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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Strong partnerships have strong impact. King Solomon taught: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Kohelet 4:12). What he meant: What we struggle to achieve alone is less daunting and more achievable through strong collaboration—vertically, across generations, or horizontally, across institutions and communities. Our communal efforts have a much greater chance of success when we marshal our forces, when we come together to teach the values and commitments that we hold dear, and when we work together to shape—or reshape—our community.

When it comes to substance use and abuse, it has become increasingly important for us to leverage the collective strength of a fourfold partnership—school, shul, camp and community—collaborating across all of our “yeshiva league” institutions to reshape culture regarding drugs and alcohol in our adolescent and young adult community.

There are a number of points of entry to the conversation and they are not mutually exclusive. Each is independently important. One side of the work must focus on the area of substance abuse and treatment strategies. We are making progress in openly acknowledging that substance abuse exists in our community, the need for proper treatment, and the importance of establishing support structures for families tackling this enormous challenge. We are already seeing the impact of the efforts to increase awareness, thanks to the leadership of a few courageous members of our community.

But we must also tackle this problem from a different angle. Substance use and its prevention is closely related to—but different from—substance abuse and its treatment. The former requires early intervention and its own set of strategies. The “fourfold partnership” has a unique power and responsibility in this regard. Substance abuse and treatment requires the empathy and support of the community and its institutions. But tackling the growing culture of substance use—that gateway stage where alcohol and drugs shape the social environment of our children’s Saturday night parties and Friday night tisches, of Simchat Torah and Purim—that is not about being empathetic towards others; that is about each of us taking on the challenge of reshaping our community to be better and stronger than it is today. And there is a collective way forward.

Some might balk at the idea of such a partnership. Yeshivot, they say, should focus on curriculum and skills, on imparting a love of Torah and general wisdom—but what happens outside the school building is beyond the educators’ purview. Not so! And for two reasons: First, such boundaries are illusory. What happens outside of school becomes part of the school culture in a moment. It shapes our children’s shared experience and informs how they think about life. It quickly becomes the stuff of students’ discussions within and between schools. But it is not just that. As educators, we are both supremely responsible for and uniquely positioned to impact the whole child. Each student is a world, created in God’s image, with hopes and fears, strengths and limitations. Each must learn how to take risks and cope with challenges. That is how one grows into oneself. Educators and parents must collaborate to ensure that the risks that our children take are the right ones, and their coping strategies are healthy and balanced. The public conversation that began in our community earlier this year is about strengthening that partnership, establishing trust and investing our creative energies in tackling this challenge.

The middle schools in our community have been involved in cohesive and comprehensive discussions regarding ways to tackle this issue. I share one initiative we have begun on the high school front: Over the course of the past year, several yeshiva high school administrators met together to discuss the issue of substance use in our “Yeshiva League” community and to explore possible approaches to the issue. We precisely focused on “use,” not “abuse.” Our anecdotal sense was that the use of marijuana and alcohol was on the rise in our teen community in a manner that has, in recent years, invaded the social fabric of the community even more intensely than in the past. Students who were not—and largely would not become—abusers had nonetheless begun to socialize around these substances more than they previously had. The strategy of yeshivot to tackle this issue has largely focused on education programs and speakers and developing health curricula. These are undoubtedly important and we must continue to strengthen the educational programming in our schools and community. We wondered if there was a way for our network of yeshivot to marshal our collective strength to more effectively shift the culture.

What we found: a “public health” approach to the problem, one that does not rely on classroom education and deterrence strategies alone, but in addition places significant energy into making cultural change. This approach does not only focus on providing information that would affect the conscious decision-making of teens—although that, too, is important. Rather, it seeks to shift the routine behaviors of the teen community—how they socialize with each other and what they do with their free time.

In 1996, the city of Reykjavik, Iceland, discovered that their teen community had a significant alcohol problem. A survey at the time showed that 42.5 percent of Reykjavik teens had gotten drunk in the recent past. Eighteen years later, in 2014, the number responding affirmatively to the same question was down to 5 percent. How did they achieve such substantial change? The Iceland model is a multi-pronged strategy: 1) Surveys were scientifically designed and administered to gather meaningful data from teens; 2) the team developed pledges for parents to commit to
increased quality time and shared curfews; and 3) the government invested in social programming so that teens had interesting things to do with their time. And the city was in it for the long haul. These types of steps resulted in real cultural change.

Such public health models require community organizing and they demand long-term commitment. “Long term” means thinking in terms of five, eight and 10 years of determined and consistent effort in order to make real cultural change. It requires a process that includes gathering student data via an extensive survey, developing a data-based community profile followed by a community action plan (that would allow us to partner with parents in this effort), and then implementing and evaluating the plan. It involves shifting the parent community toward increased and more open communication with each other about our children’s social lives. Data gathering is the first step of the process. We have been very encouraged by the interest and support of yeshiva high school principals in this process and hope to collaborate with middle schools as well. We hope that continued support will allow us to begin a data-gathering process across the Modern Orthodox high school community later this year.

I am proud that our Bergen County community has taken a leadership role in raising awareness about and directly confronting the challenges of substance use and abuse directly. The Community Education Event on November 4 at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck reflects that leadership, collaboration and communal concern. I look forward to greeting you there.

By Rabbi Tully Harcsztark


Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is principal of SAR High School and dean of Machon Siach at SAR High School honoring the memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum.