The apparent drug overdose of a chasidic teenager in Brooklyn two weeks ago has sent shockwaves through the small but growing community of at-risk Orthodox youth, their families and the network of organizations struggling to aid them.
Moshe Feiner, 19, was found dead in a Borough Park apartment on Dec. 15, the victim of a suspected heroin overdose. Sources say Feiner had undergone drug rehabilitation as many as seven times, and was well known to Jewish anti-drug programs.
The death is the latest sign of a burgeoning crisis among Orthodox youth. A study commissioned by the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, released earlier this month, found that as many as 3,500 Orthodox teens (more than 3 percent of the local Orthodox community) are considered "at-risk," engaging in petty crime, sexual promiscuity and/or substance abuse. Similar trends are reported in other major cities.
Feiner’s was far from the first drug-related death in frum, or Orthodox, circles.
"In a short period of time there have been a number of cases of kids overdosed: as many as four, all unrelated," said Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an activist against drug use in his community.
But because Feiner came from a relatively small family that was (by all reports) functional, highly respected and made every effort to cope with his troubles, the case has reinforced concerns that such tragedies are not limited to broken homes and inattentive parents.
"Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing," said Ruchama Bistriczky Clapman, founder and director of Mothers Aligned Saving Kids (MASK), an Orthodox group formed to deal with the Orthodox teen problem.
"Our hotline has been overwhelmed. Instead of the 10 to 15 calls we usually get, we are getting 30 and 40," she said.
Whereas parents have previously called the group after children demonstrate disturbing behavior, says Clapman, they now call at the first hint of trouble. "If there is just a slight change in the child, they call for preventive reasons, to make sure it doesn’t go further," she added.
Signs that area youth were overwhelmed by the tragedy were evident this week. Feiner was apparently well-known among troubled Orthodox teenagers.
When David Mandel, director of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, put out word that those who wanted to discuss their feelings about Feiner’s death could meet him at a Borough Park kosher restaurant, 24 kids showed up.
"The mood was one of grief and a sense of ‘this can happen to me,’" said Mandel. "They described him in such a nice way: a good, kind, nice kid. Happy, friendly, outgoing, always with a smile.
"But the most important thing to ask is, will this change anything? We believe that such a serious incident will at least help one kid understand that this is not an escape," he said.
A less subtle tack was taken by the operators of an Orthodox-supervised recreation center in Midwood, who brought a group of teens to view Feiner’s body before his funeral in an attempt to shock them about the reality of drug use.
"The kids were shaken up, but how long it will last nobody knows," said Rabbi Yitzchak Mitnick, a force behind the kosher pool hall, known informally as Our Place, which keeps a low profile and shuns media attention. "Almost everybody knew [Feiner]. He tried very hard to quit. Everyone tried to do whatever they could."
According to a law enforcement source, Feiner spent his last night at the home of a female friend on 51st Street in Borough Park. A male friend, of Flatbush, joined them there after Feiner called him. It is unclear whether any adults were in the house. The two friends, who are not suspects, reportedly told police that Feiner was depressed, but that they did not see him take drugs.
Around 4 a.m., the friends called 911 and said Feiner was unconscious and bleeding from his mouth. He was dead when police and paramedics arrived, according to police. The results of a toxicology report are still pending, according to the law enforcement source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, but the presumed cause was heroin use.
"The indication is that it was from heroin," said the source, who said a syringe was recovered by police at the scene. "We don’t know if it was too much heroin, bad heroin or whether his body just couldn’t handle it."
No arrests were made, and police have not determined who provided the drugs, said the source.
Feiner’s family declined, through an intermediary, to comment until after the 30-day mourning period. The family did not conceal the nature of his death at the funeral, where hundreds of mourners crowded into the Shomrei Adas chapel in Borough Park. The parents, joined by community leaders, expressed hope that the tragedy would foster awareness and save other lives. "What’s important in this tragedy is that the family is not hiding," said Hikind, a Democrat, who attended the funeral. "The father said to me that he is determined to do everything possible [to ensure] that this does not happen again.
"We can’t be ashamed and embarrassed to be examples," Hikind said. "Enough is enough."
While social service providers are inundated with anecdotal evidence of an increase, at least one observer doubts that incidence of drug use and other misbehavior in the Orthodox community is an emerging phenomenon.
"We are finding out about it now, but it may have been happening for a long time," said sociologist Samuel Heilman of Queens College, who has written extensively on Orthodoxy. As for the Met Council survey of at-risk teens, Heilman said there is insufficient data for comparison. "We don’t know what the baseline is," he said. "This is a snapshot in time."
But there is clearly an increased demand among parents for programs and resources. Clapman, who founded MASK in 1997 with 28 other parents, said chapters are in formation in the Five Towns, Queens, upstate Monsey, Baltimore and Toronto as families fear their children are leading secret lives.
"There is a whole underground," says Clapman. "When we go to sleep at 12, that’s when these kids start their days. There is a whole slew of kids out there doing drugs and alcohol."
The organization, currently run by volunteers out of their homes, has held two highly attended symposia for parents, and with Hikind’s help, will meet with Gov. George Pataki next month to discuss a potential grant from the state’s Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, said Clapman.
But for many, Feiner’s death brings home the reality that no matter how extensive the network of resources, some young people will not be helped before it’s too late. For this reason, the chief narcotics prosecutor at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, Avery Mehlman, insists yeshivas and community leaders must break the taboo of involving the authorities if other avenues are fruitless.
An alternative program initiated by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes allows non-violent drug offenders to avoid jail if they enter a rehabilitation program, said Mehlman, himself an Orthodox Jew.
"If the only way to get a kid into treatment is having him arrested, perhaps that’s the route the community might consider as a last alternative," said Mehlman.