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Fostering Jewish Pride

by Reuven Falk


The following article is about the A. family's foster home and how their philosphy of Jewish pride changed the lives of troubled youth. Some names are appreviated with an initial for privacy reasons. This essay is based on twenty-four tapes of interviews with the family and various foster children. For more information contact the author at efalk@bezeqint.net.


"A Jew," he said, "cannot develop character on the one hand, while apologizing for being Jewish on the other." This simple statement had a profound impact on me and I could not get it out of my mind. So, a few weeks later I went to visit Mr. A. at his home where we continued our discussion on the question of Jewish identity. It was here that I first began to see the broader implications of the issue and how the neglect of one's Jewish identity often resulted in problems of character and conscience that affected every facet of a person's life.

Mr. A. and his wife had spent the past forty years as foster parents for troubled and delinquent young Jews. They operated a group home under the auspices of the Jewish Children's Bureau. At any given time they had four or five foster children living in their home, in addition to their own four children, and the many other young people who seemed to gravitate there. What made this home so unusual, however, was the quality of the relationships among the people who lived there. The A's were by nature caring and compassionate people. Over the years they had opened their home and their hearts to virtually anyone who was in need of comfort, refuge, or advice. They had also mastered the art of developing effective therapeutic relationships with the troubled adolescents who were their wards. I further discovered that their approach to working with these young people was an outgrowth of their commitment as practicing, observant Jews. The ideals of Torah Judaism, infused with a passion for Jewish history and nationalism, were at the core of the A's work with troubled young Jews. I became fascinated with the work the A's were doing and was invited to their home again, to learn more about it.

Mr. A. explained that most of the children who came to live in his group home presented serious behavior problems. They often came from broken families where parents were unable to provide adequate support, guidance, or discipline. Consequently, many of the children were angry, hostile, and rebellious toward authority, manifesting their unhappiness in a wide range of antisocial or pathological behaviors: failure in school, truancy, fighting, involvement in cults, and substance abuse. Some tended to act out in violent episodes, while others were prone to be isolated and withdrawn. In general, these children had little self-control or self-respect, but they had even less respect for adult authorities whom they perceived as threatening and hypocritical, or at best, indifferent. In short, adults were not to be trusted! Many of these children had spent years living in foster care or other institutionalized settings. In some cases they had become veterans at undermining the efforts of social service workers and professional staff.

Mr. A. also pointed out that most of these children had never felt anything but disdain for their own Jewishness. What little they knew about their Jewish identity usually came from negative stereotypes and images transmitted by parents who were themselves not entirely comfortable with their own Jewishness. "How can one develop character and self-respect when one has grown up apologizing for who he is?" Mr. A. asked poignantly. This question had a most unsettling effect on me and was fraught with implications I did not necessarily want to address. Unlike these children in the group home, I had never been considered delinquent while growing up, nor had I come from a broken home. But like these children I, too, had always been troubled and felt a lack of comfort about being Jewish. I continued to visit the A's to learn more about the nature of their therapeutic relationships with the foster children.One day while visiting the home, I was talking with M., a former resident who was now in his mid-thirties. He told me how he had come to live there when he was fourteen years old after having spent most of his earlier years in other foster homes. M. had rarely experienced anything particularly Jewish about them--until he came to the A's home, that is. He described his experiences in the following terms:

My Jewishness was a concern for me but didn't start to come out until I came here [to the A's group home]. Here we had discussions on everything that had anything to do with being Jewish. I became fascinated. We'd sit around and talk and exchange points of view and eventually we started to become very proud of the fact that we were Jews. And we were prepared to stand up for ourselves if and when it became necessary.... It all comes down to self-respect. If you don't have self-respect no one will respect you. And it is here that I first began to learn the meaning of self-respect as a Jew.

The people who lived in this home were like brothers to me, and even though we would have arguments with each other at times, whenever it came down to it, when someone was being harassed, we'd stand up for each other. One time J. [another of the foster children living in the home at the time] was being harassed by a gang of kids at school. Me and R. went up to the school, we actually went right into the classroom while the teacher was in the middle of a lesson. We went to the desks of the guys who'd been annoying J. and confronted them saying, "Do you intend to keep harassing him? If so, come outside right now. We are prepared to deal with it." After that, J. never had a problem with other kids at school.

M.'s story impressed me, and provided a very vivid example of the meaning of Jewish pride and self-esteem. He emphasized that after living in the A's group home, few of the foster children were ever reluctant to admit their Jewishness.

Soon after that conversation with M. I was talking again with Mr. A. who told me the story of another child, R., who had come to live in the home:

We were requested by the agency to take R. for observation. He'd been housed in a city agency after having been picked up as a delinquent. Since he was a Jewish kid, the local Jewish agency became involved at the father's request. The kid was out of control, violent, and uncommunicative. The agency called and asked us to take him for observation. They would consult with us and after a couple of weeks would then decide upon a course of action--what kind of facility would be most appropriate for R.

