[...] Gershonowitz's and Sander's stories are not the first of their kind. Unfortunately, neither are they the last, as the truth about the growing number of troubled religious girls using drugs and alcohol or suffering from abuse is becoming harder to ignore.
These are the girls who, in some way, do not fit in with the mainstream seminaries that thousands of others attend every year. Even more startling is the fact that these teenagers are actually in Israel "trying to get themselves together," as Rabbi Oded Sher says, but have almost nowhere to go.
"These are girls in crisis, usually from dysfunctional or broken homes, and they are asking for help. They are ready to make changes in their lives and they need guidance," explains Elimelech Lepon, a teacher at one girls' school.
The majority of the girls at these seminaries have always been from the US, but this year in particular there has been an upsurge in the number of American teenagers in Israel. Two renowned schools in New York for at-risk youth closed down over the summer, leaving Israel as one of the only options for these teens.
After Sandler was expelled from the school in Memphis, Tennessee that her mother had sent her to, she entered Monsey Academy for girls in New York (then one of the only institutions for girls at risk in the US). There, she met Oded and Shiri Sher, who later went on to open a school for girls in Israel, Derech Hashem Academy.
"These people devote their entire lives to helping girls at risk, and dedicate their time and energy to doing everything in their power to help us," she said.
As of 2008, there are only three places in Israel (Tzofiah Machon Rivka in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Derech Hashem in Tiberias and Tikva in Jerusalem) that answer the call to help these girls - within a religious framework. But these institutions struggle with dwindling funds, even as the number of at-risk cases escalates.
Contrast this to the dozens of yeshivot that address the problem of at-risk boys - each of which is a recognized institution in its own right, or is affiliated with a reputable program, and therefore has no shortage of funding - seemingly ready to accept every boy who comes off the streets looking for help.
The schools that take care of girls emphasize the mental, emotional and physical well-being and quality of life that the girls can achieve. "The structure is religious, we teach them according to a Torah perspective, but we encourage them to choose their own way of life; whatever will make them happy and healthy," says Shiri Sher from Derech Hashem, which will not reopen in 2009 due to a lack of funds.
Tzofiah, the largest of the three institutions for at-risk girls, was founded in 2000 and is headed by Rabbi Raviv Shaked and his wife, Basy. The school offers religious girls an alternative way to fend for themselves by giving them an "opportunity to re-explore Judaism" while receiving top-quality therapy, obtaining a high school diploma and a certified vocation.
The main challenge these schools face is money. "It costs thousands of dollars a year to run a place like ours," explains Shaked, who says a $30,000 per-girl, per year budget would be ideal in order to give the girls the greatest possible benefit. This figure is due to the fact that unlike other schools and seminaries, Tzofiah not only offers, but requires intensive therapy for each student. Besides the compulsory individual and group therapy, these schools also schedule a multitude of lessons, field trips and activities to keep the pupils supervised while ensuring that they feel free, as well as entertained.
In contrast, the estimated cost for a boy's year at yeshiva comes to about $17,000, mainly because programs for girls are more home-based than those for boys, and these particular teenage girls require a tremendous amount of supervision which also needs to be "fun," leading to increased expenses.
But donors are more hesitant to lend a hand when they hear that their money is going toward a school that deals with "wayward frum girls who shouldn't even be in this position anyway," Lepon says.
The feeling that "we are not getting the best bang for our buck" is prevalent, according to Rabbi Boruch Smith. As former education director of both Tzofiah and Tikva, and current co-principal of Michlelet Esther for girls, Smith continues by describing the increasingly obvious reality that the religious community still finds it "irregular for girls to stray so far from Judaism and family."
When it comes to at-risk male teens, the solutions seem to be much more clear-cut, giving the sense that "we can help with this problem - we follow steps a, b and c, and problem solved," says Sher. With troubled teenage girls, there seem to be a lot more intricacies involved, resulting in only a few people willing to fight this battle; a few singular individuals willing to step into this mire and start pulling the girls out, one by one.[...]