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Risk Factors for At-Risk Teens 2
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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Dear Readers:

Last week’s column evoked a flood of email responses and some posts on my website.

Due to the importance of this subject, I am suspending the Q&A component of this column for the next few weeks, as I amplify the themes raised – and eventually get to the question posed by Dovid last week – “What are the risk factors?”

Airing these subjects is not an easy thing to do, but it is a very necessary one. Please feel free to participate in the dialogue by posting your comments below the articles.

Phase Three

Mishkan, Teivah, and … Spacesuit???

At last year’s Agudath Israel Convention, I was chairing a Project YES session on chinuch-related matters and the featured speaker was my dear chaver, Rabbi Noach Orlewik s’hlita. Rabbi Orlewik, fresh off a plane from Eretz Yisroel, spoke brilliantly about chinuch, teens, and parenting matters. After his presentation, there was an extended Q&A segment with questions posed to any of the five people on the panel.

At one point in the session, Rabbi Orlewik and I were sharing the podium while responding to a series of hard-hitting questions. Then, someone got up and asked us to share our thoughts regarding the subject of the Internet (to-ban-or-not-to-ban?).

At that time, there was a great deal of discussion in the broader Orthodox community about how to respond to the challenge of the Internet, and an immediate hush passed through the audience. You could have heard a pin drop in the room as three hundred sets of eyes focused on Rabbi Orlewik and myself. Well, my mother didn’t raise a fool, so I boldly stepped forward, firmly grabbed the microphone ……… and passed it to Rabbi Orlewik.

Reb Noach and I are very close friends and we often kid each other about the fact that we seem to always finish each other’s sentences. So, I was very curious to hear how he would reply to that loaded question.

Rabbi Orlewik was quiet for a few very long moments. He then responded by posing a question. What if someone has diabetes, and plans on attending a fancy wedding where he will be surrounded with food that is terribly harmful to him? Reb Noach responded by noting that the only chance the diabetic individual has to resist the temptations he will inevitably be faced with at the wedding was to see to it that he had a full and satisfying meal before he left his home.

Rabbi Orlewik said that we must accept the fact that each generation throughout our glorious history had its challenges and that the explosion of temptations that our children – and we – face nowadays may very well be ours. More importantly, he pointed out that we must make peace with the fact that we simply cannot shelter our children beyond a certain age. (I would add that the age that we-can’t-shelter-our-children-anymore is getting younger and younger as time passes.)

Rabbi Orlewik hammered home the point over the next few minutes by pointing out that the only solution that we have as parents and educators is to see to it that our kids are ‘full’ when they reach their teen years. And full, he explained, means having an appreciation and genuine love for Torah and mitzvos, nurturing, safe and loving home environments, schools that are welcoming and that inspire children, and rebbeim/moros who develop deep and meaningful relationships with their children, in addition to teaching the timeless lessons of our Torah.

The Evolving Role of Yeshivos

More than a generation ago, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner z’tl, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, articulated the evolving mission of yeshivos in what was then modern-day America by comparing the mishkan (tabernacle used by the Jews during their sojourn in the desert) to the teivah of Noach (Noah’s ark). The mishkan, he said, was a place where Jews went to be inspired, to become closer to Hashem. Noach’s teivah, on the other hand, was the only haven available to avoid certain death and destruction.

Rabbi Hutner explained that in pre-war Europe, yeshivos were like the mishkan – places where spiritually elevated people went to grow in Torah and yiras shomayim. Those who did not attend yeshiva, however, were still able to remain committed Jews, raised in the nurturing environment of the pre-war shtetel.

Due to the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society in America, it was nearly impossible for a child to exist as a Torah observant Jew outside the walls of the yeshiva. American Yeshivos, maintained Rabbi Hutner, were more along the lines of the teivah – a structure that offered shelter and protection.

It is interesting to note that while Rav Hutner’s thoughts are often quoted, the context of his comments and their profound message is not as well known. Almost all the times that I heard this insightful quote, it was used to decry the state of today’s eroded moral values. But that is missing his main point!! Rav Hutner was saying how we must change the way that we view our yeshivos. He was suggesting that the holy yeshivos of Voloshin and Slabodka were primarily designed for a tiny percentage of the outstanding achievers in Torah, as the grinding poverty of pre-war Europe forced the vast majority of children above the age of thirteen to join the workforce. American yeshivos and Beis Yakov’s, Rav Hutner maintained, need to be geared for all children to find success and refuge.

