What Not to Wear – Some in Crown Heights Detect Modesty Crisis

Marissa Brostoff – Next Book

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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.”

39 Comments

  • 1. Martin wrote:

    And Crown Heights is part of NYC? of America? Where the city has the right to fine anybody who puts up posters on city utility polls? Enough already. Let people make their own decisions, not the fashion police.

  • 3. about tznius wrote:

    i think that the following should be brought to someones attention: There are many shiurs, discussions, etc. about the importance of tznius. However, the ones who need it most don’t attend any of these programs. Maybe some friendly encouragement to those who need these programs would do good…….

  • 4. observer wrote:

    Do you really think anyone will change what they are doing because of a poster on the street????I think at best it might have a negative impact.It is almost like when you have a non observant person come over on shabbos and say don’t drive on shabbos will that have a positive impact ?most likely not .The point isn’t if what the poster says is correct (it is) it’s just that the way it is being presented is wrong.The only way to change behavior in any long term meaningful way is a positive interaction -private conversations, the person coming to an understanding on their own etc.-not posters on the street.

  • 5. On Second Thought wrote:

    KOL HAKAVOD! May Hashem grant them Siyata Lishmaya and help them to rally this cause purely L’shem Shamiyim!

    However, may I add two comments?

    1) Tznius is not just external, but internal. We have to also work on our thoughts as well. To be externally tznius, but internally not is not enough. However, the external effects the internal (Misilus Yisharim). I would venture to say that this applies only when one’s ultimate goal is to eventually internalize the limud. It would help for us to study portions of the Torah and Chazal that deal with tznius such as “Aiyeh Sarah?…”, so as to understand the importance of tznius to Hashem Yisborach.

    2) Let’s not be foolish and think that tznius is purely a female thing. We men also need to work on our tznius and B’Ezras Hashem together we will become a holy nation worthy of B’us Ha’Moshiach!

  • 6. almoni wrote:

    Before making any comments, of what you have seen on the street,look at your own children and home…and comment on them!

  • 8. SDS wrote:

    while the sentiment is certainly commendable it must be a tiny minority of the CH community that don’t know this already. The Rebbe taught us how to approach people. By providing an example of tnius in action and behaviour but in a kind, and non-judgemental way – an example that people can live up to and most importantly want to live up to.

  • 9. Sara wrote:

    Isn’t THIS the idea? – that keeping tznius will help push away our enemies – obviously in ERETZ YISROEL and surely in our own “backyard” and who knows – can it mean our own personal enemy – the yetzer hora? Maybe it means quite simply that modesty can KEEP OUR ENEMIES AWAY. Anyway – that’s what the Torah is saying here. This is a WEAPON.
    And what about the fact that one receives brochos for one’s own family and children and grandchildren – isn’t that worth thinking about?
    Question: does Hashem actually MEAN this in the Chumash and the Zohar, which the Rebbe brings out – for our BENEFIT, or are these idle statements (chas v’shalom)?
    To little me – sounds like the Torah has something going for us there!

  • 12. Zalman wrote:

    Congratulations, ******, you have officially made a laughingstock out of Lubavitch.

    Here’s a little hint for you: if the media is reporting on extremist action, they’re mocking it.

    Also: “A total law from the Torah”: Did you come up with that phrase all by yourself?

  • 13. Keep up the good work wrote:

    >“Modesty standards have been declining for decades,” said >Bronya Shaffer

    Even if that’s true, “hayoim la’asoisom,” it’s never too late to start doing something right, even if it has been neglected for decades.

    >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.”

    But it gets the message to the vast majority of women and girls that is not going to hear or read about it in any other forum. And it raises awareness of the issue in the entire community. As for those young boys and girls, better they should read about it in bold, technicolor WRITING, than see it in bold, technicolor PERSON.

  • 14. source of the problem wrote:

    kol hakavod but i think the tznius problems start on the internet, kids should not be aloud on it at all

  • 15. ff wrote:

    You know it is pretty bad when the “non Yidden” long time residents in the hood comment on how the ladies are dressing. The workers in some of our mosdos have commented as well as several residents. It actually bothers them!!!
    They expect more from us and they are disappointed that our standards have dropped and we are no different than the rest of the world. Too bad these people are looking for attention this way. Any women who exposes parts of herself whether in clothes that are too tight or simply uncovered will get looks from both men and women, what’s the chiddush? That is precisely why the laws of tznius exist. Does it actually thrill these poor women to have any man or boy stare at them are they actually so starved for attention? It is sad.

  • 17. proud lubavitcher wrote:

    Look at the bright side, someone is extending themselves to help better the spiritual standards of our community! Tizku LeMitzvos.

