Though Covid-19 has reclaimed the word from its many borrowed forms, “plague” remains the best term by which to define the matter of dropout youth in Haredi society. Moreover, the problem never begins when a child actually leaves his educational institution. The main problem is his point of entry – entry into an institution in no way suitable for him, which places him at great risk from the first moment.
Of the many challenges that worry Charedi society in recent years, youth dropout is certainly one of the most widely discussed. Associations, governmental organizations, and innumerable political operators work to prevent youth from dropping out, some with greater success and others with less. The Charedi press is not silent either, often writing about this painful phenomenon. However, the public discourse is often vague concerning what is actually meant by the term “dropouts.”
Discussions of dropouts usually focus on youth who have left yeshiva, centering on personal or familial circumstances that led to their leaving not only the institution but sometimes also the Charedi community in which they grew up. In my view, though, defining dropping out as a mismatch with yeshivah studies creates a significant distortion of our approach to the problem.
Below, I will seek to emphasize the systemic failures exacerbating the dropout issue. Following this analysis, I will propose a practical framework for dealing with the matter, which relies on the early identification of risk factors and on working harder to find the right school for each adolescent. This practical framework is already being employed, and experience proves it can help bring about a positive change and reduce dropout rates in our community. Finally, I will emphasize just how crucial developing such frameworks is for our future and that of our children.
Stop Talking About “Dropouts”
The term “dropout youth” developed in western society in the sixties, concomitant with the society-wide acceptance of the view that formal education is the exclusive path for developing youth. Thus, those who did not attend formal schooling began to be perceived as anomalous, on the margins, “dropouts.” Later, social and educational programs funded and run by governments preferred the term “at-risk youth,” which largely aligned with the old “dropout youth” definition, but emphasized the social dangers facing youth outside of formal schooling. In Charedi society, the term “dropout youth” gained currency relatively late, become common only in the last couple of decades. The dropout label is an umbrella term for a broad spectrum of phenomena, all of which represent a deviation from the norm.
Three main criteria define a “dropout” in the Charedi sense. The primary criterion (for boys) is leaving a yeshiva framework that focuses exclusively on Torah study. Those who leave yeshiva are considered dropouts even if they are enrolled in another educational institution, often referred to as “yeshiva for dropouts”: a school for students incapable of learning Gemara for the entire day. Second, dropout youth are characterized by deviating from accepted communal norms of dress and behavior; youth who do not dress as expected for yeshiva students, or those who work for a living, are considered dropouts. Finally, the ultimate category for dropout youth matches the description used in general society: youth exposed to dangerous and violent behavior, addictive drugs, or petty crime.
A Charedi young man who started walking around in a colored shirt or sporting a new haircut, or who switched from a regular yeshivah to a high school or the army, will be considered a dropout even if he is socially and religiously stable
This multiplicity of criteria complicates the discussion about “dropouts.” A Charedi young man who started walking around in a colored shirt or sporting a new haircut, or who switched from a regular yeshivah to a high school or the army, will be considered a dropout even if he is socially and religiously stable. By contrast, a young man who learns in yeshiva and dresses by the book, but who is genuinely at risk whether emotionally or religiously, is not defined as a “dropout.” The assumption is that a young man leaving the conventional framework is taking a dangerous path, while so long as he stays in his yeshiva he is not at risk. In other words, in Charedi parlance dropping out refers to social difference rather than personal dysfunction or even religious lapse.
Defining dropouts is not a matter of abstract semantics; it is the key to treating this issue. Continual incorrect characterization prevents appropriate handling of the dropout phenomenon. The systemic approach is that preventing dropping out means keeping youth in the yeshiva at any cost. So long as the young man dresses like a yeshiva student and formally belongs to an institution boasting a large “yeshiva for youth” sign (the Hebrew term is no’ar) – or, preferably, “yeshiva for excellent youth” – the system considers him to be in good standing. Many parents blindly believe that the fact their son belongs to a yeshiva is an insurance policy against his dropping out, regardless of how well or otherwise the institution fits his needs and abilities. The fact that students in no few “yeshivas” wander around the most disreputable places and often end up in risky situations somehow flies under the radar. Youth at high risk are sent to institutions built on the same principles as the traditional yeshiva, a model designed for students who study for many hours on their own and focus on Talmud day and night. Two years later, parents are shocked to discover their son’s true situation through a police summons.
