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The Middle of Nowhere

“Right here with my family and my sheep”


atan wasn’t a bad kid, even if he’d made some bad decisions. His parents were caring, responsible people, not abusive, abrasive, difficult, or even the slightest bit off. But they were baalei teshuvah who immigrated to Israel from Denver when Natan was already 15. Unlike his younger sisters who transitioned smoothly into the Bais Yaakov system, Natan struggled in what he felt was a merciless system fixed against his success.

“I was an outcast from day one there, but my parents didn’t know any better, like how it’s much easier to start off in Ramat Beit Shemesh than in Kiryat Sefer,” lamented Natan. “I wore a blue shirt the first day because that was fine growing up in Denver. How was I supposed to know I’d be sent home?”

From his perspective, Natan hadn’t stood a fighting chance. It wasn’t only that he was plunged into a much stricter system than he was used to, but he also hated city living and dreamed of the days he’d go canoeing and hiking in Colorado. In his mind he had traded his backyard and his mountain bike for the stifling five-story apartment buildings of Kiryat Sefer.

Smoking cigarettes quickly turned into smoking marijuana and before long Natan was stealing money from his mother’s wallet to buy painkillers. Two failed detoxes later, Natan’s mother called me in distress.

I agreed to meet with Natan on the condition that his mother would allow me to think outside the box, and that he’d agree to complete a 30-day rehabilitation program first to get any drugs out of his system. And so, a month later, I had the pleasure of meeting Natan following his discharge from the facility. He broke down crying. “Do my parents seriously think I’ll be successful if I head back to our stuffy apartment in the frummest place on Earth?”

I didn’t tell him that compared to Meah Shearim, Kiryat Sefer was like Boston, so I just sat and listened.

“Doctor Freedman, I’m not opposed to being religious, but my parents uprooted our whole family in a really crazy way. It’s not like there was any plan besides my dad finding a job in Modiin and us moving to the closest chareidi community. But this is nothing like Denver and I miss the outdoors and wearing a baseball hat. I guess that’s not a reason to turn to drugs, but all the kids I know in Kiryat Sefer are either super-shtark bochurim or they’re totally crazy and off the derech. I don’t stand a chance back home.”

Natan was pretty insightful — and he was right. Going back to Kiryat Sefer meant he’d likely get some boring job stocking shelves at a supermarket and would end up running with the same kids who he’d previously gotten into trouble with. It was time for a fresh idea and luckily his mother had given me the green light.

“You’re onto something, Natan,” I said. “What if we could find you a place in the middle of nowhere, throw you into the middle of the desert, where you could just chill out for a little while? I mean, if we could just get you out of the city, where there aren’t any off-the-derech kids with drugs to sell so you could stay clean?”

“It would definitely help,” agreed Natan. “But please, I don’t want to go on some wilderness program. They don’t really help and they cost a fortune.”

I didn’t necessarily agree with his statement but I wasn’t thinking about such a program anyway. “What if we could get you back to the outdoors while still providing you with a frum environment? Would you be cool with that?”

“Sure, I mean, whatever. Where am I going?” he asked suspiciously.

My friend Reb Gavriel lived in the little settlement of Pnei Kedem in the southern Judean Desert. It was a solid two hours from Kiryat Sefer but Natan’s mother was willing to drive out there to take a look. The three of us got in the car and started what began as a very tense drive. But as we left the city and drove through the hills of eastern Gush Etzion, passing the vineyards and olive groves east of Efrat, Natan began to open up.

“Well, it doesn’t look like Denver, but there are mountains and trees and stuff,” said Natan noncommittally, trying to mask his growing enthusiasm.

I told him about how I’d met American-born Reb Gavriel, a dati-leumi rabbi who taught Tanach at a yeshivah in Jerusalem and had always wanted to be a shepherd out on the same hills that Dovid Hamelech had once roamed. Years of dreaming finally crystallized when Reb Gavriel received a government permit to graze his sheep on the mountains of southern Gush Etzion. There was something about being in the middle of nowhere and doing some good old-fashioned farmwork that could keep kids off of drugs. How much more so when they’d be under the watchful supervision of a warm mentor like Reb Gavriel.

As we drove past the gates of the small community, we found ourselves on a hillside where Reb Gavriel had built an enclosure to keep his sheep at night. He had pitched a Bedouin-style tent stocked with Turkish coffee and seforim for the long nights he’d spend guarding his flock.

Natan’s mother was a bit skeptical, until Reb Gavriel bounded up to us and introduced himself as “a guy from the West Coast who found that the best place to keep mitvzot is right here with my family and my sheep.”

Natan and Reb Gavriel hit it off right away, as they walked off together for a tour of the hills.

Natan’s mom surveyed the scene and asked me if it was safe on Reb Gavriel’s ranch. “Safer than returning to the city and to the kids who are selling Natan drugs,” I said.

She nodded in quiet agreement and was largely silent as she watched her son walking with Reb Gavriel. Natan waved up to us and yelled, “This place is awesome, Mom!”

She laughed nervously and then asked me, “What will he do here?”

“He’ll probably help out tending the flock and will learn a bit of Tanach with Reb Gavriel,” I responded. “But most importantly he won’t have any access to drugs as long as he’s out here. Reb Gavriel doesn’t allow it and even if he did, we’re in the middle of nowhere so he couldn’t get them even if he wanted.”

Natan came back with Reb Gavriel. “I’m ready to stay here and Reb Gavriel said he’d give me room and board if I help out,” he enthused. Natan’s mother looked at me but I made it quite clear that this was between her and her son. I wouldn’t have brought them here if I didn’t think it was worth a shot.

“This place is awesome, Mom,” Natan repeated.

Natan’s mom nodded in agreement and discussed bringing a few changes of clothing and a toothbrush.

I took Reb Gavriel aside and we spoke for a moment. As I looked out on the rolling Judean Hills, I echoed Natan’s sentiment, “This place is awesome,” I told Reb Gavriel.

“Yeah but what’s really awesome,” Reb Gavriel told me, “is that we can keep these kids busy and out of trouble. Some people might call Natan ‘off-the-derech,’ but this is the most on-the-derech path there is.”

The last time I heard from Natan’s mother, she told me that Natan had completed a full 120 days of sobriety for the first time since he’d landed in Eretz Yisrael.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 692. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem.  Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.


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