Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Education > Hear their Cries: Silenced Voices of Charedi Girls at Risk

Hear their Cries: Silenced Voices of Charedi Girls at Risk

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Tziporah Guttman Founder of Kfar Shira high school for at-risk Charedi girls

The predicament of Charedi girls at risk is unique, qualitatively different from that of Charedi boys and from non-Charedi girls. Institutional rigidity, combined with a deep lack of understanding their condition and identification with their plight, vastly intensifies the tragedy of their circumstances. In order to assist them, we need to hear their cries, understand the difficulties they experience, and provide them with human warmth, with a shoulder to lean on and an attentive ear, all within the Charedi community to which they belong.

Elul 5778, August 2018

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, often coupled with a misunderstanding of 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.

The staff and students at a school for troubled Haredi girls that I was headed first met Sheri when she was in her adolescence. By then she had already been thrown out of her Haredi high school (seminary) due to modesty issues (alongside learning difficulties). Sheri was quiet and introverted. Her eyes spoke hidden talent and quality, but her voice went unheard. We loved her deeply. She was diligent in class attendance and pleasant with her classmates, but she kept her heart closed. The turning point came on a trip to the Judean Desert. The open spaces, the quiet, the detachment everyday 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 her school as though possessed, but she stopped studying and stopped functioning, keeping the terrible secret deep within. Her faith was put to the test. A ben Torah had hurt her. Combined with profound emotional hurt, her internal confusion brought her to breaking point

From subsequent interviews we learned that Sheri, who came from a traditional 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, out of concern for the perpetrator himself and for the integrity on the family. She remained silent. Silent and mute. She continued to go to her school as though possessed, but she stopped studying and stopped functioning, keeping the terrible secret deep within. Her faith was put to the test. A ben Torah had hurt her. Combined with profound emotional hurt, her internal confusion brought her to breaking point.

The decline in her studies attracted the attention of the school staff, and not in the positive sense. One incident entirely broke her spirit and caused her to leave the seminary. She had come to school dressed with the required uniform, but left a top shirt button open. The homeroom teacher placed her at the front of the class and huminilated her with rebuke, not forgetting to mention a range of blunt statements about her conduct and achievement in school. It was her last day at Beis Yaakov.

After dropping out of school her relationship with her parents gradually deteriorated. Fights at home became more and more frequent, and Sheri began to sense how deep a disappointment she was to her parents. The more she weakened spiritually the more distant her parents became, until they finally cut ties.

Throughout this trying period (to put it mildly), all she wanted was to let out a cry of anguish, to cry out for somebody to help her —but not even a whisper came forth. She remained muted, silenced, muzzled.

Throughout this trying period (to put it mildly), all she wanted was to let out a cry of anguish, to cry out for somebody to help her —but not even a whisper came forth. She remained muted, silenced, muzzled.

Sheri finished her bagrut studies with impressive scores. Our school had come to replace home and family, a place where she could emerge from the isolation of her pain, to share her ordeal with others, and begin a long process of healing.

She enrolled in a BA program at a local college, but her emotional distress blocked her from sustaining an intensive level of study. Sheri stopped keeping mitzvos altogether; she could no longer do anything that reminded her of the relative who had so brutally hurt her. In response, her parents become even more extreme in their rejection, to the point that they refused to meet and even to speak with her. Sheri’s isolation became unbearable, and soon took its toll on her physical condition. She was hospitalized for long stretches, though doctors were unable to isolate any particular factor responsible for her ill health.

Sheri had reached the nadir of her tragic journey—alone in hospital, suffering her emotional and physical scars, and crying over a distant family that chose to ignore her predicament.

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 by halacha. She is calm, works for a living, lives a relatively stable life.

Sheri is not her real name. I’ve also skipped some of the harsher details of her story; the reality is far worse than the synopsis above makes out. We have before us a tragedy of a Charedi girl from a “good home,” studying in a “good school” as a member of a “good community.” Yet all of these upstanding institutions failed to note and react to her distress and internal pain. Attendent issues such as modesty, school studies, conformity and lack of attention that ultimately determined her bitter fate.

