Monday, August 13, 2007

Ki ein bayit asher ein sham meit

Last week, I received an e-mail concerning an incident that had taken place in Monticello, N.Y. on the previous motzaei Shabbat. The writer was one of the community activists who intervened in what he described as a base scene of debauchery that included young women and men from across the spectrum of observant Jewry. To his credit, he ascribed no blame for the incident. Many of the bloggers, however, were quite willing to serve as both judge and jury and let their learned comments loose. Their tone suggests that they understand their subject despite their lack of expertise in dealing with teenagers. "I was a teenager, I have sired teenagers, therefore I can analyze the problems of teenagers." The parallel would be: “I have a headache, I've given others headaches, therefore I am qualified to be a neurosurgeon.”

This week I received another e-mail from the same source announcing that the problem had been solved. He and a group of askanim had come to the site early, before the parties began. They made arrangements before Shabbat that the local pool hall would be for boys and the local bowling lanes for girls. They put patrols in place to guarantee separation and voila, the situation was and is under control.

I have the greatest respect for the person behind the e-mails; he works tirelessly, is very well meaning and has a great deal of real life experience. But like many practitioners, he focuses on symptoms rather than dealing with the problem itself. This is not a criticism; his role is to deal with problems once they manifest themselves. However, my experience has been that the problem we are facing as a growing avalanche of "kids at risk" uses the Catskills as their latest venue, is a fault of the type of schools and families that we have created.

As a high school level mechanech for some thirty years, I firmly believe that no-one has complete expertise in understanding teenage behavior; it remains the world's most inexact science. The consolation in dealing with adolescence is that it usually lasts for six years and then miraculously cures itself. That said, I do have a sense that even without statistical data to support my theory, many readers will agree that the analysis I offer makes sense and deserves to be further explored. A caveat: I begin this diatribe by pointing out that I do not yet have a concrete plan for implementing what I feel is the real resolution to the “kids at risk” phenomenon. I therefore open it up to you and would greatly appreciate your direct feedback.

To begin, I propose that the identification of students as being “kids at risk” be expanded rather than limited to those who exhibit high risk behavior vis-a-vis alcohol, tobacco or substance abuse. The adolescents throwing rocks in Ramat Beit Shemesh are as much a part of this problem as are the kids in Monticello. Both exhibit “conduct unbecoming a Jew” and both are “off the derech” even if one is considered a greater indication of departure from halachic norms than the other.

Additionally, I would like to remove from the equation, for the meantime, those adolescents who are clearly “at risk” because of sociological or psychological factors. Physical and sexual abuse, ADD, ADHD or diagnosable learning difficulties need treatment in and of themselves, and while they are clearly behavioral modifiers, they are often treatable through medication, therapy or various compensations and modifications.

I direct my comments to those adolescents who come from what seem to be stable, loving homes, who have been mainstreamed educationally and who nevertheless just don’t fit in. There are those who blame their departure from the derech to exposure to the internet and to the electronic and print media, blasting them as an evil the extent of which has never raised its head against the innocent youth of our people.

Frankly, I don’t think that the internet, as addictive as it can be [ask any serious blogger’s wife], is the cause of people going off the derech. Rather, once the person has begun to slide down the slippery slope out of Judaism, the internet may function as an outlet for various frustrations or as a means of discovering information that he had heretofore been consciously avoiding. Drugs and alcohol can be viewed in the same vein: kids experiment because there is a void they are trying to fill. If that void did not exist, or if there was something as fulfilling that could fill the void, they would avoid the temptation because they are aware of where it can lead.

In my relationships with adolescents through the years, and in talking to colleagues in the field, I have a sense that the overwhelming majority of kids at risk would like nothing more than to remain within the system. The fact that they experiment, or engage in illicit behavior, is no indication that they have chosen to abandon the derech. I, for example, would not be surprised at all if the kids who rented bungalows in Monticello for a weekend of partying [which I am sure included promiscuous behavior and a great deal of chilul Shabbos] nevertheless made kiddush Friday night and made sure that the food was glatt!

Ki ein bayit asher ein sham meit. There is no home in which one will not find someone who is dead spiritually. Intellectually, our schools have been a phenomenal success. In the post-war period we have created a true dor deah. Our kids collectively learn more Mishnayot, more dapei gemara, more rishonim and achronim than previous generations. It is true that previous generations learned more deeply on an individual level - we would be hard-pressed to match the level of Slobodka and Volozhin - but that is because a decision was made in the wake of the Second World War to expand the yeshivot quantitatively at the expense of their quality. Spiritually, our yeshivot have become morgues. Little or no time is spent on real mussar; a yeshiva that has a short seder where talmidim who barely understand Hebrew rode-read Sha’arei Teshuvah or Mesilat Yesharim is paying lip service to the idea of mussar. Machashavah is a subject that is almost never discussed on the high school level.

Instead of challenging teens within the yeshivot to discuss their feelings about their personal role in the world and to examine their Jewish personna, the mashgiach, mashpia, rosh yeshiva engages in a monologue focusing on how awful general society is and how superior we are as Jews. This often confounds the young man - or woman - who hears that he or she is a member of an am hanivchar but doesn’t really know what that means. If he is superior, then he can act like a behemah and burn garbage cans to protest infringements on his royal territory. He can shove a woman off the bus if she invades his turf, because he ranks higher in the pyramid of life. He or she also looks around at his surroundings and wonders in which way is he or she really superior? In ethical behavior, in treatment of his environment?

What transpires in the beit midrash when the rosh yeshiva or mashgiach tells the student that tefillah raises him to a level of kirvat Elokim that is the greatest source of joy that man can experience? A percentage of kids will accept this without even needing further elaboration, for they are endowed with a natural sense of spirituality that can recognize the satisfaction of a relationship with G-d. Another percentage wait for the speaker to demonstrate how this is possible and when he fails to do so, are frustrated but not yet ready to throw it all away. And then there is a percentage who say that the words of the teacher are empty phrases and when they recall them, deem them to be completely out of touch.

I have heard speakers talk to high school students in Israel and the U.S. Those who made the greatest impact were the ones who understood that they were not standing in the beit midrash in Baranovich or Kaminetz. Those who had the least impact were those who were either back in Eastern Europe or who walked into the beit midrash poorly prepared to face reality. Their cynical attempts to denigrate popular culture usually backfired. The speaker thought he had won the battle because he had drawn laughter. Little did he realize that he had caused great damage because his remarks were so obviously based on a limited information bank. I would suggest, for example, that these type of rabbis avoid historical issues unless they are truly well versed in the fields they mention. There’s almost nothing more shattering to a teenager than to hear someone who they are told to respect reveal his foolishness or ignorance.

... to be continued ...


12 comments:

Anonymous said...

You write well but your background is black and your font small so hard to read

Thanks

Zelig said...

Well said. But do you really think that setting up shomrim at these sites will actually fix the problem at all? Today it's pool lanes, and i'm sure tomorrow these teens will find some new hang out.

charadiation said...

I think you missed the point ... the separate pool halls and bowling alleys are simply more band-aids placed on an open wound. While more realistic than saying no to everything, they do not solve what remains a festering and dangerous malaise. My question and hopefully the solution is what do we do to attack the source - lack of an aspiration for spirituality [or kirvat Elokim] which itself makes the separations and limitations bearable and doable.

Doniel Nosson said...

In addition, I feel that there is a heavy emphasis on the "Oys of Judaism and not the Joys." Judaism is taught to the youth as a bunch of do's and dont's. There is a lack of emphasis on experiencing the beauty of a shabbos or understanding the wisdom of the torah. I took a class with Prof Gil Perl and in class we spoke about how R' Yisroel Salanter initiated a change in Jewish hashkafa. Although, we are taught that Avodah M'Ahava is on a greater level than Avodah M'Yirah. Practically, ppl respond better to Yirah, so R' Yisroel Salanter started to emphasize yiras hashem, yiras ha'onesh, etc. After class we discussed how it is possible that the emphasis on Yiras Ha'onesh was necessary for RYS dor, but perhaps now it is alienating more ppl than it is motivating. Any thoughts?

