Musicology

what if the thing you loved the most
what if the thing that brings you joy
what if the thing that makes life worth living

consumes you
devours you
kills you?

do you look for a cure
long for a remedy?
do you dose it with medicines
douse it with killers?

do you allow yourself
to be consumed, devoured
killed
content in the knowledge
that while you still have life
it will be worth living?


Notes: This is an old poem I wrote a while ago. The title doesn’t make sense unless I explain what prompted this whole thing, and I don’t feel like explaining, so it will remain mysterious…

High School Follies: “An Open Letter to the Girls in My Class”

This, for once, I did not write. The girl who wrote it likely would not stand by her words today – sanctimonious as they are! To  be fair, though, the structure of this piece is quite good (if a bit long). She is a talented writer, even now. (Yes, I’m still in touch with her… I won’t link to her work, though – she can do that in the comments if she’d like!)

I am in the middle of davening [praying]. The words of shemoneh esrei seem to leap out of the page at me. Baruch atah Hashem, magen Avraham – Hashem, You have defended our ancestors so many years past. Please defend our tiny nation against the wolves who would devour us. Baruch atah Hashem, mechaye hameisim – Hashem, please let me be one of those who merit walking upon the physical earth again. [Editorial note: these brachos are supposed to be shevach, not bakasha, but okay.] Atah kadosh – How holy You are, Hashem. How holy is everything You have done, Your holy Torah, Your —

“Your shoes are stunning!” “Thanks.” “Where’d you get them> I want to see what other shoes they have.” “__________, and they were only forty dollars.” “Wow! That is such a good price!”

Atah chonen l’adam da’as – Hashem, I try to do well in school, and please my parents. Please help me succeed. Hasiveinu avinu l’sorasecha – Hashem, there are so many out there who do not know You or Your name Help them discover Yiddishkeit and bring light into their lives. Selach lanu avinu ki chatanu – hashem, forgive us! Forgive us for our sins. We do not mean to do badly, we are sorry —

“I’m so sorry I didn’t call you last night. I meant to, but I don’t know what happened. All of the sudden, the doorbell rings. We ask who it is, and this guy is screaming into the intercom – we all got so scared –”

Re’eh nah b’anyenu – Hashem, see our pain and redeem us from it. It cannot go on this way! Refa’einu hashem v’nairafeh – Hashem, there are so many people out there suffering in hospitals, so many families broken because of illness and accidents. Barech aleinu – Hashem, make this year a blessed one, with only good for Klal Yisroel. Help those out there struggling with parnassah. Baruch atah hashem mekebatez nidchei amo yisroel – Hashem, please, gather us in, return us from —

“Would you believe it? He did not let me return it! He was so nasty! I had the receipt and I was even going to exchange it, but it was a day later than what the store lets. One day! Probably because I wanted something worth like, ten dollars less. Big deal, so he’ll lose ten dollars. Now he lost a customer.”

Hashivah shoftenu k’varishona – Hashem, make it like it once was. Be our King, we love You so much. V’lamalshinim al sehi tikvah – Hashem, so many want to kill us, oblierate us, wipe us off the face of the earth. Save us from their hate, from the killing. Al hatzadikim v’al hachasidim – Hashem, keep the good people out there. Help them inspire us, and let their zchus save —

“Save one for me, I really like those. By the way, what bracha are they? I never figured that out.” “Some people say they’re ho’adama, some say they’re shehakol. It’s really ground so that you can’t see the pieces, so I say shehakol, but then again…”

V’le’Yerushalayim ircha b’rachamim tashuv – Hashem, come back to Yerushalayim, the holy, beautiful city. Es tzemach David avdecha meheira tatzmi’ach – Hashem, please bring the meluch of Beis Dovid to its proper rule ship [sic] and glory. Av harachaman shem koleinu – Hashem, so many of us are pleading for Your help, listen to them, listen to us —

“It is forbidden to listen to any derogatory remarks even concerning little children, unless there is a beneficial purpose to your listening, such as a parent listening to a teacher in order to correct the child’s behavior.”