There were four other boys living in the house at the time and they were most helpful in making an effort to reach out to R. I told the agency that R. was getting my total attention and that it was unfair to the other kids, but the agency asked me to keep him a little longer. I said, "O.K., but it appears that we can only offer custodial care." For R., apparently, control was a form of affection and during that crisis period we did begin to see some daylight. Some of the belligerence began to clear away and there were some signs of change. Once he started to get in touch and relate and trust us--however tenuous that might have been-there was a sense he was beginning to find value and meaning in the experience he was having in the home. He was vitally interested in the discussions of Jewish issues and Jewish nationalism, the comradeship around the Shabbos table, and the guests. He was fascinated with the sense of purpose that all this represented.He started to read books and joined Jewish youth groups. He began to find importance and pride in his Jewishness where before, he had only found it meaningless and held it in disdain.

His Bar Mitzvah at 17 had great meaning to him. He had by now settled down in school. Upon graduation he asked if he could go to Israel and study in a yeshiva for a year before making other plans. He selected a religious-Zionist yeshiva and the local Jewish community provided the funds.

Upon returning from Israel he immediately enrolled in a yeshiva in New York. A few years later, he met a lovely young lady and asked her to become his wife. Fifty kids from the yeshiva took a bus to Cleveland to attend the wedding. I remember having to hold back my own tears at the wedding. Here was a young man who a few years earlier had virtually not one friend--and didn't want any. He had rejected everyone's efforts to befriend him. And now, these students, many with tears in their eyes, were embracing him and wishing him well. Today R. is married, has four children, is a sensitive and wonderful father and husband, is productively employed, and continues to study Torah at the yeshiva. To this day he maintains contact and visits the home with his family whenever he is in town.

A few weeks later Mr. A. and I were talking about the idea of personal responsibility and accountability for one's own behavior. "One can only change what one owns," he said. "Only when a person accepts responsibility for his circumstances does he have the possibility of changing those aspects of his character that are not working effectively for him. Many of the children who come here blame their parents or teachers or others for their unhappiness. While there may be a half-truth in these accusations, the children need to learn, in a non-punitive and non-threatening way, to accept the responsibility for how they chose to interpret and react to these experiences," he continued.

When I was talking with B., a high school student then living in the A's group home, he expressed the same idea in his own terms:

Mr. A. taught me that I wrote my own script. That I need to recognize that I'm responsible for what and who I allow to influence me. That whatever the situation may be, I am living the consequences of how I choose to interpret those experiences. And that the effort I make to correct my errors is commensurate with the degree of responsibility I take for them.

He said that I not only write my own script, but that I'm also the producer and the director, I take the tickets and sell the popcorn. In fact, I'm even responsible for how the audience (all of whom have their own scripts) interpret my presentation. And when any part of my script is not making an impact, not working for me, it then needs to be revised or rewritten. It's not about, "Why did I allow myself to be influenced?" or, "Why did I permit myself such behavior?" This reaction only offers an immediate excuse, like only a part of me is responsible, while the other part judges. There's only one issue here, "I did it." And if it happens again, I'm totally responsible for it. But Mr. A. also pointed out that while I'm responsible for what goes wrong, I in turn, get the credit for the right choices I make as well.

A few weeks after this conversation with B., I was talking again with Mr. A. who made some concluding remarks on the subject of personal responsibility and its importance in the therapeutic relationship. He said that, "In a non-punitive manner, without recrimination, one needs to examine one's responsibility for past behavior and attitudes, if meaningful corrective measures are to be taken." He emphasized the idea of approaching this task in a non-punitive manner. One time I was present in the home when a high school girl living there apologized to Mr. A. for some inappropriate behavior. But Mr. A. did not quite accept the apology. He said to her, "If you really mean it, I would expect this behavior never to occur again. But if it does, I'll remember this apology and I'll be sure to remind you. On the other hand, if it never happens again, I'll know how sincere your apology was, and I'll be pleased." I was impressed with Mr. A's firm yet honest approach to discipline.

Mr. A. also explained to me that he was critical of traditional approaches to therapy that take the position of: "I like you Johnny, but your behavior is unacceptable." He believed that statements like this only reinforced the behavior that was unacceptable. Instead, he wanted the children to accept the premise that they are responsible for what they do, and to stop trying to find excuses and ways of avoiding responsibility.

Although the A's placed great importance on personal responsibility, this was only the starting point of their approach to therapy. They also brought to their relationships with the children a profound commitment to the ideals of Jewish nationalism--a commitment that was grounded in a vital concern for the integrity and well-being of the Jewish community in general and of individual Jews in particular. They believed that young Jews had to feel a sense of pride in their heritage and to abandon any vestiges of self-hate. "Look at the magnificent accomplishments of our ancestors," said Mr. A. with a spirit of profound reverence. "While much of the world was still uncivilized, our ancestors were scholars who gave the world much of its religion, law, medicine, and culture. In light of such extraordinary accomplishments and contributions to mankind, do we continually need to prove ourselves worthy of acceptance?" he asked with a sense of passionate indignation. "On the contrary," he said, answering his own question, "We have a right to expect something from the non-Jewish world: that they too demonstrate their worthiness of our approval and acceptance."

