A Chabad Hassid from Safed helps yeshiva boys express themselves

Pupils at the Hanoch Lenar yeshiva act out a soccer game victory as part of a Chasidrama course. (photo credit: RONEN GRIDISH)
Pupils at the Hanoch Lenar yeshiva act out a soccer game victory as part of a Chasidrama course.
(photo credit: RONEN GRIDISH)
At Hanoch Lenar Yeshiva in Safed, one boy dances uninhibitedly inside a circle of his classmates, who are doing their best to mimic his movements. A gentle soul by the name of Ronen Gridish directs the scene, his body language and eyes encouraging and empathic.
For the moment, there isn’t a Gemara in sight. The notebooks have been temporarily stowed, and the students are in full-tilt involvement in this unusual yeshiva activity.
The activity is part of the Lech Lecha (“go to yourself”) program, which Gridish, a Chabad Hassid from Safed, invented to help children come out of their emotional shadows, develop inner strength and self-confidence, and express themselves.
Commenting on the scene and the overarching program, he embellishes on a statement from the Talmud in Brachot (58a) – “Just as people’s faces are different, so, too, are their views dissimilar” – adding, “And so, too, are their characters and abilities different.”
Having suffered as a child under a parenting regime he found limiting, and having experienced the sudden loss of his mother in his early 20s, Gridish has made it his goal to offer emotional support to boys and young men who similarly ache from either a cookie-cutter approach to rearing, or turbulent environments at home or school. A returnee to Torah observance at age 23 and a veteran of the IDF, he was introduced to drama workshops as a young man as a remedy for his early life challenges.
The hassidic infusion combined with the acting helped him grow, and today he packages them together to help others.
“The main issue children face is not being able to express what’s inside – the same problem I faced as a child,” he says. “I see sad and disconnected children, not able to use their abilities and talents because their environments didn’t encourage them to.”
THE SPECIFIC technique at play in the Hanoch Lenar activity is a twist on psychodrama – the psychotherapeutic methodology developed by therapist Jacob Levy beginning in the 1930s.
Gridish’s modified version, which he has dubbed “Hassidrama,” mixes the Torah’s esoteric teachings with Levy’s group therapy model to help clients find their voices and creatively solve problems.
So far, most of the work takes place in schools, or after school at community centers in the Hassidic community. In Safed, Gridish has brought Hassidrama and group coaching sessions to repeat customers Ohr Menachem elementary school, Hanoch Lenar and the House and Heart Community Center, and he recently began programming at the Lubavitch yeshiva high schoolMachon Technology.
The work is getting a thumbs-up from parents and psychologists.
“He has [the kids] going inside to get in touch with not only their thoughts, but their feelings, and giving them the opportunity to understand themselves and each other,” says Yonatan Chamo, a parent of a Hanoch Lenar student. “I talked to a psychologist about this, and he said the process helps with two common areas of challenge for teenagers – trust and self-expression.”
The exercise involving the boy dancing in the middle of a circle, for instance, is designed to build confidence and creativity within the dancer, and unity among the group, says Gridish. Another exercise callsfor one boy to act out or pantomime a verse from the Torah or an idea Gridish whispers to him for the others to guess. Yet another task asks the boys to imagine a donkey in the middle of the room and to act out a solution for moving it out of the way.
“All of the exercises are aimed at helping them create something that doesn’t exist,” Gridish says.
“The goal is to have them work with their creativity and imagination to lead them to understand they have abilities that they didn’t think they had.”
ANOTHER ASPECT of the program is Ohr Atzmi, Lech Lecha’s youth coaching workshops, which focus on more in-depth problems such as helping boys gird themselves internally against harsh home or school environments.
“They have been exposed to parents fighting, or worse, and they say to themselves, ‘I don’t have any power to change the situations, and as a result, I have a bad feeling about myself in my heart,’” Gridish explains. “What I work on with them is helping them to separate their lives from their environment, to help them work on themselves in order to have a good feeling about themselves, no matter what is going on around them.”
Yet another component – a big attraction for the boys – involves making movies through local religious film production company Nitzotzot Shel Kedusha (Sparks of Holiness) as a continuation of the Hassidrama track.
Since its inception, Lech Lecha’s youth have participated as actors in the production of more than 20 movies – something the boys consider the experience of a lifetime, Gridish says. The original connection with the movie company came about when Nitzotzot went searching for young talent at Hanoch Lenar, only to discover that Gridish w a s already involved w i t h the boys there in what amounted to a perfect warmup drill for movie acting.
At Machon Technology – a modified yeshiva program for sometimes hard-to-captivate highschool- age boys – Gridish has been running an indepth group coaching workshops, to rave reviews from the administration.
“He knows how to reach the students very effectively, pushing the very points we strive to teach,” says yeshiva head Rabbi Shlomo Azeroff.
“He has taken our most hyper and difficult-to-manage students and has held them in full fascination every minute. He teaches them how to deal with life in a hassidishe way in a realistic manner. He invites them to share their opinions, listens, raises questions and conducts a back-andforth that leads them on a good path.”
Many pupils have successfully passed through one or other of the Lech Lecha divisions in the group’s four-and-a-half years of existence, and Gridish is now expanding to include girls’ schools with the help of a female facilitator, as well as starting to work with adults.
He is also interested in developing scholarships to help fund work with individuals, focusing particularly on troubled youth, and he hopes to expand outside of the hassidic community.
“The formula can work for anyone, largely from someone believing in their ability to make important decisions in their lives,” he says. “What I do with them is focus them on what doesn’t work, and then on letting go of what doesn’t work, and then asking them to build something new. This can be taken to the whole world.”