Rabbi Yakov Horowitz was a rebbe for 15 years when he began to notice behavior patterns in his students. Educationally, the kids were fed up with learning Gemara and with rebbes. They didn’t enjoy it. They were taught by rote; not in a way they could actually learn. It was boring and antiquated. Further, they didn’t feel emotionally cared for. They were not noticed as individuals or viewed as worthwhile if they couldn’t learn. They were becoming disenfranchised, and worse, disinterested.

Feeling the need to bring awareness to others, in 1996 Rabbi Horowitz wrote an article entitled “An Ounce of Prevention” in the Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel’s monthly publication, about his discoveries in the hope that it would “wake people up” to doing something about it. The results were astounding. Within one month of publication, he received over 400 phone calls and letters from around the world. People were worried about their kids and were seeking help.

Unprepared for the response, Rabbi Horowitz knew that he needed to do something. He felt that the root of a lot of the problems was that many of the children never acquired the skills they needed to learn Torah and Gemara successfully. So, he created “spring training” for kids to learn Aramaic and Hebrew. In 2016, he released Gemara workbooks that broke down words the old-fashioned way, looking at prefixes, roots, and suffixes. He developed the students' deductive reasoning skills and focused on them as individuals. He also developed lessons that made the Gemara relevant to the current lives of his students and he gave them safe spaces to ask questions. He met with success for those kids who, as Rabbi Horowitz says, “abandoned religion” due to being disaffected, disbelieving, or coping with learning disabilities. To date, his workbooks can be found in over 50 top day schools across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

But, there was another group of kids that was coming to his attention. These kids he called “those who abandoned life.” They were cutting, using marijuana, doing heroin, attempting suicide. They were living on the street. Rabbi Horowitz gave himself an education on these kids quickly and realized that many of these children suffered from childhood trauma and abuse. He decided to bring awareness and resources to educators and parents to address the needs of these children. He gave up teaching and started Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), an organization designed to mentor and support at-risk kids by helping them find stability and a productive life. Project Y.E.S., among other services, runs a hotline to assist at-risk teens and their parents with referrals, school, and job placements, and a “big brother and sister” teen mentoring program. (To find out more about this program, visit www.rabbihorowitz.com.)

Today, Rabbi Horowitz spends most of his time on prevention. He recently authored a child safety book for parents and educators that educates them on how to have conversations with children about abuse. It has sold over 60,000 copies. He is also launching a new website to serve as a trustworthy source of information to help parents sift through the enormous amounts of (sometimes) conflicting and unsubstantiated data that the internet provides.

Today’s biggest challenges for kids, as Rabbi Horowitz sees it, is that there is a lot of information coming at them at lightning speed. They try to assimilate it, but before they can, it has changed. To complicate matters, bad judgments and choices (for which the adolescent period of development is famous) are publicized widely and instantly through social media, leading to exponentially magnified embarrassment, at best, and life-changing consequences, at worst. It is hard for them to recover. To help the children, Rabbi Horowitz is working with Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University (YU) and Dr. Eli Shapiro, creator of The Digital Citizenship Project, to teach kids how to be good digital citizens.

Rabbi Horowitz says parents (and educators) need to really understand the lives of their kids. They need to educate themselves about what their kids are being offered and experiencing, and what technology and information they are being exposed to. They need to “get it.” Rabbi Horowitz also notes that acceptance of a child for who he/she is and a strong relationship make up the foundation for keeping a child safe. Acceptance must also be balanced with boundaries.

Rabbi Horowitz is scheduled to join Southeast Hebrew Congregation (SEHC) 
10900 Lockwood Drive in White Oak, Maryland, for Shabbat next week, Nov. 3-4. There will be a Saturday night speaking event at 8:30 p.m. entitled, “Parents Want to Get It Right: Navigating School, Technology, Social Pressures, and Advocating Effectively for Your Child’s Success.” Tickets are $10 at the door.


-- Originally published in Kol Habirah October 26, 2017 --

Laura Goldman