Report from Ground Zero

by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Al Regel Achas… On One Foot
If we are going to have an impact on the frightening trend of young men and women abandoning the teachings of our yeshiva and Bais Yaakov system, we will need to improve the overall quality of our home life. There is a common inclination to lay the blame for these problems on families in crisis. This type of thinking, however, does not do justice to such a difficult and complex issue. We must avoid the tendency to attribute all of the blame on the “broken homes,” and work to minimize the tension levels in all of our homes.

Several years ago, at an Agudath Israel National Convention, Mori Verabi Rabbi Avrohom Pam, shlita quoted The Steipler zt'l as having said, “Hatzlocha mit kinder (success with one’s children) is 50% shalom bayis, and 50% tefilla.”

One thing is painfully clear. Our home life is under assault. It is not merely the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society and its effect on (even) our insular community. Our homes are under assault. Longer work hours for both spouses, the exponential increase of our simcha schedule and social obligations, and the increased burden of providing parnassa for our growing families are taking their toll on the tranquility and simchas hachayim (joie de vivre) of our home life. Many of us are able to maintain this juggling act and keep all of these balls in the air at once. Many, however, are finding it very, very difficult.

Those who deal with at-risk teens almost unanimously agree that the greatest factor that puts children at risk is lack of simcha and shalom bayis2 at home.

Yes, some children just seem to be born “difficult.” Some have an ornery disposition. Others have an innate propensity to challenge authority. Some are extremely restless and simply not cut out for a ten-hour school day. Many have significant learning disabilities.

Experience has shown, however, that children from warm, loving homes have the best chance of overpowering these difficulties and becoming well-adjusted adults despite having risk factors3.

But children can never get used to bickering. Stress. Unhappiness. Negative comments. Emotional abuse. These create unhappy, distracted children who are unable to concentrate in school. They develop an intense distrust of authority figures, and harbor a simmering rage at an adult world that cannot seem to get its act together and provide them with a peaceful environment in which to grow up and thrive. This holds true for all households – including two-parent ones.

So, a short response to the frightened parents who ask – al regel achas – what they can do to ‘protect’ their family from the ravages of the counterculture that threatens their boys and girls is the poignant comment of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg a”jyls, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr4, that the most important thing that parents need to maintain in their home is a sense of happiness, simchas hachayim.

As vigilant as we must be to shield our children from the influences of secular society, ultimately, our greatest defense against this onslaught is to create a happy and stable home life for our children. We must keep our eye on that goal and do everything possible in our power to see to it that the quality of our home life is as good as possible.

A Time for Action

It is not the intent of these lines to discuss the broad-based issues related to the topic of at-risk teens. We do, however, need to implement some initiatives and solutions that relate to the topic of this article – the improvement of our home life.

1. Shalom Bayis Classes:

During shana rishona (the first year of married life) when a young couple is at the critical stage of developing their relationship, it should become the accepted societal norm5 for both spouses to attend a series of four, six, or perhaps eight classes on shalom bayis. Although the newlywed couple may not think so, this is the ideal time to do this. Young couples have a reasonable amount of discretionary time, and can begin to prepare their home to be a resting place for the Shechina and a nurturing environment for their children to thrive in.

Many young men and women lack proper role models for establishing a relationship based on mutual respect and trust, or simply were not exposed to the positive influence of the parents’ home during crucial years. Training helps. Education helps. More so, a good mentor will provide an opportunity for young couples to seek guidance when the inevitable bumps6 will occur. Many couples are uncomfortable going to their parents for direction at this critical stage in their lives.

2. Parenting Classes

Here, too, education is the key. It would be naïve to think that any one person has all the answers to the difficult questions that parenting requires. Many, many parents, however, have told me how their home life was immeasurably improved as a result of attending parenting workshops.

At a recent symposium, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita related the story of a young woman who was experiencing significant difficulty at home and in school. Professional counseling was recommended. After several sessions, a remarkable improvement was noted by all. Reb Shmuel related that the therapist told him that he had instructed the mother to take her daughter out of school for lunch in a restaurant and spend at least one hour together, conversing, prior to each session. This, the therapist felt, was far more effective than his time with the young woman.

