August 16, 2007
Dealing With Schmutz
The kid wore pleated pants.
For the parents, it wasn't very "chassidishe" to wear pleated plants. They saw it as a sign of secular fashion. Not a good omen. So when they met with Dennis to discuss the boy's progress, they brought up the pleated pants.
Dennis went ballistic.
When Dennis goes ballistic, he has to tell you he's going ballistic, because you can't tell from his body language. Nothing changes on this man's face. It's sculpted in granite.
Still, when he told me the story of the pleated pants, you could see the emotion smoldering beneath the surface. He had spent many long hours working with the kid. He had helped turn his life around. He was counting his blessings. Meanwhile, the parents were sitting there kvetching about pleated pants. How could they be so blind?
This notion of blindness is a common theme in the life of Dennis, a Chasidic Jew and professional counselor in his early 60s who runs the state-certified Ness Counseling Center in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Dennis deals with what he calls "the schmutz of life" on a daily basis -- physical and sexual abuse, drugs, marital and family problems, wife beating, pleated pants.
As I sat with him in his office right off La Cienega Boulevard, with the famous gaze of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hovering above us from a picture on the wall, he kept going back to the theme of blindness.
"People see what they want to see", he said. "The parents [of the Chasidic kid] were blind to the pain that got him into drugs in the first place, and when he started to get out of it, they were blind to his progress. They could only see the pleated pants."
Although the Ness Center caters to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, the majority of their cases are with Orthodox Jews -- perhaps, as he says, because the Orthodox prefer to deal with one of their own, especially when highly sensitive subjects are involved.
Dennis is not naive. He understands his insular Orthodox community. There's always a good reason to sweep the schmutz under the carpet: It's a desecration of God's name for a Jew wearing a yarmulke to do something immoral or criminal; it puts an indelible stain on the community; it can ostracize a family and make it hard for their children to find a good mate. He's heard it all.
And what happens when all hell breaks loose? When a woman has taken one too many blows? Or when a kid is about to overdose?
Well, that's usually when they call Dennis -- when much of the damage has already been done.
That's why Dennis rails against blindness. He sees a greater shame in hiding the schmutz than in confronting it early and honestly. He tells victims of abuse not to wait until it gets unbearable. He wants to see people before the pain gets too deep.
Strangely, as I listened to Dennis talk about the vile stuff he's seen in his 30 years of working in the field, I didn't sense in him any feeling of Jewish or communal shame. For this ultra-Orthodox Jew with a long white beard, when it comes to human behavior, there is no Jew or non-Jew, no Orthodox or non-Orthodox. There are only humans. He doesn't see a black hat or a yarmulke or a wig. He sees a kid who's misunderstood. A wife who's overwhelmed. Parents who don't get it. A man with a sickness. A woman who needs immediate protection.
He sees pain and sickness, before he sees religion and shame.
His forthrightness hasn't always endeared him to the Orthodox community. A few years ago, when an Orthodox rabbi was convicted of child abuse and had spent time in jail, a group of Orthodox rabbis and leaders got together to raise funds to help the convicted rabbi leave town. When they contacted Dennis for help, he told them what they didn't want to hear: They should use the money to get the convicted rabbi professional help, not to help him take his sickness somewhere else.
In other words, he wanted them to open their eyes and see the real problem: a Jewish man with a sickness and potential future victims, rather than a community with a black eye.
The man ended up leaving town.
The notion of sickness as applied to human behavior is not a popular one in Torah-observant circles. Abusive and aberrant behavior is usually seen as a failure of character. If you follow the Torah, you should never have to use drugs or abuse anyone. When someone cracks -- when human reality trumps Torah observance -- the instinct is not to deal with the problem, but to circle the wagons and defend the honor of the community.
Dennis is encouraged that emerging groups like Aleinu and Aish Tamid, with the support of many Orthodox rabbis, are trying to deal honestly with the "dark side of life," which no part of the Jewish world is immune to, even the Torah observant.
When I ask him if it's better for the image of the Orthodox community, in the long run, to deal honestly and openly with their troubled elements, I see a hint of impatience in his granite face. Clearly, this man has little time to ponder notions like "long term" and "image."
There's a woman on the phone waiting to speak to him and, apparently, she's quite agitated.
Let's hope she's not calling about pleated pants.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.