Interview with Abraham Klein Sheds New Light on the Malky Klein Drug Overdose

In a 70-minute interview last week, Abraham Klein, father of recently deceased Malky Klein relates the full story of his daughter’s life which ultimately led to a fatal overdose on heroin last month. Many details about the girl emerged in the interview, including the circumstances that led to her ejection from high school and a more lenient observance of Orthodoxy.

It all started with poor academic performance in middle school, albeit no classroom behavioral problems. Her bad 8th grade report card and high school entrance exam score made it difficult for the family to find a high school willing to accept her. The school that had originally agreed to take her rejected her days before the semester began. Another school that subsequently accepted her expelled her within a matter weeks initially citing a variety of reasons: she was bringing expensive nosh to school, buying expensive gifts for friends, eating pizza in the store instead of first bringing it back to school, and changing backpacks too frequently. Eventually the school stated the true reason: she was “klotzing” in school all day and was not attentive in any of the classes. Even after much pleading by Mr. Klein to let Malky stay, even offering to pay for a resource room that would offer special help to Malky and her ilk, the school balked and insisted that Malky leave immediately.

After months out of school, since the school that expelled her refused to wait until the family could find a suitable replacement, malky was enrolled in a new school that had just been founded by what Mr. Klein calls “a very special person” (although that person had previously been involved with the school that rejected her). Malky caught a second wind at the school and her parents were much encouraged when with the help of multiple tutors Malky was able to perform adequately and eventually pass the 9th grade N.Y. State Regents exams.

But the heroic effort that Malky exerted to live up to the standards expected of her took a very high toll on her psyche. In early tenth grade on the eve of Yom Kippur Malky appeared for the pre-fast meal in leggings to the puzzlement of her parents. A few days later she left the house in leggings to meet with a life coach. She refused to go back to school.

She eventually enrolled in a special school, but that’s where she was first introduced to psychotropic substances which, she later explained to her dad, numbed her pain at always being perceived as the stupid one. For all the apparent merriment and social popularity she had in earlier years, it couldn’t overcome the profound pain she felt from being an underachiever.

In California, where she stayed at a rehab home, she attempted to continue keeping Orthodox practices, but it proved difficult. Staff there withheld candles from her for shabbas candle lighting, and the kosher food given her was subpar especially when contrasted with the general food. After a few weeks of Malky cooking her own food, she succumbed to having her food cooked by the attendant staff who used treif utensils.

Malky recovered and relapsed from her drug addiction a number of times. She was hesitant to return to Borough Park and be forced to confront the stares and judgement of her community, but eventually acquiesced. A week after her return from the California rehab home she overdosed on a Friday night when her father was in shul and died.

A number of other OTD (off the derekh) individuals have led a drugged life and met their death from an accidental overdose, as have many other Americans. But the Malky Klein episode is attracting special attention for a number of reasons:

  1. Malky did not suffer any physical abuse or social rejection. She had a warm, loving home and plenty of friends.
  2. Malky did not seem to reject her Orthodox religion out of ideological objection.
  3. Malky grew up in a religiously moderate home to affluent parents who were very attentive to all her needs.

What gives then?

Rachel Freier, the hasidic recently-elected Brooklyn judge, pondered this question in a column a few days ago on Prior to her judgeship she had founded an organization called B’derech (on the path) that “assists kids at risk in the chassidic community”; so she has credentials in this field.

She points to two reforms schools should make in order to avert a repeat of the Malky Klein tragedy.

  1. Children should be able to “freely ask questions [about yiddishkeit] without fear of criticism”. Teachers and parents should be prepared to answer such questions, and if they are not they should praise the child for asking a question that requires research.
  2. Create vocational learning environments (e.g. hair design, construction, auto repair) for children “who cannot sit in class for so many hours”. Also, instead of labeling those who are academically deficient “learning disabled” and singling them out for tutoring and resource room help, they should be retained in the “average” classroom and the gifted ones should be pulled out for special instruction.

On point one there is no evidence that Malky belonged in the category of “those who ask questions” and that she was rejected because of that. It seems that Rachel is prompted to mention it based on other experiences she had dealing with “at risk” kids in her B’derech tenure.

As to the substance of it, point one presumes that haredi ideology is objectively correct and if one questions it, it is done out of sheer ignorance, not in a genuine investigation as to its merits. Moreover, what this attitude ignores is the possibility that even if haredi judaism is in fact the ideal and most optimal lifestyle system in the planet for most people, it isn’t necessarily so for all. (Just as she acknowledges that some students are best placed on a vocational track, even though it is inferior to the academic one.) For some students, none of the sophisticated answers that a teacher and parent may come up with to justify the fundamental precepts of the faith –even if 100% sound– are satisfactory. Is there an educational route for such students that is most beneficial to them, either within or outside of the community? It’s analogous to asking a judge to recuse herself. Are you ever willing to do so, Ruchy?

The second point is one that is being increasingly mentioned by educational critics nowadays. In fact, many decades ago, “tracking” was de rigeur. Students were tested through their primary and secondary school education to determine what education track was right for them. Non-academically oriented students were routed to vocational schools that prepared them for skilled work right out of high school. Their curriculum did not include much grammar and math and did nor prepare them for college.

What changed is the emergence of the very “self-esteem” movement that Freier invokes to try to reform the current practice. Students that were shunted to the vocational track felt inferior since they knew that they were the dumb ones and were forever destined to hold less-paying jobs and be in lower social esteem. The elites felt that that was wrong. Concurrently, the “no child left behind” (NCLB) attitude (codified into law in 2002) blossomed and bore fruit. Under that doctrine there is no such thing as a child who is inherently incapable of “getting it”; rather, it is the schools and the teachers who are ill-prepared to teach everyone. Together, the consensus emerged, starting from the 80’s, that all children should be placed on an academic track and that all children could succeed in that track if the school espoused the “correct” educational philosophy and used appropriate pedagogical tools.

What the haredi sector is perhaps unaware of is that it hopped on the same NCLB bandwagon concurrently with mainstream American society. What’s worse is that while NCLB has officially been withdrawn in the Obama era through Race to the Top, it thrives unmolested amidst the haredi sector.

Historically there was no communal expectation that all bohorim should learn torah as an exclusive vocation until they got married. Those who were not inclined to torah study halted their education in their early teens, and learned a trade instead. Such folk were perfectly accepted within the fabric of the community, not being judged inferior in the matchmaking process. Even in America, as late as the 1960’s, many hasidic boys would learn a trade and get a job before getting married, an act that put their future wives at ease knowing that their husbands were capable and poised to provide for the family on day one.

What we need then is an official denunciation of this immensely pernicious NCLB attitude. We ought to declare publicly and confidently that not everyone should embark on an academic track in their life. For girls this means less English and math, and for boys it means less gemoro tosfos and meforshim. Instead they should spend their time learning a trade, be it computer programming, graphic design, web design, or whatever and graduate from high school immediately prepared to enter the labor market as a skilled or semi-skilled observant Jew.

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