Elster's World

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Lost Boys (And Girls)

Note: This post has been sitting in my brain, unwritten, for a long time. It poses a very serious problem facing the Jewish community (specifically the Orthodox Jewish community). it is very long and not very original, but I encourage you to try and get through it. I also encourage responses - something I never really do - as I welcome as many perspectives to this issue as I can get.

There is a major crisis facing our community. It has nothing to do with shidduchim or the escalating cost of yeshiva tuitions. It is neither a new problem nor one which has developed over a short period of time. It lies just beneath a seemingly placid surface of general prosperity, happiness and calm - the public face meant for the world to see – and it is both massive and epic. Many of us read about it in our local Jewish newsprint or hear it discussed in whispered Shabbos table conversations. “Did you hear about X’s son? He was thrown out of his yeshiva in Israel for doing drugs. They have pull so it was all kept hush hush but…”

Then there’s the child who went off the derech. And the one with the drinking problem. And the one with anorexia. Or bulimia. And the girl who cuts.

Perhaps it is incorrect to group all of these problems into one lump sum. But for the purposes of this article, I am taking that liberty. In many ways, these problems, while very different, often come from a uniform source – a failed system. More on this below.

I have been wrestling with writing a post on this subject for some time. What has stopped me has been simple – What can I possible add to this issue? What do I know about the children who suffer from these terrible situations? Honestly and thankfully, not a lot. But my massive ignorance has never stopped me before so why start now?

Recently, I have read three separate and extremely diverse blogs in the jewish umbrella which touched on some of these issues. [Note: I have not asked permission to link to these blogs. I am assuming the authors have no problem with the link and if I am incorrect, I apologize in advance and will remove the link if and when I find out otherwise. It goes without saying that any and all opinions expressed herein are mine and mine alone.]

The first was from Gil Student’s extremely informative Hirhurim site (http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2006_04_01_hirhurim_archive.html - note I could not link to the article directly – you will need to scroll down a bit to get there) in a post entitled Off The Path where Mr. Student reacts to a book he recently read called Off the Derech by a Faranack Margolese. The content of the book and the review by Mr. Student are irrelevant for our purposes. Feel free to check them out for yourself. The topic though, Jewish souls which have fallen from the derech, is what stoked my interest.

The second was from young blogger Chana, who recently reposted a powerful piece she had written called The White Rose: Eating Disorders in (Orthodox) Judaism - in which she recounts the tragic (the ultimately inspiring) story of a girl who suffered from both anorexia and eventually bulimia (http://curiousjew.blogspot.com/2006/04/white-rose-eating-disorders-in.html).

The third source of “inspiration” for this article was a long favorite blog of mine http://tamponella.blogspot.com/ (no specific post, just scroll through any of the last five or so posts to get a general feel). Traditional Tomfoolery, defunct and now returned and re-tooled, provides valuable and terrible insight into the lost generation of youth – those who slip under the radar, but whose problems make the ones we deal with daily seem miniscule by comparison.

I. The Point.

Let’s not fool ourselves or keep the wool pulled securely over our heads any longer. These are huge problems in our society whether they affect anyone in our own personal and immediate universes or not. Just this past Shabbos, my wife pointed out that she couldn’t really think of anyone (or doesn’t really know of anyone) who didn’t have at least one first cousin “off the derech”. I have one first cousin who is no longer frum. My wife has five with the potential for number six currently serving in the Israeli army after being tossed from Hesder for some unspecified reason.

I personally don’t know any young women who are anorexic or bulimic. Sure, I see lots of girls with weight problems – girls who are either much too heavy or seemingly too thin, but I don’t know anyone who has actually been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Nor do I know any people with the telltale scars of cutting for the “Endorphine rush” or track marks from a life of injecting drugs. I’ve seen people who are “messed up” and who probably took drugs at one time or another – but I don’t really know them. Certainly, non of my family members or close friends did. I don’t know people like this, but I’m no longer fooling myself into believing that means that they don’t exist in droves. It just means that I am lucky. I have not had to see the destruction that this brings to the individuals themselves or to their families. Their loved ones - the ones who suffer day in and day out with their real or self-perceived failures. Those who can’t escape the daughter who eats the meal and then, in the quietest bathroom in the house, forces it out in a rush of bile and, eventually, blood and other parts of a broken and self-destructing body. I search my actions daily to see if I’m doing something which will one day push my own little ones so far away.

