Originally published on the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California written by Debby Gelber,Bulletin Correspondent
Prostitution, drug-dealing, all-night raves.
Plenty of Jewish kids lose their way in the seamy side of Manhattan’s streets.
Rabbi Yehudah Fine, known on the streets as “Yehudah,” is determined to help them on their journey back to wholeness from “the way beyond” (his term for underground life).
In “Times Square Rabbi,” a book that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, Fine writes about his outreach to kids in trouble.
In the first of the eight stories, we meet Danny, a teenage prostitute living the fast life of turning tricks and doing drugs. From a suburban Connecticut family and with a history of abuse, he ended up on the streets of Manhattan, selling his body and doing cocaine. Through many late-night conversations over hot chocolate and peanut butter sandwiches, he comes to confide in Yehudah.
We follow his story, until eventually he hits rock bottom. His body destroyed from crack cocaine, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die and seeks out Yehudah.
“If he was going to come through this, the next stop on his elevator would have to be detox and rehab. The only floor remaining on the way down was death.”
With help from Yehudah, he finds his way into a rehab program and slowly, painfully “hurls out his pain” and creates a new life for himself.
Though the stories are all different, similar lines run through them all. Parental abuse and neglect are the starting points for the downfall of most of these kids.
Sarah is no exception. Her alcoholic father died when she was young and her stepfather sexually abused her. At the age of 16, she was thrown out of the house. Yehudah encounters her in her first 24 hours out on the street. Intervening in a scene destined to get her into even more trouble, he gives her a quick education about street life.
“Those guys with the baseball jackets and fancy shoes, baseball caps down low? They’re dealing crack to those other kids. Watch, see…there it goes down.”
Gratefully, she accepts his offer to move into a shelter for runaway kids and struggles to tell the truth about her life to her new-found friend.
Over the course of months, she confides in Yehudah, moves into a group home and tries to piece together her life again.
Eventually, she finds the strength to face her mother in court with charges of abandonment. Through this painful process, she finds her inner strength and resiliency, eventually finishing college and studying in Israel.
“And that’s the beauty of it all,” the rabbi writes. “Sarah’s past, which caused her so much sadness and misery, was now something she could learn from. By standing up for herself as someone who was worthy of all that life had to offer, she acquired compassion for herself.”
Each story is different and not all have such happy endings, but what comes through again and again is the amazing rapport Yehudah has with street youth, who are drawn to confide in him. He is able to gain their trust even as an adult outsider and a visible rabbi.
Each of the eight stories about his encounters with kids is linked to a principle based on the work of Maimonides’ “Hilcos Teshuvah,” a guide to spiritual growth and repentance. Fine distills the guide into eight steps, similar to the 12-step process of Alcoholics Anonymous, to guide and provide structure along the way back to recovery.
The steps are an interesting way to structure the process, but they are not completely fleshed out. The book’s real strength lies in the stories of the kids, the dedication of Fine, who takes a modest approach to his accomplishments, and his engaging writing style.