Portrait of Yehudah Fine:Times Square Rabbi
March 01, 1999
Originally published in Hadassah Magazine March 1999.
By Naomi Geschwind
For over a decade until five years ago, Rabbi Yehudah Fine roamed the seamy fringe society of the docks, bus stations and porn shops of New York; nightly he patrolled the territory wearing a Yankee cap instead of a kippa, shmoozing and offering hot chocolate, peanut-butter sandwiches and hope to drugged-out kids, runaways, hookers and transvestites.
But Fine, author of Times Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids Lives (Hazelden), never pushes religion when he talks to the young. “The Torah speaks for itself,” he says. “You can’t have an agenda; spiritual healing is not a business.”
Since the family moved to the Catskills in 1995 and he no longer goes out on the streets, Fine has mainstreamed the thrust of his work. He is a member of the guidance staff at Yeshiva University. In lectures and in-depth seminars across the country, he helps parents, grandparents and teens deal with “the real dope”: issues of drugs, depression, sexuality, spirituality. “Kids today do want help dealing with moral, spiritual and ethical dilemmas. I encourage them to turn to their families, and I also give them a profound look into Judaism’s timeless message of compassion, activism and caring.”
In sessions that have reached thousands, Fine encourages parents to roll up their sleeves and talk with their kids on all the issues, to take positive and proactive stands that reflect their own style. “I help parents rediscover what I call the astute grasp of the obvious, that they don’t have to be perfect — and that they also need to have reasonable expectations. They have to have the courage in spite of all their insecurities to reach out and talk to their kids. Secrets are toxic,” he warns. “It doesn’t matter what the secret is, the kids know about it anyway.”
One of the biggest secrets concerns drug use. He cautions not to emphasize dire outcomes until kids understand that you get sucked in because drugs get you high and high can feel wonderful.
“When they hear about a friend’s pleasurable experience or have one of their own, the educational information flies out the window, since no one told them it was going to feel so good,” he says. “You have to tell them the same physical pleasure can lead to an addict’s nightmare.
“Life shouldn’t break you. It ought to just make you stronger and more idealistic. As dangerous as a physical, emotional or spiritual emergency may be, a person can create a new life.”
Now 51, Fine was born and raised in Seattle where his father was a physician. “His reverence for life became ingrained in me,” Fine says. The family’s involvement in Jewish affairs was such that among the guests they welcomed to their home were Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir.
In 1965 Fine enrolled in a viticulture program at the University of California at Davis because he had decided to make aliya and “grow grapes, keep bees.” It was there he met Elliesheva, who would become his wife. And instead of making aliya, “I became a crusader for boycotting grapes.”
Of average height, slim, bearded and spectacled, when Fine talks his gestures become as expressive as his words.
“My professional choices dovetail with my spiritual need to be on the edge lending a hand,” he explains. These choices began long ago when, after graduating from the University of Washington, he created a school for the children of migrant farm workers in the Sacramento Valley. There on the coast of northern California, “I started running into a lot of Jewish kids, a lot of runaways,” he recalls. Doing these things — before he was 30 — “deepened my spiritual search and I was led more and more to become involved in the Jewish community.” So he moved to New York, studied to become a therapist at the Ackerman Institute of Family Therapy and earned semikha (ordination) at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. With this training he founded the Jewish Family Institute and began to work on the streets with adolescents in crisis.
Nothing had prepared him for what he found. “I sat and talked with kids under tunnels of garbage,” he explains. “Rats jumped in front of my flashlight. But people on the brink have souls like everyone else, and it takes time to build trust.”
Magazines have called Fine “The Times Square Rabbi,” “but the individuals and families who come to my doorstep have always called me Yehudah,” he notes. “I’ve never wanted to be a title in someone’s life and, furthermore, the people I work with have had their fill of folks with titles.”
Word of mouth traveled fast as spiritual seekers and runaways found their way to his door. He began networking with youth shelters and became associated with Covenant House’s Off the Streets program, reaching out to kids on the edge.
“A couple of times I almost bought the farm [was killed],” he says. “Of course I’ve been frightened. I’ve been depressed. I’ve cried. But you have to believe that God is the ruler of the universe, that life has meaning even in the greatest of difficulties.
“Everyone needs to know they come from somewhere and something, and even more so for young people who feel they come from nothing. You have somebody say that not only are you something but you are an eternal something — that your life has meaning and value that has been spoken about for centuries — well, it is very, very profound.” Fine’s approach to his work has always come from a solid core of Jewish knowledge and belief.
“Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah, codifies the oral teachings of Judaism and the writings of great sages. Years ago I stumbled onto a powerful guide to spiritual awakening, the Hilkhos Teshuva, or in my free translation, the path to meaning and hope. The text helps us face our stumblings, our pains and our failures. It tells us how to turn inward to discover that contained within each of us are the keys to inspiration, hope and the ability to change.” It is the model of recovery he uses today.
Fine often started by bringing the kids home with him. He did everything out of his home because he believes family and relationships are at the center of everything. In this way, he explains, “they can see the rhythm to life in context and not in a rarefied atmosphere.”
As for the effect on his wife and children, it has only been positive. “Knowing all those teenagers in trouble has taught me the importance of being a nonjudgmental person,” says 20-year-old Dorah, a junior at Stern College for Women in New York. “I learned that no matter how out of control a person’s life might become, they can always turn it all around. Growing up with Yehudah Fine as a father has taught me that everyone deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. We owe it to ourselves and our friends to be there when they need us.” Benny, 17, a college sophomore, teaches Hebrew to pre-bar mitzva boys and coaches a Little League team. Fifteen-year-old Rafi will be in Israel this summer on a tour for high-school varsity athletes.
“Obviously, my wife was pivotal in all this and continues to be. I could not have done all this if we were not a team,” says Fine, who feels that in raising or helping a child, there needs to be a strong woman’s input and a strong man’s input.
Married for 23 years, Elliesheva reveals she was “always worried when he went on the streets, but I saw such amazing results from his work, so I trusted God would take care of Yehudah.”
Summers mean family vacations and Broadway shows. And for this “huge baseball fan” they also mean a yearly family sojourn to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “It’s a very special time for any family to have warm, wonderful summer memories. To this day we have a great time hanging out together.”
Why does Fine have such a magnetic effect on teens? “Few are able to succeed as counselors to these kids, but Fine has been able to touch them because he has a warmth and an openness that you just don’t see today,” says Efram Nulman, YU’s dean of students. “It shines through that he really cares for people by relating to them in a deep, spiritual way,” adds Dr. Kirk Barton, a psychology resident at Harvard Medical school.
As Rabbi Abraham Twerski, founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, puts it, “Rabbi Fine has dedicated his life to helping young people escape from hell and to preventing their reentry into it.”
For this high-energy man, relaxing means collecting baseball memorabilia, gardening, jogging and “taking magnificent walks with my wife — a black belt in karate, by the way, and a teacher of the martial arts — and our Labrador, Jazzie, up on the mountain behind our home. Having fun strengthens me, opens the door to forgiving myself and helps me jump back onto the positive side of life.” And he’s almost never without a good, on-the-edge-of-your-seat book, because “satisfying one’s fantasy life is nourishing.” Some of the street kids, tangentially very much part of his family, still visit as friends.
What’s next? On a mission to inspire as many parents and kids as he can, and with his family’s blessings, Fine continues to crisscross the country, “with one proviso. Hard core on my schedule are Rafi’s baseball games in the spring.” He dreams of training others in what he knows. “I have lived on dreams becoming a reality. My work is about living an authentic life and could never end with a closing chapter, only new chapters and new challenges.
“I’m always hopeful for redemptive things in everyone’s life. There’s nothing like making someone smile.”
The rabbi can be contacted through his website (www.timessquarerabbi.com) or you can chat with him on his every-third-Wednesday-of-the-month 9PM conferences on the Addiction and Recovery Forum on America Online (keyword A&R;).