Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

10 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 27, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







P'eylim / Lev L'Achim Addresses the Dropout Problem in Israeli Torah Community: Lev Shomea Division Hotline Serves As Lifeline For Troubled Youth

by Moshe Schapiro

Aviva is a bright girl who has enjoyed a fine upbringing and impressive scholastic achievements. She applied to one of the top girls' high schools in the country, was promptly accepted, and her parents rejoiced in their good fortune -- their daughter was proving to be a source of pride and joy to them, and everything was turning out well. Or so they thought.

A few weeks into the new school year, Aviva failed to hand in one of her assignments on time. As could have been expected, her teacher reprimanded her. The unpleasant exchange left an impression on the sensitive girl far deeper than anyone would have guessed. Whether the teacher's reaction was overly harsh, or Aviva's response unreasonable, is irrelevant; the fact is that the confrontation left Aviva with the impression that the teacher hated her.

Unfortunately, she did not feel she could turn to her parents for help in dealing with her feelings, for Aviva, by nature independent, had never before encountered any personal problems she could not handle herself. Thus, lines of communication between her and her parents were not open enough to accommodate frank discussion of her problems.

A growing sense of despair enveloped Aviva, who was unaccustomed to failure. Why didn't anyone appreciate her? She made one more attempt to earn her teacher's respect, but her efforts went unacknowledged. It was then that Aviva felt something snap. "Fine," she thought, "I'll give her a reason to hate me!"

Her behavior deteriorated steadily. One by one, her friends began to exclude her from their activities, and soon they were avoiding her altogether. "Why doesn't anyone understand me?" Aviva wondered in desperation.

Before long she was expelled from school, and her life became a downhill tumble. Her relationship with her parents broke down completely, and one day she found herself all alone on the street, without a place she could call home.

Society does not always cater to those who most need love and care. Her life took one tragic turn after another, and within a very short time Aviva retained almost nothing of the world she had left behind.

A few months later, sipping lukewarm coffee in a dingy cafe, an intriguing sign caught Aviva's eye. Words and phrases -- " . . . loneliness . . . call us . . . we listen . . . want to hear from you . . . " -- seemed to jump out at her, and the unrelenting emptiness that had become the focus of her life suddenly longed to be touched by a caring, stabilizing force of human contact. Aviva sighed. "Oh well," she thought. "Why not? Nothing to lose . . ." She wandered over to a nearby pay phone and dropped a shekel into the slot.

It was an average Friday morning at the Cohen household. Sarah was holding an infant in one arm and stir-frying onions with the other. Her boss had just called her at home to ask that she fill in for a co-worker who would be arriving late to the office, so she was now officially on duty. If the telephone would summon her right now, she was thinking, she would have to drop everything -- except perhaps the baby -- and focus entirely on the incoming call. "Just a little more time," Sarah prayed silently, "just a few more minutes, until the onions are finished!"

Almost on cue, the telephone began to ring. Sarah quickly turned off the burner, shut the kitchen door, took a deep breath and willed herself to smile. "Hello," she said cheerily, with as much warmth as she could muster.

Cautiously, tentatively, Aviva assessed the pleasant voice on the other end of the line. Was it sincere? Did the woman who owned that voice really care? Could she possibly understand what Aviva's life was like? Meanwhile Sarah, clutching the phone, gave the caller her undivided attention. Sincerely empathizing with Aviva's pain, at the same time Sarah was grasping for a thread. She needed somehow to create a connection between herself and the caller, to make an imprint in her mind so that Aviva would contact her again in the future.

Apparently Sarah succeeded in finding that elusive thread, because Aviva called a second time, and then a third, exposing for Sarah her festering emotional wounds a little more with each call. After three weeks of this anonymous communication, Aviva finally let down her guard, and all her pent-up agony poured out. The two women -- still complete strangers -- wept together on the phone as they shared the pain of Aviva's freshly opened wound. Sarah, still in tears, asked Aviva if she didn't think it was time they met. Aviva agreed, and that same day they had a long, face-to-face talk.

