Any conversation with a brilliant, out-of-the-box thinker like Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski is bound to develop a fresh perspective on things. With that in mind, a discussion I had with Dr. Twerski a number of years ago about the topic of at-risk teens most certainly fit that pattern. He remarked to me that most people are looking for solutions to the teens-at-risk crisis by focusing on those who dropped out of our school system. “Wouldn’t it be interesting,” he asked, “to focus some of our energy and attention on those who achieve success – despite having some of these risk factors?”
Dr. Twerski mentioned that he would be most interested in conducting a research study on children who grew up in conditions that would seem to indicate that they would be ‘at-risk’ for ‘at-risk’ behaviors – but grew into outstanding adults nonetheless. “Imagine how things would improve,” he wondered aloud, “if we could replicate the successes of these individuals with young men and women who are confronted with similar challenges during their adolescent years?”
Well, Dr. Twersky, if you ever read these lines and are still interested in that project, it would be my pleasure to introduce you to two ordinary, extraordinary people who would be ideal candidates for your study – Rabbi Herschel Meisels and Mrs. Sarah Rivkah Kohn.
Rabbi Herschel Meisels, a descendant of a long chain of Chassidic rabbis, is a soft-spoken and an unassuming individual with an easy smile and an engaging personality. Twenty-five years ago, at the age of five, he was diagnosed with juvenile (type 1) diabetes. One can only imagine the challenges he faced managing the medical ramifications of his diabetes and dealing with the social stigma of growing up in a close-knit community with a condition that requires constant monitoring. One does not need any imagination, however, to analyze how Rabbi Meisels harnessed the energy created by the challenges of his formative years. Eight years ago, Rabbi Meisels started “Friends With Diabetes,” to help Jewish diabetic children/teens – and their parents. There are currently more than 2,000 children on the mailing list for their bi-monthly publications and hundreds of children, couples and parents attend their seminars and Shabbatons each year.
Mrs. Sarah Rivkah Kohn was raised in Monsey and currently resides in Brooklyn, where she is a homemaker and mother of a one-year-old daughter. Her mother passed away while she was in her early teenage years and she often thought how helpful it would have been for her to have had the comfort of a network of girls who were similarly coping with the searing pain and loneliness of losing a parent. Several years ago, Mrs. Cohen actualized her dream and published a newsletter called LINKS, geared to provide support, practical advice, and a sense of camaraderie to frum, orphaned girls. Her mailing list continues to grow exponentially and currently has more than 300 members. (Click HERE and HERE)
Recently, I got a firsthand look at the incredible work of these two individuals when I participated in Shabbaton retreats conducted by ‘Friends of Diabetes’ and ‘LINKS.’ In both instances, I was asked to inspire others and walked away uplifted myself.
The ‘Friends of Diabetes’ event was entirely upbeat – where more than seventy boys had a grand time together. In fact, the only time I realized that it was a gathering of diabetics was during the Motzoei Shabbos festivities, when I noticed that quite a few boys seemed to be checking their cell phones and sending text messages incessantly. It was only when I looked closer that I noticed that those devices were in fact blood sugar monitors that the boys were scanning and calibrating. I suspect that they were, in some way, celebrating the fact that they could whip out those gadgets and tinker with them in a public setting without being subjected to curious glances and uncomfortable questions.
The LINKS Shabbaton, on the other hand, was a blend of Yom Kippur, Simchas Torah and Tisha B’av. More than fifty teenage girls spent two full days together laughing, crying, talking and bonding. There were art-and-crafts and aerobics activities, as well as sessions on understanding the grieving process and open forums where the young ladies were able to seek the counsel of trained adults as they struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible. When I left my hotel room at five-oclock Shabbos morning, I found that thirty of the fifty girls had been up all night and were sitting in the lobby deeply engrossed in conversations – not even noticing my presence.
Of the entire gamut of emotions that I experienced over that Shabbos, one poignant moment stood out above all the others. It was during a session that I conducted on the subject of ‘blended families.’ I fielded a broad range of questions from dealing with stepparents and stepsiblings to how, when – and if – to ‘allow’ their single parent to remarry, when a young lady got up and asked a heart rendering question. She mentioned that a Rebbitzen told her during the shiva mourning period that the neshama (soul) of her departed mother would be reunited with her father and family members in Gan Eden. She wanted to know what would happen if she did as I suggested and gave her blessing for her father to remarry – would her mother’s neshama then be excluded from their family? And if that was the case, was she being disloyal to her mother by ‘letting’ her father remarry?
All in all, both of these gatherings left me filled with hope and encouragement. Due to the passion and dedication of Rabbi Meiseles and Mrs. Kohn, many hundreds of children are afforded resources and services that simply did not exist a generation ago. When my father died before my fourth birthday more than forty-four years ago, my mother and her children; my sister, brother and I, had to cope – ourselves – in the best way we could. Today, things are thankfully different.
In my remarks to the two very diverse groups of teens, I told them to look at the living example represented by the founder of their organization – and to start thinking about how they would use the painful experiences of their youth to help future generations of Hashem’s children.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
 For more information on “Friends With Diabetes,” call 845-352-7532 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
 For more information on LINKS, call 718-851-4778 or email email@example.com
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