Developing the Antidote to Vaping, Juuling and Other Evils

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There was good news but moments into the Jewish New Year.

Last week, the day after Rosh HaShanah, our government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that teenage use of electronic cigarettes had reached an “epidemic proportion.”  FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said that more than two million middle and high school students were regular users of e-cigarettes in 2017.  This figure is especially alarming because federal law prohibits selling e-cigarettes to anyone under 18 years of age.

The result:  The FDA gave makers and sellers of these devices 60 days’ notice to prove they can keep their devices away from minors.

In addition, the FDA was sending warning letters to 1,100 retailers, including 7-Eleven stores, Walgreens and Shell gas stations, for selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Dr. Gottlieb and the FDA are courageous to take on the e-cigarette, vaping and juuling industries which are valued at tens of billions of dollars.  Courage aside, it’s necessary.  How ironic it is that a teenager may never smoke a cigarette but can become hooked on nicotine through e-cigarettes.  And the high levels of nicotine in e-cigarettes is highly addictive.  The insidious part, the FDA’s statement underscores, is that the “developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction.”

One more fact – One pot of juul equals one packet of cigarettes.

E-cigarettes, vaping and juuling are present in our Torah world, my dear readers.  Promise.  It’s in our schools and its rampant among young adults.  While some yeshivas and high schools have mandatory drug testing programs, the fact remains that these vices are omnipresent despite the drug testing programs because they will not be detected through a routine urine drug test.  Some patients have told me that they indulge in vaping and juuling in school as the Rebbe, teacher or whomever walks past because these vices are so cleverly packaged, the Rebbe, teacher or whomever has no idea that it is transpiring right under his own nose in his own Daled Amos.

Oh.  One more point why these unfathomable activities are so addicting – Because they are available in different, pleasant flavors.  In other words, each person can find his favorite flavor.

You’ve read this correctly and I will stand by my statements.

While the FDA, under Dr. Gottlieb’s direction, is doing the right thing, I humbly suggest that we must take this even further in our world.  Yes, the e-cigarettes, vaping and juuling must be addressed.  But the bigger concern is to determine why our children – teenagers who are adults-in-the-making – are vulnerable to these poisons.  Then we may move to make the appropriate adjustments and corrections.

In recent weeks, established parents in my practice shared with me that their high school junior son, who is a star student in one of our local schools, came to them proactively to discuss the vaping and juuling that he witnesses on a daily basis.  The parents were dumbfounded:  Vaping and juuling in their son’s yeshiva?  Their son was firm that he wasn’t naming the boys who are indulging in these activities.  Rather, he wanted to talk about being bored in school and how the pressure of that boredom is tremendous and he can understand why boys slip down the slippery slope into vaping and juuling addiction.

Boredom, especially boredom in school, is a theme I’ve heard a lot about from today’s teenagers. A lot of it is attributable to technology, social media and the instant gratification that prevails in today’s world, rather than hard work.  What percentage of this ennui is attributable to forces outside the Jewish world?  A significant percentage, I would say.

But that doesn’t absolve us from looking inwards and seeing what’s lacking in our world and addressing it accordingly.  There’s lots of work needed in our schools and their curricula.  Let’s put it bluntly:  What worked in past generations may no longer be the ways of reaching and engaging today’s youth.

The lack of inspiration in today’s world, the frum community included, is not a new topic.   There are not a small number of fellow Jews who live amongst us who feel disenchanted and disenfranchised.   Let’s call them “Reverse Marranos” because while they may look and dress the part of Torah Jews and go through the motions of religious observance, in reality, they are checked out religiously.  Why?  Because they lack understanding of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  This phenomenon is happening at younger and younger ages which is why I believe our high schoolers are vulnerable to the ugliness of vaping and juuling.

So what can be done?

Let’s pull together a “brain trust” of people from throughout the Orthodox world to a round table discussion on what our yeshivas and schools can be doing differently.  It would be fascinating to hear from the Masmidim, the professionally educated and the ones who weren’t students and either “flopped” or made something of themselves.  Each would have a tale to tell and we would learn from them all.  How does being on a “Alef,” “Beis” or “Gimmel” track affect one’s sense of self?  How has the curriculum prepared one for life?  How has the curriculum adjusted to the 21st century?

No doubt, Hebrew Kriah and English reading skills are basic to setting a person on a path to success in school and life.  As our classes get larger and our teachers are not always the best prepared professionally, are our children slipping between the cracks?  These skills are the proverbial foundation necessary upon which to construct a strong edifice.

Emuna and Bitachon should no longer be taken for granted in our homes and schools and should be taught in creative ways.  The root of the word Emuna is from “Omen,” a craftsman.  A craftsman does not just sit down and knock out a piece of his craft.  He works and works at it, perhaps seeking professional guidance and even remolding it until he creates a work of art.  Emuna and Bitachon are lifelong endeavors.  We can help stack the decks in favor of our children pursuing this if we were to make it more relevant and real for them.

For example, there are primary sources available of the religious questions posed to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003) who was a rabbi in the Kovno ghetto.  Miraculously, he survived the Shoah.  His writings detail not only the Nazi/Lithuanian collaboration for our destruction, but also how, despite the shadow of death as a constant presence, Jews sought to keep HaShem’s Torah and commandments as evidenced by the religious questions posed to Rav Oshry and how he answered them.

Perhaps our schools and other educational programs should learn some of these primary sources.  Our middle school and high school age children and adults would experience the deep longing of their ancestors to connect with the Infinite and to know that being a Jew is the greatest thing in the world.

Over the recent Yom Tov, I read through Yeshiva University’s Rosh Hashanah To-Go 5779.  The theme was Tefillah.  Among the excellent articles was an exceptional one by Rabbi Joshua Kahn, Head of School at Yeshiva University High School for Boys (also known as MTA), entitled “Teenagers and Tefillah:  An Approach to Tefillah Education in High School.”    Rabbi Kahn details a program that his school instituted last year for sophomore students on Tefillah, focused on enhancing their awareness of HaShem through monthly programs, goal setting and meeting one-on-one with their Rebbeim.  Each month, the specific application would shift, ranging from Brachos before eating to other areas of Bracha, such as Ashar Yatzar, to seeing HaShem’s hand in this world.  The common theme was to perceive and appreciate HaShem’s involvement in the world in general.

Rabbi Kahn’s article is a worthwhile read and is…inspiring.  A yeshiva high school has developed a program for an age cohort at a particularly important time in their mental and emotional development.  It’s impressive.  I would venture to guess that the Rebbeim need training in this area as well.  After all, they can only help their students with Tefilla and their relationship with HaShem to the extent that they themselves are developed in Tefilla and their own relationship with HaShem.

I’d love to see the curriculum in action.  Who wants to join me on a trip to Washington Heights?

These are some of my suggestions and would welcome to hear yours.  I challenge some of our organizations like Torah Umesorah, the Orthodox Union or the Aguda to take on this challenge and begin turning the tide.

It is preferable that we step up to the plate and work collectively to stop these self-harming behaviors rather than have to gather graveside for yet another unnecessary loss of a young life.

As always, daven.

Dr. Hylton I. Lightman is a senior statesman among pediatricians, an internationally-recognized authority and diagnostician, a public speaker, expert witness and go-to resource for health issues in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Originally from South Africa, he started his current practice, Total Family Care of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, PC in 1987. Dr. Lightman is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP). Dr. Lightman is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. In addition, he is actively involved in teaching pediatric and family nurse practitioners through Columbia University, Pace University, Lehmann College, and Molloy College, as well as mentoring physician assistants through Touro College. Read more here.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.