends were attending. I’m sad to report that his pleas were to no avail. One Menahel suggested that Yossi go to a school geared for weaker kids. But Yossi rightfully felt uncomfortable going there; as he had no ‘symptoms’ – yet – of the at-risk kids who attended that school.

More than a generation ago, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner z’tl, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, articulated the evolving mission of yeshivos in what was then modern-day America by comparing the mishkan (tabernacle used by the Jews during their sojourn in the desert) to the teivah of Noach (Noah’s ark). The mishkan, he said, was a place where Jews went to be inspired, to become closer to Hashem. Noach’s teivah, on the other hand, was the only haven available to avoid certain death and destruction.

Rabbi Hutner explained that in pre-war Europe, yeshivos were like the mishkan – places where spiritually elevated people went to grow in Torah and yiras shomayim. Those who did not attend yeshiva, however, were still able to remain committed Jews, raised in the nurturing environment of the pre-war shtetel. Due to the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society in America, it was nearly impossible for a child to exist as a Torah observant Jew outside the walls of the yeshiva. American Yeshivos, maintained Rabbi Hutner, were more along the lines of the teivah – a structure that offered shelter and protection.

It is interesting to note that while Rav Hutner’s thoughts are often quoted, the context of his comments and their profound message is not as well known. Almost all the times that I heard this insightful quote, it was used to decry the state of today’s eroded moral values. But that is missing his main point!! Rav Hutner was saying how we must change the way that we view our yeshivos. He was suggesting that the holy yeshivos of Voloshin and Slabodka were primarily designed for a tiny percentage of the outstanding achievers in Torah, as the grinding poverty of pre-war Europe forced the vast majority of children above the age of thirteen to join the workforce. American yeshivos and Beis Yakov’s, Rav Hutner maintained, need to be geared for all children to find success and refuge.

Sadly, as I alluded to in an earlier column, exactly the opposite has been happening over the past ten-fifteen years. The bar to entry at High Schools in cities with large Jewish populations has gotten much, much higher over this period of time. The bottom line is that nowadays – with the waters of the mabul rising higher and higher – parental pressure has virtually forced the hands of our educators in large cities to pull in the gangplank of the teivah when ‘average’ kids apply. Why? Because accepting ‘average’ kids is the kiss of death for many schools in the eyes of the ‘customers’; parents of prospective children (that’s you). The caring principals who were once accepting and tolerant regarding admissions policies have had their schools relegated to second-or-third tier status by parents (that’s you, again) who now shun their mosdos. Other school heads and board members who watched this horror show of a school’s decline due-to-word-of-mouth unfold learn the ‘new math’ rather quickly. The equation is quite simple and brutal. More children in these larger cities, b’eh, means more schools in the same geographic area. More schools mean more competition. And which parent wouldn’t turn over heaven and earth to get their child accepted in the ‘best’ schools?

How have we defined ‘best schools’? Obviously, those with the most rigorous entrance criteria, and those who don’t accept ‘average’ kids.

Like … well … Yossi.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Project YES Update – Re: Weberman Abuse Trial

With Nechemya Weberman convicted and awaiting sentencing, here are some reflections upon the trial and why Project YES supported his victim in a very public manner.

We got involved in the spring when it became clear that a young victim still within the statute of limitations was actually committed to pressing charges and testifying against her molester. In the process of doing due diligence, I personally heard from four additional victims of Weberman, all of whom were terrified to come forward and press charges because of community intimidation. They didn’t know each other, but they all told the same stories, described similar forms of physical abuse – some of which became public knowledge during the trial.

Just one horrific example: Those of us close to the case heard from the victims that Weberman was burning many of them on their abdomens with cigarette lighters and candles as part of his warped fantasies. However, this was only discussed at a side bar during his trial and did not become public knowledge until this New York Post Article ran a few days after the verdict.

Two chassidish men, both in their thirties and well integrated into the community told me that Weberman burned their wives on their abdomens while violating them. One of the fellows said that he first discovered the abuse when his wife screamed and nearly fainted when he inadvertently passed a (havdala) candle close to her midsection. It was only then, that she told him the story of what she had gone through in her “counseling sessions” with Weberman.

Weberman’s other victims revealed details that matched those of the plaintiff in this case, which in the aggregate indicated that he was conducting an evil, calculated, and highly successful Grooming Process. This included humiliating his victims, and telling them that no one will ever believe messed-up kids like them. He deliberately turned the parents against their children, telling them, among other things, that their son or daughter was a pathological liar, in order to have his defense in place should the kids ever reveal his abuse.

