Sunday, November 10, 2013

Women Assault Rabbis with Sights and Smells (And Other Interesting Tales from Lakewood)

     One of the reasons that this blog is called "Jewish Outreach: What Your Rabbi Isn't Telling You" is due to the inaccurate picture of ultra-orthodox life often painted by Jewish outreach/kiruv workers.  Once one leaves the idyllic realm of kiruv experiences, there is a very real world that exists on the other side of a few semesters or years at yeshiva or seminary that most people people don't know about, or even understand until moving into such a community. The following excerpts from screenshots were recently taken from the publication "The Voice of Lakewood," published for the orthodox community in Lakewood, New Jersey.
     In the first excerpt, notice that  a woman is complaining that young girls (second grade, to be exact,) in a summer camp setting (in someone's home) have exposed skin between their high socks and their skirts. Notice the level of concern of the writer.
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     Notice the second picture in which women and girls are told to cut their hair or sheitels (wigs) to an "acceptable length." This advertisement is endorsed by Lakewood rabbonim (rabbis) and roshei yeshiva (heads of yeshivas.) 

     The third picture, a letter to the Voice of Lakewood, signed "Appalled in Lakewood," is from a father who is appalled that his daughter's teacher wears a wig that is longer than her shoulders. This is apparently in direct conflict with the family's values which stress that a married woman's wig must not go past her shoulders. Rather than complain to the community, perhaps he could have explained to his daughter that different people hold by different beliefs, even within the realm of orthodox Judaism. Kiruv is often  guilty of the same thing, teaching that orthodox Judaism, and Judaism in general, can only be practiced one way--the way of the kiruv worker.

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     Picture four provides further understanding of the status of women in the Lakewood orthodox community. Mothers of cheder (school-age) boys are urged by "a Lakewood Rebbi" "not [to] dress up excessively ... and definitely do not wear perfume" for parent-teacher conferences with the rebbi (a male teacher.) This "Lakewood Rebbi" then asks "why can't we trust the child's father to go alone and bring home a report? ...Perhaps the mothers could set up a phone meeting with the rebbi. He would be thrilled to do so instead of being assaulted by all types of sights and smells two evenings a year." It seems that "a Lakewood Rebbi" is trying very hard to be labeled a misogynist, proclaiming in print his disgust for women and belief that women really don't need to have any part in their male children's education.

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If you weren't already sure as to why the Lakewood orthodox community feels that women's modesty, or tznius, is important, the following letter to the Voice of Lakewood should clarify their perspective. You see, when one is first learning from his/her kiruv/outreach rabbi, one isn't told that the reason ultra-orthodox women are pressured to dress a certain way  is because of the belief that a woman's hemline directly affects whether or not Jews get hurt or die. (This isn't an isolated incident. Signage to this effect was found in Brooklyn, where women learned that they'd be "severely punished" for not following the laws of modesty. You can also read about how the ultra orthodox community consistently obscures the faces of females in their publications.) The author of this letter, who signs off as "Someone Who's Embarrassed of the Image of Lakewood," offers readers what should be understood as concern: "What are you doing to yourself and others? That person that got hurt or died--it might have been because of you." She further states that her husband "refuses to go to the grocery store because he feels like it's a junkyard looking at all that garbage that people are wearing." I'd like to think that perhaps this is just her husband's excuse to get his wife to go shopping so that he doesn't have to, but alas, the prevalent feeling is that the women must help protect their husbands from impure thoughts. To do so, they use community pressure to push their beliefs on others within the community--even those who might not be observing at the same level.

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     The question is, why is  what goes on in Lakewood, New Jersey, relevant to this blog? After all, Lakewood isn't the be all and end all of campus (or other) kiruv practice. But that's just my point. Lakewood is an ultra-orthodox community. Like other ultra-orthodox communities, there are people in and from Lakewood who work or volunteer with kiruv organizations. These letters are in their community's magazine and are representative of issues that are grappled with by those in the community. These letters are indicative of the archaic lens through which community leaders view and control  women and their bodies in the name of Judaism. When whole communities buy into the belief that the length of a woman's skirt is responsible for "116 accidents this past week," it creates a danger for the rights of all people--those already in, and those first coming into, these communities. When kiruv professionals push their beliefs on people who have little or no experience with ultra-orthodox Judaism, they leave out the part about how they believe a too-short hemline or the exposed skin of an 8 year-old's leg has caused death and destruction to Jews; and how guilt, fear, intimidation, and community pressure will keep women behaving to whatever tznius (modesty) standard has been deemed socially acceptable. 