II. Why Does This Happen?

I have my own theories, which must be taken with a grain of salt. As I mentioned, I don’t know many people with the problems discussed above. The gamut of reasons is broad. But some of the causes are simply logical. I will outline them below in no great depth. Keep in mind, I understand that I’m not exactly breaking new ground here.

1. Parents: My cousin (and at least some of my wife’s cousins) dropped “off the path” because their parents were way too hard on them. “Mother is the name of G-d on the lips of small children”. I heard that in a movie. A parent is a child’s first and foremost source of love. When that source of love yells at you too much, or is constantly berating you – or perhaps even worse, ignores you – the devastation of that act can be total. Some people are not fit to be parents, but there is no law stopping those same people from bringing people into the world - people they can destroy in their own self-image.

And is there anything more depressing than absentee parents? You know, the ones who have twelve-year old kids with credit cards and cell phones while being raised by a nanny with an English vocabulary of less than three hundred words? Is it any wonder that there is an entire generation of messed up kids out there?

2. Schools: Problem A) In many ways Jewish education is all about “the path”. Educators are ill equipped to even spot those who are falling by the wayside, let alone actually help them. There are individuals who have dedicated their lives to catching the broken ones, but these people are much too few and very far between. The average educator will focus on the ones who are shining and quietly ignore those falling.

Problem B) Again with the concept of the path – A student in a certain school is dragged along by the hashkafah of that school, whether such hashkafah fits the individual child or not. The school will certainly not adapt and it creates a tension between the child and the educators. You know who wins in that situation? You guessed it, no one. The system has lost another one and the child is, well, just lost.

Problem C) It sucks to be in high school. It’s an unbelievably difficult time for the average teen. Their bodies are changing, the comforts of elementary school are replaced by a seriously frightening new reality. I went from a school with about 22 kids in my grade to a school with over 100 kids in my grade. While the first few months were a little rocky, I adjusted. Of course, I went to an all-boy’s school. I didn’t really know what girls were at that point and certainly didn’t have to worry about impressing them. I’m sure there were drugs in my school but I never saw them. Again, I realize in retrospect that I had it very easy. My parents, the Lord bless ‘em, would have been worthless in getting me through many of the problems I could have faced.

3. Peer Pressure: This one takes many forms. The pressure to always look good, to be thin enough, pretty enough, dressed the right way. It’s the pressure to take that cig because, well, everyone else smokes after all. Then that first cig becomes that first beer, which in turn becomes the first joint, the first bong hit, the first injection the first tab of X, whatever. The list is endless. And how are you ever going to be popular with boys if you don’t fool around? And if you aren’t a size 2 or less, then you are just too damn fat.

I have quoted this song by Rush before, but it’s so fitting. Subdivisions (from A Show of Hands):

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
Subdivisions ---In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Subdivisions ---In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

4. The Jewish Community’s Clear Desire To Sweep All Of Its Problems Under The Proverbial Rug: There’s wife beatings, nasty divorces, philandering spouses, white collar crimes and all of the stuff mentioned above. You know what? That rug is getting pretty darn lumpy. To some extent, the desire to hide these problems is at least partially understandable. The Jewish world is under constant scrutiny from many sources. Most of those are always looking to punch holes in the surface and find the “dirt”. It’s almost a community-wide self defense mechanism to pretend that the problems don’t exist.

But we have been doing this for too long. The damage from widespread intentional ignorance is simply too great. No longer can we all just pretend like it isn’t a problem after all. At-risk youth is a too-large percentage of the community – ergo, they are a large percentage of our future. And when the lost children, ignored for all those years by their parents and educators, decide to leave the derech once and for all, how can we then bemoan it - when all this time we stood hands in pockets, whistling in the dark like a man trying to show he isn’t afraid of the ghosts hovering just above him.

III. What Can We Do About It?

I know the problem. I can theorize as to some of its many origins. But I have no idea how to fix it. I lived most of my life in the veil of ignorance that I set forth above. I do not pretend otherwise. My eyes have been opened to the problems, but not yet the solutions.

I suspect that the answer lies in the individuality of the problems. As each person in the Jewish Community is an individual (as much as we like to pretend that everyone fits nicely into the group dynamic) each problem needs an individual solution. Every lost soul needs it’s own guiding angel to bring it back to the path. How can we make that happen? Is it even possible to think that it can happen? Well, certainly not as we are all currently constructed.

