Thursday, February 03, 2005

Drugs, Drink and Other Don'ts

I do not drink or do drugs and I have never taken as much as one puff on a cigarette. This is the short - some may say complete - list of my virtues. I will let readers fill in the other side of the ledger. Whether abstinence makes me a better or poorer judge of those who do not abstain is a question that I will leave unanswered as I discuss alcohol and drug abuse among Orthodox youth.

Whatever its incidence, the problem is serious, if only because lives are at stake. Abuse is addictive and therefore difficult to counteract and it takes an enormous toll on those who drink and do drugs and their families. Without minimizing the problem, these forms of wrongful behavior are significantly less prevalent among the Orthodox than among other Jews of comparable age and certainly among American teenagers. We pay heightened attention to the Orthodox because that has become par for the course and, paradoxically, because the Orthodox are more likely to develop communal mechanisms to intervene in these and other problem areas.

The vastly greater number of secular Jews are indistinguishable faces in the American crowd. Their behavior is not labeled "Jewish" and their problems rarely generate Jewish intervention.

The greater the receptivity to modernity, the greater the likelihood that the problems of modernity will affect behavior. There is accordingly a higher incidence of alcohol and drug abuse among the Modern Orthodox than among other Orthodox, which is not to minimize an apparently growing problem throughout Orthodox life. Yet, stories that appeared after a shameful incident involving students at a Modern Orthodox high school presented unreliable statistics.

It is said that our schools bear much of the responsibility for what goes wrong among our youth. There is room for improvement, but schools are not to blame. Nor are shuls to blame, this despite the offensive and foolish practice known as kiddush clubs. We need to get away from the great American blame game, the indulgence in pop psychology by the media and charlatans. There are parents who do everything right and whose children do not turn out right. There are schools that do nearly everything right and yet some students disappoint greatly. There are mysteries to life - to every aspect of human behavior - and not everything that goes wrong has a ready explanation.

Primary responsibility for drugs, drink and other don'ts, notably in sexual behavior, among our teens lies in the general society, in conditions and pressures that impel the young to do at times what they should not do. Add to this the rashness or adventurousness of many of the young, their risk-taking and, at times, rebelliousness and what comes out often spells trouble. There is also peer pressure which results in too many kids doing what they know that they should not be doing. Under contemporary conditions, coeducational high schools heighten the prospect that, especially for girls, peer pressure will lead to questionable activity. This is an issue that the Modern Orthodox should reflect on.

It does not help that many teens have too much money or access to credit cards, that at an early age they are ensnared by hedonism and the impulse for instant gratification. The night scene among affluent Orthodox youth, notably the Moderns, is not attractive. Affluence is a factor in the year-in-Israel phenomenon, usually to study in a seminary or yeshiva. When study and other spiritual pursuits are the primary activity, as is usually the case, the year contributes to religious growth and lays the foundation for the healthy entry into adulthood. But, as described in a balanced story last week in this newspaper, there are students who should not be sent to Israel because their problems are already evident.

Other students utilize the year in Israel primarily to have a good time. They run the risk of returning home in worse shape than when they arrived. Yeshiva officials need to be careful about what amounts to the blanket advocacy of a year in Israel.

Self-esteem or its absence is the root cause of much - but certainly not all - that is untoward in the young. When a problem child is shipped off, the process is likely to further erode whatever tenuous fibers of esteem are still operational. To the greatest extent possible, a problem child should be nurtured by and among those who deeply care because they are family and have demonstrated their love.

Self-esteem is the great unappreciated issue in education. We are increasingly caught up in a complicated web of standards, tests and marks. Students can overcome what they lose when they receive an inferior education. Few can overcome assaults against their self-esteem. With their dual curriculum, our schools have in an important sense two entry points to challenge how students feel about themselves. There is, I am certain, a correlation among Orthodox teens between low self-esteem and wrongful behavior.

Our school officials contribute to the difficulties facing our youth by being too hasty in ridding themselves of students who don't meet standards. When a student's behavior adversely affects other students, there usually are grounds for expulsion. Not doing well academically is not an adequate ground, a position that I have expressed for many years, but few school officials agree with me.

It is intolerable that one person, usually the principal, has the sole say on who stays and who does not. When the prospect of expulsion arises, there must be a process involving several persons who are competent to decide. I cannot understand why the Orthodox community tolerates the sinful practice of allowing one person to make so vital a decision regarding the life of a youngster. There is no halachic justification for the practice.

Expulsion and other severe punishment obviously attacks self-esteem. The sins of those who act hastily toward our young directly beget the sins committed by those who engage in wrongful behavior.