The story reads like a take-off on the Tom Cruise classic teen high-jinks film “Risky Business.”
Parents go away on vacation, leaving their teenage son home alone. Son throws a big party, complete with beer, drugs and loud music, causing the neighbors to complain to the local police department.
Police raid the party and arrest the son, along with dozens of teenage partygoers.
But in this real-life version, the host of the party, 18-year-old Tzvi Gerstle, and most of the guests were students at Orthodox day schools in New Jersey. All told, 42 people, some as young as 14, were arrested November 21, after police raided a party at the Gerstle home.
The largest contingent of those arrested, including Gerstle, attend the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, an Orthodox yeshiva in Livingston, named after the mother of disgraced New Jersey Jewish philanthropist and major Democratic campaign contributor Charles Kushner. In August, Kushner admitted in federal court that he defrauded the Internal Revenue Service, made illegal campaign contributions and hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law. Then he mailed a video of the encounter to his sister to deter her and his brother–in-law from helping investigators.
In addition to attracting media attention, the recent arrests have yeshiva principals and educators across the nation warning that the incident reflects a wide, generally ignored problem: drinking and drug use among Orthodox teenagers.
“What we are seeing in New Jersey is a symptom of the rise of substance abuse amongst Jewish teenagers,” said Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, founder and director of Ohr Ki Tov, a Jewish recovery center based in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “All other faith groups are facing up to this problem, but the Jewish community as a whole denies it’s a problem. Therefore it does not have curriculum to create an environment of prevention.”
Dinnerstein said that in recent days he has heard from several educators who are concerned about the Livingston incident. “They fear if it happened there, it can happen anywhere,” he said.
When Livingston police arrived at the party, they smelled marijuana and found minors drinking alcohol at the front door, according to police Lt. Craig Handschuch. Of those arrested, 27 were under the age of 18 and charged as juveniles. The rest were charged as adults.
Police charged all those arrested with possession of marijuana as well as drug paraphernalia, and with possession or consumption of an alcoholic beverage by a minor. The legal drinking age in New Jersey is 21.
The older students face a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $3,000 fine.
Gerstle was also charged with serving alcohol to minors.
Kalman Stein, principal of the Frisch School, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Paramus fired off a warning letter to parents on November 24, noting that two students from the school were at the party.
The letter indicated that the school has been warning parents for years about drug and alcohol use by students. “I assume that you have heard/read that the police ‘raided’ a party this weekend and found that many yeshiva high school students and recent graduates had been drinking and/or smoking marijuana,” Stein wrote . “In light of this situation, I beg you once again (although it seems ridiculous for the school to beg you)… to take seriously the message we have been trying to deliver for several years.”
Stein outlined six rules for parents, noting, “There is bad stuff going on out there.”
“Parents should never allow their children to go to parties or just to ‘hang out’ with friends until they have ascertained that there will be active parental supervision,” Stein wrote. He also warned that “there are no clubs in Manhattan which are designed for teenagers, certainly not for yeshiva teenagers, no amount of teenage pressure, anger or pouting should convince parents to allow high school students to be involved in the club scene (even when the group playing at the club seems to have a Jewish pedigree).”
Stein restated Frisch’s zero-tolerance policy: Students will be immediately expelled if they are found to be using or possessing drugs or alcohol on or around the school, or sponsoring parties where drugs and alcohol are used.
But, the principal added, students who come forward to discuss their substance “problem” with a member of the faculty will be dealt with “in a therapeutic rather than a punitive manner.”
Stein did not return phone calls to discuss his letter. Officials at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School also did not return calls.
Sid Sayovitz, president of Kushner, told New Jersey Jewish News that alcohol and drug awareness are part of the school’s curriculum and that attending an unsupervised party is against school policy.
The yeshiva held an assembly on November 22 to discuss the arrests and also sent a letter to parents reiterating the school’s anti-drug policy.
Despite such steps, Dinnerstein, who previously served as director of New York’s Yatzkan Center, the first kosher in-patient rehabilitation center for young people with addictions, says that some Orthodox educators are more concerned with their school’s reputation than with implementing necessary drug-counseling programs. “They would rather have kids using drugs and not doing anything about it,” the rabbi said, “because they are worried about the reputation of their schools more than the kids.”