Utah, which has a relatively small Jewish population, isn't a place one might expect to find hundreds of distraught Jewish teens reconnecting with their faith. But Rabbi Benny Zippel has made it such a place to the surprise of many, including himself.
For 19 years, Zippel, through his Project H.E.A.R.T. (Hebrew Education for At-Risk Teens), has been visiting treatment centers, such as the one Litt's son attended after wilderness therapy, to talk with Jewish teens about their faith, their lives and God's role in their recovery.
Parents nationwide send their teens to the treatment centers for months or years at a time for afflictions ranging from depression to drug abuse to eating disorders.
Such centers proliferate in Utah partly because laws here allow parents to place teens without the children's consent, said Glen Zaugg, president of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and president and CEO of Heritage School in Provo.
They are not places the bearded, Italian-born rabbi ever expected his work to take him when he moved to Salt Lake City in 1992 as a recently ordained rabbi with Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement that aims to bring all Jews closer to their faith. Chabad Lubavitch also seeks to help all people become more aware of God, though it does not try to convert non-Jews to Judaism.
Soon after Zippel arrived in Utah, a call from Southern California changed his expectations. A Jewish man phoned to ask the rabbi if he could reach out to his teen, who was in a treatment center.
"The first thought that crossed my mind," Zippel recalled, "was, 'What is a Jewish 15-year-old boy from Southern California, from the L.A. area, doing in Provo, Utah?' "
The message spreads
But Zippel fulfilled the father's request, visiting the boy about once a week to talk about Jewish holidays and help him fulfill the mitzvah, or religious duty, of wearing teffilin, small black leather boxes containing Torah verses and worn on the arm adjacent to the heart and on the head to demonstrate intellectual and emotional commitment to God.
One day, Zippel casually asked the teen if he was the only Jew at the center. The boy replied no, saying there were probably a dozen.
"I was amazed," Zippel said, "that all these Jewish kids are here in our own little state of Utah, and they basically have no connection to Judaism whatsoever."
He began to inquire at other treatment centers about whether he could work with their Jewish students as well.
Now, nearly two decades later, Zippel spends several days a week visiting more than a dozen treatment centers in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber and Cache counties. He spends about an hour a week at each center, huddling with students to celebrate holidays and to discuss Judaism and their lives. He works with more than 200 kids, who attend his sessions voluntarily, and almost all of whom are from out of state.
"It gives me hope," said Lloyd Siskind, a 16-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., who has been at Heritage School for about a year. "It brings me closer to God, sort of, and makes me realize I can get through a lot of stuff."
At a recent session, Siskind was one of a dozen boys and girls who relaxed on couches encircling the rabbi as he talked about Jewish history, hope and healing.
Zippel spoke about the Jewish concept of Teshuvah, which means return and repentance. He told of a girl at another center who told him she felt guilty for the way she had treated her mother.
"We all make mistakes," Zippel told the teens. "Nobody's perfect ... but the question is how do we react to the mistakes we've made. We believe very strongly in the power of Teshuvah, which means return. We can go back and rectify mistakes we've made."
He later asked the teens where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, and asked if they thought the terrorists were intelligent, passionate people. They must have been, he told the teens, to carry out such a plot.
"Our emotions and our intellect are two of the most powerful tools God gives each one of us when we're born," Zippel explained. "There's one catch, guys emotion and intellect can be used for good or bad."
The teens sat rapt, their attention focused on the 45-year-old father of six, who spoke with calm confidence, gesturing to emphasize his points.
He then helped wrap Nate Kabaei, a 16-year-old from Beverly Hills, Calif., in teffilin, with boxes near his head and heart, after explaining the connection to emotion and intellect.
"I have a good relationship with the rabbi," said Kabaei, who has been meeting with Zippel for 14 months and has been a guest at the rabbi's Salt Lake City home.
A surrogate father
Zippel has close relationships with many of the students. It's the type of bond he had with Richard Litt's son, A.J. Litt, during his time in Utah.
Before Richard Litt decided to send his son to wilderness therapy, A.J. was emotionally out of control. He struggled with anxiety, feelings of abandonment and substance abuse.
Richard Litt credits wilderness therapy with saving A.J.'s life, but he wasn't yet ready to come home after it. So he went to a residential treatment center, Gateway Academy in Salt Lake City, where he met Zippel.
The two met to talk about the Torah, wrap A.J. with tefillin and discuss what was on the boy's mind. A.J. said religion "gave me something to turn to when I kind of fell down on my luck."
Slowly, their relationship grew.
A.J. spent Friday nights at the rabbi's home, celebrating the Jewish sabbath. He went to synagogue with the rabbi. He even baby-sat the rabbi's son. A.J. said that support system kept him from sinking back into anger and depression.
Now 18, A.J. has graduated from high school and works full time at an auto-detailing center in Michigan. He is applying to college.
He has been home for several months.
"It meant a lot to me because I had never been part of a full family before," A.J. said of his time with the rabbi's family, his voice catching in his throat. "Here's this mother figure who's treating me like a mom and a father figure who's treating me like a father and a bunch of brothers and sisters. I didn't expect it at all."
A.J.'s father said it gave him great comfort to know his son had Zippel as a surrogate father of sorts during his time in Utah.
"This was a boy who was emotionally traumatized and felt abandoned," Richard Litt said. "It was like a youngster who hadn't had water to drink for a few years and then he was standing in front of the fountain."
Love carries the day
Zippel doesn't invite all the students into his home, but many call his visits a bright spot in their weeks at the treatment centers.
"It just makes me happy," said 16-year-old Mason Helberg, of Calabasas, Calif., who has been meeting with the rabbi for nearly a year and a half at Heritage School. "I just like the atmosphere. It's really welcoming."
Zippel strives to make the sessions fun despite their sometimes serious themes. He often jokes with the teens, offers them candy and brings treats, such as chocolate-covered matzo or chocolate coins called gelt, during Jewish holidays.
"They are reminded by many different staff people, in one way, shape or form, that they have to change ... that they need to improve their behavior," Zippel said. "The message they get from me every week is that 'I love you. There is a tremendous amount of preciousness that is concealed within you, and the only reason why I come here to see you is because, out of my love for you, I want to help you tap into it.' "
He said many of the teens are looking for something authentic and meaningful.
As a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, Zippel sees part of his mission as helping Jews reconnect with their faith. But he doesn't expect the teens to become orthodox, or strictly observant. He doesn't expect them to start keeping kosher, refrain from working on the sabbath or change their style of dress.
But he does ask that all the teens begin and end their days with short, traditional prayers, including the Modeh Ani, upon waking.
It's a prayer of thanks. It's a prayer acknowledging God. It's a prayer rejoicing in the gift of a new day.
What is Chabad Lubavitch?
Chabad Lubavitch is a Jewish philosophy, movement and organization that aims to bring all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, closer to their faith. A branch of Hasidic Judaism, it also seeks to help all people become more aware of God, though it does not seek to convert non-Jews to Judaism.