Allow me to illustrate the point with a short story. As part of my work, I once arrived at a “yeshiva” whose details I will not disclose here. The yeshiva’s beit midrash operates within a city synagogue in a small neighborhood. When I entered, I found the teacher (maggid shiur) giving an in-depth Gemara class for the yeshiva students. He looked like a nice young Kollel student, teaching Torah with passion and verve. “The Rashba says such-and-such, the Ketzos questions his assertion, while the Nesivos disagrees” – classic stuff for a yeshiva study hall. Unfortunately, however, the young flock sitting before the promising Torah scholar did not seem in the slightest interested. Fewer than a minyan of students were present; some say with their eyes glazed in a daydream; others were focused on various distractions.
After the class finished I approached the rabbi-educator and wondered about the yeshiva itself. “Are these all the members of the class?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “these are freshmen, but not all of them came today.” “Well, where are the others?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “There are students who have a little trouble.” “And what about people in the higher classes?” I continued my interrogation. “There is none this year,” he responded, “we had many difficulties with them, so we closed those classes.” “How is that possible?” I asked him. “After all, you accepted the same kind of students for the next year. Why take on students that you know in advance you cannot succeed with?”
Trapped in a conception whereby the only defense mechanism from outside threats is to be sheltered in a yeshiva, they did all they could to find him[a yeshiva]. They never asked themselves what exactly that “yeshiva” institution consists of
I know parents who sent their children to this “yeshiva.” They wanted only the best for their children, but the eighth-grade teacher explained that given their child’s academic record, he was hardly heading to a top yeshiva. In fact, not even one of the middling ones would accept him. The parents, however, still desired their son to attend “yeshiva.” Trapped in a conception whereby the only defense mechanism from outside threats is to be sheltered in a yeshiva, they did all they could to find him one. They never asked themselves what exactly that “yeshiva” institution consists of. What matters most is that he upholds the dress code and is enrolled in yeshiva.
I thus propose we stop using the term “dropout” to describe the phenomenon under discussion. What should interest us is the personal situation of the child in question – is he content, is he in the right environment, and receiving the required instruction to become a productive and responsible adult? Or is he, God forbid, in danger of seriously deteriorating in every way, even if he still wears white shirts and “studies” in a “yeshiva” of some description? In my work with parents and youth, I insist on directing their attention to the internal, emotional state of the child, and not to the external image – significant though it might be to the young man’s situation and his parents’ attitude towards him. A risk situation requiring intervention is unrelated to the reputation of the educational institution, but rather to the internal situation of the youth. We cannot help a young man in distress before we understand his emotional state and identify the roots of his anxiety.
The social interest (“obsession” might be more to the point) in the superficial aspects of dropping out – a non-kosher phone, departure from the dress code, and even absence from prayer and study – deepens the problem. In fact, our focus on these symptoms is one of the great catalysts of dropout rates. This superficial perspective on social markers of “dropouts” leads parents to avoid sending their child to an appropriate school, where he would grow and develop properly rather than continually lose ground until he finally ends up on the street. We need to understand that a youth whose emotional state is shaky is at risk, even if he still studies Torah diligently in yeshiva. His agony should be addressed irrespective of whether he violates community codes or not.
The social interest (“obsession” might be more to the point) in the superficial aspects of dropping out – a non-kosher phone, departure from the dress code, and even absence from prayer and study – deepens the problem. In fact, our focus on these symptoms is one of the great catalysts of dropout rates
I could fill (literally) several volumes with anecdotes about youth at risk who receive no help because they do not fit the social criteria of “dropouts.” Here’s just one recent story: Yitzchak is a young man from a well-known yeshiva gedola. He learns well and seems to be an excellent yeshiva bachur, and if you ask his classmates about him they will have nothing but praise to offer. But a talk with his parents reveals a very different picture. Yitzchak has been extorting them for money for a long time, threatening that if they fail to cough up he will publicly go “off the derech” – ruing the family reputation forever. One of Yitzchak’s violent outbursts left his mother in the hospital, though she still covered for him. Yitzchak’s parents become his own prisoners. He abused them physically and robbed them of their money, to say nothing of the great pain and suffering he caused.
