When the at-risk teen issue was brought to the public consciousness eleven years ago, several Orthodox elected officials in the New York area pooled their resources to underwrite the production and dissemination of an excellent series of four videos titled, “Shattered Lives" in order to raise public consciousness about the challenges that our teens-at-risk were facing.
In addition to parents, educators, and those who work with the at-risk teen population, a number of Orthodox teens-at-risk were interviewed for the video series. Quite obviously, the producers of this tape series afforded the kids complete anonymity by using a sophisticated computer program to garble the voices and distort the images of the young men and women who volunteered to be interviewed.
While these nameless, faceless discussions are entirely reasonable in the context of that particular video series, it is terribly disconcerting that much of the dialogue in Jewish communal life seems to be taking place under similar circumstances. Many or most people who write letters to the editor in charedi periodicals expressing their thoughts on matters that are critical to the future of our community are not comfortable posting their names and the cities in which they live. This is very troubling because it signifies a reticence to engage in open discussion of ideas and opinions about the most important issues in our personal and communal lives.
This reluctance is entirely understandable when people are writing letters to the editor about delicate matters such as learning disabilities or personality disorders that they or their children may have. However, the reluctance to express one’s personal opinion is quite upsetting. Why should an individual be uncomfortable or afraid to express his views in a rational and reasonable manner?
Sometimes, it borders on the comical. In my hometown of Monsey, New York, there are several weekly newspapers that are mailed to the community free of charge. I never cease to be amazed when people decline to sign their names in letters to the editor about mundane matters. Here are the types of letters that appear week after week:
“I would like to thank the Town officials for doing such a wonderful job plowing the streets after last week's snowstorm” E.R.
“I really enjoy the Dvar Torah column every week.” Name Withheld.
Whenever I read one of those letters, my first reaction is, “Wow, you are really going out on a limb there! No wonder you didn’t want to post your name on that letter.”
Speaking of comical scenarios, here is another: When people approach me and comment that they are pleased that I am writing columns which express sentiments they have been feeling for a long time, I sometimes (usually when my wife is not present) ask them with a deadpan expression if I can quote them by name in my next article as having supported my opinions. It is difficult to describe the horror in their eyes and the ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look I get whenever mention that to someone. I always walk away from these conversations saddened and worried – especially they occur with people who occupy high-profile positions in our kehilos.
What is most troubling is that the only voices that are being silenced are the moderate ones. The kanoim, those in our community with the most extremist views, comfortably thunder their macho’os, protestations, in very public forums with nary a concern, while those who have more mainstream views are intimidated to express them.
We are paying a terrible price for this silence and for the suppression of communal dialogue. When important problems are not honestly discussed and addressed, they fester and grow. In the darkness of neglect, manageable challenges become full-blown emergencies. In a climate of fear, extremist ‘solutions’ to real problems often set the stage for much larger calamities later on.
We all know the incredible successes of our charedi kehilah. We are raising, with the chesed of Hashem, thousands of proud, idealistic young men and women, devoted to our timeless mesorah. Our yeshivos and kollelim are filled with vigor and positive energy. We have more than earned our right to celebrate these accomplishments. But there are incredible challenges ahead.
Like it or not, ready or not, we – and our children – are being thrust into a rapidly changing world where all the rules are changing. Instant and exponentially growing methods of communication have already broken the protective ‘firewall’ we so carefully built around our homes and communities. And this process will only accelerate as time marches on.
We desperately need forums where these matters are candidly discussed in an environment of mutual respect with an eye towards generating solutions to these challenges; where all views are encouraged and appreciated and where those who care enough – and have the courage – to ask tough questions are venerated for their dedication to the future of our children.
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