What’s it like to have a seminary experience that goes on not for a year, but for decades?
Educators speak about their seminary experience
Most seminary students find their time in sem exhilarating. But they’re not the only ones enjoying the experience; their teachers do so as well. “Teaching seminary girls is the absolute best job in the world,” exclaims Shira Ernster,* a teacher in several seminaries for close to twenty years. “It meets all my needs: spiritual, emotional, and financial (albeit for a simple lifestyle). Few women my age get to learn, grow, and be exposed to ruchniyus in the way that I get to do daily.”
“I never had to leave seminary,” echoes Dvora Beckman,* a veteran teacher in a number of different institutions. “I tell people I’m in ‘shanah yud-tes.’ Watching my students make courageous changes in their lives obligates me to move upward in my own life.”
Shulamis Leibenstein, a long-time teacher currently in Meohr Bais Yaakov, calls sem education a “thrilling experience.”
“I consider it an honor and privilege to be able to impact girls at such a pivotal stage. It is enormously gratifying to help my students mold healthy, wholesome futures.”
Rabbi Menachem Nissel, a renowned teacher in several Jerusalem seminaries and author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah: Perspectives, Laws, and Customs (Targum, 2001), shares a thought from his rebbi, Rav Moshe Shapiro, shlita, on chinuch at the seminary level.
“When I first began teaching, I asked my rebbi: ‘How do I approach teaching girls when they don’t have an obligation to learn Torah?’ My rebbi answered, ‘You’re not in the business of harbatzas Torah; you’re in the business of hatzalas nefashos.’
“Rabbi Noach Orlowek echoes this concept. He told me, ‘When you sit in front of a class, you can’t see thirty Jewish women; you need to see thirty Jewish homes.’ This thought keeps me hyper-motivated even when teaching the same material year after year. I feel I’m building people and homes rather than teaching a particular subject matter.”
Most educators voice breathless views on their personal enjoyment of the job. But is life as a seminary teacher exclusively rosy? What are some of the challenges and issues in teaching girls for a mere nine months — in what some would consider a distinctly artificial setting?
The Sem Year: A Unique Opportunity
“When I teach a seminary class,” says Dvora Beckman, “I feel I’m connecting with girls at a magical time in their lives. My students stand at an interesting crossroads; they are adults, yet still retain the freshness of teenagers.
“As we grow older, we become less intellectually honest with ourselves and more entrenched in our behavioral patterns; our choices and actions usually just reinforce the people we decided to be when we were younger. In contrast, a sem girl has maturity, but she’s refreshingly open to intellectually, emotionally honest discovery.”
Shira Ernster reiterates this point.
“We get the girls right before they make the most crucial decisions in their lives: choosing a husband, choosing a community, and starting a path towards a career and family. The seminary year has a ripple effect on all of these choices.”
She notes that seminaries on opposite ends of the spectrum will offer girls very different experiences.
“In more Bais Yaakov-type seminaries, nothing is really a chiddush [novelty]; they’ve heard it all before. On the first day of class, I could ask one of my students to get up and give a short speech about any topic — from tzniyus to Torah learning — and she’ll say all the right things, essentially parroting the messages stressed throughout high school.
“What these girls gain from seminary, then, is seeing up close entire communities of people who live these oft-heard ideals. Previously abstract concepts generalize from their meticulously organized loose-leafs to real life and real choices.
“For example, my students will realize that they really can live with less — and be happy about it. They can have a husband who will learn for twenty years uninterrupted and make it work. They can live with the cognizance of their purpose in This World as ovdei Hashem on a daily basis. They can tap into the sweetness of Shabbos and Yamim Tovim and make each one an uplifting experience.
“In less Bais Yaakov-type schools, on the other hand, many of the messages and ideals will, indeed, be novel. The girls may never have experienced a comparable depth of learning before, and they will likely be exposed to lifestyles they could never have dreamed of.
“But although the change in the latter group may be more outwardly noticeable, both types of experiences are life-changing.”
