The Jewish Homemaker

Bringing them back!

Steve an 18 year old, with liquid brown eyes and faint, scattered freckles, keeps a cigarette perpetually resting on his cracked lips. "I left yeshiva three times. Every time I left, I regretted it, so I went back," says the bareheaded teenager. Wearing a worn, leather jacket and savagely-slashed jeans, he adjusts his earring. "I used to learn Reb Chaim's," he says.

Steve has been living with four other teenagers in a Borough Park basement since the age of 16. Formerly known as Shmuel, Steve is among the rising number of Jewish adolescents who fiercely abandon childhood, bartering their youth for the petty crime, promiscuity and terrible freedom of the streets.

On a typical Saturday night, Prime Time, a Brooklyn pool hall known for attracting wayward Jewish youths, is filled with leather-jacketed boys with silver chain necklaces and painted girls milling about--immune to the blaring music and shrill shouting. Thick with the smell of smoke and cheap perfume, the spot attracts the usual crowd of loners, who, kill time waiting for free pool tables. Strolling in with the careless leisure of eternity, many have no school to go in the morning, no job to report to. Blanketed by an anonymous and indifferent city, apathetic to their descent into decadence, the minors dwell in a sub-culture of rebellion and anger.

At midnight a 16-year-old girl with shocking red lips and matted blond hair saunters in, her arm lazily slung onto the shoulder of her drunken 17-year old boyfriend. As if apologizing for her liberty, she says in a cracking voice, "No school wanted me." But somehow, the future offers her a glint of hope: "I'll be a bartender when I grow up," she adds.

Ranging the spectrum of Orthodoxy, from Chassidic to Modern Orthodox, youths are increasingly dropping out of school. In a recent article, according to estimates determined by the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, the Jewish Week reported somewhere between 300-400 youths at risk between he ages of 14-21 living in Brooklyn alone. The problems may reflect a national trend, the Jewish Week also reported.

"[Because] there is a rising number of yeshiva delinquents. The schools must develop truancy policies," asserted Claire Forst, who along with being Coordinator for the Family Crisis Intervention Program of the Bikur Cholim of Borough Park was also recently contacted by the Bureau of Child Welfare regarding the issue of yeshiva truancy.

Although cases differ, educators have identified the typical characteristics of a dropout: early teens, usually from a broken home, poor or learning disabled student.

Attributing the mounting numbers of wayward kids to divorce and familial strife, Rabbi Yehudah Zakutinsky, a principal of Ohr Yisrael in Queens who specializes in juvenile delinquency, explains, "It's hard being a kid in 1996; we don't live in a healthy, optimistic society. "in one case, a straight A, handsome, athletic student refused to go to school for over a month. Fearing school phobia, Zakutinsky soon realized that the 11-year-old's anxiety was not due to the classroom. "His parents were getting divorced. He thought he could keep them together by concentrating on him."

Other kids are ensnared by a hedonistic culture they are too weak to fight. A long-haired, blond teen, out of school for three years, said, "Ninety percent of the kids blame the world but it's the kids themselves. It's their failure to deal with their own situations. It's weakness regardless of the cause that kids end up leaving school, family, and often Judaism." "When someone is hurt, they are prone to throw away the baby with the bath water, explained an out-of-town educator who preferred to remain anonymous.

For many who were once on the streets returning home and to normalcy is an excruciating trek. According to Rabbi Yakov Shapiro, an educator active in combatting delinquency, there is one overriding barrier to rehabilitation: lethargy. "Very few kids who day they will get their FEDs do, in fact, get them." Undisciplined, unaccustomed to dealing with authority or delayed gratification, many of the kids simply do not acquire the rudimentary skills for coping in the adult world. "When a kid does absolutely nothing for 1 1/2 years," says Shapiro, "a part of the personality atrophies." Thus, despite their flirtations with the mature world of physical intimacy and financial concerns, many carry and incurable childishness into adulthood.

Responding to the escalating problem of truancy, Jewish community organizations have sought a variety of solutions. In recent months, COJO of Flatbush and the Jewish Community Relations Council established a task force to deal with the issue where a big brother/sister program was discussed. And recently, the Family Crisis Intervention Program (FCIP) alerted all local yeshivas and day schools to the center's availability in helping to establish yeshiva truancy policies. "Many yeshivas have responded," said Sara Preis, Volunteer Coordinator of FCIP, adding, "Success lies in establishing effective communication between the parents and the yeshiva administration. No child should be allowed to be excessively absent without a vigorous response from the schools."

