September 3, 2012 by Benji
Last week Batsheva Zacks, a Detroit expat living in Israel posted an article on her blog (you can read it at the end of this post) about her experience at Bais Yaakov, an ultra orthodox school system that has a branch in Oak Park. All three of my sisters went there, I know her family, and I was a classmate of her brother at Beth Yehuda.
The Zacks family is a top notch, upstanding first class family, they are good people. It’s truly unfortunate that Batsheva had this type of experience in BY. Her eloquent way of putting it on paper has inspired countless people to reach out to her and let her know she was not alone in feeling out of place in the Yeshiva system.
I too felt like the religious schools I went to didn’t have a place for me. A big chunk of that was my fault; I did my part as an angry child and then angry teenager to distance myself from the rest of the pack. But the idea that the Orthodox Jewish Community doesn’t have room to tolerate any kids that don’t fit their form is horrible.
There is a saying in the Navy “a ship doesn’t leave harbor without its cook, but it also can’t leave if only cooks are on board”. Relative to this conversation, there is not a right or wrong type of Judaism. The way I understand Judaism and G-d in general is that he wants to have a personal relationship with each one of us, that’s it.
If we compare G-d to a father, than isn’t it simple to understand that parents have different relationships with each one of their children? I have two daughters, they both have certain rules and expectations, but there are many differences in the way we relate. Why would one think that each one of us has to have the same relationship and expectations from G-d.
Batsheva, Thank you for sharing your experience. You are not alone. I admire your objective view and strength in Judaism in light of the mistreatment. I went in the opposite direction of you for a long time. Today I stand comfortably in the middle. Keep doing what you are doing; all G-d wants from you is to know you are engaged in the relationship.
Below is her blog post.
How Bais Yaakov Almost Ruined my Life
By: Batsheva Zacks
Published: August 31st, 2012
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.
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.
Here is a follow up Batsheva posted on her Blog.
Monday, September 3, 2012
I want to say, before anything else, that I never expected this type of response from my blog post. I’m overwhelmed and amazed by how many people have had the same or very similar experiences to mine, and hearing their stories is more inspiring then anything else.
Had I known that 4,195 people would be reading what I had to say, there are a few things I would have added. For one, I’d like to answer the question that I’ve seen on every comment thread: Where were the parents?
My parents are incredible, open minded people. They have always supported me in every decision I have made and I have never blamed them for sending me to Bais Yaakov. In my community, it was the best option at the time and I can’t say I would’ve made a different decision had I been in their shoes. They made me follow the school rules, because as many of you pointed out – when you are part of an institution, you must follow the rules of that institution.
When I was younger, I didn’t tell them how I was feeling, because I felt that I was wrong. I didn’t tell them when I got in trouble in school, because I didn’t want to get in trouble at home too. However, as I got older it was pretty clear that Bais Yaakov was not for me. As soon as I was old enough, they sent me to a much more open minded boarding school in another state where they felt I could find my own place in Judaism.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who felt unaccepted religiously. Most of them, at one point or another, threw religion away. I never did that. I have never intentionally broken Shabbat, never eaten at a restaurant that wasn’t Kosher. I credit that completely and totally to my parents. My parents are YES people. Shabbat was not the day where I couldn’t go on my computer or go rollerblading – it was the day that I got to spend time with my family and friends. The dining room table was always covered in board games, popcorn, and chocolate chip cookies. Chagim were the same way. My father loves to learn. Dinnertime was centered around what time minyan was that day. Religion was a very positive thing in my home. As a kid, I didn’t connect THAT Judaism with what I was learning. It was just our lifestyle.
When I said I wish someone had been there to tell me all the things I know about Judaism now, I was wrong. There were people who would have told me, had I been brave enough to ask. I have had many amazing influences in my life – my siblings, friends, families in my community. Now, looking back, I can see the effect that they had on me. But when I was fourteen and feeling like I didn’t fit in, I didn’t think anyone would understand.
One other thing I’d like to clear up is that I didn’t write the post to place blame. To quote Rascal Flatts, “God bless the broken road”, and I wouldn’t go back and change anything. All of my experiences have led me to the place I am now, and I’m very happy here. As I said, the Bais Yaakov system works for some. My friends graduated from there and most of them have no idea why I wrote what I did. My intention was never to hurt or offend – I just had something I felt that I needed to say. Based on the amount of positive responses I received, I think I made the right decision by posting it.
Thank you so much for reading, and have a great week 🙂