Her daughter's being punished for her at-risk sister
Rina: You gave us so much trouble in the past. Why should we accept your daughter?
Miriam: Why does my daughter have to suffer because of her sister?
Summer starts in November when you run a sleepaway camp program.
First it’s the troubleshooting: What could we have done differently last year, how will we make this summer even better. Then it’s the initial planning: hiring head staff, developing a basic theme, and programming. Finally we open registration, and the real fun begins.
Baruch Hashem, we’re well established and have a great name, but thing is that you never make everyone happy, because it’s simply impossible.
There are always those last-minute desperate applications you have to turn down, which makes you look heartless for refusing to help someone in need. There’s always the one exception that you just have to make, even though registration is closed, which frustrates the administrative department. And don’t even get me started on the backlash when the rules are broken once, from all the dozens of applicants that we just couldn’t make an exception for.
Most people don’t take rejections personally. But it isn’t always so simple.
Like with the Friedman girl.
It’s a common enough last name that I might not have looked twice. I was scrolling through applications and checking off names for the office to send out acceptance letters and payment details when the mother’s name caught my eye. Miriam Friedman. That rang off about ten warning bells, but just to be sure, I pulled up an old file and checked the address of the Miriam Friedman that I remembered.
I returned to the spreadsheet of this year’s applications and put a solid X by Chani Friedman’s name. It was a shame, really, she must be the younger sister, what happened wasn’t her fault. But we just couldn’t risk another story like the one we had that summer.
Still, I texted my assistant and steady sounding board, Goldie. I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing. Kaila Friedman’s sister applied. She could be great girl but I’m not sure I want to get involved with the fam again.
My phone buzzed within a minute. Don’t.
Kaila Friedman was a spunky redhead with an Attitude. It was a bit of a surprise when she started flouting camp rules — back when we’d reference-checked her in the winter, her teachers hadn’t mentioned a word about any problems — but we’d dealt with such things before, we would handle it.
Her counselor spoke to her. I spoke to her. She responded flippantly and was even openly defiant to head staff members. That was pretty new. Camp was camp, we weren’t school, everyone was here to have a good time.
But Kaila’s idea of having a good time meant teaming up with the fringe elements of every bunk. She had a certain magnetism — maybe it was the attitude — that drew kids to her, and we felt the effects across the program. There were snide comments about the shiurim and deliberate boycotting of certain activities, late night excursions from the bunkhouse and some decidedly not-Jewish-sounding songs that too many girls were humming. For a while, we couldn’t trace the source of it, until someone struck gold in Kaila’s bunkhouse: an iPod. One that was most definitely against the camp rules.
We did some quiet investigations, and it turned out that the iPod was Kaila’s. If she’d simply been using it herself, we might have confiscated it for the duration of the summer and left it at that, but apparently, Kaila’s little club spent their nightly getaways hanging out and listening to less-than-savory music. This wasn’t just about one girl and her private struggles — it was a bad influence on the whole camp.
Somehow, the story got out, and I had parents calling and complaining about their daughters being exposed to things they’d never agreed to. I saw the camp’s good name disintegrating before my eyes. We needed to take drastic action.
I’ve never done this before, but I instructed my secretary to call the parents. We were sending Kaila home.
It should have been simple. Self-explanatory. You don’t break the rules like that, take a whole group down with you, and expect to get off scot-free. But apparently Kaila’s mother felt otherwise.
“You took the iPod, you’ve spoken to her, it won’t happen again,” Miriam Friedman told me insistently, when I made the mistake of answering her 15th call of the day. “You can’t do this to her, she’d so young, it will break her… please, I’m asking as a mother.”
I’m a mother too. But I wouldn’t stand by and allow my child to ruin an entire camp program because of her issues.
I was angry at Mrs. Friedman, too, for sending her daughter to a camp with high standards when she was clearly struggling. The clothing, the comments, the attitude — she needed a program that was meant for girls in her situation. Trying to play innocent and send her to a camp where she clearly didn’t belong was asking for trouble.
Then I got a call from a prominent rav in the Friedmans’ community.
“Mrs. Schapira, I understand your concerns, and the difficult situation you’re in,” he said. “But you must understand, this is a bas Yisrael’s future on the line. Tell me, have you spoken to her? Is she still using the device inappropriately? Have the other girls been warned against doing such a thing again?”
The “device” was locked in the office safe, and Kaila’s group had kind of disbanded after the incident. She’d been told she was being sent home, and hadn’t attended any of the camp activities since. We were working hard to help the others all integrate better into their respective bunks, and their counselors were really putting in a lot of effort to do damage control and stop things from escalating again. But Kaila didn’t belong in our camp any longer. But the rav wasn’t finished.
“You don’t have to accept her next summer, and you can let her know that this is on strict probation, but I implore you not to send her home from camp this year. It could cause lifelong damage. With the scare she’s had, I would be shocked if she could get such a following again among the other campers.” He paused. “This is just to protect her dignity and stop her from being so humiliated in front of the whole camp, the whole community. Do it for Hashem, this is His child. Please, give her another chance.”
I couldn’t say no, not after he’d called twice, and spoken to the camp mother and other head staff members too. We had an emergency meeting the day after Kaila should’ve left camp (her mother simply refused to arrange for her to be picked up). We debated for a couple of hours, but it was hard to come to a conclusion. The camp mother, who was the warm and fuzzy type, was all for giving Kaila another chance (“Poor girl, she must really be suffering”), while some of the others vehemently opposed it.
“If we don’t show that we stand by what we say, how will anyone take us seriously anymore?” Nava Kraus, the programming director, asked reasonably.
“The scare was enough for her, everyone knows she was almost sent home, and she’ll be on probation. One more mistake and she’s out. She’ll toe the line, don’t worry.” Esther, the camp mother, countered.
I agreed with Nava, but I wasn’t sure we had a choice. We were under so much pressure to keep her, and practically, the parents simply weren’t cooperating. We’d probably have to back down gracefully, with some kind of commitment from the mother that if there were further incidents, Kaila would be taken home that day.
“Whatever you decide, can we make a final decision tonight?” Ruchie, one of the head counselors, begged me. “I just can’t handle the pressure.”
“I’m scared to pick up calls from unfamiliar numbers,” her co-head Shevy added. “It’s either the mother or the grandmother or the next-door neighbor’s best friend or the mother from a different number…”
I knew what she meant; Miriam Friedman seemed to have an unlimited supply of cell phone numbers. It was getting ridiculous.
Eventually, we decided to let things be for now, and I asked Esther to handle the communication with the mother, which she was more than happy to do. I didn’t see much of Kaila Friedman the rest of the summer, which was a relief, but the damage to our reputation had been done.
The next year, applications were at an all-time low — and one prominent high school didn’t allow their students to apply. My sister-in-law, who had two daughters in the school, was the one who broke the news to me.
“Rina, I hate to be the one to tell you, but I think you need to know,” she said. “The school won’t allow the girls to go to your camp. I think the principal said something about foreign influences.”
I was horrified.
We were an excellent Bais Yaakov camp, we had top-notch shiur staff, and had always prided ourselves on the “ruchniyus” side of things. Our counselors were carefully investigated, we screened our campers carefully, and the whole Kaila story was such a scandal only because we were so strict about not allowing such devices into camp. And now, one troubled girl had left our reputation in pieces.
That year, we had empty bunkhouses for the first time.
By now, two years later, we’d rebuilt our reputation and applications were pouring in, but the memory of that difficult summer was still fresh. And when I saw Chani Friedman’s application, I balked. I just couldn’t face another Friedman story again. Goldie’s response reinforced my opinion; I wasn’t the only one with some residual trauma from the problems that summer and our damaged reputation afterward. The rest of the head staff agreed with me too; it just wasn’t worth it. The head shiur counselor, who’d had a particularly difficult time when Kaila and her gang boycotted the shiurim, threatened not to join us this summer if we’d have another one like that.
“This Chani is supposed to be totally different,” I told her, although I secretly agreed with her take.
She snorted. “And what were you told about Kaila before camp began?”
I was thinking the same thing. Why had the mother even sent her daughter to us when she was clearly not up to our standards? Why had she signed the technology agreement when her daughter had a completely inappropriate device with her?
It could be the younger sister was nothing like Kaila — the older one, Gitty? Gila? — had been a great camper, popular, fun, full of positive energy. But I wasn’t willing to take the risk again, not after last time. There was too much mistrust there, and I just didn’t feel like I could rely on the Friedmans’ integrity. Reference checking wouldn’t cut it for me — we hadn’t been told anything about Kaila, either, her teachers had said she was sweet and lively and came from a great home. And the difficulties we’d had with getting the mother on board with our decision clinched the deal. What if something went wrong again?
Miriam Friedman, of course, didn’t take it sitting down. A day or two after we sent out the letters, I started getting a barrage of calls, voice mails, texts. The mother, the family’s rav, the teachers… “Chani’s a gem, she’s a fantastic girl, we can’t do this to her…”
I decided to maintain a neutral stance: we were simply overfull, inundated with applications — which was true. But Mrs. Friedman didn’t let up, and I think everyone guessed the real reason behind Chani’s rejection, anyway.
One of the teachers mentioned it outright, that Chani was having a hard time at home, with her sister’s struggles and all. I think she was trying to change my mind, but it just made me more reluctant to accept her. With such an influence in the house, who knew how Chani had been affected? And I wasn’t ready to trust Mrs. Friedman’s judgment — of course she wanted her daughter to be happy, but her other daughter had cost us a year in bad press and damage to the camp atmosphere.
I felt sorry for her, I really did, but we weren’t taking the chance this time.
If I could tell Mrs. Friedman one thing, it would be: We were burned once by accepting your daughter, why should I risk our camp’s reputation and upset my staff again?
I wouldn’t wish this torment on anyone, not even my worst enemy. Because if you haven’t been there, you can’t imagine what it’s like to watch your child slide and slide — and not be able to do a single thing about it.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. That we haven’t tried. Of course we did, we tried everything: changing classes, changing schools, a dizzying carousel of rabbanim and mentors and mechanchos and therapists and names and recommendations and conflicting opinions and contradictory advice.