Shulamis Leibenstein observes that most of her students are especially eager to grow.
“My girls realize that this year is their “last fling”; from the start, they are raring to become better, more complete people. This factor makes teaching considerably easier; for the most part, students are just waiting to be inspired.”
Not all teachers, however, find this phenomenon as charming.
Brocha Roberts, a former seminary teacher who taught for over fifteen years before choosing to leave the field, feels that seminary girls frequently have unrealistic expectations of what the year will achieve.
“Often, seminary girls step off the plane and expect someone to wave a magical wand that transforms them into more mature and more spiritual people. As a mechanechet to this demographic for many years, the most common complaint I received was, “I don’t feel I am growing enough!”— as if the responsibility for growth rested on each student’s surroundings and environment! Students often implied that the seminary experience was lacking if sufficient change didn’t happen quickly enough. Given the tremendous costs of the year and the short time span, I can’t say I completely blame them, but the attitude of passivity towards their own growth was draining after a while.
“Truthfully, I prefer teaching high school students; I find they are more interested in real issues and steady growth over time.”
Out of Context?
Though technology today has somewhat dampened the “distance effect,” the miles of expanse that lay between seminary girls’ dorm rooms and their loving families create a unique environment. With virtually no responsibilities or obligations, students can immerse themselves in their learning and focus fully on personal development.
But is this venue just too unnatural for real, lasting growth?
“Absolutely not,” contends Dvora Beckman. “I object when people dub Eretz Yisrael “a bubble” and chutz l’Aretz “the real world.”
“The Hebrew word olam [world] means ‘hidden-ness,’ and it’s not coincidental. This World is a place where the truest reality is hidden. When people talk about ‘going back to the real world,’ what they’re often saying is that they’ll be disconnecting from the real, Real World to live more in the ephemeral one.
“The vast majority of our eternal existence will be spent in a reality that’s way more in line with the values of Eretz Yisrael than the artificial demands of a skewed world. Baruch Hashem, many frum Jews do manage to connect to the Eretz Yisrael-type reality even outside of Eretz Yisrael, and that’s the goal we try to help our students achieve.”
Dvora enumerates another advantage of the geographical distance.
“When you take yourself out of your natural context — your neighborhood, extended family, childhood reputation etc., — you can then figure out who you really are.
“Hashem commanded Avraham to depart first from his homeland and then from his father’s home. But wouldn’t you first leave your house, then your neighborhood, and only then the borders of your country?
“Rav Hirsch explains that emotionally, one needs to actually take leave of his homeland in order to truly appraise its value system. Easiest of all (and none too easy) is detaching oneself from the culture of one’s country, more difficult is to disengage from the norms of one’s community, and hardest of all is to take an objective look at one’s childhood patterns. This, Rav Hirsch says, is the crucial spiritual process of achieving a personal Lech-Lecha, and it can only take place far from home, in a uniquely spiritual environment.”
Shulamis Leibenstein agrees that the distance can be a definite boon.
“Seminary girls are forced to define themselves; they begin to ask these questions: What part of me is my nature, what part of me is my “nurture”? What do I want to hold on to, and what do I want to change?”
Mrs. Tamar Sokol, menaheles of Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim seminary in Ramot, emphasizes a different aspect: the unique potential generated by avirah d’Araa, the air of Eretz Yisrael.
“There is no known substitute for avirah d’Araa, that special quality that enables us to learn and know more here. And there is simply no substitute for a leave of absence from the incessant messages of Western culture, which we absorb into our bloodstream and which clash so desperately with Torah values. The combination of the two is very powerful, giving us a chance to strip old layers of self-definition, which don’t necessarily originate in our true inner selves.
Darchei Binah faculty member Lisa Kermaier notes that regretfully, girls don’t “disconnect” from their families and homes the way they used to.
“We’ve reached the Texting Age,” she observes dryly. “Eretz Yisrael used to be a true kur habarzel — a place where we break free of past associations so that we can become open to hearing different messages. In light of the many new-fangled and inexpensive communication methods, this element of the seminary experience has been significantly diminished, and it’s a challenge to produce the same effect.”