When they met with me, I tried at length to explain that their child needs therapy and that they need to do everything in their power to stop his violence, including involving law enforcement if necessary. The mother was willing to accept this, but the father insisted that if they take any measures Yitzhak could leave the yeshivah entirely, which he clearly thought was all that mattered. I explained that such in his condition Torah study is not the remedy, and on the contrary, Chazal state that “if he does not merit, it [Torah study] becomes a deathly poison” – but my words fell on deaf ears. The father was convinced that his son’s behavior could never extend to his future wife and children and stated that the most important thing was that Yitzchak stay in yeshiva.
Based on my acquaintance with thousands of dropout cases, I can say with certainty that youth at risk can often be identified at a young age. By seventh grade, one can already diagnose children with special sensitivities who might well drop out of their yeshiva ketana and end up on the street or alternatively remain in an institution that doesn’t suit them and develop serious emotional disturbances. In many such cases, early diagnosis can help solve the problem or at least deal with it appropriately. Early identification of the risk factors would allow us to find the child a more inclusive environment in which he can grow into a responsible adult. Instead, children are sent to failing yeshiva institutions that are not only inappropriate for their needs but often themselves significant catalysts for dropping out.
Below, I will briefly address the risk factors that can be easily identified at a young age. The factors I will note are well-known, which is why no lengthy descriptions are necessary for our purposes.
Who are the Dropouts?
Before discussing the tell-tale signs of risk, I should stress that a child’s education is not entirely in our hands. Children of loving, caring, attentive and committed families can and do stray. Nobody can guarantee their children will follow the path of the just, and we can but do our best. As for the rest, we pray to God that He instills His love and awe in our hearts and those of our children. However, there is no doubt that harm far commoner in certain life circumstances. These circumstances are divided into three main groups: immigration, learning difficulties, and an unstable family situation.
Immigration includes any situation where the parents did not grow up in the environment in which they are raising their children, including baalei teshuva who immigrated to Charedi society and Charedim from abroad who made Aliyah. In both cases, children experience integration difficulties into an educational system unfamiliar to their parents, leaving them especially vulnerable. In the case of baalei teshuva the problem is twofold. On the one hand, Charedi society does not always treat them as equals, and on the other baalei teshuva parents can tend to educate their children in a Yiddishkeit that is overly rigid and harsh, a result of lack of guidance and tradition. Similarly, new immigrants also encounter difficulty in acclimatizing to a new country. They may find it hard to integrate into Israeli Charedi society and become accustomed to its social quirks and cultural codes.
The second risk group is children with learning difficulties, especially those with ADHD. Children with learning difficulties are not flawed, God forbid, but they have difficulty sitting all day in a classroom environment and learning by conventional methods. In today’s school system, and especially in Charedi boys’ schools, the student is required to sit for long hours in front of books, and great emphasis is placed on reading comprehension and textual analysis. The higher the class, the greater the requirements, and a kid with any sort of learning or behavioral issues, from dyslexia to hypersensitivity to attention disorder, will quickly find himself bored, failing, and sometimes emotionally scarred from negative experiences and multiple punishments meted out to him. In some cases, he will become a silent, dejected kid, while in other cases he will translate his sense of humiliation into an effort to attract negative attention. In any event, these responses will lead to a vicious cycle of rejection, failure, and disappointment at home, with no end in sight.
Based on many cases I have encountered, I can say with some confidence that a shaky family foundation is the greatest risk factor
The third risk group includes a range of children from unstable homes. Based on many cases I have encountered, I can say with some confidence that a shaky family foundation is the greatest risk factor. If a child has difficulties yet is part of a stable and supportive family, his odds of overcoming his challenges are very high. By contrast, when the child experiences harsh incidents at home, fights or violence between parents, or a lack of warmth and love, especially if this comes with physical or emotional abuse towards himself – he will have a very hard time healing. The child’s view of the world is distorted by his home experiences. He loses faith in people and their ability to help him. He goes out into the world angry and embittered, and his risk of deteriorating further is high.
General society often speaks of low socioeconomic status in this context. In Charedi society this correlation is far weaker; many families function well and raise happy, well-adjusted children, even if they live very modestly. However, when other risk factors are present, economic distress can magnify them and increase the child’s level of difficulty.
The Story of Moshe
Considering those well-known risk factors, we can understand how easy it is to identify at-risk youth at a young age. Take a look at Moshe, a student in sixth grade. His parents are baalei teshuva. The father studied for a few years in a yeshiva for baalei teshuva and continued his studies in Kollel, while the mother was busy raising the children. Only in recent years, when the economic burden became unbearable, did the mother decide to make use of her artistic talents to make some money, while the father was also forced to leave Kollel in trying to provide for the family. Meanwhile, difficulties in raising the children alongside financial woes hung like a dark cloud over the family. Moshe, a cute kid with nice sidelocks and large, innocent eyes, has started to slack off in school. The homeroom teacher has even started reporting that he has sporadic violent outbursts in class.
One does not need to be a great expert to identify the warning signs in Moshe’s story. But unfortunately, instead of professional help, Moshe is likely to receive more punishments and rejections. The teacher, who has never actually studied education, just wants a functional class; Moshe, in the meantime, is quickly losing his way. The only release available to him is playing some soccer after school.
One does not need to be a great expert to identify the warning signs in Moshe’s story. But unfortunately, instead of professional help, Moshe is likely to receive more punishments and rejections. The teacher, who has never actually studied education, just wants a functional class; Moshe, in the meantime, is quickly losing his way
Our Moshe somehow survived the last two years in the Talmud Torah and he is now in eighth grade, beginning a stormy period of adolescence. His classmates are preparing for the yeshiva entrance exams, and most of their waking hours are dedicated to intensive Gemara study. Moshe, by contrast, continues to experience failures and rebukes. Then, the decisive moment in the dropping-out process arrives: selecting a yeshiva. Moshe’s parents obviously want their son to go to a “good yeshiva,” in which Gemara is the all-day staple and where nobody plays soccer. After all, why did they go through this arduous and painful process if not so that they could raise their children to be Bnei Torah? But what yeshiva will be a good fit for Moshe? And does he even want to be in a yeshiva? Above average and average students in the class are quickly accepted into good and average yeshivas, while Moshe and a couple of similar-minded friends find themselves at the bottom of the list. The only institutions prepared to accept him are unsuccessful yeshivas desperate to fill vacant seats, with little interest in petty things like whether they can actually help their new students.
Moshe has been accepted to one such yeshiva: “Yeshiva for Excelling Students: Birkas Yaakov U’Shlomo.” The mashgiach, Rabbi Menachem Orwellinski, promises parents their darling is in good hands, and that the Torah he learns in yeshiva will protect him from harm. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Sternpanter, asks Moshe if he likes to learn. When Moshe mumbles that he does, he is told: “Nu, then you will certainly find your place in our yeshiva!” Moshe needs plenty of professional help in his studies as well as a great deal of emotional support. He is a good kid, and his parents love him, but he experiences difficulties – at home, at school, with authority – and he feels that there is no safe place for him in the world. He needs inclusion and love, alongside a curriculum that lets him experience success. Instead, he finds himself in a rigid, dogmatic framework. The yeshiva’s schedule is identical to that of other yeshivas, though it accepts students who need shorter classes, sports breaks, and even extra-curricular activities. The heads of the institution are careful to maintain the image of a regular yeshiva, and not, God forbid, a problematic institution where students take soccer breaks and even learn to play musical instruments.
