Friday, February 7, 2014

A Word from the Director: 2/7/2014

As it is not uncommon for me to be on the phone for many hours a day, despite being in Israel for the last week and a half, things were no different. I was happy to be able to reconnect with many of our boys who are there in many different capacities. One evening as the day was winding down, I received two phone calls - both from young men we had been involved with in Los Angeles a few years ago. I will not go into the whole list of rehabs, detox programs, homeless shelters, and jail time each had experienced at different points along their journey, but the excitement of hearing how well they were doing now kept me up the rest of the night. The 30 year old told me that he has been married for three years, blessed with two children, and is currently living in Bnei Brak - a real chassidishe mentsch. He came to Israel with not a penny in his pocket, and began to bake a unique kind of health bread. What started as 10 loaves a week has grown to a full blown bakery that delivers 750 loaves all over the country. He was so proud to tell me about the stable, healthy, self-supporting life he is currently leading. The other boy, 23, originally from Lakewood, who had made the rounds of several programs, couldn’t hold down a job, and had his share of legal woes, has been in the Israeli army for 18 months and just reenlisted into an elite unit for another 18 months. As I listened to him proudly tell of his accomplishments, I recalled the hundreds of hours I had spent listening to his parents cry over his situation, worrying that he may not even live into adulthood.

I share these stories, not to proclaim the success of Aish Tamid, and not to tell you that Israel holds the key to transformation for these kids - because it doesn’t always - but to give parents out there some hope. Their stories certainly were mechazek me! Just because a kid is struggling now, doesn’t mean it will always be like this. These boys had hit rock bottom, and there was good reason to fear for their safety, but somehow, when they were ready (and yes, the efforts of parents, therapy, programs, and many tefillos and tears do help) they pulled themselves together, took advantage of opportunities and support systems being offered to them, and have grown into healthy, responsible adults.

In general, it was touching to see how many boys came to visit as I sat shiva for my father, and asked what they could do to help. Many helped make minyanim when I needed, one boy picked me up from the airport when I arrived and another took me back when I left, and two kids who live in Tel Aviv made plans to meet me at the airport before my departure flight. It was heartwarming to see the married ones, and inspiring to place yet another boy (who had been living in a loft in Meah She’arim doing nothing for months) in a nurturing yeshiva environment.

I would like to thank everyone who came to see me during the shiva for my father and for all the comforting words, phone calls, and cards that were sent. I have a newfound appreciation for shiva and the halachic mourning process. It was an active lesson for me in what true support and help looks and feels like. One last story that occurred during shiva that I wanted to share. At some point it becomes hard for the mourner to keep talking and telling stories, although you are grateful for the presence of those who come to comfort you. There was one boy who came to our house a few times over the couple of days that I sat shiva here. He sat on a couch in the back of the room, sometimes playing with my kids and keeping them occupied, and sometimes just quietly texting, but he was there. Occasionally he would ask if I needed anything, or if I wanted him to bring me a shwarma. I found it comforting that he didn’t want or need anything from me, he was just present, and sometimes that’s all a person needs.

I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my assistant Ivan who held down the fort at Aish Tamid for the past two weeks, including running our annual Super Bowl party, and even fielding a few crises along the way. I would also like to acknowledge the boys who stepped up to the plate and did some of the shopping and errands necessary to keep the Drop-In Center running.

Thank you to Allan Genauer for donating a new pool table to Aish Tamid. We are putting it together and are excited to start using it soon.

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/17/2014

This week our community has been rocked yet again by the untimely death of a very special young wife and mother. Her sudden, tragic passing has plunged her family, friends, and teachers into a blur of grief and mourning. There has been so much involvement by various community leaders and her mentors, that I even suggested a support group to be mechazek the mechazkim. Unfortunately, this is not the first or even second tragedy of this nature in the past few months here in Los Angeles. I personally lost my best friend just days before his only son’s Bar Mitzvah. And a few months before that, a woman who was a pillar in the community passed away weeks before her son’s Bar Mitzvah as well. All three were eulogized at Shaarei Tefillah where their common middah of chessed, generosity, and concern for others was mentioned repeatedly as a charge to us to learn from them and better ourselves. When a young woman dies and within hours of setting a time for the levaya, 600 people are present, with another 900 watching online around the world, and within days two different learning programs have started, plus a mitzvah campaign that over 400 people have already signed up for, one must reflect and recognize “mi k’amcha yisrael.” What other nation would come together both in sheer numbers of people and effort in such a short time?

