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Bringing Dropouts Home... Via the Alps
by Rabbi Leib Kelman
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Observer

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Leib Kelman

Bringing Dropouts Home… Via the Alps

A Sequestered Collection of Failures

What happens when a “Child at Risk” moves past being at risk, gives up kashrus, Shabbos, mitzvos, and yeshivos and leaves home? There are homeless children – children living in shelters or with total strangers. Some are drug and alcohol users, some are angry, some are living with other boys and girls in apartments. Who tries to salvage these neshamos? One “Outward Bound”-type program tries to help, as does “Our Place” in Flatbush, but these are not year-round residential programs. Rabbi Avrohom Novick of Ramat Bet Shemesh has set up such a program for English-speaking children. He has 15 boys in a remote, isolated location, far from temptations. The alternatives to this yeshiva program are non-existent; either he succeeds, or we lose these boys. I recently spent a few days there observing, visiting and participating.

Here I was, the week before Purim, sitting with fifteen boys, the worst failures of the American and Israeli yeshiva systems… boys from fourteen to sixteen years old from frum, established, “together” families, who have rejected Shabbos, kashrus, davening, and just about everything else that their families and yeshivos stand for. Not a white shirt nor a pair of slacks was to be seen. Long hair, body piercings, jeans, and tee-shirts were the uniform worn by many. All these boys, many of whom were estranged from their families, were assembled in a small room in a building in “the back of beyond,” in Dalpe, Switzerland.

I was totally unprepared for this sight: Fifteen boys – some with yarmulkas, some with caps, and some bareheaded – sitting and listening to a mussar discussion.

My eye was caught by the person at the center of the discussion, an unprepossessing and mild-mannered individual who was quoting from the Chassidic classic Kedushas Levi. The boys were attentive and even participated. There was a strong group discussion about responsibility. The discussion grew heated, with the Rebbe eliciting sincere and even emotional responses. The discussion was intense and left me shaken. How could these boys, seemingly so angry and full of rejection, have such sincere, soul-searching conversations, and what were they leading to? But let me start from the beginning, and the beginning is a combination of the Rebbe; a most extraordinary individual, a Biale Chassid, Rabbi Avraham Novick; and the unusual location.

New Life in a Dead-End

I flew from New York to Zurich and then to Lugano to meet with the Biale Rebbe, Rabbi Ben-Zion Rabinowitz, שליטא, the mentor of this yeshiva. After a brief stop, I drove about sixty-five miles into the Swiss Alps. Dalpe is a tiny village, north of Lugano, sporting one general store, no post office and a tiny bar/inn that’s open one hour or so a day. Dalpe is at the dead end of a valley that is primarily a place for summer homes for the lowland Swiss. Most of the homes are boarded up for the winter or abandoned. Not exactly a description of an inviting, exciting place to visit or to live in. The language spoken is mostly Italian, with a smattering of Swiss-German.

Pecisely for these reasons, however, Dalpe has become the home of a yeshiva that caters to the most unwanted native English-speaking high school students from America, Canada, England and Eretz Yisroel. The boys cannot talk to the locals, not that there are many locals to speak to. There is no place to “hang out,” no place to buy alcohol (the local bar/inn won’t sell them more than half an ounce of schnapps or beer), no place to run into drugs. No place in which to socialize, or anyone to “socialize” with. No cinema, no mall, no internet cafes, literally nothing for the boys to do, and even better, no way to get into trouble.

The Biale Rebbe has insisted that each boy do at least two hours of strenuous physical activity each day. So they either go for walks, ski, go snowboarding, or are taken to a nearby gym for weightlifting and workouts. Yet, despite the drab surroundings and the Spartan life, I don’t think that a single one would just walk away from the program. They are committed and working and growing each and every day, often despite themselves.

Rabbi Novick forces them to confront themselves, look at their actions, discuss their motivations, accept responsibility and to be accountable for all their deeds, actions and misdeeds. Rabbi Novick told me that after such grueling sessions twice a day, they are exhausted, and sleep deeply and long.

The night that I arrived, I attended the evening group learning discussion. The rebbi was telling the boys, “You’re going to go home soon, either for Pesach or later. What are you going to tell your friends about this place? You’ll say how hard you worked, or how hard the sessions were! They’ll ask you about a typical day. You’ll say that you get up late, maybe daven, maybe not, eat a late breakfast, go out for two hours of play, eat lunch, do school work for your high school diploma, eat, use the Internet, learn again, and watch a video. They’ll never understand how hard you’re working, how difficult it is to be honest and open.”

Shortly after arriving, I realized that the probability of having a minyan for Shacharis even on Rosh Chodesh was very low. There is no rule for mandatory davening. I offered to use part of the food supplies that I brought (potato, cheese and spinach borekas) for an enhanced Rosh Chodesh breakfast-seuda for anyone coming to daven. The cook immediately offered to prepare three kinds of eggs, as well. Wednesday morning, I was gratified to see not only the five frum men but also seven students! Not all of the boys put on tefillin and davened; some did both, some did one or the other, and one sat there the whole time to ensure a minyan, but didn’t daven himself.

