Serving Needs Of At-Risk Youth


Jewish professionals are moving on several new fronts in their war against drug abuse with the opening of two new treatment centers, while an upcoming conference on at-risk teenagers in the Catskills is expected to draw as many as 500 participants.

"We are filling up the rooms," says Rabbi Shaya Cohen of Priority-1, an organization that helps at-risk Orthodox teenagers and runs a yeshiva in Cedarhurst, L.I. The conference, the organization’s second this year, will be held at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in Kerhonksen, N.Y., from Aug. 11-13. "Those who will attend are educators, parents, community leaders, lay leaders rabbis. They feel our program is relevant to them."

A recent study commissioned by the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty found that as many as 1,500 Jewish teenagers in the Greater New York area (many of them from the Orthodox community) may be engaging in at-risk behavior such as drug abuse or sexual promiscuity. Organizations that deal with such problems report a large increase in their client base, and have turned to the state for assistance.

A coalition of Jewish anti-drug activists and professionals met with Gov. George Pataki on Jan. 6.

As a result of that meeting, the state’s Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services has allocated resources to address the crisis. One outgrowth is the Legacy National Jewish Youth Rehabilitation Center which opened earlier this month in Amityville, L.I. Geared toward the special needs of observant Jews, the center offers 10 months of medical assessment, treatment and life management programs for drug addicted youth.

"This facility is the first and only residence recovery rehabilitation center for Jewish teens ages 13-19 in the United States," says Rabbi Yussie Lieber, Legacy’s executive vice president.

Rabbi Lieber said the center has been averaging eight calls per week from possible clients. He hopes the 70-bed facility will become an alternative to prison for troubled Jewish youth. Under state law, judges have the option of sentencing first-time, non-violent offenders convicted of drug-related charges to treatment rather than jail. "Now if a Jewish kid comes in front of a judge, they will put down Legacy as an option," says Rabbi Lieber.

Seed money for Legacy was donated by two telecommunications corporations, IDT and Net2Phone.

Another recently formed program is Chemically Harmed Addicted Individuals (CHAI), an outpatient drug clinic in the Midwood section of Brooklyn which opened six weeks ago.

"There is a need for a state-licensed program geared toward the religious community," said Rabbi David Winter, program director of CHAI. "Other programs are offering prevention and therapy but not treatment."

CHAI’s program centers on a six-pronged approach to recovery: medical, sociological, psychological, pastoral, psychiatric and addiction counseling. "Statistics have found that people who are religious are less attuned to get caught in the trap of narcotics," says Rabbi Winter. "They have different spiritual goals." As part of a multi-step program, says the rabbi, clients are taught to seek "a higher body that in Judaism we call God," says the rabbi.

The program receives no public funding, said the rabbi.

Rabbi Cohen of Priority-1 said there is widespread awareness that drug abuse is a growing problem in the Jewish community, particularly among the Orthodox. But he said one session at the Priority-1 conference will focus on the concept that drug abuse stems from other societal factors.

"Drugs are the solution, not the problem," said the rabbi. "They are one of the solutions that kids choose to deal with problems: self-medication. They say: ‘The day I have it, I feel good.’" The rabbi pointed to a recent scientific theory that environmental factors may be causing an increased incidence of learning disabilities, which make it harder to succeed in the rigid curriculum of religious and secular studies at yeshivas.

"A lot of kids are positioned for failure because of learning disabilities," said Rabbi Cohen. "They are not being dealt with professionally early enough. There is also the problems of trauma in families from death or parnassa [livelihood] problems … It’s very important not to fool ourselves into thinking that it’s just a drug issue. You have to offer spiritual uplift and substitutes for the emptiness that led them to drugs in the first place."