By Dr. Yakov Lowinger
He managed to stay under the radar, despite having become nonobservant from the time he began elementary school. He progressively cast off religious obligations until he hit the radar in a big way at 17, when he was sent to the first of a series of alternative yeshivos for drug and alcohol users. Why did it come to this? Why weren’t the risk factors noticed, not by a single relative, educator or friend? What does this say about our understanding of what drives kids off the “derech“?
Every time a young person from our community begins to show obvious signs of a decline in their Yiddishkeit, the experience is accompanied by understandable sadness and pain. But it is often accompanied by something less understandable – shock and surprise on the part of parents, teachers and friends. If there is near universal acceptance that our community is in a crisis, with unprecedented numbers of young people turning away from the traditions they were raised with, how is it that we continue to be caught by surprise time and time again?
Many well-intentioned and wise writers and professionals have compiled lists of risk factors for children eventually going off the derech, or rejecting the Torah lifestyle in favor of greater involvement in mainstream cultural activities, or in the precarious youth counterculture that spills out from our neighborhoods’ hangouts to the streets. If the problem is right there in front of us, and the risk factors so widely publicized, the question becomes a double one: Not only why are we so surprised, but why hasn’t our knowledge and understanding of the problem corresponded to a visible reduction in the incidence of youth rejecting Yiddishkeit?
I recently had the privilege of discussing these issues with a special soul who has made a remarkable return trip from an adolescence and young adulthood of inner turmoil, substance abuse, and yeshiva-hopping. It is my hope that sharing his story will help generate some insights that will go far in answering the above questions. In secular social science, there is the saying that you can’t generalize from a single experience. However, if we are to take seriously the statement of Chazal that saving one life is the equivalent of saving the world, it is incumbent upon us to learn from each and every instance of a young person who has found his way back. We must treat each one as Hashem’s messenger with a unique lesson to teach us, a lesson that is indispensible if it helps protect even one more child from the hazards of the world or bring him home once he has ventured out.
LESSONS FROM MESHULLAM
1) What if there aren’t always risk factors?
To his parents, his face appeared in all the yeshiva class pictures to be smiling along with the rest. His report cards indicated vast potential, and he lived up to just enough of that potential to avoid concern or suspicion. He grew up in a happy family environment, and to this day enjoys a close relationship with his parents and siblings. None of our current efforts to detect youth who might someday be “at-risk” would have paid him any attention. To the public eye, he was observing all the mitzvos of the Torah and looked the part of a typical yeshiva bochur. Yet Meshullam was violating the laws of Shabbos from the age of 7, and steadily decreasing his commitment until, at the age of 17, he decided to drop the “farce” and stop fooling his family and friends. Everyone was shocked.
Married now with a child, Meshullam describes his current feelings toward Yiddishkeit in one word: “gevaldig.” With characteristic humility, he describes to me his intense appetite for learning Torah and for the spiritual fervor of a properly performed mitzvah. As he continues to speak about his current life, I wonder how many people know he truly exists. His days are spent wholly immersed in learning at a local bais medrash, where only a handful of other people shuffle in and out through the day. He’s still under the radar, yet he’s managed to find a way back to Yiddishkeit almost entirely on his own.
His serene composure is only slightly troubled when he describes his feelings toward Yiddishkeit as a young boy. “I faked it as much as I thought everyone else was faking it,” he tells me. “It was a farce and a show. That’s how I experienced it as a child.” But, he said, “it was much easier to be frum than not to be frum.”
At the age of 7, he started sneaking into his room to turn on the radio on Shabbos when his presence was not expected at davening or meals. He kept kashrus until the age of 17, perhaps because the violations were harder to conceal. When he finally made his true lifestyle known, his parents and teachers were “hurt, ashamed, and sad.” They were also shocked, even though the roots of the crisis were nearly a decade old. At any rate, the belated intervention efforts that were made, including therapy, had little impact on Meshullam, who continued to spiral towards what he describes as “spiritual rock-bottom.”
While his outward appearance and behavior have changed drastically since the two years he spent as an alcohol and drug user, it seems some of his feelings have not. ” It’s what the mussar seforim say, that it’s all hergel,” he says.
He still perceives that a majority of religious Jews do not really feel and internalize their religious practice and beliefs, but rather continuously go through the motions out of a sense of duty. “I felt that I would end up being frum, because that’s what everybody did.”
Yet he was only able to keep up his outward religious observance until he discovered activities that provided “instant gratification.” He turned to drinking, drugs, and other activities instead. He still believed that Yiddishkeit was “the destination,” but once he gained an appetite for short-term pleasures, he also developed a quick reflex for dismissing the efforts of those who attempted to be mekarev him.
“Yeshivishe guys who were once cool” would occasionally call him up – “randomly” – to try to convince him to turn around his life, he says, but they didn’t stand a chance against whatever thrill was “waiting for me in the next room.” Teachers at the succession of alternative yeshivos he attended were scarcely more successful. “It didn’t get anywhere because I didn’t want it to. I wasn’t interested in being helped.”
It was only when he hit “total spiritual bankruptcy” that he began to turn around, mostly on his own initiative.
“I knew where I wanted to go and I went there slowly. I started living a spiritual life, and I realized that just being nice to people wasn’t going to be enough.
“It was gradual, first out of desperation,” he recalls.
At this point, he received the patience and support of his family, and key words of wisdom from a rov, who told him to take things at his own pace and make sure they work for him. The rov explained to Meshullam that his accomplishments would not amount to much in his own mind if he didn’t really want them. Alcoholics Anonymous was also instrumental. “They taught me that it was okay to be a religious Jew,” he comments. “I was already involved in prayer and connecting to Hashem.”
What can be done for such a young child of 7 years old, who already feels alienated from Yiddishkeit, especially given that he is hiding it from everybody?
“I needed to see that it was meaningful to them,” Meshullam says of his parents and teachers. “I saw people, including my teachers, not taking religion seriously, and I figured out that it was a big farce.”
But he struggled when I asked him what he would do if he had a child in a similar situation.
“I would take responsibility for it and look into it, but maybe there is no answer,” he remarks. “You should be there from the beginning and know the kid: What does this kid need as an individual?”
2) What if they were never really on the derech in the first place?
Meshullam’s case demonstrates that often, when we would normally begin our prevention efforts, there is already a crisis bubbling up to the surface that requires intervention. However, the best minds and most dedicated professionals and all their years of experience won’t make much of a dent on a person who has decided to tune them out. Why is it only when he reached “rock-bottom” that he made up his mind to listen? Perhaps we are focusing disproportionately on what drives kids “off the derech,” and not paying attention to whether they ever got on in the first place.
Imagine a conductor who receives news that an important dignitary will be riding on his train towards some very consequential meeting that could alter the course of history. Naturally, he spends great effort ensuring the cleanliness of each corner of the train, and takes great care mapping out each point along the way towards his destination. In all this excited effort, however, he forgets to check whether the passenger is sitting in his seat before pulling on the whistle and sending the vehicle on its way. This is the image that strikes my mind when I hear that someone’s child is off the derech – that of an empty railcar speeding on its way towards some important destination, with its important passengers nowhere to be found. Who is checking the tickets? who is making sure that all are present and accounted for before the important trip commences?
Few would argue with Meshullam’s point that we must be there from the beginning for each child to make sure that he is really along for the ride in spirit as well as in body. In other words, we must be there to help children develop a personal identity within Yiddishkeit, to see to it that their avodas Hashem has their own stamp on it and is not anonymous.
The Shem MiShmuel on Parshas Lech Lecha brings in the name of his father that Avrohom Avinu had an interesting concern before he accepted the commandment of bris milah on himself. His essential nature, his personality, was helping other people, and he feared that he would become so spiritually elevated over the rest of humanity that he would no longer relate to their troubles and be able to offer the right assistance. Hashem reassured him with the posuk, “Hishalech lefonai, veheyei somim – If you follow My ways, you will be complete.” Hashem comforted Avrohom by showing him how he could maintain his nature of elevating and helping others, and yet still be elevated himself. There is no contradiction. His essential nature would only thrive within the boundaries Hashem had established for it. This is the temimus referred to in the Torah’s description of Avrohom’s bris milah.