After davening and breakfast, I asked the rebbi why he didn’t simply require the students’ presence at minyan. They’d all listen to him. His answer was that pressure and demands would not get them to be self-motivating for the rest of their lives. Using “one-to-one” talks, group discussions, and mussar shmuessen works far better. His results speak for themselves: yarmulkas, haircuts and davening are appearing with increasing frequency. One boy – the one who came to minyan but wouldn’t daven – has now not been mechallel Shabbos for six weeks in a row. Rabbi Novick’s techniques are straight-forward: simplicity, honesty, consistency, and easily understood rules and repercussions.

Revealing Incidents

Some of the sessions that I watched unfold were very revealing, as were some incidents described to me by the boys and their parents. Before I arrived, two events took place. First: the boys, and in particular, that week’s kitchen-dining room clean up staff (two boys each week) decided not to clean up after dinner before the 10 PM deadline. They felt that the time was arbitrary and that just as “nighttime mitzvos” are acceptable if done any time at night, so, too, should cleanup be acceptable if done by midnight. They immediately lost their night privilege, which is to see a movie at 10:30 PM. Throughout the day, talks took place as to whether or not they should capitulate and clean up before 10:00 PM, or defy the rule and clean up later. If they were to clean up, the video that night was to be Schindler’s List. By 9:45 PM, the decision seemed to have evolved that they should give in and clean up. The kitchen boy, A., valiantly began to clean, but – alas – it was too little too late, and it appeared as if he wouldn’t make the deadline. I was sitting in the beis midrash/dining room considering giving him a hand when suddenly three boys appeared and started helping. Later, at that night’s group discussion, A. stood up, visibly moved, and for the first time (for him) connected with the group, and thanked them not just for helping, but for making him feel as part of a chevra that cared for each other.

The second incident: the previous night, a boy poured something on the head of a dozing student. Rabbi Novick does not tolerate this type of behavior, and there was a serious discussion between the perpetrator and the rebbi. Hours later, at the group discussion, this young boy expressed his regret at what he did, and the realization that every act has consequences. He also said that he’s finding it harder and harder to do “bad” things because he sees a picture of the rebbi in his mind, and is reminded that every act has ramifications.

A letter came one day from the Swiss Rail and Transportation Ministry demanding payment from a student who had used the local transportation system without showing his pass. They wanted the fee plus a fine, and outlined a series of escalating fines, unless it was paid instantly. The boy scoffed and said that he’d ignore it, as they’d never catch him.

At that night’s session, the cook came in and said that many of the students are not notifying him of their choice for the daily lunch. The students who go out for activities can stay out for a short time and return for a hot lunch, or stay out longer and take sandwiches. But they have to tell him what to prepare. Obviously, a real “no-brainer”! But the same student who had gotten the rail-fine letter started shouting, “Lunch is coming to us. I don’t have to make a reservation to get LUNCH! Everybody wants the same thing,” he said.

Everyone turned on him, and – one at a time – explained that he was being inconsiderate, for no good reason. We’re all in this together.

It was as if he suddenly understood something after five or six months. The reality hit home: actions have consequences. This awareness is the first real step for the students, and a major accomplishment, without which there can be no further progress.

A father of one of the students told me that he called his son shortly after a series of petty thefts from the dorm rooms. As they were talking, he heard the rebbi’s voice announcing: “No food for anyone unless the robber comes and talks to me.” The father asked, “Is this going to work? Will the ganav confess?”

“Don’t worry,” said his son. “You don’t understand that the rebbi doesn’t bluff. What he says, he does. If it takes three days of no food, the rebbi will starve us for three days. And when we find out who made us starve for three days, we’ll take care of him,” he continued.

Two hours later, the son called his father and told him that the thief had given in, and there haven’t been any repeat incidents since.

Each day after lunch, when the dining room-beis midrash became quiet, I sat by a window with a dazzling view of the snow-covered Alps and learned. And each time, I heard a low voice leining Megillas Esther. I was told that this boy, N., was determined to lein the Megilla on Purim, and that if he would, his father was going to come, listen and spend Purim with him. This young man is getting himself together – from being way off the “derech” to wearing a yarmulka, putting on tefilllin, and davening every day. He is (as are many others) completing his high school work and getting a diploma. He assured his parents that when he returns for Pesach, he’ll look “normal,” referring to hair and clothing.

On Purim, back in New York, I called the school’s cell phone and listened – long distance – from Dalpe to Brooklyn, and heard a beautiful Megillas Esther, and cried.

The boys with Rabbi Novick are progressing… maybe not all as fast as N. For some, I was told, the process may take much longer… years. But all are salvageable, given time and, of course, money… the commodity least available in Dalpe, Switzerland.

Rabbi Kelman is associate dean of Prospect Park Bnos Leah High School, in Brooklyn, NY. This is his first appearance in these pages.

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