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 of Times 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 to Minnesota 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.


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?

One of the things I do with parents is say, 'I'm going to help you regain the astute grasp of the obvious. You already know what to do.' Parents have to be themselves with all their imperfections; parents have to know that their children often learn more about life, become stronger, and cultivate values by learning from their parents' imperfections, honesty, and apologies. There's a myth that you have to be a perfect parent. Everywhere you look, parents worry that they don't measure up to the standard.


So they tend to just remove themselves from the challenge?

Yes, and it's a bad idea. I understand that we are afraid to find out if our kids are doing drugs or getting drunk. But parents have got to stay in there. It's okay to admit your feelings of discomfort in discussing hot topics by saying, 'Talking about this makes me nervous, but I have to say something. I'm worried about this. I want to ask you some questions.' Sharing your vulnerabilities builds your teen's character. It's frightening when we think we might have to deal with tough issues. It is important for parents to understand that even normal teens might get stoned, drunk, have sex, dress weird, listen to outrageous music, talk forever on the phone, hang out online with friends and not like to visit certain relatives. But parents have got to stay in there. They have to stay in touch with their child's world--their music and their friends. They can't make poverty or overwork an excuse for not communicating. And, most of all, don't let mistakes as a parent make you stop trying. I know parents are afraid to confront scary issues. But not being in touch with your child and your child's school life, we now know, can put children at risk. The tragedies of Columbine and other schools were also tragedies in that people knew these kids were in trouble and didn't know what they were looking at or what to do.


How do you pick the right time to start a difficult conversation with your teenager?

Your kid will signal when he or she is ready to talk. It can happen at any time and any place and, when it happens, you have to stop everything and get into it. Kids don't become alienated who have good contact with their parents. The key is to always ask your child questions about their lives, their feelings, their struggles, and their triumphs. Do it regularly and learn to listen. When your teen mentions something, pay attention. Respond. But whenever your child brings something up, it is important to engage them. It can happen at what seems the oddest times--on a car ride, heading out shopping, right before you go to bed, a passing comment at breakfast. If you're fortunate, your child will ask you directly. The bottom line is: when your child gives you any kind of signal, listen and engage.


The media is often first to blame when teenagers erupt in violence. Where do you stand on this issue?

Are there problems with violent programming? Of course there are. Are there too many guns? Of course there are. But once we start placing the blame on external factors, like the media, Marilyn Manson, or the Playstation game Doom, we ignore the more significant internal factors. Let's not solve our children's problems through litigation and politics. Kids get in trouble because they aren't loved or cared for by the adult world. Nobody's paying attention when they begin getting in trouble. Kids on the edge are identifiable, they are angry, they are isolated, and when you punch that anger down, it can explode into violence. Kids don't get violent because of TV, but from the lack of love and the inability to express love. We shouldn't see these kids as oddballs, but as kids who are desperately crying out for help. If we make the media the culprit, we miss the point. Parents have to be communicating with their children, and parents have to know how their children are emotionally reacting to all the external stimuli in their environment. We are not going to be able to live in a perfect world that says we can shut down or regulate everything our kids see, hear, and do. By the way, I asked a group of kids why they played Doom. They said they love it because it really reduces their stress.  


What are you up to these days?

I've got two new books coming out this year; one is an advice book for parents of adolescents; the other is a book on forgiveness. I'm also doing a tremendous amount of traveling across the country speaking to thousands of high school kids and their parents. I'm on the guidance staff of Yeshiva University. And I run a monthly live conference on AOL dealing with forgiveness on the Addiction and Recovery Forum (keyword: A&R).


You were tremendously idealistic to have begun this journey a decade ago. Are you still as idealistic today?

I am still as much an idealist as I was; in fact, my idealism has deepened. I hope that I'm a little less naive. I'm living with what I call a "deepening towards everything." I've been privileged to watch the vulnerable toughen and grow. I am a witness to how individuals can create a new life filled with love, goodness, and compassion. So much is truly possible if we are willing to care and be involved. Caring, after all, is a virtue.


