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April 25, 2014 / 25 Nisan, 5774
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How Bais Yaakov Almost Ruined my Life


Students of Beit Yaakov Elisheva in Jerusalem.

Students of Beit Yaakov Elisheva in Jerusalem.
Photo Credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90

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It started when I was in first grade. I was an active kid with bright orange curls, and I’d never sit in one place long enough for my mother to even attempt to brush my hair. I was six years old, the youngest in my class, when my teacher called me to the front of the room. “This”, she informed the rest of the class, “is what a Bas Yisrael does NOT look like.” She then proceeded to braid my hair in front of everyone else as I did my best to hold back my tears.

That was the first time I realized that I was not going to fit in. That there was an “us” and a “them”, and “they” were not to be trusted.

I attended Bais Yaakov for ten years. I participated in their day camp every summer. All of my friends were from school. This was my whole world, and I was prepared to be an outsider for a long, long time.

As we got older, we were split into two classes. The “high” class and the “low” class. Premeditated or not, the “high” class all had fathers in Kollel and lived in the same religiously insulated community. My daddy was a doctor, and it didn’t matter that he finished all of Shas and had a chavrusah every night. My house was a mere ten minute walk from the neighborhood the other girls lived in, but that didn’t make a difference. I wasn’t “Bais Yaakov” and that was it. I pretended to own it – yeah, I was a rebel – but the truth is that everyone just wants to be accepted. I tried, but it was clear that I was never going to be. I wasn’t a bad kid. I never did drugs and I didn’t drink, I hardly talked to boys and I dressed more or less the way I was supposed to. It was other things. It was the fact that I’d go bike riding with my family, that we listened to the radio in the car, that I was a dramatic, sensitive kid who just couldn’t accept religion the way it was given to me. I always needed to understand why, why I had to keep Shabbat, why the boys had to put on tefillin but I didn’t, why saying Shema at night would protect me from all the evil in the world. I needed to know why, and the only answer I ever received from my teachers was “because Hashem said so”. I would get frustrated and angry every time I hit that wall, and at some point they stopped calling on me and I stopped caring. Clearly, I was too dumb and too unconnected to understand what everyone else seemed to accept. Clearly, I was just bad at being religious.

I have ADD to an insane degree, and davening was basically impossible for me. I had a system with my friends where we would all leave at different points and meet up in the bathroom until it was over. We got caught a few times, but no one ever spoke to me to find out why I was skipping it. I just got in trouble over and over, reinforcing in my mind the idea that there was something wrong with me. I just wasn’t ever going to be good at being religious.

In Bais Yaakov, you were either they way they wanted you to be, or you were wrong. Until I left the school – until I was sixteen years old – I actually thought that wearing short sleeves meant that you were irreligious. I thought that by skipping davening, I was “off the derech”. The girls who were wearing nail polish, jeans, even sandals – they were either already a lost cause or close to it. It took me a long long time to break out of that mindset, to realize all of the colors and shades and layers there are in Judaism.

Now, thank God, I’ve left that world behind me. The only valuable lessons I’ve taken from those years are memories of all of the things that I will never tell my children, memories of feelings I will never allow them to feel.

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About the Author: Batsheva Zacks made Aliyah four years ago from Detroit, MI. She is currently studying at Bar Ilan University. Visit her blog, They Call me Shev: http://theycallmeshev.blogspot.co.il.


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68 Responses to “How Bais Yaakov Almost Ruined my Life”

