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It's Not What the Neighbors Say
by Rabbi Yonasan Rosenblum

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"The plural of anecdotes is not data" goes an old saying. Yet when one attempts to examine a wide variety of social phenomenon in the Israel Torah community, hard data is hard to come by.

One of those phenomena would be disaffected youth. How widespread is the problem? What are its causes? Is it possible to identify youth who might be at risk in coming years at a young age, and what types of early intervention might be effective? These are just a few of the critical questions worthy of investigation.

This past week I finally found someone who has been studying all these issues and collecting hard data in order to create effective early intervention programs. In the course of our long conversation, he observed that the "drop-out" rates in so-called mixed communities, like Petach Tikva, Rechovot, and Haifa, are dramatically lower than in all chareidi communities, like Kiryat Sefer, Beitar, Elad, and Bnei Brak.

That remark was far from the focus of our discussion, and we did not dwell on it. But it is still worth asking what are some of the differences between growing up in a mixed community and an all chareidi community.

The biggest difference between mixed and homogenous communities is that the former force children to define themselves; their identity is not taken for granted. A close friend who raised half of his children in Tel Aviv and half in Bnei Brak once told me that he felt that the children raised in Tel Aviv had a much deeper sense of themselves as Torah Jews because that identity was reinforced everyday in juxtaposition to the surrounding environment.

A friend from Haifa offered a seemingly small example. When he and his siblings picked up candies thrown in shul as youngsters, they never just stuck them in their mouth; they always ran to their father first to ask if they were appropriate to eat. In such continual little ways, they were constantly reminded that they were different and of what that difference consisted.

I've noticed a similar thing among children of out-of-town rabbis in America. Sometimes there is not a single other family in the congregation at whose home the parents feel comfortable letting their children eat. The kids go to birthday parties of their schoolmates, for instance, and do not eat anything. Needless to say, this can be hard on the kids. But it also reinforces their identity on a constant basis.

Growing up going against the flows often brings out kochos hanefesh that do not develop when everyone is assumed to aspire to the same things. The great gedolimproduced in pre-War Europe grew to maturity in a society in which yeshiva bochurim were widely disparaged as "bench-warmers." Their commitment to learning was a positive choice – and much more intense on that account – than that of those who are just going with the flow and doing what everyone around them is doing.

In mixed communities, parents are under no illusions that they can leave it to the "street" to raise their children, since that street is so obviously antithetical to their values. They know that they have to work hard to develop a positive identity as frum Jews in their children, and that it will not come by osmosis. Parents in such communities are more likely to know where their children are and with whom. They make no easy assumptions that the "street" is safe.

The more homogenous the community the greater the social pressure. "What will the neighbors say?" often seems to replace the question "What does the Torah say?" When children perceive their parents to be terrified of the judgment of their neighbors, they may come to view their parents' actions as superficial and externally dictated. In the process, their parents' status as role models in their children's eyes is lessened.

To some extent social pressures can be positive. No Englishman, for instance, would jump in a queue, for such things are just not done. And every child has to start with a certain sense of things that are "not done," even prior to the age when he can understand the deeper reasons for expected behavior. But when social pressure becomes too intense life begins to be experienced as a pressure cooker, with many popping out of the cooker.

On a recent flight back to Israel, I was speaking to one of the leading mashpi'imin the Torah world. He travels frequently and has wide knowledge of Jewish communities around the world. He told me that as a general rule the more closed the community the higher the "drop-out" rate. On the same flight was another one of the greatest mashpi'imof our generation, and when I related to him what the first had said, he gave me a withering look, as if to ask why I was bothering him with something so obvious, and told me, "zeh kol kach pashut – That is so obvious."

Finally, even within the chareidi community in mixed cities, there tends to be a much greater diversity. Children growing up in such cities have many more life options in front of them. Where only one option exists those who do not feel that they will ever succeed in that particular role or that they are not suited to it will come to feel trapped. Where only one option appears available, our young may come to feel that rejecting that option automatically entails rejecting Torah society in toto.

I do not really know if these explanations of lower "drop-out" rates in mixed cities are correct or whether other factors might be more significant. I would be interested in hearing from readers their own thoughts.

And even if all these points were correct, I would not expect a single family to move from Bnei Brak, Kiryat Sefer, Beitar, or Elad on that account. The benefits of living in a Torah community would probably outweigh whatever slightly greater risk there is of "drop-outs."

But those of us living and raising our children happily in more or less homogenous communities can still derive lessons from those living in more "mixed" communities that may have important implications for our own child-rearing. And chief among those is the necessity of developing in our children a positive identity as Torah Jews that has nothing to do with what the neighbors will say.

This Article appeared in Mishpacha On 25th October

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