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Yihyu L’ratzon Imrei Phi

“May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favour before you, Hashem…My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully.” The words of the final section of Sh’moneh Esrei have taken on a new meaning ever since I started volunteering at our place; my words have taken on a new power and significance. What I say has the power to either make or break, build or destroy, bring close or distance. And to be honest, I am a bit out of my depth.

Baruch Hashem I have, I think, in a small way with a few people, been successful and my words have improved rather than damaged. But the responsibility bears heavily upon me and is constantly on my mind. I am well aware of the fact that everything I have done in my short month here at Our Place has been nothing short of the greatest Siyata D’shmaya and that without divine inspiration (no I’m not a prophet, Rebbe, or schizophrenic) I would gotten nowhere.

To me, those words at the end of Sh’moneh esrei aren’t just a prayer that God puts the words in my mouth with which I can hopefully, however meagerly, praise Him, but a desperate plea that He continue to guide me and my words to do only good, and to help and teach people who turn to me for assistance or instruction.

And hopefully, B’ezras Hashem, there will be “…Peace upon us and upon all Israel.”

Joseph Stalin once said that “In the Soviet army it takes more courage to retreat than advance.” At the time it must have sounded brutal; now that he is dead and the iron curtain gone we chuckle at such quotes, but to me it has a different, perhaps deeper, meaning. I doubt “Old Joe” meant this when he said what he said, but it is nonetheless applicable.

Explosions tend to follow the path of least resistance. Explosions in tunnels are particularly dangerous because rather than trying to punch through many-feet-thick walls, the energy released by the blast simply follows the hollow path of the tunnel until it disperses at the entrance or exit. Human beings tend to follow the same path—the path of least resistance. We quit jobs we don’t like, we walk out of marriages we find difficult, we cheat on exams rather than study for them, and we get high, drunk, or both to escape life’s challenges.

And at the time it all seems like a good idea, the escape is fun and satisfying and provides a much needed break or release from the stress of daily living, the notion of retreat is appealing and subsequently liberating, but then comes the crash. The hangover. The warrant. The arrest.

And six months, or six years, or six decades later we look back at our lives, it seems to all go by so fast, and we ask ourselves, absolutely bewildered, how and why did I end up where I am? And we cannot answer that question because it was all such a blur. All that running, all that constant escaping from life and its challenges left little time for looking over our shoulders. And there we are, six months, years, or decades later, strung out on something of which we took too much, or lying in a pool of our own vomit, bottles of jack strewn about our dump of an apartment, standing at the center of our wasteland of a life with the ex-wife and four estranged kids staring at us from a distance. The friend, hurt and confused having tried desperately to approach, giving up after being constantly rebuffed, standing far, far away with a tear running down his cheek and sadness in his eyes.

When you see your life, with all its potential, floating away and dispersing like a cloud following a storm…that’s when you realize the absolute magnitude of your monumental mistake. Suppose we human beings possessed the omniscience with which to fully comprehend the extent and consequences of potential actions before we do them—the ability to see what would happen if we choose the path of least resistance—it would take more courage to retreat than to advance.

But we don’t.  We aren’t omniscient. We are, while possessing free will, nevertheless creatures of instinct, and fight-or-flight is the strongest of our instincts. We are wired to fight when necessary and flee when possible. So when the going gets tough…we run because it makes the most sense—at the time.

However, assuming we understand that following the path of least resistance can have consequences  as bad or worse than the very problem from which we are running, what then are we to do; what options have we left?

We are told that Hashem never gives a person a challenge that he cannot overcome, and I can bring a proof from Avraham Avinu. Thrown into a fire for believing in God contrary to the rest of the world, asked by his God to leave his homeland for another, wed for decades and having no children, finally having a child and being commanded by his God, the God whose law he had followed to the letter and beyond, to sacrifice his beloved son. By any natural order he should have given up, but he didn’t. Because he knew with every fiber of his being that Hashem would never give him a test he wasn’t equipped to pass.

And that is how we should, and must approach all of life’s difficulties; fully aware of the fact that God would never give us a test that we are not equipped to pass, because then, and only then, will we have the strength to fight rather than flee—to continue fighting even when the situation seems impossible, and life too much to bear.

