Ever since the Nov. 21 arrest of 42 teens on drug and alcohol charges at a wild party thrown by a Livingston, N.J., yeshiva student, there has been a buzz around The Lockers.
“It’s being blown out of proportion,” one New Jersey teen opines, “but I’m glad that it is. If it weren’t, there would be no lesson learned, people would keep doing it.”
Another teen seems exasperated. “I know I’m sheltered- but imagine like … being a 14-year-old freshman and getting arrested. Pretty scary!”
The conversation took place not in a high school corridor but in cyberspace, where a Jewish outreach group has created thelockers.net. Created by the Teaneck-based In-Reach, founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Eliovson, thelockers.net is a 4-year-old forum for Orthodox yeshiva teens in the Northeast to talk about drugs, sex, alcohol, religion and anything else on their mind — all completely anonymous.
The Web site’s philosophy is “Issues, Not Names,” and online moderators make sure that both schools and participants remain nameless so kids can feel completely comfortable. “Your community leaders and schools have no way of getting at your identity, unless you blow your own cover (or unless it becomes a legal issue),” the site promises.
As of Tuesday, there were more than 170 bulletin board postings on the topic of the “drug busts” in Livingston, forming a discussion dating back to Nov. 23, the day after the arrests made news. Several participants posted multiple messages.
“That stuff happens to kids all the time,” writes a visitor who chose the screen name luck4strs. “Only now people are making a huge deal out of it. my friends were there. i was supposed to go but last minute i didn’t. it’ll blow over soon …”
Thelockers.net is one of many ways outreach professionals in the modern Orthodox community who are struggling to address what they see as the growing problems of drugs, and other taboo behavior creeping into their homes and schools, like unwelcome but seemingly inevitable visitors.
“It’s happening more and more often, and often younger and younger kids,” says Ruchama Bistritsky Clapman of Mothers and Fathers Aligned Saving Kids (MASK), a Brooklyn-based resource for parents of at-risk youth. “Parents have to be more aware that it is happening.”
Many organizations are sponsoring workshops, hotlines and resource centers. Rabbi Eliovson, who divides his time between Bergenfield, N.J., and a moshav in Israel’s Negev, has organized volunteers to speak and spend time with teens, and says he’s personally spoken about drugs to over 1,500 teens here.
“This is not at all isolated,” he said of the Livingston party. “The only thing unique about this party is that it was pretty tame. I spoke to kids who said ‘I wasn’t at that party because there were two other parties that were way more ‘off the hook’ in terms of the kind of drugs and the amount of sexual activity,” says the rabbi.
Police in Livingston arrested all the teens, ranging from 15 to 19, at the unsupervised party after responding to complaints about noise and smelling marijuana smoke.
Fifteen 18- and 19-year-olds were charged with possession of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and consumption of alcohol. Twenty-seven teenagers ages 14 to 17 were accused of the same charges, police told the New York Times.
The students attend several yeshiva high schools in New Jersey and New York, as well as Livingston’s public high school. The largest contingent of students attend the Rae Kushner Yeshivah High School in Livingston, according to the New Jersey Jewish News.
Rabbi Abraham Wahrharftig, principal of Kushner High School, did not return calls.
The yeshiva’s president, Sid Sayovitz, told the New Jersey Jewish News that “issues involving alcohol and drug awareness are part of our curriculum” and “going to an unsupervised party is against our handbook.”
Lewis Abrams, executive director of Yatzkan, a residential drug treatment center in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., said the Kushner yeshiva “is dealing with this head-on, not sweeping it under the carpet. Some very positive things are going to happen as a result of this lousy thing. Hopefully we will be providing more education at younger ages and opening dialog between parents and children, teaching kids really good refusal skills.”
Rabbi Eliovson urges parents to closely monitor their kids’ activity on the Internet, speak to them early and often about drugs and to be positive role models.
Clapman of MASK adds that parents should avoid leaving teens alone in their homes if they go away for a weekend. “Parents need to know, if they are going away, to be in contact with the family the kids say they are going to be with,” she says.
Rabbi Oliovson believes that community leaders estimate drug usage among teens to be somewhere around 3 percent. He feels that closer to 35 percent have either experimented or regularly use drugs, based on his own research. That means the problem can’t only be dealt with as a disciplinary issue.
“The notion of expulsion [from school] becomes destructive,” he says. “How can you expel a kid for doing what so many of his friends are doing?”
Many schools may not be aware of the extent of the problem, he says, because most kids use drugs after school hours and many have their first experiences during summer vacation.
The dialog among teens in The Lockers suggests that some teens believe drugs are a problem at schools other than their own, while others insist it is widely prevalent.
“It’s a big deal because kids from that school did get arrested,” writes IceGal104. “It would never happen in my school, where no kids would even think of going to a party where there’s drugs and beer.”
But another teen, Whuknu, replies: “Yeshivas, just like public schools, have drug problems … The kids in your school just haven’t gotten caught yet.”