Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Beis Yaakov Dilemma

The following is a guest post by a Beis Yaakov graduate, watching her sister struggle through the same school where she thrived. This post is meant to explore how schools should approach education.

"I hate that place I am never going back there again. EVER!" With that proclamation, my sister slammed the door. She ran to her bedroom, but not before I noticed the tears streaming down her face. "Poor girl," I thought to myself. "Every day it is something else. She is so miserable in that school." Unfortunately, I am not shocked.

When my sister was in 8th grade, I was a kid fresh out of school. I barely knew a thing about the world, yet I begged my parents to listen to my opinion, to take me seriously. "Rivky does not belong in that school." My parents couldn't understand it. "But the school was great for you and your sisters. Why shouldn't Rivky do well there too?" I tried so hard to explain. I told them about the differences between Rivky and her older sisters. I told them about the difference in the student body, the difference in the school's policies, and mostly, the difference in my sister''s style of learning. But they simply didn't understand. So Rivky landed in Bais Yaakov.

One year later, as Rivky finishes a terribly unsuccessful, and life-altering year as a freshman in Bais Yaakov, my parents see that I was right. Now they see that Rivky should have gone to a different school. Now they see that the structure of the school was completely different from what she needed. Now they see that the rules, rather than mold her into the girl they were hoping she'd become, have destroyed her inner self. They have destroyed the self confidence she had been working to build up. Now my parents are left to wonder how a kid who doesn't have any life experience, who doesn't have any chinuch experience, can be so dead right about something like this.

This begs a question. How could I, my sisters, and countless others have gone to BY, and turned out splendidly, when Rivky, and so many of her peers have been hurt by the very same school? Where does the difference lie?


I believe there are two approaches to running a school. You can come at it with an approach of: "Well, we have policies, we have rules, and we don't make any attempt to hide them. If you have a problem with the way we run our school, or with the chinuch we give, you are welcome to send your child elsewhere. If you do chose to send your child to our school, she must adhere to our rules and accept our lessons."

Alternatively, the school can say, "we wish the student body would consist of only students who belong here, but if a girl is in our school and has a hard time with the rules, we will nonetheless try to make her feel comfortable and to thrive, and provide an environment where she is able to reach her personal peak of avodas Hashem."

The first method works to an extent. Let's explore this phenomenon, with me, someone who would be considered a BY success story. I wouldn't say I loved Bais Yaakov. I'm fact, I would say that there were a number of times when I cried and told my mother I refuse to go back. But today, looking back at my high school education, I'd say it was good.

I remember my first day of ninth grade, when the Principal got up to speak at our freshman orientation. She started out with praise for her teaching staff. "Every member of our staff, both limudei kodesh and limudei chol, are extraordinary woman. It is commonly said that the Bais Yaakov office is like a shteible." I must admit...I was impressed. Perhaps that was the earliest sign that I belonged in the school.

As I got to know the teachers, I realized that she was right. Each member of the teaching staff was an unbelievable role model, someone we knew we should strive to be like. Their level seemed high, and quite unattainable, but I saw them as people who were so real, so sincere, I wanted to be like them. I knew with some degree of certainty that even if I would stay on the bottom rung, I wanted to climb their ladder.

I remember one particular incident which made an impression on me. One of our teachers related a story. "I was at a simcha, and someone asked me my name. So I told her it's Rabinowitz. She asked if my husband is the diamond dealer." At this point, Mrs. Rabinowitz paused. Her eyes lit up and she became more animated. "So I answered her, NO! My husband is not that diamond dealer! He polishes diamonds of a different sort." I looked up at the sparkle in her eyes, and I realized that this is her essence. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Rabinowitz have made the polishing of us, their diamonds, their entire life. I was awed. I was inspired. I wanted to be just like her. No, I couldn't relate to Rebbetzin Rabinowitz, the wife of the Rosh Yeshivah, the experienced mechaneches. But I could feel her love and warmth, and I wanted to climb her ladder of avodas Hashem.

It was with aspirations like those that I was able to accept the rigidity of the school. At some point during my four years there, the princepal came to the conclusion that it wasn't enough to have a rule stating that girls should cultivate a look that is in accordance with a Bas Yisroel. She saw loopholes being utilized in every way possible. The definition of the "look of a bas yisroel" leaves a lot of room for discussion. She closed the loopholes with strict rules. First, she instituted a no drinking straight from the bottle policy. Then she made a rule limiting the length of earrings. It wasn't too long before we even had rules about the color shoes we could wear. Yet we took it in stride. We were Bais Yaakov girls, it was a distinction to be proud of, even if we did have mandatory tests on very lengthy student guides. We were learning and growing, despite, or perhaps because of, strict rules about lengths of skirts, measured with a ruler.