It seems lately that I keep having the same conversations over, and over with different people. Happy coincidence—I never have to come up with new material. Perhaps it’s like having something, like a recurring number, pointed out to you once and from that point on you see it everywhere. Perhaps I’ve been having this conversation for years but only now that I work with guys to whom it pertains do I truly understand its significance. Why do kids go “off the Derech?”

Ask ten people that question and you will get twenty different answers. Because Yeshivos are too strict in their acceptance policies; because school curricula are disproportionately difficult; because parents pressure their kids unduly; because we are too lax with our standards in Mitzvos; because schools do not teach Hashkafa properly; because mental illness and abuse are overlooked; the reasons continue ad infinitum.

Consider Schrodinger’s Cat, the perfect example of absolute potential. Place a cat in a box with an aerosol poison dispenser which may or may not release the toxin, seal him in, and come back in an hour. You are now faced with a question: Is the cat alive or dead? Let’s assume that the consequence matters. If the cat is dead you can simply dispose of the box, cat and all. If the cat is alive you must extricate it before disposing of the box. But how would you know? The cat exists in three states: Alive, dead, and both because the potential for either is equally possible.

But the real answer is that pondering the current state of the cat is an exercise in futility and that the only true resolution to the problem is to open the box and take a look. I find that a similar principle applies to the question “Why do kids go off the Derech?” People can sit for hours, days—lifetimes, pondering the question to no effect; the possible answers are limitless. So I find that instead of trying to pin the effect on one of a million different causes we should rather be prepared for any reason one may have and equipped to deal with it when in crosses our path.

I’ve spoken to many people who were at one point frum but are no longer and each of them gave me a different reason for why they are no longer Shomer Torah Umitzvos. So my approach is—if I see someone who I think needs help I go over to him and ask what he needs with and why, and I continue from there. Because quibbling about the past is absolutely pointless, but preparing for the future is absolutely essential.

Ultimately there is no definitive reason why people go off the Derech; going off the Derech has been in vogue since before Bayis Rishon, and even back then there were millions of reasons given as justification. Going off the Derech has never, is not, and never will be a generational thing—it is an unfortunate constant that we must, with a heavy heart, accept. But the one variable which we can control, the one dynamic component of this system is how we deal with the people who, for whatever reason, go off the Derech. Kindness. Compassion. Understanding. Love.

Systems…

Someone said something very interesting to me tonight, something that I can really appreciate as it applies, in a way, to me as well. I’m conducting interviews with Our Place staff members for what will hopefully be a front page featured article on a mainstream magazine, and one of the interviewees very nicely summed up why places like our place, and in general why places that are a bit less than mainstream, are necessary.

The frum communities in our area have created a model of the ideal frum young man: hat, jacket, a few years of beis medrash, and hopefully a year or two of kollel after marriage. And it is a fair model, a reasonable norm, but much like there can never be a perfect system, there can never be a perfect norm. In fact, with regard to systems, the mark of a good system is not necessarily one that functions perfectly all the time, rather one that is able to indicate when something is wrong. Take Windows, for example, when something is wrong with that system it throws up a Blue Screen of Death which tells the consumer and the technician he calls that something is wrong. Because there, in truth, is no such thing as a perfect system. They break. A good system can tell us it’s broken, and a really good system tells you how to fix the problem.

The same holds true, in a sense, for social norms. For the vast majority of people social norms are perfect because every other variable in their lives lends itself to that outcome. If someone comes from a normal home, with a normal family support structure, and has no illnesses or problems, there is no good reason why that kid should not become a black hat and jacket wearing beis medrash, and subsequently kolel, bochur. However, throw in some family trouble, all the requisite emotional problems, ADHD, and a learning disorder or two, and you’ve just broken the mold. The social norm no longer stands, or rather, it should not stand because the initial set of given variables are missing or altered; the end result will, it stands to reason, be very different.

So we’ve established that there will be deviation from the normal starting set of variables (ie. Normal home, normal family, and no learning disorders) and therefore it stands to reason that there should be a norm in place for the abnormal, if you will. Regular guys, from regular homes, have a very specific set of worries: homework, tests, and waking up in time for class every morning. With worries like those it makes sense that they should fit the mold. But what if a kid’s worries are more like this: will my parents be together in a week, where will I live in a month, how will I pay for food and necessities; school, and all its usual worries become trivial, almost irrelevant compared to the more pressing, existential worries that this kid now faces.

So his grades may plunge, because why should he pay attention when his main focus in life is not excelling academically, but trying to figure out how to pay for tomorrow’s dinner. Beis Medrash becomes a pipe dream because while it might be nice for most people, most people don’t have to worry about where they’re going to live in a month.

And this happens all the time because society is essentially a system, and no system is perfect, therefore it will produce both die-cut little perfections, and kids who have it rough and need to shift their priorities in order to survive. But when that happens, even though they are, in effect, the products of a normal society, abnormalities and all, they get shafted by the community, seen as second-class citizens, judged unfavorably. So where does such a person go?

The question was left open-ended by design to foster discussion.

 

Mitzvah Goreres Mitzvah

If you ever see someone walking down the street suddenly start laughing, you can safely assume that he is either crazy or a writer; in my case it’s a bit of both. Tzitzis is supposed to have Techeles, which is supposed to remind us of the sea, which is then supposed to remind us of the sky, which is then supposed to remind us of the Kiseh HaKavod, and keep us from sin. Yeah. I know.

I was once in Waymart, Pennsylvania, a little on horse town, as a camper with Camp Na’arim, on a photo scavenger hunt during the nine days. We had no clue where we were going so we knocked on a door for some help. After pointing us in the right direction, the woman at the door pointed at my tzitzis and asked me what they were for, so I told her that they were a reminder to keep us from sin. Thankfully she didn’t ask me how strings were supposed to keep me from sin because I don’t think I could have kept a straight face while saying “well, you see, there’s really supposed to be a blue string which is supposed to remind—“ Yeah.

But now I understand how it works; knowing the machinations of my oh-so-idiosyncratic mind allows me to appreciate that p’shat in Techeles. Earlier today I met my former Project Y.E.S. mentor; tonight, walking home from Our Place, I passed the spot where I had met him and it reminded me of Project yes, which then reminded me of my desire to volunteer, which then reminded me of the suggestion to volunteer at Our Place, when then made me wish I could meet my former mentor again and tell him that I was volunteering for Our Place, which then got me thinking about…Mitzvah Goreres Mitzvah, and, conversely, Averah Goreres Averah.

So the normal p’shat is that performing a Mitzvah enriches your Neshama, gives you a certain love for Mitzvos, and you are therefore more likely to perform more Mitzvos; conversely, committing an Averah taints your Neshama, desensitizes you to further Chet, and you are therefore more likely to sin. But there’s another p’shat (and, to be fair, just as normal). When you are associated with people who are doing Averos, or you experience evil, such as abuse, you become accustomed to such surroundings to the point where it is all you know. It is interesting to note that there are studies that show a history of abuse to be a factor in creating an abusive adult, because abuse begets abuse; evil begets evil.

But good begets good. Pirkei Avos tells us to “acquire a friend” and “distance yourself from a bad neighbor” because the people with whom you associate and the events you experience change and influence you for your entire life.

I’m surprised you’re still reading this long-winded thing…so, of what relevance is any of this? I’ve had a rough life. Arguably not as rough (by a long shot) as some of the people at Our Place may have had, but a pretty rough life nonetheless, yet I consider it to have been and be a good life, because through all the garbage I’ve put up with, all the abuse I’ve suffered, my depression, my various emotional issues, there were some very good bits every now and again, and it has been those good bits which have kept me going through all the bad, those good bits which have kept me looking forward. Those good bits…which led me to Our Place. And I hope that I can help make Our Place someone else’s good bit.

In my previous post it was never my intention to call any Jew, regardless of appearance, a non-Jew, and I apologize if that was the implication. From a block away the group seemed, not by sight but by sound, to be a rowdy bunch of goyim, and that is what i meant–nothing more. I did not mean to offend anyone and if I have, I ask for your mechila.

So, over Shabbos I was discussing my decision to volunteer at Our Place and I got some very interesting and different responses. From some I got the politically correct “oh” accompanied by the obligatory polite half-smile and raised eyebrow. From others I got a very enthusiastic “that’s fantastic!” and from others I got the outright disgust. Apparently some people feel that Our Place is simply not worth the time, money, or effort, and is in fact counter-productive. To paraphrase one particular individual, “places like Our Place tell kids that it’s OK to go off the derech, that it doesn’t matter if they are mechallel Shabbos, take drugs, and hang out with girls on the avenue, because there will always be Our Place where they can go for people to tell them that they’re good kids and there’s nothing wrong with what they are doing.” When asked what his alternative would be he said that he would “throw them all out of the community. If we throw every kid who goes off the derech out of the community, and they know that that will be the consequences for not keeping Shabbos or being frum, then they will think twice before doing what they’re doing.”