Similarly, it is great training for a young couple to spend time together growing as parents and sharing in the raising of their children7. The practical tips and skills that are imparted at these sessions greatly improve the quality of the home life as parents are trained to deal with the many issues and challenges that they face on a daily basis.

Yes, our parents seem to have done a decent job raising us without attending lectures or reading books, but times have changed and our children are faced with temptations that we never had.

Good parenting skills do not always result in wonderful children. Effective parenting, however, can significantly improve the likelihood that a difficult child will grow into a well-adjusted, productive adult.

3. Strengthening the Kehilla

A woman approached a colleague of mine at a public gathering. She had been recently divorced and asked him to arrange for someone to take her school-age sons to shul on Shabbos. He related to me that his initial reaction was that a situation like this would be unthinkable in a small town, or in a kehilla-type shul setting. People often speak about children falling through the cracks. The reality is that all too often, it is the families that are falling through the cracks.

In large metropolitan areas, where most Orthodox Jews live, one can daven in several shuls throughout the week without being a member in any of them. Although this may be very convenient for the individual mispallel, the family – lost in the anonymity of city life – forgoes the unique protection that the kehilla has to offer. An involved Rabbi and Rebbetzin guide young couples and their children through the inevitable difficulties that they will encounter. They are there to notice troubling tendencies in shalom bayis, the chinuch of the children, or any one of a host of issues.

It is critical in the development of a Torah home that the family belong to a kehilla, attend shiurim, and above all, to actively nurture a relationship with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the shul. Doing so will add many strands to the communal safety net that we so desperately need.

4. Simcha Schedules

People are always asking what has changed so dramatically (regarding the at-risk teen issue) in the past decade. There are some obvious answers – and more subtle ones. One of those that fall into the latter category is that we are more “stressed out” than any generation ever was. Please allow me to rephrase this. We are not home enough. Our family life is unraveling. We are working longer hours in more stressful situations. Perhaps much of this is unavoidable, with the enormous pressure to provide parnassa for our growing families. One area, however, where significant improvement is not only possible but absolutely necessary is our simcha schedules.

Our gedolim have – for years now – been requesting that we limit conspicuous consumption at our simchos. Although there are some exceptions, as a group, we have been reluctant to take their advice8. If we cannot or will not bite the bullet for the sake of a lifestyle of tzeniyus, then asei lemaan tinnokos shel beis rabban – let us do so for the sake of our children.

Every evening that we dress up after a busy workday and travel a half hour to wish a young couple mazel tov at a lechayim (to be followed by a vort, wedding9 and Sheva Berachos), we are depriving our own children of desperately, desperately needed quiet time with us.

While I am not recommending that we all become social dropouts and refuse to attend any simchos, it is clear that we need to limit our time away from home. Our primary obligation, after all, is to raise and nurture the children that Hashem blessed us with and whose upbringing He has charged us with.

5. Shabbos and Yom Tov – an island of tranquility… hopefully.

Shabbos Kodesh. A time for spiritual and emotional rejuvenation. A time for children, relaxation, and family. No telephone calls, no appointments, no distractions. Your children can now get your individual attention as you – and they – unwind from the pressure-filled week. Me’ein Olam Habba10.

Sadly, the hectic nature of our lives is unfortunately spilling over into the last bastion of our home life – Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim. After a forty/fifty-hour school week, when most children would treasure some down time with their parents and family, or simply the luxury of being left alone to unwind, many are subjected to long Shabbos meals with company present, where they are expected to behave in a picture-perfect manner. This despite the fact that the entire conversation at the table is geared to the adults11. Children who are naturally shy are pressured into reciting divrei Torah in front of strangers. Parents go Kiddush hopping until well past noontime – with the unrealistic expectation of coming home to a clean home and relaxed children; or leave their children12 with friends or relatives to attend weekend Bar Mitzvas.

It is of great importance that we pause and take stock of our objective for our Shabbosos. We must strive to create – at least once a week – this zone of menucha (tranquility) in our homes so that our children can relax and look forward to this special day with their family.

