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To Make A Difference: Good Kids, Bad Choices

Esther Ilana Rabi

Rabbi Shimon Russell, Givat Ze’ev, Israel // Nominated by Devorah Benarroch

Thursday, September 20, 2018

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I

own a marketing business that provides a range of services: building websites, fundraising strategies, business coaching, etc. When I first met the Russells, I thought they would be just another client. But as I helped them build a website and social media strategy to reach the girls who need their school, I saw their commitment to helping these kids and parents — and I was literally in tears.

I see so many families with kids holding in different places. People get pushed out, ignored. Tikva gives them a place to turn.

Now I use social media to raise awareness of Tikva so that the right girls find out about it — girls who “want to want” to make good choices, girls who can thrive in a loving, supportive environment, girls who will look back on the year they spent in Tikva with the Russells as “the year that helped me finally believe in myself.”

What impresses me most of all is the tools and healing these girls are given. It’s not a place for quick fixes — the healing is deep and enduring. And Rabbi Russell’s empathy is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He has an incredible understanding of their pain, and they are able to sense that. As a Jewish wife, mother, woman, I’m in awe of what he’s accomplished.

 

Life’s script seemed pretty straightforward for young Shimon Russell. A serious learner who thrived in the beis medrash, the British-born young man hoped to learn full time in Lakewood, and eventually find a position as a rebbi or mashgiach. But over the years, he noticed real suffering around him — grueling mental health struggles that didn’t have any resolution or address within the yeshivah community. Eventually he found himself wondering: maybe he wasn’t meant to follow that script after all. Perhaps he could be part of the solution by training as a mental health professional.

It wasn’t a decision he could make lightly. So he flew to Eretz Yisrael to discuss his dilemma with Rav Shach ztz”l. To his surprise, Rav Shach strongly encouraged him to enter the mental health field. “We need more mental health professionals in our world,” he told Rabbi Russell. Those words cemented the nascent plan.

Rabbi Russell started studying for his degree at Rutgers University at night, after learning two full sedorim in Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha during the day. After he got his master’s degree in clinical social work, he hung out his shingle in Lakewood, and set to work.

With time, Rabbi Russell developed his interest and expertise in shalom bayis, and then more and more in cases of struggling teenagers. He was tapped to serve as clinical director of Our Place, the largest drop-in center for Orthodox teens at-risk in New York, a position he filled for ten years. As word of his abilities and experience spread, he was asked to work with educators around the world to help them better understand and help their students.

 

Rabbi Russell is currently considered an authority on the phenomenon of kids who leave the derech. That authority comes, in large part, from his willingness to listen to the kids and give credence to their pain.

“Clients are the best teachers,” he says. “The more we listened to the kids, the better we understood them.”

And the more he listened, the more he was able to distill the causes of the OTD phenomenon to two main causes: molestation and abuse (including spiritual abuse), and an inability to integrate and thrive within the school system.

“Over the years,” he said, “I’ve noticed that what’s terribly lacking in the education of so many of our children is an understanding of what they are doing here in this world. Where do they fit? How are they needed by Klal Yisrael? So many children struggle as their uniqueness is stifled.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 728)

 

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