If I Forget Thee, Oh Jerusalem Youth
In the U.S., we use phrases like “kids off the derech” or “teenagers at risk”, but Israel’s Dati Leumi (religious Zionists) have termed it “youth on the edge”. The following letter was submitted to Olam Katan, a popular Shabbat newsletter in Israel. The author offers a personal opinion that gives us an insight into the hearts of Israel’s disaffected youth and what OU Israel Programs are doing to address the situation
Within an exclusive Dati Leumi forum, I recently read opinions regarding the “Rikud Degalim” (flag waving parade to the Old City on Yom Yerushalayim). Amongst the crowd, even though the parade had been organized separately according gender, it was noted that a small contingency of Dati Leumi boys and girls were hanging out together, and that individuals within this crowd, some of whom were couples, were observed to be holding hands or embracing.
There were those who expressed sentiments that any overreaction to this phenomenon was unnecessary. Those engaged in such behavior were really no longer a part of “our crowd” (the Dati Leumi - modern Orthodox crowd); that one need only to assess the cup as half full, and that “our crowd” is truly religious and continues to be of the finest quality.
I am not writing to express my opinion on this incident, however it inspired me to take up my pen, and touch upon a larger picture, with thoughts that I have wanted to articulate for quite some time.
It is my understanding that it has been unofficially decided to remove us (disaffected teenagers) from the “crowd” amongst which we grew up, so please let me introduce ourselves: We are the “Youth on the Edge”—those that spend Thursday and Saturday nights on the streets of downtown Jerusalem; those that you see hitchhiking up north as you pass by and look upon with disgust, or, if we are lucky enough, to be seen with compassion. Yet, we also studied together with you at the yeshiva or seminary; we also grew up with you in a settlement.
Have you ever thought about how it may feel to walk into town and see someone you considered a friend, only to discover that your so-called “friend” does not want to even look at you because he/she is embarrassed to acknowledge your association in front of the current pals in his or her company? I am also tired of the fact that when we get together for Shabbat, if you actually ever invite me, that you laugh as you tell me to turn the lights on and off.
Instead of rejecting us, ignoring us, and disassociating yourselves from us, maybe you should try to understand what we are going through. You may know us as the regulars of the “Jewish Tent” at Dugit on the Kinneret, and of the Zula of Hezroni, [both OU Israel sponsored programs] two of the most amazing places on earth, but you do not know our stories: one of us may have lost his brother, another of us may have parents who are going through a divorce, and yet another one of us has problems at home that cannot be articulated or imagined.
Meet more of us! Learn that some of us felt that we got lost in the crowd, or learn that some hadn’t built up their self-esteem to recognize what we could offer our greater society. For those of us who did not fit into a mold, who had questions that could not be easily satisfied (and not only questions pertaining to faith), you did not know how to answer. We are the youth who were not afraid to find our own solutions to our problems, even if it meant taking drastic actions.
We are the youth with depth and tremendous love of Hashem, in spite of it all. It’s actually an amazing experience to sit in the “Zula” and hear a song that’s entire meaning is thanking Hashem. I was always taught that the purpose of mitzvot, while the laws were meant to structure our actions and establish a distinct lifestyle, were also means for an individual to become a better person and to increase one’s love of Hashem. In the latter regard, it appears to me that the formerly observant by far outscore the number of traditional and “quality” religious youth of today.
To tell the truth, I have pretty much given up on the organizations and educational systems of “our crowd.” These institutions do not know how to accept someone who is a bit different. They do not know how to support us during our struggles, aside from offering overly-used clichés and phrases that do not speak to us anymore.
Nevertheless, I still hope that this letter will cause a Rosh Yeshiva, Rosh Ulpana or others, to be a little less haughty, and to stop only wanting to deal with the “cream of the crop” of our society—the most religious and academically excelling students—but rather, that they should take interest in a different type of student, and care that each student is as important as the next. We have other positive qualities that you will not find in your “good” students.
We are in need of more amazing people like the staff of the “Zula” and the “Jewish Tent.” Before you want to bring a secular Jew from Tel Aviv back to Yiddishkiet, don’t forget me, someone who grew up with you. And even at times when it appears that I am not open or responsive, it is only out of embarrassment or another hardship, and if you push gently, it usually works.
Do not forget us.