As the outpouring of support for the family and friends continues, one must recognize that there is no one way to grieve, and each person affected will experience the grief process differently. Whether or not you believe in the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), one must acknowledge that as Jews, we have our own stages of shiva, shloshim, and the year leading up to the first yahrzeit. During each one, we must value the intensity of that stage, with each progressive one being less intense than the one before, and try to appreciate the importance of mourning at that level. As anyone who has been to a shiva house can attest, people certainly display different needs as they experience the raw pain of that first week following the loss of a close family member. Some want to talk about the niftar and share their thoughts and feelings. Others want to sit quietly and listen to memories the visitors have of their loved one, while others want to just sit in silence. Chazal knew this and therefore the halacha is that we must follow the mourner’s emotional cue. We are instructed to wait until they speak. And if they cannot – just sit there quietly. In this age of cell phones and constant communication it is one of the most difficult things to do, but nichum aveilim is about the avel, and if that’s the ‘emotional cue’ you get from him or her – do what they need. They must not be made to feel that they have to share stories and entertain you, but if they do open the conversation, don’t grill them with questions to fill the awkward, aching silence. Be still. Be there. We can’t fix it, nor do we have any magic answers, but we can be present and share the pain. As one woman mourning the sudden death of her brother wrote: “The spirit of what your friend needs to hear is simply this: Hang in there. You are brave. You are not alone although this journey is deeply lonely. You are loved. You will not always feel this way. We honor the pain and memory and life-altering experience you are having. We are here to help you. We are not mind readers so we need you to communicate if you need something. Nobody is judging you. We are heartbroken for you. No matter what, we will walk beside you.”

I witnessed this show of support being so beautifully done by a Rebbe for a talmid last night. The young man was making a siyum in memory of his mother who passed away three years ago. His aunt and uncle arranged a beautiful seudah with many family members and friends in attendance. Unfortunately, this boy’s rebbe knew the pain of losing a loved one all too well, as he lost his son in a very tragic and sudden death just a couple of years ago. Watching the two of them together, one couldn’t help but notice that there was clearly a special, unspoken bond between them as they somehow supported each other in their grief. Just knowing that the other understood his pain seemed to bring comfort to both of them. We all have our tzaros, our pain, and our challenges. The Jewish people are an “am echad b’lev echad” and as such must be there to help and support each other, even if it means dropping our own facades sometimes. We all suffer losses of varying types and we need to mourn our own losses, as well as comfort others in their time of pain. May we, as a community, be zoche to see the end of tzaros, large and small, and be consoled by the only One Who can grant us clarity and true comfort – HaMakom yenachem.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/10/2014

The other day I walked into one of the rehabs that I am involved with and met up with a young man who has spent the last six months in Men’s Central Jail. This was his second stint in that jail. Over the course of our conversation it came to light that he had just been released that very morning. In fact, he hadn’t even known he was being let out until just a few hours before, so there was quite a range of emotions he was dealing with. He was certainly thrilled with the happy news, excited to be a free man again, and so grateful to Hashem for orchestrating the whole thing. We discussed these feelings, and I asked him how long he thought the inspiration, gratitude, and commitment to change in the future would last. I actually gave him an ‘assignment’ to write down the thoughts and emotions he was experiencing on his first day of freedom, so that when his resolve faltered, he would have something tangible to go back to that would remind him of what it felt like to walk out of the gates of incarceration.

In this week’s parsha the Jews had a similar challenge of taking their inspiration and strengthened faith in Hashem into their next crisis. After hundreds of years of slavery and torture they were finally allowed to walk out of the gates of Mitzrayim, only to be chased by their enemies before they could even fully savor their freedom. To make matters worse, they are faced with the Yam Suf looming ahead and nowhere to turn. Even tefilla doesn’t seem to work in this situation, as Hashem tells Moshe that now is the time for action; not prayer. With Nachshon’s brave jump into the sea, an escape route was created, once again, for the Jews. But the Egyptians had followed them in! At the precise moment when all the Jews were safely on the other side, and all Egyptian soldiers were in the sea, the waters came crashing back down drowning them all. As if that wasn’t enough, the bodies were then spit out onto the dry land for the Jews to see and be sure that their enemies were dead and they were safe. At that point it says, “and they believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant.” Why only at that point is the declaration of their faith recorded? What about all the miracles that led to that point? Rav Moshe Feinstien answers that the makos weren’t enough because after each one, the enemy was still there and retracted the Jews’ permission to leave. Even kriyas Yam Suf might not have solidified their emunah, because they were still afraid that just like they came out on their other side, the Egyptians could have emerged as well and still continued chasing them. It was only after having the closure of seeing their captors dead on the sand in front of them that their faith was strengthened and they were inspired to sing Shiras HaYam.

If this was the case, and their faith in Hashem and Moshe was so strong, then how could they falter only a short time later when the food runs out and they want to go back to Mitzrayim. How could they possibly have forgotten all the years of fear, pain, and suffering there?! The answer is that no matter how big the miracle, or how strong the inspiration, the effect doesn’t last unless you find a way to concretize it and keep it real in your life. That’s why we have so many mitzvos that are “zecher l’yetzias mitzrayim.” As big and powerful as that experience was, we would have difficulty fulfilling the commandment to remember it everyday if we didn’t have tangible reminders like tefillin, kriyas sh’ma, Kiddush, and more. And that is why I had this young man record his feelings on that first day of his release. We would like to think that the burst of excitement he felt upon hearing that he was being let out of jail, and then the exhilaration of exiting the gates, would be enough to deter him from making the same mistakes again that got him there in the first place.

