“We are faced with a critical problem, one that we must address as a society. There is a spiritual underclass that exists in our community – dropout teens. … These are children that mechanchim (educators), parents – indeed society as a whole – has failed to reach. In the greater New York area there are hundreds of boys ages 16 and above who are in no yeshiva setting at all. We bump into them at the mall, and we catch sight of them through the plate glass window of the pool hall. And their numbers are growing. Rapidly.”
These lines are excerpted from the first article (click here for full text) that I published on the topic of at-risk teens "An Ounce of Prevention" which appeared in The Jewish Observer, May 1996. The overriding theme of that four-thousand-word essay was that the rapidly elevated bar-to-entry at high schools was inadvertently causing significant numbers of our beloved sons and daughters to feel alienated from – and often rejected by – our school system. Here are more excerpts:
“As we ratchet up the tension level and raise the bar to encourage them to hurdle to greater heights, many of these children crash into the bar time and time again. Broken-hearted and discouraged, they simply stop trying and seek fulfillment elsewhere.
The haunting story of Elisha Ben Avuyah –Acher comes to mind. After he had sinned, he heard a heavenly voice, which informed him that all were welcome to repent except for him. He replied, “Since the option of teshuva is not available to me, I will at least derive pleasure from this world,” and he r’l returned to his path of transgression.
These sensitive young men are misreading our well-intentioned messages to them. They are not hearing our calls to improve, they misconstrue the pleas of their parents to better their lives and enrich their futures. All that keeps reverberating in their ears is the never-ending shout of voices that pierce their hearts: “We don’t want you in our classroom, in our yeshiva, in our mesivta, in our home . . .”
Judging the placement of the proverbial bar to entry in mesivta high schools is an inexact science at best. However, I would estimate that it is currently twice as high as it was when I penned those lines and many multiples of what it was when I started teaching eighth grade twenty-five years ago. (Click here for links to earlier articles in this series #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5).
When I applied to high school in 1972, the welcome mat was out for virtually any talmid who wished to come. I know that to be a fact because I was accepted to the first and only school I applied to – and I was a very restless young man with a history of poor behavior. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really start learning until eleventh grade. But I was given a gift that many of today’s kids are denied. Time. Time to improve. Time to develop a love for learning. Time to work out whatever barriers there were to my success. Time to begin realizing my potential. Thirty-five years has a way softening the edges of difficult school experiences, but I honestly cannot recall any of my friends not getting into their high school of choice.
When you think about it, my generation, children of Holocaust-surviving parents, were given another gift – unequivocal acceptance from organized Judaism. We were all unconditionally welcomed in our schools and shuls. Our fathers and mothers didn’t go to parenting classes and the vast majority of our educators didn’t participate in professional development seminars. But there was a clear message that every Jewish soul was precious and treasured.
Everywhere I go, people ask me why the ‘at-risk teen’ crisis didn’t seem to exist thirty years ago. In the past, I’ve offered a number of diverse theories to explain this phenomenon. Then, a few weeks ago, as I was preparing these columns, a frightening thought struck me. Perhaps our beloved children are mirroring our community’s conditional acceptance of them with their own conditional kabbalas mitzvos. After all, many of our kids are increasingly getting the message that they are welcomed and valued so long as they do well in school and do not deviate too much from cultural norms. If we can engage in role reversal, how would we feel if our spouse told us that he/she would love us only if we landed a great job? Would we feel that special attachment to our spouses even if we got the position? Who knows what harmful seeds we are sowing by having our kids jump through hoops at such a young age to get into high schools and seminaries – even for those who get accepted?
There are no simple solutions for improving the application and vetting process for our high schools and seminaries. Not every child is an appropriate fit for every school. Parents need to be pragmatic in assessing their children’s abilities (and value the advice of their child’s educators regarding placements) so as not to set their children up for repeated failure by applying to schools where their kids cannot succeed. But it is painfully clear that we educators need to put our heads together and do our very best to improve things so that all our children (and families) will feel cherished, valued – and wanted – in our schools and communities.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
 The admissions process for grade schools can often be similarly stressful, and is in need of collective cheshbon hanefesh (reflection) as well.
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