The answer lies in education. Not the educational system, but in the education of the community. The first step to solving a problem is to admit that the problem exists. Community leaders must pick up the torch. People need to have this thrown in their faces. Then, and only then, can the education of parents, teachers and other members of the community begin.

And unless and until this occurs, the Lost Boys (And Girls) will continue to live in the shadows.


  • www.jewishbulimic.blogspot.com

    By Blogger jewishbulimic, at 5:38 AM  

  • Thank you Elster. I've read your article very carefully. It serves as a good summary. Could use a tweak here and there in ragards to facts and theories, but overall, it's spot-on.
    Would love to discuss this with you in greater detail on IM at some point.
    Oh, and I'm very honored to be mentioned! I hope to breach the subject at hand in my blog, because awareness is crucial.
    Thanks again for a wonderful post!

    By Blogger Tomboy, at 10:27 AM  

  • As you point out, there are a myriad of reasons for the problems that you describe, and every individual situation is different.

    While some of these problems stem from intra-Orthodox problems, others are the inevitable result of living in a free society. Some people, for example, go off the derech because they have simply decided that for whatever reason they do not want to be religiously observant.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 1:45 PM  

  • Thank you for leaving your comments. As I said, I don't pretend to really know - I just want to do my part (no matter how small)in spreading the message.

    Jewishbul - I visited your site. I wish you the best of luck and hope you get through this.

    Tom - Consider it a date. I'm happy that someone with your tremendous knowlege of the subject matter thought I was even close.

    Joe - No doubt I missed reasons. was doing this from feel as opposed to hard fact.

    By Blogger Elster, at 2:20 PM  

  • I've seen this in my former community (all the children in my current one are much to small to suffer from these issues - IYH they never will).

    I agree with one commenter - the pressure of religious life can just get to be too much. But, I also think that a child's personality can contribute. For many people, the path in life seems clear. However, many others take in everything they see around them - they see the conflicts and contrasts and want to know that they aren't settling for second best. There may be an urge to explore or even to rebel a little against what's known. You explained all this.

    I have a solution that is not simple and that will not solve the problem over night, but perhaps wil result in happier people and happier families: love your child no matter what he/she is going through. Off the derech? Let him/her know that, while you may disagree with the lifestyle, you still love him/her unconditionally.

    Many people in our country believe that, if people are punished for their actions, they will straighten up and behave themselves. Sadly, this only works in a handful of cases. Parents who don't speak to their child because he/she is off the derech are doing everyone a disservice. The community instead should rise up behind them and practice true ahavas yisroel, continuing to love the lost boys and girls in spite of themselves.

    By Blogger AnySara, at 5:19 PM  

  • I agree AS - And it leads to an interesting dillema. When your off the derech chilkd marries a non-Jew, what, then, do you do?

    By Blogger Elster, at 5:27 PM  

  • "I have a solution that is not simple and that will not solve the problem over night, but perhaps wil result in happier people and happier families: love your child no matter what he/she is going through. Off the derech? Let him/her know that, while you may disagree with the lifestyle, you still love him/her unconditionally."

    While it may be admirable to love your child unconditionally, I do not see this as a solution to this problem. When teens begin to rebel, is unconditional acceptance really the right response? The job of a parent is to provide love, but also discipline and the setting of limits.

    There is a balance that is impossible to articulate, but that every parent must try to apply.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 5:45 PM  

  • Obviously it's naive to think that, in our world, love really conquers all. However, I BELEIVE AnySara's point is that it is extremely important to establish a very strong bond with your children at a young age. To love them and be there for them - I would venture to say thatthe vast majority of people with the problems discussed in the post come from so-called "dysfunctional" families where they lacked that feeling of love.

    And sometimes Any and Joe, love means setting limits and being tough. The two are by no means mutually exclusive.

    By Blogger Elster, at 10:14 PM  

  • "I would venture to say thatthe vast majority of people with the problems discussed in the post come from so-alled "dysfunctional" families where they lacked that feeling of love."

    I disagree. Some come from dysfunctional families but not the vast majority. Many are simply rebellious, or just don't want to be frum. Some parents do everything right and have problems because their son is treated poorly in yeshiva, or hangs out with the wrong crowd, or is exposed to things that are antithetical to frum values. And some "good" kids decide in college that they'd rather not be frum.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 11:43 PM  

  • The truth is that both of us are just guessing. I have no idea if any studies on this have been done on this issue.