Meeting Its Goal
As the “last hurrah” of pure kodesh education, many expect seminary to give students a hashkafic groundwork for life. Do today’s sem educators feel their institutions are achieving this goal?
“Life is a process,” maintains Lisa Kermaier. “I don’t think that you can acquire all the hashkafah you’ll ever need in one year, but seminary does do a lot to help clarify goals, prioritize values, and set directions. Seminary gives girls a global picture of the course they want their life to take, and having that picture in mind is invaluable.”
Lisa notes another priceless benefit of the experience.
“Seminary presents girls with a golden opportunity to develop important relationships with mentors and rabbanim. If these connections are made, the girls will have whom to turn to when they meet inevitable challenges in their marriages, mothering, and careers.”
Dvora Beckman feels that laying a hashkafic foundation in seminary is critical — but it must be done differently than in high school.
“Many core Torah values have been over-transmitted by our educational system,” she says. “Our girls hear about tzniyus and tefillah and Torah from such a young age, and in such abundance, that they’ve become immune to the messages. If seminary teachers repeat what their students have heard in high school, the girls tune out — guaranteed.
“What we seminary educators need to do is build on the basis of what the girls already know and figure out how to circumvent the staleness. Let’s find more innovative and sophisticated ways to transmit these timeless ideals. Let’s teach the girls on an adult level, and be open to their questions and concerns.
“There’s a reason that clichés are a no-no in literature; it’s because they lose their meaning. Sometimes, I hear teachers using examples that in my day were considered ‘fuddy-duddy!’ It’s a new world out there; let’s update our examples and phraseology and instead get to the heart of what we’re trying to convey, using the vernacular of today.”
In line with this approach, Dvora cautions against pushing values onto students.
“If my students are adults, they deserve to draw their own conclusions. If I’m talking about ideals like appreciating the value of learning, living in Eretz Yisrael, or the beauty of mothering and having children, my job as an educator is to help girls develop an appreciation for these values and not tell them how to apply them. I can talk to my students about what I do in my own life and what gives me nachas, but I will never resort to giving them step-by-step instructions; that kind of growth is just not real.”
Rabbi Nissel shares his guiding philosophy in teaching seminary girls:
“My goal is twofold: for my binah-type, intuitive classes like tefillah, I try to give the girls practical tools to create a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. For my chochmah-type classes like Ramban, Derech Hashem, and Kuzari, I want to give them knowledge, but also a bigger picture of the breadth and depth of Torah.
“My hope is that twenty years down the line, when one of my students is living the helter-skelter life of an eim b’Yisrael, racing from car pool to work to laundry to supper, she’ll be able to step back in a moment of frustration and appreciate why she is doing it all. My dream is that my students will be like the Kohanim in the Beis HaMikdash who — as they sliced meat, swept ashes, and cleaned bloody animals — never lost their motivation because the big picture was right before their eyes.”
Future Mothers and Wives
Many critics of Eretz Yisrael seminaries contend that while girls may come out with an extensive knowledge base in Torah and excellent skills in understanding mefarshim, they leave wholly unprepared for the practical demands of their future roles as wives and mothers.
As one of these critics, former teacher Brocha Roberts acknowledges that frum girls today need a high-level Torah curriculum, but feels there is still something missing.
“On the one hand,” she concedes, “our girls are enticed by the intellectual lure of secular colleges and universities where scores of career options await them. They are more educated and exposed to secular studies than any previous generation.”
Rabbi Nissel agrees with this assessment, and offers an illuminating quote:
“Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, ztz”l, was known to say: ‘In today’s times, we must make sure that a girl’s Jewish education is more stimulating than her secular one; it cannot be that a girl knows more about world history than Jewish history, or more about science than Torah.’”
“Faced with this trend,” continues Brocha, “there’s no question that our kodesh classes must be highly thought-provoking and intellectually challenging; in this way, they can compete with the appeal of their secular counterparts.”
But based on her experience in seven seminaries, Brocha feels that most have taken this mission too far.
“Although they focus on the intellectual challenge, seminary educators seem to have forgotten the ultimate goal of their charge: raising future mothers and wives of Klal Yisrael.”
Brocha believes that most seminary curriculums are divided into two categories: (a) intellectual/skills-based classes that focus on mefarshim and (b) hashkafic classes that prepare students for life on a more practical level.
“Although most administrations will deny it,” she says, “the ratio of such classes is usually two to one, with ‘skills’ classes taking the majority. This bothered me for years, because I’ve observed that most post-sem girls retain more from the second type of classes than the first. Usually, alumnae will hold on to the relationships they’ve developed with teachers, memorable Shabbos experiences, important hashkafos they saw modeled, and relevant halachos crucial to their daily lives. Aside from an occasional shiur, they don’t often have to apply the analysis skills they’ve acquired.”
She recounts a personal incident from her first years of marriage.
“When I first got married, my husband and I learned together. He wanted me to teach him navi, and it worked out really nicely. But after my first pregnancy and child, I was totally unprepared for my new role. How do you develop a relationship with someone who you can’t communicate with on an intellectual level?
“There are too many girls out there in this same boat,” Brocha continues. “We have developed their brains to such an extent that they can hold their own with the best of the bochurim, but are missing the vital components necessary for communicating love and compassion; they need to learn the art of commiserating over a scraped knee. Shifra and Puah: these are the elements we must develop in our girls.”
Brocha offers a solution to the dilemma: Instead of featuring two separate formats for classes, all seminary classes — both skills-based and hashkafah-based — should be built with the same underlying goal. Educators need to ask themselves: We are producing future wives and mothers. Does this class contribute to that outcome?
Mrs. Rayna Cukier,* mother of several seminary alumnae and principal of a girls lower elementary-school program in Flatbush, sees this argument as valid, but adds another dimension to the issue.
“Some seminaries are more than preparatory life programs for girls; they are also teachers’ institutes expected to provide students with the knowledge and skills to teach kodesh. In these seminaries, there is another fundamental goal, and that will affect the nature of the curriculum.”
Dvora Beckman disagrees with the claim that text-oriented classes have a limited impact on girls’ lives.
“High-level Bais Yaakov seminaries tend to be more academic,” she confirms, “but there is a tremendous advantage to this method: The in-depth learning will have instilled important knowledge and she’ifos that give girls a larger picture of Yiddishkeit and its purpose. When you have the overarching ideals in place, the practical application naturally follows.”
In a similar vein, Mrs. Sokol explains why almost all of the classes in Ateres are centered on a text.
“We believe that if you can review the parshah being leined and glean relevant and timely messages for yourself, if you can hear the call of the navi, if you can find meaning in the tefillos and in Tehillim, then you are an enriched Jewish woman.
“Even regarding machshavah-based courses, we find that students are more grounded when they’ve learned the ideas inside, can trace them to their sources, and know if it was Chazal or an Acharon whose approach is being conveyed.
“Girls are often taught lofty ideas in a vacuum. They will tell you they heard a ‘totally awesome shiur’ on the connection between Shabbos and the number four, but they are missing the basic, classic texts on Shabbos, and the lesson is somehow short on personal relevance. For this reason, I always try to build a bridge from the classic sources to higher levels of understanding, with a determined focus on integration.”
Shulamis Leibenstein maintains that if text-based classes are taught by individuals who exude a love of Torah and a sincere adherence to Torah ideals, the lessons will leave an indelible impression.
“When my seminary Chumash teacher spoke about the mitzvos of a particular Yom Tov, or even a more ‘theoretical’ mitzvah that can only be fulfilled with a rebuilt Beis HaMikdash, her face shone with joy and longing. Although I gained tremendous satisfaction from learning the sources ‘inside,’ the excitement in my teacher’s tone and the lightness in her step when she spoke about Hashem’s mitzvos changed me more as a person than the most articulate or sophisticated lecture.”
