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

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