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Sheri’s story is similar to that of no few Charedi girls in distress, numbers that can no longer be ignored or papered over. Some of these girls remain outside of any educational framework because they’ve been expelled from school; others are “silent dropouts,” informally disconnected from their educational and communal framework. Most, if not all of them live without any kind of 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 an obstensibly supportive communal society, find themselves alone, without a shield or a support, falling like ripe fruit into the hands of waiting predators—those who fein to guard them but ultimately hurt them.

The conventional wisdom of yesteryear called for “casting rotten fruit out of the crate.” Youth who deviated from the communal path were banished from the Charedi camp. The chief concern was for the integrity of the community, and the potential effect of dropout youth on others—their families, communities, and the educational institutions they attended—was the key factor. All this has changed. At the initiative of Charedi rabbinic authorities, a different approach is slowly emerging. It encourages engaging dropout youth within the community without driving them away. Yet unfortunately, though today there is a greater degree of acceptance toward dropout youth than there was before, it is boys who are the sole beneficiaries of this new spirit. Girls are a different story.

 [U]nfortunately, though today there is a greater degree of acceptance toward dropout youth than there was before, it is boys who are the sole beneficiaries of this new spirit. Girls are a different story

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 dealing with children at risk failed entirely to distinguish between boys and girls. In the last twenty years, however, we have learned the difference. Academic scholarship demonstrates 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 far 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 Charedi girls at risk. A girl hailing from a Charedi community, and therefore used to a familial and communal culture of mutual aid, may suddenly find herself without any support whatsoever, presenting her with an enormous psychological challenge. While boys gather in street groups and help each other out, girls find themselves largely isolated. They go it alone.

 

Unreadiness for the World

The Charedi educational system makes its own contribution to the vulnerability of girls like Sheri. Often, the “world outside” is depicted to them as an anarchic jungle. They absorb a worldview whereby if you are not Charedi then “everything is permitted”. Outside of the Charedi bubble there are no rules. Moreover, Charedi girls do not participate in courses teaching personal safety, and are often naïve about the nature of dangers to a vulnerable female. Once exposed, they are liable to find out in the most tragic way just how cruel the world can be. Their unreadiness, their experience of pain, frustration, rejection and failure, alongside the lack of a familial and social safety net, can quickly lead them into an abyss.

Charedi society is prone to missing the warning signals, or to deal with them counter-productively. One of the first expressions of a troubled girl is a decline in her spiritual condition. This is expressed via “rebellious” conduct against the accepted modesty standards in schools and in a general decline in the observation of mitzvos.

Their unreadiness, their experience of pain, frustration, rejection and failure, alongside the lack of a familial and social safety net, can quickly lead them into an abyss

But this behavior, which is often simply a distress call for help—and primarily for support, warmth and love—is seen by the Charedi establishment as a danger, which often results in giving her precisely the opposite of what she needs: expulsion from school, social exclusion, and a serious rift with her parents. The girl, often a victim of harm or trauma, thus finds herself in social exile, alone and lonely. Lacking the ability to deal with the matter on her own, she sometimes finds a shoulder to lean on in the street, reinforcing the family and community attitude that exiling her was indeed justified—a vicious cycle that leads to inevitable disaster.

It doesn’t take long. The slope of decline for a Charedi girl dropping out of her community is much steeper than that of non-Charedi girls leaving theirs. In a remarkably short period of time, a Beis Yaakov girl can morph into the ultimate mirror image of all that she was.

A counselor in a Jerusalem hostel for secular girls told me how a girls who left Charedi observance once showed up on her doorstep. A short time after she arrived, the group went for a fun day at a Tel Aviv beach. The girl, hailing from a sheltered Charedi home, was entirely unaware of the modesty codes and proper conduct appropriate for general society, and matters came to a point that forced the counselor to intervene. The girl responded in full seriousness: “But this is a secular beach—everything’s permitted here, isn’t it?”