We can learn two messages of great relevance from this ma’aseh, one from Avrohom’s concern and another from the way in which Hashem reassured him. First, we see that Avrohom had qualms about the idea of an avodah which does not allow one to be involved in the special problems and concerns of others. His idea of avodas Hashem was totally bound up with the idea of helping each person as an individual – that only by being able to relate to each person on their level can I offer him support which is meaningful and will be accepted. Hashem’s teretz is even more revealing. He reassured Avrohom that He, too, expects this type of avodah of helping others in the best way possible, but He went even one step further. Hashem told Avrohom that by accepting this bris, he would bring temimus to himself, in that his own individuality would be more fully realized.
Hashem was looking out for Avrohom’s individuality to be preserved in the bris the same way that Avrohom was concerned for the individuality of others to be preserved in his efforts to help them. Or in the terms of our moshol, Hashem wanted the real Avrohom to be present and accounted for before He sent him to perform the mitzvah that would mark the beginning of the chosenness of the Jewish people. We can then say with no exaggeration that our chosen status is predicated on the idea that we retain our individuality and serve Hashem and observe all the halachos with our own stamp and style.
Treating our children as individuals with unique contributions to offer is our best guarantee that they are really present in body and spirit for the journey, and that they can take maximum advantage of the brilliant itinerary that has been prepared for them. If we allow them to remain anonymous and under the radar, they will stop feeling like themselves and may begin to perceive themselves as “fakers” who don’t really understand or appreciate what they are doing. The natural extension of this feeling is that they will begin to perceive the people around them in the very same way, making it all the more difficult for those people to assist them when the danger signs float to the surface. If we fail to notice the crisis until it is well underway, they will no more suddenly take our advice seriously than we will suddenly understand what they have been experiencing for the previous years.
Meshullam also indicated that the intervention attempts of concerned individuals were unlikely to break his fixation on pleasures that provided immediate gratification. However, it is clear and crucial to understand that the availability of these pleasures was not the independent cause of defection, but merely an obstacle to self-improvement that interfered with intervention efforts long after the onset of the underlying issues. The principle issue here, and I believe in many other cases of seemingly “normal” children who suddenly act out, is that there is an emotional and spiritual void inside them that they are yearning to fill, and for some reason they are not finding the means of filling this void within the regimen of religious activities they participate in at home, in shul, and in school. They want an identity, and specifically an identity within Yiddishkeit, similar to Hashem’s concern that Avrohom’s personality be reflected in his avodah. They want an avodah which is tamim.
Too often we speed along in the assumption that our students and children are following behind, instead of slowing down and helping them find their place. It is only natural that a child will perceive as insincere a style of observance that seems perfectly capable of racing on without him. When he feels validated, useful and important within that observance, he learns to validate the sincerity and wisdom of others, too. He will develop relationships of meaning and significance with parents and teachers, so that they can be there for him effectively if the occasional crisis crops up. He will come to view our efforts to help him as genuine and well-meaning, instead of waiting until he hits rock-bottom for unlikely messengers like Alcoholics Anonymous to tell him that it’s okay to be a Jew.
I’m reminded that at the beginning of every meeting, recovering addicts stand up and identify themselves: “My name is ____ and I’m an alcoholic.” Then I’m reminded again of all the empty rail cars speeding along to an important destination. From the connection between Avrohom’s entrance into the bris and the idea of temimus, we learn that having an identity is as important as having a destination. We were chosen for being who we are, and only after we accepted did Hashem tell us what to do. We can pass on this message by always making sure our children feel validated for who they are, for what is good about them, before they are instructed in how they should behave.
Dr. Yakov Lowinger is Director of the Priority-1 Research Institute. If you know of a young person in crisis, consult Priority-1’s website at www.priority-1.org and call 516.295.5700.