More Information, Please

I recently had an opportunity to speak at length with someone who has a broad familiarity with most of the institutions created in Israel to deal with chareidi kids who are outside of any regular educational format. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned a recent column, in which I noted that the dropout phenomenon is even more severe in all chareidi communities than in mixed communities.

The explanation of everyone to whom I spoke, including two major talmidei chachamim, was that such communities generate a degree of social pressure that proves unbearable for many youth, especially those who have their own “issues.”

My conversation partner, however, offered a very different explanation. In his opinion, it is the higher percentage of ba’alei teshuva drawn to the all chareidi cities that explains the differential. He claimed that at least 70% of the drop-outs in one such community are children of ba’alei teshuva.

If that is true (and that remains a big “if”), then we as a community should be asking some hard questions about the conduct of all our kiruv efforts. One immediate question would be: Is it better for ba’alei teshuva to move to all chareidi enclaves or would it be better for them to either join existing communities or form their own in the places they are already living?

The challenge of many of ba’alei teshuva who move to all chareidi enclaves is twofold. First, the parents often have little familiarity with the predominantly kollel society that they are entering, and therefore find it hard to guide their children. Second, many ba’alei teshuva already have children of various ages. It is profoundly disorienting for those children to find themselves suddenly thrust into a totally different society. Even children and teenagers who come from the frumest seminaries and yeshivos in America to live in Israel often struggle to adjust to very different standards in Israel. How much more so those who just a few months ago were living in non-religious homes.

The problems of children of ba’alei teshuva also suggest that there may be something askew about our current models of kiruv: Are we overemphasizing the numbers brought in through the door while devoting relatively little effort to guiding new ba’alei teshuva once they have taken their first steps in Yiddishkeit?

A major kiruv activist told me that many ba’alei teshuva harbor bitterness to those who were mekarev them in the first place, but who do not remain available to guide them in the latter stages of the process. They feel that they were the esrog upon which the person who was mekarev them performed the mitzvah of kiruv, and that once they were safely within the fold, those who were mekarev them were off again in search of new “mitzvos.” That may be a complete misperception, but it nonetheless generates feelings of anger.

(One of the beauties of the phone chavrusah program of Ayelet HaShachar, which has grown from 2,000 to 4,000 chavrusas in the last year alone, is that it is based on ongoing one-to-one relationships that intensify over years between the volunteer and the one seeking to learn more about his or her Judaism.)

THE TRUTH IS that we have relatively little hard empirical data about the drop-out phenomenon. Most of what we know is based on anecdotal experience from which we extrapolate wildly. Each person in the field comes at it from his own vantage point. Thus those who work in the area of learning disabilities tend to see learning disabilities as the primary cause for dropping-out. A child whose problems go unaddressed and experiences school as misery may feel embittered towards the society that imposed that misery upon him, and which offers him few hopes for the future other than more of the same.

Those who work with shalom bayis problems tend to see the absence of shalom bayis as the primary cause. And no doubt among the families that they work with there are many children who are floundering in the system. As the Torah tells us, when parents do not speak with one voice, then they are more likely to produce rebellious children.

Others will tell you that the problem is poverty, or, in America, affluence. Those who deal with sexual abuse see that as a major cause.

My own guess is that virtually everyone is right — to a degree. For one thing, many of these phenomenon overlap. Both great affluence and poverty, for instance, positively correlate to different sorts of shalom bayis problems. As Chazal say, “Arguments are not found in a man’s home, except as a consequence of [a lack of] grain” (Bava Metziah 59b).

Certainly no one explanation fits every case. There are families in which every child is thriving except one — sometimes that one suffered by virtue of being in a family of such successful siblings – and others with multiple children at-risk. There are drop-outs with learning disabilities, and those who breezed through their early years in yeshiva. There are those from homes of ba’alei teshuva, and children of prominent roshei yeshiva.

In short for every anecdote, it is possible to cite an opposite one. Yet it remains crucial to get some hard data, based on high quality research, to understand the interrelationship of different factors, and which ones are most prevalent.

