Note: This essay was written with input from and the encouragement of esteemed Rabbonim, Dayanim (rabbinic judges), community leaders and mental health professionals who all have extensive experience with these issues.

My dear friends, we need to have a long overdue conversation about establishing protocols and “best practices” to be implemented by communal leaders who betray their public trust by engaging in inappropriate or illicit relationships and/or have abused people who entrusted their lives and souls to them.

As we are painfully removing our rose-colored glasses and coming to terms with the bitter reality that observant Jews and even revered community leaders are not immune from the human failings of the general population, this conversation is becoming more and more necessary as “situations” are uncovered and publicized by courageous Rabbis and Batei Din (rabbinic courts).

As many of these cases are not actionable in the criminal justice system due to the understandable reluctance of victims to testify in open court, statute of limitation issues, or when inappropriate relationships occurred with adults, the involvement of Rabbonim and Batei Din in this process is critical and valuable. It is our strong feeling that abuse that is actionable be reported to the authorities as this presents a Clear and Present Danger to the public.

We would like to propose that when these conditions occur, a specific set of steps be taken to provide restitution to the victims, closure to members of the public, restore public faith in the institutions where these individuals served and to prevent these injustices from happening in the future.

Our Torah codifies five categories of compensation to victims of physical damage, with the victim being paid for:

  1. (Regular) Damages
  2. Pain suffered
  3. Medical bills
  4. Unemployment
  5. Shame incurred

Being that our Torah clearly factored in many components of the damage caused and placed the burden of restitution squarely on the shoulders of the “mazik” (one who caused the damage), it would stand to reason that perpetrators be responsible for the often lifelong damages caused by their actions. Similarly, the institutions where they served have a moral responsibility to remove the perpetrators from any vestige of involvement/ownership, and undertake transparent and good faith efforts to address the structural shortcomings that allowed their inappropriate behaviors to go unnoticed or unreported.

Therapists and agencies that provide services and support to victims of abuse regularly see the physical, emotional and spiritual devastation caused when restorative measures are not taken. As such, we at Project YES feel compelled to share with our readers the steps that we feel should be taken in instances like those described above:

1) A public confession in writing or via recorded statement shall be made available to the constituents of the institution where the individual served. The public acknowledgment need not include specific details, but the perpetrator needs to clearly state that he/she committed severe misdeeds and takes full, personal responsibility for them.

2) The confession should include a public apology to his/her victims (without mentioning the names of any victims), along with requesting that they be supported by community members and never be c’v subjected to isolation and disdain as a result of their coming forward.

3) The individual and/or institution take full responsibility to make financial restitution to the victims – including paying for their ongoing therapy when required.

4) The individual expresses sincere commitment to undergo professional counseling to address his/her self-destructive behavior.

5) The institution he/she served in shall be transferred to responsible parties in a transparent, irrevocable and arms-distant manner. Additionally, the individual shall make a firm pledge never to serve again in an educational/rabbinic/counseling setting.

6) The institution’s new leadership shall commit to engage outside professional consultants who will help them implement the changes necessary to prevent the conditions that allowed these inappropriate behaviors to go unchecked.

In future columns, we will explain why each of the six steps listed above are absolutely critical to the process of healing the victims – including those who were indirectly affected, ensuring that the perpetrator never harms others, and restoring confidence to the institution.

We strongly believe that the above-mentioned steps are also the best advice for the perpetrator, for reasons we will point out in future columns on this matter.

These steps above are only a first draft and we certainly don’t believe that they are binding or the final word on this painful topic. Rather, we view these as the beginning of a public dialogue that will help bring healing to the victims and keep our children and grandchildren safe. We welcome your constructive comments – including those that are critical of the positions we have taken – and kindly email them to admin@162.144.64.250 

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 [on Purim] 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.[1]

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.[2]

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[3], 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.[4]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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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It is rare to find a single ‘smoking gun’ – a clearly identifiable cause – (to explain why a child regresses from the ‘inner circle’ of successful students to the ‘outer ring’ of uninspired learners, and perhaps even to those who r’l sink into the morass of at-risk behaviors. After all, there are a huge range of non-educational factors – parenting and social/emotional issues – that often play a significant role in a child’s success in school. Having said that, I think that we would all agree that we have a sacred obligation to reflect upon, and seek the counsel of our gedolim, as to the most effective way to be mechanech our children so that they all reach their fullest potential.

While much attention is focused on the teen years, when many at-risk children begin exhibiting symptoms of distress, I strongly feel that in many instances the slide began far earlier, when children failed to acquire the basic skills they desperately need to achieve success. In order to illustrate the point, please permit me to present the following scenario:

Imagine that you received an offer from a generous benefactor to head a group of kollel yungerleit in learning the writings of the Rambam in their original Arabic over a period of ten years. You would love to take the assignment, but there is one slight problem. You don’t understand a word of Arabic. Your prospective donor tells you not to worry. He informs you that he is confident that you will master the language and bring new insight to the timeless works of the Rambam.

Assuming that you accepted the offer, how would you go about designing the ten-year program?

Well, there are basically two paths that you could choose. One would be to take the strategic route. You would designate significant blocks of time at the onset to carefully and methodically study the language of Arabic. After all, how could you possibly understand the basic text of the Rambam’s works, let alone the nuances of his every word without a thorough understanding of the language? You would look high and low for the best Arabic-English dictionary money could buy and keep it at your side at all times.

Perhaps you would consult with an expert in learning foreign languages. You might be advised to proceed slowly, as learning a foreign tongue is often frustrating – and there is significant danger of ‘burnout,’ if you progress too quickly at the beginning of the program. Additionally, you may decide to set a long-term goal of mastery of all topics that the Rambam draws on regularly in his writings – Chumash, Halacha and all portions of Nevi’im and Kesuvim.

There is a second and far simpler route that you could take. You can simply jump in headlong and begin reading the Rambam’s classic Morei Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed; a very deep and difficult philosophical sefer written by the Rambam) in Arabic the very first day. As far as the language barrier – no big deal! You figure that you will pick up Arabic as you go along. After all, you are a bright fellow and you already speak Hebrew, English and Yiddish. It can’t be difficult to learn another language, can it? You figure that the longer you keep at it, you will just get better and better at Arabic.

