I recently had an opportunity to speak at length with someone who has a broad familiarity with most of the institutions created in Israel to deal with chareidi kids who are outside of any regular educational format. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned a recent column, in which I noted that the dropout phenomenon is even more severe in all chareidi communities than in mixed communities.
The explanation of everyone to whom I spoke, including two major talmidei chachamim, was that such communities generate a degree of social pressure that proves unbearable for many youth, especially those who have their own "issues."
My conversation partner, however, offered a very different explanation. In his opinion, it is the higher percentage of ba'alei teshuva drawn to the all chareidi cities that explains the differential. He claimed that at least 70% of the drop-outs in one such community are children of ba'alei teshuva.
If that is true (and that remains a big "if"), then we as a community should be asking some hard questions about the conduct of all our kiruv efforts. One immediate question would be: Is it better for ba'alei teshuva to move to all chareidi enclaves or would it be better for them to either join existing communities or form their own in the places they are already living?
The challenge of many of ba'alei teshuva who move to all chareidi enclaves is twofold. First, the parents often have little familiarity with the predominantly kollel society that they are entering, and therefore find it hard to guide their children. Second, many ba'alei teshuva already have children of various ages. It is profoundly disorienting for those children to find themselves suddenly thrust into a totally different society. Even children and teenagers who come from the frumest seminaries and yeshivos in America to live in Israel often struggle to adjust to very different standards in Israel. How much more so those who just a few months ago were living in non-religious homes.
The problems of children of ba’alei teshuva also suggest that there may be something askew about our current models of kiruv: Are we overemphasizing the numbers brought in through the door while devoting relatively little effort to guiding new ba'alei teshuva once they have taken their first steps in Yiddishkeit?
A major kiruv activist told me that many ba'alei teshuva harbor bitterness to those who were mekarev them in the first place, but who do not remain available to guide them in the latter stages of the process. They feel that they were the esrog upon which the person who was mekarev them performed the mitzvah of kiruv, and that once they were safely within the fold, those who were mekarev them were off again in search of new "mitzvos." That may be a complete misperception, but it nonetheless generates feelings of anger.
(One of the beauties of the phone chavrusah program of Ayelet HaShachar, which has grown from 2,000 to 4,000 chavrusas in the last year alone, is that it is based on ongoing one-to-one relationships that intensify over years between the volunteer and the one seeking to learn more about his or her Judaism.)
THE TRUTH IS that we have relatively little hard empirical data about the drop-out phenomenon. Most of what we know is based on anecdotal experience from which we extrapolate wildly. Each person in the field comes at it from his own vantage point. Thus those who work in the area of learning disabilities tend to see learning disabilities as the primary cause for dropping-out. A child whose problems go unaddressed and experiences school as misery may feel embittered towards the society that imposed that misery upon him, and which offers him few hopes for the future other than more of the same.
Those who work with shalom bayis problems tend to see the absence of shalom bayis as the primary cause. And no doubt among the families that they work with there are many children who are floundering in the system. As the Torah tells us, when parents do not speak with one voice, then they are more likely to produce rebellious children.
Others will tell you that the problem is poverty, or, in America, affluence. Those who deal with sexual abuse see that as a major cause.
My own guess is that virtually everyone is right -- to a degree. For one thing, many of these phenomenon overlap. Both great affluence and poverty, for instance, positively correlate to different sorts of shalom bayis problems. As Chazal say, "Arguments are not found in a man’s home, except as a consequence of [a lack of] grain" (Bava Metziah 59b).
Certainly no one explanation fits every case. There are families in which every child is thriving except one -- sometimes that one suffered by virtue of being in a family of such successful siblings – and others with multiple children at-risk. There are drop-outs with learning disabilities, and those who breezed through their early years in yeshiva. There are those from homes of ba'alei teshuva, and children of prominent roshei yeshiva.
In short for every anecdote, it is possible to cite an opposite one. Yet it remains crucial to get some hard data, based on high quality research, to understand the interrelationship of different factors, and which ones are most prevalent.
Devising solutions depends on knowing the causes and their relative importance. If, for instance, poverty is a major cause of alienation from the Torah world, there is not much to be done in the short-run. But if, on the other hand, learning disabilities turn out to be a major factor, much can be done: early psychometric testing in school, training avreichim and counselors how to learn with children who often have way above average intelligence but suffer from some form of disability, pharmacological interventions.
A second stage of the research, then, would involve assessment of the long-term effectiveness of different intervention strategies. Yad Eliezer has thousands of avreichim learning with boys from single-parent homes. Rabbi Yaakov Rushnevsky has created a model in a number of neighborhoods of intense after school tutoring for boys who are floundering in large classroom situations, which involves constant interaction with the cheder rebbe as well. And there are many other such programs. Evaluation can make such worthy programs even more effective and help determine which models should be emulated.
The drop-out phenomenon is but one example of a general rule: good decisions require good information. That is true of our world as well.