A few weeks ago, Joel Bess gathered his group of 15 teenage boys and took them to the funeral of a 21-year-old who had died of an overdose. Like the teenagers, the youth who died was Orthodox and didn’t fit the yeshiva mold and wound up on a path of high-risk behavior.
After the funeral, Bess — the son of a prominent rabbi who spent his teenage years and beyond in a whirl of self-destruction — asked the boys to write their own epitaphs on pictures of blank tombstones.
“I wanted them to think about how people would remember them and what they would say about their lives,” said Bess, who is now 29, a father of three and has a strong relationship with his own father.
Bess knows how hard it is not to fit in, to fall and then to muster the strength to move toward health of body and soul.
“Almost all my friends ended up dead or in jail, and I’m trying to prevent that with these kids,” he said.
He has been meeting weekly with the boys for about nine months through Issues Anonymous, a group he helped found.
My son, the plumber. Amen.
On a hot abandoned Granada Hills playground surrounded by waves of wheat-colored brush, Rabbi Mayer Schmukler looks around and sees the future. Rather than the overgrown jungle gym and dusty rows of red Little Tikes cars at the site that once was the North Valley JCC, he sees a soccer field, a refurbished pool, maybe tennis courts behind the new dorm buildings.
Last year, Schmukler, a Chabad-trained rabbi, brought 15 boys to this eight-acre site to pilot JETS — Jewish Education Trade School. This year he’s got 35 boys praying, studying Torah and training to be carpenters, plumbers, chefs and elevator repairmen.
Schmukler is keenly aware that a Jewish vocational school faces some deeply ingrained prejudices.
“Everyone feels that if a Jewish kid has to become a plumber it’s a sad situation, that really he should be a lawyer or an accountant, or a rabbi,” Schmukler says.
But some kids aren’t cut out for academic rigor. Leaving them in a mismatched environment often leads them toward self-destructive paths to failure.
“We take kids that maybe have low self- esteem and show them they are good at something — or we make them good at something — and show them they can make it in this society,” said Schmukler with a smile that never leaves his eyes or his mouth, hidden though it is in his untamed beard.
JETS doesn’t take the most hard-core cases. Boys have to be drug-free for 12 months to get into the program, and there is mandatory drug testing every two weeks.
But some of his kids come from broken homes, or have emotional, learning or behavioral challenges. Most of them live on campus in classrooms converted into dorms.
JETS, an independent nonprofit, employs teachers, social workers, dorm counselors and a psychologist. Students get personal counseling, and classes in ethics and time management and organization as well as high-school equivalency preparatory classes.
It was the combination of industry and ethics that won Schmukler a California Regional Consortium for Engineering Advances in Technological Education grant and award from the National Science Foundation in May 2006.
Most of the trade classes are offered at College of the Canyons, an accredited community college in Santa Clarita that provides work force training.
Last year, the boys built a skateboarding ramp. This year, they’re building a house, from computer modeling to reading the blueprints to carpentry, plumbing, electricity and the finishings.
Some of the classes, such as cooking, take place at JETS. The school is building a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen, and hopes to open a kosher culinary school to the public.
On Shabbats when they stay in, boys prepare meals for each other. They have also taken trips to the Grand Canyon and Northern California.
Schmukler’s approach to discipline is to help the boys self-motivate. Smoking, for instance, is not prohibited. But boys can only smoke alone, and only in designated spots that might be a half-acre from the action. There is no wake up call in the morning — boys need alarm clocks to rouse themselves. Free time is scheduled up with classes in kickboxing or karate, and a whole set of bikes and the old JCC gym facilities are available to the guys.
Schmukler has bigger plans for the campus, and he is a strong fundraiser. He worked for years as the development director for Chabad’s Russian program, where he first set up teen centers in West Hollywood. JETS has an annual budget of about $1 million, and Schmukler works his connections well. He’s already raised $5 million for the purchase of the campus and got an adjacent parcel donated.
Schmukler is also giving space to the JCC for offices and some programming, and is working out further arrangements with them. He says he wants JETS to be a center for Jewish unity, especially because no one can forget the 1999 rampage by Buford O. Furrow, who wounded five people at this JCC and then killed postal worker Joseph Ileto.
“Because of that I really believe something positive has to come from here,” Schmukler says. “Judaism is positive, and if you open up with something positive, we’ve won.”
For more information, visit www.jetsschool.org or call (323) 228-5905.
Issue Anonymous is one of several new programs that have emerged in the last few years to serve the Orthodox community, giving kids, their parents and local high schools more resources and options than have ever been available in Los Angeles.
At Issues Anonymous, the boys can express themselves freely — which they did on the blank tombstones.
“To our beloved son, we loved you and we wish we could have been there for you,” one of them wrote.
“He died on the road to recovery. He meant well and he tried hard. Had he lived longer he would have made some big differences. He will be missed by the select few that he touched.”
“We loved you, and we will miss you. You were a good friend, son and brother. You really were nice and smart.”
And then simply, “I hope I rest in peace.”
For these youths, the introspection and repentance of Yom Kippur is a full time, ongoing pursuit.
For nearly two decades, it has been an open secret in the Los Angeles Orthodox community that some kids are turned off by religious observance and high academic standards, and they end up turning to truancy, alcohol, unsafe sex or drugs.
Once on that path, many of the boys feel let down or pushed out by their schools, families or both. They feel hated by the community, and especially lost because they don’t feel they belong anywhere else. They call themselves screw-ups, and worse.
Some of them take a high school equivalency exam — or not — and get sent off to Israel or to yeshivas outside of Los Angeles. Some land in rehab, in jail, on the streets — or dead.
They are Sephardic, Ashekenazic and Persian. Their families are Chasidic and Modern Orthodox.
And to those who know them well, they are loveable boys who just need someone to believe in them.
“I think the community needs to embrace these kids with love,” says Debbie Fox, director of Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, who brought Bess in to start Issues Anonymous when four mothers approached her looking for help.
“I know that people are afraid that the kids will influence others. But that doesn’t mean we don’t create a place for them,” she said. “It means we need to look at how to balance things and how to do things safely and acknowledge that they are part of our community. We cannot sacrifice these kids — and they’re really beautiful kids.”
Los Angeles’ Orthodox community now offers some organized solutions for these boys — though none have been put forth for girls, even while most observers agree that, too, is needed.
The Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS), a vocational boarding school for boys who weren’t cut out for the academic rigor of yeshiva, started meeting last year at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. This year 35 boys spend part of each school day studying Torah and high school equivalency, and part of their day learning trades, such as elevator or air conditioning repair, or construction.
But JETS doesn’t take in the hard-core boys. Students have to have been drug-free for at least a year, and they are tested regularly.
Boys who are currently using drugs are welcome at Issues Anon and Aish Tamid, an organization Rabbi Avi Leibovic founded six years ago to provide a welcoming environment and support services.
Leibovic’s latest venture is Pardes/Plan B, a program that combines Torah study, outdoor adventure, counseling and high-school equivalency preparation. The program started in mid-September and, so far, the reports are positive.
Pardes: School, But Not
Pardes meets at Congregation Shaarei Tefila on Beverly Boulevard, where the boys pray every morning. Then they go out on a trip — hiking, bowling, boating — all the while imbibing bits of wisdom from their teacher, Rabbi Ari Guidry, and a social worker who has had years of experience with this population in New York.
“The rabbi is awesome,” says Aharon (boys names have been changed to protect their privacy). “He’s not like a typical rabbi. He knows how to treat us — like the humans that we are.”
Aharon has always been a good student and hopes to go to college; he is excited about the academic subjects being taught by End Result, an organization with great success in running classes in juvenile detention centers.
Aharon’s mother is glad he chose Pardes.
“Pardes is not going to be top-notch academic experience, but for me it is much more important that his soul is intact,” she said. “I believe that this year he can work on himself; he can set his own spiritual compass to know in which direction he needs to go to find true happiness in life.”
She is one of the mothers who approached Fox last year to start Issues Anon, after she realized that Aharon was doing drugs, taking the car out in the middle of the night when he was 14 or 15, and messing up in school.
“Anything I tried to do in terms of controlling him and where he was going and what he was doing didn’t work,” said Aharon’s mother, who also attends a parent support group offered by Aish Tamid.
Leibovic, a 33-year-old YULA graduate who can personally relate to what these kids are going through, was one of the first in Los Angeles to try to organize programs for this population. He started with post-high school young men and then expanded to the younger set.
Aish Tamid has Shabbat programs, career fairs, study groups and the popular Teen at the Bean, a weekly discussion and study session at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Beverly Boulevard.
Mostly, Leibovic, a father of six and a full-time attorney, has made himself and a growing staff of social workers and counselors available to the boys and their parents at all hours, giving individualized guidance about everything from rehab centers to family therapy to finding employment.
Leibovic is still trying to find funding for Pardes. Young men who have been through Aish Tamid programs donated a van worth $22,000. Pardes only has enrolled a half-dozen students.
Leibovic is hoping eventually to fill the van with 13 kids. He said he knows of about 10 kids in need who aren’t in any program, but are still holding out to get into one of the local yeshivas, which historically haven’t dealt well with these kids.
“There is no way that any one school can cater to all of the students we have in our community,” said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School. “A school’s job is to be as broad as possible and needs to see themselves as embracing and accommodating as they can be. But as good as a school can be, there is no way we can do it all.”
While high school principals are grateful for programs like Pardes and JETS, they know there is work to do in making such programs acceptable to the boys and their families.
“I think there is still a stigma in the eyes of the children about going to these schools,” said Rabbi Dovid Landesman, principal of YULA. “We have to work on the psychology to make kids accept that these schools are more suited to their needs, because I really think both of these schools [Pardes and JETS] are a bracha to the community.”
Issues Anon: Steak and Free Expression
Yossi has managed to stay at YULA through his senior year, with an inclusion aid to help him through Attention Deficit Disorder. He started smoking marijuana at summer camp after 10th grade, and then he started popping his dad’s Atavan and Valium.
“I really messed up my whole 11th grade year, but I was on drugs so I didn’t care,” he says.
He fights with his father, but has a close relationship with his mother. She got him into rehab, which allowed him to stay in school. Yossi’s been clean 90 days.
He attributes much of his success to Issues Anon, the Jewish Family Service Wednesday night group that Joel Bess runs with social worker Howie Shapiro.
“This is the one thing I look forward to every week, and it’s really helped me a lot,” says Yossi, at a recent dinner at La Gondola.
The boys were there to celebrate milestones — some had just started school, some were chalking up months of sobriety, some were just happy to still be getting up in the morning. (All of them were grateful for the glistening heaps of ribs and giant sized steaks on their plates.)
Some of the boys wear kippahs and some don’t, some have spiky coifs or buzz cuts, and several of them sport large Jewish stars around their necks and pants sagging well below their hips.
Regular meetings start with the boys jotting down an issue, all of which are then read aloud, without revealing the source, and discussed. The guys give each other advice about how to get through their issues.
Tonight, many of them note their sobriety counts — a year and half, 90 days, two months — “and I better start feeling some of those changes promised,” one of them quips to Bess.
“I threw out all of my stuff two weeks ago,” another announces, to the applause of the group.
“Damn, you should have given it to me,” another jokes.
“My mom kicked me out again,” a boy says quietly.
“Cool! Are you sleeping at my house tonight?” his friend asks hopefully.
Behind the jokes, the cursing and goofing off, the kids are there for each other.
“If you see these kids sitting in the back of the classroom goofing off, you get one impression,” says Shapiro, the social worker. “But when you hear them talking about what they don’t get from their parents or how they fell through the cracks, it’s really amazing the depth with which they can describe what they are feeling and what they need. But the school administration and the parents don’t see that depth. They just see the GPA and the drug use.”
The kids in the group have become close friends and relate easily to Bess, who runs a division of an infomercial company and has a hip style the kids are comfortable with. They call him or knock on his door at all hours, and he welcomes them.
“I feel like I can do things now. Before I wasn’t able to do anything,” says Zev, who has been clean for a year and half and is being schooled at a private home in the valley.
Zev is one of many siblings from a Chasidic home. He has an abusive father and a supportive mother. When he was only 9 or 10 years old, he got his first taste of weed in shul on Simchat Torah.
He’s 15 now but looks a lot older, with a scraggly beard, big eyes that hold your gaze, and a quiet voice.
He is a leader — several boys say it was Zev who got them started on drugs. Now, at Issues Anon meetings, they turn to him for support in staying sober. And it was Zev who instituted the idea of starting each meeting with gratitude — going around and saying something positive about your week, or your life.
Tonight, Yossi is proud of 90 days sober. And like the other boys around the table, his goals are basic.
“I just don’t want to f*** up anymore,” Yossi says. “I want to get my life together and to be able to go through stuff without relapsing. I just want to be able to function like a normal person.”
www.aishtamid.org (323) 634-0505
www.jfsla.org/aleinu (323) 761-8816