    As for the nay sayers who say it won’t help, remember that this is not a community of people who are apathetic to their spiritual standards. Most of us want to do the right thing but need a reminder now and then.It wont work for everyone but 1 person changed can tip the scales!

  • 18. Zvi in Russia wrote:

    Observer, you are 100% correct. I doubt this campaign will actually change some peoples minds. The organizers of such efforts should think about it from the point of view of the people they want to reach…

  • 19. ceo wrote:

    I very much appreciate “on second thought’s” comments, and Steve’s as well.
    There is an inside and as well,an outside…..outside we must be clean and modest, and inside, we must be clean in thought and modest in thought. How can we help this? Work on ourselves, and extend love, consideration and thoughtfulness to others so that they will feel loved and respected and will then feel like working on themselves as well. Some of these people who are dressing immodestly may feel unimportant and / or not respected, or whatever. We need to help affect the change on a deeper level.

  • 20. Shimon wrote:

    Posters might not be enough … maybe we should organize brigades of men with paint and clubs to force the girls into being tznius, then we’ll really be fighting for Hashem.

    Yes, I’m being sarcastic, violent tznius patrols aren’t the Lubavitcher way … BUT NEITHER ARE THESE SIGNS.

  • 21. Chaim wrote:

    How can you reconize a non tzious women without seeing her?
    If you see on Shabboss afternoon a frum person with a beard and kapata and his talis is on his shoulders without a hat and his wife is walking next to him. Even without seeing her for sure she is not tziuos.
    Look and see the truth

  • 22. blvd wrote:

    Dear steve, would you tell me “stop worrying about pepole puting on tefilin, first worry about ahavas yisrael?”
    or, “forget about helping women light Shobbos candles, first worry about ahavas yisrael?”

  • 23. Roses wrote:

    In what way will posters encourage tznius, or for that matter, any mitzvah? Dvarim HaYotzim Min HaLev Nichnasin El HaLev, there is no trace of heart in diatribes about young women’s (or men’s) attire.
    Did anyone ever stop smoking, drive recklessly etc.. because of a poster?
    I was in chinuch my entire life, so I am not an outsider when I say that perhaps the chinuch should be re-examined. Something clearly isn’t working. When I was a new teacher, age 21, when I asked the Rebee for a brachah , he told me, (in Yiddish) “The most important part of success in teaching is that the ”morah” should be a dugma chayah – a role model.
    You can dictate, put up signs, punish, yell… that is not the key to reach young people.

  • 24. ch-er wrote:

    it shouldn’t just be with posters from the n’shei chabad it should be from the rabonnim, merkos and ALL the the rebbes mosdos, put all politics aside the leaders of chabad and of corwn heights should get together with the prinpales of our yeshivas and girls schools and no boy or girl should be let in to yeshiva if his or her mother or father dos not dress tzniusdik. i’m sorry that it has been brought to such alevel were nobody cares in this cummunity about our values of chssidim and that we all carry the rebbe’s name were every go do you want the rebbes name to be mekadesh or c”v the opposit. may we be zoche and see the rebbe b’hisgalus now!

  • 25. yates ha-cohen wrote:

    Taliban style rules, before we judge the arabs we should ask ourselves, are we really that different? Down with the Taliban, down with extremism. Let people make there own choices. Remember why both Beis Hamikdosh’ were destroyed….

  • 26. IT HELPED!! wrote:

    A not frum friend went to visit Crown Heights for the weekend and she was the one who told me about the posters. To quote her,“I really tried to be more tznius in Crown Heights. There were all these posters I passed that helped me remember how.” She also mentioned that she wasn’t aware of all the laws until seeing those posters and that she is going to try to be more tznius in the future.

  • 27. Roses wrote:

    Very interesting that most, at least many, of the comments come from men. Why are men so hung up on women’s tznius? That in itself is not very appropriate. Perhaps that’s whom the women are dressing for – all the “L’Shem Shamayim” boys and men who check out how immodest and provacitive the women dress.

  • 28. I agree with bob wrote:

    every one is so afraid to say something “if you see something say something”

  • 29. Miriam wrote:

    Just as a well- known rosh yeshive puts it, “everybody wants to be everybody else´s mashpia”.

  • 30. A reader from Carroll Street wrote:

    Tsnius chinuch has to start earlier and in a loving way. I wish we would adapt the yeshivish “Ateres” program for our girls. They start this program when girls are in elementary school and pair them up with a leader who’s either a teenager or a young married lady. The content would have to be adapted to Lubavitch hashkafos but it’s a thought.

  • 31. Shimon wrote:

    This is mamish a case of the shoemaker’s kids having no shoes. It’s safe to say Lubavitch has the most experience with kiruv, the most kiruv experts … and then to end up with these signs in Crown Heights. If they had used the word Din instead of Law it could have been more palatable. “It’s the law,” hits me in the kishkes like it was written by a meshuganer. And mishugoyim don’t make a great case for yiddishkeit. Or maybe it’s a male-female thing in which case I say, Boruch … sheloy asani eeshoh.