Reading these lines, which of the two programs described above do you think will result in a greater chance for success? The first or the second? The slow-and-steady approach or the ready-or-not-here-I-come one? Who do you think will reach the finish line first – let alone healthy and well adjusted – the tortoise or the hare?

Well, if you think about it, our pre-teen sons are in a very similar situation to that of the fictional program described above. Our sons have a ten-year ‘fellowship’ program, during which we hope that they will master the intricacies and timeless beauty of gemorah. However, in order to achieve that objective, they will need to learn to read a new language – Aramaic – without nekudos (punctuation). The best way to achieve that lofty goal is a question of approach and methodology. What type of program will allow our children to thrive and reach the finish line having mastered, appreciated, and developed a lifelong love for gemorah and learning? A slow, skill-based, balanced approach or a hurry-up program that will teach them “a lot” but not that well?

This is not a ‘new’ discussion. Read through the writings of the Maharal and others on this topic and you will discover that they suggested a methodical and systematic approach to mastery of Tanach and gemarah hundreds of years ago. (More on this in the next column.)

In these challenging times, when not “making it” in Yeshiva translates into squandered childhoods, unrealized potential, and often a complete abandonment of Yiddishkeit, we would do well to make a serious communal cheshbon hanefesh and decide if the hora’as sha’a (extenuating circumstances) of the climate nowadays mandates that we slow down the pace a bit and properly prepare our children with the skills they will need to succeed.

Kids don’t drop out in 10th grade. They fall behind in the fifth and sixth grades. And they never catch up.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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

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 notmerely the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society and its effecton (even) our insular community. Our homes are under assault. Longer workhours for both spouses, the exponential increase of our simcha schedule andsocial obligations, and the increased burden of providing parnassa for ourgrowing families are taking their toll on the tranquility and simchashachayim (joie de vivre) of our home life. Many of us are able to maintainthis 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 thegreatest 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 ornerydisposition. Others have an innate propensity to challenge authority. Someare extremely restless and simply not cut out for a ten-hour school day. Manyhave significant learning disabilities.

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

But children can never get used to bickering. Stress. Unhappiness.Negative comments. Emotional abuse. These create unhappy, distracted childrenwho are unable to concentrate in school. They develop an intense distrust ofauthority figures, and harbor a simmering rage at an adult world that cannotseem to get its act together and provide them with a peaceful environment inwhich to grow up and thrive. This holds true for all households – includingtwo-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 thecounterculture that threatens their boys and girls is the poignant comment ofRabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg a”jyls, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr4, that themost important thing that parents need to maintain in their home is a senseof happiness, simchas hachayim.

As vigilant as we must be to shield our children from the influences ofsecular society, ultimately, our greatest defense against this onslaught isto create a happy and stable home life for our children. We must keep our eyeon that goal and do everything possible in our power to see to it that thequality 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 issuesrelated to the topic of at-risk teens. We do, however, need to implement someinitiatives and solutions that relate to the topic of this article – theimprovement 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).

Dear Readers:

With a heart filled with gratitude to Hashem, it is my pleasure to inform you that my wife Udi and I became grandparents (for the first time) this past Tuesday night when our children Shlomie and Kaila Horowitz had a baby boy. Mazel tov to our mechutanim Ovadiah and Rochel Kranz; to our parents Shlomo and Beile Nutovic and Leibel and Bracha Berger.

Should you wish to share mazel tov wishes with us, please email my wife at udi528@aol.com. She is incredibly gracious and understanding about sharing me with the klal, and I am sure that she will be pleased to hear from you.

May we always share besuros tovos with each other.

Yakov Horowitz

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.”

Why Can’t They Just Get Over It?

By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Here is a link to “Ending Child Abuse” that I recorded for Eli Talks in Chicago several months ago, and just recently released.

ELI Talks is modeled after TED Talks, where thoughtful leaders are invited to deliver twelve-minute presentations sans notes to live audiences as a public service. ELI Talks, though, are designed so that the presenters are to make their case based on Torah sources.

My presentation was about putting an end to the scourge of child abuse by:

  • Cutting through the cognitive dissonance that lulls us into the incorrect notion that our community is somehow exempt from the problems that face the general population
  • Educating our parents, educators and children about effective, research-based child safety/abuse prevention
  • Believing abuse victims when they come forward and correcting the imbalance of power between the abuser and the abused by standing with and supporting the victims
  • What I call, “Looking for the Answer Key,” namely looking past the thrashing of kids who are acting out, looking for the reasons or trauma that may be causing their anti-social behavior.

Recording this talk was a wonderful learning experience and I am deeply grateful to Miriam Brosseau, Director of ELI Talks, and to Robin Carus, the speaking coach provided by ELI Talks. I also would like to express my gratitude to Yossi Prager/AVICHAI Foundation and to Harlene Appelman/Covenant Foundation for their grants that make ELI Talks possible.

On a personal note, my mother a”h took a turn for the worse just as I was scheduled to deliver this presentation last November. I dedicated the talk in her memory, and Miriam Brosseau was kind enough to insert dedication text and a picture of my mother and me at the end of the video.

I hope you find the talk meaningful.

Best wishes for a Gutten Shabbos,

Yakov

An Ounce of Prevention

Parshas Ki Sisa

Generally speaking, the Parshiyos of Terumah and Tetzaveh follow a sequential, logical pattern. Parshas Terumah introduces the various Keilim (utensils) of the Mishkan, along with their attributes and dimensions, while Tetzaveh lists the Bigdei Kodesh (priestly garments) of the Kohanim. This sequence would seem to be quite appropriate. The Mishkan was prepared to be the house of Hashem; the place where the Shechina (Divine Presence) rested. Therefore, first the Mishkan was mentioned, along with all its Keilim, followed by a description of the garments of the Kohanim who would frequent the ‘house’ of Hashem.

With that in mind, the placement of the Kiyor in Parshas Ki Sisa (Shemos 30:17-21) seems strikingly out of place. (The Kiyor is commonly translated as the basin or the laver. The Kohanim would wash their hands and feet using water from the Kiyor before they began their service in the Mishkan). Logic would seem to dictate that a discussion of the Kiyorwould be far more appropriate in Parshas Terumah – along with the other Keilim of the Mishkan.

The Sforno points out this difficulty and suggests an explanation. He notes that the function of the Kiyor was quite different than those of the other Keilim in the Mishkan. The various Keilim were crafted with the intent of bringing Hashem’s Shechinah to rest in the midst of Klal Yisroel, while the Kiyor served to purify the Kohanim for their daily service of the Mishkan.

