The request seemed innocuous enough. The shy twelve-year-old had called the Regesh Network, a crisis hotline for adolescents and young adults, and asked for help with her homework. The girl’s class assignments were overwhelming, and she didn’t know where to turn for help. The woman on the receiving end of the call didn’t hesitate to give the young caller her home phone number.
“Call me between 8:00 and 9:00pm, and we’ll work together on whatever problems you have,” she told the girl. As a principal of a girls’ school for close to 25 years, the woman who answered the call was well qualified to assist the anonymous caller with her academic challenges. The responder sensed, though, that this was merely the tip of the iceberg. She was correct. Within a week, after developing a relationship of trust, the girl disclosed her deeply-held secret that she was dabbling in narcotics. The principal quickly connected the girl with the professional help she needed.
Thousands of Callers Reach Out for Help
This younglady was fortunate. She mustered up the courage to call the Lakewood-based Regesh Network and is now on her way to recovery. That caller is not alone. Regesh was founded in August, 2015 as a free service available to everyone, both religious and secular. Responders have fielded an astonishing 25,000 calls from desperate young people, parents, and teachers concerned about students who have nowhere else to turn for help. On average, there is one call every day that is abuse related. Callers reach out regarding issues including drug and opiate addictions, school drop-outs, dysfunctional families, mental illness, and even complex hashkafahquestions. Most of the calls are from young people living in Brooklyn and New Jersey –
30 to 40% of them from Sephardim – calls also come in from Chicago, Florida, Texas, California, and as far away as Israel.
Lakewood resident Rabbi Menachem Mizrachi is busy establishing a Sephardic division geared primarily for the Deal and Brooklyn communities. Rabbi Mizrachi has received the encouragement of many Torah leaders from the community, including Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, Rabbi Shmuel Choueka, Rabbi David Ozeri, and Rabbi Shaul Kassin.
The founder of Regesh, Rabbi David Benarroch explains, “The children call because they know that we adhere to a strict code of confidentiality and anonymity. We block callers’ ID, and those manning the phones – teachers, principals, therapists, and community rabbis – maintain fake names. For many of these callers, Regesh is their last resort.”
Who Answers the Call?
Being the last resort carries with it a huge responsibility; subsequently, Regesh chooses its personnel carefully. These professionals have a wealth of personal experience working with children and young adults and are also trained to deal with a broad spectrum of issues that arise, from general questions to
life-threatening crises. Regesh responders also know how to ferret out underlying problems. What appears to be an issue of bullying, for example, might mask physical or other kinds of abuse. Many of the callers have difficulty articulating their problems and are helped to do so. “How can I help you? You must have something important to talk to me about.” a responder might open.
“Their questions come off as natural to the child, but these experts are digging into their particular situation, trying to unravel what is going on beneath the surface. Children often bottle up major issues. Our primary objective is to get them the help they need before major catastrophes happen,” Rabbi Mizrachi says.
When necessary, Regesh connects callers to therapists, mentors, and life coaches, choosing from a long list of professionals associated with the organization. These include drug-rehabilitation centers that respectaddicts’ religious commitments. All therapies and interventions are Torah-based.
A Little History
How did this organization come about? About five years ago Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon responded to the deteriorating situation within the Sephardic and Ashkenazic religious communities concerning kids at risk. He approached Rabbi Benarroch and three others, all of whom had years of hands-on experience in the field, with the idea of opening an organization for these kids-at-risk. Rabbi Benarroch, whose father-in-law was the late community leader Rabbi Mordechai Murray Maslaton, teaches young adults at Kollel Emek Hatorah, as well as teaching children with special needs at Gesher Yehudah. Rabbi Benarroch began working with youth-at-risk about 30 years ago while living in Miami, Florida.
The four educators received intensive and thorough training in Israel. They met with psychologists and therapists at Lev Shomea, Peylim Lev L’Achim’s dropout prevention division in Israel. They also visited Boys Town Jerusalem that connects immigrant children to their Jewish roots, as well as many schools for children with special needs, and at-risk call centers in Bnai Brak, Jerusalem, and Beitar. “We probed. We learned. We grew,” Rabbi Benarroch says.
When Rabbi Solomon fell ill, the project was suspended indefinitely. About two years later, matters came to a head in Lakewood when neighbors protested a large group of young people who were mechalel Shabbatat the lake, which was splashed across the local media. Rabbi Benarroch felt the time was ripe to move forward with Rabbi Solomon’s plan. Rabbi Benarroch submitted a ten-page proposal to the Bet Medrash Govoha mashgiahRabbi Yehudah Jacobs, and roshei yeshiva Rabbi Dovid Schustel and Rabbi Malkiel Kotler. Rabbi Schustel gave the final approval. Guided by Rabbi Jacobs, Regesh’s spiritual advisor who oversees every aspect of the program, the project merged with Rabbi Yechiel Elbaz’s Tekumah organization thathelps boys in dire emotional, psychological, and spiritual straights. Mirroring the Lev Shomea model that emphasizes crisis prevention, Regesh maintains close ties with its mother organization in Israel.
Who is Served by the Hotline, and How?
The hotline addresses a vital need. Calls began flooding in as soon as word got out about the hotline, through social media, and after an intensive publicity campaign in Deal and Lakewood.
“The children call on their own, often without their parents, teachers, or community members even knowing that they have problems. That’s what distinguishes this network,” Rabbi Mizrachi says.
Regesh gives callers the internal tools needed to deal with issues imposed on them from the outside, such as bullying and abuse. “We strengthen them and assure them that they aren’t the cause of the problem, but rather, they are the victim. We also encourage them to find a rebbe or mechanechet who can help. Without a rebbe or mechanechet, they become emotionally lost,” Rabbi Benarroch says.
Specific character-related challenges can be even harder to overcome, many of which are hashkafah-based, according to Regesh Executive Director Rabbi Yechiel Elbaz, an acclaimed expert on hashkafahmatters. His commentary on Mesilat Yeshorim is used in many yeshivot worldwide, and he has delved deeply into Shir HaShirim, Kohelet, as well as Ramchal, Malbim, and other rabbinic teachings. Hashkafahquestions often mask personal issues, Rabbi Elbaz says. For example, a young man calling before Rosh Hashannah wanted to know why he should pray for another year of life. Won’t that only be another year mired in aveirot? “He wasn’t suicidal but was in deep despair. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop himself from overcoming interpersonal transgressions that he knew were wrong,” Rabbi Elbaz explains.
Identity issues are also common. How do young people discover their unique selves within a cookie cutter educational system? Rabbi Elbaz states, “It’s a problem. We are individuals, not cookie cutters. Regesh often deals with young adults who get entangled in those one-size-fits-all environments, and who don’t fit into that.” One bochur, for example, was more hashkaficallyinclined than most, and preferred putting more time into praying and connecting with Gd than into studying. “Gemara and halachah that comprise the core yeshiva curriculum are intellectual endeavors. Some students are less fact-oriented and more driven towards deeper emotional and spiritual connections,” Rabbi Elbaz says.
The Hotline’s Special Approach
Rabbi Elbaz’s approach towards these matters is inherently mystical. “Chazalteach that we’re on this earth to fix individual shortcomings, bad middot, and bent tendencies. Torah gives us a path to fix all of these. Every person has a neshamathat’s struggling to find a way out of its struggles. There are no easy fixes. The help that’s needed is tedious, and someone must work side-by-side with the boy or girl to help them do this. All I can do is offer guidance. To bring about real change requires rerouting bad middot. That require therapists or mentors to help people relearn new patterns in life.”
One young man was addicted to using his cell phone and was deeply depressed because of this. His mentor helped him break his habit by keeping him so busy that he didn’t have time to use his cell, which included taking him with him to Florida and Jerusalem.
Because Regesh does not have enough mentors to meet the needs, Rabbi Mizrachi is scurrying to establish a self-sufficient Sephardic unit. “Younger children needSephardic mentors, preferably from their community, as they are most comfortable opening up to someone they know. Young adults, on the other hand, prefer Ashkenazic mentors. They aren’t comfortable being seen walking and communicating with people who knowthem and their families,” he explains.
A massive publicity campaign is now underway to inform the Syrian and Sephardic communities about this Sephardic hotline. Rabbi Mizrachi adds, “There are lots of children out there who are suffering and don’t know where to turn for help. Speakers will be hitting the schools to pass the word, to make sure that every child knows we are here for them.”