The estrangement of Jewish youth from the Jewish community is an issue of concern for all of us. While we differ in how that sense of belonging should be expressed, we all want our children to self-identify as members of that unique society of mutual responsibility and reliance that is the Jewish people.
For some of our children, the weakening of the Jewish bond is a consequence of our integration into a modern, open, pluralistic society. While this is true to some extent, it is far from the whole story. As much as there is “pull” from society, there is “push” as well.
Our communities, schools, synagogues, and programs are — effectively — designed to push a significant portion of our children away from the Jewish community. In our self-ascribed ethos as a particular kind of “People of the Book,” we have written out of our story young people who don’t fit the mold. In my thirty years of experience as a camp director, school principal, and practicing clinical psychologist in both Israel and the United States, I have seen the effects of this “write out” on vulnerable children from all over the globe.
Who does a narrow definition of success exclude?
In our laser focus on professional success and educational merit, we have driven a wedge between Jewish identity and the self-image of thousands of Jewish youngsters. For many of our youngsters, and young people, their natural aptitudes and strengths deviate from communal expectations.
Not every child will excel in verbal-linguistic or mathematical intelligence. We have excluded from the category of authentic “Jewishness” entire classes of lower-earning people and youngsters whose natural skills and interests diverge from Jewish convention. Our institutions have forced self-alienation on masses of young people who would otherwise be proud Jews. Families have splintered because of parental unwillingness to accept a child’s otherness.
Isn’t the Jewish story elitist from the very beginning?
The biblical story of Isaac’s children describes Jacob as the “tent-dweller” and his twin brother Esau as a hunter, a man of the field. Jacob wins out in the biblical story, becoming the successor to Abraham and Isaac. Doesn’t Esau’s loss validate that the Jewish story picks the studious and reject the rambunctious, the hunters, the impulsive offspring who will not excel in the study hall?
The biblical story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob describes thoughtless and impulsive behavior in almost textbook fashion: “And he ate, drank, arose, walked and disdained the birthright.” These five action verbs provide beautiful literary expression of the internal impulses that drove Esau right out of the Jewish story.
There could have been an alternative
The bible provides a alternative to the Esau story – King David. Like Esau, David was a redhead. And, by all accounts, he was blessed with lots of energy. We know him as a shepherd, warrior, musician, poet, spiritual giant, astute politician, father, husband, and good friend. We know him as a man where passion sometimes precluded reason. Yet, his energy was directed in positive channels. Because of those energies, he become king David!
Had Esau found constructive outlets, would the biblical story have unfolded differently?
At Matara, a residential treatment program in Israel, we refer to the failure to accommodate children and young people who don’t fit the mold as “The Esau Complex.” The young men and women who thrive in our program were often branded with modern labels – ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). We should be finding ways to nurture potential among the children who fall outside the comfort zone of our society. Instead, we have constructed a system that doesn’t understand them, that regularly debases their skills, and that drives them apart from family and community.
Rethinking and tapping the energy
Has it been your experience that as ADHD and ODD diagnoses multiply or that schools make “accommodations” for “handicapped” students? Is it the case that school, and the wider society, view our out-of-the-mold kids as somehow second rate or disabled? Do these young women and men find that their strengths are debased?
The results for Jewish families, and for the Jewish community, are devastating. Experiencing failure and frustration year after year is a recipe for disaster. The results often include estrangement from family, alienation from community, and even a drift to substance abuse or other risky behaviors powered by low self-esteem.
It can be different. Our families, communities, and schools should be providing positive reinforcement for the multiple types of intelligence that our young people have. Non-verbal, non-mathematical intelligences need to be recognized, cultivated, and regarded. In Israel, a wide range of young people find opportunities to build on their natural talents. We are justly proud of our scholars and scientists, but the nature of society means that merchants, carpenters, construction workers, soldiers, bus drivers, bank clerks, plumbers, butchers, and bakers live side by side with doctors and lawyers.
At Matara, we are committed to finding avenues for young men and women to build self-esteem, self-worth, and competence. In our experience, the results are evident in improved family relations, greater identification and participation in the community, measurable improvements in functioning, and reduced risk of substance abuse.
If you are a community leader, educational professional, or a concerned parent, reach out to Matara for guidance. Whether you are facing failure to launch, have a child that just doesn’t fit in any school, or just want direction for how to meet the challenges, we are here to help.
This story "Rethinking Our Attitude Towards ‘Problem Children’" was written by Stuart Chesner.