April 13, 2007, The Jewish Press
One of the many crises facing the Jewish people today is the phenomenon of “at-risk” youth. A child who is “at-risk” is generally defined as one who rebels against authority figures, demonstrates antipathy toward Jewish rituals, performs poorly in yeshiva, and is experimenting with delinquent or self-destructive behavior.
What must be noted, however, is that calling such a child “at-risk” is like calling someone on his way to the emergency room at-risk of being unwell. It’s absurd. “At-risk” implies that preliminary intervention can still effectively stave off the danger. By the time these symptoms of spiritual frailty are so outward and blatant the child is well beyond the at-risk stage.
This is not mere semantics. As is often the case, inaccurate terminology is a reflection of inaccurate perceptions, which then lead to responses that fail to address the root of the problem.
The child who is truly at-risk may not be exhibiting his spiritual frailty in any way. He may be doing very well in school. He may come from a fine family where he receives plenty of love and attention. He may be well liked by all who know him. He may be following halacha without complaint.
He is also at high risk of abandoning it all at some future point, to the shock and anguish of those who nurtured him. They will never have seen it coming, and even after the fact will be at a loss to explain it. They will wonder who is to blame, but despite a myriad of attempts to point the finger they will find no truly satisfying culprit. They will ultimately wonder if this is some sort of epidemic, if somehow God Himself is responsible for this tragedy.
Just as every human being is different, every case of a child going off the proper path has factors that are unique to it. Nevertheless, in essence one only leaves a certain path if he finds another path that is more attractive to him. His reasons for finding the other path more attractive might be illusory and stem from all sorts of issues, but it is still a choice that is being made based on wants and needs. His current path is not meeting his current needs, so he searches for a substitute.
Why might an adolescent decide one day that an alternative path meets his needs better than an observant Jewish lifestyle? Consider how that lifestyle must appear to many of our young people:
- It is a lifestyle that is best defined by its multitude of restrictions.
- Fun is generally deemed inappropriate.
- One is expected to love poring over ancient Jewish texts that are often difficult to understand and bear little apparent relevance to one’s life.
- One is expected to be brilliant and multi-talented.
- One is expected to be passionate about spiritual activities such as prayer that can easily become mechanical.
- One is expected to never question rabbis or other authority figures, let alone disagree with them.
- One must ignore or rationalize hypocrisy in the community and its leaders.
- Only a limited range of opinions is deemed acceptable. Creative and critical thinking are highly frowned upon.
- One must dress, think, speak, and generally behave in a manner that is strikingly similar to one’s peers, down to even small details. One who expresses overt individuality is ostracized.
- In many circles boys learn at an early age that the only respectable lifestyle is to study Torah to the exclusion of all earthly activities. If they don’t measure up they are failures, and may never even get married.
- Girls learn at an early age that if they are not fabulously pretty they stand little chance of getting married. They may also be expected to perform the functions of both a mother and a father while their husbands pursue indefinite Torah study.
- If they manage to get married they will have many kids and then maintain a very expensive standard of living just to be “normal.” If they don’t earn a million dollars every five years or so, they are likely to have great financial worries, which will include being unable to give their children a Jewish education and marry them off.
If this is the perception of Judaism that many of our youth have, then it is no surprise that more than a few of them opt out. A non-observant lifestyle frees them of all of the above pressures, fears, and shackles. While opting out surely brings a different set of problems – which ultimately may prove far more devastating – it provides an escape that can be too inviting to pass up.
Even the children who remain as outwardly observant Jews may be spiritually lost to us. They may remain outwardly observant because they are too afraid to break away, or because Jewish observance is something they can tolerate even if it doesn’t fulfill them. But is this not a tragedy as well? Is this not a crisis that is just as deserving of our attention?
When one gets down to it, there are indeed two types of children. The two categories, however, are not “on the derech” and “at-risk,” but “Jews who are spiritually engaged” and “Jews who are not.” One who is proverbially “at-risk” is simply a child who has let his lack of spiritual engagement burst to the surface in an extreme way. There are nevertheless far more Jewish children who are disaffected or unengaged who simply go through the motions to fit in with the crowd.
There are two things that need to be done to truly address this crisis. One is for the community to do some serious introspection and examine if the above perceptions many children (and adults) have of observant Jewry are not entirely inaccurate. I may be a hopeless optimist in even broaching such a suggestion, but I believe the community is capable of summoning the gumption to perform this uncomfortable task.
The other suggestion is to help our children make the correct choice and stick with an observant Jewish lifestyle. The proper way to do this is not by attempting to force them, since such an approach generally backfires. The proper way to do this is by first understanding, then exemplifying, and ultimately transmitting to our children the unparalleled mission of the Jewish people.
If our children do not understand what it means to be a Jew, it is no surprise that other lifestyles that promise immediate gratification and few restrictions will appear enticing.
The Jewish endgame, in short, is to perfect the world by serving as role models and ambassadors of God in every aspect of our lives. We are a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” not by virtue of auspicious DNA or some other biological superiority, but through the closeness to God that we earn through sanctifying the mundane.
If one truly understands and appreciates the mission that he has as a Jew, how could he not be filled with pride? How could he not be filled with determination to overcome the many challenges, both internal and external, that may stand in the way of fulfilling this mission? How could he possibly choose a lifestyle that promises little more than animal gratification, worship of the senses, and an absence of a higher calling?
Some people may give in to temptation, but if one lays out what Judaism truly has to offer in comparison to any other system of life that has been invented, it is hard to believe that many people would decide that another system is more meritorious.
If our children are not filled with deep pride in being Jewish, then we have failed them. If our children were to find out they were not actually Jewish, would they be interested in undergoing a conversion? If not, then we have failed them.
If we spent less time focusing on the mechanics of Judaism and praising austerity, and more time deepening our appreciation for the rich and beautiful way of life God has given us, I am confident that many quietly at-risk children would blossom into spirited, proud Jewish adults.
Let’s not wait until children are already involved in self-destructive behavior to begin engaging them in the beautiful essence of what it really means to be a Jew.