Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Story of MASK

MASK is an organization that has been around for more than 15 years and has changed our perceptions about wayward children. MASK advocates for children in countless settings and has pulled them back from the brink of despair over and over again, focusing on prevention. Ruchama Bistritzky-Clapman, Founder and Director of MASK, put it this way: “If you change the music in your home, your kids will change their dance steps.”

MASK (Mothers and Fathers Aligned Saving Kids) International was founded in 1997 in response to children at risk in the Orthodox community. MASK deals with alcohol and drug abuse, Internet addiction, eating disorders, ADD and ADHD, gambling, bullying and more. Their helpline refers families to therapists, counselors, rabbonim, and agencies that will best meet their needs. MASK’s mission is to ensure that all parents and caregivers in the Jewish community receive the resources necessary to help them raise emotionally healthy children.

MASK’s offices are located on a quiet residential street in Flatbush in a nondescript house that looks like any other on the block.  Victor Zilber, Fundraising Director, said MASK had to move because it lost much of its funding.

Fifteen years ago, nobody really knew much about kids-at-risk. And if we did, most of us felt confident that it was something that happened to other people. Ruchama opened our eyes to the truth. The issue is real, is growing, and is not going away any time soon. And it can happen to anyone.

MASK works with the children, offering professional intervention on all levels. They work with the schools, advocating relentlessly on the students’ behalf. They work with the community, raising awareness and organizing events. And, most of all, they work with the parents—they listen to their pain, give guidance, offer solutions and referrals to professionals.

Almost 15,000 families have asked MASK for help since its inception.  The number continues to grow by the day. One solution is to work with families while their children are still quite young.  “Our youth follows us wherever we go,” she says. “Things that happen during early childhood make an impression on us as children. The truth is that everyone has issues. It’s when these issues are negative and stay cooped up inside a young child who is too little to express him/herself, we worry that it might erupt into at-risk behavior somewhere down the road.”

In other words, a six-year-old will probably not react openly. But when she is 10, she may become mildly defiant. At 13, she could be refusing to cooperate with her parents and failing in school. By 16, she can be wearing jeans and texting on Shabbos. “It’s a slippery slope,” Ruchama explains.

“Astute parents,” Ruchama continues, “will do their best to create a warm and caring environment in their home while their children are still young. They will make sure to open the lines of communication so that their kids will approach them in times of need. They will make their home a fun place to be.”

This may not be easy or practical for parents. Expect your home to be messier and noisier. Be prepared to spend distinct quality time alone with each of your kids.  Sure it’s easier to send them off to a friend’s house or to an after-school program, but the dangers are too real that they will find happiness, friendship, and excitement elsewhere.

Programs like MASK are suffering financially like never before. According to Ruchama, “MASK’s funding got cut 74% three years ago. We were forced to move out of our offices where we conducted support groups and move to smaller quarters. We are trying to maintain our services but it’s an ongoing struggle.”

MASK is hosting an event this Monday, April 22nd at 8PM at the home of Shelly and Noam Sokolow at 245 Lydecker St. in Englewood. The guest speakers will be: Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser and Lewis Abram ACSW, LCSW, CASACs. The rabbinic committee consists of Rabbi Akiva Block, Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, and Rabbi Zev Reichman. For more info about the event or MASC, contact MASK at: 718-758-0400.

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