Recently, I read a shocking and saddening report published in the “Jewish Press.” In an article written by Sandy Eller, entitled “67 Deaths in Eight Months,” the New York-based Adumin organization revealed that since Rosh Hashanah, 67 Orthodox young people under the age of 35, in the tri-state area alone, have died because of substance abuse. The figure is astonishing! 67 young lives! In the Orthodox community! Gevalt! 21 suicides, 41 drug overdoses, and 5 alcohol-related deaths! I don’t have statistics available, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this figure is higher than in the overall age group in the general tri-state area, which numbers 1000 times more. As Hamlet might say, “Something is rotten in the Orthodox community in New York.”
Eller writes that the Orthodox community has hidden the problem for years. Now Rabbi Zvi Gluck, director of Adumin, has decided it is time to come out of the closet with the issue, in order to save lives.
Of course, we all empathize with the plight of these young people, and the tragedy of their deaths. Certainly, just like every individual is unique, the causes behind these deaths vary from case to case. But, to tell you the truth, if I were a young Orthodox person living in New York, I too would want to be drunk or stoned most of the time to escape the emptiness, inner horror, and hypocrisy of galut existence. How can you raise an Orthodox child to believe in the Torah while teaching him that Jewish life in the Diaspora, living amongst the gentiles in alien lands, is perfectly OK? Any normal child who reads the Bible understands that G-d wants the Jewish People to live in the Land of Israel, just like it says in the Torah again and again. But if you tell a Jewish child that living in New York is just as good, and even better than living in Israel, you screw up his, or her, brain, and some form of schizophrenia is sure to follow. The Torah was given to be practiced in Eretz Yisrael, not in Egypt, or the wilderness of Sinai, and not in Brooklyn, New York. That’s why Judaism in the galut is hollow and void of real spirit. Like Rashi, and the Ramban, and other great Sages have written, the practice of the commandments in the exile is just to keep us from forgetting them, so that we will know how to do them when we return to Eretz Yisrael. Young Orthodox people sense this charade. They sense the hollowness of Orthodox life in America. This feeling of emptiness leads them to feel alienated from Judaism, and from life in general. Unfortunately, to express their feelings in the Orthodox world around them is strictly taboo, as forbidden as cheeseburgers and pre-marital coupling, so they resort to alcohol and drugs to drown out their inner anxiety and deep unhappiness in living a life that doesn’t feel true. Some anguished souls even commit suicide.
The real problem is that no one tells them the truth. No one tells them that their inner feelings are really healthy feelings – that a Jew is supposed to feel the emptiness of Torah in galut, because the real place of Torah is Israel. Their parents don’t tell them; their teachers and rabbis don’t tell them; the Rosh Yeshiva doesn’t tell them that they are perfectly right to feel the way they do, because, just as the Torah portion, Behukotai, teaches, Jewish life in the exile is a curse, a life filled with anxiety and dread.
If the Orthodox community in New York wants these terrible tragedies to cease, there is only one solution – to teach young people that the joy and spiritual high of Judaism is waiting for them in the Land of Israel. They don’t need shrinks and a half-way centers. They need to hear the truth. No more half-way Judaism. It is time for the full Judaism of Eretz Yisrael.