Lights Through the Tunnel

By Rafael Hoffman

The phenomenon of struggling teens within the Orthodox community is not new. As the community’s population continues to grow, so does the number of youth who fall out of the system or suffer at its peripheries. A broader world marked by moral deterioration and emerging technologies have made more and deeper pitfalls.

Yet, at the same time, the volume of resources, experts, and options to help these pained souls has rapidly expanded. While the process can be long and arduous, the work of a network of caring individuals and organizations has borne increasingly positive results, giving hope that these neshamos can find their way back to a life of Torah and productive roles within Klal Yisrael.

In an attempt to give readers a better understanding of how this issue has evolved, Hamodia spoke with four experts in the field:

Rabbi Sruli Bistritz — Director of Resolve, a multifaceted guidance, case management and resource center operating nationally.

Rabbi Mechy Brandwein — Co-Director of the Lev Teen Center in Monsey

Rabbi Yishai Ghoori — Chief Operating Officer of Nesivos, a professional mental health and case management center for struggling teens, also offering parent-support groups and guidance.

Harav Yechiel Alter Malik — Operated several programs and institutions for struggling teens in Boro Park. He currently leads Yeshivas Toras Yehuda in Toms River for teens who are part of the yeshivah system but face challenges in mainstream mosdos.

M. Brandwein: A lot of the increased numbers of kids who are struggling comes from Klal Yisrael’s population growth, but it doesn’t mean the percentage is so different than it was before.

I would also say, however, that there seems to be a real uptick in the number of homes that have an unhealthy amount of drama in them.

There’s no denying that technology dramatically changed things as well. Technology gives the struggling kid an express lane to find things that in the short term seem like satisfaction. I’m not looking to pin all problems on the internet, because I don’t think that’s at the heart of what’s going on, but it’s changed the scene.

Ten or 15 years ago, a kid fell out of yeshivah, sat at home for a few weeks, came back, maybe fell out again, but for the most part stayed somewhere on the edges of the system. Today, a kid who’s out of yeshivah has a smartphone within two weeks and is introduced to an entire new world.

Now, before that, he could have gotten introduced to this same world if he wanted to, but it was a little harder and, for lack of a better term, it took more bravery. Technology made it much easier.

S. Bistritz: Twenty or even 15 years ago, the world was smaller and less aware of what could be done for these kids, and the options were very limited. In the Resolve set of tools, we have a database of yeshivos, drop-in programs, summer opportunities, job opportunities, therapists, tutors — and whatever is not there will be invented. Everything is a potential resource, and kids are not circumscribed to a given resource at hand. Resolve delivers multifaceted referrals, linking all the pieces.

A lot of things changed. Research and the mental health field, both in the frum world and in the world at large, evolved a great deal. A number of creative and ambitious people in the frum world who’ve noticed diverse needs filled them by creating yeshivos and programs.

An age when people are more open and vocal about emotional issues made us more aware of how much more there was to be done. That piece is somewhat of a two-way street. There are more resources and tools to help emotional issues, but heightened awareness also makes people more likely to present one of these issues. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there before and that they aren’t better off addressing them.

The heightened level of awareness of the needs of struggling teens is multifaceted. Every person is an olam malei. Besides the uplifting ruchniyus aspect of what that means, it also means that once a person falls apart, it could take a set of individuals and organizations to put them back together. Putting that team together is something that has become far easier now that so many more resources exist.

Another major change is that the edge of the cliff for someone struggling got much longer. Twenty years ago, we lived in a very small system. Everybody basically followed a narrow bridge of expectations. The options of where a frum teen could operate and what he was expected to do were more limited. When you reached the end of that road, the only place to go was down.

At the same time, the world changed and the pitfalls got a little more dangerous and subtle. But Yiddishe society became more innovative and made the acceptable options much broader. As a result, there’s more for a teen to do if the traditional path doesn’t work for him. He’s not just faced with a binary option of a mainstream yeshivah or falling off the cliff.

In terms of how the challenges themselves have developed, social issues and family system issues have become much more prevalent. What the world throws at us has also gotten more complex.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about technology, which everybody knows has a lot to do with the challenges teens face. Technology has made the world at large, including many very harmful parts of it, much more accessible. It allows teens to become educated much faster about things they would be better off not knowing, and it made it easier for them to escape to a fake world very quickly.

For an organization like Resolve, our job is to help find out what else was going on in this teen’s life that their exposure to technology bore such destructive results.

Y. Ghoori: When I started working with struggling teens 24 years ago, we used to tell parents, “Give us three months. We’ll stabilize him, get him back on track, and work on getting him back into the Torah system.” Now we say give us two years.

