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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mentor on a Mission

Stephanie Wargin

By early April, calmness had replaced the strain in Orah Chaya Bitton’s voice. She no longer needed to look over her shoulder as she spoke of the conflict that would eventually force her out of her job. After six years dedicated to rescuing teenage girls before they abandoned their Hasidic community in Crown Heights, she now, albeit involuntarily, was unemployed and working from home as an independent consultant and researcher.
There was a tangible difference in her personality since I first met Bitton in December 2003, when she was still the director of the Youth Action Movement’s girls’ program. We had sat in the Lighthouse, a storefront community center on Albany Avenue on the edge of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Crown Heights, as she painstakingly explained her methods for dealing with a growing population of disaffected and rebellious Hasidic youth. She wanted to go beyond the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council’s mandate when it established YAM in 1998; she wanted to attack the causes of the problem, not just the symptoms. She appeared restless and agitated as she detailed what YAM was and what she thought it should be.
“Things were done in a haphazard kind of way,” she explained, checking over her shoulder that YAM’s director, Yosef Kanofsky, could not overhear the conversation from the next room. The community wanted YAM to collect all the local troublemakers in the Lighthouse for spiritual counseling and tutoring. Kanofsky mentored the boys and Bitton the girls, who had been caught skipping school, using drugs or alcohol, or hanging out with members of the opposite sex. But Bitton felt it was not enough. On her own, she started to develop a plan to counteract the causes of teen rebellion, and over the years, she started to pull back from direct interaction with the girls to focus on creating long-term strategies that she felt could really make a difference.
“I felt like a fire was burning and nobody was addressing it,” she said. “Nobody acknowledged that there were things that were inherently alienating within the system that needed to be upgraded.”
By the end of 2003, she had built a network of 20 volunteer mentors and planned to work with local Jewish high schools to extend their internal mentoring programs. But in early February, Dan Botnick, the Executive Director of the CHJCC, fired Bitton after a long, drawn out power struggle between Bitton and Kanofsky. Bitton’s vision for YAM included creative projects, dabbling in art, music, and poetry, an outgrowth of a childhood spent listening to her former French rock star father’s foray into spiritual Hasidic music. During her tenure, the Lighthouse hosted open-mic nights and roundtable discussions. Female participants painted images of their perspectives on Judaism, which still hang on the walls of the center. Kanofksy and Botnick, on the other hand, chose to focus the organization’s limited resources on intervention.
“If there’s a fire, how do you put it out?” Botnick told me during a phone interview. “Do you start by restructuring the fire department from the top down, or do you do it by getting a bunch of guys to put out the fire? It might be shortsighted in some ways, but it’s the most practical solution under the circumstances.”
Now, those teenage girls with serious doubts about their faith, those who are in danger of harming themselves or abandoning a Hasidic community that they feel has neglected them, have nowhere to turn. YAM still exists, but as anyone familiar with the Hasidic lifestyle knows, most young girls will never seek help from a man outside their own family. Bitton had been the one person those girls could trust after their families, their schools, and the community had failed them.
Bitton’s exit, however, is only temporary and partial. She still advises a core group of mentors, as well as a few girls with whom she’s built a strong relationship. The 26-year-old activist has no desire to abandon her cause. But with less of a burden on herself, she has more time to create a system of “experiential learning,” a multifaceted approach to instilling Hasidic philosophy in young women who have been unable to connect with their faith, and who will sometimes choose to leave the fold entirely after years of struggle and confusion. Bitton is determined to help these girls not only retain their Jewish identities, but also to love the faith as she does.
Bitton’s love of Hasidus, a Jewish philosophy that originated in the Ukraine in the 18th century, is immediately apparent. When she talks about the teachings, or about the founder of Hasidus, the Bal Shem Tov, she literally beams, her dark eyes taking on a preternatural glow. She belongs specifically to the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidim, based in Crown Heights, best known for its last spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Even after his death in 1994, many of his followers continued to believe that he is the Messiah. They also believe that by doing good deeds, or mitzvahs, they can usher in the age of the Messiah. Critics of the community point to that fact, as well as the zealotry of its members, as evidence that Lubavitch is a cult. One 23-year-old woman, who left the community after deciding the teachings were “bullshit,” derided the Lubavitch ideals that are indoctrinated in children from birth. “Ask any kid in Crown Heights what they want. And they answer ‘to bring Moshiach [Messiah].’ But how many kids in the eight block area of Crown Heights are born with that mission?”
Bitton doesn’t see it that way, although she’s had her own struggles with faith and Hasidic culture. When I visited her in April at her family’s apartment on Eastern Parkway, she explained where her ideas and motivations for helping others originated. We sat on her twin bed in the room she shares with her younger sister, a ninth grader at the Lubavitch Bais Rivkah High School from which Bitton graduated as valedictorian. From the other four bedrooms of the apartment emanated the sounds of a busy family - five of her six younger sisters finishing their homework, two of her five younger brothers designing T-shirts for a start-up clothing company, her father mixing music for his third Hasidic rock album, her mother running in and out of rooms to ask her children questions in French.
Bitton is short, with shoulder-length black hair and olive skin. She is the most observant of the grown children. The oldest boys shaved their beards and never completed yeshiva training to become rabbis, choosing instead, like their sisters (other than Bitton), to lead a more secular lifestyle. Her parents, though observant themselves, do not prevent their children from choosing their own paths. As young adults, the parents also made their own life choices. Both were born to secular Jewish families (her father in Morocco, her mother in France) and they met and married in Israel in the mid 1970s. They chose to become Hasidic Jews, moved to Crown Heights, and started a family.
As we sat in the bare-walled bedroom, Bitton flipped through a brown leather photo album that covers the ten-year career of Les Variations, her father’s rock band in the 1960s and 70s. She stopped at a picture of four hippies sitting against a wall and pointed to the man in the middle. He had a mess of curly brown hair, a thick beard, and wore white bell-bottoms and a black polka-dotted shirt. Around his neck hung a large Star of David, its metal glowing in the camera’s flash. “This is the point where he started his teshuva path,” she said, referring to the phrase Ba’al Teshuva, the label applied to formerly secular Jews who choose to become observant followers of Torah law and tradition. “I would flip through this when I was younger, and then you get to this part where it says on one page - Back to the Roots. And then you turn the page and you see a picture of the Rebbe.” She flipped to a black and white photo of Rabbi Schneerson looking typically serious. “And then you start to see this religious Jew performing. He had this whole costume.” Every picture following the Rebbe’s shows her father on stage with a long beard, wearing a kippah (skullcap) and a white fringed garment trimmed in blue.
“So I used to mull over the intensity of such an extreme transformation, the ability to channel such passionate energy and creativity through spiritual means in this Jewish religious context,” she said. “And that was really a major springboard for my approach to everything. Here I was being raised in a community that was primarily comprised of lifers [people born into Hasidism], people coming from a different vantage point, things are looked at in black and white. There’s the secular and there’s the holy, and they don’t mix. And here my father was doing riffs and grooves and really translating his rock into Jewish experience.”
As a child, Bitton thought if she could figure out why her parents chose the Hasidic lifestyle, she could consciously make that choice herself, rather than rely on the abstractions taught to her in school. Usually, it was her father’s decision that consumed her thoughts - he had been living the rock star lifestyle, touring with The Who and Aerosmith around the United States and Europe. “I came to the conclusion that the shabbos [Sabbath observance] that I keep is not the shabbos that he traded all that in for,” she said, referring to the rituals and laws followed by observant Jews every weekend. “There’s something more. And that was a big part of my spiritual journey and my looking for more than I was getting at school. The Hasidus they were teaching me at school was not the Hasidus that he tasted. I just knew that there was a gap between what he aspired to when he chose his path and what practically was taught to me. It was just diluted along the way.”
Bitton did well academically, but found it hard to assimilate into Lubavitch culture in Crown Heights, mostly because she found the teachings too abstract, the education stuck in a behavioral approach. The teachers taught girls how to follow Jewish law, and enough Jewish history and philosophy to become good Jewish mothers. But she felt, and others I spoke with agreed, that the education was not academically challenging. In effect, it emphasized what to do, not what to know. This is the culture she is trying to change by creating new methods for teaching Hasidus.
She compared her vision with that of Heeb Magazine, the hip publication for and about the young generation of American Jews. Heeb, she said, offers “a very hip, cutting edge, cool spin on Jewish identity, but very wrapped around Jewish culture, as opposed to Jewish thought or content or practice. I’m trying to create a similar dynamic, where you can really fuse creativity and contemporary innovation but merge it deeply with tradition.” Although Heeb is clearly not an Orthodox publication, Bitton said she would use that model within the boundaries of Jewish thought and practice. And rather than focus only on those girls deemed “at-risk,” this new method would be available to all girls in the community. This, she said, will help them connect to their Jewish and Hasidic identity before it’s too late, before their questions become too overwhelming and they rebel out of frustration and anger.
The “experiential learning” system she envisions produces concrete results in several forms - a Web site, a magazine, art exhibitions, and short films. The method is the framework in which girls learn by directly experiencing the teachings, whether in a workshop or classroom setting, or something more freeform. Much of this is similar to other projects she organized while at YAM, which while on a smaller scale, saved several at-risk girls in the community.
