Keep an eye on our children

Too many American yeshiva students in Jerusalem are running amuck.

yeshiva study 88 (photo credit: )
yeshiva study 88
(photo credit: )
Last October I wrote an article arguing that the Year-in-Israel program for American high school graduates is a blessing only if the teenagers are properly monitored and supervised by their yeshivas. I wrote as a diehard supporter of the program, having studied in Israel for two years myself and having just sent my eldest daughter there. Still, I was increasingly troubled by the hooliganism to be witnessed on Rehov Ben Yehuda and elsewhere. There was an explosive reaction to the column. Some wrote that the year in Israel dare never be questioned; others agreed that too many American kids are ending up drunk at all hours of the night. Where are their teachers? many wondered. More than a few Jewish day schools reacted to the column by sending circulars to parents admitting that some of their graduates had indeed gotten into trouble with alcohol and drugs in Israel and that greater supervision would be demanded of the institutions to which they were sent. If only it were so. I recently got a firsthand account, from a father to whom I am close, of what happens when a parent complains about disciplinary delinquency in his child's seminary. This man's daughter, "Devorah," called him in hysterics to say that she had taken a girl from her class to the family apartment on a Thursday night when, for some reason, many seminaries allow the girls to sleep out. His daughter's friend, "Batya," said that she was going to meet a friend on Ben Yehuda and would be back soon. She returned at 3 a.m. with a catatonically drunk seminary girl dragged by two male yeshiva students with whom she had been drinking. The father exploded. He had not sent his daughter to an elite seminary in Israel to behold scenes common at party schools back home. He called the principal of the seminary - an internationally famous rabbi - to complain. Convinced that he would have a sympathetic ear, he was appalled when the head of the seminary turned hostile. "From my perspective," the rabbi said, "not only did Batya do nothing wrong, because she was not the one who got drunk, your daughter is the villain for bringing her to your apartment." In hearing how the head of one of the largest and most prominent women's seminaries in Israel could dismiss his female student's carousing at 3 a.m. as insignificant because she was not completely intoxicated, I understood the magnitude of the guardianship problem. TO BE sure, I had witnessed the drunken nightly scenes on Ben Yehuda personally well before this story. My nephew had taken me walking one night at 1 a.m. so that I could see the wasteland of lost American Jewish youth. His friends from "yeshiva" were sitting in the cold holding bottles of whiskey and drinking themselves to oblivion. And that was child's play compared to the drug problems. Many of these yeshivas, in their sincere attempts to help troubled youth, take in kids with drug addiction in the belief that they can rescue them. One of my nephews was at an American yeshiva in Jerusalem two years ago when, tragically, a teenager overdosed from heroin in a story that shocked all of Israel. Most people go to Jerusalem to breathe in the rarefied air of God's holy city. My nephew, by contrast, witnessed the spectacle of a boy's limp and dead body in his dorm room. I debated with my nephew whether this kind of yeshiva should even be open. He was adamant that although he did not attend a lot of the classes, it had inspired him to be observant; and, indeed, he is a fine religious and responsible young man today. So what to do? The answer, of course, is for the yeshivas to adopt a zero-tolerance attitude to the intolerable. The students must be warned that drinking in the middle of the night, or smoking marijuana, is immediate cause for expulsion. Period. And what of the need to care for troubled youth? Well, it is arrogant for these yeshivas to believe that they can help teenagers with serious drug and alcohol problems when they are not equipped to do so. We must all know our limitations. Send the kids to places where they can get real help. A yeshiva is not a panacea for all of life's problems, and accepting these kids is bad for both parties: bad for the yeshivas because these troubled kids end up negatively influencing the healthier ones and giving the yeshiva a bad name; and bad for the troubled teens because they often deteriorate in these largely unsupervised environments. ANOTHER NEPHEW shared with me how, in his yeshiva, attending classes was voluntary, and if you were still in bed at 11 a.m. the well-meaning rebbe would come to your dorm room and teach you in bed. This situation would be comical if it did not make a mockery of what a yeshiva should be. Now, let's give these educators the benefit of the doubt. I disagree with what I hear from all too many parents: that the year abroad in Israel has become a business and the schools in question refuse to enforce discipline because they will otherwise lose their customers. That explanation is unjust given that the vast majority of these yeshivas are staffed with extremely pious and God-fearing men and women who work for paltry salaries out of love for their students and Torah. The real explanation is that they have made a Faustian bargain: Better to let the students run amuck because they would otherwise not come to Israel and miss out on the huge potential for spiritual growth that only a year in the Holy Land can provide. I get it, and I agree. The year in Israel is irreplaceable. But if these yeshivas do not crack down soon on the increasing ruffianism of American kids in Jerusalem, it is the parents who will stop their children coming. Then the kids, Israel and the Jewish people as a whole will be the ones who suffer. The writer hosts TLC's television series, Shalom in the Home, and is the author, most recently, of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children.