Update: For more on this topic, read "Shmiras Einayim --Try it, You'll Like it!"over at Kol B'Isha Erva.

28 comments:

  1. They don't tell new recruits about this stuff because anyone hearing it for the first time would be turned off, if they believed it at all. When discussing this type of behavior with a BT or a kiruv worker, they will argue that "other" people are like this, not them. They aren't responsible for the way other people in the community act, and they certainly don't act like this. It seems to be a reply that I can count on hearing. They might add that they don't hold me responsible for the way other secular people act, why am I doing the same? Am I cherry picking negative stories because I'm a self hating Jew, or anti-religious, or intolerant, or a general hater, or anti Semitic, etc.

    How does one get an already brainwashed BT to see how predictable the progression of this madness is? If they aren't acting this way now, chances are pretty high that they will be shortly.

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    1. I'm sure that these stories would be a major turn-off to people first learning about ultra-orthodox Judaism (taught under the guise of "just Judaism.") Politics and religion aside, I can't imagine these attitudes are helpful in forming healthy self-esteem for young women and girls in any culture.

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  2. The letter from the rebbe and woman whose husband won't go grocery shopping are so disturbing. When I was in yeshiva, we were constantly told that talking to girls was a Bad Thing, but this is a whole different level. These men have been socialized to find women disgusting. The more attractive the woman, the more disgusting she is. God help any Lakewood girl unlucky enough to be pretty.

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    1. And those poor wives with a gaggle of kids. When they run out of diapers in the middle of the night, are they supposed to get up and run to the 24 hour store while their husbands sleep/watch the kids? Moms need all the help they can get when the kids are little. Husbands who can't bear to see someone not dressed tznius and therefore cannot help their wives seem like more of a detriment to a marriage than anything else.

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  3. Check out this blog post. This woman has taken quite an inventory of examples of this kind of hareidi misogyny.
    http://kolbishaerva.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/shmiras-einayim-try-it-youll-like-it/

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    1. That is an excellent post. I'm going to link it in the body of my post. Thanks!

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  4. Even the gold standard for frummest of the frum tznius sefarim, the books of Rabbi Falk, specify skirts at least 4 inches below the knee. Why is some Lakewood wife now stretching this to 5 inches?

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    1. Building fences around fences around fences around fences....

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    2. she is a holy holy woman for being so frum!

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  5. Thanks for linking to my post. I will do the same with yours. I completely agree that attitudes like this are kept hidden by kiruv professionals, because in their minds, these are concepts that must be worked up to. It's not that kiruv workers don't necessarily agree with the sentiments in these articles, it's just that they feel that one must be on higher madrega to be able to properly understand the concepts without taking offense. Therefore, they are not doing anything wrong by not addressing the vital importance of tznius and the terrible consequences of not observing it.

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    1. I guess the truth is that if kiruv professionals were to bring this up, most people would be turned off. If they wait until people are too invested to turn back, my guess is that people will continue on their BT journeys. However, in dealing with many BT's who later left orthodoxy, it seems that keeping this information hidden causes resentment that must be stifled in order to be a successful BT.

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    2. When a person is becoming frum, it's easy enough to rationalize these attitudes as "extreme". But a lot of BTs are steered, or are drawn to, chareidi communities where these attitudes are indeed the norm. By that point the BT either has to realize he or she has joined an extremst community, or bail. Like many chareidi FFBs, chareidi BTs believe modern orthodoxy is "inauthentic", so MO is usually not an option for disillusioned chareidi BTs.

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  6. I wish they would show all of these information when doing kiruv, since most of the bad-mouthing of our communicates comes from people brought in from such groups for all the wrong reasons. The biggest mouthpiece of OTDs is from a BT family, the largest OTD organization was started by a prior BT. Kushu geirim l'yisroel k'sapachas. I wouldn't be shocked to find out that the author of this blog was a BT.

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    1. The author of this blog is a former BT and doesn't try to hide it in any way. Former BTs have a very unique perspective on orthodoxy. Many traded the freedoms of a secular life for orthodoxy, only to find that their secular lives were much more fulfilling. Leaving can be easier, especially since many of us already have support systems and secular educations to fall back on.
      I do wonder why you seem to have a negative view of former BTs who leave and then discuss the unfortunate realities of their experiences.

