Thursday, July 21, 2005

Drugs and Sex in the Orthodox Community

A recent post on Hirhurim got me thinking about drugs in the Orthodox community. I wanted to add my perspective, which might be informative to adults who remained Orthodox. Although I never used drugs or alcohol in high school, I knew some people who did. These aren't intended as the only reasons Orthodox kids use drugs, but simply some reasons that Orthodox people should be more aware of.

Inflexible Parenting

Let's imagine a 16 year old Orthodox boy named Shmuely. He's a basically good kid who does well in school and is well-behaved at home. His parents and his school are very religious. Somewhere along the line, Shmuely realizes that he doesn't really believe in Orthodox Judaism or simply comes to feel that it isn't for him. His parents, although basically loving and decent people, would be infuriated if they found out his true feelings, and Shmuely knows it. Perhaps he's not giving them enough credit, but he can't risk finding out.

Because of this situation, which is not his fault, two things happen. One is that Shmuely must create a life which is kept secret from his parents. For now, it might just be a hidden mental life, where he constantly watches what he says around his parents and hides forbidden books in his backpack. The second thing that happens is that Shmuely decides that he is a "bad" kid. Although part of him believes it correct to not be Orthodox, another part of him feels guilty. His parents would disapprove if they knew, and so would virtually every authority figure he knows. Perhaps all of his friends, too. He has no constructive role model he can turn to.

He's a bad kid. A rebel with a secret. In the pained logic of the situation, he might decide that if he's a bad person, he might as well start hanging out with the other rebels in school. If he's going to turn lights on and off on shabbat when his parents aren't around, he might as well try alcohol and marijuana (or worse.) He might also develop depression as a result of feeling estranged from his parents and other role models and turn to drugs in desperation.

What can parents do to prevent this scenario? Ideally, they would establish a relationship where their children know they can always be honest and remain loved. An environment in which Orthodox Judaism is strongly encouraged, but it's understood that if it's not for their kids, it's not for them. Teaching values which aren't completely intertwined with Orthodoxy, so that if a child decides she doesn't believe in Orthodoxy, she'll still believe in being a good person, and will know her parents will still look at her as a good person. A willingness to be open to children who have different personalities and different aspirations than do their parents.

Truth and Fearmongering

There is one more aspect of the problem I'd like to address. Parents must be honest with their children about the risks of drugs, alcohol, and sex. No fearmongering. Kids are smart, and if their parents tell them things which aren't true, not only will they not believe those things, but they'll doubt everything else their parents say as well. Don't tell them that marijuana is just as bad as meth. They probably know people who smoke marijuana, and the fact is that it isn't as dangerous as parents often say it is. Learn the facts, and relate them to your children. Don't say, "Don't you dare drink" or "If you drink, you can find a new house to live in," explain precisely what the dangers of drinking are. As for sex, don't just say "It's forbidden before marriage." Teach them your moral and halakhic beliefs if you want, but also teach them the facts. (e.g. birth control pills don't prevent STDs; you can get HIV from oral sex. I knew Orthodox teens who had sex before anybody told them these important facts.)


Chana said...

This is very constructive and helpful advice. Kudos to you for putting it out there.

Mis-nagid said...

"An environment in which Orthodox Judaism is strongly encouraged, but it's understood that if it's not for their kids, it's not for them."

Remember the Enlightenment? When Orthodox people (especially young ones) are shown that there exists a door, they leave in droves. The only group of Jews that are growing are the ones who both have very high birthrates and, because not even that would be enough, seal off every exit.

"Teaching values which aren't completely intertwined with Orthodoxy"

Nothing exists outside of the reality distortion bubble, least of all good things!

BrooklynWolf said...

Well written, JA.

I agree that there needs to be an open dialogue between adults and children no matter what. If a teen decides that he no longer wants to be frum, he needs guidence, not criticism; love, not scorn or contempt.

