One of the many crises facing the Jewish people today is the phenomenon of “at-risk” youth. A child who is “at-risk” is generally defined as one who rebels against authority figures, demonstrates antipathy toward Jewish rituals, performs poorly in yeshiva, and is experimenting with delinquent or self-destructive behavior.
What must be noted, however, is that calling such a child “at-risk” is like calling someone on his way to the emergency room at-risk of being unwell. It’s absurd. “At-risk” implies that preliminary intervention can still effectively stave off the danger. By the time these symptoms of spiritual frailty are so outward and blatant the child is well beyond the at-risk stage.
This is not mere semantics. As is often the case, inaccurate terminology is a reflection of inaccurate perceptions, which then lead to responses that fail to address the root of the problem.
The child who is truly at-risk may not be exhibiting his spiritual frailty in any way. He may be doing very well in school. He may come from a fine family where he receives plenty of love and attention. He may be well liked by all who know him. He may be following halacha without complaint.
He is also at high risk of abandoning it all at some future point, to the shock and anguish of those who nurtured him. They will never have seen it coming, and even after the fact will be at a loss to explain it. They will wonder who is to blame, but despite a myriad of attempts to point the finger they will find no truly satisfying culprit. They will ultimately wonder if this is some sort of epidemic, if somehow God Himself is responsible for this tragedy.
Just as every human being is different, every case of a child going off the proper path has factors that are unique to it. Nevertheless, in essence one only leaves a certain path if he finds another path that is more attractive to him. His reasons for finding the other path more attractive might be illusory and stem from all sorts of issues, but it is still a choice that is being made based on wants and needs. His current path is not meeting his current needs, so he searches for a substitute.
Why might an adolescent decide one day that an alternative path meets his needs better than an observant Jewish lifestyle? Consider how that lifestyle must appear to many of our young people:
● It is a lifestyle that is best defined by its multitude of restrictions.
● Fun is generally deemed inappropriate.
● One is expected to love poring over ancient Jewish texts that are often difficult to understand and bear little apparent relevance to one’s life.
● One is expected to be brilliant and multi-talented.
● One is expected to be passionate about spiritual activities such as prayer that can easily become mechanical.
● One is expected to never question rabbis or other authority figures, let alone disagree with them.
● One must ignore or rationalize hypocrisy in the community and its leaders.
● Only a limited range of opinions is deemed acceptable. Creative and critical thinking are highly frowned upon.
● One must dress, think, speak, and generally behave in a manner that is strikingly similar to one’s peers, down to even small details. One who expresses overt individuality is ostracized.
● In many circles boys learn at an early age that the only respectable lifestyle it to study Torah to the exclusion of all earthly activities. If they don’t measure up they are failures, and may never even get married.
● Girls learn at an early age that if they are not fabulously pretty they stand little chance of getting married. They may also be expected to perform the functions of both a mother and a father while their husbands pursue indefinite Torah study.
● If they manage to get married they will have many kids and then maintain a very expensive standard of living just to be “normal.” If they don’t earn a million dollars every five years or so, they are likely to have great financial worries, which will include being unable to give their children a Jewish education and marry them off.