V’sechezenah eineinu b’shuvcha l’tzion b’rachamim – Hashem, more than anything, You know, deep down, we really want Moshiach, even though we forget it in our every day lives. Modim anachnu lach – Hashem, thank You. Thank You for the goodness in our lives, for the fresh, clean, cold air, for water, for family, for Yom Tov —

“I’m so excited Yom Tov is coming up, we finally get vacation.” “Yeah, we have so much home work –” “Not only the homework, school itself — I come home so exhausted –”

Baruch atah hashem hatov shimcha u’lecha na’eh l’hodos – Thank You Hashem again, for the good of every day, for making us Jews. Sim shalom tova u’vracha – Hashem, let there be peace, real inner peace. Elokai netzor lishoni mei’ra – Hashem, help me not speak evil. Help me perfect my middos. Help me be a better person. help me not be jealous of anyone. Help no one be jealous of —

“I am so jealous of you! You are so lucky! I have been dying to go to Eretz Yisroel. My brothers and sisters always go, but for some reason, I can never go. I wish I could go. You are also getting off two weeks of school. Lucky…”

Do not let my yetzer hara — “Maybe I can come along…” Make me not brag — “I can fit in your suitcase…” Build Your city — “I’m small…” Gather us in for Moshiach — “But hey, I weigh more than seventy pounds…” Do it for Your name — “Maybe I shouold go in your carry on: they don’t check those…” Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!

You don’t realize I know. You don’t realize there’s a whole wide world out there (the hallway would be fine) where you could go to talk. Where your words won’t grate on my ears as I try to talk to Hashem. I know you think it’s just one sentence. Sometimes even I slip up. I try to forgive you: I even think I do. But who knows how much my tefillah could have accomplished had my concentration been complete. We would have both benefitted. Only Hashem knows. Only Hashem knows… and maybe punishes us for what we ruined? Maybe — maybe because you didn’t let me daven?

— Any girl in any class in any school

shout little baby

hush little baby
save all your words
save them until all
your words will be heard

save them for darkness
save them for sun
save them for you
for the you you’ll become

***

shout little baby
shout all your words
shout to the worlds:
all your words will be heard


Redeem Your Fear
גואל בספר את פחדך – ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת – שבראת תקוה // Through books you redeem your fear – and they all made a single gathering – because you created hope

Of Joy and Friendship and Acceptance

I often share stories of difficulty and pain about “going home XO.” Here’s one of joy and love about seeing people from my childhood and adolescence.

Earlier this week, I went to the wedding of my friend’s older sister. My group of friends was very close to the kallah growing up. She lived with her parents until now, when she got married, and we hung out at that home a lot. She was our honorary older sister, as one friend in our group is fond of saying.

In the frum community, when an “older single” gets married, it’s a huge celebration. I may not share that worldview, but I was very happy for her joy, and excited to join her simcha.

When the kallah got engaged, my friend (the kallah’s younger sister) called me. I hadn’t spoken to her in a while. I had been avoiding her. She knew I wasn’t frum, but she had been living in Israel for the past few years, and though we had kept in touch via phone, she hadn’t seen me – hadn’t seen my short dyed hair, hadn’t seen my tattoos, hadn’t seen me in non-tznius dress.

I told her, when she called to invite me to the engagement party, that I was afraid of her reaction. But of course I would be there.

I needn’t have worried. When I walked through the door and she saw me, her face lit up and she caught me up in the tightest, most emotional hug.

Another friend was at the engagement party, but I had hung out with her and her babies in pants and short sleeves before, so I knew she wouldn’t be judgemental. I had felt in the past that she had been attempting to do “kiruv” on me by inviting me for shavuos, but during that engagement party we discovered the misunderstanding: I had attempted to break the news of my XO status to her gently, and had apparently been so gentle that it didn’t break (sorry – I get one corny pun per post!). When she invited me for shavuos, it was because she thought I didn’t want to go to my parents but was still frum.

At the wedding this week, I saw another two friends from that group. I had seen one at my grandmother’s shiva because she is my second cousin, but the other friend and I hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in six years. Neither of these two, as far as I know, knows I’m not religious. I never spoke to them about it.

But I am single at 30. And I have buzzed red hair, I was wearing a dress with an open neckline and above-the-knee hem, and my wrist tattoo was somewhat visible.

I expected at least some shocked or uncomfortable looks.

I am happy to report that none of that happened. We gabbed and laughed and caught up and decided to create a GroupMe chat so that even the two friends without smartphones could join (though the one friend whose kosher phone doesn’t have texting will have to be updated separately still).

And I am so relieved, and actually looking forward to our plans to get together soon. I even offered my Staten Island apartment as a good place halfway between Brooklyn and Lakewood!

Many other little interactions at that wedding reminded me how awful people can be, and how wonderful my friends are.

In a situation often filled with so much heartache (a few XO friends have expressed surprise that I keep up with my high school friends) I am fortunate to have childhood friends who care about me as a person more than as a Jew.

The Frum Community: An Ideology of Guidance and Dependence

In One of Us, the 2017 documentary that follows three people who broke free of their Hasidic upbringing, at least three people on three separate occasions talk about the way the frum community’s networks of chesed help and hinder.

Chani Getter, Program Manager of Footsteps, mentions the networks in positive terms. These are constructs of community that are hard to give up, she says. In the community, whenever anyone is in crisis – or even just needs some extra help – the community is there to help out.

Look at any Bais Yaakov chesed program, and you can see this is true. [in-line image of chesed updates page] The myriad of programs, from Help-A-Mom to Adopt-A-Bubby, are designed to make sure that no one is ever left alone with no one to depend on.

Beyond Bais Yaakov’s chesed programs, the community’s organizations (some of which are depicted in the image at the head of this post) are a safety net and an assurance that if you belong to this community, you will never be left to fend for yourself.

That sounds wonderful. But it’s not uncomplicatedly so. That dependence on systems and networks can be very harmful to anyone who doesn’t choose to live that life. It makes leaving that much harder.

Etty and Luzer both talk about how it’s difficult to make it “on the outside” because of how living in the community affected them. Luzer focuses on his lack of marketable skills due to the lack of secular education in Hasidic yeshivas, and Etty talks about how the loss of chesed networks – both formal and informal – is difficult.

“It’s designed to make it hard to leave,” they say (paraphrased). Now, while I wouldn’t say it’s designed because that presupposes a designer (watch and watchmaker, anyone?), it is certainly true that the design of the community as it has developed over time does make it hard to leave. The essential structures of the community condition us to expect help and support, and therefore make it difficult to transition away from these supportive structures.

In fact, one of the things I heard most often as I contemplated leaving – most often from my mother – was this:

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish. Here, they’ll take care of you and support you because you’re Jewish. Out there, no one cares about anyone else because there’s nothing binding them. Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.”

There are a few things wrong with this statement, so I’ll take them one at a time.

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish.” It may be true that everyone takes an interest in you simply because you’re Jewish, but it’s “caring al t’nai” – it comes with conditions. Conform to all the rules, and you’re a valued member of the community. Violate any of the rules – religious or communal – and you’re an outsider on the inside, worthy not of care but of suspicion, of polite distance, and maybe even of kiruv.

“Here, they’ll care of you and support you because you’re Jewish.” True. Even those who violate rules will be taken care of if in crisis. Of course, when the crisis is caused by the community’s ostracism, the community will not take care of them then. But in terms of chesed when hospital visits or doctor referrals or chevra Kadisha is needed – yes, they will take care of you simply because you’re Jewish. What’s wrong with that? Well, it breeds insularity, racism, and xenophobia.

“Out there, no one care about anyone else…” Demonstrably false, but when the only environment you know intimately is the one telling you this, you can’t even begin to argue against this horrible statement.

“…because there’s nothing binding them.” It may be true that in the secular world, there are no ties (or fewer, weaker ties) based on religion. And yet that does not mean that there is nothing binding people to each other. In my life at the moment, I have communities bound together based on our identities as: ex-Orthodox; literature scholars; medievalists; LGBTQ; femme-identified; pagan; writers; teachers; activists of various causes. In all of these communities (yes, communities), members take care of each other when necessary. Just this morning, someone posted in Queer Exchange asking for urgent help because there was a mouse in their apartment and they’re terrified of mice. Someone (a stranger to this person except for Facebook) immediately volunteered to come over and get rid of the mouse and help clear up. Mi k’amcha?

“Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.” I already disproved this in the previous point, but there’s something even more insidious about this statement than the suggestion that no one outside of Orthodox Judaism cares about other people: It assumes that being forced to take care of yourself is a bad thing. Now, okay, being forced to do anything is bad. But taking care of yourself, not always relying on others taking care of things for you, is not a bad thing.

A couple of years ago, about two years after I left the frum community, I had some intense medical issues. I needed to find doctors but had no idea how to do it. Until I was 25 years old, anytime I needed a doctor – or any service, really – there were structures in place to tell me which one to go to.

No, the rabbis didn’t order me to go to one doctor or another! But the Bikur Cholim could guide me as to which doctor to go to; Relief Resources could guide me on mental health professionals; whisper networks and word-of-mouth “I used that doctor for my baby, don’t take your baby there” – these are all built into the structure of the community.

