Who parked these OTD teens in my sheltered backyard?
Dov: I admire your work, but not at the expense of my children’s chinuch.
Zalman: This is a communal responsibility, not just my private endeavor.
Ironically, on the morning that everything began changing, I was on the phone with my good friend Chaim, trying to convince him to join us.
“Seriously, you won’t find another community out there that’s got everything we have,” I told him. “The warmth, the unity, the solid hashkafos, great schools, suburban lifestyle, slower pace, less peer pressure and materialism — all the benefits of out-of-town, and we’re barely half an hour away from the center of everything. My wife shops in Brooklyn all the time, we’re literally right here, but can you imagine, we have parking whenever we need it.” I chuckled at my own joke.
Chaim gave a dutiful laugh as well. “Okay, I hear you,” he said, not sounding enthusiastic. “I’ll discuss it with my wife. She’s really set on Lakewood, but the housing there…” He sighed deeply, and I quickly continued my pitch, extolling the affordable, spacious housing options here in Oaklands.
“It’s homogeneous, too,” I added. “All the families are real bnei Torah, just like us.” I held my breath, but Chaim kept any ready retorts to himself. He knew I was sensitive about this. Coming from a more modern background and having flipped out in yeshivah, I loved my new lifestyle, but was never sure if I’d mastered the nuances and social codes everyone else just seemed to get so effortlessly. “It’s mamesh expanding, people are moving in every day,” I added. “There were a few houses on my block sold recently. In fact,” I said, looking out the window, “I see a moving truck just opposite. Looks like there’s a new neighbor moving in today.”
I hung up with Chaim, after assuring him I’d keep an eye out for any For Sale signs nearby, and headed out to greet my new neighbor.
He was busy and distracted, trying to give instructions to the movers, but he stopped for a minute to shake hands and introduce himself as Zalman Mann. Watching the movers for another minute, I realized he’d bought two houses. Noting my quizzical look — this wasn’t the kind of place where people knocked down houses and built mansions in their place — he explained.
“One’s for my family, one’s for my boys,” he said. “The boys, you know, they’re kind of family too, but I mean my yeshivah. It’s a small place, 10, 12 guys, but we still needed something bigger than we used to have.” He gave a self-effacing shrug. I stared. So this young guy — what, mid-thirties? — was some kind of rosh yeshivah?
“Where were you based until now?” I asked.
“Flatbush.” He smiled, white teeth gleaming. “I think the move will be good for everyone.”
I wasn’t sure. A yeshivah, on our block? Who, exactly, were the rebbeim? What kind of boys were these? Why did my gut say that this was bad news for us?
As it turned out, Rochie got the first glimpse of “the boys,” during one of her late-night power walks.
“Dov,” she said, coming into my study with a strange look on her face. I looked up from my sefer. “Dov, Mann’s yeshivah, or whatever he calls it, has arrived.”
I sat bolt upright. “Nu?”
She sat down heavily into a chair. “We-e-ell, I guess you could say they don’t look very yeshivish,” she said slowly. “I mean, they were wearing T-shirts and shorts and stuff. I didn’t see, like, tzitzis, even. And they were all using smartphones, of course.”
My brow furrowed. As a community, we were very careful about technology use. Shul membership and school acceptance were based on certain commitments, and open Internet was a total no-no. It was one of the main reasons we’d moved here. We wanted to give our children the opportunity to grow up with as little outside exposure as possible. And now we’d have a yeshivah of struggling bochurim as our neighbors? How was that going to affect our careful chinuch?
The kids, of course, didn’t take long to pick up on it.
“The bochurim across the road smoke,” Sara Leah informed me solemnly one morning. “It smells yucky. I know ‘cuz I passed them.”
“My friend said it’s not regular smoke, it’s weeds,” Baruch added. He looked bewildered. “Right, Tatty, that weeds grow in the garden, and you can’t smoke them?”
I exchanged a meaningful look with Rochie. “Right,” I told Baruch, a little helplessly. Should I explain things to him before someone else does? But why should a seven-year-old need to know about marijuana?
“I think you can say something to Mann,” Rochie told me after the kids were in bed. “Isn’t that stuff illegal? Or dangerous? I think he needs to know.”
“Trust me, he knows,” I said drily. “The question is, can he do anything about it?”
Or rather, as I found out later, did he even want to?
