There aren’t many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis either in Israel or the US who tackle sensitive issues such as child abuse, drug taking and smoking by wayward children, adult extremism and carelessness that leads to preventable accidents head on.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, who lives in the largely haredi community of Monsey, New York, with a wife and five children, is the founder and dean of a haredi school there named Yeshivat Darchei Noam. Providing its boys with an academically challenging religious curriculum and a general studies program that are both structured and skills-based, it aims to “inspire our children today for the challenges of tomorrow and is noted for its positive and child-centered learning environment.”(The yeshiva has no connection to the yeshiva for haredi men of the same name in Jerusalem.) Horowitz, an open-minded hassidic- oriented rabbi who wears a shtreiml on Shabbat and holidays, is best known to the haredi world in the US and Israel for establishing and directing Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which is aimed at preventing child abuse and accidents.
During a recent visit to Israel, the 54-year-old rabbi gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post which covered just about everything from pedophilia in the haredi community to verbal and physical violence by extremists in Beit Shemesh over “modesty” to ordinary home accidents from burns, poisonings and fires.
Raised by a haredi family in Belle Harbor, New York, Horowitz attended Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaas and became a religious educator, first serving for 15 years as a “rebbe” for eighth graders in Boro Park, Brooklyn and later in Monsey. His experiences with troubled children led him to write a powerful, unconventional, 4,500-word article in a 1996 issue of The Jewish Observer titled “An Ounce of Prevention.” That article both shocked and galvanized the Orthodox community to address the problem of at-risk teens. “I had a peaceful life until that article,” Horowitz recalled. “Within a short time, I received 300 phone calls; five percent of the callers said the article was disrespectful to our yeshiva system; 5% more said I was the Messiah; and the rest begged for help with their children.”
The limelight led to invitation to address the 1996 National Conventions of Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah (the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools) and to the founding of Project Y.E.S. This project, part of Agudath Israel of America, runs programs designed to promote family stability. One such progtram arranges for “big-sisters,” high school juniors and seniors, to mentor selected middle school girls.
Y.E.S. also offers a wide range of parenting workshops and child safety/ abuse prevention classes for parents.
The mentors try to intervene before little problems become big problems – before a teen comes close enough to the edge to fall, said Horowitz. “In today’s complicated social climate, it’s risky to allow a child to harbor resentment. Therefore it’s vital that every teen has someone he or she can speak with. Teens with difficulty approaching friends, parents or teachers [need] an objective, unattached person [to] smooth their transition to adulthood. Mentors do not attempt to change their mentee, but instead focus on building a trusting relationship, letting the youth drive the pace and activities. [This] seemed to build relationships that were longer lasting and more successful.”
In addition to this program, Horowitz wrote two books (Growing with the Parsha and Living and Parenting), leads workshops, lectures, produces educational CDs and other audio-visual material. He blogs on his website www.kosherjewishparenting.
com. He regularly writes about Torah, education and parenting to a wide range of haredi-oriented newspapers and magazines, and he has written articles for The Jerusalem Post. The rabbi’s yeshiva was honored with a multi-year grant from the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, the Rockland Educator of the Year Award, the Grinspoon-Steinhart Award for Excellence in Jewish Education and the 2008 Covenant Award for outstanding Jewish educators in North America.
“When I taught in elementary yeshivot, many of the children were taught by rote. They didn’t understand what things meant; it was a memory exercise. The bright pupils among them figured things out by themselves, but for many of the “other” children, Judaic studies became an incredibly frustrating experience, which led to all sorts of anti-social behaviors and reduced religious observance.
Trying to fill the gap, Horowitz started giving parenting classes for fathers and mothers together instead of with complete gender-segregation, as is the norm at haredi events.
“Twelve years ago, I saw that many children had been molested, a tiny percent by absolute strangers and most by relatives and neighbors they know. I started writing about it, but many people in the haredi community didn’t believe me. While many kids had happy, normal lives, others had self-destructive behaviors, including taking cocaine and heroin and cutting themselves. There are predators in every community; the problem in the haredi community is that the victims are often reluctant to complain to the authorities. But if complaints are not filed, the abuse continues.”