And don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing that people can rely on community organizations that guide them through tough times. But the absolute reliance and the lack of necessity to think things through on one’s own sets us up for failure if we reject this community and, of necessity, its structures of help and guidance.

This is not accidental. It has nothing to do with the actual religion of Judaism, of course, but it is not incidental or superfluous to the ideology of the frum Jewish world, either. Guidance and support are essential components of this community’s worldview.

An example that starkly highlights this:

In the months leading up to my decision to move out of my parents’ home and leave religion, I gave other religious Jewish communities a trial run. I had some conversations with my mother about moving out – all strictly in an abstract sense, because whenever I brought up the real possibility of my moving out, she turned the conversation from logistics about the move to reasoning with me about why I should stay.

We talked about the “singles communities” on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights, and she made this point:

In Washington Heights, the singles community exists alongside the structures and institutions of Yeshiva University and Breuers. On the Upper West Side, the singles community exists alongside young couples, but with no central guiding institution. Therefore, she concluded, the Washington Heights singles community was better grounded in Jewish tradition, and I should try them out and ignore the Upper West Side.

(Ironically, I did follow her wishes and visit Washington Heights for a few shabbosim and Yom Kippur, but ultimately I moved to the neighborhood above the Upper West Side.)

The idea of mesorah (tradition) and hadracha (guidance) is a firmly set ideology. Young people cannot decide things for themselves. Young people need guidance from older people. Older people need guidance from wiser people. No one should be left to fend for themselves – whether they want to or not.

So is the community designed to limit our ability to function once we leave? Like I said, I wouldn’t go that far and imply that it’s a conscious and directed goal of the community structures. But the ideology that propels these structures does indeed point to a goal of dependence, a denial of independence – independence of thought or of action.

The Kindness of Philosophers

The Kindness of Philosophers
מחשבות אדם כחול הים. ונאמר, יזכר לעולם כרב חסדיו. Human thoughts are like the sand of the sea. And it is said, he will eternally remember in accordance with his abundant kindness.

 


This poem’s Google Translate is once again fascinating! Here it is, with one word removed each time:

מחשבות אדם כחול הים. ונאמר, יזכר לעולם כרב חסדיו.
Blue sea human thoughts. And it is said, “He will remember the world as his great benefactor.”

מחשבות אדם כחול הים. ונאמר, יזכר לעולם כרב
Blue sea human thoughts. And we shall say, He will remember the world as a rabbi

מחשבות אדם כחול הים. ונאמר, יזכר לעולם
Blue sea human thoughts. And it is said, Remember the world

מחשבות אדם כחול הים. ונאמר, יזכר
Blue sea human thoughts. And we shall say, remember

מחשבות אדם כחול הים. ונאמר
Blue sea human thoughts. And it was said

מחשבות אדם כחול הים.
Blue sea human thoughts.

מחשבות אדם כחול
Blue human thoughts

מחשבות אדם
Human thoughts

מחשבות
Thoughts

May Monster Madness

I wanted to participate  in May Monster Madness, but time ran away from me. So here’s a a slightly-revised version of an old poem:


Speak to me, princess, whisper in my ear,
stories my troubled young heart wants to hear.

Tell me of fairies, of lightness and cheer.
Tell me of goodness, of things you hold dear.

She whispered to me, sweet princess of mine.
She soothed my young heart with stories divine.

Stories of fairies, of goodness and light,
stories that wooed me safe into the night.

But as I grew up and dreamed these sweet dreams,
my mind made me hear the night’s muffled screams.

I called to my princess but she wouldn’t come.
A figure appeared where once she came from.

The tales she told you, the figure told me,
were but half a tale – there’s more you should see.

I trembled in fear but I took her hand.
She led me down paths that left my dreamland.

I saw that the light had kept darkness at bay,
but the darkness remained – as night pairs with day.

What are you, I asked – she answered me soft:
I’m the monster your tales tried to kill off.

Your princess told you of goodness and light.
She left me and mine to languish in night.

Her light threw a shadow over our dark world.
Her light meant to soothe a scared little girl.

She didn’t tell you of monsters or beasts.
But we live in your woods desiring release.

Let me tell you tales to woo you to sleep.
There’s more to the woods – let me take you deep.

Speak to me monster, whisper in my ear,
stories my brilliant young heart wants to hear.


High School Follies: A Capitalist Approach to Kindness

Next installment of the “what was I thinking” things I wrote in high school!

(See other posts here, here, here.)