Weberman even told some of the girls he was abusing, that they were reincarnated separately, but they had been married to him in a previous gilgul (lifetime), and that the intimate acts he was performing were intended as a form of te’shuva (repentance) for sins committed in their previous lifetimes. Keep in mind that many of his victims were innocent, pre-teen girls who were raised in a very sheltered environment, and that Weberman was presented to them by their school as a distinguished rabbi – lending credence to whatever story he spun to them.

Weberman carefully selected his victims from a pool of families who had marital issues or an elder child who was on drugs or no longer observant, correctly assuming that those parents would lack the self-confidence to do battle with him should they suspect anything wrong.

He was also very cautious not to abuse the children of well-connected families. None of his victims who have come to our attention are very wealthy or named Teitelbaum or Twersky (dynastic rabbinic families) – only from what Leona Helmsley famously called the “little people.”

Once it became clear that Weberman appeared to be a serial pedophile, we recognized that this was a unique opportunity to break the wall of silence about abuse in the Charedi world. The “Establishment” responded to the accusations by holding a huge fundraiser to raise a half million dollars for Weberman’s defense.

Shortly thereafter, we were notified from those close to the case that the victim’s family was under unbearable pressure from the community after the fundraiser. The DA was concerned that she would do what so many others before her had done – buckle under to the pressure and refuse to testify. Indeed, four men were subsequently arrested for attempting to bribe the victim to the tune of $500,000 to drop the charges.

Keep in mind that this brave young victim, not yet eighteen, had been repeatedly molested by Weberman from the young age of twelve until she was fifteen. (For all those asking what defense attorney Mr. Farkas kept raising during the trial – why didn’t she come forward earlier – take a careful look at the size and maturity level of the precious 12-year-old kinderlach in your neighborhood. That ought to answer your question.) Knowing she would need help, we went public and urged our readers to Stand With the Victim and offer her emotional support in a post on our website two weeks after the fundraiser (May 30, 2012). We asked our readers to post comments of encouragement and to contact the Brooklyn DA requesting police protection for her family as needed.

Sadly, in the Williamsburg community there seemed to be almost universal support for Weberman (which is not at all unusual in child abuse cases – the abusers frequently get away with it for so long since they are otherwise well-respected, upstanding, charismatic members of the community) flinging slings and arrows at the victim attempting to ruin her reputation and totally undermine her credibility.

We then decided to embark on a campaign to educate the public about Weberman’s wildly inappropriate methods of counseling the young girls in his care with this post What Went Terribly Wrong. We pointedly highlighted his flagrant violations of Hilchos Yichud (if these young girls had been in a locked apartment containing a bedroom with an “outsider” for counseling sessions for four hours a day, three times a week instead of with Rabbi Weberman, the community would have been in an uproar). Hearing about his eleven hour car trip alone with her to the Catskills caused many to rethink their position on what was really going on.

In the lead-up to and during the trial, we posted Clear and Present Danger explaining the halachic reasons that predators need to be reported to the police, and The Halo Effect explaining how predators get away with their abuse.

Most people simply do not want to know about child abuse, as the entire subject makes them feel ill. Therefore, it just makes it harder to educate parents about abuse overall and how the grooming process works (here is a fantastic piece by Malcom Gladwell, In Plain View on grooming. A must read for parents.) Additionally, the cultural norms that have not allowed the Charedi press to cover the Weberman trial just adds to the disconnect and Cognitive Dissonance which is causing such harm to our kids.

Weberman’s supporters are running a $1,000,000 campaign for his appeal, and they are going all out in a public relations effort, including this past week’s Ami magazine where George Farkas, Weberman’s attorney, graced the front cover and asserted Weberman’s innocence.

It is heartening that many of Weberman’s other victims are now finding their voices – albeit only whispering to friends and family members. But the deadly wall of silence is showing growing cracks. Mr. Heinz, the Brooklyn DA went on record in several interviews that there is “at least one more victim,” (who has come forward but is afraid to testify), and his ADA’s have previously stated that they are in conversations with six of Weberman’s victims.

In the charedi community, respected people are stepping forward. Ezra Friedlander, just released a column where he mentions a second Weberman victim and we will probably hear much more of this in the near future. There are simply too many survivors of his to keep this quiet forever. If or when they decide to go to the DA, the press, or to join in a class action law suit, the lid will probably come completely off.