Some of the confidence was naïveté. But a lot of the difference is that the issues have become more complex. They have access to a lot of adult information, and it takes a much more complex approach to stabilize them and get them into a place where they feel safe enough to move forward.

This is where technology has changed the scene. An adult and a 14-year-old might observe the same thing, but the latter absorbs it in a childish way which has a very detrimental impact. After being exposed to information teens are not ready to handle, to take them out of that mindset and bring them back into a place where they can again trust the adults in their lives takes a lot of work.

Another difference is that then, when a kid came in, we felt we had time to work with them. Now, if you don’t get a struggling boy or girl in two weeks, you can lose a neshamah, chas v’shalom. That’s also largely because of technology and the sheer availability of all sorts of dangerous elements. 

We’ve also taken a different approach than we did when I first started. It’s not just about getting them back into school. It’s about working through their personal struggles. A few years into my involvement, we realized that the problems many of these teens were facing were above our heads, and we needed a network of professionals to deal with root causes rather than just treating symptoms. The more we got into the mental health space, the more long-term our approach became.

A very positive change is that the number of resources has expanded in all directions. Still, if you gave me $2 million, I could start another three organizations.

There are different age groups that need to be dealt with. We work with them from seventh grade and up, but there is not enough out there for younger kids. For girls, there are some great programs, but we need more. It’s easier for a yungerman who wants to help to volunteer, but women’s time is generally less flexible, which leaves a staffing gap.

There’s a need for more efforts to address parental estrangement, which is sadly a growing issue. When a teen is struggling, they will obviously not be on the same page as parents, and we need more resources to work on keeping families together.

We do job placement for teens, but that’s another area that needs to be expanded.

There’s no respite for parents of a struggling teen. I have a handicapped son and there’s plenty of respite available for me or, R”l, parents who have a sick child, but if a child needs to go to rehab, there are fewer tools to help stabilize these families. 

There are phenomenal people working in this field, and they need to be supported and funded properly. It’s a need the tzibbur recognizes more, but I don’t think the level to which it should be on the community’s priority list has gotten where it needs to be yet.

Y.A. Malik: When I first started, about 15 years ago, I had more access to a bachur’s heart and mind. When I set up programs or invited kids over, if there was good food and good company, I had a full house, and once I had them around a table, we could have real heart-to-heart conversations. Today, kids have much shorter attention spans. So, I have to compress my message into a few minutes. A long, dramatic story doesn’t work anymore.

Now, you have to go out with bachurim to play pool or bowling, and between the balls, you can show them love and caring and try to bond with them. But it’s not easy.

There are different problems that stem from technology, but one of them is that it destroyed kids’ attention spans, and that makes it much harder to connect.

Another change is that today’s teenagers are very cut off from reality and if a person only thinks from one minute to the next, it’s difficult to explain the impact of their choices. It used to be easier to get a bachur to realize that if he comes to me Friday night and sits with a bunch of other kids, he’ll have a better time than if he sits alone and watches a movie. Now, you have to be much more creative to get them to think outside of their little boxes.

Technology gives them a way to live in a fake world. The media, social media and the outside world form their outlook and rob them of forming their own authentic views.

You even see this in “good” uses of technology. Today, there are apps encouraging people to put on tefillin. Sometimes if you ask a bachur, “Did you daven today?” they’ll tell you “I put on tefillin.” Once they checked off that box, it’s hard to explain to them why they should do anything more than what it took to do that.

There’s another point. Fifteen years ago, there was almost no such thing as a 12-year-old kid at risk. Now, there are, R”l, 11- and 12-year-olds out of yeshivah and on the streets.

A big part of it is that we’re not speaking their language. Most in our generation grew up in the shadow of the tzaddikim that came after the war and rebuilt Yiddishkeit on very strong foundations. The pride and simplicity of wanting to be part of that Yiddishe world is not as clear-cut to them as it was to most of us.

Today, you can ask some of these boys why they don’t daven, they’ll tell you with complete sincerity, “I don’t have patience for it.” That’s an answer which is very hard for our generation to understand, let alone respond to.

When I give a shiur, first I have a little shmooze with the bachurim to gauge what they’re interested in that day, and I try as much as possible to blend it into the Gemara and interest them. It’s a challenge, but we have to get to know them and to join forces with them.

M. Brandwein: It had an impact, but it didn’t create the problem or make it dramatically worse.

If we do our outreach and provide kids with a community that they feel safe in and that they feel they’re a part of, they won’t go to these other places.

The reality is that these groups are going to exist, and talking about shutting them down isn’t going to change anything. If we provide the proper programming, they’ll come here.

