Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Facing the Truth of Religious Dropouts

The Charedi world is quite willing to admit that there is a major problem in their midst. It exists varying levels in both American enclaves and Israeli. Here they are called ‘kids at risk’. In Israel they are called Shabanikim. They are disaffected ultra Orthodox youth, who are religious, but relatively more worldly than other Haredi teens - kids from religious families who have opted to simply drop out of their communities. But the problem in Israel seems to be accelerating at a pace far greater than it is in America.

This is not to say that the problem is exclusive to the Charedi world. Of course it isn’t. Modern Orthodoxy has its share of dropouts. And certainly I am not in a position to say where the problem is greater. But does it really matter? The problem is huge in both communities. That can no longer be denied. Story after story is being told about how the son or daughter of an unnamed but prominent Charedi Mechnech that has a child who has simply dropped out - even while the rest of his children remain exemplary. You see it the pages of the Jewish Observer all too frequently.

I mention it because once again two stories involving dropouts have emerged at the same time – both in Israel. Ha’aretz and the Jewish Observer each have yet another article indicating just how big the problem is.

Ha’aretz reports of a problem in the city of Beitar. Lest anyone think that one cannot trust the secular ‘anti Charedi’ Ha’aretz, I read an e-mail from a Charedi resident of Beitar who corroborated much of what Ha’aretz said. Her disagreement was that they underplayed the problem. It is much worse than Ha’aretz has reported it. Here is one excerpt from Ha’aretz which is both descriptive of the problem and suggests a possible cause of it:

In this small city, however, there is no alternative educational framework for youngsters who do not find their place in the Haredi system. There are no professional learning tracks, no sports, no facilities. Motti Pindros, who has run the youth program aimed at discouraging kids from dropping out of school for five consecutive years, says the municipality is intentionally withholding funds budgeted for his program, which translates into violence on the streets. "Nowadays, we do not have any control over the street or over the youths," he says.

Is there in real surprise that an environment like this is conducive to producing that 'acid thrower'? He severely injured a 14 year old girl. Her lungs were damaged and she now faces a life blinded in one eye! Is forbidding playing at sports or the teaching of alternative professional learning tracks worth sacrificing this girl’s eye and lungs? Is there any real doubt that providing alternatives to these young Shababnikim would substantially reduce if not eliminate this type of problem?

The Jewish Observer tells us of another big problem – this one in Jerusalem. It is a problem that is being dealt with single handedly by ‘Big Mike’. More about him in a moment.

Has anyone ever heard of ‘Crack Square’? That’s the new name of Kikar Tzion - Zion Square - the upscale shopping area in Jerusalem. What one finds there is both 'shocking' and 'sickening'. These are not my words. They are the Jewish Observer’s. There is a whole strip of bars there.

Most of the dropouts there are kids who were too old and unprepared to make Aliyah with their parents. These ‘clean’ kids hang out there all night just out of boredom. They look for a little entertainment and excitement of the type that is often dangerous. They will either get drunk or high on drugs. The sight - says the Jewish Observer - is unimaginable.

Most of these kids when asked said they were at a specific Yeshiva or seminary. That means that someone was responsible and wasn’t doing his or her job. Most likely they never spent five minutes there! One young lady whose father is a Rav was asked if she knew a certain Mechanech that taught at her seminary and she answered in a drunken state, ‘I don’t know any of he rabbis, because I have never gone to a class since I’m here.’

Big Mike is one individual who is trying to do something about it. He is a former drug addict who once played college football. He turned his life around, has become religious and now is now an ordained Rabbi. He is there as a mentor for kids that are lost and starving for a little love and attention - attention which hey did not receive from their Rebbeim and Menahalim.

He is one man, doing the work of ten or a hundred that are needed. Why aren’t there others? He says it’s because people still don’t want to admit there is a problem. They think if they ignore it, it will go away. These kids have been given up on and written off! And not necessarily for such bad things! As he puts it:

Many parents, Rebbeim and Menahelim push away a child they don’t know how to deal with, or whose questions they can’t answer. It is these special Neshamos who can so easily get lost and feel rejected’

The Frum world hardly notices them or seems to care. But one Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yerucham Shain of Adelphia, noticed. He more than noticed. He heard of Big Mike, went to Israel to meet him ,and see for himself what this was all about. Rav Shain understands. This is not about religion. It is about Pikuach Nefesh. And he believes other Roshei Yeshiva should come and see for themselves.

So there you have it. Two instances of mostly Charedi dropouts in Israel. From two entirely different worlds for entirely different reasons. And we turn a blind eye to both. ‘Nebech’, we say, and we go about our business. And the dropout population grows.

These problems are not unsolvable. What is lacking in both Beitar and Kikar Tzion is the willingness to admit there is a bigger problem than anyone could have ever imagined. And that it is spiraling out of control. But more importantly, it is to realize that solving the problem requires change - change that will make living in that world a lot more palatable for all - not just for the elite.