The staff and students at a school for troubled Charedi girls I founded first met to discuss Sheri when she was in her adolescence. By then she had already been expelled from her Charedi high school due to modesty issues (alongside minor learning difficulties). Sheri was quiet and introverted. Her eyes sparkled with hidden talent but her voice went unheard. We loved her deeply. She was diligent in her class attendance and pleasant in her manners, but her heart was closed. The turning point came on a trip to the Judean Desert. The open spaces, the powerful serenity, and the detachment from everyday society touched something within her. That day, Sheri began to lead. She walked slightly ahead of the rest of us and was suddenly charged with life.
She continued to attend school as though possessed, but stopped studying and stopped functioning, keeping her terrible secret deep within. Her faith was put to the harshest of trials. A ben Torah had wounded her. Combined with profound emotional hurt, her internal confusion brought her to a breaking point
Subsequent conversations revealed that Sheri, who came from a traditional Charedi family, was a victim of ongoing and cruel sexual assault by a close relative—a noted Torah scholar and educator. Sheri feared to inform her parents, out of concern for both the perpetrator himself and for the integrity of the family. She remained silent. Silent and mute. She continued to attend school as though possessed, but stopped studying and stopped functioning, keeping her terrible secret deep within. Her faith was put to the harshest of trials. A ben Torah had wounded her. Combined with profound emotional hurt, her internal confusion brought her to a breaking point.
The decline in her studies attracted the attention of the school staff—not in a positive sense—and matters gradually worsened until the final incident that broke her spirit. She had come to school dressed in the required uniform but left a top shirt button open. The homeroom teacher placed her at the front of the class and humiliated her with harsh rebuke, not forgetting to make a range of blunt statements about her sub-par conduct and underachievement in school. It was her last day at Bais 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. Finally, they entirely cut ties.
Throughout this harrowing period, all she wanted was to let out a cry of anguish for somebody to help her, but not even a whisper came forth. She remained muted, silenced, muzzled
Throughout this harrowing period, all she wanted was to let out a cry of anguish for somebody to help her, but not even a whisper came forth. She remained muted, silenced, muzzled.
Sheri completed 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, share her ordeal with others, and begin a long process of healing. She felt confident enough in herself to enroll in a BA program at a local college and began an intensive course of studies.
Unfortunately, her emotional distress blocked her from sustained studies. Sheri stopped keeping mitzvos altogether; she could no longer do anything that reminded her of the relative who had so brutally injured her. In response, her parents become more extreme in their rejection, to the point that they refused to meet and even 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.
Alone in hospital, suffering her emotional and physical scars, and crying over a distant family that chose to ignore her predicament, Sheri had reached the nadir of her tragic journey. Today, thank God, she is alive and well; others who reached similar circumstances are not as fortunate. She lives with a man who is not Jewish by halacha. She is calm, works for a living, and lives a relatively stable life.
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
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 can transmit. Sheri was 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. Attendant issues such as the modesty imperative, school studies, the need for conformity, and most crucially a lack of attention, ultimately determined her bitter fate.
Dealing in Distress
Sheri’s story is similar to that of not a 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 have 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 (for 2017) points to more than 1,000 Haredi girls under the age of 18 who are reported as “troubled youth,” while the majority surely remain unreported. Many of them experienced traumas, some severe, and left formal education for a life on the street. These girls, who came from an ostensibly supportive communal society, find themselves alone, without shield or support, falling like ripe fruit into the hands of waiting predators—those who pretend to guard them but ultimately harm them.
The conventional wisdom of yesteryear called for “throwing out the rotten fruit.” Youth who deviated from the communal path of the just 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. All this has changed. At the initiative of rabbinic authorities, a different approach is slowly emerging. It encourages engaging dropout youth within the community rather than driving them away. But unfortunately, though today there is a far greater degree of acceptance toward dropout youth than previously, it is boys who are the almost exclusive beneficiaries of this new spirit. Girls are a different story.
