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Risk Factors for At-Risk Teens 1
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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Rabbi Horowitz:

With all the talk in recent years about at-risk teens, I often wonder what the risk factors really are. Everyone I speak to seems to have an opinion – with many of the items mentioned being contradictory to each other! I have heard that the main culprits are bad friends, Internet, poor parenting, uninvolved parents, overly involved parents, too much pressure, not enough demands, on and on ….

Others say that the teen crisis is a ‘gezeirah,’ an edict from Heaven, which would seem to indicate that there is little that we as parents and community members can do. Rabbi Horowitz, do you agree with that notion? I for one, hope that this assessment is incorrect. For if it is a gezeirah, what are we to do?

I would be most appreciative of you sharing your thoughts on this subject. Your reputation for candidly addressing topics of interest to the Jewish community makes me hopeful that you will pull no punches and address my question in the forthright manner in which you write these columns.

With much respect,


Rabbi Horowitz Responds


Each and every child who abandons the faith of his or her parents represents a sea of tears and an endless string of sleepless nights for their family members. Today’s parents have challenges that no previous generation had to deal with – eroding morals in the general population, the exponential growth in technology, Internet, unprecedented freedom; the list seems to go on and on. But virtually every generation has had its unique difficulties. Raising children has never been easy, and no generation throughout our glorious history has been spared the agony of children deviating from the path of a Torah life charted by their parents.

Viewed from a historical perspective, the ‘drop-out’ rate from Orthodox Jewry in the past fifty years is far lower than it was during the tumultuous hundred years that preceded the generation of our parents – from 1850 to 1950. I would estimate that during the past few decades, about five to fifteen percent of children from observant homes left Yiddishkeit – which is far more than we would like to admit or believe. But bear in mind that the ‘drop-out’ rate was much, much higher in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, in Yerushalayim in the Thirties and Forties, and in many Chassidish, Litvish, and Ashkenasic communities in pre-war Europe during the height of the haskalah – when communism, pogroms, and grinding poverty decimated the ranks of the frum community.

We make a strategic error, though, when we confuse challenges with gezeros. An earthquake is a gezera. Some illnesses may perhaps be considered gezeiros. A Torah Jew accepts, or rather tries to accept, a gezeirah with dignity and grace as the will of Hashem. Challenges, on the other hand, need to be honestly analyzed, addressed and overcome. Throwing up our hands and claiming that a challenge is a gezeirah often avoids the type of brutal and candid reflection that produces effective solutions. In fact, it is my experience that this mindset results in confused, reactionary and ineffective responses to challenges – often making a bad situation worse.

Dovid; you asked me not to pull any punches. Permit me then, to give you a brutally candid, real-life example of what I am referring to in the previous few paragraphs. Imagine that you live in a community where a few boys and girls have strayed from the path of Torah and engaged in at-risk behaviors. Parents and educators grow increasingly apprehensive and look for solutions. The question on everyone’s mind is how to address the concern that this may happen to their child(ren).

I would think that the wisest thing for community leaders to do would be to take the approach that a success oriented business owner would take in response to slipping market share. Commission a professional study, conduct exit interviews with customers who have taken their business elsewhere, and then sit down with the leadership team of the business and develop effective strategies to reverse the trend.

Over the past twenty years, I conducted hundreds of terribly painful ‘exit interviews’ with children and adults who have abandoned Yiddishkeit. I can tell you in no uncertain terms what it is that they wanted – and why they took their business elsewhere. They were looking for respect and understanding. Acceptance. Safe and nurturing home lives. Hands-on parents who offer unconditional love along with their guidance. Caring educators who dealt with their admitted misdeeds gently and privately (firmly was OK). The ability to be a bit different without being labeled or judged. More time for hobbies and more recreational opportunities. On an educational level, I can tell you some additional things that they needed. A slower pace of learning. More skill-based teaching (#1, #2 and #3). Visual and diverse learning (#1, #2, #3) .

With this in mind, I would think that the frightened parents in the community ought to shorten the hours that their children are in school, offer more extra-curricular activities, clamor for more tolerance, invest in the educators of their children, and boycott the schools that dismiss children for misdeeds. The community leaders would do well to meet with the mental-health professionals and those who deal with the ‘at-risk’ teen population, perhaps even with the troubled kids themselves, and listen – really listen – to their advice. I would love to tell you that this is happening. It pains me to report that this is usually not the case. Those of us who deal with at-risk kids are consulted in firefighter mode by desperate parents and educators – but little time and energy is being spent in fire prevention. They are asking us what to do with the at-risk kids, but not what we think should be done for all our children.

In many communities, I’m sad to report, exactly the opposite is happening. School hours are getting longer and longer. Kids have less time and opportunity to engage in desperately needed recreational activities. In fact, in some communities, normal sports activities are frowned upon or outright banned – sometimes for children above the age of ten years old!! Greater demands are being made on children. Schools that dismiss children are valued and pursued. Acceptance criterion for high schools is getting increasingly more challenging. On many occasions, I have clearly stated that in today’s climate I would probably not have been accepted to any ‘normal’ high school when I graduated eighth grade thirty-three years ago!!

Most peculiar is the reaction of parents who respond to their fears by striving mightily to place their children in the most rigorous programs – the ones with the longest hours, the least in the way of recreation, and with the most strident demands on their children. The thinking is that their children will be safe there, as the ‘chevrah’ will be better and the ‘at-risk’ children will be excluded from those elite schools. However, this thinking is terribly flawed. For there is no guarantee that their child – or one of their children some time in the future of their family life – will not be one of those children who will need some adjustment, tolerance, or understanding. So, in effect, the parents are raising the bar – and the ante of this very high-stakes gamble – by opting to send their child to a program that purports to produce a ‘metzuyan’ or ‘mitzuyenes’ (exemplary children). But at the same time, they are greatly increasing the odds that their child may find the train running away from him or her. And, in all my years of dealing with the at-risk teen population, I have not noticed that the elitist schools have any lower percentage of kids abandoning Yiddishkeit. All the more so if you include those who were asked to “find another school,” midway in their school experience.

Dovid; I will close this column by quoting the words of my very wise grandmother a’h. She often would remark that, “ales mit a t’si toig nisht.” Loosely translated, that means that anything overdone is bound to backfire.

Her grandson’s advice mirrors that thought. If I may use a baseball analogy, when raising your children, don’t swing for the fences. Just try to make contact and get on base. Trust me, you will score more runs that way. Keep in mind that most mighty swings result in strikeouts.

And, l’man Hashem, keep your eye on the ball.

© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Continued next week

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