Let’s look at an example of how mentoring improved the life of a teenager who had given up observing Jewish tradition.
Last year two parents, Levy and Sarah, came to talk to me about their sixteen-year-old son named Chaim. These parents are first-generation Americans whose families came from Russia in the 1950s. Their family had never experienced the problem of an at-risk teenager and they wanted to see if I could help them.
After exploring their relationship with Chaim, I wanted to find out about other relationships that may prove useful in helping Chaim to feel better about himself.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): I realize that Chaim seems very unhappy at home. Is there anybody outside of the family that he connects with?
Sarah: He loves going to our neighbor’s house. They have a son the same age. He is a much better boy and likes talking to Chaim. I think his parents can handle my son’s mishugas and Chaim likes the attitude in their home.
DS: He likes their attitude? What do you mean?
Levy: Well, they treat him differently from the way we do. You know what it’s like – it’s hardest to get along with the people closest to you. When you are not that close, you can be friendly.
Sarah: Probably because your friends aren’t responsible for you. So whatever goes is okay.
DS: Yes, I think that’s part of it. There is another reason why sometimes children prefer their friends more than their family. The reason is that their friends don’t try to control or criticize them. It’s like grandparents. I often say that they get all the nachas and none of the tzuris. Perhaps parents should be more like grandparents. Do you see what I mean?
Sarah: Are you saying we aren’t friendly enough with him? How can we be? He is falling apart and needs help. Can’t you do something?
DS: Well, that’s what I’m here for. I try to help people realize that even in the worst cases, there is always something you can do. The first thing I want you to realize is that everything you tried up until now hasn’t worked. If you want to help Chaim, you need to stop trying to control him and replace control with a deepening relationship. From the time he was born, your relationship has been based on control. You expected him to do what you wanted – when to go to bed, who to play with, and when to do his homework. However, Chaim has changed; he no longer accepts your control and has taken you out of his inner world. He wants something new that you need to give him.
Sarah: What’s that?
DS: He needs love and friendship. That means that you need to develop a new strategy for parenting. The more you try to control him, the further he wants to get away. I want you to end that kind of relationship and start something new.
We talked about the importance of taking all language of control and criticism out of their dialogue and replacing it with love and acceptance, and I explained the need for them to monitor their words to evaluate if they are bringing them closer or further away from Chaim.
The next week, Sarah and her husband came back for a second session. This time they seemed more optimistic. We talked about their interactions with Chaim and they said that although nothing really changed, at least they had stopped fighting.
I was encouraged by these small steps, and I asked if Chaim would agree to come in to talk. I wanted to find out more about his inner world. Two weeks later, Chaim came into my office. Our conversation follows.
DS: Tell me a bit about what you do like in life. What are you good at in school?
Chaim: Well, I don’t like studying gemarah or chumash very much, but I do like writing and music.
DS: What do you like writing about?
Chaim: I don’t know. I guess about a lot of things. I enjoy writing about outer space.
DS: What about outer space? Is it about planets, stars, or people traveling there?
Chaim: I think people going away to different galaxies is cool. They get to find out about new things and get away from this boring world. No more fighting, just finding out about new stuff.
DS: What do you think happens when people are flying in the same space ship for a long time? Doesn’t it get boring up there too?
Chaim: I guess so.
DS: So what do you think makes it interesting when you’re put together in a box and are drifting out into space for years at a time?
Chaim: I’m not sure.
DS: It might be that if the people have good relationships, they probably enjoy spending a lot of time together – even out in space. Do you see what I mean?
Chaim: I guess so.
DS: What I’m trying to say is that enjoying life out in space and maybe here in this world is all about having good relationships. Can I ask you a question? What relationships do you enjoy and which people are you having trouble with?
Chaim: Well, I hate my parents and I think my rabbis are boring. I don’t think I like talking to anyone. My rabbis don’t have any idea how I’m feeling!
DS: Is that true? Was there a time when you knew some rabbis that you liked?
Chaim: I loved my second grade rebbe. He was really cool. I remember him talking about space. When I was in his grade, there was a launch of the space shuttle, and I remember him talking about it. He was so funny. He always knew how to get us interested in what we were learning even if he had to go off the page for a few minutes. We trusted him. He knew how to enjoy life.
At that session, I found what I was looking for – a small opening to Chaim’s inner world. He was sharing with me something he had hidden away for about ten years, the rebbe he enjoyed in school. I believed that if he could connect with someone like his rebbe, he could develop a relationship that could provide a springboard for his recovery. I told Chaim that his rebbe sounded like a man he could be honest with. I asked if he would call up his rebbe and just say hello and to tell him that he still had fond memories of his class. Chaim turned out to be very receptive to the idea.
Later that week he contacted his former rebbe, who suggested that he come to meet and talk about how he was feeling. He also told Chaim that he was willing to talk to him whenever he needed and invited him to his home for a Shabbos meal.
Over the course of the next few months, despite all of the ups and downs, I saw Chaim slowly come back to life. We had numerous discussions about astronomy and space travel and about deepening his ability to maintain positive relationships with his rebbe and with his parents.
I also worked with Chaim’s parents encouraging them to follow my lead and to