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Home > Family & Lifecycles > Why are Israeli teens so unhappy?

Why are Israeli teens so unhappy?

Am Echad Resources
September 8, 2000

Israeli teens are the unhappiest in the developed world. At least that's the conclusion of the World Health Organization's most recent cross-national survey.

The 5,000 Israeli 11, 13, and 15-year olds interviewed (haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, youth were not included) reported the highest rates of "feeling low" and complained of loneliness at a much higher rate than kids from any of the other 27 countries surveyed, except for Portugal.

The WHO study is not the only evidence. Israel has become the world center of trance music. Rave parties, combining the loud, pounding trance music with widespread Ecstasy use, writes Assaf Sagiv in the spring issue of Azure, are modern Bacchanalia.

Participants in the ancient Dionysian rites entered into a frenzy, in which they lost all inhibitions, all sense of self. Trance music reflects the same desire for the annihilation of self. In the words of one enthusiast, "Trance helps people erase their brains, to lose their ability to think--that's its

Only those who feel that their brains are of little use seek to lose them. In Sagiv's view, the primary characteristics of Israeli youth are pessimism, passivity, and disengagement, and their music reflects that.

Why should our young people feel this way? They enjoy material wealth beyond the wildest dreams of their parents' generation. Their leaders hold out to them for the first time the promise of peace with our Arab neighbors. Why, then, did earlier generations confront life with so much more

Much has to do with lost idealism. Our youth lack anything in which to believe beyond their own pleasure and no cause to which they feel capable of dedicating themselves. After two 15-year-olds from affluent neighborhoods killed taxi driver Derek Roth for the thrill of it five years ago, one
policeman specializing in youth work commented, "I envy the Arab kids. They still have something to believe in."

Still, idealism is not found in large measure in any modern Western society. Why should its absence affect Jewish youth more? Here classical Jewish thought can offer some insight.

Jewish chosenness refers, in part, to our uniquely powerful yearning for connection with God and capacity for holiness. When the vessel for receiving God's holiness remains empty, the result is spiritual pain. The greater the vessel, the greater the pain when it goes unused.

That pain can be ignored, at least for a period of time, so long as one maintains a sense of purpose in life. In times past, even when Jews left religion, they retained the thirst for connection to a source of meaning.

Secular Jewish Messianism, the attraction of Jews to so many of the "isms" of the 20th century, is an expression of the soul seeking something beyond itself.

The idealism of the past, which at least served as a salve for the lack of connection to God, has been lost. Hints of the natural Jewish longing for something beyond the material, however, remain: the disproportionate involvement of Jews in virtually every cult is one such hint; the fascination of post-army Israeli youth with India and the Far East and their mystery religions is another.

It is not only secular youth, but their religious counterparts as well, who suffer from a loss of the idealism of earlier generations. During the Holocaust, the Agudath Israel Youth Council was perhaps the most active organization in America working to obtain visas for Jews in Europe. That laborious work, including typing out six copies of four-foot long forms, was almost all done by teenage volunteers. After the war, young volunteers packed packages for the displaced persons camps, which were then sent to survivors. Most of that work was done late at night after the day's studies.

A veteran of that period, asked to compare those days to the present, when the American Orthodox community is by all statistical measures so much stronger, replied unhesitatingly, "Then we really lived."
In Israel, a small group of yeshiva students in their late teens and early twenties, known as Pe'eylim, played a crucial role in preserving the religious identity of immigrants from Arab lands in the late '40s and early '50s. A 1950 government-appointed commission found that the cutting sidelocks of Yemenite children and bans or interference with Torah learning were systematic practices in the absorption camps. Religious teachers were barred from entering the camps.

These practices, designed to destroy the traditional religious identity of the youth, were justified euphemistically as helping the children "adapt to the mode of living of the larger community." But for the members of Pe'eylim, who would dig under the barbed wire fences to enter the camps, those efforts might have been totally successful.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Noach Kroll, one of the leaders of Pe'eylim, related how he once heard a young teacher telling her students that Shabbat and all the all other mitzvot were designed to distinguish Jews from their gentile neighbors, and therefore no longer applicable in Israel.

Kroll interrupted the class and told the children not to pay any attention to the teacher's lies. The young woman began to cry. "You've destroyed weeks of work," she screamed at him.

Those tears, a measure of her commitment to the cause of destroying religious identity, ironically revealed that young teacher to have been closer to something authentically Jewish and, for that matter, to her opponents in Pe'eylim, than are the cynical, world-weary youth of today.

Isaiah prophesies the return of "all the lost ones from Assyria and those who have been pushed away from Egypt." "The lost ones" are those who have actively rebelled against God, while "those who have been pushed away" are those who have simply lost all concern with God. If so, asked the Ishbitzer Rebbe, why do the lost ones, who are the worse sinners, return first?

He answered that those who rebel nevertheless remain spiritual beings. Today they are lost, but like anyone who has lost an object, when they find it they will be whole. Those who are apathetic, however, have lost the spark of spirituality. Redeeming them will be much more difficult.

Jonathan Rosenblum is a Jerusalem Post columnist and Israeli director of Am Echad.

© Am Echad Resources, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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