Devising solutions depends on knowing the causes and their relative importance. If, for instance, poverty is a major cause of alienation from the Torah world, there is not much to be done in the short-run. But if, on the other hand, learning disabilities turn out to be a major factor, much can be done: early psychometric testing in school, training avreichim and counselors how to learn with children who often have way above average intelligence but suffer from some form of disability, pharmacological interventions.

A second stage of the research, then, would involve assessment of the long-term effectiveness of different intervention strategies. Yad Eliezer has thousands of avreichim learning with boys from single-parent homes. Rabbi Yaakov Rushnevsky has created a model in a number of neighborhoods of intense after school tutoring for boys who are floundering in large classroom situations, which involves constant interaction with the cheder rebbe as well. And there are many other such programs. Evaluation can make such worthy programs even more effective and help determine which models should be emulated.

The drop-out phenomenon is but one example of a general rule: good decisions require good information. That is true of our world as well.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on January 30 2008.

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14 Responses

  1. Pinchas Giller says:

    I agree that social problems in the chareidi world are due to a variety of factors, but I wouldn’t have devoted as much space to the anecdotal sources that you have. First of all, I am dubious whenever someone invokes “blame the ba’alei teshuvah” as a reason for some social problem. Why should chozrim be-teshuvah be less socially adept than others, or more apt to feel radical doubt? And who says that there is a preponderance of chozrim be-teshuvah in al chareidi cities? You cite one person with whom you were talking and then expand on the theory . I would think that the opposite would be true, but I don’t know, lacking empirical data (as you mentioned). In fact, you are using one measure, namely being *avecgefallen*, to cover a variety of social malaises, which are matters of concern in and of themselves and not as part of a single phenomenon of disaffection. If there is poverty or materialism or abuse, R”L, each of these things is a separate problem that ought not to be reduced to the outcome of whether the victim is remaining observant. The reason to address poverty (about which there is, in fact, much that could be done) or learning disabilities is for the sake of alleviating people’s anguish, not in order to arrest neshirah.

  2. joel rich says:

    The drop-out phenomenon is but one example of a general rule: good decisions require good information. That is true of our world as well.

    Yasher Koach – and now the next step would be to get broad community backing to an objective survey and get good data to act on (surveys done by special interests are often subject to unintended [and perhaps intended] surveyor error). However, keep in mind that such a survey will raise expectations that it will be acted on even if some vested interests are hurt. Hopefully the realization that ein chochmah…lfnei hashem ( loose translation – do what HKB”H would want us to do) will make such a survey possible.



  3. Bob Miller says:


    Could you name an organization capable of bringing off the comprehensive study you propose, or would a whole new, multidisciplinary group be needed? Are our communities ready to be looked at objectively?

  4. Harry Maryles says:

    My own guess is that virtually everyone is right

    Excellent article. My only quibble is that many of those involved with their own particular segment of dropouts and cite their own perspectives as a cause of the problem would not necessisarly disagree that there are multiple causes. Indeed, I think serious people who deal with these issues would totally agree with the above statement.

  5. Dr. E says:

    One of the reasons for the second-generation BT drop-out phenomenon is that at some point, the kids will realize that their parents in a sense “rebelled” against their own parents. The kids know that not only was that estrangement OK, but that it represents the ideal. Therefore, when kids don’t fit into the ubiquitous cookie-cutter Torah-only Chinuch system and/or start to have questions, their own soul searching merely parallels the very path taken by their parents.

    Secondly, because many children of Baalei Teshuva are occasionally exposed to grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. who are professionals and contributing to the infrastructure of society (an infrastructure that includes secularly-educated doctors, engineers, etc. that even a Torah-only community needs). Unfortunately, the first generation BT’s often use their families’ non-religiousness and its “influence” as an excuse to shield their children from them. That is a case of simply throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So regardless of whether the second generation was “born into” the post-Kiruv environment or whether they were on the scene previously, kids are savvy enough (and appropriately so) to realize that an insular, Torah-only, one-size-fits-all approach to Yiddishkeit and Avodas Hashem is both socially and financially unfeasible. So, without alternative paths to Avodas Hashem, presented in the same l’chatchila way as his/her siblings who will be learning for the rest of their lives, the drop-out phenomenon will no doubt continue.