Weberman is a monster who had incredible access to young girls and boys and married women for many, many years. What is so frightening is that those who are coming forward now are the married women, as the single girls are afraid of ruining their shidduch prospects. We shudder to think of how many single victims of his are out there continuing to suffer in silence.

Research shows that the average pedophile molests 50-200 children in his lifetime. With the level of access that Weberman had, and the naiveté’ of the kids he worked with, … may Hashem have mercy.

The ongoing publicity proclaiming Weberman an innocent man is a dagger in the already broken hearts of his survivors. According to firsthand reports I received from professional therapists, even those survivors of Weberman’s abuse who are grown and married are traumatized by these fundraisers to the extent that they are exhibiting signs of PTSD. It is for this reason alone that I feel it is a matter of pikuach nefesh (a matter of life and death) to give voice to his voiceless victims and publicize the true story of what transpired.

Standing with the victim and speaking truth to power the way we did was not a pleasant task, nor is it one that is risk-free, but we are determined to see this through.

My family spent this past Rosh Hashana with 200 Jewish recovering drug and alcohol addicts – the vast majority of whom ended up that way after being molested in their formative years. After listening to their horror stories and seeing the hell each and every one of them is undergoing, I promised myself that during the coming year I will redouble my efforts and do whatever it takes to keep today’s kids safe.

May it be Hashem’s will that we finally succeed.

Several weeks ago, my wife and I were hiking in a State park near our home when we heard the music of children’s laughter off in the distance. We veered off the path to follow the source of the sounds, and found a thirty-something chareidi man wading waist-deep in the stream along with his three preteen children — all of them fully clothed. Not wanting to intrude on their privacy, my wife and I watched them splashing, cavorting, and giggling, from a distance, before moving on.

It was simply the most beautiful “Kodak Moment” one could imagine. (For those who were raised with digital cameras; Kodak is a company that makes film, and they ran ads for many years where treasured times in one’s life that were photographed were referred to as “Kodak Moments.” Film is what old people used to put in their cameras once upon a time before taking pictures of their horses and buggies.) Later, I told my wife that the nachas of watching the father and his children interact and enjoy each other’s company washed away the pain of at least several weeks’ worth of calls I get each night from parents who are having difficulty with their children.

My dear readers, if you are raising children — especially young ones — I very strongly urge you to do everything in your power to spend quality time with them and help each of them create their own album of “Kodak Moments” with you. Parents often make the mistake of thinking that they need to take their children on exotic vacations or to an expensive amusement park for them to enjoy themselves. That is just not so. They don’t need your money; they need you. That fellow I saw in the park didn’t spend a dime on the outing with his kids, but the memories they will carry of their impulsive plunge into the stream together with their father will undoubtedly remain etched in their minds’ eyes for life.

One of the great ironies of life is that when our children grow through their teenage years and beyond, it is so challenging to get them to spend time with us. However, when they are younger and craving for our attention, we often are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted, and too unaware of how important to their emotional health our time with them is.

Time with you is the greatest self-esteem builder for your children, for it sends a message that your connection with them is so meaningful to you. It allows you to get to know your children — really know them — and helps build the trust, affection, and deep personal relationship that are all prerequisites to having them confide in you and seek your guidance when they need it later in life.

In the hectic lives we lead nowadays, you will need to have the steely determination to spend time with your children in order to accomplish that goal. You will also be well served to spend creative energy thinking of what you can do to find opportunities and venues to carve out such time with them. When our oldest was eight years old, I taught myself and later each of our children to ski and golf because I felt that those two activities would allow me to spend huge blocks of time with them in their adolescent years. (Where else other than a chairlift can you get your teenager to spend ten minutes with you, twenty times in one day?) And when the realization hit me fifteen years ago that between learning with our sons and taking them to shul, I was spending far more time with them than I was with our daughters, I decided to create a yearly N.B.A. (No Boys Allowed) vacation with our two eldest daughters where I would spend two-three days with them alone — without my wife or sons. They are both married, with the chesed of Hashem, but to this day, they regularly mention our N.B.A. vacations and talk about how much they looked forward to them all year long.

We all — even people who write parenting columns — need regular reminders of how important it is to spend time alone with our kids when we do not allow the distractions of daily life to get in the way. Four years ago, when our youngest daughter, Sara, was ten years old, she and I were planning our N.B.A. vacation. I told her that I would take her shopping for the trip the night before and asked her if there was anything special she wanted me to purchase for our trip. With a straight face, she asked me to get her a cell phone battery. Perplexed, I asked her why she needed a battery for a cell phone she didn’t have.