Last summer, for instance, Bitton collaborated with Ana Joanes, head of Reel Youth, an organization not affiliated with Hasidism. Five high school girls participated in a two-month digital film school set up at the Lighthouse. Joanes took the lead, teaching writing and editing workshops and showing the girls how to storyboard their ideas. By the end of the program, each girl had written, shot, and edited a short fictional film based on her own life experience. One, by Chaya Sara Steinhertz, then a 16-year-old dropout recently readmitted to high school, was especially poignant.
Steinhertz, a bright-eyed, quietly confident girl, had reached the tail end of a turbulent childhood that summer, and her film revealed her frustration, as well as her moment of coming to terms with life. She had bounced through schools until dropping out the year before, a list of rebellious acts staining her reputation. She dressed immodestly by Lubavitch standards, preferring pants and short skirts to the ankle-length skirts she was supposed to wear. She listened to Tom Petty and Pink Floyd, rather than strictly Jewish music. Worst of all, she hung out with boys, which is taboo in a culture that separates the genders in every activity from an early age.
Bitton counseled her the entire way, and Steinhertz conceded that she would have dropped out before the eighth grade had it not been for Bitton’s intervention. Later, when Steinhertz decided she wanted to try high school again, Bitton visited Bais Rivkah to plead her case. They granted Steinhertz a meeting, and subsequently, one more chance.
“She met me when I was this angry little girl,” Steinhertz recalled. “She was the only person to reach me.” It angered her when the school principal blamed Steinhertz’s declining grades and bad behavior on her parents, rather than on the school itself. “She was like, oh, you’re this sweet innocent little girl. Let me help you. Let’s send you to a different school where you can be away from your home where I can see you’re not happy,” Steinhertz said, mocking the principal in a soft, whispery voice. The young girl knew her parents were trying to help her, but with eight other children to worry about, they had little time to rein in one unruly daughter. Bitton stepped in to fill the void, laying the foundation for a strong relationship. One observer called Bitton Steinhertz’s godmother.
When Bitton speaks of the intrinsic problems of the community, this is what she means. Parents and teachers notice a young girl acting outside the norm - dressing differently, talking to boys, asking too many questions in class, sometimes using drugs or drinking alcohol. They then try to fix the troublemaker, or, if she seems unreachable, they ostracize her.
Waiting for the symptoms to appear is wrong, Bitton said. Instead, the community should fix the causes, to prevent rebellion before it begins. To do this, a myriad of issues need to be addressed, most notably an inability to help the girls relate to the source of their faith, culture and community - Hasidic philosophy.
But before Bitton can roll out any future programs, she first must face a major obstacle, which according to Botnick, contributed to her firing from YAM. Bitton had drafted a few documents detailing her vision for YAM, one of which was a strategy for saving at-risk youth by addressing community problems that led to teen rebelliousness. Filled with lofty ideals and grand plans, the document is all thought and no action. It mentions the problems facing the youth, the lack of support structure to help them, and it contains eloquent but abstract passages on bridging the “ideal” and the “actual” through what Bitton termed an “inreach/outreach modality.” Bitton’s intelligence and insight impressed Botnick. But, he said, this was not what YAM needed. “The things she writes about the program internally, they’re convoluted and verbose and it’s hard to get something substantive out of it at the end of the day,” he said. “Her grandiose proposal is not doable.”
Bitton recently decided she wants to further her education to back up her ideas and vision. She plans to attend college this fall at Empire State College, which she chose for its flexibility and focus on independent study.
“My goal is basically to substantiate some of the educational principles that I’ve derived from Hasidic philosophy and do a lot of writing and research,” she said. “That will compel me to take the element of my work that was dismissed where I was working, to take it a lot more seriously.” She’s excited for school, where she’ll have a mentor forcing her to explain her ideas more completely while she studies educational philosophies to make her plans more concrete.
Suddenly, she said, she feels free, especially after the first difficult weeks of dealing with the anger and disappointment of being fired.
“I teetered on this line where I could see how people become jaded,” Bitton said. “I tasted that reality where people would shut themselves out of the community and say, look at how I extended myself so sincerely, and I really gave of myself whole heartedly, and I got this? I’ll never do anything for anybody again.”
She gestured towards the bookshelves lining one bedroom wall, now stuffed with boxes, books, and documents, “five years worth of blood, sweat and tears,” that she’d brought home from the Lighthouse. “I decided to walk away emotionally, to not be invested, to not hold onto it,” she said. “There was so much that I felt I had gotten locked into inadvertently just because I was working for this type of organization and I was working within their demands.”
Bitton, at once stress-free and eager to begin a new phase in her career, seemed ready to move on. “On the one hand,” Bitton said, a pained look crossing her face, “I felt extremely violated. And on the other hand, I felt extremely freed.” She paused and broke into a wide smile that matched her father’s young images in the photo album. “I felt like I finally had my own destiny back in my own hands.”

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