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Drug Bust of U.S. Teens in Israel Spotlights Jewish Drug Problem

Parents, students and school administrators in the United States and Israel are buzzing over the arrest on drug-related charges of three Americans studying in Israel — but drug-abuse experts say it should come as no surprise. The three Americans, whose names have not been made public, were arrested last Friday after officials at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education discovered they had 3.3 pounds of marijuana. After being held and questioned by police, the three were released into the custody of their families and have been expelled from their study-abroad program.

At least six other students involved with the incident were asked to leave the program, a 10-week course for 106 high school graduates of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.

“This is no doubt the most difficult and problematic and most sensitive issue we’ve had to deal with,” Muss Institute headmaster Chaim Fischgrund told JTA. “It’s the quantity and the ramifications of the quantity of the students involved.”

He added, “The amount that was discovered was such that we felt we had to involve the authorities.”

Drug experts say the street value of the pot could be as much as $15,000 and that the students likely intended to sell it. On Tuesday, police arrested a 17-year-old Israeli on suspicion of selling the marijuana to the Americans.

This is the first time the Muss Institute, based in Hod Hasharon, has faced a drug incident of this magnitude, but incidents of drug or alcohol abuse by students on study-abroad programs are fairly common, according to substance-abuse specialists in Israel.

Often, they say, schools bungle the response to such incidents by limiting it to the few students involved, rather than systematically confronting the problem of widespread drug use among Jewish teenagers.

“I would not be surprised if the numbers were that 50 percent of the kids would experiment with pot during trips abroad to Israel,” said Rabbi Josh Mark, an addiction specialist in Israel who works with teenagers and young adults. “It’s probably true of any other exchange program to any other country. These kids are going to go to college in the States, and that’s where it happens, too.”

At least one of every four Americans on a study-abroad program in Israel will use illegal drugs during their time there, says Rabbi Yehoshua Eliovson, who runs a Web site that allows teenagers to share their substance-abuse problems anonymously.

The alarming rates are not a reflection on Israel, he says.

“It’s my firm belief that what we see in Israel is the manifestation of problems that start with these kids in high school in America,” Eliovson said. “I don’t believe for a second that these kids are having their first introductions to drugs in Israel. When these kids find themselves in an unsupervised environment, their behavior becomes extreme.”

The recipe for trouble is simple, experts say. Teenagers who have never lived away from home suddenly find themselves 6,000 miles from their parents, with minimal supervision.

Many have experimented with drugs before. Add to that the widespread notion among Americans here that they’re almost beyond the law because they’re foreigners, and that their dollars can go further in Israel, and teenagers will tend toward extreme behavior — spending a lot of money in the process.

“If you take aberrant behavior and couple it with those attitudes, there’s less of a fear element involved,” says Caryn Green, director of a program in Israel called Crossroads that targets at-risk American teenagers.

The Charles E. Smith school’s headmaster, Jonathan Cannon, could not be reached for comment. The school sent a letter to parents informing them of the incident and dispatched the high school’s principal to Israel to deal with the fallout and counsel students remaining in the program.

“CESJDS does not condone or tolerate conduct of this nature, as it is contrary to our values and it is destructive to the entire school community,” the school wrote in an e-mail to parents. “In light of this situation, the school will review its program to determine ways to better educate students on the dangers and consequences of using illegal substances.”

More than 90 students remain on the program, which combines trips around Israel with classroom study as part of a curriculum on Jewish history. The participants from Charles E. Smith graduated this winter and enrolled in the Israel program before starting college.

Fischgrund said the marijuana was discovered by program counselors investigating drug rumors. When school officials realized the quantity of drugs involved, they turned the matter over to police.

School officials have not said whether they’ll inform the lawbreakers’ intended colleges of their arrest or their expulsion from the Muss program.

Eliovson argues that schools’ impulse to expel students who use drugs masks the greater problem of widespread drug use.

“When we throw out a kid, what we’re really showing is that we don’t have solutions,” he said. “If you believe that it’s just a few bad apples, throwing the kids out may be the solution. But if it’s one out of four” using drugs, “then we’re just driving the problem underground. The problem hasn’t been cured; it’s only been suppressed.”

One Jewish youth posted anonymously on TheLockers.net, Eliovson’s Web site, after a drug bust last year of students from an Orthodox school in New Jersey.

“Drinking and drugging are so common these days among teens that you really don’t think about getting in trouble over it,” the youth wrote. “We worry about making curfew when going to a party, not the police busting in on us and getting arrested. So yeah, the kids there just weren’t careful enough, and I’m not saying they should definitely get away with it, but it’s what happens. This shouldn’t be a big shock to anyone.”

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