“No, Tatty,” Sara responded with a twinkle in her eyes, “for this trip, I want you to take the battery out of your cell phone (disconnecting it, so we can spend uninterrupted time together) and give it to me.”

At-Risk is At Risk

A Purim Column

With the economy heading south, we are all looking for ways to cut back on our expenses. I guess that’s good news for Motel 6, pawn shops and “Dollar Stores,” but it’s a pretty lousy development for anyone running a non-profit organization (like me, for example) because practically everyone except bankruptcy attorneys earns less money in times like these. Less money means less charity giving. Gulp.

So, recently, with Purim in the air, an idea grabbed hold of me: How about thinking outside the box (kinda easy for me to do – that’s where I live), and search for innovative, inexpensive ways to solve or improve the teens-at-risk crisis for all of Klal Yisroel?

So; in the spirit of Chodesh Adar, here are some ideas:

How about artificially aging all eighth-grade boys and girls who are not succeeding in our school system by making them look like they are in their early twenties? For a few hundred dollars per child, we can retain the services of professional make-up artists and instruct them to give the girls some laugh lines, and add facial stubble and thinning hair for the boys. I think that would solve things for lots of the kids overnight, at a tiny fraction of what we pay for tutors and tuition for at-risk schools. Why you ask? Because, let’s face it. Some kids – no; some people – are just not cut out for a 12-14 hour school day. If restless adults in their fifties pace like caged tigers in shul with their reading glasses and arthritic knees after 30 (15? …5?) minutes of davening, why in the world would you expect their teenage counterparts with boundless energy to sit in a chair for a 2-hour gemara shiur? Look; we all know that if these jumpy kids survive their miserable school experience, many of them utilize their vigor constructively and become amazing adults. So why not ‘get with the program’ and just pronounce them grown-ups?

Hey; come to think of it, this brainstorm might also help alleviate the shidduch crisis, due to the fact that there are more at-risk boys than girls. Making them virtual twenty-two-year-olds would add far more young men to the shidduch pool. And these bachurim will be exempt from spending time in “the freezer,” so the benefits would be immediate. It would also save time and money. Think of how many more trees will remain standing now that parents and shadchanim will be printing and reviewing much shorter “shidduch resumes” for these kids.

To make sure this idea would fly, I decided to run it by some of the kids I work with. One of the teenage girls, though, was unimpressed and had some ideas of her own. “Ra-bbi, nt; bt u really nd 2 lose this at-risk label. First of all, it’s, like, so yes-ter-day. Whteva! And, like, soz, bt wd u want to b called an at-risk something? If ur wife kept breaking pl8s in the kitchen, wd she like to b called an at-risk balabusta? And B4 u ask me 2 activ8 the alarm clock in ur bbry, remember that I’ll call u an at-risk techie or just wake-up challenged. lol. cas. rofl. tty l8r and wb2me.

I walked away thinking that she had a good point. Then, it hit me! Why don’t we just cut out the labels altogether (you know, best bachur, metzuyan, at risk), and go to a color-coded-card scheme that kids can carry in the privacy of their wallets, along the lines of homeland security colors (red is most at-risk, followed by orange, yellow … you get the picture). Better yet, let’s do white for best bachur all the way to black for highest risk. Or maybe the other way around, with black being the preferred color. Whatever.

And speaking of labels, here is another idea. Why don’t we do a dual mentoring program? After all, we all know what happens in real life – all the ‘A’ students become lawyers, accountants and comptrollers and wind up working for the millionaire ‘D’ students who started businesses while the braniacs were still in school. So; here is the deal. We write a new type of Yissachar-Zevulun contract. Participating A students are matched with D students in 5th grade. Then, the A students tutor the D students and help them study for all tests throughout their school years. In return, the D students commit to supporting the A students while they are in kollel (I think one year of support for each year tutored is about fair), and then promise to give them training and a job when they leave kollel.

Talk about a win-win idea.

Cognitive dissonance: “The uncomfortable tension that may result from having two conflicting thoughts (cognition) at the same time …that conflicts with one’s beliefs (dissonance is defined as “lack of agreement, consistency, or harmony”)… In popular usage, it can be associated with the tendency for people to resist information that they don’t want to think about, because if they did it would create cognitive dissonance. They usually have at least partial awareness of the information, without having moved to full acceptance of it, and are thus in a state of denial about it. (Encyclopedia Britannica).

