When a concerned mother in Houston, Texas, named Melissa sent her son to a residential treatment center in Provo, Utah, it was not a decision that she ever thought she would confront.

“You just wouldn’t think a Jewish mother would ever have to consider sending her 17-year-old son to Utah for serious intervention,” Melissa, who preferred to now use her last name, said of that fateful day two years ago.

Known among social workers as RTCs, residential treatment centers provide live-in therapy and behavior modification exercises for adolescents with a variety of conditions, ranging from drug abuse to violent outbursts to eating disorders. Some are lock-down facilities where students may not leave the premises, and in the state of Utah, a parent can send a minor child to an RTC without his or her consent. As a result of this law, there are at least 30 such centers in the state.

Melissa drove across the state, visiting the various boarding schools and, she says, “feeling very alone” and confused. Though religion was the “last thing” on her mind in finding a school for her son, she did worry that some programs may implant non-Jewish beliefs in her son’s head or otherwise threaten his Jewish identity. After days of driving and just a few hours before the onset of the Sabbath, Melissa received a call from Rabbi Benny Zippel, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Utah.

Zippel runs Project HEART – the name stands for Hebrew Education for At Risk Teens – and comforted Melissa, educating her about the various programs available. He also indicated which were more open to Judaism and which would be best for her son Matthew.

The rabbi has been providing such counseling for close to 20 years. Just a few months after Zippel and his family moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Salt Lake City, he received a desperate call from a mother whose 15-year-old son was at an RTC in Provo. After Zippel visited and celebrated Chanukah with the boy, he realized that there were hundreds of other Jewish students throughout the state in such programs. As a result, he founded Project HEART in an attempt to reach out to the more than 200 Jewish teens from around the world in treatment in Utah.

Every week, Zippel drives across Utah’s at-times treacherous terrain, to visit some 100 Jewish adolescents, ranging from 10 to 18 years in age. During each visit, he provides kosher snacks, teaches something about the weekly Torah portion or upcoming Jewish holiday and works to establish a comfortable relationship with the teen. Zippel has seen many of the teens return home and reconcile with their parents, go off to college or even yeshiva, get married and reenter the world as functioning adults.

Rabbi Benny Zippel helps one of the teenagers.
Rabbi Benny Zippel helps one of the teenagers.

“These Jewish kids have been sent away from home by their parents and in many cases have bad relationships with them. They’re struggling with identity and are trying to figure out about themselves,” says Zippel. “My message is to connect to oneself and to G‑d and to make them aware of the remarkable potential within them. I remind them that they’re Jewish, that Judaism has a place for them, and help them to discover the inherent goodness that is inside them.”

One month after Matthew enrolled in Provo’s Discovery Academy, Zippel drove five hours to visit him. Since that first meeting, the two developed a deep bond during weekly visits; Matthew now dons the prayer boxes known as tefillin and prays daily. Matthew had asked his mother if he could visit Zippel’s home and synagogue during the one weekend that he would be permitted to leave campus. Zippel would call Melissa frequently to inform her of her son’s progress and allay any concerns she may have had.

“Rabbi Zippel is really a gift from G‑d. His work is so badly needed. He’s saving our youth one person at a time. He does the most difficult drives and never asks for anything in return,” says Melissa. “Matthew says how ‘cool’ the rabbi is, and even suggested that he become a rabbi himself so that he could help people the way Rabbi Zippel does. Rabbi Zippel makes sure that these children aren’t lost and that their spiritual needs are met.”

Dale Marcus, from Highland Park, Ill., met Zippel in 2005 when his 15-year-old son was also in Provo. In addition to educating the Marcuses about the various RTC programs and suggesting a proper fit for their son, Zippel developed a bond with the teen and helped him from “an emotional standpoint.”

“He really gave him important moral support and helped him maintain his Jewish identity. This is an invaluable role in terms of helping families and the students,” says Marcus, whose son went on to attend college. “He’s a wonderful man whose work is instrumental. We could use another one of him.”