Maintenance

Using a car, Lehavdil, as a (loose) analogy, we can perhaps gain insight into this line of reasoning. A comprehensive article about a new automobile would:

1) Describe details about the construction of the car,

2) List its features to the driver, and finally,

3) Provide instructions for its maintenance (such as changing the oil).

In a similar vein, the Torah discusses:

1) The building of the Mishkan (in Parshas Terumah)

2) The various garments of theKohanim who served there (in ParshasTetzaveh), and then,

3) Noted the importance of maintaining the Kedusha necessary for proper service of Hashem by describing the Kiyor and its purifying qualities. (in Parshas Ki Sisa)

An Ounce of Prevention

I would like to suggest an entirely different understanding of the reason for the placement of the Kiyor in Parshas Ki Sisa. Perhaps the Kiyor was discussed in this week’s Parsha as a precursor and antidote to the sin of the Eigel (The Golden Calf).

An optimistic person living in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu would not be faulted for making a confident prediction that once the Mshkan would be built and Hashem’s presence would rest among the Jews, there would be no more sinning and the B’nei Yisroel would forever live in spiritual sync with the Shechinah.

Sadly, this was not to be. The people of that generation, who had the fortune to witness stunning miracles, were unable to maintain their spiritual plateau for very long. In fact, the Jews in the desert sinned by serving the golden calf right after receiving the Torah and EVEN BEFORE the commandment to build the Mishkan was given to them!!

In fact, as we see so many times in the Torah, the cycle of sinning and repenting seems to repeat itself time and again.

Hashem is perfect. We, mortal beings, since the beginning of time, perpetually succumb to temptation and sin – seemingly at the most inopportune times. Adam and Chava sinned almost immediately after they were created. Their son Kayin similarly erred in his interaction with his brother Hevel. It is this struggle of an imperfect human being doing battle with his or her Yeitzer Horah (evil inclination) that is depicted by the epic battle between Yaakov Avinu and the angel of Eisav (Bereshis 32 25-33).

Refuah Before the Makkah

Hashem often prepares the Refuah before the Makkah (the remedy before the illness). In the case of the Jews in Persia, Esther was placed in a position of power before the evil decree of Haman was initiated and Mordechai saved the life of Achashveirosh before the evil decree of Haman was introduced.

Perhaps a similar message is being transmitted to us with the placement of the Kiyor in its location in this week’s Parsha – after the completion of the Mishkan and before the sin of the Eigel.

The Torah informs us that maintaining our level of Kedusha is a cyclical -and never ending – mission. Even after the Mishkan was completed, we are reminded of the ongoing need for spiritual vigilance and the renewal of our efforts to maintain our Kedushah.

Rashi, quoting the Gemara, (Zevachim 19b), notes that the Kohein would simultaneously wash the right hand and right foot, and then repeat this procedure for his left hand and foot. The Ramban explains that this symbolized that the highest point of a person’s body (the hand which can be raised above the head) and the lowest point, the foot, needed to be purified together – to join in serving Hashem.

Highs and Lows

This insight of the Ramban would seem to be congruent with the theme of the Kiyor‘s placement in Parshas Ki Sisa serving as a preparatory antidote to the sin of the Eigel.

We certainly hope that our spiritual gains in life (our high moments, represented by the hands) will be long lasting and perhaps even permanent. However, the Torah reminds us that even after sinning (our lows, represented by our feet), the soothing, refreshing waters of purification and repentance remain within our reach.

Best wishes for a Gutten Shabbos,
Yakov Horowitz

© 2016 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Link to <3 minute video Ki Sisa

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 [private] 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 [19]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.

Rabbi Horowitz:

We have very different views on the issue of having guests over for Shabbat meals. One of us feels strongly that Shabbat should be for bonding with our own children after a hectic week, while the other feels just as passionately that we should have guests over at our home often.

We have a terrific marriage, B’ezrat Hashem, but this is a sore point in our relationship as we have such differing views.

Tamar and Eitan

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Tamar, Eitan:

Firstly, please accept my congratulations on the quality of your marriage. A home imbued with shalom bayis is, in my opinion, the greatest gift that you can give to your children. A quality marriage never comes easy, but it is well worth the energy and effort that you invest in the most important relationship in your life.

As for your dilemma regarding Shabbat guests, it is difficult for me to give meaningful guidance without knowing the two of you, the age of your children, and many other variables that will impact on my response. Having said that, permit me to share some questions on this subject. Hopefully, exploring the answers to these questions will help you resolve this matter.

My first question would center on the objections of the spouse who does not wish to have guests over. The stated reason for not wanting company on Shabbat was to ‘bond with the children.’ But is that the only motive for rejecting company? I would suggest that it is entirely possible that your spouse may just want to be left alone after a long week (essentially to bond with him/herself – or you, for that matter). Personally, I suspect that is the case, and the ‘bonding’ matter is only part of the picture.

If this is the case, I think that the one who wants company ought to wisely step aside most of the time and allow his/her spouse the quiet time he/she needs. Why did I not suggest that you divide things evenly? Because I think that for some people, ‘quiet time’ is a necessity not a luxury – a ‘need’ not a ‘want.’ As such, the one who craves down time should take preference.

Another question to ask is, “Are the people we are inviting our guests or our family’s guests?” If it is a married couple with children; are their kids close in age to yours, and are the children compatible with each other? Either answer is fine. But be aware that if the guests are yours, in all likelihood, the rhythm and talk at your Shabbat table will be of little if any interest to your children. Thus, you should see to it that when you have adult company over, you afford your children the right to be excused from the table when they wish to do so. Failure to do so will quite possibly create resentment on the part of your children and they will start thinking: guests = long Shabbat meals where we are stuck at the table with people who talk about things we don’t care about.

Finally, you may want to ask yourselves if you are maintaining the proper balance between the needs of your children/family and the demands of your social obligations. Always keep in mind that your primary responsibility is to provide for the needs (and wants) of your children. Sometimes that responsibility means pulling in the welcome mat and bonding with your spouse and children.

Obviously, if both of you jointly agreed that having company over would not negatively impact your children or your quality of life, I would most certainly encourage you to have guests as often as you felt was appropriate. But, this does not seem to be the case in your home setting.