Five years ago, the rabbi initiated the creation of a children’s book in English called Let’s Stay Safe! Published by the Karasick Child Safety Initiative, it was written by Bracha Getz and beautifully illustrated by Tova Leff. Unlike most haredi publications in Israel and the US, the colorful, the colorful, 32-page volume includes illustrations of women and girls to ensure they resemble normal family life (rather than showing only men and boys). Obviously, it is meant to be read not only by children but also by their parents and grandparents.
The book advises young children not to open the front door without permission from a parent; not to play with knobs on the cooking stove, candles or pot handles; not to run in front of cars to catch a ball; and to call for help if they smell gas.
Horowitz drills them with the messages: “Your body belongs to you; only your parents or a doctor can touch you in a private space that is covered by a bathing suit; don’t let grownups do things to you that make you feel uncomfortable. If they do, just say no and way walk away; if someone made you feel uncomfortable, tell your parents, even if it happened long ago.
The English version sold more than 25,000 copies so far, and a Yiddish version was recently released.
Horowitz is already working on a Hebrew edition as well to reach Israeli haredi families as well.”
Rabbi Horowitz has been able to walk the fine line between being an agent for change while maintaining the respect and support of senior haredi rabbis in North America, Europe and Israel. “A lot more American haredi rabbinical leaders, especially younger ones, now call in the law-enforcement authorities when they learn of abuse cases. Education works and is the only way to stop sexual abuse of children. And when kids are taught what normal boundaries of personal space are , they will automatically react when those boundaries are breached,” Horowitz noted.
While almost all of the book’s illustrations deal with home accident prevention, the dangers listed are too few. There is no mention of accidental poisonings from cleaning materials and of leaving buckets or tubs of water that could end up in a child’s drowning; the need for parents to prevent falls, especially by putting bars on windows and balconies; adult supervision of young children instead of a-bit-older ones’ taking care of their smaller siblings; avoiding sunburn; taking young children for all necessary vaccines; avoiding smoking, quitting smoking and teaching children and husbands not to smoke; how to keep teeth healthy and avoid tooth decay, including not putting small children to sleep with a bottle filled with sweet liquid; encouraging exercise by all family members; teaching about overweight and junk food and how to eat in a healthy way; never leaving young children alone in vehicles; and awareness of postpartum depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and other psychological and psychiatric problems and where to get help.
Beterem, the Israel National Center for Child Safety and Health, has reported that the Israeli sectors with the highest rate of home accidents involving children are haredi and Arab communities, in higher proportion than their representation in the population. When these were suggested to Horowitz, he said he could stress such preventive measures in future editions.
SOME OF Horowitz’s actions and views could be challenging for many Israeli haredim, whose rabbinical leaders are significantly more conservative than their counterparts in America. For example, when he happened to be present at the Western Wall and witnessed the affirmation of paratroopers, a moved Horowitz went over to each soldier and family, shook their hands and blessed them.
Needing Internet connections for his work, he uses a smartphone “forbidden” to Israeli haredim by their rabbis (but nevertheless used by many haredim here).
As far back as 2008, he openly condemned haredi violence against secular and modern Orthodox Jews in the increasingly haredi city of Beit Shemesh. “The future of our haredi community is quite literally in existential danger as the tension in Beit Shemesh plays itself out in the international media,” he wrote on his website (www.rabbihorowitz.com).
“On a purely pragmatic level, this disturbing publicity has already placed the haredi community in Eretz Yisroel at greater risk of losing its financial aid to yeshivot and kollelim at the very least. However, the greater danger is that we will lose our souls should we fail to condemn the horrific actions, however isolated, of people who dress like us threatening women and children with violence, taunting them, and calling them all sorts of horrible names.”
He also condemned Satmar hassid Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed therapist who last year was convicted on 59 counts and sentenced by a New York court to 103 years for the serious sexual abuse of an 18-year-old woman in his community.
Contrary to many haredim who supported Weberman both emotionally and financially, Horowitz publicly supported his victim and her family, appeared with them in court throughout the trial and served as their adviser.