See me, hear me

Religious community tends to turn a blind eye toward at-risk girls.

girl drinking 88 248 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
girl drinking 88 248
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
At age 14, Rebecca Sandler decided to stop smoking marijuana, but not cigarettes. Or drinking. She, along with her abusive mother and three brothers, was grieving the untimely death of her estranged father. Sandler describes her childhood growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, near Boston: "My life consisted of constant battles between my mother and father. My mother was trying to make herself and her family become religious while struggling with her husband, who was a non-Jewish alcoholic. Their marriage obviously failed, but the memories of them chasing each other around with kitchen knives and electronic hedge-trimmers sticks fresh in my mind like glue. "One night when I was four years old, I was sitting on my father's lap while he was reading me my favorite bedtime story, when I heard the sound of my mother's usual screaming. She barged through the door of my room, picked my father up by his collar and smacked him across the face. He stumbled down the stairs and as he slammed the door behind him I ran to the window to see where he was going. He had left." In Brooklyn, Raizel Gershonowitz led a life that wasn't quite the same as Sandler's, but which had a similar visceral effect. When she was 12, she began suffering from depression. "People didn't know how to relate to me or deal with me because it was becoming obvious that I was suffering immensely emotionally, and those close to me didn't know how to help me. As I grew up, I began to have suicidal thoughts. My parents tried to compromise with me, as they are religious, but I [was angry] towards Judaism, and towards God. The more it was crammed down my throat, the more I hated it. I felt as though observance was the opposite of expression. So I expressed myself in other, unhealthy ways." Gershonowitz's and Sander's stories are not the first of their kind. Unfortunately, neither are they the last, as the truth about the growing number of troubled religious girls using drugs and alcohol or suffering from abuse is becoming harder to ignore. These are the girls who, in some way, do not fit in with the mainstream seminaries that thousands of others attend every year. Even more startling is the fact that these teenagers are actually in Israel "trying to get themselves together," as Rabbi Oded Sher says, but have almost nowhere to go. "These are girls in crisis, usually from dysfunctional or broken homes, and they are asking for help. They are ready to make changes in their lives and they need guidance," explains Elimelech Lepon, a teacher at one girls' school. The majority of the girls at these seminaries have always been from the US, but this year in particular there has been an upsurge in the number of American teenagers in Israel. Two renowned schools in New York for at-risk youth closed down over the summer, leaving Israel as one of the only options for these teens. After Sandler was expelled from the school in Memphis, Tennessee that her mother had sent her to, she entered Monsey Academy for girls in New York (then one of the only institutions for girls at risk in the US). There, she met Oded and Shiri Sher, who later went on to open a school for girls in Israel, Derech Hashem Academy. "These people devote their entire lives to helping girls at risk, and dedicate their time and energy to doing everything in their power to help us," she said. As of 2008, there are only three places in Israel (Tzofiah Machon Rivka in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Derech Hashem in Tiberias and Tikva in Jerusalem) that answer the call to help these girls - within a religious framework. But these institutions struggle with dwindling funds, even as the number of at-risk cases escalates. Contrast this to the dozens of yeshivot that address the problem of at-risk boys - each of which is a recognized institution in its own right, or is affiliated with a reputable program, and therefore has no shortage of funding - seemingly ready to accept every boy who comes off the streets looking for help. The schools that take care of girls emphasize the mental, emotional and physical well-being and quality of life that the girls can achieve. "The structure is religious, we teach them according to a Torah perspective, but we encourage them to choose their own way of life; whatever will make them happy and healthy," says Shiri Sher from Derech Hashem, which will not reopen in 2009 due to a lack of funds. Tzofiah, the largest of the three institutions for at-risk girls, was founded in 2000 and is headed by Rabbi Raviv Shaked and his wife, Basy. The school offers religious girls an alternative way to fend for themselves by giving them an "opportunity to re-explore Judaism" while receiving top-quality therapy, obtaining a high school diploma and a certified vocation. The main challenge these schools face is money. "It costs thousands of dollars a year to run a place like ours," explains Shaked, who says a $30,000 per-girl, per year budget would be ideal in order to give the girls the greatest possible benefit. This figure is due to the fact that unlike other schools and seminaries, Tzofiah not only offers, but requires intensive therapy for each student. Besides the compulsory individual and group therapy, these schools also schedule a multitude of lessons, field trips and activities to keep the pupils supervised while ensuring that they feel free, as well as entertained. In contrast, the estimated cost for a boy's year at yeshiva comes to about $17,000, mainly because programs for girls are more home-based than those for boys, and these particular teenage girls require a tremendous amount of supervision which also needs to be "fun," leading to increased expenses. But donors are more hesitant to lend a hand when they hear that their money is going toward a school that deals with "wayward frum girls who shouldn't even be in this position anyway," Lepon says. The feeling that "we are not getting the best bang for our buck" is prevalent, according to Rabbi Boruch Smith. As former education director of both Tzofiah and Tikva, and current co-principal of Michlelet Esther for girls, Smith continues by describing the increasingly obvious