Talking with Kids
Interviewed by Chris Mercogliano
For ten years he prowled the pre-dawn nether world around Times Square. But his goal, unlike the other middle-aged white men he passed in the night, wasn't to score drugs or sex from homeless, strung-out teenagers. Rather, his self-appointed, one-man mission was to throw them a lifeline, to help them find a way off the streets and back to the daylight world of the living.
Sometimes he worked miracles, sometimes not. Some young people were determined not to be saved. Others reached for the rope, but were already suffering from diseases such as AIDS, in which case he helped them to make peace with themselves and their lives before the end.
In time he became known as the "Times Square Rabbi." That he was an ordained member of the clergy was far from apparent, however. He wore blue jeans instead of a khaki suit, and a New York Yankees cap for a yarmulke. His deeply held spirituality translated easily into the lingo of the desperate, deserted young people who made up his midnight "congregation."
In Times Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids' Lives (Hazelden 1997), Yehuda Fine grippingly recounts his decade of search and rescue work in midtown Manhattan. Although at least as many of the individual stories contained in the book end tragically as happily, the reader is left with a profound sense of hope as Rabbi Fine—Yehuda to his kids—shows again and again how redemption can be located even in the most hopeless circumstances.
Yehuda, sensing the growing burden on his family—his wife, Ellie, and three teenage children—and fearing that he might be consumed by the ever-present darkness in his work, decided in 1994 to leave behind the mean streets of New York City and proceed to his next calling. Together they moved eighty miles north to a beautiful home set on nine acres at the feet of the Catskill Mountains. Here Yehuda, when he isn't crisscrossing the country staging workshops for both teenagers and their parents in the public schools and at national alternative school and homeschool conventions, is busy putting the finishing touches on his latest project, a book of advice to parents of teenage children. In addition to an emerging career as a writer, he is also on the guidance staff at Yeshiva University. On the third Wednesday night of each month he can be found hosting an on-line conference at America Online's Addiction and Recovery Forum.
It should be noted that Yehuda's work in and around Times Square was not his first stint with kids on the edge: After graduating from the University of Washington in the late sixties, he created a school for the children of migrant farm workers in the Sacramento Valley. Later, he founded and directed an award-winning alternative high school for teenagers in Northern California that is still going today. It was after that that he moved to New York City to begin his rabbinical studies and then the training as a family therapist that led to his work with throwaway teenagers and whenever possible, their families as well.
Five months ago, Yehuda was involved in a near fatal head-on automobile accident that shattered his pelvis and one hip socket, almost beyond repair. A walking (not yet) airbag commercial, as he likes to refer to himself these days, he and I enjoyed the following conversation in the combination baseball shrine and holy room that sits about a hundred crutch hops behind his house.
Chris: You have devoted the better part of your adult life to working in some form or other with kids on the edge. How did you come to such a calling?
Yehuda: Part of it has to do with how I was raised. My father was a doctor and he brought me up not to ignore people's suffering. I simply can't turn away from someone in need.
And then here we are in America today faced with more and more kids about whom nobody really cares. Nobody sees their value, nobody touches them, and nobody taps into their spiritual reservoir or asks them about their hopes and dreams. When I became aware that we weren't only talking about a few kids, but about thousands upon thousands, I just couldn't stay away.
You see, whenever there is a child born into this world that isn't being attended to, we all pay a price. We have to understand the simple spiritual truth that we really are bound together. If we ignore someone else's suffering, then ultimately that suffering is going to come to our door. Right now we're paying a big price because there are more and more kids on the edge who are in desperate trouble, and more and more middle of the road kids who are struggling, too. And hardly anyone is noticing this generation's desperation, other than to label kids who have obvious problems as losers, or substance abusers, or violent, or misfits, which is not helpful at all because labels don't get to the root of problems. As a general rule they solve nothing, and with teens they only create more alienation. Labels obscure the fact that all kids are good at their core. Some have serious problems. All of them have challenges in life, and every one deserves a chance.
Chris: When you were working with kids in and around Times Square, you were about as far out on the edge as anyone can go. What did you learn there that you have carried forward into the work you're doing now?
Yehuda: It was a dark world. In my book I called it "the way beyond," and "the kingdom of the night." Many of the kids I tried to help died. They committed suicide. They died of AIDS. They were murdered. They OD'ed ... I lost so many kids.