I read your question with interest as I presented a similar question to my great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam z’tl about ten years ago. About that time, I had just started both Yeshiva Darchei Noam and Project YES, and suddenly there were dramatically increased communal demands on my time. I told my rebbi that I was concerned that I was not spending enough time with my children during the week, and that I thought I ought to discontinue our practice of having guests over for Shabbat. I asked rebbi if canceling the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim at this stage in my life was in accordance with Torah hashkafa (philosophy). Rav Pam fully supported my decision. He told me that my primary obligation was to the children that Hashem blessed us with, and if I felt they needed my time, it was not only ‘permissible’ not to have guests, but the proper thing to do.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Next Week’s Question

Dear Rabbi Horowitz,

I have a question about a 10-year-old boy. My oldest has a very strong-willed personality and is very energetic.

He has a very hard time sitting in school all day (He is in school from 8:30 to 4:45). He comes home with homework and is frustrated to have sit down and do it.

He often has temper tantrums when he is asked to do his work. My husband says that he is lazy and self-centered. I agree, in part, but isn’t this what all children are like? Don’t we have to teach them how to act properly?

Thanks again

Rachel

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We are faced with a critical problem, one that we must address as a society. There is a spiritual underclass that exists in our community – dropout teens. This group of teenagers has no defining prerequisites; they come from every type of home, and every income level. These are children that mechanchim (educators), parents – indeed society as a whole – has failed to reach. In Monsey alone, there are dozens of such boys ages 16 and above who are in no yeshiva setting at all. We bump into them at the mall, and we catch sight of them through the plate glass window of the pool hall. In the greater New York area there are hundreds. And their numbers are growing. Rapidly.

On analysis, only a small percentage of these boys (and girls) have extenuating circumstances that may have contributed to their difficulties. Some come from very trying home situations. Others of a more intellectual bent have serious emuna questions that r”l led them astray. The vast majority, however, have but one thing in common. They have never felt successful in yeshiva. Shuffling from class to class, or worse yet, from school to school, their frustration grows to intolerable levels. Parental pressure increases; they often feel incredibly inadequate compared to their siblings; their self-confidence shrinks and often disappears. When they attempt to assert themselves at home or in school, it is often in awkward and inappropriate ways. This leads to more rebuke, more slings and arrows attacking their already low self-image.

This downward spiral continues until the child reaches eighth grade, and the harrowing search for a mesivta begins in earnest. After a rejection from the local mesivta, the parents frantically begin to research yeshivos geared to the underachieving student. For some the search ends there. For others, their parents fear that this type of yeshiva places a stigma on their son. Hopefully the child is accepted to his second or third choice of yeshiva high school. If this does not happen, this sensitive teenager is forced to admit to his peers that he has no idea which yeshiva will accept him. While his classmates are excitedly making summer plans, he is in limbo regarding his status for Elul Zman. By the time his parents have placed him in yeshiva, his self-image has suffered yet another body blow.

If this trend does not reverse itself in ninth or tenth grade, new dynamics enter the equation. A driver’s license. Work. A social life. Suddenly this young adult who has never been made to feel valuable or appreciated before, is told what a wonderful job he does, how charming he is etc… At this point we have entered a new phase in the struggle for this Yiddisheneshama; a very difficult uphill battle.

A Call to Action

Two rebbeim in Monsey have heeded the call of the local rabbanim, and have formed a wonderful series of nightly shiurim geared to such young men and their specific needs. To call this program a success would be an understatement. The shiurim are generally well attended and sparked by much genuine enthusiasm. Most important is the opportunity that presents itself for these bachurim to bond with a rebbe. Many times these shiurimare followed by heart-to-heart conversations with the rebbe lasting well into the night.

A monumental difference exists between our “drop-out teens” and those of the secular world. While the external trappings of these boys are not those of the average yeshiva bachur, there is a genuine thirst for spirituality in these young men. What is outstanding is the devotion these bachurim have for their rabbe’im and for each other. Many times the boys themselves approach one of the rebbes, offering to contribute to the rent money for the facilities that they use. Every wedding of a member of the group is celebrated with great simcha by all. They have developed a remarkable sense of unity that cuts across the greatly divergent backgrounds from which they come.

The secret to the success of this program is that the dedicated rabbe’im, all volunteers, follow a simple set of guidelines; one that can be instrumental in making our own contact with these youngsters successful. Don’t be judgmental or condescending. Speak to them with respect. Don’t comment on their appearance. Never, ever attempt witty cracks or humorous lines at their expense. Just accept them for what they are; nice kids going through a difficult time.

A Childhood Squandered

The most bittersweet feeling when observing this phenomenon is . . . why couldn’t we have reached these children five or eight years earlier, and avoid all this heartache? Each “client” represents so much strife within the family, so many sleepless nights for the parents, so much turmoil and pain within the boy’s psyche, so much unrealized potential for growth; indeed, a childhood squandered. We must collectively examine this situation carefully and search for meaningful changes that we can implement to reverse this frightening trend.

Each situation, taken separately, lends itself to a logical explanation. When viewing the broad picture, however, it becomes glaringly obvious that something is very, very wrong. About one child you’ll hear, “Of course he rebelled; look at how strict his parents are.” Yet regarding another young man in the same situation, you hear, “Growing up in such a permissive environment can only lead to trouble.”

  • “I begged his parents not to spoil him like that”; vs. “Are you surprised that he ran off to work? Look at how poor his family is!”
  • “Could you imagine the pressure he feels growing up with such an esteemed father?” vs. “Like father like son – he never had a role model at home. What do you expect?”

It is intellectually dishonest to dismiss this situation as anything other than what it is – a crisis in our chinuch world.

Searching For Causes

What, then, has changed so dramatically? For one thing, the moral level of the secular world at large has been in an unrestrained free fall for many years now. In the 14 years that I have been teaching eighth graders, the decadence they are exposed to has increased not incrementally, but exponentially. And its shows. Even those who do not have a television set at home cannot shield their children from the relentless barrage of decadence that permeates every face of secular society. But, despite our best efforts, we cannot completely shield our children from this onslaught.

Want we must address is a problem about which we can do a great deal to remediate. Throughout the past generation, we have been, Baruch Hashem, raising the expectation level of what our yeshiva system should produce as a final product. Yeshivos are not merely satisfied with graduating a group of young men who will attend a shiur and support the local yeshiva. Our goal is to graduate lay leaders who can give the shiurim, and yungeleit (kollel fellows) who have the ability to become the Roshei Hayeshiva. We as mechanchim (educators) are rightfully thrilled by this development. Our yeshiva-educated parent body demands it, and we eagerly do everything in our power to accede to their requests.

The Crescendo of Taunts

The harsh reality is that a substantial number of our children cannot keep up with these demands. Try as they may, many of them are unable to meet these higher expectations. As we ratchet up the tension level and raise the bar to encourage them to hurdle to greater heights, many of these children crash into the bar time and time again. Broken-hearted and discouraged, they simply stop trying and seek fulfillment elsewhere.

The haunting story of Elisha Ben Avuyah –Acher comes to mind. Acher had sinned and the door to teshuva was closed to him. He heard a BasKol, a heavenly voice, which proclaimed: “Shuvu banim shovavim chutz m’Acher.” The voice informed him that all were welcome to repent except for him. His response was “Hoyil . . . lishani behai alma.” He replied, “Since the option of teshuva is not available to me, I will at least derive pleasure from this world,” and he r’l returned to his path of sin.

These sensitive young men are misreading our well-intentioned messages to them. They are not hearing our calls to improve, they misconstrue the pleas of their parents to better their lives and enrich their futures. All that keeps reverberating in their ears is the never-ending shout of voices that pierce their hearts: “We don’t want you in our classroom, in our yeshiva, in our mesivta, in our home . . .”

Searching For Solutions

It is not my intent to offer broad solutions to this complex problem. For that we defer, as always, to our Gedolim. I would humbly like to share with other mechanchim some of the methods that – combined with the tefillaand seyata diShmaya – I have found to be helpful in these situations.

1) Convey to your talmidim again and again that each of them has a contribution to make to Klal Yisroel. We all had classmates who struggled in yeshiva and became outstanding adults. Share some anecdotes with some of the weaker talmidim in a private setting. This past year, when I had quite a few talmidim who were not learning well and were very frustrated, I was speaking to the entire class about overcoming adversity. A talmid respectfully asked me, “What do you know about difficulty?”

I immediately responded, “You obviously never met my eighth grade rebbe.”

When the laughter subsided, and I saw that he was not satisfied, I softly informed the class that I had had a speech impediment – stuttering – as a child and I had to go to therapy to correct this problem. They were shocked. They also didn’t believe me. I told them to think back carefully and remember that often when teaching a difficult piece of gemora, I often let my guard down and stutter a bit. It made such an impression on them that several parents called that night thanking me for sharing my infirmity with the children, and how validating it was for their son to know that their rebbe had to overcome shortcomings of his own.

2) The Parent-Teacher Conference affords an important opportunity to review the accomplishments of the talmid with his parents, and discuss areas that need improvement. It has its limitations, however. The conference is generally conducted in December, after much of the semester has passed. There is precious little “quality time” for a serious, protracted discussion of the situation. Most of all, the most important element of this dialogue is missing . . . the student.

Three years ago, I experimented with a new technique for helping talmidim who were not learning according to their ability. The week after Sukkos, I invited the parents of one such talmid to my home and requested that their son come along. We scheduled the meeting for late evening, when their younger children (and mine) were sleeping. We spent approximately a full hour discussing many issues pertaining to the child’s education and social interaction. The improvement in the boy’s learning was remarkable.

Since then, I have been doing this with all talmidim that are not performing at their level. I have yet to conduct such a meeting and fail to see a dramatic improvement in the boy’s attitude and learning.

3) We teachers must stop the destructive habit of obtaining a scouting report on our talmidim before the school year begins. There is no valid reason for doing this. One would have to be superhuman not to let negative information taint the way we treat the incoming class. Speak to many of the teenage “problem kids.” You will hear this refrain again and again: “I was never given a fair chance after my first bad year.” There just may be some truth to it. How many times have we heard the warning, “Watch out for —[a particular child]?”

In the spirit of fairness, let us imagine that we were told negative information about the best student in the class. Picture the scenario. The star talmid raises his hand the very first day to ask a splendid question on the day’s gemorah lesson. The rebbe hears warning bells. (“They were right about this kid; he’s starting up already!”)

“Put your hand down.”
“But I have. . .”
“I said put your hand down!!”
“But rebbe, you misunderstand . . .”
“I WHAT?? OUT!!!”

It is critical for a rebbe to have certain information about his talmidim before the year begins, to ascertain which students require more sensitive handling. If a child has a sick parent or sibling or if the child comes from a challenging home situation, etc… these facts must be conveyed to a rebbe.

When a new group of talmidim enter the classroom, the first thing that the rebbe should tell them is that he knows nothing about them, and that he has no interest in their past performance.

4) Parents, teachers, and other authority figures at times hold up children for embarrassment or shame in front of classmates, siblings, or friends (“Do you really know ‘Oleinu’ [a portion of the daily prayers] by heart? Without a Siddur? Come, let’s all hear your marvelous memory at work!”), leaving emotional scars and feelings of anger that can smolder for years. Not every sin must be uncovered. Words of admonishment that are offered with love and understanding, respecting the child’s feelings and need for privacy, will be received accordingly.

5) A dress code is an integral part of the structure of any yeshiva. Indeed, it is often a defining element in the school; as such, the yeshiva has the obligation to enforce these rules vigorously. When the child runs afoul of these guidelines, however, it can be a source of great conflict between a talmid and his rebbe. I strongly suggest that if it becomes obvious that these violations are not isolated incidents, but rather indicate a rebellious pattern, it would be appropriate for the administration of the yeshiva to step in, and time for the rebbe to exit gracefully.

rebbe cannot afford to squander all of his political capital and enter an adversarial relationship with a talmid over the length of the child’s hair, size of his yarmulke, etc. To be sure, parents must assume responsibility and support the yeshiva’s position. Without this crucial backing, the yeshiva will find it quite impossible to resolve this situation painlessly.

6) Within a heterogeneous group, much can be done to accommodate the educational and social needs of the talmid who is encountering difficulty.

Tests can be a source of great stress for the underachiever. On a temporary basis, it is often helpful to allow the child to be tested on a small portion of the material covered (1 blatt our of 4; until Sheini in Chumash). Insist on perfection for that amount. After you have built up his self-confidence, he will be able to be accountable for larger amounts.

If a talmid is obviously unable to read the Gemora or Chumash, perhaps assure him that in the short term you will not call on him to read publicly. Or better yet, give him a short piece to prepare, and only then call on him to say this piece. He will be grateful to you for caring about his feelings and his desire to learn will increase tenfold.

Another helpful idea is to allow the child to take notes during shiur and then use them during the written exam. Insist that they must be his notes only; don’t allow him to copy from the other boys. You will be training him to be focused and involved in eth daily shiur.

Much tact is needed to avoid incurring the envy of the other students. One way to deal with this is by reserving the top echelon of report-card grades for those who do not resort to any of these aids. Generally speaking, the other students will respect the fact that you are dealing gently with their peers. You also will be teaching them a valuable lesson in derech eretzand tolerance.

To Track or Not to Track

There has always been a heated debate among mechanchim whether the larger yeshivos, those that have two classes or more in each grade level, should “track” the talmidim (grouping them according to ability) or not. Those who disagree with the tracking method cite two valid reasons:

a) The presence of talmidim who excel in their limudim (studies) gives average performers a goal to aim for. Indeed, lack of boys that are “shteiging” could lead to lowered expectations, resulting in weaker children not even performing ion accordance with their limited abilities. Additionally, the presence of a stronger group of talmidim is often a positive influence in terms of yiras Shmayim – they daven better etc…

To deprive weaker talmidim of this positive peer pressure is unfair and undermines their future. Why should we compromise the goals of these talmidim just because they find learning difficult? The often-quoted p’sakin this matter is from Rabbi Aaron Kotler z’tl, who advised school heads not to remove weaker students from the class, and maintained that they will, with the passage of time, integrate with the other talmidim and remain devoted to Torah and mitzvos.

b) We do not live in a Utopian society. The brutal reality is that these children become labeled as soon as they are placed in a slower track. They feel inadequate, no mesivta will take them, and they will become second-class citizens. Principals fear a bruising battle with each parent who is informed of the decision to track their son.

Rethinking the Issues

Perhaps the time has come to rethink our opposition to this system. Let us address the two above-mentioned factors. First the educational concerns:

We will begin with the p’sak of Reb Aaron. As explained to me by Rabbi Yehoshua Silbermintz z’l, who discussed this issue personally with Reb Aaron, the Rosh Yeshiva was addressing a totally different situation. The question posed was: “At what point does the yeshiva/rebbe have the authority to ask a disruptive child top leave the yeshiva/classroom?” To which Reb Aaron replied that if the presence of a talmid is so detrimental to the general atmosphere by his conduct or by eroding the moral compass of others, the yeshiva has the right, indeed the obligation, to remove him before he harms others.

The next question posed was what to do with a boy who casts a pall over the classroom – not by disrupting, but by his lack of effort or inability to keep up.

In this context, the poignant p’sak, ”Let a weak talmid remain and listen,” has little bearing on our discussion.

Even if there were a direct p’sak regarding the issue of tracking talmidim, I would suggest that the dynamics of the more elevated nature of our mainstream classes nowadays, would dictate that we ask our present-day Gedolim to reassess this difficult situation for us.

On Track in General Studies

Afternoons, I serve as the General Studies Principal in a Monsey yeshiva. The children are tracked according to level in secular studies. During May 1995, grades 5 and 7 took the Iowa Tests, a battery of standardized tests. The results confirmed what I had long suspected. Many of the boys who were below level in reading and spelling were above average, even brilliant, in math. Others who were strong in reading found math difficult. I restructured grades 6 through 8 to permit students to be in the “A” track for math and the “B” track for all other subjects; or vice versa. This move involved a great deal of effort. After carefully reviewing each child’s report card to be certain that my placements were sound, I called all parents of children who were to be affected. Before the teachers left for the summer, I requested their evaluation regarding all of their students.

The result? Many boys now thrive in classes they can keep up with; many bright boys who were bored in the lower math class are now excited to be working at their level. Discipline is less of a factor, and I certainly am more familiar with every student and his progress. In fact, two eighth graders in the “B” track for Language Arts are currently in an accelerated “Regents Program” in math – no small accomplishment.

Some Implications

I do not advocate departmentalizing Limudei Kodesh. Torah is handed down from rebbe to talmid. It is difficult enough to maintain a close relationship with 25 students, let alone 75. We can, however, structure our classes to create homogenous groups so that the underachieving student can be educated appropriately. This would also alleviate the very real problem of bright students who are developing poor study habits in mainstream classes – where they are frustrated at being forced to endure long stretches of review sessions the new gemora lessons that they so quickly and eagerly devour. Which brings us to the social issue. . . .

Without question, it is hurtful for a child to be informed that he belongs in a weaker class. However, this temporary discomfort will pass. Children adapt to all situations. This cannot begin to compare to the ongoing pain of knowing you are not growing, the agony of that walk to the Rebbe’s desk to pick up your test paper, the dread of being called upon to read the gemora in public.

The major difficulty is getting the parents on board. I firmly believe that the parents will be willing partners in this endeavor if we can convince them that these changes are for their son’s benefit and not to alleviate a problem that the yeshiva has. If they are still unhappy, we must have the courage of our convictions. Our job is to decide what is in the child’s best interest and then to act. We cannot be in the position of reacting to the polling data regarding the popularity of a decision on such an important issue. The parents only want what we want: a happy, motivated, well adjusted child. When they witness their child’s progress, they will agree that we made the correct decision.

A Rewarding Challenge for the Right Rebbe

A word to rebbeim who might have the inclination to teach a tracked class geared to the underachieving talmid: by all means do so!

If your menahel is opposed to the idea, plead with him to try it just once. Prepare yourself for this task by getting as much educational training as possible. However, what you really need is to love your talmidim, and believe – truly believe – that there are no bad children. Your talmidim will pick up on this feeling and give you the utmost. It will be the most rewarding experience of your chinuch life.

Yes, you will miss that delightful feeling of starting a Beis Halevi [an advanced Torah thought] and watching the brilliant talmid jump up and finish it for you, all the while giving you that 100-watt smile. Your successes will be very small at the onset, but they will without question grow as the year progresses. Most of all, that wonderful feeling of knowing you turned a young man’s life around forever, will be yours for the rest of your life.