“Reb — Dov, you said?” Zalman Mann stretched out an expansive arm when I knocked on his door that night. “Come inside, come inside. What an honor! Can I offer you a drink, a piece of cake…”
“No, really, that’s okay.” I felt a little bad, coming in and bursting his happy bubble. “It’s about the — your boys.” I tried not to choke on the words. His boys, come on.
“Ahh, the boys, yes, the boys,” Rabbi Mann nodded sagely, his eyes lighting up. “It’s unbelievable, really, how far they’ve come. Just a year ago, even six months ago, some of them were on the streets. You wouldn’t believe what they’ve been through…” He shook his head, a faraway look in his eyes, while I shifted uncomfortably.
“I… appreciate all of that,” I said finally. “I just wanted to ask about the… the smoking, or whatever it is? It’s not, chas v’shalom, that I want to make things difficult for you, it’s just that… it’s not the kind of thing we’re so comfortable with on our street. In our community.”
Rabbi Mann’s wide smile slipped just a little. Then he reached out and touched my arm. “I hear you, I really do,” he said warmly. “And all I can say is, these boys are shteiging, they’re on the up. No one wants to sit and smoke all day, and of course we’re working on it, those who need the extra help are getting it, but l’maiseh in such a situation, you can’t make blanket rules. It just wouldn’t work for this chevreh. For many of them, it’s the reason they were kicked out of their old yeshivos in the first place.”
Oy vey. So, we were now officially the new hot spot for yeshivah dropouts? I thought of my friends and neighbors. This wasn’t what we’d signed up for when we’d moved out here and set up this kollel community.
“I’m sure you’ve heard, all the gedolim are saying, it’s all about acceptance nowadays,” Rabbi Mann continued. “And especially when it comes to these boys, who’ve been hurt by the system. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to see that a Torahdig community is welcoming them, giving them another chance. I see great things happening here, Reb Dov. And about the smoking, don’t worry. I’ll tell the boys to keep it to our own daled amos, the backyard maybe. But the main thing is to keep accepting them, keep believing in them. They’re good boys, they really are, they just need a new start. And b’ezras Hashem, that’s exactly what we hope they’re going to get here.”
And somehow, I found myself on the other side of the door again.
I broached the subject with my chavrusa, Leib Steiner, after Shacharis a couple of days later. He lived on the other side of the neighborhood. I wondered if he’d come across the boys yet.
“So, you met my new neighbor yet? Mann, with the yeshivah?”
Leib knows everything about the community — he was one of its founders. “Sure I did, he applied for shul membership a while back, a great guy. He has a great name — he works with kids at risk. He has some kind of yeshivah thing going on for a group of boys, and they’ve really turned around. I was surprised he was moving out here, actually, when he’s so active with the teens in-town.”
“He brought them along with him, that’s why,” I said. “He bought two houses, you knew that? And the second one is a ‘yeshivah,’ ” I air-quoted the word, “where the boys have kumzitzes and chill outside till all hours of the night. They’re busy with Slurpees and smartphones and smoking, and I’m pretty sure there’s a big screen in one of the bedrooms. My wife saw the blue lights one night.”
Moshe Pranczer moved over to join us. “Are you talking about the OTD yeshivah on May Street? Wait, you live there, right? Bit of a shock to the system, eh?”
Leib looked grim. “Apparently so.”
“It’s no joke, really,” I said, feeling a little frustrated. Moshe immediately sobered up. “We moved here for the chinuch, because we didn’t want to expose our kids to negative influences. Kids are black-and-white, they can’t understand why ‘yeshivah bochurim’ are doing all kinds of things that they’re not allowed to do. And the way they dress and talk and hang out…”
“I think kids can understand more than you’re giving them credit for,” Leib started, once again making me wonder if I could ever learn to trust my own instincts, “but we’re not the place for this yeshivah,” he continued, and my heart lifted. “He may be doing great work, he probably is doing great work, but we’re a small community, we have strong ideals, and this sort of kiruv kerovim stuff just isn’t our ballgame. I wish he would have checked in before bringing his yeshivah over.”
He shook his head.
Maybe because I was the one who lived the closest to Mann’s “yeshivah,” it hit me hardest.