Meanwhile, Moshe’s distress is only increasing. Studies are more intensive than they were in the Talmud Torah. He must attend a two-hour long iyun (in-depth) class in the morning and a two-hour-long bekius (covering ground) class in the afternoon. In addition, he needs to learn three sedarim (study sessions) with a chavrusa every day. He very quickly finds himself adrift, both emotionally and academically. The yeshiva becomes a pressure cooker where adolescents uninterested in studying are forced to learn with barely any respite. Moreover, one of the main things the staff insists on is a strict dress code – this is, after all, a “yeshiva”! When Moshe arrives one-day wearing sneakers decorated with a big V, he is called to the office of the mashgiach, who rebukes him harshly for not looking like a ben Torah, and even confiscates his shoes.
And then, the oh-so-surprising thing happens. Moshe cracks. He is very unhappy, and so he seeks out things that will make him feel good and experience gratification
And then, the oh-so-surprising thing happens. Moshe cracks. He is very unhappy, and so he seeks out things that will make him feel good and experience gratification. He sneaks out to the street and starts befriending sketchy types. He clashes with the staff over absences from prayers and sedarim and over various inappropriate behaviors. He is sent home: once for a week, twice for a month, and a fourth time for good. But Moshe does not return home. His parents get angry at him when he does, and he doesn’t feel happy at home. So, he hits the streets instead.
All this happens at the peak of adolescence, ages 14 and 15, during the first and second year of yeshiva ketana. The street receives a version of Moshe that is both hurt and angry at the world. He is in a state of despair, leading him to engage in self-destructive and dangerous behaviors. Only then, well down the line, does he encounter the good angels: volunteers at associations for treating at-risk youth, social workers, and welfare and rehabilitation bodies. They gather him up from the street and try to get him back on track, restoring his faith in people and the world.
Oftentimes, parents only discover their kid’s true situation at the end of the road, after the breaking point is reached. Their world shatters, but there is nothing they can do at this stage. They can, of course, try to shower their son with love and acceptance. The painful truth, though, is that the train has long since gone off track, and it will be very hard to undo the damage.
Seeing the Signs
Five years ago, as Rabbi of the Zoharim Youth Village, I encountered the sad reality of dropout Charedi youth. I met people like Moshe after they’d been found in the streets and sent to a rehabilitation institution. The famous parable of the hospital under the bridge is a perfect description of what I encountered. Israel and Charedi society continue to invest enormous efforts and resources in treating and helping those in extreme situations, but why should kids go through hell before they receive the benefits of professional staff and optimal rehabilitation conditions? So long as Moshe is simply a youth at risk, still registered at Birkas Yaakov U’Shlomo, nobody will notice him. As a kid studying at some eminently forgettable yeshiva, and hailing, as he does, from an obscure family, he will receive the least attention and the least investment. He isn’t even a dropout; just part of the system. Only when he gets injured will the under-bridge hospital workers arrive to dress his wounds. But it will often be too late. Wounds, if left untreated for long enough, can even be fatal.
As a kid studying at some eminently forgettable yeshiva, and hailing, as he does, from an obscure family, he will receive the least attention and the least investment. He isn’t even a dropout; just part of the system. Only when he gets injured will the under-bridge hospital workers arrive to dress his wounds
Due to this distorted situation, I felt we must do something to stop the deterioration of youth like Moshe and direct them to a more appropriate institution while we still can. I spoke to my brother, Rabbi Eli Paley, who is the publisher of Mishpacha Magazine and founder of the Charedi Institution for Policy Studies, and shared my thoughts with him. In turn, he directed me to the Shlavim group, established by Mrs. Nechama Wolfson and headed by Rabbi Ilan Kosman. This organization is active in establishing and sunning schools on the Charedi periphery, specifically providing assistance to baal teshuva families. I was introduced to one of the schools they work with and began trying to identify risk factors among eighth-grade students. I met each of the kids in the class for a chat, and some of them revealed traumatic personal stories they were relieved to get off their chest. Many stories, which were unknown to the staff, could retroactively explain the behavioral history of these children.
At the next stage, registration for the yeshiva, I worked together with the educational staff in the school to find the most suitable institution for each student. To that end, we tried to map out the strengths and weaknesses of every child. We sought to characterize their needs, the challenges they may encounter, and their unique talents and opportunities. Armed with these insights, we considered which school might be appropriate for each of them – who would do well in a competitive yeshiva with a strict schedule, and who might do better in an intimate and friendlier institution; who would be happier in an institution teaching secular studies, and who would thrive in a place with open spaces and athletic activity. Instead of being amateurish and trying to push children into any institution entitled “yeshiva,” or even cutting dubious deals with registrars and headhunters who are paid “per head,” we thoroughly examined the existing institutions and what they have to offer.
