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Space, Place & Pace: Keeping Jewish Teens in Jewish Schools


The founder of a yeshivah for "at risk" teens speaks out on the "the system."

By Dr. David Lazerson

There has been much discussion lately about the unfortunate, growing problem of disenfranchised Jewish teens: those kids you see hanging out on the streets who have had some previous yeshivah background.

As the director of an "alternative" yeshivah high school, I am painfully aware that it's not at all uncommon for some students to have been kicked out of several yeshivos and Jewish day schools. (One of my current students must have the record, with a grand total of 16 different schools on his transcripts.)

"...Rarely does the teacher have to "get down" and deal with problems. And so, we have developed schools geared to students who basically don't need schools!"

In our Miami school, we offer not only warmth, Talmud and scuba diving, our formula includes three vital ingredients: space, place and pace. Space to be themselves, a place where they can feel comfortable, and an encouraging environment to enable them to grow at their own pace.

After spending the past 25 years involved in kiruv and education, including six in "inner-city" public schools, I have several thoughts about the troubling development of Jewish teens at risk. First, I feel that the general yeshivah system has been far too inflexible. We have built institutions that cater to a certain kind of student: the child who wants to learn and who doesn't mind sitting in one place for most of the day. These students are bright, well-behaved, usually highly motivated and, for the most part, they can learn with minimal direct teacher involvement. In this system, the teacher functions as a guide.

Many of our children simply do not fit this mold. Some require more individualization. They need work sheets and homework sheets suited to them. Others need a different approach entirely. The visual learner will be lost in a Talmud class taught orally. In such a case, the rebbe will need to draw diagrams on the board and make sure the student isn't drowning in a sea of words.

"...it is not the youth who have failed. We have failed them..."

Disregarding the Torah-honored principle of "chanoch lanaar al pi darko"* ("Educate the child according to his way..."), we have changed the passage to read "al pi darkeinu," according to our ways! This slight grammatical difference has created a demanding, stifling system, where individual learning styles are largely ignored. The student with a special need, be it academic, behavioral or emotional, will feel bored and frustrated. Without meaningful intervention, these students soon sink into the dark, frightening reality of failure.

Eventually, of course, classroom and academic failure is internalized; the students see themselves as worthless failures. For anyone, particularly a vulnerable teenager, this is a tough pill to swallow, and it becomes very easy to spiral downward, out of control. For them, the street scene offers at least some positive reinforcement and peer acceptance.

But it is not the youth who have failed. We have failed them. We have pushed out countless numbers of precious neshamos because they have not quite fit into our almighty system. With a little bit of sensitivity/awareness training, for both administrators and teachers, this system can and should be changed.

Secondly, and not necessarily in order of importance, "TLC" goes a long way. After all this neglect, these teens desperately need a positive role model: A rebbe with whom they feel comfortable, someone to open up to and share what's really going on in their lives. Adults must reach out to them with an extra dose of caring. A heart-to-heart over a slice of pizza, or a game of basketball, may go a lot further with these kids than a "blot Gemara." They need to see and feel that they, too, are an important part of Klal Yisrael, even if they don't grow up to be rabbis and teachers.

"...We need to reach out to them with the true message that God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom and kindness, put them on this planet for a beneficial reason -- and that they are good, important, and desperately needed..."

In my opinion, our yeshivos need to implement the following:

1) Teacher training programs and in-service courses that provide yeshivah teachers with practical methods for individualizing instruction, motivating students, and creating positive classroom environments.

2) Management programs to meet students' special needs, such as resource rooms and self-contained classes. We need alternative considerations for some students too, such as extended time for tests, or graduating in five or six years instead of the usual four.

3) Physical education. Increase -- and in some yeshivos, just plain allow -- time for active games. One of my professors in my special education doctoral program put it succinctly: The head can only take as much as the backside can sit! It's a long day for our children, and they need opportunities to move.

4) Practical, vocational and computer training. We graduate far too many students from high school and post-high school who lack basic money-making skills.

5) After-school clubs, such as choir and sports teams. They might not get a solo or start in the All-Star game, but they'll wear the uniform and show up at practice.

All kids need to feel good about themselves. Parents can help the situation by giving each of their children some opportunities where they can shine. Try giving them music lessons. I know, drums are loud, but they're absolutely super for kids with any sort of attention deficit problem. Have them join Scouting. Throw a ball around together. Give them a pet of their own. (Even a saltwater tank with exotic fish is good.) I have successfully taught CPR and lifeguarding to my teenage students. Some of them are currently members of Hatzolah and work as lifeguards in summer camps. There are lots of terrific routes to self-esteem!

We need to reach out to them with the true message that God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom and kindness, put them on this planet for a beneficial reason -- and that they are good, important, and desperately needed.

* Proverbs 22:6. "Educate the lad according to his [path] way, [so that] he will not swerve from it even in old age."

Dr. David Lazerson is the founder and director of Beth Rafael -- The Alternative Yeshivah High School in Miami, Florida. He is the author of Skullcaps and Switchblades and Ammunition. He is also a recording artist and lecturer.

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More On This Issue From The Pages of Jewish Action Magazine

  • Dr. Benzion Twerski - Orthodox Youth and Substance Abuse: Shattering the Myths
  • Signs of alcohol/drug experimentation and use
  • Resources available to cope with the problems of the addict and his/her family
  • An Addict in Our Home - A parent's true story of addiction in the Orthodox Jewish community

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