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July 22, 2014 / 24 Tammuz, 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

I feel lucky that I refound Judaism in my own way, lucky that I can have a genuine relationship with Hashem. However, there are still some parts of my education that stick with me. Still a judgmental voice in my head telling me that I haven’t gotten there yet. That I’m still not good enough, not religious enough. That if I can only conquer tzniut, if I can just daven mincha every single day, that THEN I’ll be done. Then I’ll be really religious. It’s a perception I wish I could get rid of, but ten years of education is hard to unteach.

I’m not writing this to spread hate or to speak lashon hara. The Bais Yaakov system works for some people, and I’m glad it exists. But I wish that when I was growing up, there was someone telling me what Judaism is really like. Someone to tell me that Hashem loves us regardless of nail polish. That texting a boy doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from religion. That wanting to express yourself and asking questions is a positive thing, something to be encouraged. I wish someone had been there to tell me all of the things I know now.

I can’t change the way Jewish education is run. I can’t change the way teachers will answer questions or the way kids will slowly stop asking them. What I can change is the way they feel about themselves, the way they see themselves inside of Judaism.

I’m writing this because I want to make a change. Because Judaism is too beautiful to reduce to skirt lengths and how long your shemoneh esrei is. Because someone has to tell a little six year old girl that no matter what her hair looks like, she will always be a Bas Yisrael, always be a princess of Hashem.

Visit They Call me Shev for more of Batsheva’s thoughts.

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.

  29. Jason Morgan Jason unfortunately these things can happen in all religions ,look at the catholic priests,however I still wont say that it is going to happen & if it does & the principal looks the other way ,he should be arrested along with the perpetrator of the crime.Jason I do believe that things are a little better than when we grew up ,for instance today if they hit a kid the kid calls the police [its not unheard of].We are a more educated society today.We still have a majority of people that have grown up in the system that function normally as ultra orthodox Jews,bear in mind a majority is over 50%.

  30. This is what happens when authority completely suppresses and doesn't allow room for individuality within the laws and rules, when children grow up as mindless drones who's connection to authority is limited to having to force there will upon them, when children grow up without a connection to the beauty of those rules, without being able to feel their connection to them within their very core and being.

    The authority sees a connection to their children which is limited to rules, which is limited by the letter of the law, as opposed to a connection which takes those rules and laws, processes them through their nature, environment, and generation, through their lens of the world, and makes it their own.

    They're trying to fit a point of view which doesn't allow room for anyone else to take it in, which doesn't make room for the unique viewpoints which make up the parts and details which make their viewpoint what it is.
    Their point of view alone is not absolute, but is only a part of the absolute picture.

    They don't make room for individuality and then have the audacity to wonder why their children have gone off the path and have gone astray.

    Since they see their connection to their children as purely being based on obedience, and since, they see their view alone as absolute, then in their eyes, the children must be set straight, they must be controlled and manipulated to fit the authority's point of view.

    They need to find their connection to their children which goes beyond rules alone, beyond the physicality, beyond the technicalities and science, a connection which includes the beauty and philosophy, the why, the purpose, and the feeling.
    They need to find their essential connection to their children which is absolute. They need to realize that they are connected to their children regardless, and therefore, should be accepting them for who they are.

    They need to realize that while it's true that we are supposed to follow the laws, that the laws and rules themselves are unlimited, that there is no one size fits all approach, that while the end goal is the same, there are unlimited routes and paths to get there, that people's nature, environment, and times of their generation must be taken into account, even if that requires a change in approach!

    They need to realize that the rules are only put in place to express our absolute connection to one-another, and that without them, you wouldn't be able to express this connection, because you have to have something there first in order to add to it, in order to give it meaning, life, and purpose, in order to show the uniqueness and diversity within each and every part.
    They need to realize that instead of showing this diversity, they are limiting the rules to their point of view.
    They need to realize that G-d is absolute and also applies to sinners, gentiles, science, nature.

    They need to realize that in essence, the rules are even beyond themselves, because we share a connection regardless.

    I would highly encourage everyone to read and share my notes "My Response To Asifa" "My Response To Religious Extremism" "Waking Up The G-D From Within" "Identity Crises" where I go more into depth on these issues.

  31. اذا احترمتونا احترمناكم والسلام على من اتبع الهدى ورحمة الله وبركاته

  32. Jennifer Ray says:

    AMEIN. I mean, I converted in good part because I though a huge part of being Jewish is ASKING QUESTIONS. STRUGGLING. Doesn't Yisrael MEAN "struggle"?? I went to Catholic school most of my life and was FORBIDDEN to ask questions and had my individuality attacked over and over (though in high school, I, like the author, got very pissy about it and started to rebel in any way that I could). I just cannot and WILL not force my future children (G-d willing) to go through this. This is not Jewish. (And makes me SUPER glad that at least at my Chabad center, the rav never, ever objects to questions. B"H)

  33. Miriam Rubinoff says:

    Interesting. In my experience, it was the daughter of the doctor (or other well-to-do professional, who not only paid full tuition, but was a major supporter of the school) who got away with the same thing the scholarship student got thown out of BY for. Without a parent being called in to discuss the matter, without a warning, nothing. Behind everybody's back, when she was out sick: "Come in and pick up your daughter's things, she's been expelled".

  34. نحن نرفض الحروب وندعي للسلام ولانقبل الاستسلام

  35. Anonymous says:

    Kol hacvod to you! Great article! Cookie cutter is definitely not for everyone!

  36. Rachel Selby says:

    Beis Yaakov schools have a very set style and are geared towards a certain type of girl and a certain type of family. I don't agree with this outlook and I wouldn't choose it for my daughter. It's a shame that your parents didn't find a more suitable school for you. It's not he school's fault though – they never pretend to be anything other than what they are.

  37. Grace Acosta says:

    That happened to my daughter, too. It was a gift from G-d, in the long run. She needed special ed, and the school refused her accommodations. She's now flourishing in a public school, and the gentile kids there have MUCH better middos than the Jewish kids she used to have to deal with. Such a shanda.

  38. Miriam Isserow says:

    Rachel, I couldn't disagree more. She is writing about how the school imposes a kind of conformity that won't work for the vast majority of people–and I don't think there are (and cerainly weren't) schools that would have been religious enough for her family and also addressed her non-comformity/ADHD or whatever it might have been. I think she is addressing a real crisis in the frum world and it is unfair to ignore the serious issue she is pointing out.

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