Reality Check

By: Jennifer Bitton

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When I think back, I remember my adolescent and teenage years being really fun, but also really difficult and very challenging. It’s a tough time of life. On the one hand, you live at home as a child, and on the other hand, you’re trying to find out where you fit into the world outside. Leaving homelife aside, most kids I knew would fall into one of these categories. There were the super motivated and talented kids. They were involved in a lot of extracurricular activities or sports teams, and were usually amazing at something. Some kids had close relationships with teachers or mentors, and spent time speaking with them and taking their well-guided advice. Some kids were not social and didn’t mind just being at home and relaxing when they weren’t at school. Then there were the kids that were somewhere in between (most kids fall into this category). I was an in-between. I was never really good at anything specific, but I was really social and always wanted to be with friends.

All kids need guidance and support, but it’s the average in-between kids that need it the most. They usually have more freedom to choose where to get their support from. Some kids choose healthy outlets and positive influences to surround themselves with, but many others do not. When you’re looking for an identity and positive attention at the same time, you will go wherever you feel best about yourself. As parents, we can try to pretend that we don’t remember what it’s like to be a kid. We try to tell our kids about our mistakes and why they should learn from us. We don’t understand why they won’t listen to our sage advice. The reasons are the same reasons we didn’t…we needed to find out for ourselves. When someone has a desire to find their place in the world, they may not want to look in the place they are trying to break away from. They are looking to their peers, relatable teachers or mentors and, unfortunately, today, social media. Many of us work so hard to keep the bad influences away. We try to shelter our kids from technology and the garbage it brings with it. We either put restrictions on their devices or give them no devices at all. Unfortunately, even with all of that, the pace at which technology is growing is too fast for parents to keep up with. We can try to shield our kids, but we can’t lock them in the house. They need to be educated about their emotions and social environments, given healthy outlets, and to know that they always have people they can turn to for support. Madraigos Midwest can and does do this for the children of our community.

About four years ago, I became involved with Madraigos. I began initially for the same reasons I’m still involved today. I recognize that kids need more opportunities to get support. When Madraigos first began 10 years ago, it was associated with “at risk” teens. At the time maybe it was, but today it has become an entirely new organization that has grown with the needs of our community. Every child is struggling in his own way. During my time at Madraigos, I’ve met some great people. One of those people is this week’s interviewee. In my opinion, her character and personality are what make her amazing at her job. She is non-judgmental, approachable and she isn’t afraid of vulnerability, whether it’s her’s or someone else’s. As one of the clinical directors, she has used her own experiences to become a therapist who genuinely understands and cares about the kids she’s involved with. This trait has made her an amazing therapist, but also one of the reasons I’m lucky to have her as a good friend.

Meet Rachel Karesh:

Rachel “Rachie” Karesh was born in Los Angeles on May 16, 1981. At two years old, Rachie and her family moved to Chicago, where they have remained since. Rachie has an older brother and two younger sisters, and grew up as a very close family in Skokie. Her best childhood memories were of family vacations and times spent together with her parents and siblings. Even today, they all live within walking distance from each other. Rachie went to Hillel Torah Elementary and Ida Crown for high school. She was self-motivated and a really good student, which she called her “saving grace”. She spent much of her time hanging out with friends or family, and doing some extracurriculars like gymnastics, ballet, ice skating, and basketball. I asked her if there were any particular hobbies that she stuck with or became better at over time. With a laugh and a shy smile, she said, “Nope. I have no talents. Zero. Nothing. I’m good at Social Work, but I can’t dance or sing. I don’t enjoy art either, because it’s too detail oriented and I have no patience for that”. One of Madraigos’ many services is “The Lounge”, a place for kids to just hang out, relax with friends, do homework and if needed speak with one of the staff members overseeing the program. I asked Rachie how high school was for her, and if The Lounge was something she could have used back then. “I think a place like The Lounge would have been amazing. Like most teens, I was trying to find myself. Even though I loved my family, I also wanted independence and wanted to become my own person. Sometimes, it was just a lack of someplace to go that could lead to trouble. Many times, kids would drive around aimlessly. How many nights could you go bowling? A lot of kids would end up getting into trouble. Having a non-judgemental place with caring and relatable mentors to speak with could have made a big difference for so many kids. The free food wouldn’t have hurt either”. Rachie acknowledges that rabbis, rebbetzins, older role models and teachers can definitely be those mentors and some were for her. However, today’s kids need more opportunities to seek help. At The Lounge, the faculty there is being paid to be there specifically for the kids. They are there to create relationships with the kids, or even just be there for anyone who needs to speak to someone. Rachie continued,

“Up until a certain age, you kind of just go along with whatever your family tells you. My family taught me to do this, so I do this. My family taught me to be frum, so I’m frum. You don’t question and go along with it. Somewhere between 6th, 7th and 8th grades, you start to question everything, and on a deeper level into high school. It’s a normative part of development. Hopefully, most people will make it through successfully, but I think a lot of people get lost there”.

After Rachie graduated from high school, she went on to seminary in Israel. In Israel, Rachie spent her time learning about herself and having many of her questions answered. “I didn’t go to seminary to check a box. I went there with questions that I really needed answers to. When I found what I needed, I knew that my passion was to help other people, especially teenagers. I wanted to help them find answers and help to overcome their own struggles successfully”.

When Rachie returned from Israel, she began studying at Stern College in New York. “When I got back from Israel, I told my academic advisor that I wanted to either be a psychologist, open a spa or become a part of the FBI”.

Well, thankfully, Rachie pursued a degree in psychology. While in school, she met her husband Phil (Rabbi Phil today). They married in 2003, and spent the first five years of marriage in Israel, where Rachie earned her master’s degree in social work. They spent their summers teaching at Camp Moshava, where they both went growing up. In Israel, Rachie interned at Shaarei Tzedek hospital. While there, she worked in a number of different departments. Initially, she worked for the intake department during the years of the intifada. “I remember there was a bus bombing in Jerusalem. I was dealing with incoming calls and families needing to locate their loved ones. As a social worker, I worked with families while they waited for news. I would sit with them, wait with them, talk with them and say Tehillim with them”. The job was difficult, but Rachie remembers a story of Emunah that influences the way she counsels today. “Everyone in Israel has a ton of emunah. When I was interning in the labor and delivery unit, one of my first cases was a woman who had just given birth to a stillborn. My supervisor told me that I was going to go into the room, and most likely the person is going to say ‘Everything is from Hashem’. I was told to say that I know everything is from Hashem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt. It is still okay to cry. So I walked into the room and spoke with the husband and wife. As my supervisor predicted, they said ‘Everything is from shamayim. Everything is from Hashem’. I did what I was told and said that I know everything is from Hashem, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean it’s not okay to cry. At the time, I didn’t realize that this was the family of a big rav in Israel. The husband looked at me and said, ‘We know it’s okay to cry. We see from Akedas Yitzchok, Avraham cried. Our Avot and Imahot cried, they too felt pain. We know it’s okay to hurt’. I loved this, because he brought proof from the Torah that we as Jews know that everything comes from Hashem, the good and the bad, but it doesn’t mean that things aren’t hard for us”. While interning in Israel, Rachie and Phil helped open a seminary, Meor HaTorah, for girls who wanted to learn, but also needed the time and space to figure things out more slowly. Eventually, after earning her master’s degree, running a seminary and having twin boys, the couple moved back to Chicago. Her first year back, Rachie didn’t work. She had 2-year-old twins and was pregnant with her third child. She eventually got a job at Hillel Torah as a social worker, but in 2009 was offered her dream job at Madraigos and has been there ever since. “I enjoyed my work at Hillel Torah, but I always knew my passion was working with teens. I remember my teen years were difficult, and I wanted to help kids get through this tough time”. One of the services Madraigos offers is the Barry and Harriet Ray Steps to Healthy living program. It is a 30-week curriculum that teaches social and emotional skills to students during their school day. Madraigos staff trains teachers, the school implements the program into their curriculum, and Madraigos supervisors the teachers throughout the year. They also tailor each curriculum to fit the hashkafa of each school. The Steps program has been implemented in 11 schools and has impacted over 1,300 students.

Rachie continued, “Our kids need this. Until the Steps Program came along, the kids weren’t getting the emotional or social piece in their education. These issues are taking up so much of their brain space. In school, they are learning Chumash and Navi or science and math. However, they can’t be there for the practical learning if their minds are not able to process the emotional pieces. Whatever I went through as a teenager, problems have only gotten so much worse. Take the issue of bullying. It’s not a new thing, but with technology advancement, it’s only gotten worse. You went to school and didn’t feel good. Today, after dealing with issues at school, kids are going home and seeing on social media all these kids together and feeling left out. Kids are cyberbullying, and everything got so much harder. The problems are starting so much younger. Parents are facing challenges that they don’t know how to deal with because the issues are new. Parenting skills that were once tried and true are not enough anymore. We’re the first generation of parents raising children with this amount of technology and information. Were also the first parents struggling with our own technology issues”.

After speaking about Madraigos, I asked Rachie some more personal questions. She has one character trait that really benefits her work as a therapist. “I’m oblivious to my physical surroundings. Not because I’m a deep person. It’s really something I’ve never been good at. Someone could get an obvious haircut or be wearing something crazy and outrageous, and I wouldn’t notice. I’m naturally tuned in to the emotional undertones, and sometimes the physical details don’t register. It helps in my work because I have no judgment whatsoever. I promise! I’m not faking it”.

Her favorite trips (besides Israel) were Mexico and hiking in Arizona. However, given the chance to travel anywhere in the world, she really only wants Israel. “There is a certain clarity I have when I’m in Israel that I just don’t have anywhere else. I love that everywhere you go you are living your history”. When asked who she admires most in the world Rachie answered, “I like people who stand up to life and don’t just go through it. They want to make changes in any way or in any field. At the risk of sounding cheesy, for me, one of those people is my husband, Phil. He’s is an idealist and I’m a realist. He sees the inherent good in people and goes after his dreams. He truly wants to see others reach their potential. Everyone needs someone like this in their lives”.

Rachie’s advice to the world: Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be anybody else, you’re never going to be successful at it. Be true to who you are and embrace your own set of talents and traits”.

To reach Madraigos or search their website go to www.madraigosmidwest.org Or call (773) 478-6000

2 COMMENTS

  1. Rachel Karesh was my therapist for about a year and she was really non judgemental and extremely supportive. I’m really happy that she’s out there helping the community.

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