Friends and family gathered on Sunday, Jan. 23, at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills to bury 19-year-old Eric Siegel, who died last week at a yeshiva in Israel after he overdosed on heroin.
Siegel's death on Jan. 18 came just two days before four American yeshiva boys were arrested in Israel for selling marijuana to an undercover policeman, and the confluence of events has shined a spotlight on drug use among American youth in Israel.
While Siegel was at Neveh Zion, a yeshiva for at-risk youth, some of the other four boys were in more mainstream schools that serve American post-high school boys.
"In recent years, it has become even more difficult. It starts now in eighth grade, not senior year in yeshiva high school," Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Blumenfeld, head of Neveh Zion, wrote about drug use in a letter to his supporters after Siegel's death. "By the time they reach Neveh, many are already living on the street."
While the American yeshiva system works well for a majority of students, it doesn't work for everyone, said Rabbi Avi Leibovic, founder and executive director of Aish Tamid, a Los Angeles organization that serves as a spiritual and social safety net for many of these types of young men, who often end up turning to drugs.
"The mainstream yeshivas have a very specific, cookie-cutter image of how every student should ideally turn out, and there has to be a greater appreciation of looking into the specific skills and talents and needs of each child to realize he has so much to offer to the community, even if he doesn't fit the mold exactly," he said. "Aish Tamid presents an opportunity for them to blossom and develop and flourish and play a meaningful role in Clal Yisrael."
Leibovic, an attorney who was raised in Los Angeles and is an alumnus of Neveh, proactively seeks out boys -- he does not yet have the resources to handle girls -- who are at-risk of or have already left their family and community and offers them customized chizuk, or reinforcement, through personal guidance, job opportunities, referrals to mental health professional or drug rehabilitation and a warm place for rediscovering Judaism. He has seen a rotation of 330 boys since he began a few years ago, using in part the techniques and approaches he picked up at Neveh.
Siegel, who was raised as a member of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, did not fit the typical profile of the mostly Orthodox Neveh students, but he found a warm niche there.
Neveh has an impressive record for helping kids who had turned to drugs or other forms of delinquency to get back on track. At Neveh, Siegel had found a staff and student body that understood him.
He had been thriving at Neveh Zion for just six weeks, when his roommates found him dead in his bed. His death appears to be accidental. Blumenfeld's letter says the drugs were purchased in Lod, not in the yeshiva, and that the one other student who had used heroin that evening has been sent home.
Geri Siegel, the boy's mother, told The Journal that her son was not an addict, although he had used drugs and had been in both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation since his father died two and a half years ago, following a 10-year bout with heart disease.
She described Eric as a brilliant but defiant boy -- traits that emerged early on when he started to talk at nine months. At Mommy & Me classes, she said, he annoyed the teachers by making up his own words to songs rather than singing theirs.
Eric went to Heschel Day School and was bar mitzvahed and confirmed at VBS. He went to public and private high schools but always had a hard time finding his place.
"He was the kind of kid who got into trouble because he was bored in school and never really fit in," said his mother.
Siegel was, according to his friends, family and rabbis both at Neveh and at VBS, an avid reader and a gifted intellect, with a breadth and depth of knowledge and a love of learning that far surpassed his years. He wrote poetry, essays and rap. He inspired others around him to appreciate literature and poetry as well, including his sister, Emily, 17, who has had some pieces published.
"Every word that came out of his mouth was an inspiration," said his high school friend, Korey Passy. "All he had to do was say one word, and he put you in a good mood. He never failed to make you laugh or smile."
Siegel went to college for a few months but didn't feel he was ready for it, his mother said.
He went to Israel in October looking for a fresh start. After two weeks on a kibbutz he went to live in Jerusalem's Old City, where he frequented used bookstores. He decided to enroll in yeshiva to explore Judaism further. After searching for a few weeks, he landed at Neveh.
"He called me once a week from Israel and told me how happy he was," said Eric's friend, Erez Amzallag. "He said he was going to class and learning, and he was going to become more religious."
His mother went to visit him in December and was heartened to see how content he was.
In her eulogy she said, "I saw your turbulent youth coming to an end and your passage to adulthood beginning to blossom. You put your arms around me, told me you loved me and needed some time to really do some soul searching.... I left Israel with a smile on my face and a very cozy place in my heart that you had found contentment there."
Neveh Zion is one of a number of yeshivas in Israel that takes in boys who present a challenge to mainstream Orthodox institutions. One rabbi called the school "an emergency room for Klal Yisroel [the people of Israel]," that often managed to save the worst cases.
Since Siegel's death, Neveh has changed its drug policy. According to Blumenfeld's letter, Neveh's policy has been to never tolerate hard drug use or addicts and to send boys who used hard drugs back to the United States or to a detox program in Israel. At the same time, there had been tacit tolerance of softer drugs, such as marijuana, with the hope that after a few months, the boys would straighten out.
Now, because of Siegel's death, Neveh has asked all the boys to commit themselves in writing to refrain from all drug use and has instituted regular drug testing.
"What about the hundreds of kids who are on the street and need a place with the approach and rabbeim of Neveh? If the community can find funding for such a project, we will start a yeshiva rehab outside of Telshestone," Blumenfeld said, referring to the neighborhood outside Jerusalem where the yeshiva is located.
One alumnus had written to the rabbi that "doctors save lives, but Neveh saves generations."
Blumenfeld added, "With help from Above we hope that somehow this can continue to be true."
Geri Siegel has asked donations in Eric's memory be sent to a fund for a new library at American Friends of Neveh Zion, 6801 Main St., Flushing, NY 11367.
For information on Aish Tamid call (323) 634-0505 or go to email@example.com.