Zelig said...

Good Rabbi, I realize my comment wasnt aimed at the thesis of your argument- but I'm questioning what you even call the "band aids." Will this short term solution actually prove beneficial in the future? I can think of no bigger turn off than the students in certain high schools out there who have to be worried about being seen by "spies" and the like that are out there to provide their principal with a full report of the weekend activity. I think it creates mistrust and ill will between the talmid and the adminsitration.

shmuel said...

Thank G-d. A sane voice in the wilderness. Thank you for your blog. Keep writing, please!

Rabbi M said...

I thought you make a lot of sense, many of the second generation post-war Roshei Yeshiva avoided appointing mashgichim and avoided spirituality like the plague. The reasons were mostly their insecurities and fear that a mashgiach with whom a student can discuss a problem will have more of a following than a Rosh Yeshiva who just gives shiur. Some of them also were contaminated by the anti-mussar of Brisk. In an earlier generation everyone understood that the Brisker Rov was a godol, but that other great people were more suited to being Roshei Yeshiva. Today, we have many people who are poorly suited to their educational role, and too insecure and myopic to share the control of the yeshiva with others. This plays a role in the fallout. It also explains why some students from great families and backgrounds find more success in baal teshuva yeshivos which emphasize personality as well as scholastics

Yehuda said...

You write: "Spiritually, our yeshivot have become morgues. Little or no time is spent on real mussar; a yeshiva that has a short seder where talmidim who barely understand Hebrew rode-read Sha’arei Teshuvah or Mesilat Yesharim is paying lip service to the idea of mussar. Machashavah is a subject that is almost never discussed on the high school level."

This all makes a lot of sense; however, there is one yeshiva system where kids spend AT LEAST 3 hours a day in serious learning of machshova, mussar, kabola, spirituality, etc. I'm referring to Lubavitch, a system I know well from the inside. Nevertheless, I'd say Lubavitch is loosing a huge amount of its kids, in spite of this. Surely this indicates that "spirituality" is not the only answer?

Yehuda said...

You write: "Spiritually, our yeshivot have become morgues. Little or no time is spent on real mussar; a yeshiva that has a short seder where talmidim who barely understand Hebrew rode-read Sha’arei Teshuvah or Mesilat Yesharim is paying lip service to the idea of mussar. Machashavah is a subject that is almost never discussed on the high school level."

This all makes a lot of sense; however, there is one yeshiva system where kids spend AT LEAST 3 hours a day in serious learning of machshova, mussar, kabola, spirituality, etc. I'm referring to Lubavitch, a system I know well from the inside. Nevertheless, I'd say Lubavitch is loosing a huge amount of its kids, in spite of this. Surely this indicates that "spirituality" is not the only answer?

charadiation said...

Yehudah:
Perhaps Chabad is guilty of overkill - I suspect that they do not place enough emphasis on halachah l'maaseh. Moreover, I suspect that the "off the derech" phenomena is simply more publicized in Chabad than in other sectors as a means of downplaying some of Chabad's real successes.
I may not speak for anyone else in the "Yeshiva" world but I know that I wish that my children [of whom I am incredibly proud and who have built batim of real chesed] and myself had at least a percentage of the mesirat nefesh and enthusiasm that Chabad has managed to give so many.

Yehuda said...

I don't disagree with you at all, I myself am a Lubavitcher and very proud of what we have achieved. What I'm trying to point out is that the "spirituality" aspect is not a panacea, but part of a wider solution. If this is not combined with protecting children from outside influences, then little is achieved by it. This, I think is where we in Chabad need improvement.

Izgad said...

Can we honestly say that the Modern Orthodox world has a better way to keep people religious?