That was the dark side. But there was another side that wasn't dark at all. In fact, being in that world with those kids was probably the highest and most profound place I've ever been in my life. That's the ultimate paradox. How could it be so meaningful if everybody was dying? The answer is that in a world like that, all the boundaries get erased and anything and everything can come out, including all of the goodness.
What I learned, and this is the heaviest lesson, one that goes way beyond the streets and applies to all of our lives, is that no matter how bad things get, nothing can ever wipe out the golden goodness and the innocence that dwells in a person's heart. I am a witness to this fact. I've seen it and lived it on a daily basis.
Chris: How does this relate to what you're trying to do with kids around the country today?
Yehuda: Thanks to where I've been, kids believe me because they know that it's not just me talking to them, that standing behind me are the hopes and dreams of all those kids in New York City. I dedicate all of my talks to them and I always start with a prayer in their memory. I loved those kids, and they would lay down their lives for me. The young people I meet today understand this, and they start to trust me almost immediately because they want somebody that they can believe in and trust, not somebody who has all the answers. That's one of the myths that just doesn't fit into the current scheme of kid's lives.
Kids aren't necessarily looking for answers; they're looking for contact, real contact, so that they can successfully negotiate their rights of passage in life. And when I tell them where I've been and what I've seen, they know that there's hope for them, too. Suddenly the desperation that may be haunting their lives takes on a different color. It doesn't seem to matter whether they're upscale private school kids or inner-city public school kids. They all want to find meaning in their daily struggles.
Chris: Is another of the myths that teenagers are hard to reach?
Yehuda: Absolutely. It's not difficult at all to make contact with adolescents today. The fact that people don't is a sin in my book. I feel that it shames all of us because we end up marginalizing the next generation. I can be in an auditorium with three or four hundred high school students, and within fifteen minutes everybody is wide open. This is because what we are talking about is their issues, their lives, their questions, their hopes and their dreams.
Chris: Do you have any thoughts on how we've gotten to the place of marginalizing a whole generation of young people?
Yehuda: There are many, many reasons. For starters, there has been a general breakdown of communities. Families are overwhelmed and are breaking down everywhere, too. Parents are struggling with parenting and don't know what to do or who to go to for help or advice. They don't have extended families; they don't have friendship networks; they don't have real neighborhoods. People in the suburbs are living with a tremendous sense of isolation.
Schools are overwhelmed, too. They're part of a monolithic educational system that is designed to keep kids from being in touch with each other. They try to educate kids by pouring information into them, instead of helping them to develop their ability to think through issues and problems.
The end result of all of this is that we stopped talking to young people a few generations back. Surveys tell us that high school students spend less than eight minutes a day talking to their mothers or fathers. The economic structure is such that parents are working so hard and so long that they don't know how to find time to relate to their kids when they come home. So, kids just go off on their own, and let's face it, adolescents left to their own designs are going to gather their information and modeling through other means, which is mainly from their peers or the media.
A week after Columbine, I was in a high school in New Jersey speaking to five hundred juniors and seniors. I asked how many of them had talked to their parents about the shootings. Less than fifteen percent of the kids raised their hands. Clearly there is a wall of silence.
Chris: This isn't good news.
Yehuda: If we raise a generation of young people that feels cut off from the adult world, then there is bound to be trouble. But, it's not the trouble that the media would lead us to expect. It doesn't mean the next generation of young people is going to end up being drug addicts and criminals. It does mean that we are at risk of creating a generation of kids who will have real trouble dealing with emotional issues, and who will be at real risk of leading unhappy lives.
When I was growing up there was the generation gap. This meant that as young people we fought with adults, we struggled, we argued, we disagreed, but we sure as hell knew what they were thinking. And then, when we grew up, we discovered how much we actually agreed with what our parents and other adults had been saying.
Tragically, this dialogue does not exist anymore. I continually find that I'm the only adult who has ever spoken openly about issues like drugs, sexuality, relationships, suicide, and depression to most of the high school kids I encounter in my travels.
Chris: What is your message to these young people?
Yehuda: Bottom line, I want kids who are on the edge to know that, even in the darkest hour of their lives, there is a way out of their troubles, a way back into their lives. I want them to know there is always hope. For the rest of the kids I try to be a lightning rod and a catalyst. I let them know that every single issue and question they have is very, very important. I want them to know that I honor their ongoing search to find the answers. I don't want them to avoid their most important challenges and then bury them. I don't want them to turn their most sensitive issues into secrets. Secrets are so toxic. They're dangerous. They drive kids underground. They destroy relationships and force honesty into the background.