But again, to repeat, I belonged there. I can't pin-point the reason. Perhaps it's because I was heading in that direction. Perhaps it's because I have an easy time subjugating myself to authority. Perhaps it's because of decisions I made. Perhaps it's because of my academic success there. But just as I am unable to pinpoint the reason that I fit in, I can't pinpoint the reason that Rivky doesn't. Perhaps if I had been able to provide my parents with a better reason, she would have wound up in another school. Perhaps it's because of Rivky's rebellious nature, of the way she rejects authority. Perhaps it's because Rivky has a hard time academically, and BY is a high pressured, mark oriented school. But whatever the case is, Rivky had four older sisters who went to Bais Yaakov, she appears to be the type of girl they are looking for, and so she got accepted.

Here is where we reach the second way of being mechanech students. While my parents have absolutely no right to expect the school to adopt the second policy, they should adopt it of their own accord. Let's face it. My parents made a mistake in sending Rivky to Bais Yaakov. But now Bais Yaakov has a girl who is sitting in their classes, listening to the very lessons I was so inspired by, and scoffing. She sees the rules as restrictive, she views the lessons as extreme. And the school continues. They have every right to say "well if you don't like it, leave." And she very well might. But as long as she is in their school, listening to their classes, taking their tests, following their rules, they have a responsibility towards her. They have a responsibility to try to do the best they can with her. And if rules and regulations are not reaching her, it's time to try another method.

The school has recently instituted some new, very extreme rules. While perhaps my reaction may have been: "I don't understand it, nor do I like it, but I will accept it," her reaction, as well as so many of her classmates, many of whom do not belong there either, is quite the opposite. Rather than panting to keep up, the girls are giving up. Girl's reactions range from, "This school is restrictive, they represent authority, so all authority is restrictive." to "There is no way I will ever meet the school's expectations." Students also think to themselves "well, I will be considered a bum here, no matter what I do, so I might as well live up to that." Student's reactions may even go as far as "school represents religion, so if the school is so restrictive, then religion must be that restrictive also. I hate religion."

This might sound extreme, but it's not far fetched at all. These are the sentiments I keep hearing from today's high school girls. Isn't it a shame? Shouldn't they be made to see the beauty of Yidishkeit? If the way they taught it to me isn't working, shouldn't they be looking for alternate routes? If those very same Rebbetzins that were so inspiring to me, are now turning the girls off, shouldn't the school get some younger teachers who can relate to the challenges of a new generation?

These teachers may be amazing, smart, and dedicated women who love to teach, but if they can't even figure out how to turn a cell phone on, how do we think they will be able to understand the lure of texting someone inappropriately? If they don't know what "email" means, how will they understand social networking, chatting, and other online time wasting devices? If they haven't bought any new clothes in years, how are they supposed to really understand the pull of styles that they put under a blanket category of "untzniusdik"? While it's nice to have teachers like that, to provide a role model, a visual illustration of what they expect us to strive towards, is it fair and realistic to expect today's teens to be able to relate to these teachers? Is of fair and realistic to expect these teachers to be able to relate to today's teens?

It would seem simple to me, that a school that is constantly battling their student body to adhere to rules more, to dress differently, to behave more appropriately, should realize that their method is no longer working. So why is the school's administration blind to all of this? Why is a young girl, with no teaching experience, see something that these experienced educators can not? I believe that the answer lies in the school's success over the course of the past 40-something years. If the school and their accompanying policies have been successfully educating the last couple of generations of the community's women, shouldn't the same policies continue to work today?

Sadly, the answer, I believe, is no. Don't ask me to figure out the reason why. Don't ask me what is different about the students now, as opposed to the students of a mere five years ago. All I know, is that the sentiments are different. While the common complaint in my day was "they keep making so many rules it's hard to keep up!", the common complaint seems to have migrated over the course of the few years since my graduation. Today's students are complaining more along the lines of "there are too many rules. There is no way I can follow all of them." Doesn't that call for a change in policies?

No, the school doesn't have to change their policies. But for the sake of even one girl's happiness, for the sake of even one girl's yiddishkeit, don't you think they should?


  1. I think it's difficult for a school to weigh this: Are you a school with an identity, or are you a school?

    Whose responsibility is it: The parents to send their kids to a school that's right for them, or the schools to deal with whomever they end up with? Or first one, then the other?

