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During the past year, VIN News has featured a New York based non profit organization B’Derech, the movement to return to the Derech of the Baal Shem Tov and keep kids happy B’Derech HaTorah. In the spirit of Shavuous – the yahrtzeit of the Baal Shem Tov – and the recent escalation and attention to the phenomenon of Chassidish Youth at Risk, which has become a provocative topic in the Charedi Community, we decided to revisit with Ruchie Freier, Esq., the founder of B’Derech. In her latest article, Ruchie shares with us her experience in the trenches, her research, insight and firm belief that these kids are not at risk, but rather it us the Community who is At Risk of losing our children. See photos of kumzitses for bochurim, lectures for parents and the classes at B’Derech’s newly formed, exciting Israel Program, where bochurim are shteiging and are eager to learn. With the support of prominent Rabbonim and professionals, Ruchie’s article brings home the powerful message of optimism and faith.
B’Derech: Marching to the Niggun of the Baal Shem Tov
By: Ruchie Freier, Esq., B’Derech Founder & Director
It’s time to set the record straight! According to classical Baal Shem Tov philosophy, every Yid is valued and accepted. Thus, “Chassidish Youth at Risk,” is an oxymoron (expression with contradictory words). “At-Risk,” in secular lexicon, is a term coined to describe the youth, generally teenagers, who exhibit anti-social and defiant behavior as a result of being rejected by their peers and society at large. In secular culture, these children have either been pushed beyond their academic limits, have learning disabilities (often undetected) or suffered trauma and/or abuse. That these conditions exist in modern, secular culture comes as no surprise. That these secular, rejected children, ultimately fall prey to addictions such as movies, smoking, alcohol and drugs is comprehensible to us. Can this possibly have trickled into our heimishe world?
On Lag BaOmer, May of 2008, on my annual trip to Miron, I met a brokenhearted, Chassidish woman from Boro Park. She explained she came to daven for her 16 year old son, who was on the streets, addicted to drugs, and bereft of Torah values. He suffered from Attention Deficit Hypertension Disorder (ADHD) which led to his academic failure, ultimately being expelled from several yeshivas. When we returned home, she introduced me to many other heimishe mothers who were suffering like her. Now I was exposed to the dark side of the community I love and always advocate for in my practice as a frum lawyer among my secular colleagues. I was determined to help these children and alleviate the pain of their mothers and families.
In July 2008, events in an Upstate Chassidic community which had negative media coverage led to an interview and article, by a secular news reporter, of me and several friends. The purpose of the interview was to counter the negativity and discuss the beauty of a Chassidish lifestyle. After completing the article, the reporter commented, “Now, that I’ve spent much time working on this article and seen the beauty of your community, can you tell me why so many of your children are rebelling?”
I began talking to the kids on the street and feel privileged that they shared their stories with me. They were stories of pain, rejection, accusations, humiliation and loneliness. I was unprepared for the rivers of tears these kids shed, many of whom are talented and gifted, but not academically inclined. I had changed in a way I could never have imagined. I went back to the reporter and explained that in most cases, these kids aren’t rebelling; rather, it’s we, their elders, who pushed them beyond their limits, leaving them no option but to drop out.
In August 2008, I attended a conference, sponsored by the American Bar Association on Youth at Risk in America, urging lawyers to get involved in counseling troubled teens. I learned that the NYS Constitution guarantees each child an education. Conversely, our national rally cry of Naaseh v’Nishma at Matan Torah did not guarantee every heimishe child a yeshiva/Torah education. At the end of the conference, I introduced myself to Chief Justice Judith Kaye, and described my work in the Chassidic community. I received an unexpected blow when her assistant asked me, “Kids at risk in the Chassidic community, how is that possible, doesn’t your community take care of its own?”
The Chassidic Movement was founded in the 18th Century by the Heilige Baal Shem Tov to embrace the disenfranchised religious Eastern European Jews. Chassidism promoted acceptance and insularity – its mission was a hybrid of Ahavas HaBoireh and Ahavas HaBrios. Yet, over the past twenty five years, the Chassidish community has been plagued by two phenomena: technology and exclusivity. As a result, the impregnable fortress insulating our children has been pierced and wreaked havoc and rejection. The children have told me, “It’s more important to my parents how I look than how I feel” and “it’s more important to my yeshiva how much I know, not how much I try.” Once the feeling of rejection sets in, the child succumbs to the challenge of technology and the street life.
It all started with the best of intentions: we wanted our children to reach their full potential and yeshivas wanted to produce the best talmidim. We aggressively push our children into schools with the highest academic standard and a grueling schedule. But, what about the children who can not meet the bar, due to academic challenges or problems at home? Whose responsibility is it to take care of these children? To what exactly are we aspiring? Perhaps there is an element of “Ivy League” pride, which I was subjected to in applying to law school, we need to uproot. As Reb Tzadok cautions in Pirkei Avos, Perek 4, we should not use the Torah as a crown to glorify ourselves. Lo HaMedrash HaIkar ella HaMaaseh should be the hallmark in raising our children.
