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Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

A Community at Risk

First, a word of warm welcome to Klal Perspectives. Torah Jewry is blessed with a wide array of wonderful periodicals, but there remains a need for a forum where serious people can discuss the challenges facing our communities, our families and ourselves in today’s complicated world. Klal Perspectives aspires to be such a forum. The stellar lineup of scholars, thinkers and doers who stand behind this undertaking bodes well for its success. Hatzlacha rabba!

I recently heard Rabbi Chaim Kohn, shlit”a, a noted talmid chacham who serves as  Rav of the Gerrer Shtiebel in Flatbush, offer what for me was a novel interpretation – but, upon reflection, now strikes me as simple pshat – of Chazal‘s dictum “Eizehu hachacham? Haroeh es hanolad.” This is typically understood as equating wisdom with clairvoyance – the ability to foretell the future. But if that were so, says Rav Kohn, the phrase should be “es hayulad” or “es asher yivaled” – that which will be born. Why use the phrase “hanolad,” which implies something that has already been born? Further, why attribute the ability to foretell the future to the chacham, the wise man; isn’t that capacity more properly assigned to the navi, the prophet?

Indeed, explains Rav Kohn, wisdom (chochma) lies not with the ability to see things that are as yet unborn, hayulad or asher yivaled, but rather with the ability to see that which has already been born, hanolad  – that which may not have been here yesterday but is here today. The world changes with each new thing that is born; a chacham is one who recognizes what is new and appreciates what has changed, and adjusts his life and plans accordingly.

We are not prophets, so it is not possible to foretell what new challenges, as yet unborn, await our Torah community in the decades ahead. But it is possible to utilize whatever measure of collective chochma we may possess to better identify and understand the challenges facing us already today, and to develop plans and programs to deal with those challenges now so that they will not, chas v’shalom, overwhelm us in the years to come.

The challenge of “kids at risk” has been etched into our communal consciousness for at least the better part of two decades.  In more recent years, we have become aware of a different category: “adults at risk.”  There are obvious differences between the two groups, but there is also a bottom line commonality amongst them, a tzad ha’shaveh that in my view stands as the Torah community’s single greatest challenge as we face a frighteningly uncertain future: the undeniable fact that increasing numbers from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy – Chasidish, Yeshivish, Modern, Ashkenazi, Sefardi, young, not so young – feel no meaningful connection to Hashem, to His Torah, or even to His People.

Whether that absence of connection is reflected in the outright abandonment of shmiras ha’mitzvos, or in spiritually destructive conduct, or even in outward observance coupled with internal indifference, the bottom line is that Torah Jewry is hemorrhaging at an alarming rate.

Yes, there is more Torah being learned today by more people than ever before, the large majority of  yeshiva graduates are a source of great pride to the Jewish people,  various social ills that plague society around us are less prevalent in our corner of the world – ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu! Yet signs of danger abound. We are losing far too many precious neshomos already today, with legitimate cause for concern that we may face even greater losses, chas v’shalom, in the years to come.

Boruch Hashem, there are numerous programs – wonderful programs – designed to work with the various at-risk populations. These programs have made a real difference in the lives of thousands. We are at a moment in history now, however, when many of these programs are being pared down or even closed down for lack of funding. Government grants in these times of austere budgets are extremely difficult to come by. Uncle Sam is no longer the benevolent benefactor he once was. Nor, for that matter, are some of the generous ba’alei tzedaka giving today at the levels they gave yesterday. The still sluggish economy has impacted private sector giving tremendously. While Klal Yisroel continues to shine brightly in its commitment to philanthropy even in the most trying economic times, there are so many urgent causes that command our collective tzedaka attention that individual programs inevitably go hurting – including those that deal with at-risk populations.

But entirely apart from the challenge of finding ways to ensure the fiscal viability of these vital programs, we need to recognize an even bigger challenge in addressing the at-risk problem: gaining a better understanding of the problem. We have concentrated our communal efforts primarily on post-facto interventions to help those who have strayed, or have exhibited signs of potential stray. Where we are still sorely lacking is a clear understanding of why so many of our young (and not so young) are straying. If we were to gain a more sophisticated understanding of why this is happening, it would help us immeasurably in taking preventative measures to address root causes and not just symptoms.

What are the greatest risk factors that lead to adolescent at-risk behavior? Family dysfunction? Abuse or molestation?  Exposure to harmful technological influences? Bad experiences in school? Learning disabilities?  Lack of self-esteem? Poverty? Excessive materialism? Disillusion with what is perceived as adult hypocrisy? Lack of focus on the foundations of our emunah?

Similarly, what are the greatest risk factors that lead so many of our young adults to lose their sense of connection to the Torah way of life? Economic pressures? Temptations of the work environment? Marital strife? Failure to be koveya itim l’Torah? Being koveya itim, but not using precious learning time meaningfully? Lack of ongoing connection with a rabbinic authority figure?

Of course, chances are that all of these factors – and surely others as well – contribute to our growing attrition rate.  But without knowing more precisely the extent to which they do, it is difficult to devise a coherent communal response to the overall problem. If our goal is to intelligently attack the problem at its core, and to devise effective strategies of prevention and early intervention, perhaps the first order of business ought to be some solid empirical research.

I am not a social scientist. I wouldn’t know how or where to begin studying the subject. But surely there is a large enough pool of teens and adults who have strayed, of parents and teachers who have lived through their children’s and students’ experiences, of yeshivos and day schools with different curricula and different approaches to chinuch ha’bonim, of professionals and dedicated volunteers who have worked with at-risk populations, all of whose collective insight and experience can shed real light on the risk factors that most urgently require attention. The data base, one senses, is there – but we need to gather it together and study it properly.

Our Torah community has no shortage of organizations that do great things. Some, like the organization I am privileged to serve as executive vice president, even have a broad mandate to represent Klal Yisroel as a collective whole, and to help address the full range of diverse challenges facing the community. However, there is no organization today that has the resources or expertise to engage in the type of comprehensive empirical study necessary to correctly understand the root causes of the problem we face and to identify appropriate, preventative remedies. We do not as yet have an organizational “think tank” whose sole responsibility is research and policy development. The time has come.

The information and knowledge we need to ensure that we and our children and our grandchildren will, be”H, retain a meaningful connection with Hashem has already been nolad; it’s there for us to gather, study and act upon. Let’s get to work.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is the Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America.

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