Saturday, June 03, 2023

This past Saturday night, for more than three hours, I sat in my car parked in front of a nightclub in downtown Manhattan. What brought me there, and what did I learn? Two weeks ago, a parent in our school contacted me, concerned that their child wanted to attend a party in the city that was being marketed to students from yeshiva high schools. As is our practice, we discovered the location of the party and alerted parents about the event. I was surprised to learn that the entrance fee ranged from $39-$79 depending on the level of “VIP experience” a student chose. In our email to parents, strongly discouraging them from allowing their kids to participate, we also noted that the organizers claimed “that they will not be allowing alcohol and drugs into the venue.” But, we added, “experience has shown that this does not help what will be happening, around and outside the venue.”

To be honest, I only knew that what happened outside the venue was problematic from students who have attended events like these in the past. I had never seen it myself until this past Saturday night. I was not interested in “catching kids” or getting anyone in trouble. I just wanted to better understand the world that our teenagers inhabit. So, at the suggestion of a colleague, I drove to the venue, planning to stand unnoticed across the street and observe. As I drove to the nondescript building on a very narrow downtown Manhattan street, a car pulled out of the parking space directly in front of the entrance. So I parked right there and sat with my window open just a bit, like an anthropologist, studying this party to gain insight into the environments that some of our teenagers face.

I arrived at 9:45 p.m. and stayed until about 1 a.m., after the organizers seemed to shut down the party for reasons unknown to me. I was glad that I saw almost no familiar faces, but I did recognize some. There were students there from coed and single-gender yeshiva high schools.

So what did I see? First of all, the organizers were serious about not allowing alcohol or drugs in the venue. Of the 250 or so teenagers I saw enter the party, about half were drinking alcohol and/or smoking marijuana on the street before entering, and they were required to leave their alcohol and drugs outside. I also noticed that a number of teenagers were removed from the venue by bouncers stationed inside and outside of the club. The teens who had spent a good amount of money on admission were unhappy to have been kicked out, offering excuses like, “But everyone else in there was vaping too,” or “The guy at the door told me you just couldn’t drink in the open.” At one point, an organizer calmly explained to the drunken teenagers outside that there was no room for negotiation as he could lose his license if teenagers were allowed to drink inside. A little later in the evening, two visibly drunk boys stumbled outside the club. One of them announced that he needed a place to sit and reached to see if the car was open. It was, and the boy unexpectedly found the driver’s seat occupied. Shocked, he shouted some expletives and ran down the block. When the party ended at about 1 a.m., about 200 mostly inebriated revelers gathered loudly outside as organizers urged them to quiet down and leave. Several students who had trouble standing sat on the hood of my car, apparently unaware or unconcerned that I was inside. A number of teenagers were crying, some upset that their friends were not well and others unhappy that their party seemed to have ended earlier than expected.

Sitting unnoticed in my car, I felt like one of those marine biologists who lower themselves into shark-infested waters protected by a cage. I learned firsthand what the scene is like at one of these sleek professional parties, much like that marine biologist might glimpse the teeth of a great white. I was not comfortable being there, nor would I want my students to participate in such an event.

I am generally very forgiving of students’ behavior. I expect adolescents to misbehave and rebel. I know from experience that some students who are otherwise fine bnei and bnot Torah engage in occasionally unbecoming behavior; they are adept at compartmentalizing their personalities. I understand this even as I strive to help students see themselves as the types of people who are better than that.

I also know how difficult it is to raise teenagers. Parents do their best to navigate the balance between giving their children space to individuate and knowing when to put their foot down. It is critical for parents and their children to talk openly about the challenges of being a teenager in our complicated world, and it is critical that parents understand our students’ realities. At the same time, it is hard for me to imagine that many parents would permit their children to participate in such a party if they actually understood just how wild and dangerous the scene was, even though I noticed a number of parents who actually drove their children there. I suspect that if they saw this party as I did, they would be much less comfortable allowing their children to engage in what they must view as some rite of passage.

As I watched the teenagers outside of the party, I felt badly for them. Being a teenager is so hard. Why are parents allowing them to be here at such young ages, navigating substance use in this context? There’s so much time after kids graduate from high school to negotiate these challenges. Why force them to do so like this? We can shape our kids’ experiences in ways that allow them a healthier space to figure out who they are and even to rebel.

I hope that sharing what I witnessed this past Saturday night might help some parents and their teenagers have productive conversations that guide good choices, allowing families to connect and foster a greater understanding of the realities and risks that parties like this one pose. And if there are some parents who are saying to themselves that these environments are fine for their kids, I’d be happy to save a parking spot for you.

By Rabbi Jonathan Kroll

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