Here in Monsey, there was an incredible need, and a lot of people fell into the wrong places. In the next generation, the same type of people suddenly aren’t going there anymore because frum-run organizations opened that gave them a community. These kids now have a way to feel like they’re part of something where they’re supported and accepted, so a lot less of them turn elsewhere.

In terms of how the media portrays things, I speak to hundreds of kids and haven’t found the one who is where he is because of how The New York Times writes about frum Jews. These kids end up where they are either because of a lot of pain or big temptations, not because of some movie that makes Yiddishkeit look bad and celebrates people who leave it.

Some people might pretend they’re part of some cause. I sat with a kid very recently who told me that he got bullied through elementary school and high school. Eventually, he dropped out of the system. If that kid wants to make himself feel better, he might make his problems sound like he’s doing something more sophisticated, but that’s not what’s going on.

S. Bistritz: On an organizational level, I feel their impact is minute to nonexistent. That doesn’t mean there aren’t individuals that look to some of these people as being successful and become empowered and inspired to continue moving away from Yiddishkeit because of that. That’s possible.

I still don’t think it’s had a major impact on the whole scene. Whatever role it plays is no more or less than that of similar things that offered negative encouragement 20 years ago.

There is a sizable percentage of kids who are living in their phones and in the world of social media, but that has less to do with any specific figure or group than it does with an attempt to escape reality and self-medicate. It’s not that they’re finding role models of how to run away.

Y. Ghoori: We haven’t had much of an issue with our clientele and these groups. The teens we deal with generally don’t like being told what to do, they don’t like movements, and that’s also attaching yourself to a movement.

But where we have seen the detrimental influence of developments in the world at large are personal identity issues. We’re seeing a lot more of this, and that’s obviously because once that’s normalized in the world at large, it seeps into our society as well.

Y.A. Malik: Years ago, in Boro Park, I ran a night program which I called BDA B’derech Avoseini. This was when Footsteps was unfortunately becoming very popular, and I opened up to create an alternative. We had a drop-in and could have 60 or 70 kids a night. Baruch Hashem, we saw tremendous success.

Not long after, a few neighbors told me that there was an internet café nearby that on Friday night was, R”l, filled with struggling kids. So, we made a Friday night program. I had a bachur who went to this café and other hangouts and brought kids to our house. I would sit with them the whole night. We made a big, delicious cholent, and I sang with them and told stories and did whatever I could to keep them happy and engaged.

If we provide better alternatives, they’ll come to us.

M. Brandwein: About 10 years ago, I was talking to a kid, and he wasn’t wearing a yarmulke. A guy came over and started yelling and giving it to him over the head. That doesn’t happen anymore.

There’s much broader acceptance and realization that no one has bad intentions here. There are exceptions, but in general it’s people who are hurting or who just didn’t fit into a system and are lost. If he wears a yarmulke or not, this kid’s not trying to antagonize you.

In general, Klal Yisrael has come around to accepting these kids, and that’s a very positive thing, because if they feel accepted, they won’t have to run away.

It’s much healthier than it was, but there is still an adjustment that would be helpful. Parents and families tend to become a lot more accepting when it hits them. When it’s their neighbor they tend to be less accepting. Maybe it would be good to be accepting in the first place, and in that zechus, your family shouldn’t have this nisayon.

S. Bistritz: The short answer is that it’s definitely changed.

The deeper response is more nuanced because the socio-spiritual sphere of each frum community has its own way of viewing struggling teens. Some communities get it better than others. The way that the struggling boy or girl is perceived and the way they interact with the community has a major impact on how those within the community perceive them and how they work to help them find a way back.

To be honest, the average layman that passes by such a teen now or 20 years ago might have the same level of indifference. But those benevolent souls who always wanted to help now have more delicate and effective ways to do so.

Resolve gets calls from parents, siblings and Rebbeim who want to help. Their ability to play a positive role only goes as far as they are able to get effective guidance on how to best do that.

Y. Ghoori: The mantra back in the day was, “Throw them in the lake.” Thanks to a lot of work that we and others have done, that stigma broke. Unfortunately, a lot of this heightened acceptance comes from the fact that everybody sees how widespread it is. There aren’t a lot of people who don’t know anyone that had a struggling teen.

Y.A. Malik: People are much more accepting.

Not long ago, I spoke to the father of a struggling boy, who told me, “I’m a temimusdige Chassidishe yungerman, I don’t know anything about these things. But tell me exactly what to do for my son, and I’ll do it.” Fifteen years ago, very few people had that attitude, and that change makes it much easier to work with parents who need to go out of their comfort zones to help these children.

