NEW YORK (Apr. 8)
Orthodox youth attending a national convention got a big surprise when narcotics officers raided the event and arrested two high school students on suspicion of selling cocaine.
To show support for the two students, the 250 participants in the recent National Conference of Synagogue Youth Shabbaton in Pittsburgh were taken to a municipal court to witness their arraignment.
“People were sitting there saying tehillim [psalms] and crying,” said Shira Traison, a high school sophomore from Detroit.
The arresting officers testified that the boys had sold them eight ounces of cocaine in exchange for $7,500.
Judge Daniel Butler ordered the suspects to remain in jail until their trial.
But as the proceedings were about to end, Butler suddenly revealed to the anxious spectators that the whole scenario had been staged.
The students sat, mouths open, reeling from the sudden shift of emotions.
“We wanted to come up with a program that would drive home the point that drugs aren’t funny,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, associate regional director of NCSY.
While the students were relieved that the situation was not real, some were upset that they had been willfully deceived by the regional administration.
“Initially, I was very confused and a little angry at them for doing this,” said Shira Weinberg, a high school senior from Pittsburgh, who is president of her NCSY region.
“It totally played with our emotions. They made me doubt my friends.” The two students arrested were members of Weinberg’s regional board.
Weinberg, however, said the program was effective in driving home its point – – to deter the teen-agers from using drugs.
“The message hit home for a lot of kids,” she said.
The idea for the program grew out of a meeting of the region’s chapter directors. Rabbi Bezalel Freedman, who is director of the Central East region of NCSY, conceived of the idea of the arrest and enlisted the help of Butler – – the judge is a former director of the NCSY region.
Butler was instrumental in making all the arrangements for the arrest and trial. As many as 70 individuals in the police force and courthouse donated their time to plan and carry out the false arrest and hearing.
“We mixed in real cases to give it an air of authenticity,” said Butler. The professionals who volunteered were “willing to do this for educational purposes.”
Butler said the attorneys and courtroom officers who participated were impressed “by the cohesiveness of the group” from the NCSY convention.”They were all interested in what would happen to their friends.”
While the two students arrested knew in advance about the program, Freedman did not inform his regional staff that the arrest would be taking place and did not let them know at any point during the programming that it was a hoax. Many of them were convinced along with the students that the arrests and court proceedings were genuine.
While the NCSY region has not experienced severe drug problems, there have been a few incidents in recent years.
“We felt that many kids don’t realize if they do some experimenting, before they know it, they’re down the tubes,” said Freedman. “Even good kids can get in trouble.”
Drug and alcohol abuse are believed to occur as frequently in the Jewish community as in the general population. A New York state survey of 6,000 homes found the incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse in the Jewish community to be the same proportionally as the general population.
“In the past there was more denial of the problem,” said Maxine Uttal, director of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.
The theme of the NCSY convention was reaching one’s potential. Drugs were addressed as a negative force that can hinder self-actualization. A study session later focused on alcohol and its place in Judaism in order to put the drug bust scenario into context.
Nate Jackson, an 18-year-old high school senior from Cleveland, was one of the suspects in the drug bust.
“I’m not the most perfect kid,” said Jackson. “I knew that a lot of my friends would be convinced and would have their doubts [about his character].”
But he was willing to risk his reputation for the purpose of the program.
“The outcome of what happened outweighed any social problems that would arise,” he said.
Jackson said that a friend of his who attended the convention has participated in two drug rehabilitation programs. “It hit him hard,” said Jackson. “It made him realize, “This could have happened to me.'”
Some of the students were shocked at the idea that members of the regional board — role models for their peers — were involved with drugs.
“Anybody can be involved in this,” said Yudi Hocheiser, an 18-year-old senior from Detroit who also was arrested. He said people don’t usually suspect” good kids” of using drugs.
Butler said the hoax had unintended consequences.
“We wanted to give kids the idea that there are choices they make that can affect their lives, but it also turned into good public relations,” the judge said.
In addition to driving home the point that drugs have consequences, “it helped people realize that friendship is strong,” said Jackson. “I couldn’t believe that so many people were concerned about us.”
As the NCSY participants filed out of the courtroom, a man accused of the same charges leveled against the two youths stepped toward the bench for his arraignment. “He said to me, `If I had friends like this I never would have been here,'” said Butler.