Aviva is a fictitious name, of course, but the character is authentic, and so is her story. The road back has been long and twisted. The journey has demanded -- of both Aviva and Sarah -- tremendous patience and courage. Thank G-d, Aviva is now pulling together the pieces of her shattered life. She is in touch with her parents once again, and she is studying graphic design in a religious setting, looking forward to building a life dedicated to Torah. And who is her friend Sarah?

* * *

Sarah is a volunteer for Lev Shomea -- P'eylim / Lev L'Achim's dropout prevention program. She is one of 50 dedicated workers who assist teens from religious backgrounds, like Aviva, to contend with the crises that often emerge during this turbulent stage of life. In addition to the two separate crisis hot lines they operate -- one for boys, the other for girls -- Lev Shomea provides personal counselling, emergency housing assistance, temporary foster care, school placement, assistance to runaway youths, community education and guidance for parents.

The hot line, operational since 1994, received over 3,600 calls in 1998 -- yes, three thousand, six hundred calls in twelve months. Although many people remain unaware of the problem of troubled religious youth, it is one of significant proportions, and P'eylim / Lev L'Achim's Lev Shomea program is a unique organization that addresses the urgent needs of these youths in Israel. Prior to publication of this article, it received no coverage or public recognition whatsoever.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakobson, a world-renowned authority on chinuch and author of the famous pamphlet "Al Techet'u Bayeled," is the program's mentor. He gives refresher courses to Lev Shomea's staff on a regular basis, and is on call 24 hours a day to dispense advice and handle emergencies.

Teens undergoing personal crisis, place approximately half of the calls received by the hot line; the other half come from parents who are at a loss over how to deal with their teenagers' sudden rebelliousness, and from teachers.

A large portion of the calls are placed during the first and last weeks of the school semester. Typically, the calls placed in the beginning of the school year are triggered by the stress of adjusting to new learning situations. A significant percentage of these callers are from English- speaking homes. This is also the time when parents of children with behavioral problems or learning disabilities call for assistance and guidance.

The calls that come in toward the end of the school year are often sparked by conflicts between teens and their parents who do not see eye to eye about plans for the future.

Some callers need only a few minutes of sympathetic listening, and a kind word of encouragement, but the average phone session lasts at least 45 minutes and often continues for an hour or two. Most youths need a series of telephone sessions, followed by personal meetings and discussions.

The youths who contact Lev Shomea generally fall into one of three categories: those experiencing some form of difficulty, but who have not been expelled from school; those who were expelled from school, but who are now making an effort to conform to the expectations of parents and teachers; and those who no longer live at home or attend school (such as Aviva). Approximately two-thirds of the callers fit into the first two groups, while the remaining third fit into the last group.

Lev Shomea's male staff members are full-time Torah scholars who have undergone an initial training program and attend monthly refresher courses while gaining on-the-job training. Some of them are mashgichim in well-known yeshivos, who devote evenings to answering calls for Lev Shomea. The most important traits that Lev Shomea organizers look for in volunteers are: open-mindedness, personal warmth, genuine concern for the well-being of others, and the ability to communicate effectively.

Youths who call the hotline are told from the start that they have the right to remain anonymous for as long as they wish. They are given two firm guarantees: all details pertaining to the caller's identity will remain absolutely confidential; and the youth's parents and teachers will not be contacted without the youth's express consent. Only when a caller agrees that his parents be involved do counselors begin the difficult work of mending a severed relationship.

When speaking with a first-time caller, the short-term objective is to create a good, positive connection with the youth, in order to increase the chances that he or she will call again in the future. Once a relationship of mutual trust has been established, personal counselling sessions are arranged. The long-term objective is to assist youths in resolving their inner turmoil, guiding them back to a Torah way of life.

Lev Shomea's personnel director, Rabbi Boruch Tzvi Greenbaum, points out that many of the "problematic children" who are brought in for counselling are found to be suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability or emotional disorder. Counselors are trained to identify the symptoms of such disorders and refer callers to qualified professionals. In cases of extreme need, Lev L'Achim subsidizes the high costs of professional treatment.