M. Brandwein: Listen, be very aware, and be there for them.

A lot of times, these issues are way out of parents’ control. But the best thing you can do is give them confidence. That’s far and away the biggest factor. Every kid has their story, so it’s hard to answer, but generally, if you make him feel good about himself, make him feel supported, that he’s part of the family, try to help in school or whatever environment he’s in, those are the best ways to help him.

Usually, the day they start turning the corner is the day they start feeling good about themselves and feel valued as people.

The most important thing to avoid is making your child feel as if they cannot turn to you. Always try to be as understanding as possible.

This is not easy. Every kid can frustrate the world out of parents, especially in these cases when you’ve invested so much in them and they’re doing the exact opposite of everything you ever wished for. But the healthiest thing is never to give your child a reason to fear you, and to make them feel they can always turn to you.

S. Bistritz: Resolve now manages around 50 new cases per month at all levels of struggle, including boys and girls still seemingly functioning in the mainstream system, yet parents begin to see signs of deterioration.

We see a lot of consistent patterns. Parents want to be proactive and helpful. But we found a consistent pattern of relationship interfaces that keep clashing. “Every time I try to talk to him, he slams the door.” “I can’t find the right time to talk to him or the right words to say. Where do I make my first move?”

So, we developed the Resolve Parenting Toolbox that identifies several fundamental therapeutic tools that, with a little education, role playing and other techniques, can teach parents a better language of communication. They can learn more sensitivity and recognition of how their teen works. Whether they are dealing with what we call stage one, which is mainstream but crumbling, or stage three, which is a much more reckless, experimental, self-endangering, less structured teen, having the right diplomatic language is crucial.

Y. Ghoori: Nearly every parent that went through this and looks back will tell you, when they realized there was an issue, they did not realize how serious it was. It’s a hard message to deliver, but often, once you detect it, the reality is many times worse than you perceive — so don’t dismiss it.

If a parent has the thought of, “My son shouldn’t go to that yeshivah because he’s not holding in such a bad state,” in reality, he probably is. And it’s important to realize that if you don’t get the right program, the right help at the right time, it can make the problem much harder to deal with.

For obvious reasons, parents don’t want to hear it, but I would say 75% of the cases that come in are a lot worse than parents think they are.

Y.A. Malik: The first thing parents should know is that it’s not their fault.

Parents need a lot of emunah and chizuk not to focus on what others might say. They have to accept their children for who they are, love them unconditionally and do whatever it takes to help them.

They need to remember that their duty remains to be a parent, and that job is chinuch, not enforcement.

Parents should still tell their children what they expect from them. The challenge comes when they have to be accepting in instances when their children are not living up to those expectations. At that point, it becomes difficult for parents to strike the right balance.

You have to be very clear with children, and sometimes it’s our job to tell kids, “I’m not okay with this.” That’s not a contradiction to acceptance. If a boy doesn’t go to shul or goes somewhere you don’t want him to, it’s not our job to run after them. But we still have to be clear and consistent about what is right and wrong.

Neglect is a form of abuse. Pretending to be ignorant of what kids are doing, even if it’s hurtful to look at, is not helping them. If you say nothing, you’re sending a message that it’s okay to do something wrong, and that leaves him feeling confused and abandoned — even if they’re not going to listen to you.

There’s a famous vort from the Kotzker Rebbe, “V’hayu hadevarim ha’elah al levavecha (Place these things on your heart).” Many times, the heart is closed. But if you pile the right messages on it, when it opens up, all the good messages will fall in.

M. Brandwein: Know that it’s not a black hole. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even though it may seem very black now.

Most kids, no matter what happens, if given the right help, will come back and sometimes end up giving you more nachas than your other kids who were doing great in yeshivah.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything. You should try to do as much as possible to get them the proper help. With that, they can grow and come out incredible.

Another thing is that very often parents run to one of two extremes. One extreme is yell, throw him out of the house, disown him and sit shivah for him. The other extreme is to buy him treif, or whatever examples you want.

The middle way is more nuanced and a little more complicated, but it’s what’s best. Your child needs stability. Be normal. Don’t go to an extreme; you can chase him away and, chas v’shalom, destroy him.

The indulgent extreme is just as dangerous. The kid is totally confused. He doesn’t know what you want from him or begin to know what Yiddishkeit is. He doesn’t feel supported; he feels like a nebach case. Nobody wants to be a nebach. Some parents make their kids chessed cases instead of being parents.

Never lose the aspect of being a parent; never give up on what you believe in. But never push too far the other way.

