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Report from Ground Zero
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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Al Regel Achas… On One Foot
If we are going to have an impact on the frightening trend of young men andwomen abandoning the teachings of our yeshiva and Bais Yaakov system, we willneed to improve the overall quality of our home life. There is a commoninclination to lay the blame for these problems on families in crisis. Thistype of thinking, however, does not do justice to such a difficult andcomplex issue. We must avoid the tendency to attribute all of the blame onthe “broken homes,” and work to minimize the tension levels in all of ourhomes.

Several years ago, at an Agudath Israel National Convention, Mori VerabiRabbi Avrohom Pam, shlita quoted The Steipler zt'l as having said, “Hatzlochamit kinder (success with one’s children) is 50% shalom bayis, and 50% tefilla.”

One thing is painfully clear. Our home life is under assault. It is notmerely the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society and its effecton (even) our insular community. Our homes are under assault. Longer workhours for both spouses, the exponential increase of our simcha schedule andsocial obligations, and the increased burden of providing parnassa for ourgrowing families are taking their toll on the tranquility and simchashachayim (joie de vivre) of our home life. Many of us are able to maintainthis juggling act and keep all of these balls in the air at once. Many,however, are finding it very, very difficult.

Those who deal with at-risk teens almost unanimously agree that thegreatest factor that puts children at risk is lack of simcha and shalombayis2 at home.

Yes, some children just seem to be born “difficult.” Some have an ornerydisposition. Others have an innate propensity to challenge authority. Someare extremely restless and simply not cut out for a ten-hour school day. Manyhave significant learning disabilities.

Experience has shown, however, that children from warm, loving homes havethe best chance of overpowering these difficulties and becoming well-adjustedadults despite having risk factors3.

But children can never get used to bickering. Stress. Unhappiness.Negative comments. Emotional abuse. These create unhappy, distracted childrenwho are unable to concentrate in school. They develop an intense distrust ofauthority figures, and harbor a simmering rage at an adult world that cannotseem to get its act together and provide them with a peaceful environment inwhich to grow up and thrive. This holds true for all households – includingtwo-parent ones.

So, a short response to the frightened parents who ask – al regel achas –what they can do to ‘protect’ their family from the ravages of thecounterculture that threatens their boys and girls is the poignant comment ofRabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg a”jyls, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr4, that themost important thing that parents need to maintain in their home is a senseof happiness, simchas hachayim.

As vigilant as we must be to shield our children from the influences ofsecular society, ultimately, our greatest defense against this onslaught isto create a happy and stable home life for our children. We must keep our eyeon that goal and do everything possible in our power to see to it that thequality of our home life is as good as possible.

A Time for Action

It is not the intent of these lines to discuss the broad-based issuesrelated to the topic of at-risk teens. We do, however, need to implement someinitiatives and solutions that relate to the topic of this article – theimprovement of our home life.

1. Shalom Bayis Classes:

During shana rishona (the first year of married life) when a young coupleis at the critical stage of developing their relationship, it should becomethe accepted societal norm5 for both spouses to attend a series of four, six,or perhaps eight classes on shalom bayis. Although the newlywed couple maynot think so, this is the ideal time to do this. Young couples have areasonable amount of discretionary time, and can begin to prepare their hometo be a resting place for the Shechina and a nurturing environment for theirchildren to thrive in.

Many young men and women lack proper role models for establishing arelationship based on mutual respect and trust, or simply were not exposed tothe positive influence of the parents’ home during crucial years. Traininghelps. Education helps. More so, a good mentor will provide an opportunityfor young couples to seek guidance when the inevitable bumps6 will occur.Many couples are uncomfortable going to their parents for direction at thiscritical stage in their lives.

2. Parenting Classes

Here, too, education is the key. It would be naïve to think that any oneperson has all the answers to the difficult questions that parentingrequires. Many, many parents, however, have told me how their home life wasimmeasurably improved as a result of attending parenting workshops.

At a recent symposium, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita related the storyof a young woman who was experiencing significant difficulty at home and inschool. Professional counseling was recommended. After several sessions, aremarkable improvement was noted by all. Reb Shmuel related that thetherapist told him that he had instructed the mother to take her daughter outof school for lunch in a restaurant and spend at least one hour together,conversing, prior to each session. This, the therapist felt, was far moreeffective than his time with the young woman.

Similarly, it is great training for a young couple to spend time togethergrowing as parents and sharing in the raising of their children7. Thepractical tips and skills that are imparted at these sessions greatly improvethe quality of the home life as parents are trained to deal with the manyissues and challenges that they face on a daily basis.

Yes, our parents seem to have done a decent job raising us withoutattending lectures or reading books, but times have changed and our childrenare faced with temptations that we never had.

Good parenting skills do not always result in wonderful children.Effective parenting, however, can significantly improve the likelihood that adifficult child will grow into a well-adjusted, productive adult.

3. Strengthening the Kehilla

A woman approached a colleague of mine at a public gathering. She had beenrecently divorced and asked him to arrange for someone to take her school-agesons to shul on Shabbos. He related to me that his initial reaction was thata situation like this would be unthinkable in a small town, or in akehilla-type shul setting. People often speak about children falling throughthe cracks. The reality is that all too often, it is the families that arefalling through the cracks.

In large metropolitan areas, where most Orthodox Jews live, one can davenin several shuls throughout the week without being a member in any of them.Although this may be very convenient for the individual mispallel, the family– lost in the anonymity of city life – forgoes the unique protection that thekehilla has to offer. An involved Rabbi and Rebbetzin guide young couples andtheir children through the inevitable difficulties that they will encounter.They are there to notice troubling tendencies in shalom bayis, the chinuch ofthe children, or any one of a host of issues.

It is critical in the development of a Torah home that the family belongto a kehilla, attend shiurim, and above all, to actively nurture arelationship with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the shul. Doing so will add manystrands to the communal safety net that we so desperately need.

4. Simcha Schedules

People are always asking what has changed so dramatically (regarding theat-risk teen issue) in the past decade. There are some obvious answers – andmore subtle ones. One of those that fall into the latter category is that weare more “stressed out” than any generation ever was. Please allow me torephrase this. We are not home enough. Our family life is unraveling. We areworking longer hours in more stressful situations. Perhaps much of this isunavoidable, with the enormous pressure to provide parnassa for our growingfamilies. One area, however, where significant improvement is not onlypossible but absolutely necessary is our simcha schedules.

Our gedolim have – for years now – been requesting that we limitconspicuous consumption at our simchos. Although there are some exceptions,as a group, we have been reluctant to take their advice8. If we cannot orwill not bite the bullet for the sake of a lifestyle of tzeniyus, then aseilemaan tinnokos shel beis rabban – let us do so for the sake of our children.

Every evening that we dress up after a busy workday and travel a half hourto wish a young couple mazel tov at a lechayim (to be followed by a vort,wedding9 and Sheva Berachos), we are depriving our own children of desperately,desperately needed quiet time with us.

While I am not recommending that we all become social dropouts and refuseto attend any simchos, it is clear that we need to limit our time away fromhome. Our primary obligation, after all, is to raise and nurture the childrenthat Hashem blessed us with and whose upbringing He has charged us with.

5. Shabbos and Yom Tov – an island of tranquility… hopefully.

Shabbos Kodesh. A time for spiritual and emotional rejuvenation. A timefor children, relaxation, and family. No telephone calls, no appointments, nodistractions. Your children can now get your individual attention as you –and they – unwind from the pressure-filled week. Me’ein Olam Habba10.

Sadly, the hectic nature of our lives is unfortunately spilling over intothe last bastion of our home life – Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim. After aforty/fifty-hour school week, when most children would treasure some downtime with their parents and family, or simply the luxury of being left aloneto unwind, many are subjected to long Shabbos meals with company present,where they are expected to behave in a picture-perfect manner. This despitethe fact that the entire conversation at the table is geared to the adults11.Children who are naturally shy are pressured into reciting divrei Torah infront of strangers. Parents go Kiddush hopping until well past noontime –with the unrealistic expectation of coming home to a clean home and relaxedchildren; or leave their children12 with friends or relatives to attendweekend Bar Mitzvas.

It is of great importance that we pause and take stock of our objectivefor our Shabbosos. We must strive to create – at least once a week – thiszone of menucha (tranquility) in our homes so that our children can relax andlook forward to this special day with their family.