This one’s just funny, really. Not that it intended to be funny, but oh dear lord, is it ever funny. I don’t have much else of great import to say about it.

Except: My mother taught economics in twelfth grade when I wrote this, and everyone laughed at how I wrote about “long-term investment,” when really all I had been drawing from was the way the school talked about how chesed affects your life and how much it can affect your shidduchim. I was a lil feminist, subverting their “everything you do will affect your marriage prospects” into “I can get a job based on what I did as a teenager.”

Also, note the “Hungry Hippos” reference. I was exasperated at that point at the way my little sisters loved to play that game, and I hated it…

Also also, I obviously had no idea how jobs worked. I mean, the nepotism is accurate. But the “this is the only job in Boror Park” – lol.

Scan_20180528

Long Term Investment

Raizy trudged down the block. She just wanted to go to bed, but she’d promised Mrs. Greenbaum that she’d help her again. She loved kids, but the Greenbaums were extremely lively – and it wasn’t as if she got anything for it! The first time Raizy went to help Mrs. Greenbaum, it had been as a favor to a neighbor. Raizy sighed. Her “volunteer” status had been established then for all her jobs.

‘Why do I have to be so good-natured?’ she thought. ‘Why can’t I just say no for once?’

“Hi, Raizy!” Mrs. Greenbaum said as she opened the door. “Right on time, as usual! Thanks so much for coming. I’m going out. I’ll be back soon. Bye!”

Raizy smiled and waved and went to the kitchen, where the kids were finishing supper.

“Hi, Raizy!” Moishy greeted her, throwing his arms around her and splattering her with ketchup. “We got a new game today, and Mommy said you’ll play with us!”

“Really, Moishy?” Raizy enthused, disentangling him from her waist. “Well, finish youor supper, and then we’ll see about it.”

“Raizy!” Sarala yelled. “We learned alpeh today! Look!” She ran and pulled the aleph-bina off the shelf.

“Sarala,” Raizy called, “come back to the table. You’ll show me while you’re eating.”

“But then it’ll get dirty!” Sarala pouted.

‘Oh, no,’ Raizy thought. ‘I really don’t want a tantrum now. My head is splitting.’ She pulled Sarala onto her lap and opened the aleph-bina.

“OK, Sarala, so show me now, and then you’ll finish eating.”

“Who cares about alpeh!” Moishy shouted. “I already know all the nekudos! Let me show you.”

“Wow, Moishy, you’re almost a tzaddik already! But first Sarala will show me alpeh, and then it’ll be your turn, OK?”

“No!” Moishy grabbed the aleph-bina and flipped the pages to the nekudos. Sarala began bawling, and Raizy began consoling.

***

Half an hour later, when Sarala and Moishy had both finished their supper, they pulled Raizy into the playroom.

“Look what Tatty bought us!” Moishy said proudly, holding up a box labeled “Hungry Hippos.”

“We even know how to play,” added Sarala. “Watch!”

They unpacked the game and set it up.

“See?” explained Moishy. “You press here, and the hippo comes and eats the ballies!” He proceeded to demonstrate with an earsplitting racket. “You play also!” he shouted over the din. Ignoring her throbbing temples, Raizy smiled and sat down to join in their fun.

***

“I’m really nervous,” Raizy confided to her friend Esti. “I mean, I know Fraidy also wants the job, and she has a much better chance at it than me, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Esti commented wryly, “Being that she’s the principal’s niece, you mean?”

“Exactly,” said Raizy. “But you know, I’ve been dreaming of being a pre-school teacher for such a long time. If I don’t get this job, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get any! This is the only opening in all the schools in Boro Park, after all.”

“I know,” Esti said sympathetically. “Honestly, I don’t see how you have a chance over Fraidy. Maybe you should look for a completely different job.”

“But I want to teach pre-school so badly!” Raizy cried. “I think I made a good impression at the interview. Not that that’ll outweigh Fraidy’s pull, though. Well, no harm in hoping, is there?”

“Not at all,” laughed Esti, “except getting your hopes up for nothing. Well, call me as soon as you know one way or the other, OK?”

“Of course,” said Raizy. “As soon as I know.”

***

“Hello?” Esti answered the phone.

“Esti! Hi, it’s Raizy. Guess what? The principal called and asked me to come down tomorrow to talk salary!”

“Wow, Raizy! That is so great! I’m really happy for you. So much for not getting our hopes up!”

“I guess it wasn’t for nothing, after all.”