  6. Yoel B says:

    The reason to address poverty (about which there is, in fact, much that could be done) or learning disabilities is for the sake of alleviating people’s anguish

    I would like to second Pinchas Giller’s statement. When was in my late teens and first drawing closer to observance a carpool put me in the company of a very decent, very earnest Christian who spent much of the morning rides proselytizing me. After a while I remember thinking “this must be sort of like what pretty girls go through, being lusted after by somone trying to bag a trophy, except he’s trying to get into my pants ‘spiritually’ and not physically.”

    And while you can correctly say “l’havdil” for some kiruv workers, you cannot say it for all. That goes for initial kiruv and subsequent feelings of betrayal, but it also applies when one is approached and the end goal of the approach is to keep one within the fold. If that is the end goal, the straying sheep will feel manipulated and dirty — and will be right in feeling so. It’s a good thing that there is so much attractive about the Torah, and its recognition of human fallibility. That made it possible for me to stay despite some real personal betrayals and some truly sleazy and even harmful things I was asked to do to show my commitment to Yiddishkeit.

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    One of the hypotheses that “grabs” me was advanced, without prejudice to other causes, by the author of the book _Off_the_Derech_. She suggested that one particular cause of the dropout phenomenon was the attitude of “right of me is a fanatic, left of me is a shaigetz (heretic, not-serious person)”. Can people in a particular community get the insight that their child or pupil does not belong in this community but in that community. A woman who is a neighbor of ours in a yishuv in Israel grew up in Brooklyn in a chassidishe family, went to Bais Yaakov, but the parents saw that she was more suited for Bnai Akiva. They gave her their blessing, she made aliya, married a Moroccan guy from Kiryat Shmona, teaches and does a lot of chesed. “My way or the highway” is not a very useful educational philosophy for this generation.

  8. Joseph Faith says:

    It definately seems that baalei teshuvah find it harder to bring up kids in a frum mold-after all they never experienced growing up in a frum household, and what seems intuitive to FFB’s may not to BT’s.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that focusing on the empirical cause from outside cultural forces and phenomena, as opposed to looking at ourselves , misses the mark and is an easy way of avoiding the unfortunate truth. Look at this way, no family, school or community has cold and hard statistics on these issues -which I doubt are the subjects of “exit interviews” when a family R”L has problems or when a person walks away from Torah observance. “Off The Derech” IMO showed us that the problem is an internally created problem and that its victims use pseudonyms to discuss their issues on a website. Having read the article again, am I the only person who wonders whether a BT who speaks for and defends the Charedi world has the proper perspective on the issue.

    I also wonder how much real life experience with the issue the developers of the problems have with at risk kids. I know of a family where there was domestic turmoil, where two children were supposed to be like two peas in a proverbial pod and where one of their kids literally had to do anything possible to avoid being in the same house with her parents, including spending more than a few Shabbos afternoons and evenings with friendly neighbors. B”H, she joined NCSY, went to a seminary and is now married.However, she was at risk because of a dysfunctional family, an educational system and a community that almost failed to recognize her unique needs as a person and Bas Torah. Until and unless we realize that adolescents and teens are adults with needs, intellects and emotions and not potential BTs and kiruv/chesed opportunites, we will be blaming the victim and administering aspirin when radical surgery is necessary and reading appeals about programs for “off the derech” kids in our print and online media.

  10. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Some commenters have brought up the possibility of each segment seeing the problem differently based on ideology, and indeed this post mentioned that some experts give emphasis to the causes of “Off the Derech” in terms of the particular problem which they specialize in.

    I think that to some extent, this is less of a concern today because of the influence of online media. Just as a teacher or rebbe is forced to prepare better if he knows that his students will ask him challenging questions, the new forms of communication may indirectly raise the level of dialogue in traditional mediums in the Frum world(this was my reaction to Jonathan Rosenblum’s “Let Freedom Ring” column in last week’s Mishpacha).

    To bring two examples, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz’s site allows more voices to participate on the topic of this current post. Also, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried’s essay(“Are Our Children Too Worldly”), although based on a speech originally given at a mainstream forum, was published in Hakirah, which is not a conventional yeshivish publication. Subsequently, however, two more conventional forums(one of them Chasidic) asked that it be adopted for their audiences. Similarly, I think that one can be hopeful that the research that Jonathan Rosenblum refers to will look at the problem in a broad way, because of the realization that it may potentially be subject to a broader critique.

