Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ki ein bayit asher ein sham meit

In the summer, I received an e-mail concerning an incident that had taken place in Monticello, N.Y. on a motzaei Shabbat. The writer was one of the community activists who had 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 in our community did not share his reticence and 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 perform neurosurgery.

Later, I received a second 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 whereby 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 the symptoms rather than dealing with the malaise 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 allowed to develop.

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, even without statistical data to support my theory, that many readers will agree that the analysis I offer deserves further exploration. A caveat: I begin this diatribe by pointing out that I do not yet have a complete, step-by-step plan for implementing what I feel is the real resolution to the kids at risk phenomenon. Nevertheless, I present it 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 or harassing women on buses in Ramat Beit Shemesh are as much a part of this problem as are the kids in Monticello. So too are the students at our mainstream yeshivot who have to appoint a designated driver to take them back to the Beit Midrash after attending weddings. All exhibit conduct unbecoming a Jew and should be called off the derech even if the first group is considered a greater indication of departure from halachic norms than the latter two.

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, verbal and/or 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 seeking information that had heretofore been avoided. 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/satisfying 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 would not be at all surprised if the kids who rented bungalows in Monticello for their 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. Reportedly, Dr. Abraham Twerski has named this phenomena SDS - spiritual deficiency syndrome. 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, however, 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 rote-read Sha’arei Teshuvah or Mesilat Yesharim is paying lip service to the idea of mussar. Machshavah and communal responsibility are subjects that are almost never discussed on the high school level. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l would often stress in his Thursday afternoon shmuzzen that talmidei yeshiva had an enormous debt to society in return for the opportunities provided them by the ba’alei battim who supported the yeshiva. Is there a single rosh yeshiva who echoes this sentiment today?

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 implies or means. If he is superior, is he wrong in acting like a behemah when he burns garbage cans to protest infringements on his royal territory? When his mind has been distorted by years of hearing about his entitlement, is it any surprise that he relates to a woman like a cockroach and will shove her to the back of the bus if she invades his turf, because he ranks higher in the pyramid of life. Moreover, the talmid or talmidah often looks at their surroundings and wonders in which way is he or she really superior? In ethical behavior, in the 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 many 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. I recall one speaker in particular, an entertaining and eloquent man who called me after his presentation to ask for my critique. He could not understand why I felt that his talk had been a disaster. I found that his cynical attempts to denigrate popular culture had backfired whereas he felt that he had struck responsive chords because he had elicited so much 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 hearing someone whom they are told to respect reveal his foolishness or ignorance. Kids are extraordinarily adept at discerning when the emperor is wearing no clothes.

A recent conversation with a young man who is no longer at risk, for he has completely left the derech, was an eye opener for me. I asked him why assimilating the worst of general culture was so seductive; e.g., multiple body piercing, tattoos, emulating gangs by adopting their greetings and hand communications, contemporary music motifs and language patterns borrowed from rap/ebonics. He answered with one word: passion. I then realized that this young man, driven away from our faith despite having received an excellent yeshiva education, viewed Judaism as something dry and suffocating, for his soul had never been developed. Without passion our souls cannot thrive and without our souls our bodies are seduced by general culture. Passion for what we do and finding real meaning in our mitzvos and learning is the only antidote to the malaise.

In pharmacological research there is a stage wherein an antidote has been developed and even field tested but is not ready for mass distribution because the manufacturer has not yet managed to synthesize it and thus make its production economically viable. I feel that the same is true in dealing with SDS - spiritual deficiency syndrome. We know what will work, we simply have not yet developed the means to inoculate as many people as possible. The challenge to do so is twofold: to those engaged on the battlefields and to those who stay back and provide the financial support. Until we develop a method of producing passionate talmidim, we will remain mired in expressing compassion for those who have left the fold.

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