“But why’d she choose you over her niece, I wonder? You can’t really ask her, so we’ll probably never know why.”

“Actually,'” Raizy said, “I do know why. Remember Mrs. Greenbaum, the one I helped for so many times?”

“How could I forget?” Esti laughed. “With all of us spending our evenings earning money by babysitting, and you helping Mrs. Greenbaum for free…”

“Well, I got paid now – and with interest! ‘Cuz the principal told me she called Mrs. Greenbaum as a reference, and her report was the main reason I got the job!”

“Shti-cky! Talk about long-term investments!”

Scan_20180528 (2)
The cover of the “Chesed Press,” the school’s quarterly updates on all the chesed initiatives. The logo in the top right corner is taken from a long-running popular children’s publication, the Olomeinu, published by Torah Umesorah. It’s completely unrelated, though. Just using the same words and logo, with the added words “of chesed.”

A Culture of Closeness that Breeds Opportunities for Abuse

A few days ago, a brave soul published her story on YouTube (video below). It’s a difficult watch, but an important one for all parents sending kids to camps, especially in the frum world. Frum culture celebrates closeness between authority figures and their charges – but the “kesher” that is so venerated is so so so dangerous too.

There’s a reason there are laws about how and when and where a teacher can touch a student. Frum Jewish institutions often think they’re above the law, or beyond the law, in this issue. They think that the spiritual nature of the educational environment they provide necessitates closeness of a kind that the goyishe velt cannot understand.

They are wrong.

Every child needs to be protected. Part of the reason I think young Leah couldn’t understand that what was happening was so wrong was this: So many girls in that culture of closeness yearn for a “kesher” with someone. Principals and camp directors often talk about instances where teachers or counselors made a difference in a girl’s life by paying extra attention to her.

This is a breeding ground for abuse.

(It’s worth noting that Leah was forced to rely on beis din to get justice because the statute of limitations ran out five years after her 18th birthday. This is why we need to pass the Child Victims Act and support ZAAKAH’s efforts.)

All of this made me think about a piece that was printed in Torah Umesorah’s publication for teachers a year ago.

After months of meetings between a few former Bais Yaakov students (myself included), Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of Agudah, Rabbi Shmuel Klein of Torah Umesorah, and a number of Bais Yaakov principals and teachers, the first public action we decided to take was to write up a piece that would get others interested and begin to build momentum – to raise awareness of the issues that we had brought to the attention of the rabbis, teachers, and principals. Ultimately, Rabbi Klein effectively shut us out of the writing process by insisting that a teacher take point on the writing.

By the time the article was written, we (the group of former BY girls) knew that we had no hope of getting it to say what we actually wanted it to say. We were horrified by multiple things that were written, completely the opposite of what we had been saying all along. We did pass along some requests for revision, and the teacher who wrote the piece edited a bit. But there wasn’t much we could do about the underlying ideologies of what a teacher is and what her role is, so we left it and abandoned the effort we had undertaken.

Below, I’m pasting the full text of the article as Rabbi Klein emailed it to me after it was published in the Purim issue of Hamechanech. [All text in square brackets are my own additions, as are all hyperlinks.]

I’m sharing it in conjunction with the above video because I deeply believe that the culture and approach to teaching espoused in this article is intimately connected to the unique opportunities for abuse in frum environments.

Bais Yaakov: Looking Closely at a Century of Achievement
Mrs. R. Toplan

Chinuch today. A far cry from its beginnings a century ago. When Sara Schenirer founded Bais Yaakov in 1917, very few would have guessed that it would have expanded to its current level of success. From its humble start in a single Krakow building, Bais Yaakov has burgeoned into a tremendous educational movement- tremendous both in quantity and quality. And that’s despite the losses and destruction of Churban Europe! But how is the Bais Yaakov system really doing? Let us take a close look.

Our schools are constantly striving to move ever upward in their mission of chinuch habanos [educating girls]. The graduates are leaving our schools in a way that reflects well upon our institutions. We are graduating learned b’nos Yisrael [daughters of Israel], with solid hashkafos [worldviews / values]. The curriculum has evolved to include more sophisticated lessons (both in content and delivery), reflecting the changes in our general society. Teachers are ever more in tune with the concept of “al pi darko” [each according to his way] and are trying to tailor their lessons to reach more of the student population effectively. Differentiated instruction and modified testing are now considered standard fare.