 

Include, Listen, Love

Parents belonging to a closed and conformist community sometimes have great difficulty in understanding and absorbing their daughter’s condition, or even in maintaining some kind of familial connection with her. In one case, parents simply refused to be in touch with us—the educational staff of her newly found school—because we didn’t enforce the Beis Yaakov modesty standards. Note that this was despite the fact that their daughter, who in the past studied at an important Hassidic seminary, had literally been on the street before she found us (or, more precisely, we found her). Her parents simply could not make peace with how 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 onto a stable and productive track—even if not the track her parents paved for her.

We try to be in close contact with parents to the degree possible, always in consultation with the girls themselves. We know that the continued (or, often, rehabilitated) relationship between the girls and their families is vital to ensure their emotional well-being, and therefore try to create a bridge of understanding and enable a shared journey of both sides towards each other. Achieving this is often far from easy.

Parents belonging to a closed and conformist community sometimes have great difficulty in understanding and absorbing their daughter’s condition, or even in maintaining some kind of familial connection with her

In a study conducted by Neta-Li Werber, the author interviewed a large group of girls from Charedi homes who ended up at risk. The dominant tone she heard from girls was one of anger, primarily towards parents who showed—in their daughters’ perception—minimal interest in their distress. They described the need for a shoulder to lean on in their most difficult hours. Lacking family support, they increasingly felt frustrated, isolated and despairing. To be sure, there were also reports of families that tried in earnest to help their daughters; but the general impression that the interviewer was left with was that girls needed to deal with the challenges they faced, in particular after leaving their respective institutions, on their own—without accompaniment, support or advice.

Similarly, most of the girls criticized the conduct of the staff of schools they had attended. They saw them as concerned primarily or exclusively with the good of the institution and the community, but not with them as individuals. Many of them reported personal difficulties they experienced educationally, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. These difficulties would follow them as they moved from one educational framework to another, sometimes deteriorating into clinical conditions. A girl who was sexually abused experiences of course great deal of difficulty in concentrating and learning, but the “system” has difficulty recognizing the girl’s distress and dealing with it properly, adopting rather practices of exclusion—harsh punishment, and temporary or even permanent expulsion from the seminary. This attitude was recalled by the girls in a sharply negative light, leading to strong antagonism toward the system. They were ambivalent toward the professional staff of their schools, reporting that teachers and educational professionals 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 filled of criticism when it came to infractions of Charedi modesty standard

The girls’ interviews were particularly filled of criticism when it came to infractions of Charedi modesty standards. Devorah, one of the girls who interviewed for the study, described the taboo regarding “femininity consciousness” and of any behavior deviating from the norm. The strict enforcement of dress codes came received especially harsh condemnation from girls. They spoke again and again of the public humiliation that girls perceived as violating the codes experienced in front of friends. From the subjective perspective of the girls, the way in which the system deals with modesty issues was frequently reported as the cause that led them to lose faith in the system and the entire Charedi community.

Despite the feeling of rejection they felt towards the community they saw as having abandoned them in their hour of need, their attitude towards it remains complex. Alongside a 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 an authentic life, as they see fit.

The feeling of foreignness, the difference and the sadness that accompanied the process of departure from mainstream Charedi life finds pithy expression in the verse “It is not good for Man to be alone.” Throughout the years, these girls longed for support, embrace, warmth and love, and sought out a to which they could belong and where they could feel protected. This attempt usually failed. The cries, the pain and the frustration of these girls rises up to Heaven.

Throughout the years, these girls longed for support, embrace, warmth and love, and sought out a to which they could belong and where they could feel protected. This attempt usually failed. The cries, the pain and the frustration of these girls rises 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 Charedi frameworks. It was painful to sit with them and hear the depth of suffering they had experience—predominantly sexual assault within the family.

In most cases their suffering and experience had  been covered up, and led to their being shunned rather than embraced. It was hard to remain indifferent when they spoke of their trials of faith that received no response and of the love-hate relationship with the society they hailed from. All they wanted was recognition of and attention to their suffering and pain, but their silent pleas went unanswered. They beg us, Charedi society, to expand our borders and allow them in.

The story of Sheri and of hundreds and thousands of girls like her are a warning—and a challenge—for all of us.


photo: Bigstock

One thought on “Hear their Cries: Silenced Voices of Charedi Girls at Risk

  • What an important article!

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