One of the first things I do with kids, before I get to their questions, is to survey them. I mean I'm not really a scientific survey taker, but I do have a damn good survey going. High schools are the perfect setting because they have virtually every kind of clique and race under the sun. You've got the losers, the star athletes, the student body president, the nerds, and the kids who will never get a date because their acne's out of control. And all of these kids think one thing about each other, that whatever's going on inside their heart isn't going on inside anybody else's. Adolescents tend to be very self-absorbed, and they have the mistaken notion that they're very alone in terms of issues of real importance. My goal is to get them to see that every one of them is wrestling with the same powerful stuff.
So right out of the gate, I ask how many of them have a friend who has seriously thought about committing suicide. That immediately gets everybody's attention. And, because we've trained kids since an early age like Pavlov's dog to raise their hands, they don't even think about holding back. Usually ninety to a hundred percent of the hands go up.
Then I tell them to take a look around the auditorium. All of a sudden it's a different student body. Their mindset is totally, completely changed due to that one question. They suddenly realize, "My God, the student body president has her hand up, and the dopers over there all have their hands up. What's going on here?"
By the time I've run through all of my questions, which deal with all of their deepest issues, they all know they're in the same boat. They become galvanized as a group, their anxiety threshold drops, and this paves the way for a real discussion about whatever is on their minds.
Chris: What other kinds of things do you do in your workshops?
Yehuda: Next I hand out three-by-five cards, so that the kids can anonymously write down the heaviest things that are going down in their lives. This way they can safely get at their most important concerns. It is electrifying when I read them out loud because this is the first time these issues have surfaced into the light of day. Suddenly everyone knows that there are kids in their school who have been raped, who are suicidal, who are depressed, who are fighting with their parents, who are confused about sex, who are worried about their friends, or who have drug and alcohol problems. And I pause long enough for everyone to look around and realize that there's someone sitting in the room who has exactly the same problem. It could be their best friend and they didn't even know it.
Suddenly kids want to know what they can do about the problems. Who do they go to for help? What does it mean to be a friend?
These kinds of discussions really help administrators with the drug and alcohol problems in their schools. Many schools are in a real bind because the drug-free school zones and the D.A.R.E. programs simply haven't worked. They have had no significant effect on drug usage. It isn't enough to give kids all of this scientific information that says that drugs are bad for you, especially when kids know that getting stoned makes you feel good. It is obvious that the initial attraction of drugs is the allurement of getting high. Failing to discuss this reality leaves kids alone to make their own decisions, and that is the gateway to real trouble down the road.
So many of the drug prevention programs have left out asking the necessary questions, such as why do kids want to get high in the first place? Why do their friends think getting high is important? If you don't get into a good conversation with them about that, about how it feels to get really ripped, then how can you ever talk with them about how they can get into trouble with drugs?
Chris: What's your take on why teenagers want to get high?
Yehuda: There are different categories. Let's start with the kids who have drug problems. The stoners are medicating themselves against their anxiety. That's a key discussion to have with the whole student body, because it's crucial to break down all of the myths kids have about these issues. Most kids think that all the stoners care about is partying all the time. We all need to understand that some kids feel the only way they can cope with the difficulties they're in is by medicating themselves. And then, sadly, we have drug laws in this country that criminalize kids who are only trying to deal with their mental health.
You know, I often have stoners come up to me after my talks and start crying because they really want to get some help. They don't like what's happening to them at all, but they don't know whom to turn to for help.
Then you've got a large group of pretty well-grounded kids who are doing drugs because kids are kids. We have to remember that it is natural for adolescents to want to experiment. But, the problem is that teenagers can only make choices based on the information available to them. So for a lot of kids, who only have limited data and limited contact with adults, their only question is when are they going to get stoned or drunk for the first time? Or have sex? When do they try it out, at what age? I'm always asked that question, and never, should I or shouldn't I? The reason ethical considerations are not on the table is that these personal issues have been forbidden topics of discussion in the adult world.
Chris: Why do you think that is?
Yehuda: Because nobody has ever gotten into an ethical discussion with them about what it means to get high or have sex, or what it means to turn on a friend. No one has explained to them that some kids are genetically predisposed to addiction, and no one has challenged them to think about the ethics of getting their best friend stoned. What is their responsibility in all this?