“The boys are wearing cool T-shirts,” Baruch informed me one day. “And they go on trips, and I asked one of them where they went yesterday ’cuz they all had knapsacks and stuff and he said they were going to a theme park! Can we go, Tatty? Please?”
“Theme parks, in Elul zeman, seriously?” I muttered to Rochie. Aloud, I said, “Maybe on Chol Hamoed. That’s the time for special trips like that, okay?”
“No, the boys went today, they didn’t even have to go to school,” Sara Leah informed me. “So maybe I also don’t have to go to school tomorrow? I hate school!” she said indignantly.
I felt my pulse speeding up, but one look at Rochie’s amused face stopped my overreaction in its tracks. “Sorry, kiddo, you’ll have to wait for Chol Hamoed,” I said, and the discussion ended.
But a few weeks later, just when I was thinking that maybe this whole yeshivah thing would blow over, that the boys would do their thing and my kids would do theirs, we were sitting at the supper table when Baruch used a word that made my mouth drop open.
I felt like I’d been punched. Bad enough that I knew that word. But my Baruch? My sweet, innocent Baruch? I’d been determined to raise him in an environment that would respect his purity, but it looks like that innocence had been shattered.
I looked at Rochie. She looked just as upset as I was.
“Baruch Fried!!” Her face was red. “That’s very dirty language. We don’t talk like that in this house!”
Baruch gave us his Mr. Innocent look. “But I heard the boys from the yeshivah saying it, and their rebbi was even there, and he didn’t say anything,” he informed us self-righteously.
Rochie looked like she was ready to fly over to the Manns’ house and give them a piece of her mind. I felt validated — I was always second guessing myself. Was the yeshivah really a bad influence on my kids, or was it just my old insecurity surfacing? But one look at Rochie told me that she felt exactly the way I did about our new neighbors.
“We’ll deal with it,” I muttered to her. Then I mustered up my sternest expression and told Baruch that no matter who he saw or heard, he wasn’t allowed to use bad words in our house.
By the time Rochie hustled them all off to baths and bed, I felt drained. This wasn’t what we’d moved here for. We’d worked so hard to create an insular kollel community. We’d worked so hard to instill values in our children. We still were, every single day. And now, one man and his wonderful “yeshivah,” with its negative influences, rebellious attitudes, and all, was trying to ruin everything.
This time, I took it to the top.
Hillel Kahana was the macher of our community. He’d been the one to discover the quiet neighborhood just out of Brooklyn, buy the first few houses, canvass for members, hire the rav. He fundraised for the first few months of kollel stipends and personally interviewed every one of the prospective community members. And now, he was the one who was going to have to step in and deal with the problem of Zalman Mann’s yeshivah.
“He’s good at what he does, I’m not saying he isn’t,” I told Kahana, earnestly. “And I have nothing against him helping these boys. L’hefech, I admire him, I wouldn’t say no if he asked me to learn with a bochur, or whatever — but not right outside my front door, please. It’s terrible for my kids. They hear bad language, songs from the radio, the influence is gefehrlich. Let him have a yeshivah in town, you know, where everyone does their own thing. Not here, where we work so hard to shelter our children.”
I stopped for breath. Kahana was doing his slow, thoughtful, nodding thing. I wondered what he was thinking. Would he tell me I was overreacting? Was I creating issues where there were none?
“I’m with you,” he said, finally, and I felt relieved. If Hillel Kahana was on the case, hopefully something would change.
“Did he… he didn’t ask or anything, let people know he was bringing these boys along with him, did he?” I asked.
Kahana shrugged. “Look, he probably didn’t realize what difficulties it would cause. But you’re not the only one who’s talking, there are other neighbors as well, and I heard from a couple of the rebbeim in the cheder also. It’s not simple, that’s for sure.”
I shook my head. “In a more diverse community, there would be a place for such a yeshivah,” I said. “It’s a shame he came out here. I guess he didn’t fully understand the community culture.”
Kahana nodded. “We’re on it,” he said. “I’m going to get some guys together, and we’ll go speak to him today. Something has got to change.”
If I could tell Zalman one thing, it would be: The work you’re doing is incredible — but it’s coming at the expense of an entire community.
It wasn’t like I planned to go into the field. I’d never thought about working with struggling teens; it was just something that kind of fell into my lap. I’m an outgoing type, I started chatting with some of the guys on the street, and the next thing I knew I was inviting them over for Thursday night cholent and a whole chevreh was coming each week.