reality that the religious community still finds it "irregular for girls to stray so far from Judaism and family." When it comes to at-risk male teens, the solutions seem to be much more clear-cut, giving the sense that "we can help with this problem - we follow steps a, b and c, and problem solved," says Sher. With troubled teenage girls, there seem to be a lot more intricacies involved, resulting in only a few people willing to fight this battle; a few singular individuals willing to step into this mire and start pulling the girls out, one by one. Ironically, the obvious double standard is rooted in a common denominator, according to Rabbi Dovid Goldstein. Both male and female teenagers equate exploring the world with rejecting religion. These kids, boys and girls, come from similar backgrounds, of abuse and/or neglect. They are often demanding and willful in their childhood years, representing a strong need to individualize and become independent beings. As teenagers, this is played out through experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sexual activity. The fact that they feel compelled to make their own choices and rebel against authority leads to the inevitable shunning of Orthodoxy and all its guidelines. Religion is just one more thing "to make them feel inadequate." This turning away from religion only serves to reinforce the stigma for girls who do not conform to the religious norms they have grown up with. Goldstein stresses that "fathers and mothers need to show attention to their kids, along with love and acceptance. Girls go off the derech [path] because they're hurt. They begin to experiment because they have a lack within themselves. They need positive love, and it is usually evident that they were not shown this affection by their parents while they were growing up." The result? The girls feel alienated, strange and unwanted. "I spent a few years depressed and angry. I couldn't even go to a regular school. My parents sent me to a school designed for girls going through problems and making space for emotional needs," Gershonowitz explains. "But their goal was to make us religious again; they even tried to control us out of school. It made me resent religion even more." Sandler says that by the time she was 16, she felt like her "only hope was to start over somewhere in an environment where [she] actually had a fighting chance for positive change." And so these girls, like many others, find their way to the Holy Land to be healed. The stumbling block they face here is a different one, yet of the same magnitude: there is simply not enough money. Posed with this issue, Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog told Metro that the "phenomenon" of orthodox girls at risk and living in Israel "is not so well known to me, but we have identified the problem and we're spending a lot of shekels on a national program for youth at risk." Chana Stroe, who worked at Tzofiah and is now the director of Tikva, explains that there is an aversion in Orthodox circles to seeing girls in trouble (and thus, to helping them). "Boys are 'meant' to rebel," says Stroe. "They go out and do things that teenage boys are known to do, and then they settle down and go to yeshiva and everyone is proud of them for sorting their lives out. "[But] this is not so for girls. It is hard for the Orthodox community to see girls leaving religion to explore their own options, so many just deny that this phenomenon is becoming less rare as time goes on." The financial situation is such that Derech Hashem School for at-risk girls will not reopen in 2009. Rather, Derech Hashem and Or Tzafon Yeshiva will collaborate to open a school for at-risk boys in Safed. Sher explains that if he and his wife had kept Derech Hashem open for the girls who had applied but could not pay, in hopes of being able to take in more girls over the course of the year, it would have been too costly. "Even though we knew more would come, it is too difficult to maintain a small program for girls: they need more attention, concern and energy." He says that opening a school for boys is not "instead" of the girls' school. "We didn't apply to the same people for funding. There are more organizations set up to help boys. Our key investors at the moment are the boys' parents and private investors." Of course, there is a higher level of supervision for girls. "For guys, it's a yeshiva - they can learn if they want to, or do their own thing." One justification for this is that the boys here are older (between 18 to 22) whereas the girls are fresh out of high school, if they haven't dropped out, with an average age of 16. This is just where their parents want to send them to rid them of this "rebellious phase." "Ultimately, we reach a bottom line," explains Sher. If the parents have money and are willing, they pay for their child's education/treatment. But many don't have the funds to cover the cost of a program that is tailored to their daughters' needs. Since such a school is necessary for the girl's development, a search for sponsors begins, and generally ends with the staff going home almost empty-handed at the end of the month. It seems to be a vicious cycle - no money to set up proper institutions and systems for wayward girls leaves no efficient solution to this growing quandary, which leads to less support and less money, which leads to fewer solutions. A spokesperson for the Welfare and Social Services Ministry told Metro that the only dent the ministry has managed to make into this problem is Tzomet, a volunteer organization that helps Anglo teenagers aged 15 to 19 in Jerusalem. The organization's main funding comes from the ministry and a private donor in the US, as well as the Jerusalem Municipality, with more and more responsibility falling on the city as the US economy weakens. This institution, while addressing part of the problem of wayward teens, does not have the facilities to care for the hundreds of boys and girls who pass through Israel. In addition, they are not focusing on the real issue - the fact that teen Anglo girls have almost nowhere to turn. Boys receive care. But what about the girls wandering the streets? People don't want to see their daughters abusing illegal drugs, prostituting themselves for money, piercing their bodies with holes so that we will see their pain. But they are there. And they are calling out for help.