Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once told someone who came to consult him, "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher, der "facts" muz min hubben" – which might be loosely translated, "Daas Torah or not, one needs the facts." Those facts, unfortunately, are too often lacking from our communal deliberations. Bring up any important issue, and you are likely to hear a wide variety of opinions, each supported by a number of "proofs" from personal experience. Those proofs inevitably bring to mind the old saw: the plural of anecdotes is not data.
The Los Angeles Orthodox community has probably gone further than any other in undertaking quantitative empirical research, and then using that data to develop programs to address the social pathologies that have entered our world as well. In recent months, I have spoken at length with the two individuals most responsible: Mrs. Debbie Fox, the director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center, the Orthodox division of Los Angeles's Jewish Family Services, and Rabbi Avraham Union, the administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California.
Aleinu's best known research project is a 2008 survey of marital satisfaction, undertaken with the full support of virtually every rabbi in LA, and which garnered 1,500 responses. The rabbinic support reflects Rabbi Union's determination to take the RCC beyond the traditional areas of kashrus supervision, gittin, and geirus (the RCC beis din is the only one in California whose converts are recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.) As the challenges facing rabbis today have expanded, rabbinical organizations must help provide them with the tools they need. The first time Rabbi Union and I spoke, for instance, Aleinu, in collaboration with the RCC, had just run a conference for rabbis on gambling and internet addictions in the Orthodox community. And the RCC has conducted workshops on marriage counseling skills, a subject not part of the standard semicha program.
The results of Aleinu's marital harmony survey impressed Dr. David Pelcowitz, a research psychologist active in the Orthodox community, and the Orthodox Union decided to have Aleinu further develop the survey and expand it nationwide. On the encouraging side, the expanded study, with 3,800 respondents, showed that a significantly greater percentage of Orthodox Jews express a high degree of marital satisfaction when compared to the general population.
Not surprisingly, money pressure was one of the most significant marital "stressors," with the greatest stress between the ten and thirty year mark in marriage, when tuition bills are highest and wedding expenses kick in. Just knowing that it is normal for couples to experience more strain in the main child-raising years, after which marital satisfaction begins to rise again, can be a source of encouragement to couples experiencing marital stress. Chasan and kallah teachers can also draw on these results to help prepare young couples for the realities of married life.
But affluence also takes its toll. In his presentation of the findings of the OU survey, Dr. Pelcowitz referred to what psychologists term "affluenza," and cited one Columbia University researcher who found three times the rates of depression and alcoholism in wealthy families. She attributed the disparity, among other things, to affluent children being less likely to "go beyond themselves and give to others" and the greater competition among the affluent. (Her research did not focus on the Orthodox community.) As we wrote recently, those who take responsibility for others and become givers, feel better about themselves.
The marital survey was not Aleinu's first venture into empirical research. In 2006, 1,000 Orthodox teenagers filled out questionnaires about their internet use. Knowledge of teenagers' internet habits was itself of great use, and revealed that most parents were clueless about how their children were using their "free" time. The study resulted in three seminars for parents, which drew 1,000 anxious parents. Former internet cop Phillip Rosenthal spoke frankly of the dangers lurking on the internet, about which most parents were unaware. Few had even bothered to install filters on their computers.
Aleinu produced an Internet Safety Video, which presented the survey results in graphic fashion and included experts addressing the dangers of everyday technology and what families can do to prevent tragedy. The video emphasized the necessity of open lines of communication between parents and children, and it shocked many parents into undertaking conversations too long pushed off.
During my time in the Aleinu office, I watched a number of short films. One particularly powerful film showed three teenage boys making plans to get "bombed" on Purim. An eye-catching handout with the caption, "This Purim don't get carried away," over a cover picture of an adolescent being taken from an ambulance to a hospital emergency room drove home the message. (Teenage drinking is the subject of another Aleinu survey.)
Aleinu's intervention and prevention campaigns employ a remarkable variety of media – videos, CDs, specially produced Uncle Moishe tapes, and glossy brochures. Safety Kid on the Net presents an interactive classroom curriculum of twelve lessons, which are taught over a four-year period, as children mature, and includes a variety of 5-7 minute assignments for parents and children to complete together.
Aleinu has taken aim at the scourge of child abuse with its Safety Kid Program. It includes ABCD learning cards and videos summarizing the basic rules children must know: Ask for help; Bring a friend; Check with a friend; Do Tell. The program has been implemented nationally in yeshivos and day schools, reaching to date 7,500 children, as well as their teachers and parents.
Aleinu's Halachic Advisory Board, chaired by Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, also developed SafeSchools and SafeCamp policies, which have been reviewed and approved by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky. Those policies have been adopted by all Torah institutions in the greater LA area and emulated nationwide. They set out clear rules, such as a requirement that every classroom door have a window. Every educator is provided with a detailed list of unacceptable behaviors and required to sign a form that he understands and accepts the rules. The same is true of camp counselors. Educators were also trained concerning their mandated reporting duties, in cases of suspected abuse.
The Los Angeles experience demonstrates that when issues are confronted and their parameters and causes determined by empirical research, it is possible to develop effective and imaginative prevention and intervention programs that touch lives and prevent tragedies.