We also know the opposite: Sometimes an ordinary-looking yeshiva, with no formal support system or special programs catering for youth at risk, is wonderfully successful with its students, just because it has excellent management and humane staff that knows how to touch the students’ hearts
I started to visit different schools to get to know them up close. I spoke with the staff and students, formed an impression of the place, and ensured they know who they were accepting and have the resources and commitment to help the relevant child. Over time, we accumulated comprehensive and in-depth information about the various frameworks at-risk youth usually turn to. We learned which institutions can offer emotional support for struggling kids, which have a professional therapeutic staff, which yeshiva institutions keep track of the psychological state of their students, and which offer remedial instruction to those who need it. In addition, we continuously tracked the outcomes of each school. We know that no matter how professional a place can look and how many social workers and psychologists work there, we won’t want to send our kids to a place with a forty percent dropout rate. We also know the opposite: Sometimes an ordinary-looking yeshiva, with no formal support system or special programs catering for youth at risk, is wonderfully successful with its students, just because it has excellent management and humane staff that knows how to touch the students’ hearts. Over time, we are learning more and more about institutions, and are better equipped to fit the student and his needs to the institutions and what they have to offer.
Our work at the organization does not end with this matching process; we continue to follow each child’s advancement in the educational institution he is enrolled in and maintain ongoing contact with its staff. I visit every student in his first months in yeshiva and make sure he is adjusting well, based on both his word and the staff’s report. Usually, the story does not end there. Many children with risk factors run into problems and difficulties that could lead to their dropping out. But thanks to cooperation with the institutions and the trust built with the youth, we can be there for students at every crisis and try as best we can to solve the problem, whether by providing more support or by transferring the relevant student to another institution
The arrangement between the Talmud Torah and the yeshiva is that I or another organization employee continue to accompany the child and that they need to involve us in every problem which could come up. The yeshiva cannot expel a student without informing the assigned Shlavim representative. If we see that a particular child is not doing well, we can help him and even move him to another institution if this is required.
The aim of this continued involvement is twofold. First, we want to ensure that relations between the youth and his teaching staff don’t reach a breaking point. We try to prevent this scenario by always staying several steps ahead and keeping a tab on the situation. In addition, we ensure parents do not find themselves alone against the institutional machine, which can sometimes act insensitively. Parents of kids at risk, who are mostly not well-established members of the community, can find themselves helpless in the face of a system that rejects their errant child. Our organization, in addition to the help extended to the youth himself, also mediates between the parents and the educational institution.
If the institution cooperates well with us and we see youth succeeding and thriving, we will continue to refer students to that institution. If the results are not as good, we will of course stop working with that school, no matter how much it pays the registrars and how much pressure the latter applies. Thus, our involvement serves as a clear incentive for institutions to make every effort to help every child, even if the easier solution for them is to toss the youth from yeshiva for the sake of peace and quiet.
This project has been so successful, with God’s help, that within a few years it has grown to encompass seventeen schools, and five additional coordinators are now engaged in this holy work. Our data shows that the program has managed to reduce dropout numbers by dozens of percentages compared to previous years.
Today, we need to employ significant efforts to convince parents and sometimes institutions that being in an institution with the title “yeshiva” is no silver bullet against dropping out. There are many parties that are interested, each for its own reasons, in maintaining the status quo
The modest project of Shlavim has proven itself effective in reducing dropout rates. But a significant challenge lies ahead of us. The root problem is still the incorrect characterization of the dropout phenomenon, which considers dropping out to be the formal leaving of the yeshiva framework. Today, we need to employ significant efforts to convince parents and sometimes institutions that being in an institution with the title “yeshiva” is no silver bullet against dropping out. There are many parties that are interested, each for its own reasons, in maintaining the status quo. The practical response to this challenge is guidance centers, which advise parents and institutions in a professional manner and try to send every child to the best educational framework for him.
