The plight of troubled Haredi girls deserves its own hearing. It is different from that of Haredi boys and non-Haredi girls. The rigidity of the system that governs Haredi life, coupled with our often misunderstanding their grievances horribly magnifies the tragedy of their condition. To help them, we must listen to their voices, understand the hardship they feel, and offer them a warm place of refuge, a supportive shoulder, and an attentive ear within the Haredi community.
Our staff and students of a school for troubled Haredi girls which I managed first met Sheri when she was in her adolescence. By then, she had already been thrown out of the Haredi seminar because of modesty issues and her learning difficulties. Sheri was quiet and introverted. Her eyes spoke of hidden talent and quality, but her voice was not heard. We loved her. She was diligent in attending class, was pleasant with her classmates, but she never opened up her closed heart to us. The turning point came on a tiyul to the Judean Desert. The open spaces, the quiet, the detachment from the accoutrments of society touched something within her. That day, Sheri suddenly began to lead. She walked ahead of the rest of us by a few steps and was suddenly filled with life.
She continued to go to the seminar as if possessed, but she ceased to study and lived her daily life like a dead woman walking, keeping the great secret deep in her heart.
From subsequent interviews we learned that Sheri, who came from a Haredi family, was a victim of ongoing and cruel sexual assault by a close relative, who identified as a ben Torah. Sheri feared to let her parents know about it, for fear of the perpetrator and of the impact on the family. She was silent. Silent and mute. She continued to go to the seminar as if possessed, but she ceased to study and lived her daily life like a dead woman walking, keeping the great secret deep in her heart. Her faith was put to the test. A ben Torah had hurt her. Her internal confusion mounted.
Her decline in her studies attracted the attention of the school staff – but not in a positive manner. One incident entirely broke her spirit and caused her to leave the seminar. She had come to school dressed with the required uniform, but with a closed shirt underneath whose top button was open. The homeroom teacher immediately put her in front of the class and humiliated her with rebuke, including blunt statements about her conduct and achievement in school. It was her last day at Beit Yaakov.
After she left, her relationship with her parents deteriorated. Fights at home became more frequent, and Sheri sensed the disappointment that she was to her parents. The more she weakened spiritually the more distant her parents became, until they finally cut ties.
All throughout, she just wanted to let forth a cry that would be heard from one end of the world to the other—but not a sound came from her throat.
All throughout, she just wanted to let forth a cry that would be heard from one end of the world to the other—but not a sound came from her throat.
Sheri finished her bagrut studies within a program I managed with high marks. Our school had become a replacement for home and family, a place where she emerged from the isolation of her pain, enabling her to share her ordeal, and begin a process of healing.
She enrolled in a BA program at a university, but her emotional distress blocked her from sustaining her studies. Sheri stopped keeping mitzvot; she could no longer do anything which reminded her of the relative who had hurt her. Responding to her dropping her Torah observance, her parents become even more extreme in their rejection of her. Sheri’s isolation became unbearable, and soon took its toll on her physical health. She was hospitalized for long stretches at a time, doctors could not point to any particular factor that was responsible.
Sheri was at her nadir—alone in a hospital, suffering the break with parents who ignored her distress.
We have here a tragedy of a Haredi girl from a good home, a good seminar, a good community – but where no one noticed her distress and pain.
Today Sheri lives with a man who is not Jewish according to halacha. She is calm, works, and is experiencing stability in her life.
Sheri is not her real name. Details were actually moderated; the reality of her story was worse. We have here a tragedy of a Haredi girl from a good home, a good seminar, a good community – but where no one noticed her distress and pain. Issues of modesty, studies, conformity, lack of attention—determined her bitter fate.
Sheri’s story is similar to that of quite a few Haredi girls in distress. The number of troubled Haredi girls can no longer be ignored or papered over. Some of these girls live outside of any educational framework because they have been expelled from school. Others are “silent dropouts,” meaning that they have informally disconnected from the educational and communal framework. Most if not all of them live without any inclusive or protective envelope – educational or familial. The Welfare Ministry’s data points to more than 1,000 Haredi girls under the age of 18 who are reported as being troubled youth. Many of them experienced various traumas, some of them very severe, and left formal education for a life on the street. These girls, who came from a supportive communal society, find themselves alone, without a shield or a support, falling like ripe fruit into the hands of those who would harm them.