    Finally, if a school doesn't have an identity, then it becomes much more difficult for parents to gauge where to send their kids, does it not? Or perhaps that's fine: No identities = schools meant to simply educate their students as suits them.

  2. I think the point was that a school with an identity should realize when to be flexible and when not to go overboard.

    And I think the drinking out of the bottle thing definitely qualifies as going overboard.

  3. Bravo!!! A fantastic post!

    "It would seem simple to me, that a school that is constantly battling their student body to adhere to rules more, to dress differently, to behave more appropriately, should realize that their method is no longer working."-
    One would think so, but that is so often not the case. It's far easier for the adults to say "That girl is no good" than to say "my method of teaching is no longer working". If you try to force your ideas down kids' throats, you'll only succeed in making them choke.

  4. When a school becomes so obsessed--yes obsessed--with each and every possible action that might be taken by one of its students, so that it ratchets up the number of rules and regulations to the extent this one did, that school has a different agenda than providing an education. It is first and foremost concerned with its image and what it wants its image to be. If there are girls who are casualties as a result of this outward focus, well so be it seems to be the attitude.

    Parents also need to learn to view their children as unique individuals. Just because they are all your children doesn't make them clones of each other. What suits one may not suit another. And what suits a parent may not always suit the child.

    In the outside world reputation based on past achievements may get you to look at a business or organization or school. But the byword is "What have you done for me lately?"

  5. YD - Agreed on the specific, but most issues are far more gray. How steadfast should a school be? Rules are rules? Or cater to the students?

  6. It is both the parent's and the school's responsibility to remember the words, "Chanoch L'naar Al Pi Darko".
    Otherwise we are failing our children miserably.

  7. A skilled diamond shaper (cutter/polisher) can produce a beautiful diamond, but an unskilled one can, with one wrong move, shatter the diamond into something unrecognizable.

    Excellent post!

    Mark (

  8. Well reasoned, thought-provoking post!

    As a mom whose 3 children each reacted differently to the same Yeshiva h.s. education, I'd say that the individuality of the child interacts with the environment. Schools do ebb and flow, and students' cohorts are all different; both shape a student's experience.

    But the same issues plus new ones surface when you shift a child into a new school. Not every problem is solved. It's a complex issue. The one thing a parent can be sure--even paying full tuition, it's unlikely the administration will change anything to suit you.

  9. The school is what it is, and reflects the community turning towards more "stringent" ways. This is completely not in tune with my personal views, and obviously a Beis Yaakov school would not even be a consideration for my daughters.

    But I can appreciate the difficulty parents who do live in that world would have in putting one of their daughters in a different place (especially when all the others turned out fine). I think it would require a great deal of courage to move this kid from their status quo.

    My question is: are the number of these kids increasing as the rules become ever more restrictive? And how is the community going to deal with that?

    Very thought provoking post for a parent, and a reminder, for me personally, to look at each kid individually.

  10. BTW, perhaps I should mention that I'm a Bais Yaakov graduate. Sometimes I forget that.

  11. Excellent post...but if the girls feel that now, as times have changed, that the rules are more restrictive and binding, why do they go to BY to begin with? There are many other fine and wonderful schools that don't have these so perceived 'problems'. Is it that they don't want to leave the BY label? Then, they usually have to follow BY rules if they don't want to leave it.
    I'm a BY graduate.

  12. And what happends when there is only one girls' school in the area (as there was when I grow up)? Every has to go there or board in a different city. The "Bais Yaakov type" girls lived with the rules, but the rest of the girls struggled, and sometimes mocked them.

  13. Firstly, I am the one who wrote this post, just to clarify.

    In answer to the identity question, they are very into their identity. On the flip side, they are, not the only high school in the area, but they are considered the "community school" which is probably why they have a bigger mix of girls there than they'd like.

    In response to G6, it is important for both, but if one fails, shouldn't the other step up and do a better job? Is it a wonder that we have so many confused kids out there?

    And in answer to NMF, there are two factors here. One, this is considered a community school. There are other, very small schools, but many people send their girls there because that's the way it's always gone.
    The other issue is: how many 8th graders have formulated opinions about the matter (other than "I want to go where my best friend goes")? It's really the parent's problem, for misreading their child. And I think a large part of the issue is the parent's. Just as the school is blinded by years of success, my parents are blinded by four successful daughters.

  14. Hey, is she referring to TAG? I know, you probably can't answer that.

  15. You mention that somehow these girls are different 'nowadays' as opposed to even 5 years ago. I would ask you to look at it a different way.
    It seems the SCHOOL is different now, not the students.
    When you were entered they had a rule book with 10 basic rules, (just making up a number here) then they instituted and additional 5 (some of which were questionable, but you dealt with it)
    I am sure that in the next 5 years they found another 10 rules (some even more outlandish)
    Its not an ebb and flow, its just piling on more and more crazy rules.