Every case is different, and you need guidance on what that middle ground is in your scenario. But that middle ground will make your child feel best because he won’t be confused, and it will make parents feel better too, rather than constantly doubting if what they did is right or wrong.

S. Bistritz: Parents should know they are doing a good job and also that they hold the keys to making that job better. They should not feel they’re on their own to make those improvements. They shouldn’t think their challenge is smaller than it is, or too large. And Resolve and others in the field are here to help them at every stage.

Y. Ghoori: We run a lot of parent support groups, and one of the messages is a term known as the “three C’s”: You’re not the cause, you’re not the cure, and you’re not in control.

I tell parents, children will blame you even if it is 100% not your fault. That’s the way they internalize it, and there’s not much you can do to fight it.

There’s not much you can do as a parent to change the course. You need to do what you can to get your child the help they need. In that sense, you can do a lot. But you can’t lose confidence in yourself as a parent. Once you start doubting yourself, changing your approach, parenting out of fear, introducing all kinds of unhealthy pressures, it will affect the other kids in the home. 

Parents need to feel validated. It’s very easy to blame parents after something goes wrong, “I knew that family had problems because …” Some families have more quirks than others, but for every family that has a struggling child, I can show you others with the exact same DNA whose kids are fine.

Parents need to learn a very specific skill set to effectively help these children, but first they must be okay with themselves. It’s not easy, but there are ways for parents to shift for that struggling child while retaining the same boundaries and values of the home. They need support and guidance on how to keep the Yiddishe home they always had, while showing this child a tremendous amount of love.

Y.A. Malik: As much as possible, parents should try to be makdim refuah l’makkah and get ahead of these problems. We have to understand that there might be real challenges down the road. The more solid the love, trust and communication are, the more children will listen to what parents want from them, and the more they’ll feel like they’re all part of one team.

When a kid needs to make serious decisions, the thing that helps them most to do what’s right is a feeling of not wanting to hurt the people who care about them and believe in them. That includes parents, Rebbeim and others in a teen’s life.

M. Brandwein: Very simple: Keep the door open. If the door is actually open, they’ll know it’s open.

Practically, that means constant outreach. Nobody ever overdosed on love. People say they invite kids and they never show up. Don’t do it in a noodging way, but keep welcoming people. Keep being positive towards them. Even if these kids seem annoyed, they want to be wanted, so be smart about it, but keep reaching out to them.

If a kehillah is big enough to create programs for them like Belz in Yerushalayim did, that’s wonderful, but you have to be a very big kehillah for that. Even so, if one person or a few people in a kehillah can have a job to reach out to these kids and spend time with them, that’s the best thing, because they still feel like they’re a part of things and that they’re forever welcome.

Keep your eyes open for opportunities to welcome them. Everybody runs into their Rebbe at one simchah or another, and when that opportunity comes up it should be someone’s job to make sure they get welcomed properly.

S. Bistritz: There is no one message. Every struggling teen has their own world of issues, qualms, hang-ups, embitterment, estrangement and so on. All of that determines what message they need to hear.

However, there are some basic attitudes for people interacting with them to be aware of. Some teens need you to reach out directly and let them know you’re there. Some teens need a lot of space to work through their challenges.

We must remember that every teen, no matter what level of struggle they are in and what their lives look like, is still a person and needs to be treated like one. The more we’re able to see past the façade, the presentation, the language, the interests … and find their true characteristics, passions, deep emotions, and connect with that, the more they will connect back with us.

Our relationship with these teens shouldn’t be about “are you on our ‘team’” or not. Our relationship should be about having a relationship. They are searching for safe connection; there is no end goal. The relationship bears fruit by virtue of the relationship itself.

Y. Ghoori: On a community level, that’s a hard and perhaps counterproductive message to send. These kids blame the community for their failures. Their view is, “You don’t really want us back; you just want to cover up for your failures.”

They do need to hear that message from the individuals they are interacting with. The messages are out there, and they hear them in the right way at the right time.

The tzibbur at large should have patience for these kids. If you see them, give them a pat on the back. Buy them a cup of coffee. They need to feel they’re not alone.

Y.A. Malik: The best way is to say it. Keep the door open to them.

Years ago, I went into a Beis Medrash to daven Minchah and noticed a yungerman giving a shiur to a group of people. I froze. This yungerman was once a bachur who came to my Friday night program; he wasn’t shomer Shabbos then. He came back, found a beautiful shidduch, and today he’s a marbitz Torah.

These kids can surprise us. Sometimes the ones we thought would be easy to work with turn out to be difficult cases, and the ones we thought were lost, chas v’shalom, come right back. Don’t give up on any of them.

