A Modest Year in Israel: When Young Women go to “Seminary”
Eighteen year-old girls in New York, London and Paris are packing their suitcases. Slightly worried that their suitcases are overweight, they are even more worried that they will return overweight from their year abroad in Israel, in a religious seminary, or midrasha, in Hebrew.
Across Israel (well, actually mainly across the affluent areas of Jerusalem) the doors of the academic Jewish year 5775 will open in the first week of September, 2014.
A well-groomed cohort of young women will immerse themselves in an intense year of advanced Jewish studies complemented by extensive touring and volunteer work. I’d argue that ‘sem’ as these places are affectionately referred to, is a microcosm of contemporary Orthodox life and are a powerful tool for the socialization of young women.
The competition to attract girls is fierce and for a seminary to succeed, it needs to have a strong brand, an effective marketing campaign and a strategic business plan. Parents who are paying an average of $20,000 USD for 10 months (this covers fees, accommodation and some food) need to be convinced that the seminary is going to cater to their daughter educational, social and emotional needs. Further, in Orthodox circles where gender relations are more circumscribed, some parents are often concerned that the choice of sem will influence the type of boy their daughters will be introduced to for potential marriage. Therefore, in loco parentis for the year, each seminary must establish its credibility to attract its clientele and online foracan be helpful.
Recent allegations regarding improper behavior towards young women by Rabbi Aaron Ramatiand Rabbi Elimelech Meiselshighlights some of the difficulties parents face when choosing a seminary. Other than knowing students who went to a particular seminary, the first place to look is at their website. These sites consistently show groups of attractive, slim and smiling young women in certain poses – there’s the group hugon a tree top or during water sports, the girl poised with a penover her notebook, girls helping in a range of charitiesand teachers with beatific grins.However, for a more pointed analysis, one must look to the curriculum.
As Torah and Talmud study is mandated for men, the male yeshivas have much less variety in the core curriculum, however, the seminaries are free to develop their own timetables as advanced Jewish women’s education for women is a relatively recent phenomena, largely in response to women’s advanced secular education. While all seminaries will structure their day around the study of Jewish texts, it is the selection of texts, the attitudes of the teachers and the approach to learning demonstrate the seminary’s Weltanschauung. The sem that is teaching Talmud will attract a different sort of young woman than a sem with a track record of girls getting married the year afterwards. A sem that engages these young women in rigorous Talmud study every morning, encouraging them to study ‘b’chevruta’ in pairs, has a very different view of women’s education and their role in the intellectual life of the community than a sem that shuns Talmud study and focuses more on Bible and personal development.
Further, a small number of sems offer an integrated study/volunteering option; for example, one is closely affiliated with a Jerusalem hospitaland offers volunteering opportunities within the hospital, another offers arts and musicactivities to complement their Torah studies while another is based in a foster homefor disadvantaged Israeli children and the girls study and also help care for the children. Rather than look at these seminaries as ‘soft options,’ it’s wonderful that there are a range of opportunities to suit areas of interest and skills – it’s a much healthier approach than the male yeshivot which are generally much narrower in their selection of texts and opportunities for extra-curricular activity.
Despite these variations, one thing is constant: notions of modesty permeate the sem experience, and with rare exception, girls are expected to wear knee-length skirts and loose-fitting tops. There are nuances to this code: in some places, sleeves must cover the elbow, while in others, the sleeves may fall shy of the elbow by a couple of inches. Some places require stockings be worn summer and winter while others allow bare legs but demand covered toes. A small number are more flexible when it comes to hikes, allowing the girls to wear loose baggy trousers to preserve their modesty. Peer pressure and social norms ensure that inappropriate text on T-shirts, excessive jewelry or outlandish hairstyles are discouraged.
This year of intense 24/7 communal living, away from one’s family, heightened by charismatic teachers and influenced by the seminary’s ideology, is also a harbinger of a life to come. A seminary offering opportunities for women to become religious leaders and arbiters of certain aspects of religious law is very different to a seminary focused on encouraging women to be dedicated homemakers supporting their future husbands who will continue to learn in a kollel, supported by their parents or charitable donations. Unfortunately, religious society is structured so that these two approaches are essentially mutually exclusive. A year in seminary is an expensive gamble and parents need to ensure that their eyes, as well as their wallets, are open before they send their daughter away.
