Ultra-Orthodox society is becoming more open in many ways – for instance, by allowing the teaching of non-religious subjects in some schools – but two recent incidents in the United States and Israel show that this trend may have sparked a conservative backlash.
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A video clip circulating on social media shows an incident in New Jersey, which piqued a flurry of comments among the local community: Female teachers are shown measuring the hair length of schoolgirls at Lakewood Girls School Bnos Yaakov to be sure the girls meet the strict Haredi standards of modesty (tsnius).
Bnos Yaakov administrators wrote a letter to the girls’ parents, declaring that their hair may not reach more than four inches below their collarbone, with the optimal length being two inches below. The length should be measured with the hair left loose, the school wrote, though naturally while in class, any girl with below shoulder-length locks must tie them up in some fashion. If their hair exceeds the limit, the girls will be forced to have it cut, according to the letter.
The Lakewood school is not associated with conservative sects like Neturei Karta or the Satmar Hasids, but rather belongs to the relatively moderate Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy.
The letter and the Youtube clip showing hair being measured have sparked much debate in the Haredi world – and not for the first time: In 2012 the American Jewish community was roiled by the description of hellishly painful punishment meted out to immodest girls, courtesy of Bnos Yaakov.
At present, many people, even those subscribing to the principles of tsnius, have been outraged by the school’s conduct. One anonymous response to the video was, “If the school has an issue with a child’s hair length, it should be taken up privately between the administration and the parents. How DARE this school humiliate these girls in front of their classmates and teachers.”
Other commenters blamed such regulations for causing children to go “OTD” – off the derech, in Haredi parlance – meaning to go astray.
Moms and dads, too
A second recent incident involving modesty occurred in Israel and was reported on the local Haredi website Bhadrei Haredim. The Clal Hasidei Elad girls' school sent a letter to parents demanding that they abide by certain strict policies to ensure modesty in the home.
The mother, the letter said, must be sure the wig covering her hair will not reach the bottom of the nape of her neck. There are even directives for the wig itself: It must be of a certain quality suitable to those of fine Hasidic families and it cannot have any curls. If the mother wants to use makeup, it must be applied with a delicate hand but is forbidden on the eyes.
Mothers must also undertake to eschew nail polish and not wear skirts that are any shorter than halfway up their shins, let alone to wear any tight or gaudy apparel. Nor may they wear anything made of Lycra, or bandanas, in keeping with the precept that “I am careful that not even one single hair on my head shows."
The girls’ fathers, according to Clal Hasidei Elad's administration, must wear suits and hats when leaving the house, and “not touch the beard.”
The parents must declare that they follow these directives in order for their daughters to be enrolled and to remain in the school, but its administrators are not satisfied with a mere statement: A third party must guarantee that the families are indeed adhering to the rules, and must sign a document stating: “I the undersigned guarantee that the ___ family, the signatory, will comply ... and if heaven forfend they do not, I shall make sure to remove their daughter from the school."
Chaim Walder, a religiously observant author and educational consultant in Israel, says he personally can’t understand such policies and wouldn’t send his daughter to a school like that, but stopped short of condemning it in a conversation with Haaretz.
“I haven’t heard about things like this in the past, but the parents who send their children to such a place want the strict rules. Nobody forces them to send their children there. Just as I don’t understand a person who takes jeans, tears them up [before wearing them] and thinks that looks pretty, but I don’t have a problem with it – it’s the same here," Walder said. "In contrast to many liberals, I am also liberal toward people who are not liberal. To each his own.”
Walder does agree, however, that some of the liberal trends surfacing in the Haredi world today may be causing a conservative backlash – and justifiably so, in his view, because of the mounting worry in ultra-Orthodox society about the burgeoning influence of Western culture on life today.