Fittingly, the walls of the home were filled with portraits of heroic, historical Jewish leaders: warriors, scholars, statesmen, rabbis, and sages. One evening B., the same high school student who had explained the idea of writing one's own script, escorted me around the house proudly recounting the names and deeds of these Jewish leaders who had sacrificed themselves for the sake of the Jewish people and for the creation of the Jewish state: Bernard Lazare, Zev Jabotinsky, Yoseph Trumpledor, Avraham Stern, Dov Gruner, and Abba Achimeir, to name but a few. These were men who heroically devoted their lives to bringing about the miraculous emergence of the Jewish State after nearly twenty centuries of exile. And I could see from listening to B's enthusiasm that these were the kinds of role models young Jews needed in order to develop a healthy sense of pride in their own heritage and identity.

A few weeks later I had the opportunity to speak with W., another of the former residents of the group home. He recounted his observations and reflected on the meaning of his experiences living in the home:

I came from a broken family in another city and spent five years in therapy before coming to Cleveland. In therapy we had talked about the origins and sources of my concerns, the contributing factors, and those who were responsible. I don't recall any discussion around meaning and purpose as it relates to my background and heritage as a Jew.

But when I came here [to the A's group home] there was a real sense of Jewish awareness. My first experience with Judaism was with the idea of collective responsibility. Probably the first talk we had that turned things around was the discussion about the gallows martyrs [Jewish partisans who were hanged during the British occupation of the Land of Israel in the 1930s and 1940s]. These were people who, if they had accepted, in word or on paper, the British position, their lives would have been spared. But, no, they lived for a higher ideal, that of the rebirth of the Jewish nation,of Israel. So these people made a deliberate choice. They were aware of the consequences but they were living for an ideal that was greater than themselves. And so we saw the honorable and formidable way that they approached the gallows. They walked proudly, singing a nationalistic song. Shlomo Ben-Yoseph was the first martyr and went to the gallows and put on his tefillin [phylacteries], put on his tallis [prayer shawl]. They brushed their teeth, washed themselves, combed their hair. They would go in the most dignified manner. These are the people we have to emulate, people who took pride in themselves even in death, who lived for something greater. How can we just think about ourselves? You've got to go beyond yourself." So from that perspective I began to take an accounting. And not only as an individual, but I began to take a stand with my friends and with my teachers as far as issues on Judaism are concerned, not compromising or apologizing for the fact that I was Jewish. So I started restructuring my values around Judaism.

One of the first things I did as an individual was to protest. My high school at the time was at least fifty percent Jewish. I was in the choir and we would do concerts where we would sing every other nationality's songs...Indian songs, Black songs, Christian songs, whatever, but not Jewish songs. So I said to the teacher who was the choir director, "Look, why don't we ever sing anything Jewish?" After I made an issue of this for a few weeks, the teacher said, "OK, you get up there and sing a Jewish song." On the day of the performance, when I was about to get up there and sing a Jewish song ("Yerushalayim Shel Zahav"-- "Jerusalem of Gold") nine or ten other Jewish kids in the choir stepped forward to do it with me.

That first step, taken some twenty years ago, started W. on an unwavering path toward becoming a committed, observant Jew. Talking later with Mr. A. he explained that standard methods of therapy with kids like W. rarely, if ever, addressed issues of Jewish identity. Social workers and psychologists were generally reluctant or simply unprepared to explore these issues. But to Mr. A. the Jewish dimension was the very factor on which any effort at character development hinged. Until the Jew, young or old, could come to terms with the totality of his Jewishness, any changes in his character or behavior would remain limited at best. During the centuries of exile, Jews had developed a certain "nervous insecurity" about their status as resident aliens in foreign lands. The persecutions, pogroms, burnings, and expulsions, culminating in the Holocaust, taught the Jew that one wrong move on his part could result in disaster. This encouraged some Jews to minimize or even deny their Jewishness in the effort to placate the non-Jewish majority. And although this strategy was rarely successful, over time it led to an almost habitual posture of apologizing for being Jewish, even when there was no objective need to do so. Even in America in the 1990s, where religious freedom flourishes, the Jew still often adopts this timid, apologetic stance. "You can take the Jew out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the Jew," said Mr. A. quoting one of Zev Jabotinsky's statements.

As my dialogue with Mr. A. continued I realized he was talking about something quite revolutionary. He was talking about a complete restoration of Jewish identity and values, on every level: social, psychological, moral, political, and religious. And from this perspective, he made it quite clear, that the goals of Jewish nationalism were virtually inseparable from the ideals of Torah Judaism--there could be no distinction between the two. Torah observance and Jewish nationalism were the twin pillars upon which the whole structure of Jewish identity stood. From the perspective of the Torah, it is clear that the Jewish people are considered a chosen and a holy people, a nation separate and distinct from the other nations of the world. And the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was a covenant whereby the Jewish people accepted their chosenness and their obligations to G-d, His ways, His Torah, and His laws. Given all this, and in light of the promises made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the land of Israel became the unique, eternal inheritance of the people of Israel, the Jewish people.

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Copyright 1995 Reuven Falk