Wednesday, March 29, 2006

He Who Destroys a Single Jewish Life...

This column appears on the front and back page of this week's Jewish Press.

The November 1999 issue of The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's magazine, was devoted entirely to children at risk, the spreading phenomenon of youngsters from religious homes who stray from Judaism, at times by indulging in anti-social behavior, including drug abuse.

The discussion was meaningful and moving, touching on a subject that many of us sensed yet had no clear understanding of. The articles examined the nature of the problem and how to deal with it, including a significant essay by the eminent mashgiach (spiritual guide) Rav Shlomo Wolbe, who died last year. He observed that the Chazon Ish regarded the expulsion of yeshiva students a matter of life and death and therefore could not be decided by a single person.

The Jewish Observer has now reexamined the issue. We are moved once more by stories of tragedy and loss and comforted by the prospect of return and redemption. Our hearts cry for parents undergoing the at-risk experience and also for their children. There is gratitude for those who engage in the always difficult and too often painful efforts to reach out to at-risk children, giving them a lifeline of heart and soul and enormous empathy, even as they know that while some will be saved, too many will be lost.

The term "at risk" encompasses divergent situations, including children who have already been lost and engage in behavior that is hostile to Judaism and social norms, youngsters who have abandoned religious life and those who exhibit tendencies indicating that they may fall through either the Judaic or societal safety nets. It is impossible to know how many children from Orthodox homes fit into these categories and it is important not to exaggerate. If we consider all three categories, the number certainly is in the thousands, and it is growing.

There is a parallel at-risk phenomenon in Israel in haredi or fervently religious families and it may be more serious than what we are now experiencing here, if not in numbers then in the degree of hostility toward Judaism and destructive behavior.

What causes religious children to be at-risk? Obviously, there isn't a simple explanation and in some situations there apparently is no explanation. There are parents who are terrific at parenting, showing patience and wisdom and seemingly doing everything right who have children who fall through the cracks and add to the toll in our community. There are other parents who seem to violate all of the good parenting rules whose children evolve into gems.

Overall, good parenting yields good fruit. This means being patient and caring, despite disappointment in how a child is doing in school or behaving at home. Even so, the results may not be what parents had hoped and prayed for. In all situations, care must be taken to strengthen and certainly not weaken a child's self-esteem. This is the single factor that can provide protection against the emergence of at-risk children. Where self-esteem is lacking, it can serve as the germ that results in children being at-risk.

In pinpointing the crucial role of self-eseem, I am not dismissing other possible factors, such as the rejection of religious life or a child falling in with the wrong crowd or friend. Yet, where self-esteem is present, children can overcome emotional, educational and social setbacks. Where it is absent, even trifling issues can turn into crises.

Self-esteem or its absence is to a large extent part of a person's nature, something that is there like an ear for music or physical agility or not there. We see kids who are confident from nearly day one. They may not turn into good students and yet they feel good about themselves, while there are children who seem afraid of their own shadow, irrespective of how well they do in school or in friendships or at home. What life brings can alter a child's outlook, adding to or subtracting from the reservoir of self-esteem. Children who are emotionally fragile are inordinately affected by what occurs in their lives, by whether their emotional underpinnings are challenged or fortified.

Schools exist to educate clusters of children. Perhaps inevitably they operate at times in ways that counter the paramount precept of Torah education, chanoch l'naar al pi darcho - that each child should be taught in the manner that best ensures his advancement. It is difficult for educators to focus significantly on each student's individuality, on each student's particular circumstances and capabilities. If our schools are not equipped to devote time and resources to obtain optimum results for each student, they remain obligated not to undermine a child's self-esteem.

This isn't an easy task. Tests, grades and report cards are instrumentalities for the measuring of educational progress and not for the promotion of self-esteem. Much the same can be said about the rules and procedures that abound in all schools. They seek to establish conformity so that the school can go about its core educational mission. Inevitably, they suppress individuality and punish students, perhaps only emotionally, who do not conform. In the process, they may shake the confidence of those who are emotionally fragile.

In addition to their core educational responsibilities, our schools have the collateral task of religious socialization, of molding children so that they emerge as responsible and capable adults who live good Jewish lives and function well in society. This task mandates greater flexibility toward weaker students, students from marginally observant homes and students who are emotionally fragile. Yeshivas and day schools must practice what they preach by showing patience toward such students. Our educators routinely counsel parents to be patient, but the same quality is too infrequently practiced by school officials. "Do as I say and not as I do" is apparently the motto of some educators. In the process, they add to the at-risk ranks.

There was a time when yeshivas went the extra mile to attract and retain students, accepting applicants from homes that were not up to religious standards. Their hope and even expectation was that they could bring about Judaic growth. Our schools also kept students who were not up to par academically. They served as instrumentalities for outreach, in a sense taking children who were at-risk Jewishly or in other ways and they strove to reinforce these students' religious and emotional foundations. Some of these students have become outstanding religious leaders, while many more have become wonderful religious adults. Had the attitudes that prevail now been in place decades ago, many of these children would have been lost to Judaism.

Now, the attitude in too many of our schools is to reject applicants, as if this demonstrates that they are stronger Torah institutions. They also are quick to expel students who do not readily fit in. I have heard principals say that they never expel a student until they have found a substitute school, as if expulsion alone is not sufficient to destroy a child's confidence and emotional underpinnings. In my experience, the truth is usually otherwise and students are expelled even when there is no other school that will accept them.

While the yeshiva world's attitude in years past was "Let's open our doors wide so that we will attract students who otherwise would not be taught Torah and lead religious lives," these days the doors are shut in too many places, even at schools that have seats to spare. These schools are afraid to risk their reputation by taking in non-at risk youngsters who do not come from ideal religious homes or backgrounds.

Is it any wonder that today there are more defections from Orthodoxy than there are those whom we are attracting through kiruv? We do a good job bemoaning the expanding at-risk population, while at the same time we contribute to this expansion.

Students who are harming other students should not be retained and there is no point to a yeshiva high school admitting boys who are not capable of keeping up with the class. What we are experiencing goes far beyond these situations. There are parents who say that their children will not go to a particular school if such and such a child is also admitted. These parents transgress the prohibition of lo ta'amod al dam re'echa - do not cause another's blood to be spilled - and they engage in lashon hara.

It is said that at-risk behavior arises from the impact on young people of a promiscuous society and culture; that television, cable and the Internet exact a high toll. It is therefore necessary to uproot every potential bad seed, lest others be harmed. I will not defend the world around us, nor deny that there are kids who are ensnared by its debased standards. I will challenge the view that this is the primary cause for at-risk Orthodox children and the collateral view that fear of potential harm justifies exclusionary policies.

Fear is a dynamic force, a mindset that respects no boundaries. It feeds on itself, creating fantasy scenarios that do not correspond to reality and yet may result in harsh actions. In Justice Louis D. Brandeis's haunting language in a reference to the Salem witch trials, "Men feared witches and burnt women." We fear the outside world - rightfully - and we are ready to harm children.

As much as we must be concerned about the impact of popular culture and social permissiveness, our at-risk problem arises far more from the erosion of self-esteem through what occurs at school and often at home. This is confirmed by the at-risk situation in Israel. A significant number of youngsters from fervently religious homes have abandoned their religious lifestyle, engaging in severe anti-social behavior, often including violence. The actions of these youths called shababnikim cannot be attributed to the Internet.

A 2001 article in Azure, a respected Israeli journal, quotes Chanania Chulak, the director of Ezer Mitzion, the volunteer organization that assists haredi families, as saying that shababnikim have turned Bnei Brak into "a crime center reminiscent of New York City's Harlem. People are afraid to walk the streets. Violent, criminal gangs in this city do whatever they please." After the article appeared, I called Chulak and he verified the quote.

In Israel, where exposure to popular culture in haredi homes is extremely limited, it is understood that at-riskness arises primarily from students not being able to keep up with the intensive yeshiva regimen or not being interested in religious studies or other similar school-based or home-based factors. But because modernity and its sins are a convenient and for some an irresistible target, we choose to ignore the role played by educational factors and attribute our losses to the Internet. It is convenent to ignore how exclusionary policies beget at-risk children.

I am appalled by the announcement by Lakewood yeshivas and Beth Jacobs that all children in homes that are Internet-accessible and have not received the requisite approvals from local rabbis will be expelled. All children! The very thought should be repugnant. In order to possibly prevent some children from being at risk, we are prepared to take innocent Jewish children and make certain that they will be at risk! Not only is this wrongful policy announced, it is lauded in the recent Jewish Observer issue devoted to the at-risk problem - and by a respected Torah personality.

The "if in doubt throw it out" attitude that used to be applied to food products is now being applied to Jewish children. This attitude must be challenged. I know this entails a risk, but it is one that must be taken in the face of unfolding tragedies in Jewish homes. If but one child is saved because of this protest, the risk will be worthwhile.

This exclusionary attitude is contrary to what transcendent Torah leaders taught and practiced in this country a generation or more ago. Thirty years ago, in response to my question whether the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School should admit students from marginally observant homes, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l, the great rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin and a genius in understanding students, responded that he had encouraged such students to go to the movies and even take their parents along because this approach would benefit them and make their transition to fully observant Jews more likely.

Yeshivas must get back into the business of kiruv rechokim and out of the business of richuk kerovim. The place to start is to abandon the exclusionary mindset, the notion that throwing out or rejecting a Jewish child is of minor consequence. They're gone and the yeshiva world continues in its self-congratulatory mold, even as our losses mount.

I suspect the Lakewood announcement is mainly rhetoric, that children will not be expelled, no more than they were several years ago when a similar pronouncement was made about a minor league baseball stadium. There are serious admission/retention issues that the Lakewood community must address and there is unfortunately an at-risk problem in this sacred Torah center. Whatever the situation in Lakewood, the message that is being sent is that expelling Jewish children is an appropriate course. This message will have a collateral effect elsewhere in justifying the already wrongful policy of closing the doors on marginal children who have the capacity to grow in Yiddishkeit.

There is a Brooklyn-based program that raises funds to take Jewish children out of public schools and place them in our schools. Some time ago, the program announced that public school students would not be sent to Orthodox coeducational day schools, irrespective of whether there were other religious schools available for these children to attend. They are now going a step further by cutting off support to the leading yeshiva for students from families who came here from the former Soviet Union because this respected institution has separate boys and girls divisions operating under a single roof - and that isn't kosher. As a result, the school is experiencing substantial hardship.

I have spoken out for years against our exclusionary tendencies, admittedly to little avail. The situation continues to worsen. Aren't there any yeshiva deans and rabbis who are willing to take the risk by protesting against policies that put our children at risk?