On the way home from this person’s house on Friday night I heard a commotion coming from the street corner one block in front of me, and I crossed over to the other side to avoid the goyim who I was sure were drunk and might harm me. As I was walked past that corner, looking over from the other side of the street, I saw that those boys, those “goyim,” those “potentially dangerous hooligans” were Jewish kids dressed in full chassidishe levush—and the thought that I had mistaken chassidishe kids for goyim just killed me. But you know what was even worse? The idea that these kids look no different from any other Boro Park kids and that I could never tell that there is something wrong with them, something that I could try and fix, if I passed them on the street.

And that is what happens when you evade a problem, when you sweep it under the rug or kick it out—it remains, but disguises itself. Which brings me to my first point about Our Place: it provides a way for a kid to cry out for help. And that is a huge step. Because that is essentially what any kind of acting out, or antisocial behavior, or behavior which is socially unacceptable is: a cry for help. Those kids in Boro Park don’t have that luxury; they cry for help and they get thrown out or disowned. Kids at Our Place, regardless of what their problems are or what their religious status is, know that they have a place to vent, to express their issues, to tell people, whether directly or indirectly, that there is a problem that needs solving and they are asking for help in finding the solution.

But Our Place is for kids who already have problems, which brings me to my next point and the title of this post: “I come here to shoot pool; I love shooting pool.” We have measures in place for every eventuality. We have Project Chazon for Kiruv K’rovim and chizuk, essentially a preemptive measure, we have places like Shuvu, and Lev L’achim for people who are not frum but are open to it, we have places like Ohr Yitzchack and Ohr Somayach for people who are on the way back up after falling, but we have virtually nothing in place for people who have already fallen and are not necessarily interested in getting back up—people who everyone else has given up on. Because we can never give up. We can never give up on a fellow Jew, not in ruchniyus nor in gashmiyus. And that is what is so beautiful about something like Our Place—that it is a place where kids who need somewhere can go. There is no commitment, no pressure, no religion forced on them, just a place where they can go to hang out in a safe environment and hopefully be influenced by the staff and others to want to climb back up—simply by example. By being around people who do not treat them as others have treated them their entire lives, people who care for their physical and emotional wellbeing as well as their spiritual wellbeing. The statement “I come here to shoot pool; I love shooting pool” hits the nail right on the head because it drives right to the heart of our purpose: to provide a safe environment for guys with hardships and troubles and problems, to give them the pool they love shooting here rather than at some seedy club, to give them what they are interested in, in close proximity to positive influences.

And I haven’t been here long enough to actually see any change, but I am told by the other staff that the change they see in these guys is incredible, that their whole attitudes and outlooks have changed over the years. And I believe it, because I have been in other places where I have seen the same change in others, others who society had given up on—others who despite others’ opinions of them, clawed their way to the top kicking and screaming and are now better and greater people than those who looked down on them because of their journey, because of their struggle. And the first step, the first step along the road to return starts with us. With Our Place. 

First Impressions

First impressions upon entering Our Place on Avenue M? Awesome. I mean what more could a guy want, pool tables, ping pong (I’ve been playing since I was 5), fully stocked gym, TVs, home theater and music room…what more could a guy want?

And the people! Everyone so alive and so energetic! You can feel it pulsating through the room, a palpable, almost tangible, impossibly infectious, effervescence. It’s a place you wanna be. But it’s so much more than just a hangout, so much greater than just the sum of its parts. You can tell that everyone has their story, everyone has their something—the something which drew them to Our Place. I’ve only been tentatively volunteering for the past three days and even I have my very own story.

But what amazes me and enthralls me most of all is the indomitable togetherness, the sheer achdus shared by everyone here. People from very different origins and very different lives, all bonded by life and circumstance, all making the same journey together. All on the path to building their lives. Together. It’s only been three days for me, but what a three days it’s been. Can’t wait for next week!