You must be made aware of the drawbacks of teaching a class such as this. You will be genuinely sad when the year ends – you’d love to have just a bit more time to polish the diamond that you discovered and washed so very carefully. You will worry about your talmidim – long after they have left your class – in a way you never thought you could. You will find yourself calling their present rebbeim to plead with them to have a soft touch with your talmid. Every bein hazmanim (yeshiva intersession), as soon as the boys return home from yeshiva, they will drop in to say hello. Former talmidim will call you every Friday afternoon to wish you “A gutten Shabbos.” Every Purim, until they go off to Eretz Yisroel, or get married, they will be at your home with mishloach manos.

You see, you aren’t becoming rebbe of theirs; hopefully you will become the rebbe – the one that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

© 1996 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Recommended Reading: The Monster Inside and Safe and Secure

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 [private] 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 [19]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.”

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Two program notes:

1)Moving forward, each of the Chicago Community Kollel Parenting Columns will be posted on my website the week after they are disseminated and posted by the Kollel. Feel free to sign up for the Kollel’s emails at www.cckollel.org if you wish to review them earlier.

This week, I was scheduled to write Part II of the column advising parents about how to answer their children’s questions regarding the horrific Merkaz HaRav tragedy. However, all week long, our home phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from parents asking for assistance with the challenges they face balancing the needs of their at-risk kids with familial obligations as Pesach comes. Next week, I plan on continuing with Part II of the Merkaz HaRav column, unless I receive a significant number of follow-up questions regarding this week’s column that require responses. If you would like other questions on Yom Tov related topics addressed, please post them on this thread.

Y.H.

Yomim Tovim and At-Risk Kids

Our 18-year-old daughter is in middle of a very rocky year in Eretz Yisroel, where she was expelled from one seminary and barely finished the semester in another. We don’t think that she is observant now. We have so many questions:

  • Should we invite her home for Yom Tov? She will gladly come home, but said she can stay in Eretz Yisroel as well.
  • Should we tell her siblings the truth about the fact that she may not be Shomer Shabbos now? How about our married children who will be arriving home after she has been in America for a while. Should we give them a heads-up? They will be shocked when they see her, and we don’t want them blurting out anything silly or offending. We are worried though, that our daughter may be insulted that we discussed her ‘matzav’ without her permission.
  • As we live ‘out-of-town,’ I usually have my parents at our home for the entire Pesach. Here is the problem: I am quite sure that my mother will handle this very well, but my father will keep criticizing our daughter throughout Yom Tov. One of my siblings had an at-risk son a few years ago, and I cringe when I remember all the hurtful things my father said. What should I do?

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

For starters, I would most definitely encourage you to have your daughter spend Yom Tov with you at your home. It may be easier to have her away in Eretz Yisroel, but not wiser. Hopefully, you can create the nurturing home environment that will allow her to heal from the ‘rocky’ semester you described and regain her bearings.

I would strongly suggest that you and your spouse immediately schedule several sessions with a professionally licensed family therapist to better prepare you for her time home, and to train you in effective communication with a challenging teen. I would also just as strongly suggest, that you do not have any substantive discussions with her during her first day or two at home. First allow her to ‘settle in’, and regain the comfort level that any child should have in her home. When she is more relaxed, you will have far better and more productive conversations. In fact, it may be a good idea for you to inform her that you would like to have a substantive talk with her sometime in the next week or so, but that she should decide when she is ready to talk.

I’m going to print a rather long excerpt from previous column to make the point that, in my opinion, the main focus of your discussions with your child ought not be about spiritual matters, but rather to just get her back on track first. (Please see the bottom of this email for the excerpt, and click on the link for the entire essay.)

As far as informing the relatives goes, I would suggest that, time permitting, you wait for your daughter to arrive home, and once she is settled, get some input from her as to how much, what, and to whom she would like you to share information about her status and challenges. Our personalities are so different from each other that there is really not one-answer-fits-all for this. Your daughter may not care at all what anyone thinks or sees, or she may want her privacy. Let her write the script – well before your married children and extended family members arrive. You may help her make the decision by pointing our pros and cons of each choice; for example, point out to her that she may feel uncomfortable if people recoil or make comments when they see her if she chooses the privacy route. (An interesting footnote to this: when people I know well and see on a regular basis come to discuss personal matters with me, such as their impending-but-still-unpublicized separation or divorce, I always ask them at the end of our discussion if they would like me to ask them how things are going when I see them socially, as a show of support, or would they rather I make believe we never spoke about this matter and offer them their privacy. Most pick privacy.)

Before I offer my thoughts on should-you-invite-parents-or-other-family-members-who-will-say-hurtful-things-to-your-daughter?, I suggest that you get a second (or first) opinion on this one from your Rav or Rosh Yeshiva, as there are halachic ramifications of kibbud av v’em in this question. Additionally, I am well aware that many of my colleagues will disagree with what I am proposing.

That said, here goes: I think that the very first responsibility of parents are to each other and to their children. Your obligations to everyone else – everyone – comes after the needs of your nuclear family members are met. So if you have members of your family who will hurt your child’s psyche when she is so vulnerable, I would not invite them, or I would very respectfully but firmly set the ground rules for them coming.

Here is the script: “Tatty, Mommy; Chavie is going through a very difficult time now. We are determined to give her our unconditional love and acceptance, as this is what she needs to get back on her feet. It is very hard for us, but we are committed to doing this. If you can come in this spirit, we would love to have you for Yom Tov. But if you cannot, we’re sorry, but …

Frankly, I think of it in terms of an allergic reaction. Imagine if your daughter gets asthmatic attacks when exposed to cigarette smoke, and your father is a chain smoker. I think you would say something like the script above, “We’d love to have you for Yom Tov, but don’t even think of lighting up.” Well, your daughter is allergic to caustic comments and criticism that is not constructive in nature. It is your duty as parents to protect her from it at all costs. She will be forever grateful to you for doing so.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

An Excerpt from “Getting Your Teenager Back on Track”

Imagine that you went for a walk one winter morning and found your neighbor sitting in his car vigorously turning the steering wheel of his car – while the engine is shut off. When you ask him why he doesn’t start the car, he responds to you that his battery died, and he will soon get jumper cables to ‘give it a boost’. However, before he does that, he would like to turn the front wheels away from the curb so that once the car is started; he will instantly be able to pull out of the parking space and get to work.

