The day after Ruchama Clapman appeared on a Jewish radio program to discuss issues raised by two chasidic runaways, the phones were ringing off the hook at MASK, the organization she founded to address at-risk youth in the Orthodox community.
Clapman had given the number of a hotline for parents who are concerned that their children, mostly teenagers, may be straying from what is known as "the derech," or path of what is considered appropriate behavior in strictly observant or chasidic communities.
"We handle it like a 911 call," Clapman says. "We direct parents to what referrals they may need, but also educate them on how to respond."
In the month since Elky Stern and Frimcha Hirsch, both 16, boarded a cross-country bus with a few thousand dollars in savings, promising never to return, there has been an increased awareness of at-risk behavior among Orthodox youth, and MASK (Mothers Aligned Saving Kids) has been at the center of attention.
"This was a shock to the system," says Borough Parkís assemblyman, Dov Hikind, who hosts the radio show that featured Clapman on two successive weeks after the two girls safely returned to Brooklyn. "In our community, stuff like this doesn’t happen. It’s been the talk of the town."
But if the runaway "girls gone wild," as the Daily News dubbed them, cast a harsh light on factors that cause some to reject the strictures of Orthodox life, Clapman views the incident as an opportunity to highlight the strides taken in recent years to intervene and prevent such crises.
"We have forced an awareness in the community," Clapman says. "Parents are accepting the idea of prevention."
And it’s not just Borough Park. "Our hotline is international," she adds. "We have support groups in London and in Israel."
In the past six years MASK, whose name alludes to a sense of denial that such problems exist, has grown from a fledgling volunteer organization to a state-funded crisis response center that features, in addition to the hotline, support groups, prevention workshops, a resource library, and referral and counseling services.
Clapman has been involved with the two runaways since their return. A New York detective aided by one of the girls’ brothers and a teacher tracked them down and convinced them to come back. They were living in a seedy section of Phoenix, Ariz., where they had lied about their age and applied for jobs.
"They are doing very well," she reports. "One is already in school, the other I am in the midst of placing in another yeshiva."
It is unclear what prompted the girls, who returned with shopping bags full of clothes and other goods, to run away. The teens have not spoken to the media.
But runaway situations in Orthodox communities are exceedingly rare, perhaps because children grow up knowing so little about the outside world and are taught to depend heavily on family and community.
"I would imagine that anyone who runs away to this extreme would have to be in tremendous pain and conflict," Clapman says.
In an interview in MASKís modest storefront office in Midwood, Brooklyn, on a pre-holiday morning in which the phones are relatively quiet, Clapman declines to discuss how many cases or calls her organization handles per year and how that has changed in recent years.
"I don’t discuss statistics," she says.
A larger-than-usual share of concerned calls, however, have poured in steadily since the runaways were discussed on the Hikind radio show, and although MASK is busier than ever, Clapman notes that the caseload may result more from increased awareness than increased crises.
For his part, Hikind believes that the number of kids who qualify as "at-risk" in his community is on the rise. Their behavior could range from alienation from their families to disruptive behavior, substance abuse or sexual activity.
"I think there is more of a problem today than there ever was in the past," he says. "Do I think 10 years ago it was like this as well but completely hidden? I don’t think so. Because of society, kids are exposed to more things today."
Teens and others who abandon or bristle at the Orthodox lifestyle are increasingly speaking out, in interviews with the media and in emerging Web logs, or "blogs," on the Internet. Among the most popular, the Hasidic Rebel, routinely features tales of rebellion and flirtation with the taboo.
"I don’t think these girls made a mature decision to explore their individuality," the anonymous Hasidic Rebel, writes in an e-mail response to an inquiry by The Jewish Week. "Rather, they probably had some limited knowledge of the outside world, and probably thought that’s where they’d find the answers to troubles they might have been having …
"What made these girls different was probably a somewhat greater exposure to outside culture [from] a non-Hasidic neighbor’s TV set, access to secular books or magazines, or perhaps from more frequent visits to the mall or to nearby Manhattan."
Some see a percentage of children who don’t fit into a cloistered way of life, even when they know no alternatives, as inevitable.
"It’s not a situation unique to the Jewish community or the Orthodox Jewish community," says David Mandel, chief executive officer of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. "When kids don’t fit in to strictly regimented ways, they react in different ways. A small number react in extreme ways. We need to appreciate that we can never solve the problem fully. Then we’ll be in better position to respond."
MASK, which relies on private donations for nearly half its budget, has been struggling to keep up with the demand for help, and in recent years has shifted most of its resources toward proactive activity.
"More and more we are looking at kids of elementary age (7, 10, 12 years old) to notice whether or not they have any social issues or learning disabilities," says Clapman. "About 60 percent of what we do now is prevention. If there is a death or illness in the family, we know kids need to talk about their feelings."
There are efforts as well to make sure children do not emulate an older sibling’s bad behavior if they see that it has led to an increased level of attention.
But Hikind says that despite the work done by MASK and other organizations such as Ohel and the Jewish Board of Family and Childrens’ Services, "we are still facing a very serious situation. We have a huge problem, which is quite amazing considering the fact that so much has been done by MASK and other people out there working with kids."
Clapman praises the yeshiva system for coming to grips with at-risk behavior. "They are much more open to allowing different programs to come into the school," she says.
But most fervently Orthodox yeshivas provide little or no means for students to express themselves creatively or discover individual interests, or even have fun, which may fuel the problem in the future.
"For adults to explore other lifestyles and embrace elements of outside culture that they find meaningful or rewarding is fine, and even admirable," writes the Hasidic Rebel. "But for these teens, it was probably not the hope of a more meaningful life that led them to leave, but the allure of worldly pleasures they were sure will abound once they freed themselves from their long sleeves and skirts."