In earlier times, the conventional wisdom called for throwing the rotten fruit from the crate. Youth who deviated from the path of the community were banished from the Haredi camp People were chiefly concerned with the effect that the dropout would have upon others—their families, communities, and the educational institutions they had attended. This has changed. At the initiative of some Haredi rabbis, a different approach has emerged. It encourages engaging dropout youth within the community without driving them away. But unfortunately, if there is some degree of acceptance of dropout youth, it is the boys who are the beneficiaries of this new spirit. It is far less so when it comes to girls.
[U]nfortunately, if there is some degree of acceptance of dropout youth, it is the boys who are the beneficiaries of this new spirit. It is far less so when it comes to girls.
Moreover, even those who are charged with dealing with dropout youth too often see things from the perspective of male dropouts. Until recently, much of the literature about children at risk did not distinguish between boys and girls.
In the last twenty years, however, we have learned the difference. The scholarship shows that girls suffer more than boys do from violence—verbal, physical, and sexual. They react differently. Girls deal with their pain by hurting themselves; boys try to hurt society. Thus, we find that girls in distress suffer more psychological symptoms like depression, low self-esteem, low body image, eating disorders, suicidal behavior and anxiety. Moreover, girls tend to run away from home more often, which leads them to become genuinely vulnerable to sexual and emotional exploitation. These situations create unique dangers for girls.
To this we should add two other characteristics unique to Haredi girls at risk. A Haredi girl, used to a familial and communal culture of mutual aid, may suddenly find herself any support at all, presenting her with an enormous psychological challenge. While boys gather together in street groups and help each other,, girls find themselves largely isolated, and go it alone.
Unreadiness for the World
Haredi education itself contributes to their vulnerability. The outside world was often depicted to them as an anarchic jungle. They absorb a worldview that says that if you are not Haredi, then all is permitted. Additionally, Haredi girls generally do not go through safety courses; they are naïve about the nature of the dangers to a vulnerable female. Sadly, the world can be a very cruel place. Her unreadiness, her experience of pain, frustration, rejection, and failure, alongside the lack of a familial and social safety net, lead her quickly into an abyss.
Haredi society often misses the warning signals—or deals with them counter-productively. One of the first expressions of a troubled girl is a decline in her spiritual situation. This is expressed through a “rebellion” against the accepted modesty standards in seminars, the possession of a non-kosher cellphone, and a decline in the observation of Mitzvot.
Her unreadiness, her experience of pain, frustration, rejection, and failure, alongside the lack of a familial and social safety net, lead her quickly into an abyss.
But this behavior, which often serves as a cry for help from distress—and primarily for support, warmth, and love—is seen as a danger in Hared society, leading to giving her precisely the opposite of what she needs: expulsion from school, social exclusion, and a serious rift with her parents. The girl – usually a victim of harm or trauma -finds herself in exile, alone. Lacking the ability to deal with the matter herself, she sometimes finds support on the street, which only reinforces the belief of the family and the community that the decision to exile her in the first place was indeed justified—a vicious cycle which leads to inevitable disaster.
It doesn’t take very long. The slope of decline for a Haredi girl dropping out of her community is much steeper than for non-Haredi girls leaving theirs. In a remarkably short period of time, a Beit Yaakov girl can morph into her opposite.
A counselor in a hostel for secular girls in Jerusalem told how a girl from a dropout from Haredi observance showed up on her doorstep. A short time after she arrived, the group went for a fun day on the beach at Tel Aviv. That girl, who came from a Haredi home, didn’t know to be diligent even regarding the basic rules of modesty in general society, until the counselor needed to intervene. The girl responded—fully seriously: “This is a secular beach—here everything is permitted, no?”