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  7. As a resident of Lakewood, it seems that complaining about tznius issues is a way to display your "frum card", and the more you can one-up your neighbor, the cooler you are.

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    1. It's too bad that the focus of community members encourages negative criticism and public shaming of each other. I imagine that a community whose way of one-upping one's neighbor through altruistic acts like volunteer work or community service would be much more inviting and attractive.

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    2. Searching for more info about Rabbi Falk's book, I happened upon this horrifying (yet entertaining) tznius one-upsmanship thread in the YWN coffee room:

      http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/coffeeroom/topic/tznius-in-brooklyn/page/4

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  8. My neighbor, a former kiruv worker, takes a dim view of women whom she says are observant (good for starters) but not orthodox. Kosher, shabbos, and family purity will only take you a very limited way. Better cover up and shut up if you're a woman who wants to go the distance.

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  9. http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/11/11/rabbi-returns-98000-found-in-craigslist-furniture-video/

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    1. What a lovely story about a rabbi in Connecticut, Anonymous. How is his good deed going to counter the community pressures on women in Lakewood to dress a certain way?

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  11. Oh, Bec! I absolutely agree that people should be aware, and I absolutely agree that those who write in to such publications as the one you cite, are actually just reflecting what their rabbis preach and believe.

    I have a friend who lives in a certain community in Isreal, where the situation is probably much worse than in Lakewood, because there is an organization of women whose eyes and ears are on the constant prowl for immodesty, and they have gone so far as to have children thrown out of schools, and families essentially shunned if they find multiple infractions. Whatever. The point is that at a meeting, to which he and his wife were called to answer for some of their daughter's clothing, he gut upset (he's a chassidic fellow, mind you, with long peyes and the yellow stripped caftan), and said:

    "I look around this room and wonder why this is happening. Why anyone would devote their life to making Jewish daughters miserable through fear tactics and constant judgmentalism. And I realize now that you must all suffer from such extreme jealously that you are indeed the pathetic ones, not the poor kids that you get such a thrill out of persecuting." And he stormed out.

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  12. I'm not sure why you believe that the views expressed in the letters are representative of the Lakewood Community. It's quite clear from the letter writers (particularly the one complaining about the camp picture) that the general practice in the Lakewood community abide by their standards. The decision by the Voice to print letters insulting the rest of community reveals either the editors' own agreement with those views or a lack of judgement on their part.

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    1. Should have said 'does not abide by their standards.'

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  13. One important point. The anonymous letters published in The Voice of Lakewood are those of individuals, not community leaders or rabbis. There's a disclaimer in the publication saying that the (often outrageous and foolish) views expressed by the writers aren't endorsed by the publishers, nor by their rabbinical advisers. The letters are mostly written by people who are looking for a soapbox to stand on. (Much like bloggers, just without online access.) Most productive people in Lakewood have neither the time nor the inclination to have their personal peeves published In such a forum. To ascribe these views as representative of those of an entire community isn't fair or realistic. Balance, busy people don't write in....

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  14. Obviously it is easier to live a secular life than live an Orthodox life. Lakewood is a yeshivish community that most Bt's will have a hard time fitting in to. Bt's should consider Baltimore or Passaic, communities that have a solid orthodox structure yet are much more American than Lakewood. Why associate becoming a BT to moving to Lakewood? Nobody us forcing Lakewood on to you. If asked for an honest opinion most Lakewood residents would let you know that they don't think you belong here. I'm sure it's easier for the community not to have them. Many Bt's are overeager and want nothing less than what perceive as the top and will not settle for Baltimore which they view as inferior. But as people who are finding themselves and often weaving in and out of orthodoxy, Bt's on this blog should really lay off the people of Lakewood who are living happy, peaceful, productive, family oriented lifes

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  15. If only kiruv professionals from Lakewood who prey upon secular Jews, steering them into the mindless existence of a BT, would warn their targets about the unwelcoming caste system within Ultra Orthodoxy, the problems you describe in Lakewood would vanish, I'm sure.

    Fed Up With Kiruv

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  16. The Women in the secular world do not look any happier to me than Charedi Women

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Your respectful comments are welcome.