[U]nfortunately, though today there is a far greater degree of acceptance toward dropout youth than previously, it is boys who are the almost exclusive beneficiaries of this new spirit. Girls are a different story
Moreover, even those charged with dealing with dropout youth too often see things from the perspective of male dropouts. Until recently, much of the literature dealing with youth 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 far more than boys from violence—verbal, physical, and sexual. They react differently. While boys deal with pain by hurting society, girls do so by hurting themselves. 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
Notwithstanding several great advantages, the Charedi educational system makes its own contribution to the vulnerability of girls like Sheri. Often, the “world outside” is presented to students as a lawless jungle. They absorb a mindset whereby outside of the Charedi bubble there are no rules; anything goes. Moreover, Charedi girls hardly participate in courses teaching personal safety—thankfully, there is some awakening in this matter—and are often naïve about dangers to vulnerable females. Once exposed, they are liable to tragically discover 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 dealing with them in a counterproductive way. One of the first expressions of a troubled girl is a decline in her spiritual condition. This is expressed by means of ostensibly “rebellious” conduct that rallies against accepted modesty standards in schools and a general decline in the mitzvah observance.
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—for support, warmth, and love—is seen by the Charedi establishment as a danger, leading to expulsion from school, social exclusion, and a serious rift with her parents—exactly the opposite of what she needs. The girl, often a victim of harm or trauma, thus finds herself in social exile, alone and lonely. Lacking the ability to deal with her trauma on her own, she sometimes finds a shoulder to lean on in the street, validating the community exile and solidifying a vicious cycle that leads inevitably to 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 Bais Yaakov girl can morph into the ultimate mirror image of all that she once was.
A counselor in a Jerusalem hostel for secular girls told me how a girl who left Charedi observance once showed up on her doorstep. A short time after she arrived, the group went for a day out at a Tel Aviv beach. The girl, hailing from a sheltered Charedi home, was entirely unaware of basic modesty codes and proper conduct appropriate for general society, and the situation quickly deteriorated to the 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 closed and conformist communities sometimes encounter 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 traditional Bais Yaakov modesty standards (stockings, and all). Note that this was despite the fact that their daughter, who in the past studied at an elite Chassidic school, had literally been living 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 preferred to vacillate between denial and detachment. Thank God, the daughter persevered in our institution, finding her place and moving to 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 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 closed and conformist communities sometimes encounter 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, directed 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 (and the image) 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.
Of course, a girl who underwent sexual abuse experiences great difficulty in concentrating and learning, yet 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 school. This attitude was recalled by girls in a sharply negative light, leading to strong antagonism toward the establishment. 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 as indifferent to their special situations and needs, and guilty of undeservedly condemning them.
The girls’ interviews were particularly replete with criticism when it came to infractions of Charedi modesty standards. […] 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 leave Charedi society
The girls’ interviews were particularly replete with criticism when it came to infractions of Charedi modesty standards. Devorah, one of the girls who was interviewed for the study, described the taboo concerning awareness of girls’ own feminity, and of any behavior deviating from the norm. The strict enforcement of dress codes received especially harsh condemnation from girls. They spoke time and again of the public humiliation that girls who (were perceived as having) violated 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 leave Charedi society.
Despite feelings of anger towards the community they saw as having abandoned them in their hour of need, their attitude remains complex. Alongside a distancing from religion and the decline in observance, many feel a longing for community values and customs. 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 a warm shelter 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 rise up to Heaven.
Throughout the years, these girls longed for support, embrace, warmth and love, and sought a warm shelter 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 rise 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 educational frameworks. It was painful to sit with them and hear the depth of suffering they had experienced—predominantly beginning with 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 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 many hundreds like her are a warning and a deep challenge for all of us. We would do well to confront it boldly and bravely. Sweeping it under a social carpet of silence will not make it go away, and only exacerbate suffering that we cannot and do not want to contain.