Being expelled from yeshiva is a terrible experience for any bochur. But, when a Chassidish bochur is expelled from yeshiva, it is traumatic, as he has been cut from his bloodline. A Chassidish child learns during his formative years of the cherished bond between Rebbe and Chasid and how the Rebbe is his conduit to Hashem. Life at home revolves around the camaraderie of the Rebbe and Chassidim. When the Chassidish bochor is expelled from his Rebbe’s moisad, he internalizes the expulsion as follows: The yeshiva does not want me, the Rebbe does not want me, my family does not want me – surely, Hashem does not want me too.
Psychologist Dr. Benzion Twerski, the son of Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, has lectured for B’Derech, has counseled children for years and has seen what goes on behind the scenes. Today, even the best of homes face major challenges, and, although problems can start anywhere, Dr. Twerski feels that yeshiva is one of the first places where issues arise. “Most yeshivas today try to serve kids who are really successful at learning in order to produce the best product,” Dr. Twerski explained. “That’s not where it’s at. Chinuch is not about excellence; it’s about helping kids to achieve their potential.” Dr. Twerski believes that the number of children who cannot keep up with the academic pressure is a far cry from the exception to the rule, and is in fact much closer to the majority.
Exclusivity, which faces our community today, goes beyond the academic standard of the child. It extends to the minutest detail of his livush. Consequently, children seem to have lost the inspiration of Chassidus and live by rote and obligation. Rabbi Shimon Gertner, a prominent Magid Shiur in Satmar, Monsey and illustrious Dayan in Mechon L’Hoyroa, lectured at several B’Derech events, stressing the importance of parents understanding the individuality of each child. Just as wood has its natural grain, and a carpenter would be foolish to attempt to craft the wood against its grain, so too, must parents raise their children according to his or her natural grain.
The Yesodos of Yiddishkeit have lost its predominance in our quest for excellence. We can no longer expect our children to grasp Emunah in the current curriculum. According to Rabbi Pinchos Jung, a prominent lecturer and principal of Bais Rochel Girls School of Monsey, children need to be taught emunah. Teachers and parents should be trained on how to answer questions relating to the Ikrei Emunah. One must validate every child’s question and never call him an apikoires.
Rabbi Eliyahu Bergstein, Senior Lecturer for Aish HaTorah and former melamed, has lectured at B’Derech programs on the significance of teaching the concept of “knowledge” of Hashem. Atoh Horaisah LoDaas articulates that we know Hashem’s mandate to us, and how meaningful our Torah and mitzvos are to Hashem. Rabbi Bergstein also points out that we need to know, and to transmit, the distinction between actual Mitzvos and a Chumra associated with a mitzvah. While a Chumra is usually beneficial, if it enhances the simcha and cheishek of doing a Mitzva, it can be very detrimental if indiscriminately forced.
At a recent B’Derech lecture by Rabbi Rietti, Rabbi Jung and Rabbi Bergstein, on Strengthening the Flame of Emunah in Chinuch, many parents approached me asking why we do not have this material taught to our children in schools and yeshivas. It is B’Derech’s mission to impress upon parents that they are entitled to request this material be incorporated into school curriculum. B’Derech is prepared to work with the parents, schools, camps and yeshivas, on such curriculum.
Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, famous lecturer at Aish HaTorah, became involved with B’Derech last year. Rabbi Glaser’s Baal Teshuva background, and choice of a Chassidish lifestyle, is proving to be a magnet to our children seeking answers. He mentors countless bochurim and has lectured on the concept of “Approval vs. Acceptance.” He explained that we need to make each child feel “accepted” while understanding that we need not “approve” of his behavior. When a teenager is in pain, there is a hole in his heart, which he will fill with any pleasure that will assuage the pain. Rabbi Glaser commented that Chassidim have 90% of Yiddishkeit intact – we’re missing just 10%! The first 10% –the yesodos of Yiddishkeit and Ikrei Emunah.
Advocating for our Children
Mordechai Weinberger, therapist, social worker, and radio show host, often has spoken at B’Derech events about the inner working of the brain and learning to take control of our actions and, ultimately, our lives. He explained to the boys how foolish it is to think that we can run away from our past. We need to understand that while our past indeed effects our present, we can learn to take control of our future.
Rachel Schmidt, therapist, social worker, author and lecturer taught me that it is not enough to love our children, we must advocate for them as early as possible. She cautions, “Not every bright child is a model academic student. Some intelligent children are more ‘street smart’ than ‘book smart’ and need a more hands on approach to academia.” Atara Malach, psychotherapist, author and lecturer has spoken at B’Derech’s programs. She said that when a child starts behaving inappropriately, parents should not be confrontational, rather their approach should be, “It’s our problem; we’re in this together.” Making the child part of the solution can create a strong, important bond between parent and teenager during this tumultuous period.