We all revel in the success stories in which we’ve played a part, or the miracles we have witnessed that our colleagues have wrought. It’s a delight to share the stories of that one menaheles/mechaneches [principal/teacher] that reached out to that struggling student. She could be the social outcast, the misfit, the academically/emotionally/behaviorally challenged learner or even the attention-seeker of the class. We love the happy endings of those stories, with the mechaneches literally saving the girl’s life- whether it was b’ruchniyus [in spiritual matters] or b’gashmiyus [in material matters]. Yes, there are hundreds such gratifying stories. Yes, it does pay to repeat these stories constantly, since the chizuk [strength/inspiration] we derive from them gives us the strength to keep forging ahead and making a difference in the lives of our talmidos [students]. And, yes, we should keep publicizing them, to be mechazek [strengthen/inspire] our colleagues who are feeling stuck.

In Parshas VayechiYaakov Avinu blessed Ephraim and Menashe. We still use this brocha [blessing] with which to bless our children, since Ephraim and Menashe are the archetypical golus [exile] children. Despite being born in the depravity of Mitzrayim [Egypt], they thrived under the chinuch [education] of their father, and rose to the madreiga [level] of being included in the shevatim [tribes]. Note the unusual method employed by Yaakov Avinu in the giving of this brocha. There is simas yadayim – physical placing of his hands on the heads of Ephraim and Menashe. This is the only place in Tana”ch where simas yadayim is mentioned. The Ba’al Hafla’a explains that the physical reaching out and connecting was an essential part of this brocha. This connection was necessary to fortify these children of golus, and was done in order to transmit the mesorah [tradition] in an everlasting fashion. As mechanchos [educators], we know it’s vital to bear this lesson in mind. It is only through reaching out and connecting that we can effectively pass our mesorah to the next generation of the children of golus. By reaching out to our students’ specific challenges, only then are we closing that dreaded generational gap.[1]

Another beautiful thought comes to mind. Throughout the Torah, the right side is considered the dominant side of a person. If this is so, why is the heart- the seat of emotions and the organ responsible for keeping a person alive- said to be on the left side? This doesn’t seem to be logical! The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the left side is the logical placement for the heart. We are enjoined to use our hearts to assist our fellow Jews; indeed the only purpose of our emotional sensitivities is to be nosei b’ol [to carry another’s burden]. So, as we face our fellow man, our heart is on their right side![2] This idea drives our teachers to reach out to their students and do what’s right for each individual one. This reaching out and connecting is the foundation upon which mechanchos base their missions.

Interestingly, when a management team engages in problem solving, they often use a method called “extreme immersion”. This refers to looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum- the most spectacular success and the most devastating failure- in order to assess the best method going forward. It behooves us to learn from this methodology in our classrooms. We’ve already taken a look at a sampling of success. Of course, looking at the failures is painful, but we will come out ahead of the game if we do so.[3]

Let’s take a look at the other side of the spectrum. Unfortunately, we all know a number of students who do not seem to receive the message of Bais Yaakov. Some display this clearly in high school, some leave the community as soon as they graduate, and some drift off later in life when they find alternatives. Because we don’t always know what happens to our students after they graduate, especially the ones who prefer not to keep in touch with teachers, it may seem to us like this number is small (although every neshama [soul] counts). However, it is actually larger than we think.

What causes these students to leave? Why do they glide through their high school career, Teflon-impervious to the messages of their teachers? Recently, a group of alumnae representing a greater number of dissatisfied students met with representatives of Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel and multiple groups of interested teachers to provide feedback on their educational experiences.[4] All of the alumnae had chosen different paths in life, ranging from choosing a different stream of Judaism to going off the derech [path] entirely. They brought up a short set of reasons that they felt encompassed all the reasons they had negative feelings about their Bais Yaakov experience. They provided anecdotes and explanations collected from about 50 Bais Yaakov graduates describing how these issues affected their feelings toward Judaism and colored their high school memories.

After a number of discussions, we think it is possible to remedy some of the things that these students claim left with a bitter taste in their mouths. We have decided that the next step write regarding their perceptions to the greater teaching community and opening up a dialogue about how we can better serve the entirety of our school population. Among the topics discussed were bringing mechanchos to a greater awareness regarding kavod habriyos [respect for people], answering challenging questions, approaching tznius [modesty] in a positive fashion and the necessity of teaching to learn.

Most of our preliminary discussions focused on kavod habriyos. As an explanation, we posited that there are two kinds of respect. The one we tend to focus on most in Bais Yaakov is the respect we owe to leaders, teachers, elders, and other authority figures. Our students owe us respect for our knowledge and dedication, for our experience and position, for our learning and our leadership. There are clear guidelines for how to express this respect, in how you speak and behave, which we teach and often enforce in our classrooms.