    Also, Joe, you are talking mostly to the issue of "off the derech" - the theme of the post is far broader - and I think the kids who are more psychologically "damaged" probably come from homes where they are mistreated at worst and simply ignored at best.

    By Blogger Elster, at 9:43 AM  

  • Elster,

    I am indeed focusing on the off the derech part, because of my expression of disagreement with anysara, who commented on that issue.

    While I believe anysara is well meaning, I think her unconditional love solution is naive. On a parental level, it wouldn't reduce the pain of the parents, just any guilt of the off the derech children.

    On the communal level, off the derech kids should not be shunned, but nor should "the community instead should rise up behind them." As you know, Elster, when you and I were growing up, there was a huge stigma to the idea of going off the derech and for almost all of us, the idea of doing so was simply unthinkable. As more kids do leave frum life, the stigma is being reduced. If the community fully accepted those who go off the derech, there will be no stigma at all.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 9:48 AM  

  • When it comes to the off the derech issue, you are correct - It's a balance. The "free society" makes everything oh so much easier. We are surrounded by no longer frum jews whereever we go -

    Yes, when I was growing up, being not frum was simply unthinkable. If we let our guards down too much, then NOTHING is unthnkable any longer.

    By Blogger Elster, at 9:55 AM  

  • When your off the derech child marries a non-Jew

    Falling off the derech doesn't mean that you are going to marry someone who isn't Jewish.

    By Blogger Jack's Shack, at 12:37 PM  

  • Of course not. That wasn't the point. The question is, there is a major conflict between shunning those who go off the derech AND marry non jews vs Hey, it's still my kid. That was the question.

    By Blogger Elster, at 1:56 PM  

  • I encourage everyone to click on Joe and check out his post today about the Holocaust.

    By Blogger Elster, at 4:19 PM  

  • I think your post has been mistreated in a way, El.
    To breach into detailed and categorized debate here is a little out of puenta, since I preferred to consider this entry as a clear summary of most aspects of the situation from a perspective that is slightly involved, yet nevertheless a definite objective bystander viewpoint.

    Oh yes, and you win. Free t-shirt and a disk of your choice [Rush, eh?] on their way to you!

    By Blogger Tomboy, at 6:12 PM  

  • Elster, I found this site which is about a program that does Inreach.

    Here's their mission statement

    By Blogger Lvnsm27, at 7:42 PM  

  • move to the moon. im starting a new colony. shuttle leaves at midnight.

    Seriously? Your best-friends' kid (yea, the one next door, who always plays at your house) could be a closet binger/cutter/user and you'd never ever know. but really. (tho I'm inferring your offspring aren't at that stage yet).

    John Nash hid his schizo till he couldn't. The kid next door may have every intention of doing the same. If she wants help; is desperate enough to admit she spiraling out of control- she'll let on she has a problem. and when she does, please be there to help- not harp like most of the community does nowadays.


    By Blogger flör, at 6:07 PM  

  • Lvnsm27- weird. i was just invited to be a 'leader' at that place or whatever they're called. and i live a bazillion miles away. not to mention.nm. what's it like?

    By Blogger flör, at 10:32 PM  

  • as a former public high school teacher and as someone who was raised secular and is on the bt path, i have to be totally honest here. a big part of the problem is in accountability.
    1. the teachers must be held accountable for failure to recognize potential problems.
    2. the parents need to be held accountable for failure to recognize signs of problems (i believe that the original post mentioned that education is a solution, i completely agree. parents and educators must be taught what signs to look for.)
    3. community leaders must take this problem seriously enough to hold the parents and educators responsible.
    4. in a checks and balances fashion, all must hold each other accountable in order to alleviate the possibility for kids to fall through the cracks.
    5. someone with experience must come in to educate the community leaders--the rabbis, the principals, etc. maybe in some kind of hardcore presentation to open their eyes.

    this is bad stuff. having been somewhat "off the derech" myself, i know from personal experience, and from what i've seen in the secular world. elster, do what you can to educate everyone you know. great post.

    By Blogger bec, at 1:17 AM  

  • Thanks for the great comments. I appreciate the fact that this is a very serious issue and I thank you all for taking the time to add your 2 cents.

    By Blogger Elster, at 12:55 PM  

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