    So its not only that your sister may not fit the BY mold, but its that the BY mold has gotten narrower and narrower, to the point that there are very few girls who could live up to and live with that kind of pressure.

  16. I would not guess TAG. TAG is not a community school like that.

    Also, they probably can't answer that question anyway. :)

  17. I wouldn't say the name of the school, I don't think it would be fair, but really, it doesn't matter much. It could be a lot of schools.

  18. I think Anon#2 makes a very important point (as has just about everyone).

    One of my old Rabbeim/Roshei Yeshiva was quoted by another RY-to-be regarding advice as he started up his yeshiva: Whatever rules/standards you want in place for your yeshiva, put them in to start. Anytime you change the rules, it hurts the yeshiva.

    This was after a period of a few years (while I was there) where they changed many rules (often in response to individual incidents), but those rules ended up being detrimental to the feeling in the school as a whole. It turned it very much into a "Rabbeim vs. Students" mentality.

    I think that's an important thing for schools to remember in general: Schools often react to "rule-breaking", which is usually a student taking advantage of a loophole, by specifically stating the rule - even if it was a short-lived 'rebellion' type thing. As these rules pile up, the school essentially boxes in the students. The rules never come off (how could they?), eventually leading to a box nobody would be interested in stepping into.

  19. (...but parents don't necessarily realize the extent of this until later; also, all rules seem reasonable, and perhaps are, but that is not necessarily the point.)

  20. Ezzie, I agree with that. The changes in the school's rules have mostly come as a result of issues that the school has with the students and their adherence to rules.

    students have a hard time with rules-->school makes more-->students break more-->school makes more-->

    It won't end that way. And it is choking the students.

  21. As a BY graduate, I believe that all these new and extra rules, such as earrings no longer than a dime, no colored shoes, no shell under the shirt - top button must b closed are just choking our children.
    Its just making everything
    It makes the religion look very restrictive.
    You have to show them the flip side of it. the beauty of it. let them understand and appreciate why one shouldnt do/wear/say such a thing.

  22. There are definitely differences between a few years ago and now. But I'm telling you as a parent of junior high girls (at TAG, as you might have guessed) and a former student at a BY type schools (TAG again) the rules have not changed all that much. I got out before uniforms were instituted, though we had a dress code with rules about socks and makeup then.

    In defense of the schools, I have to say that, unfortunately, people do not have the sense to judge appropriateness on their own -- that goes for the girls and their mothers -- and so the schools add on more and more details instructions.

    Those who think that the more MO schools are perfectly in sync with their students are mistaken. I recall the administrator at a girls' high school that did not subscribe to BY philosophy and did not have uniforms tell the teachers to bring in dowdy skirts and blouses to make the girls who come into school in cropped tops or too short skirts change into. Yes, they did not make an issue of short socks versus knee socks (which to these girls is an issue from another planet) but they still had standards of dress they wanted adhered to in a school that included "Torah" in its curriculum. On their own, many of the girls likely dressed differently in more revealing clothes than were allowed in school (especially in the summer). Nevertheless, the school insisted on setting a certain standard. It's not quite the same standard as the BY schools, but it comes fairly close.

  23. I understand you are concerned about your sister. She is unhappy and you see danger. She'll get in with the wrong crowd, get a boyfriend, go off the derech . . . AHHHHHHH!

    Really, I think the reality is a lot less scary than that. Your sister is a teenager. She is developing an identity and is confronted by the fact that her identity is very different than that of her peers and her school. That has been the plot of how many countless teen flick movies and tv show sitcoms. It has happened before and 99.99% of these kids grow up to be passionate and a little different adults.

    There are a few choices for her. She can conform to all the rules and kill a part of herself, try to change the school and be in constant conflict or she can accept herself as OK, accept the school as OK, recognize that neither has to change the other and make rational rather than emotional decisions.

    For example, she doesn't have to agree with the decision about earrings. She can think it's stupid and wrong. But noone is demanding she change her values. She can choose to not wear the earrings because it is not worth the battle. She may be disappointed, but disappointment makes you resilient. That is a mature way of dealing with it that a supportive friend and/or adult can help her come to.

    Defining an identity is the work of teenagers. As long as she has support and validation outside of school and sees herself as normal, she'll come out of high school a far stronger person for having challenged herself and the status quo. Encourage her in her journey and you will see greatness