Thursday, July 09, 2009

Can This Be True?

I hope it isn’t true. If it is, it is a disaster of unprecedented proportion. Future generations of religious Jews in Israel are going to pay a very heavy price for the slumber of their leadership.

From the Jerusalem Post:

Nearly a third of junior high and high school-aged haredi youths are "hidden dropouts," who are registered in an educational framework but are dysfunctional students, according to a study released Wednesday by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute.

This is an incredibly high number as compared to the secular side.

According to Brookdale's data, a total of 17% of elementary school-aged haredim are hidden dropouts, as are 30% of junior high and high school students. This is sharply higher than the national average of 10% and 15%, respectively.

Unbelievable. If one accepts these figures then almost a third of all Charedi children are hidden dropouts:

According to data provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Education Ministry, there are presently 225,000 haredi children ages 5 to 17 in the nation's schools, 21% of the total. Assuming that between 17% and 30% of these children are hidden dropouts, the total number is at least 38,000.

38,000! I don’t know how they measured dropouts. I don’t know how accurate that number is. But even if the number of hidden dropouts is half of that number - it is an almost impossibly high number! Hard to fathom! Hard to believe. This is beyond epidemic proportion. And far beyond anyone‘s predictions. And this doesn’t even address the fact that even those who succeed are ill prepared for the job market.

These dropouts are ‘kids at risk’. This is a subject that has been acknowledged and talked about for some time now by Charedi leaders. But instead of the situation getting better, it seems to have gotten exponentially worse – at least in Israel.

Experts say that acknowledging the problem is half the battle. The problem is that in Israel it seems this is as far as they went. They have ignored the other half of the battle – solving the problem and reducing the numbers. Inaction it seems has increased the problem in massively unprecedented terms.

What makes it even worse is that they are hidden. They are apparently tolerated in the system without being dealt with. They are pushed through the grades without meriting it - accomplishing nothing year after year. They become more and more frustrated until they are so disillusioned and so depressed that who knows if they are even salvageable!

Left untreated - when 'kids at risk' are done with school they often end up out on the street. They have no knowledge, no self esteem, an extreme sense of frustration and in many cases they suffer from clinical depression. People like this are the ones who become alcoholics, drug addicts, and eventually criminals. They often engage in all kinds of sexual depravity of the street. They have a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality – many having totally given up on Yiddishkeit. They have reached rock bottom and have no place to go. So a life of depravity means nothing to them. They are so hurt by societal rejection by this point that they no longer care what happens to them and certainly don’t care anymore what people think of them.

The article suggests that part of the problem is that there is no professional counseling available to teachers and students. Teachers are therefore ill equipped to handle these problems. But that is only part of the problem. The larger problem in my view is a Hashkafa that refuses to recognize any value in studies other than Torah. Any other studies are seen at best as a waste of time.

Forget about enrichment programs like music and art or physical education. No time for that in these Yeshivos where students are expected to spend the entire day in intensive Torah study. If a student can’t hack that – well they apparently get ignored. That is what I think is meant here by ‘hidden dropout’.

There is also a certain amount of dysfunction in the families of some of these children. And a certain degree of rigidity in the learning expectations by even the best of parents from their children. I think that contributes to the problem.

I know that this essay will be read as yet another bash of Charedim by me. Something I am often accused of. I can already see the howls of protest by my detractors denying those statistics and accusing me, the Jerusalem Post, and all those involved in this study as having an anti Charedi agenda. I can’t really help that. I will only say once again that it is not my intention to bash Charedim. It is only my intention to inform - and to spur action.

I wish it weren’t true. I wish it was just a big lie perpetrated by the enemies of Torah to make religious Jews look bad. If I thought that... I would kick back – hard! I have no joy in knowing that so many of our young people are falling through the cracks. That’s right. I said ‘our’. Charedim are my brothers. Same as Chilonim. I care what happens to all Jewry. It gives me no pleasure at all to see what’s happening. It only gives me pain. But insuring public awareness is not bashing. My entire goal here is that public awareness by the Frum world will militate for the change that is needed.

Meanwhile help is on the way:

In response to the findings, the Joint Distribution Committee's Ashelim program for youth at risk this week launched a NIS 5 million project designed to help the haredi community cope with the high level of hidden dropouts, which is double the national average.

"Rabbis and leaders in the haredi community who realize they have a serious problem are beginning to open up to outside intervention," said Dr. Rami Sulimani, director-general of Ashelim-JDC.

I’m glad that these ‘Rabbis and leaders’ didn’t have the same reaction I expect to get here from my detractors. That gives me some hope for change. The only question is will it be enough? Will they change the entire educational mindset and dynamic? I believe that - at a minimum – this is what’s necessary if the change is to be permanently for the better.