Category Archives: Off The Derech

Let’s Get Honest About the “At Risk” Thing

We in the Orthodox Jewish world have become accustomed to using the term “at risk” to describe teenagers who, because of unmet needs and resulting negative feelings, go about trying to satisfy their needs in ways we find tragic, one of which is to cease their observance of Torah and mitzvos. This “off the derech” type has become a familiar personality in the cast of frum characters, like the water carrier or dairyman of the shtetl. The question is, when does this person become “at risk”? Is it only when he or she stops davening? When he or she begins to experiment with drugs? When he or she stops keeping Shabbos?

Logically speaking, anyone who is exposed to conditions that endanger him or her is to be considered “at risk”. And, if you noticed, I loaded this question earlier when I placed “at risk” within the framework of Non-Violent Communication (NVC).  People have needs and feelings. When their needs are met, they have good feelings. When their needs are unmet, they have bad feelings. But they continue to attempt to satisfy their needs.  The problem is, trying to satisfy one’s needs amidst bad feelings tends to lead a person down some very dysfunctional detours.

This basic needs/feelings formula may be an oversimplification in some regards, but I believe that (in combination with other factors) lies at the heart of the aggressive and self-destructive behaviors that are the hallmarks of the “at risk” kid. Recently, a client of mine told me that I should know, at the outset of the therapy, that he “self-medicates” by using marijuana. Listen to the language; “self-medicating” with drugs implies that the drug is being used as a way to deal with a problem–as opposed to simply being a risky form of escapism or hedonism. What is he medicating away? This, of course, becomes the first order of business in the therapy, since it is clear that there remains a meaning for the client that has not been tapped, that is being obscured by the pot–but because it is ensconced in the client’s pain, he does not want to deal with it.

Any therapist will tell you that much of a client’s pain is linked to early life experiences. You don’t have to be a Freudian analyst to say that. Taking the Logotherapeutic perspective as man as an open system, we see that people, from their first few moments in the world, reach out beyond themselves, first and foremost to explore the world.  And there is a basic need that exists in every human being to receive a response from that world that is affirming, one that tells us that, not only is the world a meaningful place, but also that our presence within it adds value, that we matter, that our arrival in this world is something to be celebrated.  Somewhere within the first few years of a person’s life, he or she will receive this message or something that contradicts this message.  If the latter, then here begins a painful saga: the frustration of the person’s most basic concern–meaning.  To have one’s path towards meaning obstructed is representative of the ultimate unmet need, and has far more impact than not receiving a tricycle for one’s birthday.

It is easy to blame the internet or “Western culture” as the wolf that ran off with our sheep, but if you work in the helping professions, you know that people generally turn towards destructive, hedonistic vices in an attempt to numb their existential pain–to “self-medicate”, to fill the void (or in Logotherapeutic terms, their existential vacuum).  But needing to fill a void implies that the void was created in their lives much earlier, before they encountered the internet and “Western culture”.

I believe if those of us in the Jewish community would like to understand and help our young people make healthy choices and lead happy, fulfilled, meaningful lives, we will have to ask very honest questions about the way we have set up our world.  We will have to strengthen those aspects of Jewish life that affirm, that promote a sense of meaning, fulfillment and belonging–and we will also have to take a stand against those elements of our own “system” that promote the opposite of these, elements that destroy meaning and ostracize those who seek it.

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Whose Approval Are You Seeking, Anyway?

I once had a student who came from a Hungarian Chassidic family, a seventh-generation chassid. He told me about how, when he stopped putting on his tefillin, his father said nothing about it—until the boy went somewhere overnight and did not take his tefillin with him. He just left the bag on the dining room table with the tefillin inside. When he returned, his father became incensed and scolded him. “You knew that I haven’t been putting my tefillin on for the past three months. How come you’re only yelling at me now?” demanded this student.

Nothing was said, but the boy understood that his father’s upset was caused by the fact that someone outside the house would find out that his son wasn’t carrying around his tefillin, and this would draw negative attention to an otherwise well-regarded family. My student, who eventually did return to observance, was repulsed by the hypocrisy of it. “What will people say?” is a concern that many people place above the needs of their child. Social approval is important to all humans in varying degrees, but in the Jewish cultures, which are microcosmic compared to most others, it is a very powerful force. It can facilitate or hinder a child’s entry into schools. It can make the difference between acceptance and ostracism in the child’s social circle. It can even render people desirable as marriage partners when they begin to search for a spouse. So nobody wants their child to be considered a bum, a krum, an “at-risk” kid, or someone from “not a good family”.

As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman indicated in the introduction to his Jewish Women in Jewish Law, the Jewish hero has an audience of One: G-d alone. It is His approval that we need. Your neighbors, the menahel, the shadchanim—they don’t even run a close second. Certainly, not keeping His mitzvos will meet with His disapproval. However, that is not what drives many parents or educators when they get upset with a child or student who is fudging his or her role as a Jew. I believe that children can sense that someone else’s opinion is more important to his or her parents than his or her own needs, his or her own struggle.

Before you get your back up at your kid for religious lapses, try to ask yourself the following two questions:

Whose approval am I seeking?

Whose needs am I obligated to address? My child’s or someone else’s?

You might end up approaching your child in a healthier and more supportive way, one that helps him or her grow Jewishly–after all, you are the primary connection your child has with Torah.  The relationship that you share together is therefore much more precious than you think.

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