M. Brandwein: Every single kid I deal with is, on paper, having Yiddishkeit issues. But 99.99% of the time, if you can help them resolve their other issues, the kid will come back around to Yiddishkeit.

The Haskalah and other movements that plagued the Jewish community in previous generations presented very different challenges than what kids face today. No one is going off from reading philosophy. They’re not reading at all. The most they can do is quote three lines from Jordan Peterson or some other pop personality. Once you ask them for the fourth line, they’re done.

In general, kids from frum homes don’t have intellectual struggles. The overwhelming majority of them have some sort of painful issue in their lives. You do have some kids who were introduced to a smartphone when they were younger or fell in with bad friends, and some kids that do just have a stronger yetzer hara and fell into a hole. For whatever reason, that group doesn’t get as much attention, but there is a decent chunk of kids who just can’t stand up to their temptations. Still, at least 75% have something more to their story.

S. Bistritz: I don’t know how many people wake up and say, “Today I don’t like Hashem,” or “The Torah is fake,” chas v’shalom. It doesn’t start there.

No issues begin in a vacuum, and our goal is to figure out where this might have begun. There might be an agitator in Yiddishkeit. Someone in the chinuch system or someone who is presented to them as a person of stature might have left them with negative feelings about Yiddishkeit, or difficulty thriving academically.

In terms of what root causes drive these struggles, there could be a lot of factors.

The Relief mental health referral and advisory service and Resolve were both founded by Sendy Orenstein, and Resolve’s existence was a direct outgrowth of Relief’s work. Relief got hundreds, if not thousands, of calls from parents desperately seeking help for their teens who found the remedies were not going to be attained strictly through dealing with mental health.

When a teen begins to struggle, there might be an important mental health piece. However, with regard to the amelioration of the teen’s broader struggle, that might be just one component. Depending on the details of the case, that will determine whether addressing mental health will be our primary recourse or not, which is why Resolve’s more panoramic approach is important.

I would also broaden the list of agitating factors. Scholastic interests and learning disabilities can play a role. Some teens might be very capable but are not interested in education.

Many teens face social challenges. That doesn’t mean they have a specific diagnosis, but they might not be as assertive as other kids. It might be that they aren’t as savvy or are more introverted. They would enjoy being included in the group but lack the ability to initiate that. All these things can feed into the picture of a struggling teen.

Y. Ghoori: I started my career in kiruv. Personally, I have a lot of interest in the hashkafah writings of the Rishonim, I know the sugyos of emunah. When I shifted to kiruv krovim, I was waiting for the kid that I could sit down and talk about a piece of Moreh Nevuchim. In 24 years, it hasn’t happened.

It’s about trust. Sometimes it’s about mental health; there are kids that got bullied, there are trauma issues, there are abuse issues. There are kids that were hurt by family instability. Sometimes a kid has a learning disability that was never dealt with. We’ve found there are a lot of very sensitive neshamos that struggle in the system.

These kids are doing things that are contrary to Yiddishkeit, but 99.99% don’t have any real issue with Yiddishkeit.

Y.A. Malik: It’s hard to answer what drives kids to struggle. I’ve known a lot of wonderful families that had a child who struggled. Just because a kid ends up struggling, it’s not always because anybody did anything wrong or that there’s mental illness in the family.

All kinds of things can happen to kids.

When I was a Menahel in a certain yeshivah, I went over to a bachur and told him something. He yelled at me and insulted me in the middle of the Beis Medrash. I just gave him a glet and walked away. Afterwards, a few bachurim asked, “Why didn’t you throw him out?” I explained to them, “Why would a person scream in the middle of Beis Medrash? Obviously, there’s something very painful he’s dealing with.” Later, I had a beautiful talk with this bachur. I told him, “I understand that you’re hurting. Talk to me.” He burst out crying and told me a very painful personal story. To this day, I have a relationship with him and he’s in a yeshivah gedolah, doing great. 

M. Brandwein: I was talking to a brother-in-law of mine, who said that too many frum kids don’t know the first thing about real emunah. I told him, every kid who walks out of Lev Teen Center, when they start keeping Shabbos again and start eating kosher again, they know exactly why they’re doing it. There are no stronger maaminim than these kids when they come back around.

I’m not the one to tell mosdos what to do or not, that’s a question for Gedolei Yisrael. Even for the kids I deal with, it would be easy to say teaching more about emunah would help them. But the truth is that a lot of these kids come with their own wounds, and what they’ve gone through has been such a big part of their life, it’s hard to know how much they could have listened.

It seems obvious that we should talk more about emunah and the yesodos of Yiddishkeit, but it’s hard to know honestly whether these kids would be helped dramatically by it.

