More than just a comfortable, safe place to daven

Standing up to the darkness and the shifting winds of change that threaten to destroy our youth

By: Ilan Preskowsky

The town of Lakewood, New Jersey is known for being home to one of the United States’ most significant Orthodox Jewish communities; a community centred around nothing less than the world-renowned Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva outside of Israel. Unfortunately, so prestigious a community is hardly exempt from a problem that challenges communities throughout the Jewish world. Literally hundreds of teenagers and young adults from this yeshiva community have found themselves alienated by that which their parents take for granted and, unmoored from the certainty of their past life, disillusioned by the world around them. They can end up so lacking in direction that they are tragically drawn towards increasingly destructive and self-destructive behaviours – including criminal activities and substance abuse. More than just “going off the derech” (indeed, they may well – technically, at least – remain “frum”), the very lives of these young Jews hang in the balance.

This increasingly horrifying trend has not gone unnoticed, however, by Lakewood’s own Rabbi Chaim Abadi, a real estate developer and ordained rabbi whose roots are embedded deep within this growing community, but not so deep that he failed to notice the shifting winds of change that threaten to uproot the youngest and most vulnerable among them. Through an act as simple as talking to some of these kids, he began a chain of events that would transform, even save the lives of so many of Lakewood’s disenchanted Jewish youth.

When I asked Rabbi Abadi why he started the organisation that would become Minyan Shelanu – which, in reality, is more of a loose group of programmes taking place in a youth centre/shul hybrid than anything as rigid as an “organisation” – his answer could hardly be simpler or more direct: he saw what was happening with the youth around him and took action accordingly. So unassuming and elementary an approach was to be the basis of everything that happened next.

What started off with asking a few alienated Jewish teenagers if they would like to daven in a shul that would provide a relaxed, non-judgemental vibe soon blossomed into something that would, often quite literally, save the lives of hundreds of the community’s at-risk youth. Along the way, Minyan Shelanu would create specific programmes and services to address the needs of these youth, including fun activities like Lag B’Omer bonfires, trips to Israel, and Shabbatons, as well as vital services like family counselling, job placements, and rehab/therapy.

Even here, though, rather than a formal, pre-planned selection of programmes, Minyan Shelanu works on a “needs basis”, where programmes and services are created according to the needs of those whom they are trying to serve, as well as according to the funds they can successfully raise for each programme – an issue that is especially problematic when so many parents are outright antagonistic to what Rabbi Abadi has set out to do or are too cash-strapped themselves to help out.

As much as the programmes and services themselves, it’s exactly this informality that is such a vital part of Minyan Shelanu’s success. Trading the rigidity, conformity, and structure that can come with an observant or “frum” life for an environment that is loose, non-judgemental, and greatly accepting of each individual, those who were once lost in the system would soon begin to find their way home again. It’s an environment that is specifically geared towards building self-esteem and self-acceptance and it’s one that would give them the ability to overcome the impulses that led them down such dark, self-destructive paths in the first place.

And, not for nothing, Minyan Shelanu would also very often provide these at-risk, alienated youth with a path back into authentic Yiddishkeit – albeit one that may well be different from the one they left. Rabbi Abadi is quick to stress that “Minyan Shelanu is not a kiruv movement” – and it’s not. But it can’t be denied that, along with helping the wayward Jewish youth of Lakewood towards a healthy and balanced life of family, purpose, and gainful employment, a great many of those who attend Minyan Shelanu go on to study in yeshiva and continue to live a fully observant, Jewish life. In healing the mind, the body, and the soul, it’s truly incredible what just a bit of unconditional love, openness, and support can achieve.

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