In the course of their work, hot line operators come in contact with children who have been subjected to repeated physical or emotional abuse at the hands of parents or other relatives. In many ways, Lev Shomea resembles a social welfare agency, without the budgetary allowances that are usually allotted to such institutions.

Lev L'Achim's greatest worry in this area is religious runaways -- a bewildering Pandora's box of negative influences lies in wait for them on the streets. One of the most insidious of these is deceptively named "Hillel," a leftist-sponsored organization dedicated exclusively to luring religious youths away from the path of Torah. Its volunteers stalk the streets of Israel's main religious centers in search of religious runaways, offering them free room and board on a non- religious kibbutz of their choice.

In many instances, the decisive factor that determines whether a runaway will return to the yeshiva or end up in a kibbutz is simply who manages to find him first -- Lev L'Achim's Lev Shomea, or Hillel. The battlegrounds of this war between the powers of Good and the powers of Evil are, ironically, the ostensibly safe streets of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak.

That Lev Shomea's work is effective cannot be denied. In 1997, for example, when residents of the predominantly religious Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot and Har Nof witnessed a chilling phenomenon -- gangs of religious hoodlums began to roam the streets -- Rabbi E. M., a member of Lev Shomea's "commando unit" (the Street Outreach Team), was assigned the mission of restoring these youths to their roots.

Together with a partner, Rabbi M. walked the streets of Ramot and Har Nof day after day and befriended the gang members, sharing with them copious packages of chocolate, cigarettes and cans of Coca-Cola. Once in a while he would also throw in an occasional short vort on the weekly parsha. The boys enjoyed Rabbi M.'s company so much that they -- of their own accord -- suggested that he begin teaching them a little Torah every week. " . . . But just a little!" the gang's leader stressed, "like no more than five minutes . . . maybe ten, max!"

This turnabout occurred a year ago; today, 22 boys in Ramot and 15 in Har Nof regularly attend weekly one-hour shiurim on the parsha, delivered by Rabbi M. or by one of his colleagues. The majority of the boys are now attending remedial institutions that offer a combination of Torah study and vocational training. Lev L'Achim's work continues with those boys who are not yet ready to make such a commitment.

Despite incredible achievements, Lev Shomea's ability to respond to the overwhelming need still lags behind the demand for its services. It is simply incapable of assisting all those who seek help. The organization lacks the basic resources that are crucial to maintaining its effectiveness, such as funds to hire additional staff and to pay foster families who accommodate homeless youths.

We cannot afford to neglect the issue of religious dropouts. Unless the religious community stands up in support of programs such as Lev L'Achim's Lev Shomea, we stand to lose thousands of neshomos in a very short time. We are not talking here about kiruv rechokim, but kiruv kerovim -- these are our boys and girls, who were brought up in our own community. If we don't help them, who will?

Consider this: Lev Shomea's hot line number rang over 3,600 times last year alone -- three thousand and six hundred calls for help reached Lev Shomea volunteers. Can you imagine what would have happened if no one had been there to answer the phone?

Warning Signals that Indicate a Child May Require Outside Assistance

1. Abrupt changes in personality

2. Eating disturbances; significant change in weight

3. Sleeping disturbances

4. Inability to tolerate frustration

5. Withdrawal or rebelliousness

6. Inability or unwillingness to communicate

7. Promiscuous behavior

8. Neglecting personal appearance

9. Theft and / or vandalism

10. Depression

11. Extended periods of boredom

12. Unusually prolonged grief reaction

13. Hostility

14. Neglect of academic work

15. Truancy

16. Difficulty in concentrating

17. Family disruption, especially divorce

18. Frequent absences from home

Family Communication Tips

1. Set aside focused time to talk with your child every day.

2. Don't expect your family to read your mind; be specific about your expectations and requests.

3. Have patience -- good communication takes time and effort.

4. Consider all available options before making any final decision.

5. Ask for input from all family members.

6. Be willing to compromise on issues that are not crucial.

7. Spend time together involved in enjoyable activities once in a while.

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