Girl Dropouts are a unique phenomenon that requires special handling. In order to do them justice, we need to be alert to the special longing for belonging that such girls experience, and also to know when to seek professional assistance.

Adar 5781 / February 2021

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

    • D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

This famous description from Salinger’s classic aptly demonstrates the dangerous space in which adolescent boys and girls, those who are at risk for whatever reason, can find themselves. They are at the edge of a cliff, lacking any significant adult in their lives; they could be plummeting down any minute.

As part of my work as an educational adviser (MA) for the Rimon program at the Telem Center, an umbrella organization offering an array of services to young girls at risk, I encounter Charedi girls at all ends of the risk spectrum. They are all getting closer to the edge of the cliff. To not fall, they need adults to believe in them and support them. The sooner we identify this movement towards the cliff, the better. But identifying is not enough: We need to pave a safe path for them, each according to her personal needs.

These young girls, who dropped out from their educational frameworks or are on the brink of doing so, suffer social rejection, and for lack of professional help often end up on the street

In recent years, designated frameworks and therapists have reported an increasing number of at-risk Charedi girls aged 12-21, a phenomenon that has accelerated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. These young girls, who dropped out from their educational frameworks or are on the brink of doing so, suffer social rejection, and for lack of professional help often end up on the street. They are exposed to all manners of exploitation and violence; some even end up in trouble with the police.

How do we prevent girls who grew up in Charedi families from running off the edge? How can we help them move away from it? In the current article, I will try to provide some answers to these questions, emphasizing the importance of a sense of belonging on the one hand, and of professional treatment on the other. I will also elaborate on the vital distinction between girls who can be directed to a regular but inclusive high school, and those who should be enrolled in a school specially designed for youth at risk.

 

Belonging and Professionalism

Effective treatment of at-risk Charedi girls requires meeting two basic conditions: The first is strengthening the sense of belonging and relationship; the second is uncompromising professionalism.

Professional literature teaches us that in adolescence, the lack of a supportive environment on the part of family and community makes it  hard for adolescents to successfully complete the process of socialization, harming their ability to deal with new or challenging social situations. Therefore, our work with dropout girls places a great deal of importance on creating a supportive framework and strengthening their sense of belonging.

In the past, as a defense mechanism against religious deviation within Charedi society, it was common to drive a girl that strayed from the “straight and narrow” out of the community. Family and friends were encouraged to break any contact, leaving her to her own devices. Today, by contrast, most Rabbis support the development of unique solutions and responses within the community itself, instead of driving youth away from it.

Indeed, maintaining ties with the community is vital. In my experience with at-risk girls, I find that the more the girl breaks off from people in her life – school, friends, close and distant family – the more lost she becomes. If we succeed in giving at-risk girls a sense of belonging despite everything, it becomes easier for them to re-establish relationships, however partial, with family and friends.

The second crucial element in working with dropout youth is professionalism. One dimension of professionalism is simple and clear: Dropout youth need professionals who understand the challenges they are dealing with, recognize signs of deterioration and know how to help those girls. The risk factors listed by Rabbi Paley in his article are relevant for girls as well as boys: Indeed, most dropout girls we encounter are daughters of parents who experienced some form of immigration, girls with untreated attention and learning disorders, or girls from unstable family backgrounds. However, there is also a significant number of girls who were sexually abused.

Work with trauma cases requires precise knowledge and an understanding of dissociation – a common symptom of sexual harm. Without appropriate knowledge, treatment of those girls will not only be ineffective but could even be harmful and create secondary trauma

Even when the assault happens at a young age (usually between first and third grade), symptoms of dropping out as a response to the trauma often appear only at the onset of adolescence. This fact adds urgency to the need for professional training. To treat sexual assault, an inclusive educational framework is not enough. It is essential that these girls undergo treatment by a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, who has undergone specific training in this field, and who has rich experience in working with sexual assault victims. Work with trauma cases requires precise knowledge and an understanding of dissociation – a common symptom of sexual harm. Without appropriate knowledge, treatment of those girls will not only be ineffective but could even be harmful and create secondary trauma.

 

The Elementary School Stage

Dropout symptoms can appear among girls as early as sixth and seventh grade. Girls begin to put on makeup (uncommon in Charedi society at such a young age), walk the streets at night, smoke cigarettes and join gangs of youth – boys and girls often older than themselves – in a similar state of risk.

In elementary school, when the dropout process is at its early stages, the most important thing educators can do is to identify at-home girls and immediately begin treatment. This does not necessarily mean professional treatment by a psychologist; the combined efforts of the school counselor and the homeroom teacher could be enough. The average Charedi elementary school will have no more than three at-risk girls per class. Their relatively small number allows the staff to allocate greater resources to help those girls. In recent years, every educational worker is given the option of specializing in working with youth at risk, and every school should employ teachers who have undergone such training. Thus, the school counselor will be supported by additional staff members who can be enlisted to help get the girl get back on track.

How does one build trust with girls who are already looking for a way out? Private lessons are a good place to start. Alongside pedagogical aid, the closer relationship formed in private sessions allows tutors to touch the girls’ hearts and find out what they need. In addition, such girls need an older mentor who gets to know them outside of a school setting: to walk with them, shop with them, buy them iced coffee, and see where they really hang out. This sort of investment creates a situation where girls open up to the mentor and thus avoid getting close to the edge.

 

Selecting a High School

When a girl has begun to show signs of dropping out graduates elementary school, one of the questions worrying educational teams is whether a  place for her should be found in a regular seminary (high school), or whether she should be directed to a special school for at-risk girls. Due to the importance of a sense of belonging, the first preference of the staff will be to get her into a regular framework. So long as the girl is willing to make the requisite effort to stay on the straight and narrow, she should not be sent to a special institution for at-risk girls.

Statements like “You’ll probably end up secular” or “Nothing will come of you” or “At this rate, you’ll probably date an Arab” make girls wait for the day they can burn down the seminary and disappear into the street

However, the path of such a girl, even if seemingly uninterested in leaving the community, is likely to be rough in a standard seminary; we need to be aware of this fact, and not rush to making hasty decisions. A staff lacking this understanding will find itself clashing with her over and over due to the size of her earrings, her style of handbag, or any other small and insignificant issue. Despite the greater awareness in recent years, I still encounter painful stories of principals who insist on marginal matters and push girls out through their attitude. Statements like “You’ll probably end up secular” or “Nothing will come of you” or “At this rate, you’ll probably date an Arab” make girls wait for the day they can burn down the seminary and disappear into the street. Fortunately, more and more seminaries are adopting a different approach: more inclusive, more committed, and genuinely interested in the young girl and not just in her adherence to the rules. Such attitudes are key to providing her the support she needs to remain within the framework.

In general, for the integration of a girl at risk in a regular seminary to not end in catastrophe, the management, and educational staff cannot be trigger-happy. Transferring a girl to another seminary should take place only after all other options have been exhausted, and the therapeutic team has done everything in its powers. These efforts obviously only have value if the high-school counselor has undergone training via the counselors’ inspector at the Education Ministry and is familiar with at-risk behaviors and the ways to treat them.

In addition, it is highly recommended that the seminary counselor provide staff with adequate knowledge about the dangers of the street and the Internet and gain at least general awareness of the use of dangerous substances, suicidal tendencies, and self-harm. This can be done by means of workshops or by inviting lecturers who are experts in the field. Some teachers have argued that they prefer to remain unexposed to such matters; yet, in my opinion, those who choose the field of education need to understand the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders and not ignore reality. With the aid of appropriate knowledge and identification, we will be able to save entire generations, rather than lead them to spiritual destruction.

Finally, we should ensure the educational staff does not hesitate to direct the girl to professional psychological treatment when needed. There are associations today that offer youth therapy at subsidized costs, working closely with the contact at school (usually the counselor) who is well acquainted with the girl’s history, so that she can prepare her for therapy and work to enhance and preserve its effects.

In sum, before a girl at risk is sent to seminary, we need to make sure that the relevant institution is prepared to take care of her, is sufficiently dedicated to her future, and that possesses the professional tools and knowledge to handle her needs.

 

Dangerous Denial

Alongside girls who, given appropriate support, could plausibly survive a Charedi high school experience, there are girls who clearly cannot manage without a specially designed institution for Charedi girls at risk. Such institutions, which remains few and far between, carefully select the educational staff, insisting on professional training and an understanding of all areas that might be relevant for girls. Teachers in such institutions are much better qualified to recognize, for example, that a certain girl is using drugs, and will also know how to approach her about the subject.

[P]arents sometimes prefer to keep their daughter at home rather than enroll her in a non-Bais Yaakov framework. After half a year at home (and mainly on the street), girls get to know “the city” in all its colors and alleyways, and they come to us having sustained deep emotional scars

In some cases, it is clear to all that the girl is inappropriate for the Bais Yaakov system, and her direction to a dedicated institution will be acceptable to all sides. But in other, more complicated contexts, debates can emerge between the educational staff and parents regarding the appropriate institution for the girl. Reaching the right decision is often contingent on parents having a full understanding of their daughter’s situation. Absent this awareness, which could be due to lack of knowledge or deep denial, parents sometimes prefer to keep their daughter at home rather than enroll her in a non-Bais Yaakov framework. After half a year at home (and mainly on the street), girls get to know “the city” in all its colors and alleyways, and they come to us having sustained deep emotional scars. If these girls had made it in time to a high school specializing in at-risk students, there is a good chance they would have had a softer landing and better outcomes.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of parental awareness.  An extreme case of detachment from reality is etched in my memory: A couple with a dropout daughter came to me and described the very troubling emotional state of their child. They laid out a clear ultimatum: If their daughter wants to come home, she needs to adhere to the following rules: a buttoned shirt to the neck, properly colored tights, hair in a bun, and in general the appearance of an excelling Bais Yaakov girl. They were quite unaware that their daughter had been walking around in a halter top and shorts for half a year. During talks with the daughter, it emerged that she had been assaulted one night when she returned home fifteen minutes after the curfew her parents had established, who then refused to open the door for her. This extreme case serves as a warning: There is no limit to the human ability to ignore what we would rather not see. We need to avoid falling into denial, even in dropout cases that are far less severe.

***

Dropout youth are first and foremost young people in need of help, thirsting for a true connection. When I walk the streets of Jerusalem most nights, I see dozens of lost, desperate teenagers. They are trying to forget the past, but they have no hope for the future. All they have left is trying to survive the present and make it through another cold night. They are hungry in every sense of the word: hungry for a warm meal, for a good word, for a drop of love.

When I walk the streets of Jerusalem most nights, I see dozens of lost, desperate teenagers. They are trying to forget the past, but they have no hope for the future

We at Telem have set up a special corner in the Jerusalem city center, an alternative to bars and street gangs, providing our team with an opportunity to get to know the girls and help them get back on their feet. But girls at our station are not the only ones in this state, lost on a cold winter night. One can find such youth throughout the country, forced out of Charedi frameworks and making their way to the edge of the cliff.

I believe that every girl can enjoy a life full of meaning and satisfaction; it is our obligation as a community to allow this to happen. We all need to pray that we succeed in preventing youth from dropping out, so we will not need to catch them at the very edge. Once the need is created, though, it is impossible to overstate the importance of an adult standing there at the precipice, stopping the fall, teaching love and self-acceptance, and giving hope for a life of meaning and joy.

 

Picture: Moshe Wilner, La’am

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