  1. Thank you Batsheva! You took the words right out of my mouth. I too went to bais yaakov and didn't fit into their cookie cutter lifestyle and was thus an outsider. I too had ADD. I too asked why. I once asked where in the torah it says you cant have a tattoo and instead of my teacher (who was just out of high school btw) saying she didn't know and would look it up for me she went and told the principal who told my parents that I wanted a tattoo…. don't know how she got to that conclusion from me asking where it comes from. You are not alone Batsheva, there are so many of us, unfortunately who have lost our way because of these schools. I also never knew that there was any other way to be frum and wear short sleeves and go to movies… I got kicked out of 2 Bais Yaakovs over my years in elementary school. I wasn't a bad kid, I didn't do drugs, sleep around or anything else like that. I grew up in a completely frum home that included a TV and a mother who allowed me to read non jewish bookds adn listen to non jewish music… is it such a big deal? Things could definitely have been worse for me, I never went "off the derech" never stopped keeping shabbos or kosher or any of that, but there are so many who did. After Bais Yaakov I ended up in one of the so called "reject" schools that people always thought were for "troubled druggie kids" but they were 99% like me, a Bais Yaakov kid who would have been better off in a school like Shulamith, but ended up running through the Bais Yaakov system until no one wanted them anymore and they were sent to the reject schools. WE were just a bunch of kids with questions about the origins of torah and mitzvos.The "reject" schools should be a model for how ALL frum schools are run, by embracing questions. I respect a teacher that says "i don't know, but I'll try to find out" rather than saying "because hashem said so". Understanding where Torah and Mitzvos come from leads to a greater appreciation of fulfilling them as opposed to just doing them because they are habit, basically living life in autopilot. Obviously there are some mitzvos that are not understandable and have no origin other than a commandment but the majority come from something and that something is beautiful, much more beautiful than "because hashem said so".

  2. Marcia Ross Schwartz says:

    Wow! This brings back memories. I lived in NY until I got married. I went to one Bais Yaakov from kindergarten through 8th grade and did fine. Most of the kids were like me. Not frum, saw Saturday and most of the holidays as days off. My family did have a Pesach seder. For 9th grade I went to a high school that opened 2 weeks before school started and was a weird year academically but religiously there were more frum kids. That was the year I decided, all on my own, that I wanted to see what shul was like. So I went to shul and saw lots of kids I knew and basically started my path to becoming more frum. For 10th – 12th grade I went to a Bais Yaakov and it was a whold different ball game. My mom had gotten off welfare just about 2 years earlier and we were by no means well off. my mother bought me what she could afford and took any hand-me-downs ahe could get. The teachers and administration of this school were more concerned about the length of my sleeves and my skirt than they were about me as a person. They had a problem with the fact that I went to NCSY because, OH MY GOODNESS, I might actually talk to a boy who is not a relative. They knew I did not come from a frum home. But rather than inviting me for Shabbos, showing me about what they think a real shabbos is, they just nitpicked at what they thought was wrong with the outside. I think they were so afraid that I would influence their families for the bad and that they didn't trust the upbringing of their own children so they didn't invite me. It's sad but I overcame it. I live a modern orthodox life far away from NY and I'm happy. I'm happy because I get to make choices that are right for me and my family. I'm happy because I don't have to go through life with the blinders on that they do. I guess that the life they live is right for them and the life I lead is right for me.

  3. מזל Weiss says:

    Wow I definitely can relate this should be all over Boris park streets Nd in the baud yaakov building, batsheva u would save a lot and thousands of girls lives I k ow lots that needed to hear this 15 years ago I give u lots of props for erotic.g this I wish I had done rue same

  4. Leora Hahn says:

    Thanks for your story- so similar to mine!!

  5. Shoshana Mimizrach says:

    i think i blocked out the memories! i don't remember our school being as strict and i don't remember the "outsider" feeling that the author describes. most families were "like ours" more young israel and less borough park. or lets just say we had more of a "range" of families at our school and i think that made it different. marcia – were you at the walton ave location before we moved to yipp?

  6. Sara Miryl Gold says:

    I can't believe it took this long for someone to write this!

  7. Marcia Ross Schwartz says:

    I did go to the Walton Avenue location. You're right. The Beis Yaakov we went to wasn't as strict and I never felt like an outsider there. I didn't have bad memories at the Walton Avenue, YIPP, or Williamsbridge Road locations. Although I do have some good memories because of friends, my feelings towards the last 3 years of high school were due to the teachers and administration when I went to a different school. My 8th grade year was the last year the high school was open so I had to find a different school.

  8. Denise Langley Day says:

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience.

  9. Totally relate to this. Some of the stuff they tried to teach us to believe makes me worry all the time about what my life are learning in their very modern orthodox school. I was very reluctant to send them there. My husband really had to push for it. But so far so good.

  10. I meant to type "kids" not "life"

  11. Megan L Fisher Kluger says:

    Really Marcia? I had no idea! So glad you are here!

  12. Jacquelyn Dayton Berman says:

    Never had that experience. I WAS invited. If anything it was the more modern kids who snubbed me, as I recall. My family wasn't Shomer Shabbos either. Interesting that two people in the same school can have such different experiences. At the modern orthodox school I went tto, my life was living hell.

