How do you bring spirituality into these kids' lives? Isn't talk of God a luxury when you're dealing with people who are simply trying to survive from day to day?

Whatever their belief system, kids have a deep and abiding spirit inside themselves. I'm not talking about preaching or spiritual lectures and philosophy. Spirituality is, at its core, a quest for meaning. I don't talk much about God. I try to walk the spiritual path and live a spiritual life. To me God is found in our values. Spirituality isn't quoting scripture. It's becoming who we need to be. The big questions I work with are trying to encourage people to find the meaning in their lives, to see the challenges of life not as, "Why me?" but, "Why not me?" To look inside and not ask, "What do I want out of life?" but, "What does life want from me?"

 

You said most of these kids didn't make it. What about the ones who did--what set them apart?

A lot of kids turned their lives around. If you had a chance to meet the many kids I've been privileged to work with, I trust they would all tell you pretty much the same thing: they still struggle. They would tell you that straightening out their life is an ongoing process of accepting who they are, while knowing it's always possible to be better. They would tell you that they are committed to that process daily in all their personal relationships. I have no doubt you would hear this from those who went on to become schoolteachers, homemakers, attorneys, and social workers. What allowed them to survive is a complex question. But by God's grace they were willing to finally risk everything to look at the truth of their lives and change. Crisis for them lead to understanding that they could do something different with their lives. That crisis, instead of taking them down, transformed their lives.

 

How did your own family life prepare you for this work?

I grew up in Seattle in an extraordinary family. Looking back at my own family system, who I became is absolutely no accident. My father was a physician; an ob-gyn who deeply loved his patients, as well as a community activist. I grew up learning that the highest value was respecting the dignity of others. Right before my father passed away, he turned to me and said, "You know, we do the same kind of work in life." I took his hand and said, "What do you mean, Dad? I'm a rabbi, you're a doctor." He said, "The medicine and surgery are just the tools. Our work has everything to do with loving and caring for people." Kids always ask me when they make it off the streets, "Yehudah, how can I pay you back?" I always tell them, "Give to other people. Give to others. Make the world a better place!"

 

Let's shift here to what you refer to as "regular" teens. Your strongest message when traveling the country is that parents greatly misjudge how important they are to their teenagers. Tell us more about that.

There's a huge myth that teenagers don't want to be close to their parents; that adolescence is basically a hands-off time. The truth is that adolescence is a time when kids need stability and contact with the adult world almost as much as when they were a baby. Parents are so powerful. Even kids on the streets who hadn't seen their parents in years, or whose parents had left cigarette burns on their chests and stomachs, still wanted their parents. Tell parents over and over again: Adolescence is a unique time. Your kids are now old enough to be more mature and truly self-reflective. But you tell me: How are your children going to learn the life lessons and internalize what they are experiencing if they can't get any feedback from the people they're closest to? No input means no lessons; no lessons mean no knowledge. And they're hungry for knowledge. If they don't get it from you, who are they going to get it from? Their peer group? I think we can all agree that, in many areas, their peers are not the most reliable source of information.

 

You also say that parents have lost their confidence in their ability to parent their teenagers. Why is that?

Look, I've raised three kids (now ages sixteen, eighteen, and twenty) and I want to make clear that it hasn't been easy for me, either. They're great. I adore them. But it's been a tough task. Today, for so many families, there is no community, no grandparents around to help out. Many families are stressed out economically. On top of it all, parents are barraged by experts with sound bites. You pick up so many books that talk about what we need to do as parents and you think, 'My God, I have to start all over.' It's overwhelming. It leaves parents sputtering out there.

 

What do you offer parents as an antidote to the sound bites?

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