Lakewood, New Jersey is home to Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest rabbinical college in the United States, and perhaps the entire world. A significant majority of the students are young married men, most of whom choose to settle in Lakewood even after their graduation and ordination. The school attracts several hundred new students each year, resulting in the Orthodox Jewish community’s rapid and exponential growth.
In contrast to other communities that evolve naturally, the growth precipitated by the constant influx of students at BMG generates a multitude of challenges for community leaders. They are faced with the task of developing the resources and infrastructures necessary for the nascent yet burgeoning community. These include adequate and affordable housing, private school systems, charitable organizations, and the like.
The community’s sudden growth has also spawned a problem perhaps less acknowledged, but no less urgent. The increased incidence of disenchanted or troubled teenagers who drop out of school and deteriorate socially, emotionally and spiritually is a problem that cannot be ignored. Whereas other communities have been able to respond to this phenomenon as it evolved, the “teen drop-out” population in Lakewood seems to have coalesced virtually overnight. The resultant proliferation of negative behaviors has included substance abuse, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, and crime, sometimes resulting in juvenile detention.
Minyan Shelanu is a low profile yet highly effective organization that has thus far achieved remarkable results. Founded in 2001, the organization originally served simply as a warm, non-judgmental synagogue/social center for teens and young adults who did not fit into the more rigid model typical of the community. Before long, Minyan became a rallying point for troubled teens desperate for a bit of love, a kind word, and a surrogate home.
The dynamic founder and leader of Minyan Shelanu, a successful real estate developer, is also an ordained rabbi – Chaim Abadi.
Chaim’s appeal lies in his unpretentiousness and his unconditional love for every person. Chaim feels the pain of these troubled teens, many of which are victims of abuse. His heart is open to them and they instinctively recognize his as a trustworthy father figure. Chaim is also extraordinarily perceptive, and has great insight into the youths’ emotional, social, and spiritual needs.
Minyan Shelanu’s objectives are three fold:
- To provide a non-judgmental supportive “safe haven” for kids-on-the-street, where they can always feel at home, physically and emotionally.
- To provide gainful activity and recreation, particularly during evening hours when kids are more prone to hanging out and engaging in negative behaviors.
- To provide guidance and support, eventually weaning kids away from lives of emptiness to ones that are meaningful.
Minyan Shelanu offers numerous programs for teens and young adults. These can loosely be divided into two categories: Synagogue and Social Center. The synagogue programs are generally geared towards young adults, or kids who are “at-risk” but have not yet dropped out of school and the community. The Social Center caters more to kids “on-the-street.” It is important to note that there is significant overlap between the two, as kids will often drop in for a game of pool and wander across the hall to listen to a lecture or the like.
- Minyan – The flagship program of Minyan Shelanu: Four daily communal prayer gatherings.
- Lectures – Several daily and weekly lectures on topics relating to self-improvement, life skills, or religion.
- Guest Speakers – Occasional popular speakers address teens on a variety of subjects.
- Kollel – A group of talented young men convene each afternoon for in-depth Talmud study. This on-site expression of typical mainstream activity communicates an anchor of stability and security to kids.
- Night Study – Kids are paired up with a mentor or study partner for an hour of mind-engaging study. Of course, refreshments are served.
- Seasonal Events – Minyan participants are treated to trips and special events. These include rafting and boating in the summers, skiing in the winter, as well as barbeques and other get-togethers.
- Recreation Room – A well stocked activities room with pool, ping-pong and arcades. A great place to chill out, and an ideal forum for mentor-youth interaction.
- Counseling referral – Minyan regularly guides youth’s to appropriate mental health professional, and often subsidizes therapy sessions.
- Rehabilitation – Minyan Shelanu maintains close contact with several rehab centers and directs addicted teens to the appropriate center, while serving as liaison to ensure their unique sensitivities are acknowledged and met. Treatment is subsidized when necessary.
- Shelter – Minyan Shelanu arranges boarding solutions for kids who have been thrown out of their homes and are “on the streets.” Costs are usually absorbed by Minyan Shelanu.
- Vocation/Job placement – Minyan Shelanu works with local establishments to arrange employment and career training for teens.
Recently Added Programs
- Big Brother Mentoring. Minyan Shelanu has recently professionally trained a select group of mentors to expand the Center’s scope. These mentors will keep in contact with their charges, and will be available to offer a listening ear, support, and a shoulder to cry on.
- Kitchen – To offer nightly suppers at the Social Center
- Trips and events – Organized sports and other activities several nights each week to keep kids gainfully occupied. An excellent venue for mentoring.
Despite its relatively ad hoc manner of operation, the minyan has been directly involved in saving over 300 kids from lives of drugs and crime. Many are happily married and raising families of their own. Many are gainfully employed. All feel a sense of camaraderie and family at being part of the Minyan.
If the successes achieved until now are any indication, there is no question that adequate funding and program expansion would result in significantly greater successes.?