But those feelings fade and we return to our daily lives, unfortunately losing the motivation to stay in a growth-oriented mindset. The reminders need to be concrete. That’s why some people make a seudas hoda’ah every year to commemorate events in their lives. The benefit of holding onto the memories of times that Hashem saved us from a challenging situation, is that the next time we are in crisis, we can hopefully maintain our strengthened emunah that Hashem will save us this time as well. We must recognize that the flashes of inspiration that Hashem send us are a gift to carry us through the next dark time in our lives.

A huge yasher koach to Rabbi Chaim Kolodny for committing to sponsor one night of dinner from Chick N’ Chow every week for our boys!

We would also like to thank Elisha and Tehila Kramer for sponsoring our new website as well as the professional staff at Powered who designed the site. They can be reached at 818-669-4956. Please check us out at We welcome your feedback and suggestions.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/3/2014

As the secular world celebrated the start of a New Year this week, many Orthodox high schools were grappling with a dilemma. Knowing that many of their students would have opportunities to attend parties where unsafe or inappropriate activities would be taking place, should they make a rule with serious enough consequences to deter the unruly behavior, or educate the kids about the dangers of these events and let them learn from decisions they make, or is such an issue the parents’ domain and the school should leave it to the parents’ judgment?

By acknowledging the issue, is the school giving it too much credence and in some way condoning it?

One high school decided that they could not ignore the reality and as their job is to educate, they would begin with that approach. They brought in someone who, despite his Rabbinic appearance, came from a background similar to the Modern Orthodox students in his audience. He told dramatic and painful stories of lives of kids he personally knew being tragically altered due to a lapse of good judgment. He emphasized the danger of getting caught up in the moment and throwing caution to the wind because teenagers think they are invincible. Many of the kids commented afterwards that the speaker had really given them food for thought and they were inspired to rethink and maybe even change their plans for New Year’s Eve. However, as the day approached and there were still rumblings of parties being attended, a couple of teachers felt they had to face the harsh reality that some of the students that they cared for so deeply were in fact going to be in places they shouldn’t, and possibly compromising both Torah and personal values. They decided to send out an email reminding the kids of the inspiration they felt only a few days before and to encourage them to make good choices. At the end of the letter they included their cell phone numbers with an offer to come help any student who found themselves, or their friends, in a compromising situation at any point that night. Again, the dilemma: are we sanctioning the festivities by acknowledging them and possibly even enabling the kids, or are we confronting a challenging situation head-on in the hopes of protecting the kids from themselves, or does the school send a stronger message of zero tolerance by not even addressing the issue?
There are no absolute right answers. Schools, parents, and organizations like Aish Tamid all have different considerations when faced with difficult questions like these. Schools have to worry about their reputation in a community and the impact that the actions of some students can have on their peers. They have a responsibility to many different kids and their families. Parents have to answer the question of what standards they want to set in their home, and how can they maintain a relationship with the child who challenges those standards while not compromising the message of their core values to their other children. And even at Aish Tamid, where despite the fact that we may have lowered the bar, and “the rules of the game” are different when one is dealing with kids in crisis, we still have certain expectations of the kids and some basic rules for their own safety.

As parents, our primary concern is always for our children’s safety, both physical and spiritual. To that end, we set rules and try to enforce those limits both with verbal messages and consequences when necessary. But at what point do we need to let them take ownership of their behavior and learn from the natural consequences that sometimes ensue? I had a boy come to me last week with, unfortunately, a rather extreme situation. He is dating a non-Jewish girl, and as you can well imagine, his parents are devastated and have made their disapproval quite clear. We had a meaningful discussion about how decisions that one makes now may have long-term repercussions, and that what may not be important to him now might be in ten years. His response took me by surprise. He said, “In life, one has to make their own decisions. My father did that – his first wife wasn’t Jewish and he learned the hard way. Maybe that’s what I need to do too.” What can or should the parents do in such a tragic situation? I do not claim to have answers to such things. But I do know that every situation is different and presents its own “grey areas” that must be contended with. Therefore, it is imperative that one has Rabbanim, mentors, support groups, and even experienced and wise friends, to consult with as they navigate the complexities of raising a child in today’s complicated society.

We want to thank Levi Graubard from Chick N Chow for sponsoring a delicious dinner of Chinese food for the Drop-In Center this week. We’d also like to thank Abba’s for continuing to sponsor weekly dinners for the Drop-In Center. Dr. Presser also sponsored a dinner this week l'zecher nishmas Faige Nesha Bas Binyamin HaKohain; we’d like to thank him as well.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff