Staged drug bust nabs attention of Orthodox students in New York

NEW YORK — Orthodox youth attending a national convention recently got an unpleasant surprise when narcotics officers raided the event and arrested two high school students on suspicion of selling cocaine.

To show support for the two students, the 250 participants in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth's recent Shabbaton in Pittsburgh were taken to a municipal court to witness their peers' arraignment.

"People were sitting there saying tehillim [psalms] and crying," said Shira Traison, a high school sophomore from Detroit.

The arresting officers testified that the boys had sold them eight ounces of cocaine in exchange for $7,500. Judge Daniel Butler ordered the suspects to remain in jail until their trial.

But as the proceedings were about to end, Butler revealed to the anxious spectators that the whole scenario had been staged.

The students sat, mouths open, reeling from the sudden shift of emotions.

"We wanted to come up with a program that would drive home the point that drugs aren't funny," said Rabbi Steven Burg, associate regional director of NCSY.

While the students were relieved that the situation wasn't real, some were upset that they had been willfully deceived by the regional administration.

"Initially, I was very confused and a little angry at them for doing this," said Shira Weinberg, a high school senior from Pittsburgh and president of her NCSY region.

"It totally played with our emotions. They made me doubt my friends." The two students arrested were members of Weinberg's regional board.

Weinberg, however, said the program was effective in driving home its point — to deter the teenagers from using drugs.

"The message hit home for a lot of kids," she said.

The idea for the program grew out of a meeting of the region's chapter directors. Rabbi Bezalel Freedman, who is director of the Central East region of NCSY, conceived of the idea of the arrest and enlisted Butler's help. The judge is a former director of the NCSY region.

Butler was instrumental in making all the arrangements for the arrest and trial. As many as 70 individuals in the police force and courthouse donated their time to plan and carry out the false arrest and hearing.

"We mixed in real cases to give it an air of authenticity," said Butler. The professionals who volunteered were "willing to do this for educational purposes."

Butler said the attorneys and courtroom officers who participated were impressed "by the cohesiveness of the group" from the NCSY convention. "They were all interested in what would happen to their friends."

While the two students arrested knew in advance about the program, Freedman did not inform his regional staff that the arrest would be taking place and did not let them know at any point during the programming that it was a hoax. Many of them were convinced along with the students that the arrests and court proceedings were genuine.

While the NCSY's Central East region hasn't dealt with severe drug problems, there have been a few incidents in recent years.

"We felt that many kids don't realize if they do some experimenting, before they know it, they're down the tubes," Freedman said. "Even good kids can get in trouble."

The theme of the NCSY convention was reaching one's potential. Drugs were addressed as a negative force that can hinder self-actualization. A study session later focused on alcohol and its place in Judaism.

Nate Jackson, an 18-year-old high school senior from Cleveland, was one of the suspects in the bust.

"I'm not the most perfect kid," Jackson said. "I knew that a lot of my friends would be convinced and would have their doubts [about my character]."

But he was willing to risk his reputation for the program's purpose.

"The outcome of what happened outweighed any social problems that would arise," he said.

Jackson said a friend who attended the convention has participated in two drug rehab programs.

"It hit him hard," Jackson said. "It made him realize, This could have happened to me.'"

In addition to driving home the point that drug use has consequences, "it helped people realize that friendship is strong," he said. "I couldn't believe that so many people were concerned about us."