February 15, 2007
Peers give Orthodox teens lesson in drug use and abuse
"We were a group of kids who were dying inside, but we didn't know it. We just thought we were a lost cause."
With these words, Koby, a teenage yeshiva drug user, sets the level of earnestness and intensity on a new video that he and four of his friends produced under the auspices of Aleinu Family Resource Center, the Orthodox arm of Jewish Family Service, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
The video will be the centerpiece of "Davening Under the Influence," a program of Aleinu workshops for parents and educators on Feb. 18 that will feature Dr. Joshua Lamm, medical director of an Orthodox adolescent addictions center in New York. The workshop will delve into parenting issues and is meant for all parents, not only parents of children who are already at risk.
Aleinu is focusing on drug use and high-risk behavior among teens this year through workshops and Shabbat of Awareness, which in the past has stirred community understanding on topics such as sexual abuse and Internet issues. Alcohol abuse also came up this year because of incidents involving 150 yeshiva kids who drank excessively this past Simchat Torah.
For many years, at-risk behavior and drug use among yeshiva high school students has been an open secret, but only in recent years have kids and their families had anywhere to turn.
While most of the efforts so far have focused on boys, the problem is prevalent among yeshiva girls as well.
Aish Tamid, an independent organization that runs classes, support services and social outlets for hundreds of teens, opened its doors about seven years ago under the leadership of Rabbi Avi Leibovic, an attorney and product of local yeshivas.
In the last few years, Aleinu has also ramped up its activity in this area. The organization holds seminars in local yeshiva high schools to talk to students and faculty about drug use. Fourteen middle and high schools have signed on to Aleinu's mandatory drug policy, which outlines when and how yeshivas should refer a student for drug-use assessment, while remaining supportive and nonpunitive, and what paths of treatment, if any, might be recommended. Failure to comply with the recommendations -- or distributing or selling drugs -- could result in expulsion from school.
Last year, Aleinu started Issues Anonymous, where about 25 high school-age boys who have abused drugs or alcohol and are now committed to sobriety meet to support each other, hang out and work through the issues that led to their high-risk behavior.
As part of their healing process, the boys produced this video, which will be aired at the workshops Feb. 18 and will be available for other educational programs.
"This is not about placing blame.... This is about taking responsibility, to raise awareness in the Jewish community," the boys begin in the video, each one adding another thought to the sentence. "We know that we can't make this never happen again, but if we could just help prevent one beating, one less alcoholic binge, one more good day at school, one less drunk driver, one less overdose to prevent more cases of ending up here," they say, as the scene flashes to a cemetery.
The video is dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Meir Mermelstein, a young man who died of a drug overdose.
"What they are saying is see us, look at us, interact with us, care about us -- see what it is like to be on the inside of us," said Aleinu director Debbie Fox.
It is a video that every parent should see, because the issues the boys bring up are hauntingly universal.
One boy speaks of never feeling satisfied with what he had, though his parents gave him everything. Another talks of something as simple as not being able to keep up during davening, of always feeling different. School was never fun, one boy says.
A third says he had a vibrant and close-knit extended family, but his parents were clueless. And yet another talks of never getting along with his parents, while another says his father beat him.
With remarkable candor and self-awareness -- and with the blessings of their parents -- five boys share how and why they descended into drug abuse.
One boy shared shots with every cousin and uncle at his bar mitzvah.
A 9-year-old was handed a joint on Simchat Torah. Jewish summer camp was a good place for another boy to get hooked. Many of these kids have become sophisticated at "pharming," scavenging prescription drugs at home and at friends' homes. They talk of praying and studying Torah while high.
"We have a lot of alcohol out in the open in my house -- vodka, whiskey and scotch -- because my parents never thought that would be me. They trusted me," one says.
They urge parents to be vigilant about their kids' behavior -- if they are sleeping too much, locking themselves in their rooms or experiencing mood swings. Always know with whom your kids are hanging out, they warn.
They urge parents to talk nicely to their kids, to have real conversations and to be proud of even small accomplishments. And they urge kids who are struggling not to push away the help.
They have some harsh words for teachers and rabbis, as well.
"The rabbis never noticed when you were depressed or on drugs or using or suicidal, but they noticed when you weren't wearing a kippah. Rabbis can't help me now," one of the boys says.
Fox says the video is being released in two versions -- one for parents and one for rabbis. The one for parents does not include some of the harshest indictments of the rabbis, because Fox wanted the rabbis to be open to receiving the message without feeling they were under public attack.
A group of Los Angeles rabbis was overwhelmingly receptive to the video when it was shown at a luncheon a few weeks ago.
More than 40 rabbis -- shul leaders and some school principals -- saw the video before the Feb. 3 Shabbat of Awareness, and on that Saturday many of them discussed the problem of teenage drug use in their shuls.