At-risk Orthodox Jewish teenagers in Brooklyn (involved in everything from credit card fraud to sexual promiscuity and drug abuse) have created their own informal support network that attracts similarly troubled youngsters from across the city and seeks to recruit "regular youngsters" to their ranks.
That’s the surprising finding of the first comprehensive study of Orthodox Jewish youngsters in Brooklyn. It offers the clearest picture yet of a problem that was first addressed two years ago with the launching of a series of programs by social service agencies in the borough.
But the study’s author, Yohanan Danziger, found that "a lot of the strategies being employed have not shown to be highly effective."
"Being thrown out of the house is not a threat to these kids because they know they have a place to sleep and are not going to be sleeping on the street," said Danziger. "They sleep at their friend’s house; there is always somebody there to help them out.
"But it is not the kind of help that is advantageous to them because their friends are involved in similar behavior and their parents may be tolerant of it," Danziger continued. "And because they have their own support system, they don’t have a need to get back on track."
This support network, he added, has created a "nightmare for rabbis and law enforcement officials who are trying to break into the group because they won’t let anybody in."
The study found that there are 1,500 youngsters ages 11 through 20 who are engaged in serious at-risk behavior. This includes: aggression at home and school, property destruction, vandalism, theft, credit card fraud, substance abuse, addiction and dealing, promiscuous sexual activity, running away from home, truancy, suicidal thoughts and the public flouting of societal and communal rules and norms. The youngsters and teens come from the full scope of Orthodox communities, including chasidim and Modern Orthodox.
The study estimated that another 2,000 young people are doing the same things but have yet to be caught, or are getting into trouble at home and school. In all, Danziger said, 3.75 percent of Orthodox teens in Brooklyn are at-risk, compared with 15-20 percent of students in a Brooklyn public school he surveyed.
"We have a crisis on our hands and it’s growing exponentially," said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, who commissioned the study with a $20,000 grant from the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development.
He said that in the last month, at least two Orthodox teenagers committed suicide and that several others attempted suicide. In addition, he said, the study found evidence that prostitution exists among Orthodox Jewish girls.
"They are not standing on the corner in Times Square, but there are known places where it occurs in Brooklyn," Rapfogel said.
In addition, said the report, there is a growing sexual promiscuity that has led to a rising number of pregnancies.
The magnitude of the problem is such that the Jewish Observer, a monthly publication of the fervently Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, devoted its entire November issue to the subject. One article suggests ways parents can determine if their child is at risk for developing disruptive, rebellious and defiant behavior. Other articles provided guidance to parents of at-risk children. In an introduction, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman wrote that the problem must be dealt with because "we cannot afford to write off a single child."
Arnold Markowitz, a director of adolescent services for the Jewish Board of Family and Childrens Services, said the study accurately portrays the growing number of alienated adolescents from Orthodox families who are using drugs and alcohol to help them cope with their problems.
"In some ways, the Orthodox community, as well as the Orthodox family, is less prepared for it because there was an expectation that this was something that would not infect Orthodox youth because of their strong families, strong sense of community, and more attentive yeshivas," said Markowitz.
He added that it should serve as a "wake-up call to the frum [observant] community and to the educational system of the yeshivas that they have to detect youth at-risk much earlier and provide services and treatment." He added that there is now a "great sense of shame" in families with troubled youth and that "no yeshiva wants to be known as the place where there are drugs in the school."
City Councilman Herbert Berman (D-Brooklyn) said there is an "obscene belief that the Orthodox Jewish community doesn’t face these problems. However it came about, the reality is that there is a problem. The schools are the best place to deal with this and the tragedy is that too many schools refuse to do so."
Among the youth at-risk is the 16-year-old son of Sylvia S. of Borough Park, who has been out of school for all but one week this semester, walking out of his Flatbush yeshiva after an argument with the principal. An Orthodox Jew, he has twice been thrown out of the house this year by his father for rebellious behavior.
"When he went to school last year, he would arrive late and leave early," recalled Sylvia S., not her real name. "It was as if by going he was doing us a favor. He would participate only in classes in which he was interested. Otherwise, he would sleep or doodle."
Instead of wearing the traditional black pants and white shirt, he began wearing beige pants and T-shirts. He refused to put on a suit and hat on the Sabbath and would take his time in the morning putting on his kipa. He is the oldest of five children and Schwartz said her husband "doesn’t handle it too well."
"He believes force is the better way," she said. "He told him he would not stand for that type of behavior and that if he didn’t change, he should leave. A lot of kids would be intimidated by such a threat, but not my son."
After one blowup in July, Schwartz said her son did not come home from school and did not let her know until 11 p.m. that he was staying at the home of a friend.
"It was scary," she said. "I didn’t know how upset the kid was or what he would do. I don’t know how rebellious my son is; he is at a very fickle stage. I don’t think he’s been into drugs, but he never really smoked and now I’m finding cigarettes here and there. He told me he visited pool halls once or twice. …This rebellion started a year ago; I’m not sure why."
Danziger, the study’s author, said a host of reasons have been attributed for rebellious behavior, including family dysfunction, attention deficit disorder, and learning disabilities. But he said the study found that none of them appeared to be the primary cause.
"So we don’t know what the cause is," he said. "It is clear to me that either there are many, many causes or we have just not been able to comprehend what the cause is."
He noted that the ratio of at-risk boys is three boys for every two girls, but that the number of troubled girls is on the rise.
David Mandel, chief executive officer of Ohel Childrenís Home and Family Services, noted that two years ago Ohel assigned a male and a female social worker to work with at-risk youngsters and their families. And last week, in response to many requests for addiction treatment for substance and alcohol abuse, Ohel began an outpatient counseling program for addicted youngsters.
Barry Horowitz, one of Ohel’s social workers, said the boys he works with have "dropped out of yeshiva and are spending time in pool halls, on the street or in local establishments that try to draw them back. But there is not much direction to their lives and they spend their days preparing for the nights, which usually are big parties. They spend their mornings recovering from them."
Danziger said more data needs to be collected to better understand the ideology of the problem. He said there should be a crisis-intervention center that would be responsible for processing each at-risk youth and ensuring proper referral, similar to hospital triage. And he said crisis shelters should be established for at-risk youth that would get them schooling and one-to-one mentoring, similar to the Big Brothers program.
But for Sylvia S., the immediate problem is finding a yeshiva that her son will be comfortable in, as well as arranging for the counseling he needs.