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19-Year-Old Letter is More Relevant Than Ever

As we enter the summer months, we share with our readers a letter written to Mrs. Shaindel Teichtel 19 years ago by mother of a then high school girl who was a peer and friend, herself a renowned Crown Heights educator, after she expressed grave concern to her on the level of Tznius in the local girls’ schools and in the wider community. Every word of the letter is still relevant today.

CrownHeights.info reached out to the author of the letter, who confirmed its authenticity and – though she wishes to remain anonymous – encouraged us to share it with the community.

Dear Shaindel,

I received the letter that was sent from Bais Rivkah regarding the tznius or rather lack therof among our students. Clearly, this is a problem, a serious problem, in our community, and clearly it must be addressed. How to raise the level of observance of this particular mitzvah in Crown Heights is a daunting challenge…but a challenge that must be met. Addressing the issue in school, however, is much easier.

Tznius, unlike negel vasser or chitas or mezuzah or birchas hamazon, is not a specific behavior that can be taught. Of course there are parameters that define the basic elements of tzniusdik clothing, and these detailed laws our girls know, I would venture to say, backwards and forwards. Since very early on in their education they are taught about measurements, measurements of sleeves, hems, etc. However, the very essence of tznius, the sense of it, the aesthetic of it, cannot be taught by legislature. And, most of all, that is what seems to be lacking among our girls – the intuitive sense of what is appropriate for a Bas Yisroel. You and I grew up with the ability to discern “tzu s’past, tzu s’past nisht”…that idea covered everything from clothing to behavior to language to stance, walk, entertainment…every decision, conversation, interaction, every relationship, every curiosity, every desire, or wish or aspiration…everything could fit in the category of either “s’past” or “s’past nisht.” And tznius especially. A garment on a hanger could meet every single criterion for tznius, we knew, and still, when donned, could be relegated to the category of “s’past nisht”. And that same garment could be worn by my mother, or aunt or sister or friend and be just fine, yet, on me, could be determined as unacceptable, my mother would sometimes simply say, “it’s not nice.” And she didn’t mean the garment.

This, I think, is what we have to convey to our daughters. The sensibility of tznius. The sense of dignity. The self-respect. And that, sadly, is not easy to teach and enforce, it’s not something that can be decreed by some rule or by-law. And it’s certainly not something our daughters will integrate by having a figure of authority in the school (or community) make judgements about a particular article of clothing or jewelry or footwear. Don’t misunderstand me, please, I’m not advocating that our girls (and boys, for that matter) should dress as they please and we should give no guidance – quite the contrary. I think that there should be very rigid rules about the dress code in school. I think it’s essential that our daughters accustom themselves to discipline, they must realize that a rule decided upon by the administration of the school is not for them to debate, or agree or disagree with; they must know that to flout school rules is to suffer the consequences. However, in order for the real experience of tznius to be apparent, we absolutely must find some way to reach our girls so that they find the ideals of tznius something that is for themselves, for their very real selves, very desirable. So far, we must admit, whatever we’ve done hasn’t worked. So what do we do now? I certainly appreciate the difficulty under which you and your colleagues labor, but I have to honestly say that another letter to the girls regarding tznius, and what they may and may not, is simply not the answer. And this is important enough that we have to find an answer! We can bury them in a blizzard of letters with quotes from the rabbonim and quotes from Shulchan Oruch and from sichos … But we’ve done this before, with the obvious results. They’re not moved, Shaindel, and that’s what so painful… They’re not moved. Tznius is not another lesson in hasgochas or shemiras Shabbos, another lesson in perfecting a mitzvah. Tznius is is what each and every Jewish girl’s concept of herself is. This is where we have to touch them… In a very deep and central, central place of themselves. We haven’t done it yet.

I’m not an educator, I haven’t ever worked with adolescent girls; I really don’t profess to any knowledge or intuition about what makes them do what they do, think what they think. But I have a feeling that our girls are not so unlike all other adolescent girls – different lifestyles, but not so very different. I believe in their emotional and psychological makeup. And this is a very reassuring thought to me, because I do know that adolescents can be moved. They can be inspired. They can be touched. And they can be nurtured into growth. So there’s very good reason I believe, to be optimistic about the future. We need to find the right vehicle. I wish I knew what it was. We know what it isn’t from all our years of previous efforts; we must discover what it is. Perhaps we should ask the girls themselves?  Perhaps, a questionnaire, anonymously answered, in which the students were asked what they think? Who are their role models? Whom they admire? How do they feel about the way they look? Who do they dress for? What do they think the project with their apparel? Why do they choose the attire that they do? How do they see themselves? How would they like to see themselves? Who do they identify with? With whom would they like to be identified? How do they feel about the terms “Bas Yisroel” and “Bas Chabad”? How do they define themselves to themselves? To others? …  Perhaps if the girls thought they were invited to enter into dialogue with people of their choice, we might learn how to reach that most sensitive place, the identity of Jewish femininity.