Sadly, as I pointed out last week, exactly the opposite has been happening over the past ten-fifteen years. School hours have been getting longer and longer. Kids are offered less time and opportunity to engage in desperately needed recreational activities, all the while greater and greater demands are being made on children. Most shocking of all, is the fact that parents are clamoring to get their children – ready or not – into schools that have the most rigorous demands and who summarily dismiss children for infractions.

Phase Three

All the while, there are huge cultural changes occurring that have profound ramifications for the Torah observant community. I would like to suggest that we are in the midst of a third phase in the evolving role of yeshivos. With the advent of technology, I propose there simply is no teivah anymore. I think that we are deluding ourselves if we think that our children are protected by the fact that we screen what comes into our homes (as we most certainly ought to) and enroll our children in fine yeshivos.

More than seven years ago, I delivered a lecture at a public forum regarding the challenges presented to Torah families by rapidly evolving technology. An individual on the panel who preceded me spoke about the need to ‘circle the wagons’ – keep these influences away from our children. I followed his presentation by stating that I agreed wholeheartedly that parents must be very vigilant about what their children are exposed to, as I have repeatedly stated at virtually every parenting class that I conduct. But I also said that this will not nearly be sufficient, as within ten years, I predicted that our children will be able to go to the local candy store or 7-11 and purchase a disposable palm-size device for $25 (along the lines of a phone card) that will allow them to set up their own email account and go on-line without their parents knowing about it. (Update: We are almost there. One can already purchase an adult-oriented audio IPOD with limited memory for less than $20.) I then spoke about the need to effectively parent our children and see to it that they are in nurturing school and community environments.

I then quoted Rav Hutner’s thought regarding the teivah and I said that we are entering phase three, where parents and schools will need to provide our children with a “spacesuit,” a multi-layered moral compass that is gradually developed during a child’s formative years. Our children need to be prepared to be able to withstand the temptations that nearly all of them will face when they leave the shelter of our homes. Because there is no teivah anymore. There may be one for fifth graders, but there most certainly is no teivah for seventeen-year-olds. So we will need to create spiritual ‘spacesuits’ for our children in order to help their neshamos (souls) survive in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere that exists today.

This notion may be frightening and unsettling, but I think that it is true nonetheless. And we had better start preparing for the new reality.

I keep getting calls from concerned parents from very charedi and chassidish homes asking me how to respond to their teenage children’s requests for IPOD’s. These are sheltered children from heimishe homes. Their parents are rightfully terrified of what the implications are for saying yes to the request, but correctly realize that saying no to the request without a good reason will be counterproductive. They also fully understand that their children can buy it without their permission if they really want to.

What is also unsettling is the fact that many of these parents have no idea what an IPOD is. So there you have it. Kids speaking a language that their parents don’t understand. Children acclimating to a new environment while their parents are like … well, immigrants. The last time we had that experience was on the Lower East Side. Do you have any idea what percentage of the kids left Yiddishkeit in that generation?

Iceberg Ahead!

Everywhere I go, people ask me how things are doing these days regarding the teen-at-risk crisis. I usually nod my head and mumble sweet nothings, as the settings these questions are presented in are generally not conducive to serious discussions. And to be perfectly honest, I have found that most people don’t want to hear the stark reality as I see things.

But if you really want to know my thoughts on this subject, pull up a chair and read these columns for the next few weeks.

For I am terrified of what I see coming. Flat out terrified. I have been feeling this way for a few years now, but the feeling is growing as time goes on. I think that the conditions are ripe for a huge, exponential increase in the number and percentages of our children who will r’l abandon Yiddishkeit – like nothing we have ever seen in our lifetimes – if we don’t dramatically transform the way we parent and educate our children.

We have the ability to make the changes necessary to avoid this catastrophe. We just need to honestly confront the reality at hand and proactively prepare for the future.

© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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Related Articles:
Risk Factors for At-Risk Teens 1

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