  11. Ilana Sober says:

    Yes, it is important to identify the reasons why young people leave orthodoxy, and to counteract them.

    But there’s one important factor in the prevalence of both the dropout and the baal teshuvah phenomena that we really can’t control. We live in a relatively open and fluid society. It’s possible to leave one’s parents, one’s hometown, and one’s religious and cultural upbringing and to find a comfortable place in a completely different society. It isn’t easy, but it’s a whole lot easier than it was in premodern times.

    There have probably always been “dropouts” from orthodoxy. But in previous generations, they may have retained the outward trappings of observance because socially and communally there was no other option short of conversion to Christianity.

    Today, every individual has the option of accepting or rejecting the Torah. And every individual has free choice.

    Addressing problems like learning disabilities, shalom bayit, and abuse should absolutely remain a critical priority. But not primarily because it keeps children “within the fold.” Because it prevents children from suffering!

    G-d gave each of us free choice, and He placed us in a generation where we can exercise it freely. Intelligent people from stable happy families can drop out of, or join, orthodox Judaism simply because they choose to do so.

  12. L Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Grylack in Mishpacha hss written about seeing children from the finest homes hanging out late at night in bars,etc. “Baalei Teshuva” is a term that gives no indication of a myriad of factors. There are all kinds of people with all kinds of mental conditions and emotional states who radically change their lives, some of them become baalei teshuva but that is not a fair description of other baalei teshuva. It is a generic term. Chareidi society has many issues and one way of not dealing with it is to blame the problem on the newcomers. That is why many schools discriminate openly against any child whose parents are in any way “different” and demand absolute conformity.
    I have grandchildren in charei chadorim and I hope for the best. I would like them to get a decent secular education and have career options and I hope their parents will make the right choices. I do know that many great people have warned of the pitfalls of aliyah to Eretz Yisroel with teenage children. If chareidi society is closed to outsi8ders, maybe in time American Chareidi olim will develope alternative institutuions and won’t feel that they have to adapt to a society that for them is dysfunctional.

  13. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Very good article. However…

    One problem to be overcome is that of denial. This is the main reason for the paucity of data on why chareidim drop out. Drop-out is treated as a rare phenomenon, something no good person would do so it is denied as a major concern and hence, not studied.

    The second problem is how people are “mekareved”. The Chareidi community, like all others, is a variable one. Some people are good, others are not. Yet the constant portrayal of anyone in a black hat and coat being a tzadik can lead to tremendous disappointment for the BT when he first encounters an unscrupulous Chareidi.

    The third is the double standard. The same coommunity which claims to love BT’s and wants to bring them into the fold also is so concerned that they own kids shouldn’t marry them, should attend the same schools as them, etc. Perhaps they’re jealous of the spiritual leap that the BT made?

    Providing BT’s with a less rose-coloured, more nuanced view of the world they wish to join would probably go a long way to cutting down on drop out

  14. Ben Ami says:

    Most people who are overweight drink diet soda.
    Drinking diet soda causes people to gain weight.

    This is more or less the logic in Rabbi Rosenblum’s friend’s analysis.

    Charedi cities attract many BT’s.
    Many BT children go off the derech.
    Charedi cities have more chidren at risk because of those problematic BT’s.

    There is nothing wrong with the Charedi cities (and of course the FFB’s who built them). It is a BT problem and the rest of us have nothing to worry about. Now we call all go back to sleep and stop worrying.

    Perhaps in these Charedi cities, the BT children are made to feel second rate. No one wants to feel second rate. Maybe in a more open town they are treated with more sensitivity. Maybe, it has nothing to do with being a BT, but having the feeling of not belonging.

    I have heard recently of a few distressing cases of young men who went off the derech or are at risk. All are from FFB families. The common factor, it seems to me, is a feeling of a lack of acceptance. You don’t necessarily have to be a BT to feel unwanted (although it helps).

    Our task is to find ways to make every young person feel wanted. Making this into a BT/FFB issue is not helpful.

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