Yet Rabbi Nissel agrees that chinuch is most effective when students see a complete picture.
“Personally, I’ve found that the girls with whom I’ve had the most success are often the ones who’ve become bnos bayis in my home; the ideas they learn in my classroom are complemented by seeing the real-life application: my wife, as she runs our overwhelming yet fun-filled home.”
Preparing for Landing
Once seminary girls head back on the plane to chutz l’Aretz, they are often bombarded with spiritual challenges. The secular college programs in which some of them enroll are a far cry from their hallowed seminary halls, and the workplaces into which they enter are rarely bastions of tzniyus and kedushah.
What’s more, as they enter the shidduch scene and start thinking about marriage, girls feel the need to spend more time and energy on clothing and appearances than ever before.
Additionally, many girls have grown spiritually, and may have ideals and practices that are a step beyond those of their family.
How does a sem graduate successfully integrate the ideals she’s absorbed in this less-than-favorable environment? Is it even a realistic expectation?
“Yes,” says Dvora Beckman, “but only if there is parental support. I feel that parents need to be prepared for their daughter’s homecoming. They should not be intimidated by what they perceive as growth beyond the family norms; they should shep nachas from a daughter who has developed herself spiritually. Ironically, a parent who tries to hold on to her child and force her to remain stagnant is undermining the relationship; her daughter won’t turn to her for support and guidance at crucial junctures in her life like dating and mothering.”
Shulamis Leibenstein offers a different angle on the issue.
“I exhort my students to appreciate their parents. I say, ‘You are who you are to a great extent because of them.’ There is no place for a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, even if they want to do certain things differently.
“In addition, I urge my girls to set up a weekly chavrusa session with a friend even before they leave seminary, and I emphasize the general importance of surrounding oneself with a good peer group.”
Lisa Kermaier says that keeping in touch with mentors is crucial.
“Darchei Binah, where I work, believes in lifelong relationships. Our teachers are available and happy to help alumnae in all areas; they see it as part and parcel of their job description. Especially until the girls get married, this connection with teachers is a huge source of chizuk for our students.”
Lisa’s words underscore the fact that the job of a seminary teacher never truly ends. Even once the girls have returned home; the teachers are still in touch with them, guiding, encouraging, supporting. After all, these educators aren’t simply teaching girls, they’re building homes.
Messages for Life: What seminary teachers want their girls to remember
Nine months is not a very long time. What message or ideal do seminary teachers strive to instill during this crucial period?
- Reach high. Find out what true greatness is; value it and admire it — even if you fall short of it in your own life, as we all do. There’s an ample supply of mediocrity out there; we need to strive for more. People are so afraid of saying “that’s an outstanding level but I don’t think I can reach it,” so instead they simply lower the bar. If we can at least recognize where the bar is, we’re in a position of potential growth. (Dvora Beckman)
- Be comfortable with yourself. I try to help my students achieve a certain level of comfort and pride in who they are. This pride, in turn, will help them navigate better relationships with the people around them, particularly as wives and mothers. (Shulamis Leibenstein)
- Remember the ultimate goal. I ingrain in my girls the knowledge that their greatest achievement will be as builders and nurturers of a Yiddishe home. Everything they learn in seminary must be focused on this fundamental goal. (Brocha Roberts)
- Torah is central. No matter which path they choose to take in life, I try to convey to my girls that Torah and halachah must be the primary factors in their decisions; they are the foci around which everything else revolves. (Lisa Kermaier)
- Live with joy. I once asked Rav Shlomo Wolbe, ztz”l, “What’s the single most important middah for a boy to look for in a marriage partner?” He answered “hitraanenut,” which in context means a freshness, excitement, or a simchas hachayim in how she deals with life. My greatest goal is to make a student excited about her Yiddishkeit and Torah living through proper hashkafah; I want her to really feel that fulfilling mitzvos and becoming close to Hashem is the ultimate pleasure. (Rabbi Menachem Nissel)
(Originally Featured in Family First, Issue 221)
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