by Ilana Kramer

Our Violent Children

I think the frum community believes that our Jewish children are not violent, and that we have a better understanding and we have better control over our children than in mainstream culture. When I found a Jewish school for at-risk boys, the teachers at my son’s former school said, “What are you doing to your son? You’re stigmatizing him.” Meanwhile, the rabbis were saying my son wasn’t that bad, and why would I do that? I raised $50,000 to get him to stay in this alternative school. I asked the community for money, the shul, friends of friends. I was that desperate. I wish the frum community would open their eyes around this. There’s so much silence. Instead of stigmatizing our children, we should be creating schools for children at risk. We forget that emotional health comes first, and everything else is secondary. The day my son pulled a knife and I called the police, my neighbors were furious, they went to the rabbi of our shul and complained that “The single mom is crazy.” Their issue was that I called the police in my Jewish community and showed others that our children are whatever they are. But these neighbors didn’t show up at my home and say, “Maybe we can help?” The only thing they did was run to the rabbi and say how insane I was.

Now when he’s angry, my son gets on his bike and rides it. I tell him, there’s nothing wrong in feeling violent, it’s how you control it. I don’t know why I’m so lucky that my son turned around, but I know the times he saw me breaking the norms — driving on Shabbos, calling the cops — that’s when the shift happened.

“He got paranoid. He threatened to stop being Jewish. Then he fell in love with Nazis.”

Anita Berg*

My son was born with a range of developmental disabilities, and needed therapy to help him walk, eat, speak, and understand what people were saying. By the time he was 11, he’d had 10 different diagnoses. Aspergers? HFA (High Functioning Autism)? ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)? From 18 months, he would scream inexplicably from something later diagnosed as sensory integration disorder. By the time he was five, social situations also seemed to trigger rages that were like storms. He would burst out angry, sobbing, “Mommy I want to kill myself. There is this monster inside of me.”

By the time he was nine, his anger was getting physical. Once he tried to choke a seven-year-old girl who was teasing him. When he wasn’t like that he was so sweet, it was very complex for us to understand the violent outbursts.

We felt we had a terrific network of friends, but as the issues became worse, we withdrew. What happens is that you are just not invited anywhere. Extended family members would say, “Why can’t you control your son? I remember the deadening, heartbreaking moment when my sister told me we could no longer come to her seder. She actually said: “I could never have a Seder with your kids.” Imagine!

At home when I tried to calm him, he started pushing me, getting violent. At school, kids got a kick out of making him explode, but his reactions were becoming a serious danger to everyone, including himself. By seventh grade, our son was labeled with Aspergers.

We fought the school board to fund a placement into a residential program, which his current school recommended. On his first night, he witnessed a kid taken to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Our son’s roommate was low-functioning autistic, and had been abandoned. In our boy’s mind, he would be next. No one at the school was trained in Aspergers treatment. After all the evaluations, no one was closer to helping solve our son’s illness, or helping him move safely into society.

We took him out of boarding school, moved to Ohio, and decided to put him into mainstream school. He had a high average IQ and would be repeating ninth grade. With support from a therapist, he seemed to grow socially just by being around neurotypical people. But on another level, he began experiencing anti-Semitism coming from other kids that made him feel ashamed of being Jewish. Kids threw coins at his feet at Rosh Hashanah, and at Pesach. Some kids called him a Christ killer. My son wanted very badly to have friends, yet he was frightened because he knew about the Holocaust. He had always loved building the sukkah, but at Sukkot that year, he ran out into the backyard and screamed, “Take that down! Someone will see it, and they might hurt us!” His paranoia worsened, and in December he said, “If you put up Hanukkah lights, I will stop being Jewish.” We didn’t know how serious he was. After we were finished, he came downstairs very quietly, and said, “I don’t give a fuck what you Jews want to do.” After that, he refused to come to Shabbas dinner until the lighting of the candles was over. And then, he fell in love with Nazis. This was astonishing and terrifying and I had nobody to talk to. I had nobody to get help from. The Jewish community here said, “I don’t believe it.”

Now we know he has a very severe anxiety disorder. At the time, it was just really terrifying to suddenly have a son who was not only verbally threatening, prone to rages, but now spewing anti-Semitic remarks, working hard to make friends with classmates by sharing racial slurs towards other groups.

Even with all this posturing, he was still socially “off.” In tenth grade, this is when the hitting started. He felt he had a girlfriend, and saw her kissing someone else. When he hit me the first time, he hit my arm and this escalated to the point that I was afraid of him. He was like a roaring lion, he got right up in my face, he pushed me to make me do what he wanted to do. My husband was afraid to leave me when he had to go away for trips. One day, my son broke down my door, and I was terrified. At that point, my extended family knew, and they were very afraid for my life.

At school, there was sympathy for him as a special needs student, but when we sought help for his more violent behavior, I didn’t want to tell the school because my instinct was that if they knew, he’d lose that sympathy.

Soon after, we called the hospital because he was threatening suicide. I told the ER about the abuse, and our son was put into a psych ward for 30 days. I had to fight to keep him at hospital. I told them, it is still not safe for him to come home, but they said he’s fine. After 30 days, they sent him home, so I moved out for a month for my safety. They told me, “The only way to get him more help is if he hits you again.” There’s really no protection for the battered parent. Zero. Nada.

The response of authorities drives parents underground, and leaves families in worse shape. Four months later, he hit me in the head and I called it in. The social workers described him as a batterer. No one considered whether our son had initiated violence, or only reacted to the behavior of others. I’ll never forget one social worker who said, “He’ll be behind bars in a couple years.” I was certain he wasn’t a monster, but something in the environment was overwhelming him.

He was kicked out of high school because he was seen as a threat. Finally, we found a contained classroom within a larger school where he had an option to move into mainstream, and someone came in to give him speech and language services. He’s 20 now, and the happy news is, he’s graduating from high school this year. I know he is not a batterer, but he is reactive and very insecure.

There is one thing that was and still is shockingly absent, which is Jewish — based treatment facilities. We had been very connected to our different temple communities. Over time I discovered that many Jewish families in my shul had these “dirty little secrets” of kids who had struggled with drugs or out of control behavior or developmental disabilities, and people just didn’t tell anyone, because there was no public acknowledgement that these behavioral illnesses exist in the Jewish community and help is available.

And God help you if you are an adoptive Jewish family, as are several of the friends I met in my Asperger parents support group. Then the Jewish community really questioned whether your child was “the bad seed” — the implication was that behavior like that could never come out of a Jewish womb.

The Conservative and Reform movements must step forward and create therapeutic residential programs, outpatient and parent support programs, online forums, and training for shuls so families can figure out how to be involved in Shabbat and even get respite care to attend. Yes — respite care! Is there respite care from the Jewish community? Zilch, nada, zero. And there needs to be a lot of education for everyone that parents of out of control kids are not the cause of the kids behavior. 

* Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms. 

Our Violent Children

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