Esti, my high school’s office secretary, usually popped into classrooms to punish students for arriving late to morning prayers. But one day, she made an announcement that would ― eventually ― transform my worldview.
“The principal wants the following students to come to her office right now. Leah M., Chani, Shira...” Esti listed seven more names. My name was not on the list.
All of the girls on Esti’s list were what principals of an ultra-Orthodox girls school pray for: They were pure in body and pure in heart, and they rolled up their uniform skirts exactly zero times. Surely, they could not be in trouble.
After 10 minutes, the girls returned to class. They were modest girls. Humble girls. So they bit on their lips to conceal whatever smile was on the edge of cracking.
“What did the principal want?” I asked my friend Devorah, a part of me already knowing that the answer would make me jealous.
“She said that we’re the only ones who should take the SATs because of our high grades.”
The bell rang for English class before I could respond. While our teacher droned on about A Tale of Two Cities, I worked to kick my envy to the curb.
Why shouldn’t I take the SATs? I was nothing if not ridiculously studious in high school. After all, if your religious community doesn’t allow you to talk to teenage boys, then you may as well flirt and date and marry your homework. I approached studying each day with gusto and non-ironic reverence, believing that scholastic devotion would pay forth its dividends. With the exception of math, I scored 100s and 90s across all subjects. To this day, I cannot understand why only 5 percent of the grade was invited to take the SATs.
The rest of my classmates and I didn’t have any knowledge of how to study for a college entrance exam, let alone register for one. We couldn’t even look up how to do so online because we all signed a contract forbidding us to use the internet for the entirety of high school (at risk of suspension or expulsion). We waited on authority to allow us to tiptoe forward, to dare to be intellectually curious. A few school parents encouraged their children to take the SATs. But the majority just seemed indifferent to it all.
This memory of feeling excluded from the American dream at 17 is especially pertinent today in light of the current clash between the New York State Education Department and ultra-Orthodox private schools, known as yeshivas. Yeshivas (Hasidic ones in particular) are garnering media attention because some of their graduates are blasting them for focusing primarily on Jewish studies and not teaching basic math and literacy skills. A group of these graduates formed an organization called Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) in 2012.
According to The New York Times, YAFFED filed a complaint in 2015 stating that yeshivas were providing poor secular education to its students. In the three years since the complaint, the city has investigated only 15 yeshivas while more than a dozen other yeshivas refused to cooperate. But after much frustration on YAFFED’s part, there is finally more progress. On Nov. 20, New York’s state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, published updated rules that enforce stronger secular education among nonpublic schools. And if schools resist cooperating with the city, then the city can hold back on their funding.
The path toward equal education, however, is not clear just yet. Prominent community rabbis and organizations like Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools are vehemently opposing the state’s stricter policies.
There is no denying that Hasidic boys schools receive the weakest secular education within the Orthodox community. But there is another narrative that has been glaringly missing from this public conversation and that is the female one. How are girls, like me, experiencing education in ultra-Orthodox schools? Why has our point of view been largely omitted in discussions of reform?
Ultra-Orthodox girls schools, which are known as Bais Yaakovs, also require students to devote chunks of their day to Jewish studies. As a Bais Yaakov high school student in 2008, the information that I spent hours memorizing for tests, fingers pressed tightly to my temple, eyes squeezed shut in desperate concentration was this: Which sacrifices did God find most pleasurable? Which spices did God like the most on the slaughtered sheep and cows? Which sacrifices atoned for which sins?
In Bais Yaakov, we spent roughly four hours a day on Jewish studies and another four on secular studies. So, yes, we did have an educational advantage over the boys yeshivas (as many of them experience math and English as a sad, slumped afterthought taught only after hours of mental acrobatics on the Talmud).
Sure, there was plenty of censorship ― pages about dinosaurs, Darwin and scrotums missing from our biology textbooks ― but other than that, we seemed fine. No, really. We studied Austen and the Pythagorean theorem and the periodic table. Unlike our male counterparts, we were ready for the great beyond. For once, it paid to be a girl.
Until it didn’t.
Herding my classmates and me into the school’s multipurpose room, my principal shredded any hope of us attending a secular college. She treated the one City University in our neighborhood like it was Lord Voldemort. “I don’t even want to say the words ‘Brooklyn College,’” she announced sternly. “The messages written in the bathroom stalls of a non-Orthodox school are not for your eyes.” With her words, she forbade us to apply to this university. And because we were docile girls, we allowed her to influence us beyond 12th grade ― lending her far more power than she ever deserved.
It turns out our principal wasn’t only scared that we’d be exposed to bathroom graffiti. She was also scared we’d be exposed to Nietzsche, take a gender studies class taught by a nonbinary professor or, worse yet, catch a dreaded case of female ambition. College was meant to be purely utilitarian in this sense: become just employable enough that you can you support a family while your future husband is likely to spend his days hunched over the Talmud.
So which careers did Bais Yaakov hope we pursue? Only those that were historically feminine, safe from the siren song of secularism that might be found in law, media, technology, politics or even medicine. We were encouraged to be teachers in Jewish schools, speech therapists, nurses ― all undeniably noble professions, of course, but sorely limited in scope.
Without the power of the internet, I didn’t know which scholarships, mentorships, internships or fascinating classes existed (“The Science of Harry Potter,” anyone?). For higher education, my classmates and I were given just one choice: go to a for-profit Orthodox college where the men and women have separate classes and library hours, where the courses are laughably limited, where the professors in your department can be counted on one hand, where the career counseling is scarce (especially if you are a lowly English major such as myself) and where the tuition is high.
I went to such a college. Classes were punctured by the shrieks of 20-year-old girls fawning over a classmate’s engagement ring. All I was trying to do, while more and more blushing brides filtered into classrooms, was to write for the nonexistent college newspaper. When I asked an English professor how I could start one (so that I could give my résumé some gravitas), he chuckled. “Why are you so determined? You know you’ll be waking up to crying babies a few years from now.”
The rhetoric of my professor and community burned holes of doubt into what I thought were rock-solid writing ambitions. Because I was still malleable to indoctrination, still privy to conformity, I became convinced that I needed to kill those ambitions to make room for practicality, for a job that would park itself neatly between the corners of inevitable wifehood and motherhood.
“Become a teacher at a Jewish school. You’ll have summers off to spend time with your future children,” my mother urged.
I obeyed, but under one condition: For graduate school, I’d flee my Orthodox higher education ― I was so tired of existing within a social and academic extension of high school.
It was at Brooklyn College (the bathroom graffiti is gorgeously irreverent, by the way) where I encountered a diverse classroom for the first time in life. For the three years I was pursuing my master’s there, I ached to be a 19-year-old at the college, stretching across the campus grass, eyes facing the sky, encircled by fresh opportunity. The college hung up flyers that shouted “Have breakfast with these female executives!” and “This Fortune 500 company is recruiting writers!”
Inside, I started to lament all the lives I could have lived. If only I was able to: Google affordable SAT prep classes in 12th grade, apply to a college with a diverse student body, network with a professor who didn’t scoff at my ambition. But I couldn’t. Agency was yielded to one high school principal, not to me.
Lament turned to anger during my years of teaching. I had spent thousands of dollars and invested countless hours in forcing myself into a profession that, I always suspected, would fit awkwardly. So I quit the job and I quit allowing others to construct fences around my drive.
I’m now a writer for a children’s vertical at one of the largest print publications in the U.S. I’m no longer mourning my loss of time and experiences. I’m OK.
But I will never forget this: While Hasidic boys schools are the ones most deprived of educational advantages, there is something uniquely unkind about the way in which ultra-Orthodox girls are trained, too. As teenage girls, we resisted the temptation of the first smoke and the first kiss to instead study everything in every place and at every time. We sweated to the finish line, exhausted from four years of intense academics, only to stumble into the fog.
Why should a loss of experiences be inherited by new generations of women who are aflame with the desire to learn, innovate and prosper?