The ‘Broken Home’ Component

Allow me to state the obvious. Children’s needs are best served growing up in a two-parent household. Chazal’s comment that the mizbayach “sheds tears” when a couple divorces needs no elaboration13.

Having said that, divorce in and of itself does not consign a child to a bleak educational and social future. While statistically, children from broken homes are in a high-risk category, it is only so, in my opinion, when there is strife and unhappiness in the child’s life. Children can adjust to the painful reality of growing up in a single-parent household – when both parents maturely put their own feelings aside for the sake of the children.

Please allow me to share with you two incidents regarding children from broken homes that I am currently involved with14. With the help of Hashem, I am confident that the first child will mature into a self-confident, well-adjusted young woman. I hope that I am wrong, but I do not share that optimism about the teenager in the second story.

Aviva is a bright six-year old girl attending first grade in a local Bais Yaakov. Her parents divorced four years ago. Aviva lives with her mother, and spends most weekends with her father, who lives in the same community. Her parents are both very involved in her chinuch and secular education, even attending Parent-Teacher Conferences together. Recently, Aviva went through a difficult week when she was quite rude to her mother. Her mother’s response was to call her ex-husband and discuss the matter with him. Twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang. It was Aviva’s father. He took Aviva for a drive and discussed with her the importance of treating her mother with respect. Throughout the following week, Aviva’s parents conversed nightly with each other to monitor the situation.

Yossie’s parents divorced three years ago. It was a messy divorce, with endless litigation about joint assets, custody and visitation. Yossie’s father threatened to withhold a get until he would receive favorable conditions in the asset distribution. Yossie, then thirteen years old, and his three siblings were made to appear before a judge to respond to highly personal questions about their relationship with the two parents.

This past Yom Kippur was not on the father’s court-mandated visitation schedule. (All nine days of Succos were.) Yossie’s father asked his ex-wife for permission to spend Yom Kippur locally (he has since moved away from his former community) and meet Yossie in shul for the davening so that “Yossie shouldn’t be the only child in shul without a father.” This reasonable request was refused, and he was informed that any attempt on his part to follow through on this plan would result in court action.

Yossie is currently a bitter young man who has been in several yeshivos in the past two years. He spends his nights “hanging out,” and has a strained relationship with both his parents.

It is of paramount importance that in the event of a divorce, all parties design a plan of action that will provide the children with the most pleasant home environment that is possible under the circumstances.

The Third Partner

For the record, I do not think that children from orphaned homes are included in the high-risk category. Aside from the pledge of the Ribbono Shel Olam – the Avi Hayesomim – to watch over his special children, anecdotal evidence would indicate that the overwhelming majority of yesomim grow to become well-adjusted, very often outstanding young men and women. Fired in the crucible of the pain and loneliness of losing a parent, they often outgrow the inevitable “why me?” phase, mature earlier than their peers, are more sensitive human beings, and become exceptional spouses and parents, having learned at an early age to appreciate life to its fullest. And yes, they usually develop an incredibly close relationship with the surviving parent who raised and nurtured them under such difficult circumstances.

Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov

It is interesting to note that the initial attraction to Yiddishkeit for many chozrei b’teshuva is not a beautiful d’var Torah or deep thoughts of hashkafa, but rather their participation in the warm atmosphere of a Jewish family sitting around the Shabbos table. Throughout the generations, our homes have always been the anchor in our lives and one of the primary sources of the transmission of our Mesora to future generations. And it is in our homes – down in the trenches – that our generation’s milchemes hayeitzer (battle for spiritual survival) is being fought.

May the Ribbono Shel Olam grant us the wisdom and siyata diShmaya to create the type of home life for our children that will inculcate them with Torah values and prepare them to transmit our timeless Mesora to yet another generation.

Rabbi Horowitz, Menahel of Yeshiva Darchei Noam (Monsey), and director of Project Y.E.S., was last represented in these pages by his tribute to Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt'l, “Basic Training” (June ’98).