In the late 1990’s, shortly after I began writing and lecturing about the topic of at-risk teens, a colleague informed me that Orthodox kids were selling significant quantities of drugs to other frum children. Here’s basically the way it worked: If you were an adult or teen who wanted to purchase drugs, you would go to designated pay phones in the Boro Park/Flatbush sections of Brooklyn and pretend to make a phone call. Then, using prearranged signals, you would indicate the type of the drug you wanted to buy. For example, placing a hand in your left pocket meant that you wanted to purchase ecstasy pills, while a hand in your right pocket signaled that you were looking for marijuana. Then, after you would flash hand signals informing the pusher of the exact quantity you requested, someone would approach you and close the deal.

After verifying from several sources that the ‘intel’ was correct, my colleague was faced with a dilemma: what to do with the information? After all, by going to the authorities, he would be committing mesirah, turning fellow Jews to the police. Additionally, we were raised to avoid anything that might cause a chilul Hashem – and having observant boys arrested for drug pushing would certainly be a colossal one. We decided that I would represent him and present the quandary to the leading gedolim of our generation, among them my great rebbi, Reb Avraham Pam z’tl, at a meeting that was to be held later that month on an unrelated matter. During their meeting, I presented the information and was asked thoughtful, probing questions by the gedolim on a broad range of issues related to this matter. After a few moments of silence, the gedolim turned to Rav Pam, who was the eldest of the group and revered by all. With great pain in his eyes, he softly but firmly said, “Zei ale hobin a din rodef,” meaning that the pushers were presenting a clear and present life-threatening danger to the public and must be stopped at all costs. Then, like a Sanhedrin, they each rendered their p’sak, unanimously agreeing with Rav Pam.

My colleague shared the information with the appropriate authorities, an investigation was launched, and within six months several frum kids were arrested along with the ringleader, a 50-year-old Charedi man who was caught selling the drugs in the basement of a Boro Park shul, of all places. The arrests made headlines in the New York tabloids and were the lead item on virtually every radio station in the New York metropolitan area.

I mention this story in the context of the ‘Protecting our Children’ series The Monster Inside and Safe and Secure for two reasons. Firstly, to make public the da’as Torah of our gedolim as it pertains to setting aside mesirah issues when lives are threatened. And although I did not raise the issue of abuse in that meeting, I did receive clear and unequivocal p’sakim from gedolei rabbanim that verified abusers must be reported, as that is only way to insure public safety. (Note: I am not issuing a psak, merely sharing the ones I received. As with other matters, every individual who has a sheilah should ask his Rav and not rely on second-hand p’sakim.)

Another issue of great importance was the reaction of our community to the arrests – which I am sad to say, was a collective, “Wow, can you believe that? … Please pass the salt.” It is noteworthy that for many months before the arrests, several of us lectured to standing-room-only crowds in Brooklyn practically shouting that frum people were pushing drugs to our children.

We kept speaking about it, but people didn’t seem to get it. It took a while – and a few deaths of frum kids from drug overdoses – for people in our community to get their hearts in sync with the facts that their eyes and ears were telling them. It was a classic example of cognitive dissonance. After all, we were raised with the notion that these things just don’t happen in our Torah community. So, when we were faced with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, part of our minds just shut down, not willing to accept the harsh truth. But, as we are painfully realizing, the problems we face don’t shut down while we struggle to adjust to new realities.

In addition to the ‘standard’ cognitive dissonance described above, two factors contribute greatly to its staying power in our community. The first is the fact that we are, Baruch Hashem, surrounded by evidence of the astounding successes of our Yeshiva/Beis Yakov systems; thousands of wonderful, spiritual teenagers. How can the negative information we hear about compete with the superb things we see? Additionally, there is a virtual media ban in our charedi papers on any negative news. Few things add to the disconnect and cognitive dissonance more than hearing frightening things about an event such as the arrest of a frum drug dealer or pedophile in the secular media, while our papers completely ignore its existence. We ought to be enormously proud of the first factor, but I suggest that we must end the practice of the second.

The only way to combat cognitive dissonance is to discuss these matters in our public squares, painful as it may be; which is why Mishpacha magazine deserves our appreciation for publishing these columns. Trust me, I wish there was a more discreet way to do this, and if any of our readers have any suggestions for creating venues for this dialogue, please contact me with them. But in the meantime, I will continue to write these essays, as I feel that straight talk and education is the only way to significantly improve things.

In the darkest moments of our agonizing saga with the drug issue, I received a small measure of comfort and chizuk from a non-Jewish police officer who saw me close to tears during our discussions. “Rabbi,” he said softly. “Your community is close-knit and family oriented, so you were lucky to avoid the drug problem for an entire generation. The 90’s for you is what the 60’s was to us. This isn’t a Jewish problem, Rabbi. It is a human problem. It only becomes a Jewish problem when it is ignored.”