And if we can touch that place, perhaps then the awareness of inner dignity, projected dignity, the self-consciousness of self-respect – perhaps once they were turned on to these, they would then begin to feel the stirrings of desire for honest, sincere, tmimisdike tznius.

It’s all on the inside, shining out. The garb reflects the sense. And they could become aware of this. We, a  as adults, we need to raise their consciousness, gently and respectfully. And we need to impose very clear, strong, enforceable codes for the school. They are not mutually exclusive – quite the contrary, they feed and strengthen. And it really could work.

I started this letter by stating that improving standards of tznius is more easily accomplished in school. I believe that, because we have a population that’s young and inexperienced and very, very impressionable. We also have the right, in school, to establish certain absolute requirements. (This is not the same as community authority figures establishing rules and regulations; there really is no way to enforce any kind of code in a community). I feel that it is vital, at this time, that the hanhola of the school seriously discuss how to use the power vested in them to formulate a set of rules for the dress code, to enforce this code with respect and absolute commitment to the dress code. At the same time, I feel that it is imperative that we begin a program of consciousness – raising regarding the very essence of Jewish womanhood. This is not something that will be accomplished in a year or two. This will take years, no doubt, but if we just look around ourselves we can see in how many areas we, you and I, I have become more and more aware of issues, sensitivities have been developed, and as we become more aware, as our own consciousness is raised, we begin to

Integrate ideas and thoughts, and then find ourselves behaving in ways that are compatible with these new sensitivities. This is how we plant seeds that sprout into a system of morality and ethics and ultimately a set of behavior. Because we feel it’s right. Not only because our teacher told us, but because we’ve actually incorporated into our own self the sense of morality, etc., because it’s become who I really am, and therefore it’s what I project. It’s a slow process, it’s a growing process, but ultimately a very tmimisdike process. And that’s what must happen. Our teachers must teach their students the Law. But the only part of it that they can teach is the letter of the law. The spirit of the law… well, that’s something that can never be taught to a child, it’s a seed that might be planted and nurtured and coddled and supported, and then the child can’t help but find that seed of emmes firmly entrenched in her own being. And then that’s how she’ll behave.

And that’s how we adults have to start thinking about it. About five and seeds deep, deep within our children. Not about more and more rules that they can quote verbatim before they even read the latest letter, not more speeches about slips and slits and length and width, – that just turns them off, Shaindel, – it’s not easy to say this, but unfortunately, it’s true. We simply can’t afford to turn them off anymore. We have to find some way to turn them on -on to who they really and truly are. They really don’t know themselves, and that’s why the emulate that which is other, and it’s our responsibility to direct them in a way that’s effective. Again, I don’t want you to misunderstand this, I’m not suggesting at all that whatever impropriety we see we should ignore; quite strongly the contrary. But that’s not enough. It hasn’t been until now, it’s not now. We must confront this reality. And we must, absolutely must, find another way. Because if we don’t, Shaindel, if we can’t turn around this slow but very pervasive encroachment of values that are foreign to us as Jewish mothers, and as Lubavitcher mothers, I’m afraid that our daughters will lose any ability to reach in and connect with their most intimate, essential self.

I know that you sincerely care about each and every one of your students, I know that you would do anything possible to improve their quality of life, and that’s why I directed this letter to you. If there’s any way in which I can be of help, please let me know.

With great respect, I remain,

Yours truly,

16 Comments

  • 1. Beautiful! wrote:

    I believe every word written here. Coming from a teenager, I agree.
    I agree that I look up to my teachers and mechanchos as role models for how to behave and dress. It’s a huge responsibility, which makes me question my aspiration to become a teacher myself one day…
    I agree that there needs to be, and there is another way
    I agree that it needs to come from the heart and be planted into who we are, not just the rules we follow
    I agree that something can and WILL change.
    Call me credulous, call me naive, I believe in Hashem. And I believe that if we do our part, He will surely do the rest.

    Reply
  • 2. Experienced mom wrote:

    Totally to the point. Positivity will bring a good outcome as opposed to more speeches etc. The girls have great neshomos so they have a greater “nisayon”. Dialogue, as you mentioned, is very important. We have to hear what they have to say and imbue them with a love and desire to be tsniusdig. Perhaps, also, more stories about women who were tznius and the reward and blessings they received. Also, I am sure if they knew how it affected the safety of Israel, their soldiers and much more, they may be more inclined to take it to heart.

    Reply
  • 5. The kangeroo wrote:

    Enough of this subject. If you realy want to be tzniuis wear a Hijab or a Burqa.