Instead, we mainly tell kids that they're bad if they do drugs. "Just say no to drugs" is a message that causes kids to chuckle, not to rethink their actions. What kids need is for someone to talk to them about actual consequences, about how to recognize when they are getting in over their heads. We have to encourage them to help their friends. We have to tell them who they can talk to if they see that a friend is in trouble. Or, when in a friendship are all bets off in terms of keeping secrets and confidences? These are all obvious things that almost no one is talking to kids about.
Chris: What about peer pressure?
Yehuda: That's the whole point. Kids don't have to succumb to peer pressure if someone is having these kinds of discussions with them. The force of the pressure is in the myths that teenagers carry around inside themselves. They have no trouble understanding with a little help that maybe the person who is pressuring them to get high or have sex is really not their friend after all.
Every high school should offer students a kind of rights of passage experience around these issues, not to teach them techniques, but to be straight out about them. I can be very strong with young people, but at the same time I make sure to leave room for kids to be who they are. That's what mentoring is all about.
Ultimately these discussions should be happening in the family, but if they aren't, then the schools have to take it on. It doesn't have to violate peoples' religious beliefs or family mores either. Everybody assumes that if you're going to teach about sexuality, then of course you're going to be dealing with things like abortion and birth control. I mean you may do that and some schools do, but the truth is that the majority of young people already know all about these things. They know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases. They know every sexual position there is.
What they want to talk about is relationships, about being close and falling in love, and about what's right and what's not right. Girls in particular want to talk about how profound their first love is. It isn't a put down of the guys, but first love usually means so much more to the girls. Boys need to understand this difference. It needs to be discussed because it has a lot to do with how much teenagers will give away sexually to their boyfriends or girlfriends. It also gives permission to talk about where the boundaries are in terms of what's permissible and what isn't. It has everything to do with how teens stand up for themselves.
Here is the real dating 101, but this level never gets addressed in the typical health education classes because it's basically a science class. Schools are afraid that discussing these issues will upset families.
Chris: So into this gap you step.
Yehuda: Yeah, and I have a unique edge when I come into a community, because at night I usually get to give a workshop to the parents. I don't get all of them, of course, and people complain that the parents that need to be there don't attend my sessions. But that doesn't matter to me. Even if only twenty-five parents show up, by the end of the evening I turn them into twenty-five activist parents who are going to reach out to a lot of the other parents.
Chris: Initially, what kind of reaction do you get from them?
Yehuda: They can't ignore me because I'm reporting on their kids. They're eager to listen because I can let them in on their kids' most private questions. Then I try to teach them about what I call "an astute grasp of the obvious." These are things that every single parent knows and I am simply there to remind them and get them to act. There is usually an audible sigh of relief when I guarantee them that after attending one of my seminars there won't be a single issue that they won't be able to engage their kids on.
Chris: What do you say to parents in family situations where the communication has completely broken down?
Yehuda: It all depends. First I have to determine whether the parents want to start the communication back up. If things are too badly broken, then they may need family therapy. But let's assume we're in the middle of the bell curve, where parents only seem to be able to get one-word answers out of their kids. I teach them how easy it is to get back in tune with their kids' lives.
There are a few simple steps that bear repeating over and over again: You've got to hang out a little with your adolescent children. Spend some time in their rooms with them, even if it's only ten minutes a day. And even if nine times out of ten when you ask them what's up they say, "Nothing," you have to keep asking. I mean this is true for me with my three teenagers. You have to keep trying because there's always going to be that one time in ten when something is up, and then your child is going to tell you about it.
Let's be clear that I'm not talking about what grade they got on some test. The goal is to find out if anything significant went on in their personal lives. Did anybody get busted? Were there any fights? Are any of their friends having trouble? Is something troubling them?
Perhaps the most important thing I have to say to parents who want to raise happy, resilient young people who will have the chance to do something effective in their lives is this: You have to be willing to be an imperfect parent. The most poisonous parenting principle is to try to be perfect.
Chris: What do you mean?
Yehuda: Nobody can live up to the standard of perfection. In families it creates kids who are so distant that they never feel like they can share their problems because they don't think they can ever measure up. On the other hand, if parents are willing to talk with their kids about their own successes and failures, their fallings in and out of love; if they're willing to share their own vulnerabilities and struggles, and to admit their mistakes and apologize, then their kids will grow up with the ability to face the adversities in life.