Eventually, some of the boys opened up to me. They all had stories, this one with his family, that one with a rebbi, another with some deep childhood trauma. I have connections, and I used them: finding therapists, raising funds, talking to parents. One of the boys camped out in our living room for a few weeks.
I’d been learning full-time, but with my rav’s blessing, I began to spend more and more time with the boys. The crowd at the Thursday night get-togethers grew, and the more I got to know these boys, the more I admired them.
Here were kids who had been through terrible struggles and challenges, boys who were kicked out of the system, suffering constant rejections and failures. And yet — I saw it so clearly — they wanted to grow, they wanted to change, they wanted to make a life for themselves.
Eventually, I took the leap from unofficial mentoring to opening a formal “yeshivah.” Anyone who wanted to grow was in. I put my heart and soul into the yeshivah, and baruch Hashem, it was successful. It grew from four boys to over a dozen, boys who were coming off the streets to give Yiddishkeit and “the system” another try. We kept it small, chilled, nonthreatening — no talk about rules and regulations. Growth is a slow process, and I had patience.
We also needed better accommodations. We’d started out in a small apartment close to my own, but both my family and the yeshivah had long outgrown their apartments. It was clear that we had to move, but there was no way I could afford to rent anything bigger — for either my family or my boys.
“You need a real building for the yeshivah,” my wife Tova said. “And we could do with a house, too, if we’re talking millions anyway.”
“Millions may not be enough,” I told her. “But I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s time for a change of pace. I’m looking into different communities, something with cheaper housing. It would be good for the boys, too, I think. There are too many distractions here, too much to pull them back into old, negative habits. We could all do with a change.”
Tova looked intrigued. “Really? You mean like out of town? I mean, we’ve always talked about it, but I thought it was off the table now that you have the yeshivah to run.”
“I think the yeshivah would do great in a new location,” I said. “I’m thinking of one place in particular… it’s not far at all, we could drive into Flatbush all the time, so it’s not that kind of out-of-town cut-off-from-the-world feeling. Let me find out more.”
By the next week, I had the rundown on Oaklands: decent housing costs, nice small community, suburban type, perfect. Tova and I went to check it out, then went back again for an interview. I told them I was learning and worked with struggling teens; Tova worked from home. Our kids were the perfect ages for a move: still young enough for it to be exciting, but old enough to appreciate the space, the garden, the changes.
Things started to move. I found two neighboring houses for sale, and one of our donors, our biggest supporter, put down the payment for the yeshivah. Tova got busy with our new house, and I got to work on the yeshivah. The house needed a lot of work, and the boys had to have pleasant accommodations — no peeling wallpaper or ancient, moth-eaten carpets.
We did the half hour drive from our old apartment to the new houses dozens of times. Paint jobs, furniture, a few small renovations here and there. We planned to move in a week or two before Elul, to give ourselves time to settle before the boys arrived.
When Rosh Chodesh came, I realized I was holding my breath. This was it — the real deal. We weren’t just a kind-of-unofficial-hanging-out-sort-of-yeshivah, we had a house, a new location, we were real. But would it take off? Would the boys be happy here, or would it just be too unfamiliar? Some of them were still very much vacillating between two worlds. Would the distance from their old friends be a good thing? Or would it just be too much, too intense for them?
When the boys arrived, dumping duffel bags and cases all over and losing no time in finding the nearest 7-Eleven for “the first Slurpees of the new zeman, c’mon Rebbi, you want one too, admit it,” I was relieved to see that they seemed okay with the new surroundings. Shmuli Fischer even gave a thumbs-up and said, “Hey, cool place, this,” and if Shmuli was happy, the others wouldn’t be far behind.
Over the next week or two, I heard good feedback from the parents, as well: Chaim’s doing great. The change of scenery is really doing him good. We’re so happy Ruvy’s in your place, it sounds like a really good environment for him.
My friend Shimon, who commuted from Flatbush to learn with the boys in the mornings, was impressed as well.
“You got a nice place here,” he said, motioning to the expansive backyard. “The boys seem happy too, though they’re getting a little restless. They’re used to in-town life, stuff going on all the time. Maybe take them on a trip or something?”
“Coming right up,” I told him, showing him the list I’d been working on. There were some nice places nearby, first and foremost an amusement park just a 20-minute drive away. “Thursday I’m going to take them there, they need to have some fun, and it’s been a great first week.”