The New York Times got it right. In an editorial published on Thursday May 19, the Times castigated the Vatican for issuing "flimsy guidelines" for combating the sexual abuse of children by the clerical hierarchy.
According to the Times, the Vatican "issued nonbinding guidance," giving authority to local bishops which in effect bypasses the need to report the criminal offense of sexual abuse, or for that matter any abuse performed by an official of the Church, to the proper legal authorities.
In essence the report places Church doctrine ahead of the law and allows the local diocese the religious right to shield abusive priests from prosecution. At about the same time the guidelines were released, a study, funded primarily by Church sources, was released. The study allegedly reviews the causes for the sexual abuse scandal in the Church and, in an interesting twist of propaganda, blames the social climate of the 1950s, 60s and 70s for priestly indiscretion.
Taken together, this bizarre approach to coming to grips with the depth of the problem and working to set up parameters to prevent further transgressions is not just counter-intuitive, it's absolutely backward.
The law is quite clear. Individuals who are mandated reporters must report any suspected abuse to the proper authorities. In most states mandated reporters are teachers, doctors, lawyers and child care workers. In many locales clerics are also mandated reporters. Apparently the Church feels that reports are not mandated by Church doctrine and that the best needs of society are secondary to religious doctrine. This could be humorous if it wasn't so sad. Unfortunately, the Church is not alone in this folly.
Last month Agudath Israel of America held a conference for professionals at which the topic of how and when to report suspected abusers was discussed. The presentation of the topic included a good deal of source review and explanation. The presenter was knowledgeable about the issue. But, shockingly, the position advocated by the Agudah sounds astoundingly similar to that promulgated by the Vatican.
The conclusion stated in the Agudah position is that you must first ask a senior rabbi with experience or "even better, you should ask a full beis din" before you can call the proper authorities to report suspected abuse.
As a mental health professional I am a mandated reporter. What this means is that if I am made aware of a situation that raises a reasonable a measure of suspicion that abuse of any type is taking place, I am obligated by law and my professional license to report the situation to the proper authorities.
Nowhere in my professional training are rabbis considered proper legal authorities in this matter. In fact, if I report only to a rabbi, I put not just my professional license in jeopardy but also the welfare of the individual who is being abused.
Rabbis are not generally trained in forensics or police work and simply have no authority to intercede in any legal capacity to aid the abused person or apprehend the abuser. In addition, I may be breaking certain HIPAA laws related to confidentiality if I discuss a situation related to someone I am treating with someone who has no legal standing.
It is important to understand that most professionals do not have to report often, and certainly they do not do so lightly when they feel the need to report. Further, the reporting system, at least in New York and several other states, allows for a discussion with the agency to which the professional reports in order to better determine if a particular case merits investigation.
A professional can discuss in total confidence what he or she sees as suspected abuse - without providing any identifying information - if there is any uncertainty about the situation being a reportable offense. The specialist helps the mandated reporter determine what is reportable. The system is not generally set up as an immediately reflexive and overwhelmingly reactive response - unless there is clear and obvious abuse.
By issuing the doctrine of rabbis as the first report, Agudath Israel has put my license, my parnassah, my professional integrity and the law of the land in jeopardy. And while that alone is sufficient cause to ignore the position, there is one even more imperative justification for not following the mandate. So manyposkim, from Rav Elyashiv to Rav Hershel Schachter, have declared that individuals who abuse children are in the category of a rodef (a pursuer) and should be reported to the police.
I will go by my legal mandate and the psak of my rav. When I suspect abuse, as a mandated reporter I will follow the law. So will most of my colleagues.
Dr. Michael Salamon, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in Hewlett, New York and a board member of Ptach. He is the author of numerous articles and several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His new book on abuse will be available shortly.