Friday, July 28, 2017

The Root Cause

Malky Klein  (New York Post)
One of the major problems affecting the Orthodox Jewish World is an elitism that has resulted in a massive exit of far too many young people from observance. This is commonly known as the OTD (Off The Derech) phenomenon. In some instances ending in death to innocent young victims via suicide or drug overdoses.  This has become frequent enough that when it hits the media, I am no longer all that surprised by it.

Because of an explosion in the number births per family (a phenomenon encouraged by the right wing leadership regardless of the  consequences) there just is not enough room in the schools for all those children. I recall that not long ago a new very large elementary school that was being built in Lakewood to alleviate this problem. It was filled to capacity before the doors ever opened for the first time. 

Add to that the pressure to excel in Torah study and to be ‘the Frummest school in town’  - and you have a pretty good answer as to why we have this phenomenon. While there are many reasons why young people go OTD, in my view one of the major reasons is the inability of schools to handle any but the best and brightest of students. If someone has a learning disability, they are out of luck. If someone does not quite fit into the uniform mold that many of the schools now require, they are out of luck too.

Parents who have the so-called ‘good kids’ (meaning a certain level of intelligence, motivation, and no learning disability) will be the first to insist that those without these qualifications be rejected - seeing them as behavioral problems and as bad influences on their own children. And principals are all too eager to comply lest they lose their reputations of being a top school. With overcrowded conditions being the case – a problem that is likely going to increase as the population multiplies exponentially with each new generation, this problem will not go away.

The current situation is intolerable. There is no excuse for sending a child that doesn’t quite ‘measure up’ to a life filled with pain.  Which is often followed by going OTD. And in some cases death. 

The New York Post featured  the story Malky Klein who was raised in by Chasidic parents in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. The short version is that because of the pain of rejection she went OTD; found relief in heroin; overdosed; and died. But as noted on Rabbi Bechhofer’s blog from a reliable source, there is more to the story: 
On the 24th of June the Jewish community lost 20 year old girl who wanted a chance in life. This innocent girl struggled through her school career with learning disabilities. When it came to getting accepted to high school she had a very hard time. Her parents had to beg to get her accepted.
Finally one school agreed to accept this girl. A few weeks into school the principal called up this girl’s parents to inform them that she is being kicked out for various reasons. One of those reasons is that this girl ate in the pizza shop instead of taking home the pizza to eat it at home. You can imagine what her other infraction were all about.
Her parents tried sticking up for her behalf but they were talking to the wall. Her parents were horrified and devastated. They begged the school to keep her until they find a different school that would accept her and keep her dignity. The school refused to listen.
This broke this poor girl completely and her parents relate from there on it was downhill. She was out on the streets with no school and found friends who finally accepted her and saw her talents. Those friends weren't in the best shape either.
However she was still in deep pain, and therefore she hooked up onto drugs which was like a bandage to her (injury). She liked the way the drugs left her feeling and it became her new escape.
Her parents tried everything in (their) power to ease her pain. She had just come home from rehab after being there for 2 years. Despite all of that she couldn't fight the demons of pain and she succumbed to drug overdose. 
This story is accompanied on Rabbi Bechhofer’s blog by a similar one featured in a publication known as The Voice of Lakewood. A young girl by the name of Yaffa Lebovitz whose ‘scholastic achievements’ were ‘unfavorable’ - had difficulty being accepted into a high school. 

One school took a chance on her. When parents in the school found out, they threatened to pull their daughters out of she was allowed to stay. Yaffa was summarily told to leave. She was told that a mistake had been made and she was never really accepted. To say she was devastated would be an understatement. After 5 years of tremendous pain she committed suicide!

I cannot agree with Rabbi Bechhofer more! There is a special place in hell for these people. Every single person who contributed to this. Which includes the gutless principal in Yaffa’s case. And the people in Makly’s case that make absurd rules like eating a pizza in a restaurant (rather than taking it home) an offense worthy of expulsion! But more so are complaining parents that pressure their schools to make these kinds of expulsions. 

What happened to the compassion that we inherited from our progenitor and patriarch  Abraham?!

Some of that blame has to be placed onto a rabbinic leadership that has failed to address the root causes of this problem. The OTD phenomenon is not new. As described in these two stories it began decades ago, long before it was finally acknowledged by the Agudah through their magazine, the Jewish Observer. Which devoted an entire issue to it. It was there largest selling issue ever. The Jewish Observer stopped publishing nearly a decade ago. That issue was published long before then.

This is not to say that nothing was done. It was. In fact a few years ago I remember Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon tried to deal with it by insisting before the school year began that all children must be accepted into the schools. And I’m told there are some specialized schools that do deal with these kinds of problems.

But it is all too easy to see that this is not enough. The root cause is not being addressed. Which is an educational system that is clearly not equipped to keep up with their population explosion. And the growing sense of elitism has caused a ‘solution’ that increases the kinds of things that happened to Malky Klein and Yaffa Lebovitz.

Sad to say that if something isn’t done about that - it is near certain that the problem will increase. And young people will continue to needlessly die.