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.
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,