  13. Thanks for sharing some of your childhood story Marcia!

  14. Marcia Ross Schwartz says:

    Jacquelyn Dayton Berman I felt snubbed by the same kids but I feel they were just kids. The Jewish studies teachers should have known better and should have been setting a better example. What do you mean that you were invited?

  15. David Michalowski says:

    I am a modern orthodox father with a delightful wife (FFB) and three amazing children. My daughter (she is not bais yaakov) had a very good B.Y. friend who stayed with us all afternoon on Shabbat. After Havdalah, my wife offered her that she could join us to one bagel place for some bites. She freaked out and refused to accept our offer due to her fear of a possible punishment for spending time with us. No, we're not in NYC but Baltimore! Shocking, isn't it!

  16. Jere Finer says:

    Thank you for an article that hits the nail on the head. My 3 young girls, all of whom conformed to the Bais Yaakov of Baltimore standard (even though we didn't live on the holy Yeshiva Lane- but we did pay full tuition which granted us some acceptance), found themselves thrown out of school. Why? Not because of bad behavior on their part (it was I who always undid the top button of their uniform shirts only to have them button back up on their own)- but because I was going through a divorce and my estranged husband was causing trouble. Not my girls. Their father. Rather then deal with him, these spineless rabbis dealt with the situation by throwing my girls out.
    My girls were so adherent to the Bais Yaakov way of life that they wouldn't consider going to the more modern school in town so they ended up boarding at a school in Richmond, Virginia which caused even more problems because it was run (I found out too late) and still is run by a controlling egomaniac (spending all night on the phone with one daughter during summer break; following a group of girls including another daughter and spying on them from his car when they went out for ice cream late on a motzei shabbos in NY during summer break). My youngest, thank G-d, was too young to go away to boarding school and attended the more modern school.
    Since all those years ago, when it was okay for my then 6 year old to wear short socks to school- which we all now know is the epitome of apicorsus (the amount of time these "rebbeim" spend on thinking of little girls and their bare legs or patent leather shoes that reflect up their skirts is frightening), these "types" have set themselves apart and I believe they will one day implode. More schools are needed for those kids who are observant yet don't want, and shouldn't, be turned into clones. Hashem made us individuals and should be treated as such. The situation worsens every year as more and more kids are left without an observant day school education because they just aren't one of "them."

  17. Jere Finer says:

    Baltimore is one very sick community. It used to be a lovely place. But when I wanted to give my friend's 2 year old granddaughter a purse that had a ballerina on it and was told that it wouldn't be acceptable (not my friend's way, but in order not to be ostracized from the community) was just too much! I celebrate each day of the 8 years since I left that crazy place. Sorry you still live there and interface with such loons!

  18. David, unfortunately, not shocking.

  19. Reading all of these stories makes me happy and proud that I sent my son to SAR High School in Riverdale, NY, an institution where questions and dialogue are encouraged.

  20. Marcia, I am so glad you managed to overcome their abusive (not to mention UNJEWISH!) treatment. Shame on the "black and whiters" that act as if they alone have the way to Judaism and mitzvot.

  21. I grew up with the same questions & same answers.Bottom line if you are seeking truth in Religion you will find it & if you are not you will not.Hopefully the writer is educated to understand that all religions are about FAITH.If you are looking for a way out because of ADD or whatever nonsense that you want to call it so have it.

  22. Joe Herman says:

    I feel like there are a lot more people like you than you think. It's a shame that the institution embraced exclusion, and attempted to make you feel like an outsider. Hopefully you have found a community of like minded Jews and can embrace Judaism the way it was intended for you to…

  23. Michele Axt says:

    whoa.

  24. Jason Morgan says:

    true what u say but alot of religions especially when u get to a higher level of orthodoxy tend to screw with u a little. whether it be the usual rabbis raping boys and principals looking the other way, etc.

  25. I can just as easily flip that around n say 'if u r looking for the truth in religion u will pretend to have found it.' Not to mention ur silly hope that the writer is educated…thats usually the death blow to religion

  26. I went to Bais Yaakov too. I was a very spunky and confident kid, so I managed better than most would, but I still had a lot of issues to deal with because of the narrow-mindedness and judgementalism of the school I went to.

  27. I'm sorry that they didn't take you into condisderation.

  28. She certainly seems to be in a place where she feels good.

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