I think that this analogy sheds some light into my overall line of thinking regarding assisting at-risk teens. Very often, and understandably so, parents would like to start helping their kids by addressing the antisocial behavior (ex. drug/alcohol abuse) or the rejection of Torah values (ex. not keeping Shabbos). I have found, however, that the most effective thing that parents can do to really help their children is to assist them in getting their lives in order. Once that is accomplished, it is far, far easier to help with the other matters.

You see, as long as your teen is unhappy and/or unproductive, it is as if his/her life is on hold – as the vehicle of his/her life is stalled. The ‘power steering’ that enables positive change to occur and a sense of spirituality to develop, can only kick in when the engine of accomplishment is turned on. You can exert a great deal of force turning the wheel while the engine is off, but you will be draining your energy, shredding the tires and digging trenches in your driveway while this is going on. It is much wiser to work on helping him/her achieve success first. The rest will follow, with the help of Hashem.

I often tell parents of at-risk teens to follow the sage advice of the Kotzker Rebbe (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1859) who noted that the Torah informs us (Shemos 22:30) “V’anshei kodesh te’heyu li – people of holiness shall you be to Me.” The rebbi pointed out that the Torah places the word anshei before kodesh, in effect telling us to be a ‘mentch’ before attempting to achieve spirituality (his exact works in Yiddish were, “kodem a mench un nach dem heilig – first [become] a [refined] mench, [and only then [strive to become more] holy).

While the rebbi did not express these thoughts in terms of at-risk teens, I feel that this thought represents by far the most effective way for parents to chart a course for the lives of their at-risk kids. Help them become ‘mentchen’ – functioning, productive young adults who have a reason to wake up in the morning, who feel that each day is a gift that ought to be unwrapped as the treasure that it is – before you work on the at-risk symptoms. For once they become happier and more productive; you will find it so much easier to ‘turn the wheel.’ (Here is a link to an open letter that I wrote to yeshiva bachurim a few years ago about planning for their lives. The Plan I hope that you – and he – find it helpful.)

In a very practical sense, it means to help him/her get a GED, or better yet help resume schooling in a mainstream setting. Send him/her for career counseling and get him/her a job. Tell your child that you are in this together and you will always love him/her forever (you may get a roll of the eyes, but I can assure you that your child will be forever grateful for this). Get your child into therapy if there are ‘issues’ that need to be resolved. Show leadership and express your love for your child by going for counseling yourself to help you effectively parent your child through this challenging stage in his/her life.

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The last time that you cancelled a credit card, you probably received a phone call from a representative of the company within a week or so. The individual asked you why you took your business elsewhere and if there is anything he/she can do to encourage you to reconsider your decision to sever your ties with their company. This phone call is part of an overall ‘exit interview’ strategy, which serves a very important function in the effective execution of a company’s business plan. After all, if you decided to cancel your credit card due to poor customer service, excessive fees, or steep interest rates, it is safe to assume that many others will follow your lead.

Well, over the past twenty years, I conducted hundreds of terribly painful ‘exit interviews’ with children and adults who have abandoned Yiddishkeit. I can tell you in no uncertain terms what it is that they wanted – and why they took their business elsewhere. They were looking for respect and understanding. Acceptance. Safe and nurturing home lives. Hands-on parents who offer unconditional love along with their guidance. Caring educators who dealt with their admitted misdeeds gently and privately (firmly was OK). The ability to be a bit different without being labeled or judged. More time for hobbies and more recreational opportunities.

With this in mind, imagine that you live in a community where a few boys and girls have strayed from the path of Torah and engaged in at-risk behaviors (read: all communities). Parents and educators grow increasingly apprehensive and look for solutions. The question on everyone’s mind is how to address the concern that this may happen to their child(ren).

I would think that the frightened parents in the community ought to shorten the hours that their children are in school, offer more extra-curricular activities, clamor for more tolerance, invest in the educators of their childrenand boycott the schools that dismiss children for misdeeds. The community leaders would do well to meet with the mental-health professionals and those who deal with the ‘at-risk’ teen population, perhaps even with the troubled kids themselves, and listen – really listen – to their advice. I would love to tell you that this is happening. It pains me to report that this is usually not the case. Those of us who deal with at-risk kids are consulted in firefighter mode by desperate parents and educators – but little time and energy is being spent in fire prevention. They are asking us what to do with the at-risk kids, but not what we think should be done for all our children.

In many communities, I’m sad to report, exactly the opposite is happening. School hours are getting longer and longer. Kids have less time and opportunity to engage in desperately needed recreational activities. In fact, in some communities, normal sports activities are frowned upon or outright banned – sometimes for children above the age of ten years old!! Schools that dismiss children are valued and pursued. Acceptance criterion for high schools is getting increasingly more challenging. On many occasions, I have clearly stated that in today’s climate I would probably not have been accepted to any ‘normal’ high school when I graduated eighth grade thirty-three years ago!!

Most peculiar is the reaction of parents who respond to their fears by striving mightily to place their children in the most rigorous programs. The thinking is that their children will be safe there, as the ‘chevrah’ will be better and the ‘at-risk’ children will be excluded from those elite schools. However, this thinking is terribly flawed. For there is no guarantee that their child – or one of their children some time in the future of their family life – will not be one of those children who will need some adjustment, tolerance, or understanding. So, in effect, the parents are raising the bar – and the ante of this very high-stakes gamble – by opting to send their child to a program that purports to produce a ‘metzuyan’ or ‘mitzuyenes’ (exemplary children). But at the same time, they are greatly increasing the odds that their child may find the train running away from him or her. And, in all my years of dealing with the at-risk teen population, I have not noticed that the elitist schools have any lower percentage of kids abandoning Yiddishkeit. All the more so if you include those who were asked to “find another school,” midway in their school experience.

I will close this column by quoting the words of my very wise grandmother a’h. She often would remark that, “ales mit a t’si toig nisht.” Loosely translated, that means that anything overdone is bound to backfire.

Her grandson’s advice mirrors that thought. If I may use a baseball analogy, when raising your children, don’t swing for the fences**. Just try to make contact and get on base. Trust me, you will score more runs that way. Keep in mind that most mighty swings result in strikeouts.

And, l’man Hashem, keep your eye on the ball.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

** This is not by any means to suggest that we lower our standards or abandon our quest for excellence. More on this in future columns.