The November 1999 issue of The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel’s magazine, was devoted entirely to children at risk, the spreading phenomenon of youngsters from religious homes who stray from Judaism, at times by indulging in anti-social behavior, including drug abuse.
The discussion was meaningful and moving, touching on a subject that many of us sensed yet had no clear understanding of. The articles examined the nature of the problem and how to deal with it, including a significant essay by the eminent mashgiach (spiritual guide) Rav Shlomo Wolbe, who died last year. He observed that the Chazon Ish regarded the expulsion of yeshiva students a matter of life and death and therefore could not be decided by a single person.

The Jewish Observer has now reexamined the issue. We are moved once more by stories of tragedy and loss and comforted by the prospect of return and redemption. Our hearts cry for parents undergoing the at-risk experience and also for their children. There is gratitude for those who engage in the always difficult and too often painful efforts to reach out to at-risk children, giving them a lifeline of heart and soul and enormous empathy, even as they know that while some will be saved, too many will be lost.

The term “at risk” encompasses divergent situations, including children who have already been lost and engage in behavior that is hostile to Judaism and social norms, youngsters who have abandoned religious life and those who exhibit tendencies indicating that they may fall through either the Judaic or societal safety nets. It is impossible to know how many children from Orthodox homes fit into these categories and it is important not to exaggerate. If we consider all three categories, the number certainly is in the thousands, and it is growing.


There is a parallel at-risk phenomenon in Israel in haredi or fervently religious families and it may be more serious than what we are now experiencing here, if not in numbers then in the degree of hostility toward Judaism and destructive behavior.

What causes religious children to be at-risk? Obviously, there isn̓t a simple explanation and in some situations there apparently is no explanation. There are parents who are terrific at parenting, showing patience and wisdom and seemingly doing everything right who have children who fall through the cracks and add to the toll in our community. There are other parents who seem to violate all of the good parenting rules whose children evolve into gems.

Overall, good parenting yields good fruit. This means being patient and caring, despite disappointment in how a child is doing in school or behaving at home. Even so, the results may not be what parents had hoped and prayed for. In all situations, care must be taken to strengthen and certainly not weaken a child’s self-esteem. This is the single factor that can provide protection against the emergence of at-risk children. Where self-esteem is lacking, it can serve as the germ that results in children being at-risk.

In pinpointing the crucial role of self-eseem, I am not dismissing other possible factors, such as the rejection of religious life or a child falling in with the wrong crowd or friend. Yet, where self-esteem is present, children can overcome emotional, educational and social setbacks. Where it is absent, even trifling issues can turn into crises.

Self-esteem or its absence is to a large extent part of a person’s nature, something that is there like an ear for music or physical agility or not there. We see kids who are confident from nearly day one. They may not turn into good students and yet they feel good about themselves, while there are children who seem afraid of their own shadow, irrespective of how well they do in school or in friendships or at home. What life brings can alter a child’s outlook, adding to or subtracting from the reservoir of self-esteem. Children who are emotionally fragile are inordinately affected by what occurs in their lives, by whether their emotional underpinnings are challenged or fortified.

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Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at [email protected].