The ‘Broken Home’ Component

Allow me to state the obvious. Children’s needs are best served growing upin a two-parent household. Chazal’s comment that the mizbayach “sheds tears”when a couple divorces needs no elaboration13.

Having said that, divorce in and of itself does not consign a child to ableak educational and social future. While statistically, children frombroken homes are in a high-risk category, it is only so, in my opinion, whenthere is strife and unhappiness in the child’s life. Children can adjust tothe painful reality of growing up in a single-parent household – when bothparents maturely put their own feelings aside for the sake of the children.

Please allow me to share with you two incidents regarding children frombroken homes that I am currently involved with14. With the help of Hashem, Iam confident that the first child will mature into a self-confident,well-adjusted young woman. I hope that I am wrong, but I do not share thatoptimism about the teenager in the second story.

Aviva is a bright six-year old girl attending first grade in a local BaisYaakov. Her parents divorced four years ago. Aviva lives with her mother, andspends most weekends with her father, who lives in the same community. Herparents are both very involved in her chinuch and secular education, evenattending Parent-Teacher Conferences together. Recently, Aviva went through adifficult week when she was quite rude to her mother. Her mother’s responsewas to call her ex-husband and discuss the matter with him. Twenty minuteslater, the doorbell rang. It was Aviva’s father. He took Aviva for a driveand discussed with her the importance of treating her mother with respect.Throughout the following week, Aviva’s parents conversed nightly with eachother to monitor the situation.

Yossie’s parents divorced three years ago. It was a messy divorce, withendless litigation about joint assets, custody and visitation. Yossie’sfather threatened to withhold a get until he would receive favorableconditions in the asset distribution. Yossie, then thirteen years old, andhis three siblings were made to appear before a judge to respond to highlypersonal questions about their relationship with the two parents.

This past Yom Kippur was not on the father’s court-mandated visitationschedule. (All nine days of Succos were.) Yossie’s father asked his ex-wifefor permission to spend Yom Kippur locally (he has since moved away from hisformer community) and meet Yossie in shul for the davening so that “Yossieshouldn’t be the only child in shul without a father.” This reasonablerequest was refused, and he was informed that any attempt on his part tofollow through on this plan would result in court action.

Yossie is currently a bitter young man who has been in several yeshivos inthe past two years. He spends his nights “hanging out,” and has a strainedrelationship with both his parents.

It is of paramount importance that in the event of a divorce, all partiesdesign a plan of action that will provide the children with the most pleasanthome environment that is possible under the circumstances.

The Third Partner

For the record, I do not think that children from orphaned homes areincluded in the high-risk category. Aside from the pledge of the Ribbono ShelOlam – the Avi Hayesomim – to watch over his special children, anecdotalevidence would indicate that the overwhelming majority of yesomim grow tobecome well-adjusted, very often outstanding young men and women. Fired inthe crucible of the pain and loneliness of losing a parent, they oftenoutgrow the inevitable “why me?” phase, mature earlier than their peers, aremore sensitive human beings, and become exceptional spouses and parents,having learned at an early age to appreciate life to its fullest. And yes,they usually develop an incredibly close relationship with the survivingparent who raised and nurtured them under such difficult circumstances.

Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov

It is interesting to note that the initial attraction to Yiddishkeit formany chozrei b’teshuva is not a beautiful d’var Torah or deep thoughts ofhashkafa, but rather their participation in the warm atmosphere of a Jewishfamily sitting around the Shabbos table. Throughout the generations, ourhomes have always been the anchor in our lives and one of the primary sourcesof the transmission of our Mesora to future generations. And it is in ourhomes – down in the trenches – that our generation’s milchemes hayeitzer(battle for spiritual survival) is being fought.

May the Ribbono Shel Olam grant us the wisdom and siyata diShmaya tocreate the type of home life for our children that will inculcate them withTorah values and prepare them to transmit our timeless Mesora to yet anothergeneration.

Rabbi Horowitz, Menahel of Yeshiva Darchei Noam (Monsey), and director ofProject Y.E.S., was last represented in these pages by his tribute to RabbiMoshe Sherer zt'l, “Basic Training” (June ’98).

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