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Reach the Core

Leah Gebber

Faigy Zelcer, founder of Penimi, has developed comprehensive curriculums that empower teens to face contemporary challenges by having them explore and question — and discover the strength within

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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“When schools allow for genuine dialogue, we can make so much progress. When students feel they can’t talk about their real issues, then they don’t have an address to work through them either”

"I haven’t met a single teen who doesn’t have aspirations,” Mrs. Zelcer, director of Penimi, declares. “It may require some skill to reach her, but I firmly believe that our teens are amazing.” 

A refreshing statement in a world that seems to get a kick out of denigrating Generation Z — or iGen, as they’re dubbed in the secular media. The criticism can take many forms, whether a sigh of “yeridos hadoros” or a critique filled with phrases like “lack of emotional resilience,” and “glued to their phones.” and “shallow…” 

Mrs. Zelcer pinpoints two core areas of challenge today: tzniyus and digital technology — in essence, different manifestations of the same root. “The world today has very little core. Few values. It’s all glitter and shine, and a headlong rush into hedonism and materialism,” Mrs. Zelcer explains. “To understand a teen’s world is to recognize that they’re growing up in a culture of superficial values and moral confusion.” She points to the Eisav-mindset, as it’s demonstrated in the Torah. 

When Yitzchak Avinu was sitting shivah for Avraham, Yaakov prepared him a pot of lentil soup. Rashi tells us this was a food given to mourners. That soup gave the same message a low chair or a covered mirror convey in a shivah house today. But when Eisav came in hungry from the field, he didn’t see the significance or the meaning of the soup, only its color: “Give me some of this red stuff!” he demanded. Eisav saw the world, but not its meaning. 

He attached no depth or significance to what he encountered. “That’s the galus we’re in today. And the Rambam says that it is our nature to be influenced by our surroundings. These external challenges, when combined with a very normal process of individuating and finding ones identity, can be very tough for our teens.” Inside, Outside As founder of Penimi, Mrs. Zelcer has developed two comprehensive, yearlong curriculums now taught in several hundred classrooms around the world. The curriculums have been translated into Spanish and Yiddish, and most recently, Hebrew. The first curriculum tackles biggie number one: tzniyus.

We have to enter the child’s reality and teach her according to her level and in a way that it will penetrate

“You mention tzniyus to women and it’s accompanied by so much emotion.” As a high school teacher in Montreal, Mrs. Zelcer looked around her student body and saw that while there was a lot of talk about tzniyus and there were beautiful yemei iyun, for some reason, it didn’t always penetrate. Donning the mental space of a researcher — suspending all judgment and simply gathering information — Mrs. Zelcer decided to explore the underlying reasons for this. “I had many, many, many conversations. With principals and teachers, with women in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, most of all with the girls themselves.” 

The stories came thick and fast. One woman in her late thirties disclosed that until she was thirty, she felt unable to daven, because of the way she was hurt due to regular teen challenges. In her role as researcher, Mrs. Zelcer maintained a state of absolute curiosity — a state of mind she advocates for when dealing with any teenager. “If I’d come in with my hypotheses, I’d never have come up with these answers. I cleared my mind of any preconceived notions, any of my own theories.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 586)

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