  • 32. e where wrote:

    Congratulations!! I’m not Lubavitch but I love you all as part of Am Yisrael, and it really pains me how Chabad girls, who are such WONDERFUL role models in initiative, caring about others, and Torah learning, lack this one trait. I am so happy that there is an awareness of this among you! I hope Hashem blesses you and makes thsi work!

    To those who don’t understand why this works: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Paris won’t be destroyed in a day. But when you see a poster about it, at least you think about it. The next time you’re deciding what to wear, the poster might cross your mind and slowly, slowly, through this and other initiatives, the problem will be solved.

    Ki Hashem Elokecha, mishalech b’kerev machanecha, l’hatzilcha v’lases oyvecha lifanecha, Vhaya machanecha kadosh, v’lo yireh bicha ervas davar v’shav mei’acharecha.
    (For Hashem your G-d walks within your camp, to save you and to put your enemies before you, therefore your camp should be holy, and there should not be among you something inappropirately revealed which will make Hashem go away from you.)

  • 33. Raizel wrote:

    I as a married crow heights lady must say that I am discusted by peple dictating and tryig to impose upon me how I should be dressed. Please define tsnius. Modest does not mean that we must dress like the fanatical Muslims, or does it? Since when is a slit or lower neck line, not modest? Look at the photos of your elter bubbe from Russia annd eve women from very “chassidishe” homes… see the way they are dressed and tell mme why now we have to all of a sudden be frumer than them. They did not have tv, internet, billboards etc. yet they were’t dressed the way we are being demanded of today. So I think it is a bit oxymoranic of those insissting this. We dress modest, bur not Muslim. Thank you.

  • 36. miriam wrote:

    The ATeres program is wounderful. They teach young children the beauty of keeping tznius. They make them aware of who they are, daughters of HASHEM. As a bas melech they must dress accordingly. The girls go home discussing all that they have learnt, and guess what? the adults at home learn as well. Now I know why they say I’ts gonna be the little kinderlach to make moschiach come, speedily in our days!

  • 37. miriam wrote:

    we must remember who we are. Kedoshim,kedoshim,kedoshim…
    NOW let’s dress accordingly!
    Let’s make this a dwelling place for the “SHCINA”.

  • 38. On Second Thought wrote:

    To all those that question the effectiveness of the posters:

    I AM SURPRISED AT YOU!!! And what about ALL the POSTERS that are put up stating “Hachinu L’Bius HaMoshiach!”. What about “We Want Moshiach”, Moshiach Kippahs, Moshiach buttons, Menorahs on Cars, files that discuss lighting Shabbos candles, etc.

    Are all those for not? Are all those ineffective? What’s the difference?
    To all those that claim TALIBAN and have “Live and Let Live” attitudes:

    1) Tznius is an integral part of Yiddishkeit. The greatest praise of a woman in the Torah is about Sarah Imanu, “Iyei Sarah?”.

    2) Everything in that poster is quoted from a Halachic source. If you want to argue from a different Halachic source that differs you have the rights to do so, but to just open you mouth and say stupidities that CLEARLY contradict Halachah and what’s worse, accuse the Torah and Yiddishkeit of Taliban hanhagas is complete AM Haratzetz and borders Apikorses.

    3) Perhaps there are better means then Advertisements, but honestly, are you trying to implement them? Furthermore, if you are against these posters what about the Rebbe posters? Aren’t you aware that the Misnagdim HATE seeing them?! It doesn’t bother us when the Rebbe’s message challenges the not-yet-frum or the Misnagdim’s ways of thinking, but when it hits home, all of a sudden you cry “Extremist”! Please explain me what the difference is!

    When we go around in Mitzva mobiles and putting on tefillin aren’t we trying to strengthen Klal Yisroel? Is it wrong to start from the home and strengthen our own families and our own community first? Can we really expect to affect others if we are acting hypocritical? How can we convince others to cover their hair while we go around with shirts or skirts that don’t follow the guidelines of Halacha? That’s two faced!

  • 39. sara wrote:

    I agree very good answer but we still have to help people one on one. I don’t live in ch but people that come there are very upset and tell me “what is happening with the tznius in ch” you want to live there you should dress the way the rebbe would want you to if you were going past the rebbe for dollars! would
    you be embarrass and ashamed? the world is getting darker but don’t be the one to do it instead bring light and bring moshiach its not easy but who said it is every one should help each other one on one in any way possible privately better and strengthen the other in the things they need help with, with Ahavas Israel we will win this war of the yeitzer hara!think before you get dressed!! trying to help

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