At this point in the workshops I perform a little ritual for the parents. Even though I'm a rabbi, I explain to them that I'm going to transform myself momentarily into a Catholic priest so that I can grant them absolution from the sin of being a perfect parent. Then I give them a blessing of imperfection. The parents are relieved because they have been hiding so much of themselves from their kids, and now they know they don't have to any longer.
There is no more hiding important issues like "If my kid only knew that I smoked dope in college, or that I slept with my girlfriend." Now kids can learn from their parents' experiences. Who better to teach about life lessons than a parent? Besides, kids probably know the truth anyway, even if they don't know all the details.
Chris: How else do you help parents to gain "an astute grasp of the obvious?"
Yehuda: Another very simple step parents can take to build better relationships with their teenagers is to praise their kids specifically, on a daily basis, for things that they are thinking and saying, not just for their performance in school. I urge them to find aspects of their children's character that they're proud of and tell them why, because if they do these things consistently their kids will never need to buy a book on self-esteem.
And I can't stress enough that parents have got to let their kids know where their baseline values and ethics are. Enough of the morals talk. Kids want to know what the ethic of their family is, what their family history is, where the boundaries are, and how their parents view things. This is the true essence of spirituality in action. But parents have to lay off style. They've got to let that one hang out.
The fact of the matter is that normal adolescents often times are going to get stoned, get drunk, get laid, drive their car too fast, wear outrageous clothes, spend too much time on-line chatting with their friends, and not want to visit relatives that they don't like very well. That's just how it is.
It is crucial that we not make the wrong assumptions, and that we remember how tender an age adolescence is. It's similar to infancy in that teenagers need more profound contact with parents and other adults than at any other time in their lives, particularly sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year-olds who are starting to become self-reflective and have real adult experiences. If they aren't able to discuss what they're encountering out in the world with parents or parent figures, then how will they ever make a good transition into adulthood?
Chris: I've always looked at school violence as one of those "canary in the coal mine" signs of how detached young people are feeling today.
Yehuda: Violence is a sign of what's on kids' minds, but not as the media has portrayed it. I have never, in any of the schools I've been in, had anyone raise their hand and signal "yes" when I asked who thought there was a connection between violence on TV and in the movies, or playing video games like Doom, and what happened in Jonesboro or Columbine.
Why? Because there is no connection. When you ask young people about the real causes of tragedies like these, they start talking about things like the lack of communication and emotional nourishment in families, the absence of anyone to turn to, isolation and other kinds of benign neglect. And they're right, because in the case of every school shooting, someone knew about it beforehand. In many instances, someone in charge even knew that there was trouble brewing. But no one was paying enough attention. There was a barrier of denial, based on how anonymous we keep kids in this society.
Chris: Do you see any hopeful signs when you're out traveling around the country?
Yehuda: I run into incredible young people everywhere I go. The good news is that kids today are amazing. It's an extraordinarily alive generation. These kids are idealistic in a different way than we were in the sixties. They're fiercely committed to their friends' welfare, much more so than my generation. They want to make a difference with what's right around them, and that is exceedingly profound. There is a passage in the Talmud that says that the divine presence rests within eight feet of an individual. That's where the holiness is to be found. It's very localized.
You know the famous scripture, "Whenever two people are gathered together in my name?" It doesn't say ten thousand people, just a couple, which is the primary concern of many young people today. They want to be a force to help friends who are depressed. They want to be able to make someone else happy. It's great when they want to go out and help the homeless—that always makes parents proud—but that's not where a lot of kids are at today, and we need to start honoring them for where they are.
Chris: And where would you say you're at at this point?
Yehuda: Me, I'm just keeping on with my little one-person revolution. After the accident I didn't know if I would ever get back up again and walk, and that has been a heavy thing for me to deal with. But bit by bit, as I'm starting to get back on my feet, I can feel the fire revving up inside of me again. I know that the unique hell I've just been through is only going to add more caring to my life. It is a blessing even though it is a crazy way to receive a blessing. And I suspect that now more than ever I can relate to the suffering that kids on the edge feel.
What I have learned is that there is strength in our vulnerability, in our woundedness, in our uniqueness. That's why I'm always saying to the young people I'm with, "The fact that a part of you may feel messed up should never keep you from going after your dreams. Be fiercely yourself at all times."
Copyright © 2000 Journal for Living. Reprinted with permission.
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