Not At-Risk, Not Off The Derech: Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Reject Yiddishkeit

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kids_at_risk1By 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.


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 somimIf 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 and call 516.295.5700.

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  1. Why doesn’t he mention the hundreds of men in their thirties or forties, who have children in Yeshiva, and are themselves Talmidei Chachomim, but yet do not adhere to any Mitzvohs when it is B’Tzinoh, simply because they do not have Eminoh.

    Our Yeshivos have allways backed away from tackling the proofs of our fundamental beliefs.

  2. so sad but dont get the piont what if ayoung kid reads this why put such ideas in their mind lets make less a hype about rhis to protect the inicent of this generation

  3. Unprecedented numbers of young people turning away from the traditions they were raised with?

    What about Haskalah, Reform, Conservatism, Communism, Zionism, Shabbateanism, secularism in Spain before the Inquisition, Hellenism, Avodah Zarah…? The numbers of young people turning away from the traditions they were raised with are way, way lower today than before WWII.

    The matzav today is bad enough as it is. Don’t make it appear even worse.

  4. That was written beautifully! Oftentimes a child going off does exhibit early signs, but at the beginning stages it is hard to bring them on board of the train since they don’t want to be a passenger! Sometimes they have to unfortunately hit rock bottom until they wake up from their drunken stupor!
    There are parents I know who noticed warning signs and tried to give their children their space, but it probably wasn’t enough.
    I know a very chareidi Israeli family whose son is not shomer Shabbos and does substance abuse. I asked the father recently what he could have done differently (even though he gave his son a huge amount of gifts, encouragement, space to be different, therapy, love, etc- whatever it took and that’s an understatement! You can never judge a parent until chas v’sholom you are in his shoes!!!)
    The father told me he wishes if he had another chance- that he could have sent his son to a moshav to work with animals and agriculture instead of continuing through the yeshiva system, which was difficult (as the child has learning disabilities). But we cannot blame the parent for going against his lifestyle to have been a navi that things would have gotten that bad! After knowing this man has a son who is off the derech, it was proven to me that we can’t blame parents. Halevai all parents should be as tamim as this boy’s parents! And their other children are very special.
    I know a few families who have wonderful special, and even unbelievable children yet one is off the derech- if you’d want to blame their parenting skills, you then cannot give them credit for their successful offspring.

  5. Alcoholics Anonymous was also instrumental


    Emunah studies is the way to go with a nice dose of warmth, love and heartzig avodah.

  6. The story is a figment of someone imagination. I couldn’t even be bothered to read the whole thing. I suggest these psycologist find some new fertile ground for entertainment or self promotion as these articles are generally written for

  7. the mailing rav shaya cohen sent out with chizuk was very helpful to me, im sure that priority 1 would be happy to send you it also..
    chzak vamatz

  8. In past times, you had people facing crushing poverty and other nisyonos. All those isms was their ticket out! And there was enough of a chevra – that made the leaving easier.

    The kids who are off aren’t opting out for some rosier future. You don’t have kids shedding mitzvos and going to school and getting good degrees and a $$$ filled future as much as kids unhappy with what’s going on in their lives and anesthetizing themselves, shedding mitzvos on the way due to cynicism and peer pressure and who knows what else.

  9. to #7: I hereby give you a brocha: May at-risk kids always be a figment of your imagination and may you never have to see it chas v’sholom firsthand!

  10. thr real problem is,that you can’t fool your children,they see right through you,and what they see is that 90% of the so called frum jews,realy don’t realy believe in their religion,and are just going through the motions
    for various reasons.

  11. I’m in my 30s, kids, BMG…..

    I haven’t been religious since I was 15. I do all the motions on the outside. It’s all fake.

    Recently, I realized that my emunah wasn’t real. I’ve begun searching, and I must say that my emunah is the strongest it’s ever been (though I’m not all there yet).

    I am also beginning to be more careful with mitzvos.

    (But you will never catch me coming late to first seder!!!)

  12. a figmant of your imagination??? i have been to 13 levayos of youth in the past year….. thank the rebona shel olam every second that your kids are ok. though with ur attitude i highly doubt it. look into the painfull eyes of a parent who has lost a child or a kid at risk and maybe then u wil know n understand

  13. There is no such thing as kids-at-risk…

    (P.S. It is not a figment of your imaginations. But the appellation kid-at-risk or teen-at-risk is wrong.)

  14. to #11: Matzav, how can you print something so biased????
    Who says that 90% of frum Jews don’t have their hearts set into it? I know so many yirei Shamayim!! There are some who are not fully authentic, but 90%???

    Please do NOT make up statistics!!!

  15. #11 Chaim, how do you know? Did the 90% tell you that? Did you catch most Jews red-handed? Such disgusting and false lashon hara on klal Yisroel.

  16. After seeing many such articles and being involved in chinnuch and with “troubled teens” of different sorts for close to a decade I have a question.

    Why do all the articles/books written on these topics link shmiras shabbos (or lack thereof) to drug and alcohol abuse? Why do we not address each issue separately?

    Fact: There is a problem of drug and alcohol abuse in our frum communities. This is true. As it does in most societies, substance abuse leads to a disconnect from life, family and traditional values. We are no different, but in our community it expresses itself as not going to tefilloh.

    Fact: There is a separate problem of youth growing up and not connecting to out traditions. This is true. As they get older they feel that they are able to shed their facade and act as they want in public. This means that they are able to turn to their parents and so to speak, come out of their (irreligious) closet. They no longer keep shabbos or kashrus. This does not mean that they are using drugs!

    The two are not connected! Yes, the problems overlap and coexist but correlation does not imply causation. (just because lots of people eat gefite fish and eat cholent does not mean that eating gefilte fish causes the eating of cholent)

    There is a reality of boys and girls who grow up in the frum world who never really connected and as adults walk away. This is a flaw in our chinnuch system and in our community. The response given to these children, teens, and adults must not only come from the substance-abuse community. It may not be as intuitive a response because the problem is less blatant, but these neshomos deserve appropriate help for their challenges.

    Stopping drug use will stop drug use.
    Proper religious education will raise religious children.

    Please stop confusing these issues!

  17. I wrote an entire 30 page chapter about FFBs from Yeshivish backgrounds going OTD in my book, One Above and Seven Below. The chapter is entitled “Chareidio-active Fallout”

    Much of the sentiments expressed in this post are analyzed in that chapter.

    For more information, Google “One Above and Seven Below”.

    Kol Tuv,

    Chezkel – 1a7b

  18. #17:
    Unfortunately they frequently are connected- at least from the cases I’ve been privy to.
    When a person loses their feelings for Yiddishkeit, their whole sense of worth is lost and oftentimes they resort to substance abuse to numb their guilty or lost feelings. I wish I could say otherwise but I’ve seen it countless times.

  19. #19: “When a person loses their feelings for Yiddishkeit, their whole sense of worth is lost”

    Perhaps we need to make sure that our children have a stable sense of self worth above and beyond their Yiddishkeit.
    We should educate that we, as part of the human race, are all created in the image of God and we are all special, precious jewels to Him. Once this is clear, we build upon this to explain the nature of the Jewish nation and the mission expressed by Torah.

    Part of what will assuage the problem you describe might be emphasizing respect for all humanity, Jewish or non-Jewish. If my child understands that even non-frum Jews and non-Jews can still be “menchen”, their loss of Yiddishe practice (Shabbos, kashrus)does not have to become a loss of basic humanity (drugs, alcohol).

  20. To 17: I take what you have to say very seriously. But things are different now than they were a generation ago. The kids are often finding validation not among kids headed to ivy league schools (or similarly focused) but dropouts. We DO have to make the distinctions, but we also have to recognize the overlaps.

  21. To #17:
    I don’t think the intention of the article is to link chilul shabbos to drug use in general, just to show how they are linked in this one autobiographical account. Every case is unique and one should be careful about making very broad statements unless he has the evidence to back it up.
    That being said, I’m not sure how linking “not going to tefilloh” to drug use is any less of a generalization.

  22. It seems to me that hypocrisy causes young people to rebel.

    The emphasis placed on perfunctory ritual performance without understanding or feeling
    at the expense of good manners and ethics
    not only turns off young people but also is
    viewed with repugnance by adults.

    Rudeness displayed by ostensibly religious people turns people off.

    Such misconduct is more reminiscent of Esau as opposed to the nobility of Jacob as we read about in this week’s Torah portion

    Shouldn’t orthodox Jews strive to emulate Jacob’s legacy?


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