January 27, 2005
Two drug-related incidents occurred in the American yeshiva community in Israel last week, which may give all parents pause.
A 19-year-old American boy from Encino who was studying at a yeshiva in Israel died from a heroin overdose (see story, page 15). Also, four American yeshiva students in Israel were arrested on suspicion of selling drugs to other American yeshiva students.
Most people who have been to yeshiva for a year in Israel in the last decade or so were not surprised by the news. A lot of people were suprised this hasn't happened sooner. When 18-year-olds raised in somewhat strict environments are on their own in Israel for the first time, many of them will use this opportunity to party -- at least at first. The hope is that after a few raucous weeks the students will settle down to their learning and experiencing of Israel, and will return home model students and upstanding members of their communities. Tragically, at least one student will not.
Upon learning the names of the yeshivas in Israel that the five boys attended, many people will say, "Well, of course, it happened there. X Yeshiva is known for troubled students." True, true. Even I -- who attended Machon Gold 15 years ago but have been out of touch with year-in-Israel programs for a while -- know the reputation of some of these schools. But this Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) attitude is what has let the problems go on for so long in the first place.
On Internet postings following the boy's death, some writers castigated these last-resort schools for accepting the so-called high-risk Orthodox youth and blamed the schools themselves. But others wrote in to defend these schools and credited them with saving their lives.
"I am currently 22 years old and I am a recent college graduate. I myself ... was once considered one of these 'high-risk' students," Dave Serano wrote on the Jerusalem Post Web Site. "I wonder in amazement at the look of surprise on our Jewish communities' faces as they read and talk about what awful yeshivot these are, and how these boys should not have gone to Israel to solve their drug problems. How wrong and sadly misled these people are."
He wrote that the yeshivas and its rabbis have saved "hundreds, if not thousands" of lives, like his own, in a way that a drug counselor could not.
No question that these "high-risk" schools do more good than harm, and that the kids who end up there are probably better off there than in some college in the middle of America -- without parental or rabbinical supervision.
But to name the schools is beside the point. The real point is: there's a problem and it has to be dealt with. Now.
Parents send their children to 12 years of day school, Sunday school or temple classes, hoping to inculcate values and ethical behavior somewhere along the way. But the truth is, no matter where you send your child to school, they are not immune to the problems of the outside world: Drugs, drinking, sex and worse.
Some parents hope Israel will do the trick; that a year in the Holy Land will magically cure their children. They depend on that year in university or yeshiva in Israel to "straighten the kids out." And while there are certainly many qualified educators in Israel, and many great programs, problem kids weren't just dropped from outer space at 18.
The truth is that kids in public school use drugs, kids in private schools use drugs and, yes, kids in Jewish schools use drugs. NIMBY? Maybe, as a parent, you think it's not your kid, not his school, not her friends, but that's probably what the parents of the boys arrested selling drugs thought.
Pretending something isn't a problem doesn't make it go away. Sending your kids off somewhere doesn't make it go away. What will make it go away? A healthy attitude from all educators and parents to admit that there might be a problem, and they might have to deal with it. It may mean calling in therapists or drug counselors or adopting a 12-step program. But as the Jewish tradition teaches about parenting and educating, when the left hand pushes a child away by rebuking him, the right hand should draw him close -- meaning, we should not excommunicate our problems, but help fix them in a loving manner.
There are a number of programs and people here in Los Angeles, in New York and in Israel who deal quietly with the problem children. Who try to help them when no other resources are available. The Orthodox Union is even putting together a drug task force to deal with the problem in high schools around the country.
Drugs? They are in our backyard. But they don't have to be.