Gail Rosenblum is interim editor of Minnesota Parent.

Speaking Engagements

Rabbi Fine will speak at two free workshops in the Twin Cities. Registration is requested. Call Debra Levenstein, Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis, at (612) 542-4814. Teenagers are welcome to come alone but are encouraged to bring their parents.


Monday, October 11, 1999

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Jewish Community Center of Minneapolis

4330 S. Cedar Lake Road

St. Louis Park, Minnesota


Wednesday, October 13, 1999

6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Temple of Aaron

616 S. Mississippi River Blvd. St. Paul, Minnesota

Staying Close to Your Teens: Suggestions from Yehuda Fine

* Talk to your children about everything--that's how they are going to develop values and direction in life.


* Children want to be involved in family matters and family problems. So involve them.


* Ask questions, avoid lectures, and listen to what your kid is saying. This develops good communication and underlines that you value your relationship with your child.


* Praise your kids for who they are and what they do. Be specific, and don't forget the little things.


* Tell your kids you love them, and why.


* Hug your kid every day. Don't be fooled into thinking they don't cherish a warm embrace.

* Share your own struggles with your children. Let them know there is meaning to be learned from facing problems.


* Ask your kids what was fun and difficult in school today. Ask for their opinions about their classes, teachers, friends. This signals that you are involved in their lives.


* Go with your children to movies, ballgames, and other activities. Your kids do want to spend time with you.


* Have fun and goof around with your children. Being a parent is more than being a serious adult.


* Share what has touched your life. Talk about what you believe in--God, love, compassion, truth, kindness, honesty--and your uncertainties about these topics.

An excerpt from Times Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids' Lives, 1997, reprinted by permission of Hazelden Foundation, Center City, Minnesota.  

The lower level of Penn Station smells impossibly bad. I wonder if I'll ever get used to the smell of urine and burnt subway rubber, the smell that so pervades the New York subway system that it almost identifies the city.

The landscape down in the subway tunnels is dismal, dusky, and depressing. Sunlight never slants its way down into those gloomy passageways. I call it The Way Beyond; a place of darkness and hope, of death and dreams. Those tunnels are haunted by the mad and the hermits, the homeless and the lost; our refugees hiding out in urban America.

It was a Thursday evening in the kingdom of the night: New York City from 8:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. I was working outreach with two co-workers from a runaway and homeless youth shelter. Our beat was the dark streets of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Part of the night we cruised the backwaters of the city in our outreach van. The rest of the night was spent working the streets on foot patrol and descending into dirty concrete tunnels inhabited by moaning, snoring homeless people. The passageways were cluttered with the cardboard boxes they lived in. The underground of Manhattan on winter nights was a barren outpost of desperation. Our goal was to find kids in need and to get them off the streets. If they sought shelter, we could eventually help them rebuild their lives. Life in a runaway and homeless youth shelter is not only a safe haven, but also a place to find a job, get some counseling, or even complete a high school education. But the first step was building trust with these kids. To do that, we went to them, offered our caring, and gave them some hot chocolate and a sandwich. Then, like clockwork, we came back every night to give them the message that we cared.

When I first went out on the streets into The Way Beyond, I was scared. In time, the fear simply sharpened my senses. What I saw was a war zone: Everything was stripped down to bare essentials. People were dying and disappearing. I saw kids' bodies become ravaged by sickness in just six months. I sat and talked with kids under tunnels of garbage. Rats jumped in front of my flashlight.

Everybody was used or abused. Boys were girls and girls were selling parts of themselves. AIDS and TB ate their way through young people. Night was day, and nobody went home. No one had a home. This was a place rife with grisly rumors. Kids simply vanished. Other kids ended up in medical examiners' autopsy reports. Suicide, OD's, and murder were these kids' endgames. Crack was king and cocaine was the snow queen. This was science fiction gone real, where "beaming up" meant a blue-smoke crack journey into unreality. Everyone lied because the truth was too raw to share.

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