Include, Listen, Love
Parents belonging to a closed and conformist community sometimes have a great deal of difficulty in understanding and absorbing their daughter’s state, or in maintaining some sort of connection. In one case, the parents refused to be in touch with us, the educational staff of the school, due to our lack of diligence in enforcing the Beit Yaakov modesty standards—this despite their daughter, who in the past studied at an important Hassidic seminar, had been on the street before she came to us. Her parents simply could not make peace with where their daughter had ended up, and they preferred to vacillate between denial and detachment. Thank God, the daughter persevered in our institution, finding her place and moving on track—even if not the track her parents paved for her.
We try to be in close contact with parents as much as possible, always in consultation with the girls. We try to create a bridge of understanding, and a shared journey of both sides towards each other, based on the understanding that a relationship between the girls and their families is vital to ensure their emotional well-being.
Parents belonging to a closed and conformist community sometimes have a great deal of difficulty in understanding and absorbing their daughter’s state, or in maintaining some sort of connection.
In a study conducted by Neta-Li Werber, the author interviewed a large group of girls from Haredi homes who ended up at risk. The dominant tone she heard from them was one of anger, primarily towards parents, in the wake of their minimal interest in their distress. They described the need for a shoulder to lean on in their difficult hours when they began to leave. Lacking the support of the family, they increasingly felt frustrated, isolated, and despairing. There certainly were reports of families that tried in earnest to help their daughters. But the general impression that the interviewer was left with was that the girls needed to deal with the challenges of leaving on their own—without accompaniment, support, or advice.
Similarly, most of the girls criticized the conduct of the staff of the schools they had attended. They saw them as concerned only with the good of the community, but not with them as individuals. Many of them reported personal difficulties that they experienced educationally, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally. These difficulties also accompanied them when they moved from one educational framework to another. A girl who was sexually harmed has a great deal of difficulty concentrating and learning, but the “system” has difficulty recognizing the girl’s distress and dealing with it properly. The system adopts practices of exclusion, such as harsh punishment and temporary or permanent expulsion from the seminar. This attitude was remembered by the girls in a negative and cold light, leading to antagonism towards the system. They were ambivalent towards the professional staffs of their schools, reporting that they sometimes acted with compassion and understanding, but not often enough. Usually, they saw them indifferent to their special situations and needs, and guilty of undeservedly condemning them.
The girls’ interviews were particularly full of criticism when it came to infractions of modesty.
The girls’ interviews were particularly full of criticism when it came to infractions of modesty. Dvorah, one of the girls who interviewed for the study, described the taboo regarding consciousness of femininity and any behavior deviating from the norm. Enforcement of dress codes came in for particularly harsh criticism. They spoke again and again of the public humiliation in front of their friends of girls who were seen as violating modesty codes. The manner in which the education system deals with modesty is frequently reported as what leads a girl to lose faith in the system and the entire Haredi community.
Despite the feeling of rejection that they felt towards the community they saw as having abandoned them in their time of need, their attitude towards it remains complex. Alongside the distancing from religion and the decline in observance, many feel a longing for some of the values and customs of the community. Some even wished to become stronger spiritually and faith-wise, alongside a desire to live their life as they see fit.
The feeling of foreignness, the difference and the sadness which accompanied the process of departure finds pithy expression in the verse “It is not good for Man to be alone.” Throughout the years they longed for support, embrace, warmth, and love, and sought out the group to which they could belong and where they could feel protected and loved. This attempt usually failed. The cry, pain, and frustration of these girls goes up to Heaven.
Throughout the years they longed for support, embrace, warmth, and love, and sought out the group to which they could belong and where they could feel protected and loved. The cry, pain, and frustration of these girls goes up to Heaven.
I was recently asked to meet a group of some forty girls at risk, most if not all of them dropouts from Haredi frameworks. It was painful to sit before them and hear the depths of suffering from sexual assault within the family – often covered up, and which led to their being shunned. It was hard to remain indifferent when they spoke of a trial of faith without an answer and a love-hate relationship with a society from which they came. They seek to be recognized and that society be attentive to their suffering and pain. They ask for Haredi society to expand its borders and include them within it.
The story of Sheri and of hundreds and thousands of girls like her are a warning—and a challenge—for all of us.