los angeles | Friends and family gathered last week in Mission Hills — a Southern California suburb — to bury 19-year-old Eric Siegel, who died last week at an Israeli yeshiva of a heroin overdose.
Siegel’s death on Jan. 18 came just two days before four American yeshiva boys were arrested in Israel for selling marijuana to an undercover cop. The confluence of events puts a spotlight on drug use among American students in Israel.
While Siegel was at Neveh Zion, a yeshiva for at-risk youth outside Jerusalem, some of the other four boys attended more mainstream schools that serve American post-high school students.
“In recent years it has become even more difficult. It starts now in eighth grade, not senior year in yeshiva high school,” Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Blumenfeld, head of Neveh Zion, wrote about drug use in a letter to his supporters after Siegel’s death. “By the time they reach Neveh, many are already living on the street.”
While the American yeshiva system works well for a majority of students, it doesn’t work for everyone, said Rabbi Avi Leibovic, founder and executive director of Aish Tamid, a Los Angeles organization that serves as a spiritual and social safety net for many of these types of boys, who often end up turning to drugs.
Leibovic, an attorney who was raised in Los Angeles and is a product of Neveh, proactively seeks out boys who are at risk of or have already left their family and community and offers them customized chizuk, or reinforcement, through personal guidance, job opportunities, referrals to mental health professionals or drug rehabilitators and a comfortable place for rediscovering Judaism. He has seen a rotation of 330 boys since he began a few years ago, using in part the techniques and approaches he picked up at Neveh. Siegel, who was raised as a member of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, did not fit the typical profile of the mostly Orthodox Neveh students, but he found a niche there.
Neveh has an impressive record for helping kids who turned to drugs or other forms of delinquency get back on track. At Neveh, Siegel had found a staff and student body that understood him.
He had been thriving at Neveh Zion for just six weeks when his roommates found him dead in his bed. His death appears to be accidental. Blumenfeld’s letter says the drugs were purchased in Lod, not in the yeshiva, and that the one other student who had used heroin that evening has been sent home.
Geri Siegel, the boy’s mother, said her son was not an addict, although he had used drugs and had been in both inpatient and outpatient rehab since his father died two and a half years ago, following a 10-year bout with heart disease.
She described Eric as a brilliant but defiant boy — traits that emerged early on when he started to talk at 9 months old. At “Mommy & Me” classes, she said, he annoyed the teachers by making up his own words to songs rather than sing theirs.
“He was the kind of kid who got into trouble because he was bored in school and never really fit in,” his mother said.
According to his family, friends and teachers, Siegel was an avid reader with a gifted intellect, a breadth and depth of knowledge and a love of learning that far surpassed his years.
“Every word that came out of his mouth was an inspiration,” said his high school friend Korey Passy. “All he had to do was say one word and he put you in a good mood. He never failed to make you laugh or smile.” Siegel went to college for a few months, but didn’t feel he was ready for it, his mother said.
He went to Israel in October looking for a fresh start. After two weeks on a kibbutz, he went to live in Jerusalem’s Old City, where he frequented used bookstores. He decided to enroll in yeshiva to explore Judaism further, and after searching for a few weeks landed at Neveh.
In her eulogy, Siegel’s mother said, “I saw your turbulent youth coming to an end and your passage to adulthood beginning to blossom. You put your arms around me, told me you loved me and needed some time to really do some soul-searching. … I left Israel with a smile on my face and very cozy place in my heart that you had found contentment there.”
Since Siegel’s death last week, Neveh has changed its drug policy. According to Blumenfeld’s letter, Neveh’s previous policy had tacitly tolerated softer drugs such as marijuana, with the hope that after a few months the boys would straighten out.
Now, because of Siegel’s death, Neveh has asked all the boys to commit themselves in writing to refrain from all drug use and has instituted regular drug testing.