A Compassionate Voice for Troubled Teens: An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Fine

Editor's Note: Yehuda Fine is a Rabbi, educator, family therapist and parent who spent ten years penetrating the harsh and seamy street subculture of New York City, offering hot chocolate and hope to drugged-out kids and "throw-aways." Today he travels across the country speaking to parents, teens, and teachers in hopes of busting the myth that teenagers don't want parents actively involved in their lives. Rabbi Fine is author ofTimes Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids' Lives (Hazelden, 1997). He is a member of the guidance staff at Yeshiva University in New York. He regularly appears live, and is a content provider on, AOL's Addiction and Recovery Forum. He is also a frequent guest on talk radio, and his newspaper columns on teen issues have appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Rabbi Fine will speak in the Twin Cities this month (see box, right). He spoke toMinnesota Parent from his home in New York.

 

Reflecting on your emotionally draining and often dangerous years on the streets talking to "lost" kids, watching so many of them disappear or die violently, what kept you going?

Losing so many young people was a very intense motivator to keep going, to carry their message, their stories. Look, these kids shared their hopes and dreams with me. I might have been the only person that knew the secrets of their heart. They lived in a forgotten world. I walked with them awhile in that world and let them know that someone really cared. To me, the greatest sin is to not be loved by anyone. To come into this world and not know you are loved is the deepest level of abandonment. I simply, in spite of all the violence and loss, had to be with these kids. Someone had to be there. I feel obliged to carry the message of their life to others.

 

What surprised you most about being on the streets?

The biggest surprise, that affirmed everything I know about life and the human spirit, is that no matter what the world dishes out in its most violent, destructive form, you find the spark of goodness in the human heart. Most of these kids were abused at early ages. But underneath their sometimes carefully crafted exteriors, I found they had hopes, dreams, and the essence of goodness. If circumstances had been different, these kids could have dreamed the dream and hoped the hope. They wanted goodness. This work on the street did not produce a cynic in me. It did the absolute opposite.

 

For the most part, how did these kids end up on the streets?

By and large, they were fleeing a dangerous environment called home. Tragically, they ended up in an even more violent world. Most, simply, do not survive. The street is a world filled with predators. Often, middle- and upper-class individuals would prey on these kids; some would drive up in chauffeur-driven cars. This isn't Hollywood.

Why did so many of them stay, knowing how destructive it was?

A lot of these kids grew up thinking they were losers. Ironically, they blame themselves for all the bad things that happened to them. It's not hard to understand, when you think about the families they grew up in. After all, what happened to them at home was so bizarre that they begin to think that weird things only happen to weird people. If they were "normal," all this stuff wouldn't have happened. If they were "normal," they'd have a "normal" family. People who are abused often see themselves as victims with no way out. As things become more desperate in their home life, they get swept deeper into the maelstrom of violence and abuse. Ironically, they seek safety on the street. Instead of getting help, they find disaster.

A young runaway out on the streets will typically be violently assaulted the first week out there. No kid ever looks the same after that first attack. It's a brutal passage into a dark world of trouble. Their worldview is radically shifted. To survive, they end up turning tricks, among other things. The cash is fast. They can made hundreds of dollars a night.

 

And they see no way out?

Right. Looking back to the adult world seems beyond them. In fact, experience has taught them that the adult world only wants to use or abuse them. They have, in a sense, gone underground long ago.

 

Did these teens ever admit to you that they were afraid? If so, what were they most afraid of?

Dying. Underneath, they're afraid that they'll die without someone ever loving them.

Why do you think these kids let you into their lives? Didn't they see you as just another adult preaching to them?

I certainly hope I never came off as a preacher. You can't preach or lecture to kids. It takes a long time to build trust. I built it little by little. Brick by brick. By being on the streets regularly. By being kind and caring. By showing respect and concern. By making small talk. By asking about their lives. Eventually, after months, I was let into their world and was trusted. I became part of their lives. You have to remember that these are, in spite of where they live, kids. Once that happened it was natural to let them know my worries. I'd tell them: "You're keeping me up late at night. I'm afraid I'm going to get a call. I'm afraid you're going to get AIDS. I won't be able to stand it." I was a broken record on that one. They didn't always accept my offers of help, but they appreciated that someone genuinely cared.

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