The great Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, was wont to tell his students stories in order to awaken them to a more enlightened understanding of Torah. One of his most famous stories is called “The Lost Princess.” The fairytale-like fable tells of a king who gets angry at his beloved daughter and calls out for the forces of evil to take her away. The next day, the princess is nowhere to be found in the palace. Seeing the anguish of the crestfallen king, a viceroy sets of on a long and difficult journey to find the lost princess, rescue her from captivity, and reunite her with her father.
The fanciful story is filled with fantasy-like happenings and encounters. As befitting Rebbe Nachman, the tale has many esoteric and Kabbalistic meanings. I myself was baffled when first reading the story, but now, after being associated for twenty years with several innovative, religious high schools in Jerusalem, including schools for “youth at risk,” I have garnered insight into at least one simple meaning of the parable – the importance of the parental role in the education of children. Allow me to share some examples:
Once a teenage girl, very much like the princess in Rebbe Nachman’s story, showed up at our evening high school for girls. The encounter with her put me on the path to understanding the thought-provoking parable. She wore jeans and had a presentable appearance. She said that she was 16 and that she worked during the day in the office of an attorney. She said she earned enough money to afford sharing a small apartment with another girl in Nachalot. She wanted to learn in the evening to complete her “bagrut” high-school matriculation exam.
When I asked her about her parents, she told me that she came from a Haredi family in Bnei Brak. Once, she said, she came home wearing a jean skirt instead of the customary attire of religious Bnei Brak girls. Her father became furious and called her a “whore.” Embarrassed to the core, she decided to leave home and prove to herself that she didn’t need her parents and that she wasn’t a woman of ill repute. She found a steady job in her uncle’s law firm in Jerusalem and managed to take good care of herself. Furthermore she made an agreement with her female roommate that no boys would be allowed to enter the apartment.
Upon our first meeting I informed her that my goal was to return her to her home. She insisted that there was no need to do so because she got along fine without her parents and had no desire to return. Nonetheless, I told her that I would try.
Since I had to receive the OK of her parents in order to register her in the school, I traveled to Bnei Brak to meet them in person. During our three-hour conversation they cried repeatedly. On my way out, her 20 year old brother told me that he had never seen his father cry. When I returned to Jerusalem and spoke with their daughter, I told her that her father had repeatedly cried out of his longing to see her.
Unable to believe the news, she cross-examined me, wanting to know if the tears had been shed by her mother or father. When I recounted that both of her parents had cried, she herself broke into deeply emotional tears. On the spot she decided that she would return home for a reunion. That’s when the story of the lost princess became clear to me.
Her return path wasn’t simple. At first she stayed overnight with her aunt in Bnei Brak and only visited her parents. When her sister’s wedding day neared, she was pleased when her mother bought her a modest dress to wear. She returned to her home for the sheva brachot. She continued to live in Nachalot and finished her remaining high-school courses at our school. By the end of the year she was visiting her parents regularly and they accepted her lovingly.
Another time, a girl named “Moriah” showed up in my office. She sported a jewel in her tongue, and her mini-blouse made no effort to conceal her stomach. She came from a Haredi family in Betar Illit. A similar crisis has befallen her. She had dressed in a jean skirt and her father had called her a “whore.” She too vanished from the house, only she decided that if her father feels that she is a whore then she would act like one.
She found an Arab who was happy to start a romance with her. I and experts on my staff at the school tried to reason with her with no success. We contacted people who have experience rescuing Jewish women from similar situations but nothing availed.
I met with her father. At first, he was filled with disappointment and anger. He said he wanted nothing to do with her. After a few weeks and continued discussions, he agreed to meet with his daughter. I prepared myself in advance, carefully scripting what I wanted to say and zeroing in on the things I knew best to avoid. I informed the father beforehand that his agreeing to support Moriah financially and his willingness to give her a hug of reconciliation were the keys to our success. Indeed I witnessed firsthand at the meeting how vital these elements were to the girl.
She abandoned her Arab boyfriend not long after the truce she made with her father. Perhaps there were other factors involved in her decision but I am certain that the reconciliation with her father was a major one.
One more example. I met Re'ut during one of my visits to “Kikar HaHatulim” where “young and restless” teenagers hang out in downtown Jerusalem. She wasn’t interested in learning at all, but out of seeming kindness to me, she agreed to stop by the school. She was totally devoid of all motivation. When she was 12 years old, her parents had undergone an ugly divorce. Since then she hadn’t spoken to her father and her father hadn’t communicated with her because she took her mother’s side during the divorce proceedings.
I found a bridge of connection involving the student tuition. Often in divorce situations, the school gets involved in determining who will pay what share of the cost. Usually schools tell the parents to settle the financial matter on their own and return when they finish fighting over the amounts. In contrast, I’m happy for the opportunity to meet with the father over the question of funds. Very often the father claims that all of his money already went to his former wife in alimony and that he can’t even afford her monthly stipend. I ask if there is even some small sum which he can afford? 100 shekels, ten shekels, something? Always, the father is willing to pay something. (Once I gladly accepted $50 as payment for 4 years of tuition for 2 sons of a very wealthy man, just to get the kids into school and maintain a live connection with their father.)
In the case of Re'ut, after my meeting with the father I returned to her with the information that he was very happy that she had decided to learn in the school and that he would pay for her tuition, not mentioning the enormous discount he had received. Re'ut was thrilled. Immediately, her orientation toward the school transformed for the better. It became a meaningful part of her life. For her, going to school was like returning to her father.
To summarize, if a young person fights with his or her parents and becomes estranged from them, this has a direct influence on happiness and success in school. If the staff of the school can help bridge the disconnection even a little, it goes a long way in helping the student break free from the sense of self-rejection, pain and inner anger which imprison “youth at risk” in a path of revolt, apathy, and seeming unconcern.
There is no substitution for a loving connection between parent and child. Even if it outwardly seems that a teenager needs independence in order to succeed, he or she must feel deep in the heart that their parents are with them all along their journey.