An outsider visiting Crown Heights might be forgiven for thinking that the women in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood represent the height of modesty. But some in the Brooklyn community, where the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is based, are concerned that modesty standards are slipping, and have launched a campaign to counter the trend.
Thus far, the effort—organized by a woman named Sheyna Goldin, with the approval of Chabad’s women’s organization, N’Shei Chabad—has involved putting up 500 posters encouraging adherence to modesty laws. But not everyone in the organization agrees with Goldin’s approach, and a frisson of disagreement has broken out over it—and whether the declining standards are even anything new.
“It’s Not Just a Good Idea, IT’S THE LAW!” proclaim the posters, which appeared recently on Kingston Avenue and other neighborhood thoroughfares. The fliers go on to list the laws of tznius, or modesty (modest dress must begin at age three; shirts must cover collarbones; skirts must cover knees) and their talmudic sources. Fine print at the bottom explains the spiritual rewards for modest dress and the consequences for disregarding it.
Even in Crown Heights, such public pronouncements of religious law are unusual—which was the point, Goldin argued.
“Everything is out in the street now; it’s kind of corresponding to the times,” she said, in an interview with Nextbook. “In the shuls, not everyone would see it. It’s more emphatic, like we really mean business.”
“You have to set the standard, not lower yourself to it,” echoed Esther Rochel Spielman, who coordinates subscriptions for N’Shei Chabad’s newsletter. Spielman said that she was seeing more short or slit skirts and tight clothing on young women in the community.
“There is a decline in the men also, the teenagers,” she added. “A lot of them will think it’s cool to go without tsisis [ritual fringes].”
But even some who agree that modesty standards are slipping find Goldin’s approach too aggressive.
“Modesty standards have been declining for decades,” said Bronya Shaffer, a mother of 10 who teaches and lectures in the community on Jewish family life. Shaffer, who was sitting in her dining room surrounded by hundreds of religious books, picked up a copy of the New York Times Magazine that was lying on the table beside a copy of a Chabad magazine and gestured disapprovingly at a risqué Chanel advertisement on the back cover. But the posters also made her wince.
“The medium itself is antithetical to the very essence of modesty,“ she said of the posters. ”It’s not the Chabad way. I cringe at the specter of kids, young boys and girls, reading in huge letters, in bold technicolor, about uncovered legs and necklines and tight clothing.”
Goldin said that the posters are directed toward both Lubavitchers who live in the neighborhood and visitors to the community.
“The darkness in the world is very great and influences everybody,” Goldin said. “The posters are a fortification and a reminder that this is really not just a nice thing, but a total law from the Torah.”
Sara Labkowski, the dean of a school for young women in the process of becoming more religious, said that because Crown Heights, unlike more isolated ultra-Orthodox enclaves, is “a very open community” located in the heart of Brooklyn, the posters would help to remind young Lubavitchers in the neighborhood of the modesty laws. She helped to distribute flyer-sized versions of the poster at a vigil for the Chabad emissaries killed in the recent terrorist attack on Mumbai.
For Spielman, the decline in modesty is just another sign of what she believes is directly on the horizon.
“I guess we’re getting very close to the moshiach,” she said, using the Hebrew word for messiah. “The satan [devil] tries to attack in any ways he could.”