Sunday, May 10, 2009

Off The Derech : Thoughts of Approaching Summer

Every summer, my friend Yudl and I have the same conversation. Summer is coming up. Kids have more time on their hands than they know what to do with. What will happen over the summer? You go out to Avenue J, Kingston Avenue or 13th Avenue. Sometimes you see kids you knew back when they were little ones in yeshiva. Sometimes you hardly recognise them. Punk outfits, weird piercings. What happened?

Sometimes a kid is having trouble in class. He discovers he can be a star at recess. He can run a business in yeshiva selling danishes and Laffy Taffy. He gets busted once, twice. At least he has recognition. If the kid is lucky, the parents will look at his business acumen and his lack of academic achievement. Maybe they will move him to a more suitable yeshiva. I've seen it happen. A kid goes where Torah is taught in English because that is what he hears at home. Suddenly he or she starts to blossom, all because the parents faced the situation honestly.

Then you have a kid who was no trouble, who suddenly starts acting strange. The kid is making trouble in school. You start to shake every time the phone rings, fearing it will be the school calling you down again. Try to go down a checklist. Is it academic problems? Maybe school bullies. That can be serious. Kids commit suicide over that. Don't dismiss a child's feelings. His or her emotions are as serious as yours or mine, and maybe more, because they are at a formative time in life.

It's maddeningly difficult to ask the right questions, to read between the line. You need siyata d'shmaya, G-d's help. Is the kid having problems with a teacher? I had a third grade teacher who would bang kids heads against the blackboard like a door knocker. My brother had a kid in his class in Catholic school who got punched in the face. It happens in Jewish schools and in Christian schools. I'm only mentioning it so we won't be ashamed to sort out our dirty laundry and clear things up.

What about a kid who is acting out sexually? Where are they picking that up?Who has access to them. Whose house do they go to? Do you rent out a room or a basement? Do they go there? It's a tough balance between asking the right questions and asking leading questions. But a child should have a sense that along with the duties of respect to elders and to the community, that they have rights. They have a right to be spoken to in a dignified way and to be disciplined in a measured way, and that there are boundaries. They should know that they have self worth that is not compromised by their youth.

I just read about a so called" chassidic" father who got thirty years for incestuous child abuse. Although thankfully, the mother blew the whistle, it took way too long . We have a tradition of rabbinical courts to handle business disputes. They are not equipped to handle felony sex abuse.And the abusers know it. Victims and their families worry about problems with shidduchim if the truth is known. Meanwhile, abusers get a free pass and cut a swath of destruction. To make matters worse, when the victim starts acting out, hanging out with a rough crowd that accepts them with the rough edges and the drugs they take to deaden the pain, everyone starts talking about the kid. That drives them further away. First there is the abuse. Then comes the rejection by school and community. And if the parents want to sign the kid up in a school that has patience and resources, that is a large expense borne by the family alone. Sometimes the family can absorb the expense. It is a lot more frequent that they have to wipe out their savings and then go to family and friends.

What can we do as a community? First, there should be a Jewish school for everyone. Just because a kid isn't a top learner, doesn't mean he's damaged goods. Schools need to work together so kids can be placed in an environment where they can thrive. This also means that parents must be cheerfully honest about their children. Do we want Bnei and Bnos Torah or do we want obedience trophies?

There should be a safety net so that when a child needs to be sent to a different yeshiva, that it doesn't wipe the family out financially. Some sort of loose affiliation or organisation might be able to correct this imbalance.

When there are instances of molestation, the police should be called. That type of abuse is like throwing a hand grenade into a family's living room. Abusers are making a calculation that they will not have to pay. Too often they have been right. We need to change that as a community by putting such perpetrators through the legal system.

Our community is like a boat with a leak. We are bringing in and welcoming Baalei Teshuva, or returnees to Judaism. We are learning how to reach out to different sorts of people, from Russian immigrants to college students to young professionals. At the same time we are losing children. There are some people working on this. But it should be a top priority in our community. These are some of our finest children that are leaving the fold. It should trouble us. We should all take it personally. Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) passed a test in which he was judged by G-d to be worthy of leading the Jewish people. He was a shepherd. And when one sheep wandered into the brush, he went out and got it. He displayed a mentality that even as a leader of many, he was concerned about the smallest individual. This is what G-d needed in a leader. Such a person could be worthy of leading the Jewish people. We are awaiting Moshiach, (the Messiah) with greater urgency in our troubled times. We must internalise this value system that each individual matters, that the loss of one person is a tragedy. If people get the leadership that they deserve, we should strive to be deserving of a leader like Moshe Rabeinu and reach out to those who stray.

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