The first eight columns that appeared in this space made the case for a more balanced kodesh curriculum in our yeshivos, one that includes more chumash, halacha, and tanach – in other words, to go back to the syllabus that we were exposed to in our yeshivos three decades ago. Additionally, I made the argument that due to parental pressure; we are rushing our children along too quickly during their “Training Wheel” phase – as they are being introduced to new limudim (topics) such as chumash and gemorah. Nowhere in these essays was the matter of secular studies mentioned in this context.

However, due to the fact that so much ink was spilled responding to the “name withheld” letter writer (issue #153) taking me to task for purportedly pushing a secular-studies agenda, I think a response on my part is in order.

To begin with, I think that a clear delineation ought to be made between the study of secular studies and the acquisition of life-skills. Studying Shakespeare or learning physics (both of which, for the record, were part of the curriculum when I attended Mesivta Torah Vodaas in the 1970’s) could be fairly represented as secular studies. But learning to articulate oneself in one’s native tongue or express one’s thoughts in writing is an extremely important life skill. Included in this description are learning the requisite math skills to calculate interest rates on a credit card or to balance a checkbook. I maintain that teaching a child these life-skills are incumbent on every father nowadays, as they are prerequisites to the obligation on a parent to teach a child a trade (Kiddushin 29-30).

Let us for a moment set aside the majority of our children who will seek employment in the business world, as they will most certainly need these skills to feed their families and pay the tuitions of their children. The brutal fact is that the vast majority of those entering the work force lacking language/math/computer skills will be forced to take lower paying jobs. But even – or perhaps especially – those who will be inspired to pursue a career in the rabbinate, chinuch or kiruv (outreach) will desperately need these tools to succeed. Sure, one can point to individuals who have been successful in these fields without these skill sets. But they are the exceptions rather than the rule – just like there are those who are less-than-literate and become wildly successful in business. Having interviewed prospective rebbeim for teaching positions, and counseled hundreds of sincere yungerleit looking for post-kollel jobs over the years, I can tell you firsthand how critical these attributes are for those wishing to enter chinuch or rabbonus. (Click here for “The Plan,” an article I wrote on the subject of life planning for yeshiva bachurim.)

One would be hard pressed to maintain that these skills are a barrier to Torah greatness. The Rambam, who famously served as a court physician, wrote beautifully in Arabic and Rashi was quite the expert in old French. Rabbi Isaac Don Abarbanel served as the finance minister of Spain and Rabbi Meir Shapiro was a member of the Polish parliament. And while many of the European gedolim who came to America following the Holocaust did not develop a command of the English language late in life, they were all fluent in the native tongue of their host countries. Read the biographies of my great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam and his rebbi, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Both of these Torah giants took the time to learn English properly in order to be able to communicate with their talmidim effectively.

It is also historically inaccurate to suggest that our gedolim were opposed to providing our children with a solid general studies education. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yaakov Kaminetsky, Gedalia Schorr, Avrohom Pam, Mordechai Gifter zichronom tzadikim livrocho all presided over mesivtos which had excellent general studies programs.

Enhanced language and writing skills enable a Torah scholar to expand his sphere of influence wider and wider, like ripples in a pond. If one needs an example of the exponential power of effective writing to spread Torah learning, one need look no further than Rabbis Zlotowitz and Sherman of Artscroll, who engineered a ‘Torah revolution’ over the past thirty years that is perhaps unparalleled in our glorious history.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the legendary President of Agudath Israel, understood the importance of having yeshiva bachurim acquire these skills. Over a period of many years, he took time each week from his busy schedule to teach a voluntary homiletics (public speaking) class which I had the good fortune to attend for an entire winter while in my late teens. Rabbi Sherer often told us that we ought to view this skill building as an integral component of our training to become the disseminators of Torah to the next generation.

When I speak to my talmidim about the importance of applying themselves to their general studies classes, I often quote the words of our great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam. In his classic Friday schmuz’en (lectures), he would often tell us that regardless of our professions later in life, we would all need to become teachers of Torah eventually. (Click here for a dvar Torah on this subject.) He explained that when Moshiach will come, Klal Yisroel would need each and every one of us to teach Torah to our brothers and sisters who did not have the privilege to study its halachaos and lessons during their formative years.

Helping our children acquire the skills to learn and teach Torah in an articulate and erudite manner is a goal we should all strive to achieve.