    Reply
  • 7. SO Sad!! wrote:

    Yesterday was the Bais Rivka HS graduation. The number of women & girls who showed up dressed inappropriately was astounding.
    Where is the respect for what an institution represents?? How do they not exercise SOME decorum for a religious school? Please Hashem, send Moshiach now before there’s no one to redeem…

    Reply
  • 8. question wrote:

    seems like the high school did not heed this letter…or else my friends’s daughter would not have been told..” pick up your skirt so i can check if you’re wearing the right socks” That embarresment caused her to leave BR. and go to a non chabad school and eventually married out of chabad Just what would make our Rebbe proud… not Are our machanchos aware that one who caused embarresment is like shfichas domim……so apparentlyBR did not take this letter to heart….. how sad……and this mechaneches is still there….how very sad

    Reply
  • 9. PLEASE NOTE CORRECTION wrote:

    Correction:
    This was written by a Bais Rivkah mother (also a friend – hence the first name salutation), not Mrs.Teichtel’s mashpia.

    Reply
  • 10. Anonymous wrote:

    Bulls eye! The letter writer hit it on the nose to perfection! May u be blessed by finally explaining the problem and why it was not working the. and even more so now, 19 years later fortunately.
    Sensitivity, inner dignity, self respect, our essence… are the
    keys to it all!

    Reply
  • 11. Finally! wrote:

    What a breath of fresh air! Finally discussing practical things to get things to change with the sad reality of the lack of tznius (and self-respect!) of so many in our community.
    I’m a child of the 70s and even back then (well HS was in the 80s) the emphasis in HS was on the wrong thing! Instead of learning about the beauty of Kol Kvuda bas Melech… the staff was busy looking up our skirts as we walked up the stairs! Or asking us if we’re wearing tights or socks because the design looks like that of socks!
    Our mothers’ generation is/was a lot more farfrumt than us and they wore/wear knee-his in the summer time. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the knees are covered. But in school without seeing a knee, you could be sent home if asked (and didn’t want to lie!)
    And the saddest thing for me was when one of our mechanchos (who was very quick to send girls home if they answered that they were wearing socks-even though she didn’t see their knees) and we actually respected her (even if she was annoying with the socks/tights issue;) She came to visit our apartment when visiting the city where we were staff of the local GI camp. And yes, it was a very hot day, and when she sat down we saw that she too was wearing knee his! Our respect for her went right out the window!
    Someone in a previous response mentioned how many women showed up not tzniusdik to the graduations this past Sunday. How sad that it had to be written on the invitation to the gradation-‘Please dress according to Halacha.’ And look-it didn’t accomplish anything. Those that don’t care-came dressed like…
    Something has to be done-and certainly not adding more rules and regulations!

    Reply
    • 12. Mendel Kohen wrote:

      Makes sense to have written on the invitation to the gradation-‘Please dress according to Halacha.’

      Many homes have grown up children OTD… Many BT have parents and relatives that are not shomer mitzvos… And then there are those who should know better!

      We are an inclusive community!

  • 13. Finally wrote:

    This letter is of utmost importance because of the huge outcry to Mrs Waldman’s op-ed. She said much of what is said here – basically that more and more stricter rules just doesn’t work. And here is a letter that is saying exactly that – TWENTY YEARS AGO! In other words, for the last almost thirty years girls in CH have been taught lots and lots of rules. And here we are a whole generation later t hat grew up with these rules who now have their own teenagers, and its the same story all over again!! Shouldn’t we learn from the past??
    The point is that with all do respect to Rabbi Gurary he is just doing what has been done for three decades with the obvious results. His ‘initiative’ is not something all brand new. And his results won’t be either. Experience is the best teacher, and our rule-makers haven’t learned any lessons yet.

    Reply
  • 14. Mendel Kohen wrote:

    Same can be said about the entire Torah full of strict rules: “basically that more and more stricter rules just doesn’t work… our rule-makers haven’t learned any lessons yet”.

    People broke the rules when they built a Golden Calf, so let’s ease up[ on “rules” aka mitzvos…

    Reply
  • 15. Dear wrote:

    Hi!
    With due respect,
    I’d like to take it from a different perspective – a letter written to a principal should be addressed with more respect – Mrs. so and so… and even if it wasn’t, at least when written for public viewing.
    This is what it basically boils down to – respect to higher authority, a respect to a higher calling. Our children need to see that there is respect all around and then they will ultimately respect Shulchan Oruch or school rules too.

    Reply
  • 16. to #15 wrote:

    Read the editor’s note!
    The letter was written by a friend, and it wasn’t a formal letter to the hanhola. Please read the end too. She signs it (even as a friend) ‘with great respect’. The whole letter is in a tone of closeness and respect! So please stop trying to create an issue – if anything, this is an example of respectful disagreement!!!

    Reply

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