It is important to note that the yeshiva world is the Holy of Holies of the Charedi public and that the aim here is not, God forbid, to minimize its importance. Our focus is on preventing a situation in which kids at risk end up in inappropriate institutions where they have no chance of long-term survival. In many cases, this yeshiva is their last stop on the way to the street, which means we need to match youth and institutions carefully and judiciously. We need to first ascertain that an institution will not inflict harm before we inquire into any active good it does.
The Importance of Guidance Centers
All this should demonstrate that guidance centers accessible to parents could do much to reduce dropout rates. Such centers help parents receive all the relevant information on the institution recommended for their child. They are familiar with each institution’s success rate in working with kids with learning and emotional challenges, as well as the quality of the staff there. They know the teaching methods, and whether they fit the needs of their son. In addition, a wider database requires institutions to keep improving, since otherwise, they will have no choice but to close their doors.
Such guidance centers already exist. Our organization, Shlavim, operates a guidance center that follows the same approach as the school placement project: It characterizes the child’s needs and his risk factors and provides him with appropriate support. There are also other organizations working in the field and applying similar models: the Bnei Yosef Talmud Torah network program of support for graduates led by Rabbi Yaakov Moyal, the guidance centers of Rabbi Dan Tiomkin, and so on. In recent months, in the wake of the corona crisis and its dire consequences for many yeshiva students, two new guidance centers were established in Jerusalem, with the blessing of the Torah leaders. These centers appeal to the broader public, not just the baalei teshuva families Shlavim works with. The more these important bodies work together and share information on recommended institutions, the greater the benefit and the positive change that can be affected.
It should be noted, though, that every guidance center faces serious dangers, and that the greater its success, the greater the danger. If a guidance center receives broad public support, it will yield a great deal of power. It will be able to decide the fate of whole institutions. Such power invites many enemies who will no doubt fight it. The centers’ ability to do their work despite such resistance depends on the fulfillment of two conditions: broad public support, relying on transparency and integrity, and support of rabbinic leadership who will back it against all interested parties, operators, and institutional leaders. These could seek to curtail their activity or to question their integrity, and matters can get quite ugly.
If a guidance center receives broad public support, it will yield a great deal of power. It will be able to decide the fate of whole institutions. Such power invites many enemies who will no doubt fight it
Guidance centers of this sort thus need to be built with great care and wisdom and remain under the direction of rabbis and professionals. Most importantly, we must ensure that they are independent, non-profit bodies, subject to criticism and working with full transparency, according to criteria that can be reviewed and informational sources open to all. This is no simple challenge since it is very hard to characterize institutions according to rigid criteria. The Education Ministry, for instance, labels institutions today based on technical criteria like the number of college graduates at an institution and the number of social workers it employs but does not try to assess the human quality of the staff and its effectiveness in connecting with students. As noted above, the number of social workers registered as workers at a given institution is no predictor of success.
Guidance centers thus face far from simple challenges in fulfilling their mission. Still, we can say with confidence that for them to work effectively, there is no need to introduce Education Ministry inspectors into the entire yeshiva system or cast aspersions on all respectable yeshiva institutions. All we need to do is advance credible, good information on all the Charedi educational frameworks, from schools to yeshivas and girls’ seminaries. This information will be accessible to parents and present them with relevant and objective information about each institution. Today, knowledge is often contingent on recommendations made by homeroom teacher; this is especially true for baalei teshuva or immigrants. Even if the teacher is a good and caring person – and most are – his main interest is ensuring no student is left without a yeshiva to attend, and he cannot devote all his energy to every parent. Into that vacuum enter enterprising registrars, who make plenty of money by registering youth in interested institutions. For them, the easiest prey of course are families whose risk factors are significant.
It may be that today, in the present political atmosphere, changing the status quo is a distant dream. But I very much believe that if the guidance centers hold firm and continue to operate with integrity, we will see a dramatic change in dropout rates and greater efficiency among institutions for youth at risk. Such progress is crucial for the welfare and safe future of those dearest to us.