However, with that said, there is nothing wrong with insisting that certain rules be observed while living in the home. Even if a teen decides he doesn't want to be Orthodox anymore, it's still within a parent's right to insist that they don't brink KFC into the house. It's also within their rights to ask the kid not to watch television on Shabbos in the house. And it's also within their rights to tell the kid no alcohol, no sex and no drugs.

Communication should never be cut off (I think that the policy of sitting shiva for relatives who married out did far more harm than good), but there's nothing wrong with laying down firm rules regarding conduct; especially while the person is still under your roof.

The Wolf

Jewish Atheist said...

I agree, Wolf. I still don't violate Shabbat etc. at my parents home.

Lyss said...

There were a number of kids in my HS who were simply experimenting with "the real world" before they "ended up married with kids by age 23 and living in Teaneck/Fair Lawn/NYC/Riverdale/etc...".
Most have gone back to being the nice Ortho people that their parents intended them to be. They just wanted to see what it was like to be bad.

Funny thing is, some of thier parents considered ME the bad influence b/c I was not religous. I didn't do drugs, drink, or the like, but I was the "bad irreligious girl".
Sad the way some people's minds are closed.

Mis-nagid said...

I agree with Wolf too, but would add that it goes both ways. Parents can't insist that the child act Orthodox in the child's home when the parents are there.

BrooklynWolf said...


Agreed. If you don't want to be distracted by the TV being on on Shabbos, then don't go to their home. Likewise, if the smell of ham is going to upset you, then don't go to their home.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

JA Your right that the person does develop a God problem i.e. spiritually bankrupt. There are also many other factors some which you stated implicitly such as poor parenting and bad communication. At large it is because there are many disfuntional families, the child has no way of dealing with their emotions,nor is he taught how,do not feel comfortable in their own skin and thus desire an escape either with booze,drugs,sex,gambling,food the list goes on. I have experience with this matter and I can tell you it is not as cut and dry as you made it sound.Shumely's problems and defects are much more than you stated. You will be happy to know that while this is in truth a spiritual affliction there have been many atheists who have recovered and remained so. ( I say this in order to remove any bias one might have to the word "spiritual").

Yoseph Leib said...

it's hard to control a population without lying.

Anonymous said...

I dont know--after reading the comments from ex-orthodox Jews, I wonder if I should continue with my journey into religious Judaism. I was raised very secularly and most Jews I know are secular and/or intermarried as well. I was very attracted to the external feel of the orthodox world and I wanted to learn more about Judaism and start to observe the mitzvot.
I guess the real orthodox world is not that committed (for the most part) at all. Their children seem to be slowly leaving Yiddishkeit and the orthodox will eventually be swallowed up into the American gentile mainstream just as the non-orthodox Jewish world is.

I am now re-thinking whether to "burden" my children and myself with Shabbat, kashrut etc. since the observant world appears to be turned off by that lifestyle. They obviously are much more aware about Judaism than I am--and seemingly are very "turned off" by it.

I probably should just to drop Judaism-since it doesnt seem like it will survive America anyway.I always looked at the frum world as an inspiration-but sadly Im learning the truth-that so many people are exiting that world. Maybe it is time for the Jewish people and judaism to just call it quits--because without orthodoxy it will be finished. Being a product of both the reform and conservative world I know that both movements will not and can not save the jewish people and Judaism. It's too shallow and empty.

People are people I suppose and the fantasy of community, G-d, commitment, family,honesty, integrity, etc. that I thought the frum world had over everyone else really is just that--a fantasy.

My secular friends and family always disparaged orthodox Jews and all i did was defend how wonderful a world it was-but i really didnt know-not having ever lived in that world--but the orthodox detractors are right and they even are supported by the ex-orthos themselves.

New York Magazine (May 15, 2006) has a whole story on sex abuse in the ultra-orthodox world. If the orthodox are no better than anyone else then they no longer need to exist.

Jewish Atheist said...


It's not all bad. There's some great stuff to be found in the community. Just don't expect being Orthodox to solve all your problems or not to bring problems of its own. :-)