While accepting his award at a gala dinner at the Pierre Hotel recently for his extraordinary work with troubled youth, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz commented on the podium’s dim light.“It’s a light bulb at risk — I’ll work with it after,” he said, his bearded face dissolving into a smile as the audience packed at tables around the room laughed with him.
Over the past dozen years, as an out-of-the-box mentor-teacher-counselor for teens with problems and their desperate families, Rabbi Horowitz has made it his life’s work to address the problems no one wants to address. He works with the dropouts, the depressed and the addicted — kids few people in the fervently Orthodox community know how to deal with, or even know exist. And his columns for the Jewish Press and Mispacha Magazine on all manner of mental and social problems — including the ultimate taboo topic, molestation, (many of his writings are available on his web site, www.rabbihorowitz.com) — prove that, whether they like it, or believe it, or not, “being observant doesn’t exempt you from life’s problems,” as he puts it.
“I have dedicated my adult life to amplifying the still, silent voices of children,” he said in a more serious moment at the Pierre, as he accepted the prestigious Covenant Award for outstanding educators.
Rabbi Horowitz began teaching eighth grade in Brooklyn in 1982 and later moved to Monsey, volunteering to work with the weaker students, with whom he identified after a difficult childhood of his own, marked by losing his father at 3 years old and butting heads with the rigid authority of school when he felt himself to be more creative and artistic.
“If you don’t like something and have to do it eight hours a day, you’re ready for a long walk off a short pier,” he says of kids, including his own child-self, who struggle with school.
In 1997 he founded Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, a K-8 boys’ school for all kids, not at-risk ones. Now 49, Rabbi Horowitz and his wife have five children ages 13 to 27 — whom, he says, have always been encouraged to be individuals.
Darchei Noam is where he earns his living. But it is his volunteer work with at-risk youth and their families, in a community where this work has almost no precedent, which defines his life. The rabbi is not a trained mental health professional, but listens and intuits and helps kids to rethink their decisions and their lives. He insists that families who need professional help go to therapists or others to whom he can refer them through the network he’s developed over the years.
Early on, he sought out an African-American police youth officer in Brooklyn who gave him an education in understanding what it was like to be high, what it was like to be addicted, to be outcast.“I’m a yeshiva guy,” he told the cop. “I’m used to Talmud.”
Horowitz’s model, under the auspices of his organization, Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), is to work with troubled kids but also to provide their parents with a parent-mentor, an experienced parent who comes to the home over the course of 12 weeks and helps families by listening to them and removing some of the burden they feel from their problems. He mainly gets calls from Orthodox families in the New York metro area, but says he doesn’t believe in labels for Jews, and will work with anyone who needs his help. And he doesn’t accept payment for his services.
Avi Weiss, a parent-mentor with three grown children who retired as a paramedic with Hatzalah, says Rabbi Horowitz addresses issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.
As for why he got involved in mentoring: “I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a social worker, I’m just a guy who cares,” Weiss says.
Rabbi Horowitz, modest and quiet but with a steady system of gadgets constantly beeping around him — he just added a new cell phone line exclusively for parents who call about their children, and has committed an hour each night to answering their messages — says he has his critics, people who feel he shouldn’t be bringing difficult issues to light. But he believes the vast majority of people in his community and beyond appreciates his work. And the ones who don’t? “They have to deal with it, not me. I think what I’m doing is right.”
“Parents bring their kids to us like they’re a broken appliance — ‘Fix this and get it back to me,’” he says. But he emphasizes that kids’ problems begin with a breakdown in the family system, something that has to be addressed by the parents as much as by their children. It’s OK, good, even, for children to see that their parents have flaws and are working them through.
“I was given his phone number and I called, he said, ‘Tell me about your child,’ and after two sentences he invited us to his office, he said, ‘Can you come tomorrow?’ and he saved our lives for sure,” says a Modern Orthodox mother in New Jersey who needed to speak to someone who “wouldn’t freak out by my questions.” Her ninth grade daughter was running away from home, crying, screaming and out of control. She was using her cell phone on Shabbat, dressing immodestly and getting involved with boys. The family had consulted psychiatrists, psychologists, they’d gotten diagnoses — and nothing helped.
Until Rabbi Horowitz. He stressed “safety first, religion later,” and helped the teen find a comfortable place within her family and religion. And her mother realized that the stigma around problems with mental health and risky behavior was not, in fact, as bad as she feared, that many families in her community suffer the same troubles.
“Kids struggling with Yiddishkeit, you wouldn’t think they’d be comfortable sitting in front of a bearded rabbi and spilling their guts about sex and drugs,” says the mother. “But they do.”
A year later, Rabbi Horowitz stays in touch with the daughter by text message — “How are you doing? Have a good Shabbos” — and her mother says his insights helped restore peace to their home, allowing them to function again as a family.
“Many members of the community believe in a sheltered community, that we’re immune from society’s ills,” says Rabbi Horowitz, adding that he would rather write columns about Torah than sexual abuse. “We’re finding out we’re not.”
Beyond his work with at-risk teens, the rabbi — who has worked with hundreds of teens over the years — is committed to enhancing the technology at his yeshiva and creating Jewish educational materials for children.
But it’s the weak kids, the outliers, the ones who fall behind, who hold his attention and fuel his passion. “It’s extraordinarily painful to see a train wreck after it happens,” he says. “I’d rather teach fire safety than fight fires.”
And when asked about the future, much as he loves his work, he hopes to see a time when it won’t be necessary. “I’d love to go out of business,” he muses. “That’s my dream.”
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