The trip was a success, the boys were happy, I was exhausted, but in a good way. The yeshivah had survived its big move — and not just survived, but seemed to be thriving. My boys were doing well, Tova and the kids were happy, and the stress of the property-hunting, decisions, paperwork, and the move finally began to fade.
Maybe it was because Elul was so short and so busy. Maybe because it took time for me to get to know the community and for them to get to know us. But sometime shortly after the start of winter zeman, I started getting the feeling that people were… avoiding me.
First it was my neighbor, Dov Fried. I waved hello one morning, and he kind of averted his eyes. He wasn’t the only one, either. If I’d lived there for longer, I would simply go over and ask if I’d offended him, but we didn’t have that kind of relationship. We didn’t really have much of a relationship at all, to be honest. The one time he’d come over had been to complain about the boys smoking. I’d tried explaining where my boys were holding, but I had asked them to try to keep to the backyard so as not to bother the neighbors. For the most part, they were cool with that.
There’d been the problem of noise at night as well. Mrs. Sanders from three doors down had been very upset about that, but it had been a one-off, as far as I knew.
And then… well, you didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that this community was pretty insular and not very familiar with teens who were figuring out their own path. But honestly, it was the best place for the boys, and I was hoping some of the avreichim would befriend them, let them see some very frum families up close, without the traumas and the triggers of going back home.
Okay, so the befriending part seemed a little unrealistic right now. But why the bad feelings? What had I done to upset them all?
I found out when Hillel Kahana himself asked to come over. “A few of us would like to speak with you.”
I nodded and smiled — “Sure thing, anytime from eight to ten tonight” — but inside, my heart flipped uncomfortably. Oh, boy. This didn’t sound good.
Some of the boys were chilling in my living room at 8:00. They had their own place, of course, but some of them liked hanging out in our house — they liked the family feel.
“Guys, listen, I have a meeting here,” I told them, showing them the door. They looked at me, surprised.
“Oooh, Rebbi, getting official,” Shuey said.
The doorbell rang.
“Okay, guys, I’ll see you later,” I said. They trooped out the back door, laughing and shooting one-liners back and forth.
Kahana arrived with three others: Steiner, my neighbor Fried, and someone else who looked vaguely familiar.
“It’s like this,” he said, launching in without preamble. “You’re doing great work with the bochurim. The problem is, this isn’t exactly the right community for it.”
I listened, trying to keep a neutral expression. Honestly, I was confused. What exactly was the problem? And what did they want me to even do about it, after buying and renovating the properties? I couldn’t just take the yeshivah and plunk it down in a more “suitable” neighborhood.
“There’s a lot that’s been bothering community members, to be honest,” the guy I didn’t know said bluntly. “Our kids aren’t being brought up using the kind of technology your bochurim are comfortable with. And the language, the smoking, the bad habits… we’re concerned about the influence on our children.”
I wanted to respond. I wanted to tell them where these boys are coming from, how much they’re growing here, away from the pressures and bad memories of the place where they grew up. I wanted to ask them why these boys are my responsibility, not theirs. Aren’t they Klal Yisrael’s problem?
“I hear you,” I started cautiously, trying not to let my turmoil show, “but I’m wondering if maybe the kids will actually gain a lot, from learning about acceptance, about kiruv kerovim,” I said, my voice rising. “These boys — they’re not out to get anyone, they’re not purposely being rebellious or trying to influence anyone else to go off the derech. They’re just struggling teens that we need to see for who they really are, and honestly, they could gain so much from a community like yours. The strong Torah hashkafos, the simple lifestyle — it would be so beautiful if there could be more communication, more understanding, between everyone.” I tried to word it delicately, but Hillel Kahana was frowning deeply. I guess he caught the implied criticism.
“It’s not about intentions, Reb Zalman,” he said. “The fact is, the bochurim are causing a negative hashpa’ah on our children, in a community that’s very careful about maintaining a high standard of purity, especially in areas like technology and connection with the outside world. I’m sorry, but we need to reassess the presence of your yeshivah in our community.”
If I could tell the community one thing, it would be: These boys are Klal Yisrael’s responsibility, not just mine. Can’t you do your share by accepting and welcoming them into the community?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 891)
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