[Appearing in this weeks 5 Towns Jewish Times]
Perhaps you have seen the story on the Jewish news sites. A 19- or 20-year-old man in a bungalow colony in the Catskills drinks too much on a Shabbos afternoon, gets keys to a car, drives out on Route 42, loses control of the car, and crashes into a fence; then he tries to flee. He is apprehended by the police after a brief chase on foot, arrested, released on bail, and then is back at home while the lawyers go to work.
There are many troubling facets of these events. There’s the excessive consumption of alcohol by a kid—some media reports said that he was as young as 16. Then there was the matter of driving on Shabbos, a wanton and overt violation of the day’s holiness and sanctity. And then, of course, there was the obvious screaming out for attention by the young man, and the availability of liquor, possibly facilitated by adults, in the usually comfortable and laid-back environment of a summer resort. It’s the combination of what has become known as at-risk behavior, the plying of a pained psyche with booze, and the search for truth with alcohol or substance abuse in an effort to acquire a moment or two where one can say that he just feels good or okay for a change.
The episode contains within it a lot of things that need to be dealt with by parents, responsible adults in general, and our overall value and educational system charged with the growth and development of our young people in these very trying but also very exciting times in which we live. I’m not sure what it is and there are far too many experts on the subject with widely differing opinions about what ails the people involved in these unfortunate situations.
For some, stories like this come under the heading of “nothing new under the sun.” This position insists that there have always been situations like this in our community going back many decades. Some people in every generation simply fall prey to the destructive allures and distractions that are offered up by society. The difference between those times and present times is perhaps the way in which these events get splashed across media outlets just about as soon as they occur. Just because more people know about any given situation than in the past, does that mean that there are more instances of this destructive nature?
On the other hand, it seems that the proliferation of experts, professionals, and institutions dealing with these situations have increased to such an extent that it is simply impossible to say that nothing has changed over the years. And indeed much has changed. Those working in the field tell us that there are thousands of teens who have been either turned off or turned out and, regardless of the reason or the situation, they are making the streets their new home. Out the window has gone any resemblance to a conventional lifestyle. Also out the window goes all the years devoted to his or her Jewish religious training and practice.
Perhaps if you’d like to speculate about what happened last Shabbos upstate, you’d be safe looking in this direction. Of course a great deal can be learned from the details and applied to other similar situations, but the names of the people navigating their way through this crisis is not being released, so as to protect their privacy and to minimize the damage to the family. It is in part about the free flow of alcoholic beverages around impressionable children who conclude that imbibing in drink even under the guise of being yotzei kiddush can send you into a realm at least somewhat detached from your current, not very pleasant, reality. You are bombarded with these warnings around Simchas Torah and Purim, but otherwise it’s pretty quiet.
So it’s not necessarily the drinking that is the problem for those who overindulge. Rather it’s the drinking that is the result of the pursuit of an errant solution to whatever problem exists. And the problem is the age-old inalienable right for one to pursue his or her happiness. In these instances, however, these individuals are not concerned with “rights” but rather the natural desire of the human organism that surrounds a G-dly soul to find its place, to get the attention he or she needs, and the recognition or approval and the love that contains all of the above. And when that is missing in a person’s life, he or she will frequently go looking for it in a bottle or syringe.
So what about all the kids who are out all night and high as kites who come from so-called good homes? The answer to that question is elusive, but just something that exists and that no one—including the professionals—seem to be able to get a handle on or explain. Why would a good kid from a nice family, well known, with a good image and reputation, perhaps even wealthy too, want to reject everything that is so good and so satisfying to the overwhelming majority of people in his or her community for hanging out with friends on the streets?
I don’t believe that they reject their families or a halachic lifestyle because they are destined or determined to cause pain or do bad. These young people are not out there in search of deviousness or underhandedness. On the contrary; they are searching for honesty and authenticity in their lives, and to a great extent our conventional ways and systems have failed these kids in particular. Perhaps these youngsters need something intellectually extra. True, our yeshivas are crafting more individualized programs for students than at any other time in the past 40 years. But still there is too much rote and blind obedience that is being demanded of them.
They yearn to connect to something higher, something more real and contemporary, and we cannot give it to them without upsetting the system that is serving the majority of our kids in a fashion that, for now anyway, seems good and effective. The concepts of emunah—faith—and intellect are in some ways contradictory. The beautiful and even attractive aspect of faith is that no questions are asked and we are totally accepting. But that’s where intellect and faith do battle. There is a natural yearning to understand how a Jewish kid from an observant environment can get closer to Hashem if that’s what he desires. What if he cannot connect those G-dly dots through a piece of Gemara or Chumash? If we’ve failed in any way in these modern times, it is the failure to demonstrate to our kids the integral role that each and every one of us plays in G-d’s master plan of creation. The issue that we are all central to that big worldly and historical picture is essentially ignored. Sometimes that leads curious kids to some strange and unsavory places.
I was in a supermarket in Liberty, New York, last Friday afternoon about three hours before Shabbos. Two young yeshiva boys walked up to me in the store to ask if I could “help them out” with some beer. At first I genuinely thought they needed a few extra dollars so that they could purchase the beer. But then it quickly occurred to me that they were underage and the store would not sell them alcoholic beverages. I asked them their ages, and they said they were 16 and 17 years old. They told me what camp they were in and that they had hitched a ride to the store. I was inclined to buy the beer for them. After all, Shabbos was coming and they weren’t exactly babies. I don’t drink beer or much alcohol, but I can respect the next guy’s desire to get a little buzzed, especially over Shabbos. They asked again and I hemmed, hawed, and hesitated. I asked my wife if we should help them out and buy the beer. She said: “Absolutely not,” and added that we too have a 16-year-old in camp in the mountains for the summer. “I don’t want to think that anyone is buying him beer in any supermarkets,” she said. The line was drawn.