About eleven years ago, I began writing, “An Ounce of Prevention” – the article that dramatically changed the course of my life. It appeared in the May 1996 issue of The Jewish Observer and candidly addressed a topic that was simply not discussed in polite company at that time – the subject of our beloved boys and girls who were not making it in our yeshiva system.
The Jewish Observer got more than fifty letters to the editor – the most ever in response to a published article – and more than 300 people called my home phone in the first month alone. A small percentage of the letters and calls complimented or took issue with some of the things I had written. But the vast majority of them were from desperate parents looking for help – any kind of help – in getting their children back on the path to successful lives. Clearly, a sensitive nerve was touched.
Following sessions on the topic of at-risk teens at the national conventions of Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel, and with the active encouragement of our Gedolei HaDor, Project YES was created with a sacred mission – to help each and every one of our precious children achieve success in our Yeshivos and Beis Yaakovs.
Over the past ten years, many positive developments have occurred as a result of the attention devoted to this critical issue. Many wonderful organizations and tailored educational programs have been created to help children who are not making it in mainstream schools. Parenting classes and in-service training for rebbeim/moros have become accepted in our circles. There is a far greater degree of sensitivity to ‘children at-risk.’
But I am deeply, deeply concerned that conditions are ripe for a huge, exponential increase in the number and percentages of our children who will r’l abandon Yiddishkeit in the coming years – like nothing we have ever seen in our lifetimes – if we don’t dramatically transform the way we parent and educate our children. I have been feeling this way for a few years now, but this uneasy sentiment is growing as time goes on.
Why all the worry, you ask? Are we not doing extraordinary well in the arena of raising our children? The answer is that we most certainly have so much to be proud of. Batei midrashim, kollelim, and seminaries are brimming with many thousand of outstanding, spiritual young men and women, kein yirbu. We have, over the past few generations, demonstrated our ability to transmit our timeless tradition to our children and grandchildren. But that is only part of the story – the enjoyable part. However, there are components of the bigger picture that are out-of-sight and therefore conveniently out-of-mind.
I’d like to ask you to conjure up a mental image of the dancing in the men’s section of the last wedding that you attended. In your mind’s eye, there are probably several concentric circles of participants – each of them with varied levels of intensity. In the inner circle, you have the chosson and his friends dancing with great fervor. The second ring probably consists of middle-age guys (like myself) operating at a much slower RPM (for readers who occupy the inner ring at weddings, RPM stands for revolutions per minute), while the outer circle of the dance is comprised of SMV’s (slow moving vehicles). In addition to these three groups, you have individuals sitting at tables not partaking at all in the festivities. Finally, there are those outside the wedding hall, smoking or chatting on their cell phones.
Now imagine if you asked people from these diverse groups for their perception of the dancing at the wedding. The inner, lively group would say that the dancing was fantastic. Middle age guys would say the music was too loud for their taste. Outer group members may tell you that the boys were a bit on the wild side. And the fellows outside on their cell phones will say, “Dancing; what dancing?”
That is a thumbnail sketch of the children our community is raising. The ‘inner group’ – those achieving success in our schools – are doing extraordinarily well, Baruch Hashem. The ‘middle group’ thinks that things are too intense for them, but they are still part of our community, while the ‘outer group’ operates at the fringes of our society – barely participating and feeling rather disenfranchised. And then there are the people outside the wedding hall … those who completely abandoned Yiddishkeit. So, how are we doing as a society in the raising of our children? Well, it depends on your vantage point.
If I may stay with the wedding analogy for another moment, I am that restless fellow who bounces around among the three dancing rings – and keeps running out to chat with the guys outside the hall. You see, there is an extraordinary dichotomy in my professional life (or rather lives). Daytime, I am the quintessential inner-ring participant. I serve as the menahel of a Yeshiva elementary school, where I get to walk the hallways and listen to the sweet sounds of tefilah and the beautiful singsong chanting of the timeless Torah thoughts of Abaya and Rava (two sages of the Talmud). But as the sun sets each night, I am confronted with the horrific agony of the children who are not succeeding in our school system and the unspeakable anguish of their parents, siblings and grandparents. The phones at Project YES and so many other outstanding organizations ring with stories of frustrated, unhappy children; with reports of gambling, drug use, molestation, promiscuous activity – even deaths and suicide (I personally know of three frum children who committed suicide in the past nine months alone).
What are the numbers – the percentages of our children in the various ‘rings’? Accurate information and research-based studies are not readily available, but I would estimate that during the past few decades, about five to fifteen percent of children from observant homes completely left Yiddishkeit – which is far more than we would like to admit or believe.
However, viewed from an historical perspective, the ‘drop-out’ rate from Orthodox Jewry in the past fifty years is far lower now than it was during the tumultuous hundred years that preceded the generation of our parents – from 1850 to 1950. 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 are deluding ourselves – and ignoring the lessons of history – if we think that we are somehow immune from another colossal tidal wave of children leaving Yiddishkeit in the years to come. For we have been steadily increasing the frantic pace and intensity of the ‘inner ring’ over the past ten-fifteen years. And the dancers are clasping their hands tighter and tighter – inadvertently excluding a significant proportion of prospective people from participating.
If you accept my proposition that five to fifteen percent of our children are outside the wedding hall (and I think those numbers are low-ball estimates), trust me when I say that there are huge numbers of kids in rings two and three. They are waiting and watching – not sure if they want to join the dance or just go outside for a smoke and a schmooz.
All the while, there are enormous cultural changes occurring that have profound ramifications for the Torah observant community. 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 I predicted that within ten years, 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 audio IPOD with limited memory – and pornographic content – 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 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?
People are always asking me how things are doing these days regarding the teen-at-risk crisis. In response to these questions, I usually nod my head and make small talk, as the settings in which these questions are presented are generally not conducive to serious discussions. And to be perfectly honest, I have found that most people don’t really want to hear the stark reality as I see things.
But if you wish to know my candid thoughts on this subject, pull up a chair and read these columns very carefully over the next few weeks and months. What I have to say will probably upset you. I may engender your resentment and perhaps even your anger for writing these columns and airing these subjects in such a public forum. But I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to write these articles, nonetheless.
For we need to candidly discuss how we educate our children and how we set our charity priorities. We need to talk about investing in the training and financial stability of our valiant mechanchim/mechanchos, and discuss the need to provide recreation opportunities for our kids. We need to reflect on the missions of our schools – are we looking to raise mitzuyanim/mitzuyanos (outstanding students) or normal, well-adjusted children who have the capacity to become mitzuyanim/mitzuyanos? Should average or weaker students be relegated to second-tier schools, or should they be welcome in mainstream schools? We need to have candid discussions about how to confront the challenges of technology that are heading our way – ready-or-not. The list goes on and on.
I am grateful to the editors of Mishpacha for providing the forum for these critical discussions. We envision this section to serve as an open forum on chinuch matters. Please participate by reading these columns, writing letters, and perhaps even submitting an essay (800 words or less, please) for publication.
Feel free to write in support of – or in disagreement with – a position stated in these lines. But we ask that the discussions take place in an environment of ne’imus and with an elevated tone, one where we can agree to disagree respectfully. This section will appear in the middle pages of Mishpacha – so that parents who would like to remove those pages from the paper can do so easily if they do not wish to have their children read the dialogue over these critical matters.
It is our vision and hope that this forum will help us realize our collective goal of “V’chol bo’nayich limudei Hashem.”
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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