In my last article, I discussed the topic of “teens at risk.” We have always had “teens at risk” within our yeshiva system, but they were segregated and referred to as the “bum class.” This class was separated from the mainstream students, and given its own separate rebbe to provide support services. The success of this system was due to the fact that yeshivas followed the Torah concept that “majority rules”. The yeshivas achieved their goals when working with “teens at risk” by keeping a certain balance. On one side of the scale, they had a small group of “at risk” students; on the other side, they had the majority of mainstream students who would outweigh the “at risk” population by 80 to 90 percent.
The benefits of this system were twofold: (1) the majority could serve as a positive role model for the minority and, in time, absorb the at rise group, and (2) — this would help prevent the minority group from ending up on the streets, meeting the wrong people, and forming a group of their own — a group which is known today as “teens at risk.”
Well, if the system worked, why did we change it? The rabbanim teach us that environmental factors effect our judgement and how we function. Since the inception of special education in the school system, there became a growing awareness of needs and expectations in the educational system as a whole. Yeshivas were no exception, and they wanted to provide high quality education consistent with the students’ needs. While the Board of Education put their “special” students in a more restrictive environment, yeshivas put theirs in a less restrictive environment.
The beliefs were that students are more alike than different, and that integrating classes would result in improved students. Yeshivas moved quickly to provide quality education to their “bum” classes. In an effort to no longer stigmatize and segregate students from the mainstream, they moved the “bum class” to a less restrictive environment with the best intentions.
In theory, strengthening general education to support all students with high expectations sounded good. But many of these students had special needs, and the integration process moved much too quickly. The students needed time, tolerance, patience and support services. Since they felt like failures, many teens rebelled.
About a year ago, a computer based vocational training program was introduced into the Jewish community. It was sponsored in part by the I.D.T. Corporation and a leading rav in the community. Those who headed the project were determined to make a difference for Jewish youth who were not succeeding in the mainstream yeshivas. They did this by setting up a balance of 80 percent mainstream, 20 percent “at risk,” similar to what was done in the yeshivas in the past. Together with a team of professionals, a curriculum was developed that would provide students with the skills and training to become network engineers.
This vocational training program was staffed by both rabbonim and computer specialists. This way, they could provide the necessary support services that would enhance positive goals, spiritual self-esteem, and meaningful employment. As a result, the “at risk” teens would be absorbed into the system and become productive citizens in the community.
In short, the I.D.T. vocational program was a great success. This vocational yeshiva worked so well that it could have served as a role model for other schools to follow. Soon, they were flooded with phone calls from parents all over New York begging to accept their children into this program.
As more and more “at risk” teens were accepted, they began to tip the scale from 20 to 52 percent, lowering the mainstream ratio to 49 percent. Since the balance was upset, there were not enough positive role models to look up to. The majority were no longer the mainstream teens, but the “teens at risk,” and soon the program fell apart.
Rabbi Eleazar Ben Shimon says, “the world is judged according to the majority, and the individual is judged according to the majority. If the person performs one commandment, he should rejoice because he has tipped the scales of the world towards merit” (Gemara Kidushin).
The Torah states that in order to know the future, we must learn from the past. With Hashem’s help, perhaps we can return to the past to help the future of our youth.