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Issue 194 - Human Problems
Protecting Our Children – Part Three
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Mishpacha Magazine

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Recommended Reading: The Monster Inside and Safe and Secure

Cognitive dissonance: “The uncomfortable tension that may result from having two conflicting thoughts (cognition) at the same time …that conflicts with one's beliefs (dissonance is defined as “lack of agreement, consistency, or harmony”)… In popular usage, it can be associated with the tendency for people to resist information that they don't want to think about, because if they did it would create cognitive dissonance. They usually have at least partial awareness of the information, without having moved to full acceptance of it, and are thus in a state of denial about it. (Encyclopedia Britannica).

In the late 1990’s, shortly after I began writing and lecturing about the topic of at-risk teens, a colleague informed me that Orthodox kids were selling significant quantities of drugs to other frum children. Here’s basically the way it worked: If you were an adult or teen who wanted to purchase drugs, you would go to designated pay phones in the Boro Park/Flatbush sections of Brooklyn and pretend to make a phone call. Then, using prearranged signals, you would indicate the type of the drug you wanted to buy. For example, placing a hand in your left pocket meant that you wanted to purchase ecstasy pills, while a hand in your right pocket signaled that you were looking for marijuana. Then, after you would flash hand signals informing the pusher of the exact quantity you requested, someone would approach you and close the deal.

After verifying from several sources that the ‘intel’ was correct, my colleague was faced with a dilemma: what to do with the information? After all, by going to the authorities, he would be committing mesirah, turning fellow Jews to the police. Additionally, we were raised to avoid anything that might cause a chilul Hashem – and having observant boys arrested for drug pushing would certainly be a colossal one. We decided that I would represent him and present the quandary to the leading gedolim of our generation, among them my great rebbi, Reb Avraham Pam z’tl, at a meeting that was to be held later that month on an unrelated matter. During their [private] meeting, I presented the information and was asked thoughtful, probing questions by the gedolim on a broad range of issues related to this matter. After a few moments of silence, the gedolim turned to Rav Pam, who was the eldest of the group and revered by all. With great pain in his eyes, he softly but firmly said, “Zei ale hobin a din rodef,” meaning that the pushers were presenting a clear and present life-threatening danger to the public and must be stopped at all costs. Then, like a Sanhedrin, they each rendered their p’sak, unanimously agreeing with Rav Pam.

My colleague shared the information with the appropriate authorities, an investigation was launched, and within six months several frum kids were arrested along with the ringleader, a 50-year-old Charedi man who was caught selling the drugs in the basement of a Boro Park shul, of all places. The arrests made headlines in the New York tabloids and were the lead item on virtually every radio station in the New York metropolitan area.

I mention this story in the context of the ‘Protecting our Children’ series The Monster Inside and Safe and Secure for two reasons. Firstly, to make public the da’as Torah of our gedolim as it pertains to setting aside mesirah issues when lives are threatened. And although I did not raise the issue of abuse in that meeting, I did receive clear and unequivocal p’sakim from gedolei rabbanim that verified abusers must be reported, as that is only way to insure public safety. (Note: I am not issuing a psak, merely sharing the ones I received. As with other matters, every individual who has a sheilah should ask his Rav and not rely on second-hand p’sakim.)

Another issue of great importance was the reaction of our community to the arrests – which I am sad to say, was a collective, “Wow, can you believe that? … Please pass the salt.” It is noteworthy that for many months before the arrests, several of us lectured to standing-room-only crowds in Brooklyn practically shouting that frum people were pushing drugs to our children.

We kept speaking about it, but people didn’t seem to get it. It took a while – and a few deaths of frum kids from drug overdoses – for people in our community to get their hearts in sync with the facts that their eyes and ears were telling them. It was a classic example of cognitive dissonance. After all, we were raised with the notion that these things just don’t happen in our Torah community. So, when we were faced with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, part of our minds just shut down, not willing to accept the harsh truth. But, as we are painfully realizing, the problems we face don’t shut down while we struggle to adjust to new realities.

In addition to the ‘standard’ cognitive dissonance described above, two factors contribute greatly to its staying power in our community. The first is the fact that we are, Baruch Hashem, surrounded by evidence of the astounding successes of our Yeshiva/Beis Yakov systems; thousands of wonderful, spiritual teenagers. How can the negative information we hear about compete with the superb things we see? Additionally, there is a virtual media ban in our charedi papers on any negative news. Few things add to the disconnect and cognitive dissonance more than hearing frightening things about an event such as the arrest of a frum drug dealer or pedophile in the secular media, while our papers completely ignore its existence. We ought to be enormously proud of the first factor, but I suggest that we must end the practice of the second.

The only way to combat cognitive dissonance is to discuss these matters in our public squares, painful as it may be; which is why Mishpacha magazine deserves our appreciation for publishing these columns. Trust me, I wish there was a more discreet way to do this, and if any of our readers have any suggestions for creating venues for this dialogue, please contact me with them. But in the meantime, I will continue to write these essays, as I feel that straight talk and education is the only way to significantly improve things.

In the darkest moments of our agonizing saga with the drug issue, I received a small measure of comfort and chizuk from a non-Jewish police officer who saw me close to tears during our discussions. “Rabbi,” he said softly. “Your community is close-knit and family oriented, so you were lucky to avoid the drug problem for an entire generation. The [19]90’s for you is what the 60’s was to us. This isn’t a Jewish problem, Rabbi. It is a human problem. It only becomes a Jewish problem when it is ignored.”

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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