Claire Forst, FCIP Coordinator, explained a yeshiva's required route of action in the case of a youth's excessive truancy: "If a child up to the age of 16 presents a non-medical absence, the school must be in touch with family; the teachers must be more aggressive, as well. Ultimately, however, the Board of Education or the Department of truancy should be notified.

Five years ago Counterforce, a Brooklyn social service agency for children, hired Zakutinsky to contend with the crisis. Last year alone, Zakutinsky helped get 57 kids into schools.

In a gray-carpeted office on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, a woman with a roe-colored hair covering and dark, anxious eyes sits in the waiting area of Counterforce with her 10-year old son, Daniel who has been out of school for three months. Wearing a brown, velvet yarmulke and a royal blue windbreaker which he refuses to take off, Daniel stares intently at a gameboy, his fingers nimbly zapping electronic characters. "Five more minutes, then you have to put it away," his mother says softly. "I'm going the wrong way because of YOU. It's all because of you," Daniel shrieks, glaring at his mother. Just then, Zakutinsky appears. A rabbi with an untraditional flair, Zakutinsky sports white Reeboks and is impressively fluent in video-game jargon. "Do you play Tetris?" the red bearded rabbi asks Daniel. "I once beat the nightmare." Daniel looks up with obvious admiration. "Really?"

Dealing with kids one-on-one, Zakutinsky, who once counseled a kid who had a fist fight with a psychologist, boasts a strategy that's deceptively simple: honesty. "You have to build a trust," he says. Whenever Zakutinsky meets a client, he introduces himself the same way: "My name is Rabbi Zakutinsky. I'm not a social worker, therapist, or psychologist. I'm a principal of a yeshiva and I help get kids back to school." Likewise, kids seem to respond to Zakutinsky's frank, unpretentious manner.

Spending his days talking to principals, administrators, teachers, parents and of course, the kids themselves, Zakutinsky's office phone rings off the hook. Dealing mostly with elementary age kids, those he refers to as-having the most chance for success--Zakutinsky says, "A mother will bring a kid down at 10, not at 15." What about kids 15 and older?

Enter Shapiro. Five years ago, Shapiro, an educator of a local girls high school, found that many of his 10th grade students were troubled, depressed, and in need of adult guidance. Initiating nightly meetings in a Brooklyn basement, Shapiro had teens flocking to join what became almost a support group. Today Shapiro directs "ReJewvenation," an organization dedicated to assisting rebellious yeshiva kids in reconciling with their families and returning to school. With a full-time staff of three, the brooklyn center provides private counseling, parenting classes, support groups, parent-child mediation, and school placement. But instead of waiting for the kids to come to him, Shapiro usually goes to find them. Saturday nights finds the black-hatted rabbi mingling with tens in local pool parlors and restaurants.

Sitting at a table in Prime Time well past midnight on a Saturday night, Shapiro turns to greet a lean teenager with dark hair. "Shmuel, what's up?" asks the rabbi. "I got in," the boy responds excitedly. His words tumble out enthusiastically. "The rabbi asked me which mesechta I prepared. I told him Gittin. He said good, and then he goes and takes out a mesechta Shabbos. But I got in." The news makes Shapiro smile, "I knew it," he says, giving the youth a congratulatory "high five."

Zakutinsky and Shapiro share an educational philosophy, "Strive to first befriend rather than change." When a student from a local girls high school stayed home for two weeks, refusing to return to school, the girl's principal consulted with Shapiro. The next day, the principal appeared at the student's doorstep with an array of colorful balloons in hand that read: We miss you. The student was back in school the next day. "The best thing a teacher can do is become their students' friend," advises Shapiro.

Rabbi Shaya Cohen, founder and director of Priority One, a kiruv organization based in Far Rockaway that offers teacher training classes and seminars, explains that principals should mandate one non-negotiable qualification for teachers: respect for one's students.

Rabbi Cohen recalls a story involving a third grader who, having to repeat the second grade, felt awkward walking into the younger class. Conscious of the boy's embarrassment, the second grade rebbe went out and bought him a soda, celebrating the newcomers arrival. Though he admits recalling little about the remainder of the school year, the boy said, "but that soda changed my life."

Undoubtedly, a heightened sensitivity to individual needs and sincere tolerance can enable parents and educators in assisting and hopefully preventing the proliferation of Yeshiva truancy.

Emerging from Zakutinsky's office, a more sober Daniel, his mother, and a weary Rabbi reappear. Daniel's mother flashes a grateful smile at the Rabbi muttering, "You're the only one I know who can get through to him." Stroking his blazing beard, Zakutinsky nods reassuringly, "He'll be okay." Zakutinsky turns to Daniel and says with feigned severity,

"And don't forget to bring Tetris next time."