Falling through the cracks

Why do some Anglo teenagers turn to drugs and alcohol?

high teens 298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
high teens 298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Last weekend, police found the body of a 20-year-old former yeshiva student in an apartment he rented with friends in Jerusalem. Police say they believe he died of an overdose from a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol, although they are still waiting for the full toxicology report. His family made aliya from the US a number of years ago, and after learning at a yeshiva near Jerusalem, he had been spending some of his days studying at a well-regarded religious institution in Jerusalem until he dropped out mid-way through this semester. His nights he spent with friends, who often gathered at a small plaza in the center of town called "Crack Square." Crack Square, a two-minute walk from Kikar Zion on Jaffa Road, is the popular - and some would say notorious - weekend haunt of overseas yeshiva students, most of whom are American. On a recent Saturday night, "Avi," who says he's from the Ner Ya'akov Yeshiva, is hanging out in the square with a group of his friends. "Do you guys drink?" inquires the 20-year-old, beer bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other. Asked why the outdoor plaza was given this particular nickname, the student responds: "'Cuz everyone here is cracked." Cracked, in this case, doesn't necessarily refer to crack-cocaine use, but to alcohol and other drugs, especially marijuana. "Look around you," says "Moshe," a doe-eyed, 17-year-old male yeshiva student. "Ninety-five percent of the people here are either drunk or high." The square is filled with 40 to 50 other kids, more boys than girls, all standing around or sitting on benches or ledges. They are talking and laughing in small groups - some are even shouting and cursing loudly. Many are smoking cigarettes and drinking beer; one group is passing around a bottle of vodka. "I'm so f**king wasted," yells one boy in a hooded sweatshirt. Someone nearby smashes an empty beer bottle on the ground. Despite the commotion, the scene is strangely non-threatening, but with parental supervision 6,000 miles away, dabbling in drugs and alcohol in Crack Square - or Jimmy Square, as the police call it - often leads to trouble. "What happens is, especially in winter, a lot of kids come from America and Canada to learn in yeshivot in Israel, and they gather in the evenings - usually Thursday and Saturday night - at Crack Square," explains Shai Kovnato, head of the Exposed Youth (Noar Hasifa) division of the police in Jerusalem, which deals mostly with drug abuse in teenagers under the age of 18. "They come [to Crack Square], they play guitar, sing, drink alcohol and do a little drugs," he continues, adding that there is also a contingent of Crack Square kids whose families have made aliya and are living in Israel. "They sell drugs in their yeshivot, they deal drugs in Crack Square and they smoke and use drugs themselves," Kovnato says, noting that the drugs in use include marijuana, hashish, LSD, acid, ecstasy and sometimes even crack-cocaine. Interpol is not involved, he says, because the dealers here are "small-scale." "We came across a 16-year-old American yeshiva [student] a month ago, who told us in the investigation that he's been using drugs for a year and a half," Kovnato relates. "What kind? 'Marijuana, cocaine, opium, LSD, ecstasy, speed.' When was the last time you smoked marijuana? 'Yesterday.' When was the last time you used cocaine? 'Yesterday.'" Alcohol is also abused in the square. Even though the legal age for buying alcohol in Israel is 18, the older kids often buy the drinks and give them to the younger ones, Kovnato reveals, and the alcohol frequently leads to fights. "There are fights here all the time," admits Moshe, who says he's from "a yeshiva in Jerusalem." "They get drunk and beat each other up," says Kovnato, who also dismissed any claims of fights between Americans and Arabs, explaining that these American students are a closed group who "don't trust anyone but Americans, and don't deal with Israelis." While girls do "hang out" in the square, Kovnato says they tend to abuse drugs and drink alcohol less than their male counterparts. He also maintains that rape has not been an issue among this particular group. But Caryn Green, a social worker and the director of Crossroads, a youth center in Jerusalem, says girls play a larger role than many realize. "Girls don't necessarily use less drugs, it's just harder to find," she explains, "because girls internalize and boys externalize - boys are more obvious, they'll get into fights - whereas girls will be promiscuous, cut themselves and take pills as their drug of choice. "Girls go there to meet guys, to find excitement; they're just as bored as the boys are." Although police say the statistics change all the time, in January and February of 2005, 13 male yeshiva students were arrested - eight of them for dealing drugs and five of them for using. Four of them were under the age of 18. That same month, 19-year-old Eric Siegel was found dead of a drug overdose in the Neveh Zion Yeshiva in Telz Stone, the only such death Kovnato says he is aware of among the overseas yeshiva students. Nonetheless, police officials maintain they "have the situation under control." "We go to places where they hang out and smoke," explains Kovnato, "and we even do raids on the houses of Americans when we have intelligence that they have drugs." But most of the big operations, he says, are done in or near Crack Square. "We do a lot of work in Crack Square. There are police, undercover and in