One of the advantages of living in a metropolitan area with a large Orthodox Jewish population is the existence of a ‘Minyan Center’ – a synagogue where one can find a quorum for prayer at almost any hour of the day or night. If the hour is late and ten adult males are not present immediately, one individual usually waits outside the shul and cajoles passers-by to enter and form the requisite quorum. A minyan is a spiritual gathering, where individuals take time from their hectic days to join in prayer and bring meaning to their lives. In the course of human events, there are many other types of gatherings. People band together for comfort, for camaraderie, to share common interests and hobbies.
What motivated me to write my first article on at-risk teens in 1996 was my observation that the disenfranchised young men and women who were not achieving success in our school system were beginning to ‘make their own minyanim.’ Now, eleven years later, I am watching this happen on a much larger scale and I am shaken to the core in fear of what I see coming in the years ahead – unless we go backwards in time and recapture the ‘chinuch hayoshon’ in which my generation was raised. One where every child felt valued and appreciated, where there was a more balanced curriculum, where there was an allowance for diverse life/career paths among boys and girls, and perhaps most importantly, where there was a far greater tolerance level for diversity of thought and appearance. That, my dear readers, is what is driving me to write this series of columns. Allow me to explain.
For three decades or so, until the early 1990’s, kids who dropped out of our Yeshiva/Beis Yaakov system and became non-observant were doing so quietly and unobtrusively. A boy here. A girl there. Perhaps two or three at a time. In the aggregate, the children who left school may have been a significant number, but there were not enough to ‘form a minyan’.
About 1995 or so, a number of cultural changes occurred that transformed the at-risk phenomenon from isolated individuals to more of a trend. Our population grew exponentially, b’eh, swelling the number of adolescent children in our school system. At the same time, schools began responding to parental pressure by significantly raising their acceptance standards and lowering their tolerance level for non-conformance to societal norms. These two factors combined to create a huge increase in the number of ‘drop-out teenagers’ in our community. Once that happened, the kids began forming their own informal social support groups where they ‘hung out’ together and provided each other with the acceptance and solidarity that had heretofore eluded them.
Then, seemingly overnight, a sociological phenomenon occurred. A ‘tipping point’ was reached and the kids no longer felt intimidated by the social constraints of our frum society. Suddenly teenage boys and girls who were raised in observant homes – some whose parents were very distinguished members in our community – were openly flaunting their rejection of Torah values. Things hit rock bottom and were thrust into the public eye when dozens of frum teens – many of them clad in white shirts, dark slacks and wearing yarmulkes – began gathering each Friday night on Ocean Parkway (a main thoroughfare in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn) smoking cigarettes and ‘hanging out’ while frum couples strolled by after their Shabbos evening meal. What happened? The kids discovered that they had their own minyan, which changed the entire dynamics of their social status.
Our community responded magnificently by creating a host of diverse intervention and prevention programs to help these children – and their younger siblings. Special schools were created for at-risk kids, and support groups for their parents.
So why the worry, you ask? My fear is that there are far, far too many ‘outer ring’ children who are in danger of heading for the exits. As I pointed out in the previous column(s), over the past ten to fifteen years we have dramatically raised the bar for entry to our schools. That inadvertently results in disenfranchising a portion of our children.
The shift over these years from a balanced kodesh curriculum to an almost gemorah-only learning program, which is a virtual Gan-Eden for those who love learning gemorah, also excludes a portion of our boys from the ‘inner-ring’ of our community.
Finally, many mainstream schools are becoming – or being forced to become – far less tolerant of the misdeeds of children nowadays. This is causing an explosion in the number of our children drifting to the ‘outer rings’ of our society. Many of these kids may still be in our schools, but they do not really feel connected.
Most frightening of all, from my perspective, is the interactive nature of the Internet, cell phones and PDA’s. Kids who aren’t making it in our schools don’t need to go to Ocean Parkway to find comfort and friendship. They are already finding each other over the airwaves. The nature of the rapidly evolving technology will allow them to more efficiently and effectively communicate with each other – all around the world. Things have not reached the tipping point – yet. But all the warning signs are there. And when and if that happens, the snowball may roll completely out of our control.
I pray to Hashem that my fear is misplaced. But all I see from my vantage point is a rapidly growing group of children who are not finding success in our school system. They are searching for friendship and a sense of belonging. This basic need will be fulfilled somewhere. The question is only where that place will be.
Seven, eight, nine…
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved