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Baltimore group reaches out to Orthodox teen-agers at risk

Baltimore Jewish Times
BALTIMORE, Dec. 24 (JTA) — It sounds like an all-too-familiar problem. Teens hanging out. No jobs, no structured activities to fill their free time. But surprisingly, these teens are Orthodox and are at risk. Now a new community organization — Place to Go — is aiming to help such youngsters function productively within an Orthodox framework. “That’s the first thing that kids say when they’re hanging out — there’s no place to go,” said Marc Rosenbluth, 29, president and co-founder of Place to Go. “What we’ve seen with some kids is that they’re headed down a path of unproductive activity. But we’re here to help.” Offering structured activities during holiday and summer vacations, and eventually, job placements and internships, the 5- month-old organization has seen membership grow to nearly 40 for ages 12-19, while another 30 teens have requested to join. “It’s an in-reach program for kids who are Orthodox,” said Chevy Fleischman, 24, the group’s vice president. “As the community grows larger, there is the concern that the kids are getting lost. We want them to turn to an organization like us rather than turning outside the community because they think there is nothing that the community offers them,” he said. Place to Go took off last summer after Fleischman and a friend, Eli Neumann, approached Rosenbluth, who has worked informally with local youths for several years. They recognized, they say, that teens were hanging out at a couple of kosher eating establishments, including a pizza restaurant that Rosenbluth co-owns. “There are a large number of teens who are not offered structured programs” or productive recreational and social opportunities, said Fleischman, a political consultant who is also a youth director at an Orthodox synagogue in Annapolis, Md. “There is no community organization to fill the void,” he said. The problem is particularly acute during school vacations and during Saturday nights in the winter when Shabbat ends early. The three Place to Go founders consulted with local community and rabbinical leaders, psychiatrists, principals, school guidance counselors and youth organization leaders. “This problem has most certainly caught our attention,” said Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Goldberger of Baltimore. “It seems to be a growing problem in the last five years. I’m grappling with why, as are other community leaders.” He said the community should be active in implementing youth programs, but it also should provide an environment where teens can ask questions safely and will not be criticized. “They should be encouraged and helped to find their way in a Torah framework,” said Goldberger. “We have to recognize their growth as Jews will come through questioning and not be afraid that they may become less observant or engage in behavior that’s worrisome.”