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

2 thoughts on “A Culture of Closeness that Breeds Opportunities for Abuse

  1. > 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!

    Frum reasoning at its best.
    1. Take something that’s a reasonable general rule: The right side is the dominant side, because most people are right-handed.
    2. Take something metaphorical and interpret it literally: The heart is the seat of the emotions.
    3. Take something that is technically true and apply liberal hyperbole: The heart is the organ responsible for keeping people alive. Technically, yes, but it’s not “the” organ that keeps us alive, it’s one of many organs, though one of the most important. If we were to pick a single organ most responsible for keeping us alive, it’s the brain. Which, incidentally, is also the real seat of our emotions.
    4. Essentially ask why the Creator of the universe didn’t arrange things so that this particular juxtaposition of rule-of-thumb, metaphor, and hyperbole line up neatly.
    5. Derive a “deep” lesson from the above nonsense.

    Re. her discussion of respect. Someone commented, I think on a post on Tales out of Bais Yaakov, that teachers often say, “You need to respect me if you want me to respect you.” By which they mean you need to respect them in the first sense, of honor given to an authority figure, if you want them to respect you in the second sense, of being treated like a person. It was one of the best comments I’ve ever seen.

    > 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?

    That’s not bad.

    1. lol the two things you pointed out as good (or at least not bad) are additions that we made.

      The respect thing – it was indeed on Tales Out of BY, and we used that very same post in our meetings. She didn’t get it quite right here and instead, as the person who runs TOoBY pointed out, took a convoluted way of essentially not pissing people off about suggesting that (gasp!) teachers respect students. And that question of would you treat anyone else this way was also the brainchild of TOoBY creator.

      I just love that out of this whole thing, you chose to highlight as good the two things that were added by the ex-BY girls 😉

      As to the convoluted gymnastics required to derive that wonderful pshat – yep.

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