Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Religious Jewish Teens at risk in Flatbush, Brooklyn

A couple of nights ago I was having a talk with my dad about something known to the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn as Project Chazon. I am not sure how he had heard about it or what his relationship to it was, but he seemed pretty aware of what it did, especially considering that he has no children of age to be involved in that. Basically it is an organization whose function is to help adolesents who are somehow "at risk" to avoid becoming "casualties", and to spread some generic Kiruv cheer to the rest of the mainstream yeshiva and Beis Yaakov boys and girls.

It is interesting how the Jewish community has responded to the problem that it really started to face in the 60's. There have always been religious Jewish children at risk for many reasons. Many do what their non-Jewish peers do - they just "drop out" (to employ a 60'sism). They left their religion as well as their rather conservative way of life. The baal teshuva movement was a response to this, though it took a place like Aish Hatorah forever and a week to become accepted as mainstream (and I am still not sure that they really are now). But Aish and the rest of the Baal Teshuva places (and there are many) have hardly stemmed the tide of people leaving religion. And remember there we are just talking about people who just drifted away, or who are the children of people who just drifted away from religious practice.

Today the problems are different. Now we are addressing people who are radically distanced from their traditional lives. In some sense these are people who are just "experimenting" in high school with all sorts of things, from not keeping shabbos, "fraternizing" with people of the opposite sex, to becoming alcoholics, herion addicts, or just experimenting with "E". These are a nice mixture of religious kids who have a whole slew of problems ranging in scope from just not likeing Yeshiva, becoming prostitutes (of all sorts), becoming junkies, sexual abuse. . . You name it. It is now in the Yeshica world and out in the open.

These young people are mostly from Flatbush, but plenty of Boro Parkers show up too. These students are from the most religious of families and many of them are starting to show problems as early as the age of 12.

The project involves opening 3 pool-halls/work out spaces for the teens to hang out in. One is for the boys, one for the girls, and a third is for both. In the last one, there is a mandatory AA session that you are required to participate in. In general the atmosphere seems safe, there is free food, and things to do. There are adults to talk to. . .

While I did not see any of this for myself, I am told that it is a well done set-up.

(Also, from what I heard, the people who make decisions behind the scenes are idiots, but that is another matter.)

It is good to see that there is now an organized response to this, and the community is facing the fact that there is little sense in trying to cover up the problems. 10 years ago there was no acknowledgement of the problem and many of these children just got screwed up. Some died, some recovered, some got help, and some changed religions. (I know people in all of these categories.) Today there is some way that that community can retain the membership of the members it was loosing over this, and it is dedicating the resources to do it. Apparently the numbers aren't too clear but the (low) estimates of the participants in the programs are well over 1100 children. Considering the amount of children studying in Religious Jewish High Schools in Brooklyn, this is a staggering number for one community. (I would estimate about 5%.) This number is WAY up from what it used to be. I think there was always one kid in every school (about 1%-2%).

But I see a good side to this. The fact that the number is up might suggest that whatever latent problems are out there are being dealt with early on, before the child becomes a problem adult, say a cheating wife-beater, which everyone knows exists in abundance in the Jewish community. On the other hand it might just reflect the changing demographics and social patterns and economic opportunities that define the religious communities in Brooklyn, and the world.

While I really do not care about whether these kids end up putting on tefilin for the rest of their lives, I do worry about their safety and their general well being. I was one of those kids once, although I ended up getting really lucky here and there, and my life is not all that bad. Many of my friends did not fare as well and some are still paying for it. So I wish the program luck, and I hope that at least some of their goals are successful.