However, there is a second kind of respect which we tend to take for granted. This is the respect every person deserves simply because they are a tzelem Elokim [image of god]. The way we show this kavod habriyos may vary a little based on culture and expectations, but there are some things we all agree on. For example, we do not insult or use derogatory terms regarding our friends. We don’t go through our neighbors’ mail. We don’t intrude on someone’s personal space. These are all ways we show respect for our fellows and their boundaries. This kavod is due to our students as well. Many students perceive a lack of this type of respect within the school system, even from well-meaning staff. This complaint of non-respect has been corroborated by those in the field of high school placement as well.[5]

Along the theme of tuning in to showing our students respect in a more respectful (!) way, a wonderful thought from R’ Shamshon Refael Hirsch comes to mind. We know that all words in Lashon Kodesh [literally: the holy language, ie Hebrew] can be traced back to their shoresh [root]. The shoresh for the word chinuch [חינוך] is ches-nun-chof [ח-נ-כ]. As R’ Hirsch points out, shorashim with similar spellings are often linked. A related word would be chenek [choke – חנק], whose shoresh is ches-nun-kuf [ח-נ-ק]. How is it related? When we are in a position of providing chinuch, we must be reaching out to the mechunach [student] almost to the point of chenek, just short of choking her. The balance must be there: too loose a connection, and you lose your opportunity to make an impression; too tight a connection, you strangle any opportunity for reaching her. Note the one different letter between the shorashim. The difference between the final chof and kuf is just one small connecting stroke of a pen. A chof [כ] is a connected letter, signifying the connection inherent in the chinuch relationship, whereas a kuf [ק] has a disconnect. A coincidence? Certainly not![6] When a student is “choked” they become cynical about the message being conveyed, and in the worst cases, it drives them away entirely.

One example that we discussed concerned a case where the choking was more literal than figurative. In this case study, a student ran into a teacher in the street on a Sunday. The teacher reached over and buttoned the student’s top button, while expressing pain that the student had her collarbone exposed so close to Rosh Hashanah. There is a beautiful story of Sarah Schenirer doing exactly the same thing to Vichna Kaplan, who we know became a key player in the Bais Yaakov system. However, young Vichna Kaplan travelled miles and made enormous sacrifices to become a protégé of Sarah Schenirer. She was primed to accept the constructive criticism of her teacher with the Ahavas HaBriyos [loving people] and Ahavas Torah [loving Torah] in which it was intended. Not every student in the Bais Yaakov system today is in the same position. Rather than coming across as an expression of love and caring, this action of buttoning a student’s button would come across as an overbearing and aggressive invasion of personal space. As teachers, it is important for our actions to draw in and embrace our students (figuratively), rather than choke and push away (literally).

How do we know what effect we are going to have? It’s too much to make a teacher second-guess every expression of caring. We have many students, all with different levels of need. What shortcut can help us understand what is likely to cross a student’s line? Consider this: who else would you or wouldn’t you treat the same way? The teacher-student relationship can be a unique one, but no matter how unique a relationship is, there are certain rules that will always apply. If, in general, we only relate to our very young children in a certain fashion (physically buttoning their top buttons), we should hesitate before doing so for others. This simple question of “who else would I treat this way?” is also an interesting one when considered broadly across all of one’s relationships. Perhaps this could prevent us from trampling on our students’ sensitivities.

Many more questions come to mind. How do we reach all our talmidos [students], so that fewer of them experience distress? How many young adults today are suffering in silence because of our less than optimum awareness of their sensitivities? Can we even do anything to perfect the Bais Yaakov system which (for the most part) is thriving? Is it worth our time to do so? After engaging in all this introspection, it easy to sink into a state of yiush [despair]. However, despair never belongs in the arsenal of a mechaneches. Especially since there are various solutions that have been and are being discussed!

Now, let the dialogue begin!

Mrs. Ruchie Toplan lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY. She has been teaching and mentoring teens in Bais Yaakov of Boro Park for over 25 years. 

[1] Mrs. Ayala Berney

[2] Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kramer

[3] Ms. Bryna Lieder

[4] Thanks to EB, RB, HD, RF, LG, RT, YT

[5] Rabbi Yehuda Zakutinsky, High School Placement Director/ Counterforce

[6] Mrs. Ayala Berney