Special Note: Several weeks ago, I published a letter written by a young lady who is a student at a very fine yeshiva high school. She described the shockingly inappropriate behavior of some of her fellow students. The letter evoked much comment and concern. I would like to express my appreciation to all those who have taken the time to write and express their views. Of all the letters however, one, written by an outstanding mechanech, offers constructive solutions to this terrible dilemma, and I am pleased to share it with you.
Thank you for publicizing the very difficult issues facing our young teenage girls. While the at-risk behavior of boys has leveled off somewhat, there has been a dramatic increase in the at-risk behavior of girls. I have some insights into the problem that may be of interest to your readers.
We notice it earlier now. The image of the young, angry, pot-smoking teenage male has so frightened us that parents and educators are more attuned to the warning signs. Parents of our boys are more willing to seek out professional counseling at earlier ages and are more willing to listen when sound advice is offered. The problems are still there, yet there are answers. Mentoring programs, specialized high schools, and summer programs have become increasingly available for at-risk boys.
What about the girls? Professionals have been asking this question for several years. It is much more difficult to notice the at-risk girl. She can be academically successful in both Limudei Kodesh and Chol, yet engage in behavior unbecoming of frum girls.
It begins at a young age. Internet chatting seems innocent for a 10-year-old girl. After all, they are just talking with their friends the same way we used to use the phone. But it is not innocent. Neither are the movies that they rent for “innocent” sleep over parties. Relationships with males are idealized, discussed and fantasized. No different than 30 years ago? Watch them. PG-13 films and TV programs that would have been banned in a different generation are seen by “everyone” today. Sooner or later the internet chatting involves the boys. Chatting leads to meetings on Friday at the pizza store.
Eighth grade comes, and while parents may be dreaming of getting their bright young lady into the “top” yeshiva, they have failed to realize that subtle changes have occurred in a few short years. Unknowingly, these girls enter a high school admissions pool designed to weed out the “bad” girls. Faced with rejection and no school to attend, these girls become depressed and their parents frantically search for answers. While the system may reject these girls, the boys do not. In many cases, the relationship spins out of control and the results are disastrous.
How long can we afford to turn a blind eye to this issue?
I believe that there are significant systemic problems with our girls’ yeshivas that must be addressed before it is too late. Furthermore, parents must be educated and made aware of the specific dangers facing our girls today.
Our Torah society today may be more learned than the previous recent generations, but we lack the simple Yiras Shamayim that characterized our grandparents. The simplicity of the lifestyle and the lack of material wealth enabled our ancestors to build their characters from within. The home was a bastion of emunah and the extended family assisted in the child rearing process.
Today is far different. The media has enabled our children to access the outside world in a manner never before available. Even our cell phones and palm pilots have internet capability. It is no longer possible to shelter our children from the secular world (perhaps with the exception of some very insular chassidic communities). Therefore, we need to give our children the same tools Yaakov Avinu gave Yosef before he was sent to Mitzrayim. We need to inculcate a deep sense of Yiras Shamaym within the souls of our children so that they can counteract the poisonous atmosphere of our world today.
Yet our educational system is sorely lacking in this area. After all, what yeshiva is accorded status based upon an intangible like Yiras Shamayim? Instead of appreciating the spiritual strength of each individual child, our yeshiva girls are recognized for their vast knowledge of chumash and navi, meforshim and yedios klalios. Girls without talent in these areas are segregated at a young age into a low expectation “B” class. What happens to the self-esteem of these vulnerable girls when their friends are elevated to the “top” classes while they languish in the dummy class?
At least in the boys’ schools, weaker classes can cover the same mesechta, albeit on a more superficial level. When asked, the weakest child is “holding in learning” in the same sugya as the strongest child. In a boys’ school, sports can be a great equalizer as well. Success on the ballfield translates into success socially. Lastly, since all men have a religious obligation to learn Torah, yeshivos attempt to instill in their boys a love of learning that will last a lifetime and go beyond the classroom. Because the goal for the curriculum is extra-curricular and inclusive, most boys ultimately find their place in the system. Even if some yeshivas are inappropriate for some boys, there are sufficient places in schools that are set up to serve the individual bachur. Those students who drop out of the system in high school often find their way back in the many yeshivas in Israel that serve their unique needs.
Our girls’ educational system however, does not adequately provide for the weaker student and attempts to foster an exclusive environment of excellence. Why must our girls memorize every Ramban in Chumash and every Malbim in Navi? Is there a mesorah for this approach to chinuch?
Rebbetzin Sarah Schneirer created the Bais Yaakov movement to combat the assimilation of young girls in Poland. Without adequate Jewish education, most girls had their heads in romantic novels and did not have the love of Yiddishkeit their mothers had.
If our girls attend 10 years of yeshiva and their minds are still on romantic novels and inappropriate movies in the eighth grade, something must be terribly wrong. Unlike the yeshiva system that is rooted in a deep mesorah spanning hundreds of years, there is no such mesorah for girls. Therefore, it is imperative that the limudei kodesh curriculum for Bais Yaakovs be completely re-evaluated.
Perhaps we have become a bit too competitive. Perhaps we have allowed the Israeli seminary system to dictate our curricula here? If a school loses 10 girls to the “streets” while 10 others get into the top seminary, is that a measure of success?
Our girls need to feel loved and validated by both their parents and their schools, especially when they go through the difficult trials of adolescence. They respond to inspirational Torah messages. They rise to the occasion when asked to do a chesed for another Jew. They need Navi lessons enriched with Hashkafah. They need to be elevated so they can appreciate the need for tznius. They need to feel the kedusha of our Holy Torah.
Parents also need to listen better and become involved more. We don’t have to send our child to a questionable party or social event just because “everyone” is going. We need to be more vigilant about the material that enters our homes and the access our children may have to inappropriate material on the internet. Even if we may believe that our computer is blocked, our children can access material in very creative ways. If we allow our children computer privileges, they must be very carefully monitored. We should check our children’s buddy lists, making sure we know each child on the list. We must keep the computer in a public space so that we can monitor internet activity better (even adults need to monitor their own internet use!).
Lastly, we need to learn to communicate better with our daughters. It is especially important for fathers to learn to relate better to their daughters. If daughters become alienated from their fathers, to whom will they turn to receive male affection? Who will provide for a daughter’s self-esteem if her father has become detached? Fathers must spend time with their daughters, listening and discussing their issues.
We face huge challenges. Maintaining our frum society is perhaps more difficult than at any other time in Jewish history. We must battle the influences of our corrupt culture by building our children’s neshamos through Yiras Shamayim and Ahavas Chesed. Our daughters need to be loved and validated by both of their parents and their teachers, not isolated and tracked and made to feel worthless.
My fellow educators are perhaps the most talented group of people in Klal Yisrael. If we commit ourselves to working toward solutions, in cooperation with parents, then I firmly believe that, like Sarah Schneirer decades ago, we can formulate a curriculum that will continue to produce Bnos Yisrael who will build beautiful families that would make our grandparents proud of us.
May HaShem help us to begin this monumental effort before it is too late.
Dean of Secular Studies
Yeshiva Darchei Torah