In addition to providing parents with informative lectures on this topic, B’Derech has become a support network for Chassidish teens in crisis. Whether a chavrusa, Shabbos host, job, mentor, medical professional, or help in communicating with friends, parents, or hanhala, is necessary, we aim to fill that need. More importantly, B’Derech arranges social events, Shabbos gatherings and Yom Tov celebrations, which have become exciting opportunities for each bochur to participate, using his individual talents, while being accepted into what has become a growing coalition of rejected bochurim. The key distinguishing factor about B’Derech is the pride the boys take in belonging and the role they play; there is no stigma – because I emphasize that they are not at risk – rather, we, the community, is at risk of losing them, our precious children. With tremendous nachas, I have seen bochurim overcome their nisyonos and then turn around and use their experience to help their friends in crisis.
I discussed with Rabbi Sholom Noach Landau, Rosh Yeshiva of the prestigious Verertzkye Yeshiva, a question I am often asked: How I work with these rejected teens; what example is that for my children? To which I reply, “I teach my children that these are Hashem’s children too; and Hashem wants to see us helping them.” Rabbi Landau advised me to be patient explaining that society needs time to change course. Just as an ocean steamliner needs time and space to make a U-turn, so too, does our community need the time, courage and strength to change course in dealing with our kids in crisis.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn, international inspirational speaker and author, has spoken for B’Derech and interviewed the bochurim. He spoke passionately of the importance of clarifying to our children the ikkar versus the toffel. Rabbi Krohn offered to help me when possible and suggested that I research vocational training for bochurim who were failing in the yeshiva system.
With Siyata d’Shmaya, an excellent, professional vocational training institute was located in Yerushalayim for charedi avreichim, which agreed to form a special class for American bochurim. B’Derech’s exciting Israel Program, has successfully completed its first zman, under the dedicated guidance of R’ Yakov Lubow, affiliated with Yeshiva Ohr Somayach. The program is comprised of shiurim during the day by Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser and Rabbi Mutta Frank, and English classes with vocational training in the evening. B’Ezras Hashem, plans are underway to continue with our Israel program and launch plans for a similar program, combining Torah learning with English/vocational classes in Brooklyn.
We need to return to the Derech HaBaal Shem Tov, accept all our children, and have realistic expectations of them. Yeshivas should have parallel tracks for various levels of learning. The recent establishment of Chassidish yeshivas exclusively for mitzuyanim and their counterpart for shvacha bochurim has had devastating repercussions. Competition should be tempered in the classroom so that every child shines and smiles. Because when Chassidish children fail academically, and suffer rejection in yeshiva, they view themselves as failures in Yiddishkeit, ultimately falling into a newly coined classification and oxymoron, Chassidish Youth at Risk.
In conclusion, I would like to reprint an email I received May 27, 2009, when my previous article appeared on Vos Iz Naies,
I’m crying and I’m crying. Your article brings out emotions that nothing else could have.
I was the kid that everyone loved, I was always happy, helping and fun to be with… I was never a major masmid. But, I had great Rebbes throughout my childhood and adolescent years. When I was 18, I went to learn in Israel. Loved every minute there…The hours I spent leaning on those warm stones davening, feeling as close to G-D as the Kohen felt Yom Kippur…
This is where things took a turn: Saddam Hussein was captured when I was in Yeshiva. I was so excited about the news, I had to go online and see pictures… I couldn’t resist and printed several copies and brought them back to Yeshiva.
One bochur went to tell the Rosh Yeshiva that I’m putting out stuff in Beis Medrash that I found online… that Bein Hazmanim the Rosh Yeshiva called … explained to my father that I became “farschmutzt” from going online and it would be irresponsible to let me go back to Israel… I was pleading with my parents to let me go back to Israel where I had all my friends … but to no avail…Their response was: The Rosh Yeshiva said its too dangerous for you to return. I didn’t have any friends here. I was so hurt and felt so alone and so down. I started going to internet cafes but this time to chat and ….. not to see pictures of Saddam.
I’m not going into the darker side of my life…I felt so low, so down, everything was ok, “If it felt good, do it” was the way I lived. I started living a double life that led to so much pain you can’t imagine! Had I just had someone like you to talk to my parents or to my Rosh Yeshiva and push me back to Israel, all of the pain and suffering I and my parents went through for YEARS could have been avoided.
I’m now 23, married and have a beautiful son. Another one is on the way b”h and believe me I’m a happy father knowing that B’Derech will be there for MY kids..
It must be hard for you to strive against the current but keep it up. Your Avodas Hakodesh is needed and will be well rewarded.
Ruchie (Rachel) Freier, is a prominent Charedi attorney at law, and can be contacted by email at [email protected] , she maintains her offices in Brooklyn: 1716 56th Street Brooklyn, NY 11204 Tel: 718-259-4525 Fax: 718-259-4039
Editors note: The above article is not a paid advertisement, nor an endorsement of B’derech , it simply highlights the tremendous amount of Kids at Risk in our Frum community, and one of the many organizations in New York that are trying to help. If you know of any other Organizations helping troubled teens, please email us and will feature them.