S. Bistritz: I think there is a lot in our chinuch system and in our mesorah that lays the groundwork for a wholesome emunah peshutah. In the instances where we find these things are challenged, it’s symptomatic of something else.

It’s easy to become an atheist when something is bothering you. It’s hard to become an atheist when things are going well, even if you research atheistic ideas.

However, it’s very important that when a teen asks questions and inquires about the fundamentals, it shouldn’t be avoided or brushed under the carpet. They should be given time, attention and answers. Often, a deeper, broader hashkafic understanding goes a long way to fortify foundations.

Y. Ghoori: I do think it’s important for the chinuch system, and primarily parents, to impart ikrei emunah, but I don’t think it would help these kids much. For them, in general, it’s “hama’or shebo machziro lemutav,” learning Torah itself helps bring them back. If a boy can sit in front of a Gemara and learn with someone who really cares about him, there’s nothing better. What’s important is for them to feel accepted in Yiddishkeit and that they have a part in Klal Yisrael even if they don’t, so to speak, toe the party line.

However, I do think more emphasis on ikrei emunah will help a great deal for a different dynamic we are seeing more of, which is burnout. Kids 16 or 17 who just can’t learn a whole day anymore. There is a large percentage of boys opting out of the standard beis-medrash, learn-in-Eretz-Yisrael, BMG lifestyle.

Thankfully, there are now more learn-and-work programs for them. For these kids, learning more about emunah is super important. Once they leave full-day yeshivah and are in the workforce, they’ll face negative influences in that environment, and the better they have these fundamentals, the stronger their roots will be.

Y.A. Malik: It would certainly help. Emunah is the key. A small tree is easy to set on the right course. So, the younger we teach the right things and address what, at that point, might be small innocent problems, the better off these kids will be.

M. Brandwein: Kehillos and their mosdos are doing incredible jobs. Our system has its flaws, but if you look at the results, they should be the envy of every other school system or community in the world.

When you deal with kids who struggle, it’s very easy to criticize the system. But the truth is that mosdos do an amazing job and I am not here to criticize them.

Now, from the perspective of the kids that I deal with, would they have benefited if there was more clarity on what is halachah and what’s a minhag, and so on, 1,000% yes. Sometimes the problem becomes that the place they came from put a lot of emphasis on a certain minhag or hashkafah, and then once they’re struggling, someone who’s frum tells them that there are other ways of being a good Jew besides that; now they’re really confused.

That said, even for these kids, I don’t think it’s the cause, and changing won’t be the solution. Still, especially when a kid has already fallen out of the system, it’s very important that he knows what’s halachah and what’s a minhag or a chumrah, and so on. That doesn’t mean any of these things aren’t important, but when these kids end up in shaky spots, it’s not helpful if they’re confused about these things.

S. Bistritz: We have a beautiful chinuch system which did not develop haphazardly. It works very well. But we have to be intuitive and sensitive to the personalities, interests and outlooks that we hear from teens. When something in our system is not meeting the needs of an individual, those needs must be addressed honestly.

Resolve regularly gets questions about how to best respond to some of the questions these teens ask. Not every question is make or break, but everything is important. A parent that lacks the knowledge or finesse to properly answer their child’s questions should reach out for guidance and learn how they can give them the proper food for thought within the true hashkafic boundaries. Letting something slide because you don’t have a good way to answer it can turn a cavity into a root canal.

Do we need to differentiate culture from fundamentals? That depends on where the questions are coming from. It’s also important to realize that not every teen talks about what bothers them. Sometimes it might be up to us to analyze what’s driving their behavior. We have to listen, even when nobody is talking.

Y. Ghoori: Our approach is that what we want from these kids is Torah u’mitzvos. Once you accept that, we can talk about what specifics are good for them. The starting point is, you’re a Yid, there’s a Torah, there’s a Ribbono shel Olam. Now, you’re having struggles with it, struggles with the people promoting it, and you’re experiencing a negative vibe towards it. Our attitude is, “Let’s talk about it. Let’s see if there’s something positive here you could tap into.”

These kids have different areas of Yiddishkeit in which they are stronger and weaker. You have to find the positive ones and build them up. If a boy loves helping people, chessed is a good place to focus.

There’s a Netziv that talks about four different groups in Klal Yisrael, each with their own primary job. We believe that everyone has their place to excel in avodas Hashem. Once we stabilize a kid, it’s important to show them that the approach that works for them is fully supported in the mainstream hashkafas haTorah.

They have to find satisfaction in something that’s Torah-oriented. Let them learn more Chumash, or halachah, or hashkafah. We find their struggles are mostly about not believing in themselves and not seeing how they can be functioning, contributing parts of Klal Yisrael. Once they get past that, they find where they belong.

Y.A. Malik: It’s important for parents to be clear that we don’t expect our children to be like us. It’s okay to say that we found our place with a certain Rebbe or Rav, and have a geshmak in this kehillah, but if they try their best and end up somewhere else, we’ll still respect and appreciate them.

Now, when a kid starts to slip, these lines become very important to clarify. Someone told me a story years ago that a group of bachurim from a very frum Chassidishe yeshivah went to a Six Flags amusement park. They were what was looked at as the “cool boys” in the class, but there was another bachur who was considered more serious that tagged along. The boys bought a bag of OU Wise potato chips, which, from their background, was a big no-no. Later, they saw this other bachur coming out of one of the buildings eating a frank that he bought. They screamed at him, “Treif,” but he responded, “You’re also eating treif.” It’s an extreme example, but the point is real.

Even so, in general, most kids will figure these things out on their own. My mother, a”h, was one of the first students from the Satmar school system to become a teacher in it, and she got guidance from the Satmar Rebbe himself. She used to say you should always praise what deserves praise and put down what deserves to be put down, but how to do that takes intelligence. 

M. Brandwein: A thousand percent. You see it all the time. Kids are good and they come back. Some kids that start out with the biggest emunah have the strongest questions. Once they struggle and get the answers, they’re back to having the strongest emunah. So many of these kids are the sweetest people, so sweet that they got run over by somebody else who hurt them badly. When that damaged part gets fixed, they’ll just be the sweet people they always were.

Even the ones that are stuck in doing things that seem very far out there, at the core, they’re good. A few months ago, I had a kid at my house for Shabbos, and not long before, I spoke to his mother, who told me how hard he is at home. It’s true, the kid is very complicated. At the Shabbos table, somebody said something that sent this kid on a whole speech about how wonderful his mother is. I thought to myself, if only the mother could hear this. I can’t tell the mother, because if the kid finds out, he’ll lose trust in me. And at this point, the kid could never tell his mother how wonderful he thinks she is. But parents should know these feelings exist. These kids are good inside.

S. Bistritz: Our work in this area has given us the confidence to continue to forge forward. It hasn’t given us hope, it’s given us proof. “Resolve” has several definitions, and one of them is commitment. Issues are not fixed in a day; it’s often a long haul, and all parties involved need to be supported. The greatest chizuk in our work is seeing parents and teens who, when given the resources, feel like they have the wherewithal to help themselves.

Y. Ghoori: We see, baruch Hashem, that with the proper help, almost all of them come back. Not necessarily in the exact way parents raised them to be, but with the right intervention, and especially early enough interventions, a very high percentage do come back to Yiddishkeit.

There was a talmid of the Ramchal named Rav Moshe Dovid Vali, who wrote a short piece on why some Jews leave their faith. One reason he gives is that there are elements of kedushah that fell deep into places of impurity. The only way to get them back is for certain elevated neshamos to fall and then pick up these pieces of lost kedushah and return them to their proper place. We tell parents that their children might have been selected for such a journey.

When we see them coming back, it’s the greatest kiddush Hashem. The Zohar in Parashas Terumah says that the greatest nachas Hashem has is when a Jew who strayed is brought back. We tell parents that they were given the zechus to increase kvod Shamayim. It’s very difficult and embarrassing for parents to deal with struggling children, but when they put all their energy into it and do what they have to for the sake of kvod Shamayim, it’s very inspiring to see.

Y.A. Malik: It’s given me tremendous confidence. We have to be mechazek the Yidden involved in helping these kids emotionally and financially. If we give them our trust, confidence and support, b’ezras Hashem, we’ll see results.

I once went to register one of my children in a yeshivah and the Rosh Yeshivah there is an old friend of mine. I went to greet him and said, “Shalom aleichem, Rosh Yeshivah.” He told me, “You can’t call me Rosh Yeshivah; you’re the Rosh Yeshivah.” He said, “I take good bachurim,  provide shiurim, a beis medrash, meals and coffee, and they move on. I get them good, and they leave good. You take bachurim, struggle with them to turn them around.” It was one of the best compliments I ever got.

My Rebbi, Harav Chatzkel Roth, once got a she’eilah from a Yid whose daughter, R”l, had fallen very far. They hadn’t heard from her for some time, but out of the blue, she called and said she wanted to come for Pesach. The father had all kinds of questions about what to do; to start with, what about yayin nesech?  Rav Chatzkel asked him, “Why does she want to come? Obviously, she wants to do teshuvah. And if the father will really believe that, she’ll come back.”

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