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You Really Get Them

“Kalman, you’re already the unofficial psychologist of the whole chaburah out here"

 

I'd originally met Kalman when I came to his yeshivah to speak about substance addictions. As he walked me to my car, this clean-cut, yeshivish-looking bochur revealed that looks can be deceiving — he, too, had a complicated past. Part II

 

Ihadn’t seen Kalman in over a year. Now, I learned, he was the dorm counselor at a program that was something between a yeshivah and a rehab in a town outside Jerusalem.

Most of the bochurim at this place had had it pretty tough in one way or another: abusive homes, addictive pasts, and more often, a combination of the two. They were basically good kids, but this wasn’t the place you’d end up if you were interested in getting a filter on your smartphone.

As it turned out, I had no idea that Kalman was working at the program. I was invited by Reb Tzviki, the program director and the son of a rav I know, to come by and talk to the bochurim about substance abuse. I hadn’t seen Kalman since he organized a similar talk at his old yeshivah the year before.

Kalman, for his part, was thrilled to see me, and practically bowled me over with a bear hug.

“Good to see you too, Kalman,” I said warmly as I walked into the courtyard of the program to see a dozen kids who looked about as tough as I could imagine in a program that still called itself a yeshivah.

There were at least five kids with visible tattoos, including one who had some sort of Chinese writing on his neck. Most were smoking cigarettes and two were chewing tobacco and spitting it on the ground. In the few seconds it took me to look around, I knew this wasn’t going to be a mussar shmuess about staying away from drugs.

By the time Reb Tzviki came out with the pizza, Kalman was already talking me up. “Listen, this guy is here to help us out. He’s gonna answer any questions we got, he’s cool.”

They were a cynical bunch, but seemed to calm down when Kalman spoke, like they really listened to him. Still, I knew they wouldn’t take kindly to my typical bochurim discussion: recognizing the signs and symptoms of addiction, talking about how e-cigarettes are equally problematic as their non-electronic cousins, and how to know if your social media use is reaching addictive levels. This was not going to fly with Mr. Neck Tattoo and his chaburah. No one even made eye contact with me and it wasn’t because they were busy doing netilas yadayim before digging into the pizza.

I took a rusty old hookah off of a nearby chair and turned it around to create a makeshift shtender. One of the boys looked at me and joked, “You don’t want to smoke a bit of that before you tell us to quit?”

I had to jump right in to save us all a wasted hour. “Look, I’m not here to discuss how e-cigarettes and Internet addiction can ruin your lives. Rather, I’m here to provide you with a time-tested strategy to successfully make a fortune buying scratch-off lottery tickets.”

At least three kids laughed hard enough to nearly choke on their pizza, which was a good start.

“Listen,” I continued, “you’ve had to sit through interventions, public-service announcements, and all sorts of boring informational schmoozes on drugs and alcohol. Maybe we can just be honest and say that even pizza won’t keep you here for yet another boring talk?” I offered it up honestly.

This received a chorus of “yeps,” in addition to nods and grunts of agreement.

“Okay, so then let’s just do an ‘ask the doc’ and feel free to shoot out any question about anything you’ve ever wanted to. I promise that Reb Tzviki won’t kick you out of the yeshivah just for asking a question.”

Reb Tzviki nodded, yet the first few questions were probably good enough to get them kicked out of any other yeshivah.

After a few comments along the lines of “Doc, can I get a prescription for Xanax?” guys opened up with real questions — and we were able to address a number of important topics, including how to know when problematic substance use is becoming a full-blown addiction.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “I’ll give you the roshei teivos: C.A.G.E.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that even Mr. Neck Tattoo himself was taking notes.

“C means cut down. Have you ever felt like your drinking was excessive and you really wanted to cut down? A means annoy. Do people ever annoy you about how often you smoke marijuana? G means guilt. Do you ever feel guilty about stealing your friend’s e-cigarettes, about ‘borrowing’ money for your next fix, or about being so drunk that you’re sending rude messages to your friends? E means eye-opener. Do you ever crack open a beer in the morning before you’ve finished putting on tefillin?”

One of the tobacco chewers took it seriously enough to ask a real question: “So if I smoke a joint first thing in the morning, does that mean I have a problem? What if I just like being stoned before breakfast?”

Kalman jumped in on this one. “Yitz, it’s not just an ‘eye-opener.’ You also do all sorts of ridiculous things that you’re always apologizing for later. That’s ‘G-guilt.’ Plus here I am, annoying you to stop smoking so much. That’s ‘A-annoying.’ ”

“Kalman makes a great point, Yitz,” I followed up. “While having one of the C.A.G.E. checklist items doesn’t make you an addict, having a few of them means that you should probably set up a discussion with a trained professional to help you think about getting your life together.”

Yitz took out his tobacco and rolled it between his fingers. He was either considering making some sort of insightful comment and committing to change in front of his peers, or shooting off an offensive rebuttal, so I was pleasantly surprised.

“I got Kalman — he’s my shrink and is the only reason I don’t smoke and drink all day long,” he smiled.

I was really happy to hear that. During our conversation the year before, Kalman told me a bit about his own rough past. Today he’s their role model, and he apparently has a keen understanding of their nefesh.

Kalman blushed as Reb Tzviki added, “Dr. Freedman, in my eyes Kalman already has his PhD.”

A few more questions and we wrapped it up, but not before I gave an eitzah about how to pick the best numbers for lottery tickets. Reb Tzviki and the bochurim thanked me on the way out and, as expected, Kalman followed me to my car.

“Dr. Freedman, amazing as always! Thank you so much for coming! Umm… maybe I can ask you a question?”

“Kalman,” I said, “we go way back. Shoot.”

“So, I seem to have a language with these boys — I really get them — and I’m wondering if maybe I should look into this on a more professional level?”

Kalman was dedicated, he was passionate, and it was clear that his main motivation was to help his fellow Yid.

“Kalman, you’re already the unofficial psychologist of the whole chaburah out here. And I want to tell you, once you’ve made up your mind to help Hashem’s children, there aren’t any questions, just answers. But tell me something — you already told me a bit about your rough past, but there’s something about these bochurim that really opens your heart. You totally get them, no judgments, and I see they really love you.”

“Dr. Freedman, I’ve been there too. Why do you think I always wear long sleeves?”

 

Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

 

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

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 819)

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