uniform, walking around at night and they report to us about what's going on." The police will often buy drugs from the kids or pretend to be drug dealers themselves to catch them in the act, according to Kovnato. "We prefer to catch people selling drugs, because it's a more serious crime than just using drugs," he explains. "We do a lot of work with motorcycle-mounted tactical police units, and not only in Crack Square, because sometimes they start there in groups of five or 10 and move to Kikar Zion or Gan Ha'atzma'ut and we go after them. We know everything that's going on." The units are also well known to the American kids. "Did you see that guy, the one on the motorcycle?" one yeshiva student asks as a motorcycle speeds by the square. "They're the supercops - with guns in their pockets and on their ankles and two M16s on their backs. When they're around, fights don't last longer than three seconds. Everyone's scared of them." Police are particularly proud that last year they were able to nab a group of American yeshiva students who had traveled to Amsterdam and tried to reenter Israel with drugs. "They thought they wouldn't have any problems in the airport because they're Americans and they know they don't get checked so carefully," Kovnato recalls. "We had intelligence information from undercover agents, and we waited for them in the airport in Tel Aviv and caught them there." Once caught with drugs, the offender will be taken in for an investigation. If under the age of 18, the suspect will be investigated outside the police station under the supervision of a rabbi from the yeshiva or a family member living in Israel. "We always work with the rabbi in the yeshiva and he deals with the parents, but the parents are always in the picture," states Kovnato. The yeshivot, he says, are very cooperative and alert the police when "they have concrete evidence that something's going on." "If serious drug dealing is involved, we take the kid to court and the court decides what to do with him," Kovnato explains. "Either they put him in jail or they send him back to America." The problems start all over again every year, he says, as the veteran kids leave and the new ones arrive. "There's a high changeover rate even throughout the year," he adds. "People come from other yeshivot outside the city to be in Jerusalem for a weekend or to visit family and we don't recognize them. It's not the same people all the time." Kovnato refuses to cite specific yeshivot where drug use is more prevalent and asserts that while he couldn't say for sure, he thinks most parents know exactly what's going on here. "They send [their kids] here, to the Holy Land, to learn in yeshiva and the kids do the exact opposite because they aren't under the supervision of their parents," he explains. Rabbi Haim Yisrael Blumenfeld, the head rabbi of the Neveh Zion Yeshiva in Telz Stone for at-risk youth, says this year the school changed its policies. "We used to work with boys who did drugs, but we no longer accept or keep boys who are doing drugs," he states. The overdose of one of his students last year was one of the reasons for this change, but also, he notes, "The type of boys coming to us needed rehab, and we couldn't provide them with the services they needed - we're a yeshiva." Now, he says, when kids are found doing drugs, the yeshiva helps them find a place where they can get help. One place kids can go for help is Crossroads, the youth center run by Green right across the street from Crack Square. Calling itself "the only intervention center for this age group," Crossroads serves between 30 to 40 kids a day - mostly American or Israeli-American and between the ages of 13 to 21 - by providing therapy and group activities. "We want to offer [kids] safe ways to express themselves and a safe place to be," says Green. "We locate kids on the street - we see who's drunk, who's getting into fights, who's out every night, and we bring them into the center." One of the places Green finds many of these at-risk teens is in fact at Crack Square. "It's 'the scene.' They [go there] because it's a place where they know English speakers are going to be, it's downtown, everyone's accepted whether religious or not, it doesn't matter how they dress. And they keep coming back because it feels good," she explains, adding valium and adarol to the list of drugs abused by some of the kids she works with. As a more productive alternative, Crossroads offers computers, a library, arts and crafts activities and even tutors to help kids study for their GEDs. "We've had amazing success," boasts Green, citing as key the understanding that, "when the teenager is ready to help themselves, that's when the work can begin." "A lot of these kids have problems. They're confused and looking for answers," she admits, "but we want them to know that yes, there's hope." Green says the center works with the police and sometimes parents are involved as well, but remarks that "there's a lot of work that needs to be done on the other side of the ocean to prevent these problems." And police agree. But Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby states emphatically that "not every American yeshiva student uses drugs. I want to emphasize that. We don't want all the parents to think that they send their kids here, they get involved with drugs and hang out in yeshiva high all day." But for some of the kids wandering around the plaza at night, substance abuse is the harsh reality, and the draw to Crack Square in the first place. "[We come] for drugs and alcohol and we chill," says Avi, taking a drag from his cigarette. "It gets boring after a while," adds another boy. "And it's stupid really, but what else is there?"