And the harder we tried, the worse things got.
Kaila’s not quite the middle child — she’s the third of nine, kein ayin hara — but she’s always felt like one, with Dovid and Gila right above her in the family. Those two are smart, talented, popular, while Kaila was always more on the average side, struggling a little socially, with no particular shining talents like her older siblings have.
We saw it coming, and we tried to stop it. We gave her private time, took her out for pizza, I encouraged her babysitting jobs (“You’re so amazing with children, what a gift!”) and helped her run a backyard day camp one year.
Ultimately, though, I need to keep reminding myself: This wasn’t my choice, and it isn’t my fault. We did our best. We tried everything, and who knows, maybe that’s why things aren’t as bad as they could be. Yes, Kaila doesn’t dress like the rest of the family. Yes, there’s the phone and the music and the friends with the strange names. But I try to count my blessings: Kaila joins us for the Shabbos meal — most of the time. She keeps to some sort of daily routine. She lives at home.
It’s a blessing and a curse, that one, because the constant stress and tension with a rebellious teen in the house is inevitable. I often feel helpless, trying to walk the tightrope of my relationship with Kaila while giving the younger kids what they need. When one child is going from crisis to crisis, the ones who aren’t causing trouble just tend to slide under the radar. I know it, and I try my best, but sometimes it just feels like I’m fighting a losing battle.
I’ll give you an example — the year that Kaila went to sleepaway camp. We don’t do sleepaway camp every year, it’s way too expensive, but Gila had gone to camp the summer after eighth grade, and Kaila was excited to do the same.
She’d been struggling already then, but I was hoping it was a passing phase, and that a month in another setting without the academic pressure and the chance to make new friends in a fun and nonthreatening atmosphere would help her to snap out of it. We’d applied to camp back in the winter, before the struggles had really begun, and although I was worried she wouldn’t be interested in such a “frum” camp for the summer, she didn’t seem too bothered — and I certainly wasn’t going to complain.
Okay, so she snorted when I signed the letter confirming that Kaila was not bringing a phone or Internet-enabled device along. I didn’t ask questions, though. I couldn’t afford to rock the boat, and besides, choosing her clothes had been enough of a battle. Packing for camp was one long balancing act, trying to keep Kaila happy with her camp wardrobe while delicately weeding out the most inappropriate items.
Honestly, I knew that a lot of what she was taking along wouldn’t be exactly standard in a Bais Yaakov program, there was a lot of veeery borderline stuff in that suitcase — but I had to pick my battles. And when she left for the camp bus, she was smiling in a way I hadn’t seen for a few months. I breathed a sigh of relief. Eighth grade had been difficult, but camp would be a new start, and high school was just around the corner. Surely things would change for Kaila, and no one would be more relieved than me.
The bonus was that I’d get to spend time, finally, with my younger kids — the good, quiet ones who had been left to their own devices while I put all my energy into getting Kaila to camp. Especially Chani. Just two years younger than Kaila, the two were so different you’d never imagine they were sisters. Kaila was a fiery redhead, light-skinned with prominent freckles. Chani was dark-haired, quiet, with a slight build, the kind who got overlooked easily. Which wasn’t so fair — she was a great girl, sweet, refined, super helpful and geshikt around the house. (Which was more than I could say for Kaila, with her volatile moods, and Gila, whose incredibly active social life tended to supersede household chores on a regular basis…)
But with both Kaila and Gila away — Gila had landed a counselor position somewhere, together with two of her best friends — I’d hoped it would finally give me some time to spend with Chani. The younger kids, too, but she was the one closest in age to Kaila, and she’d spent the past few months quietly shouldering housework while we ran in circles to try and help Kaila. It was definitely her time.
The summer started off great. Chani had a day camp job she loved, the younger ones had programs of their own, and I could let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. It was amazing what a difference it made that Kaila was away and happy. She sounded happy, anyway, when she called home.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” she said breezily. “Some of the girls are totally boring, you know, but me and my friends know how to have a good time…”
Maybe I should’ve taken that as a warning sign, but I so badly wanted this to work. So I just smiled into the phone and said, “That sounds great, sweetie.”
And then I went to take the carrot-cheese muffins — Chani’s favorite — out of the oven. It was so nice to finally be able to treat her, my daughter who’d been trying her best to support me all year long.
It lasted about a week and a half . Then I got a phone call from an unfamiliar number. It was the camp secretary .
They wanted to send Kaila home.
My vision of a peaceful month at home with the younger kids was turning into a whirlpool of confusion, frustration, anger, and desperation. What exactly had Kaila been doing? Which friends were involved? Why weren’t they being sent home? It was impossible to get hold of Mrs. Schapira; she was constantly busy, or the service was bad in the country. I wanted to speak to her directly, figure it out, but she had a camp to run, and my daughter was not a top priority. I was angry too — couldn’t they give her another chance? Why was I getting messages from the camp office about picking Kaila up the next day, while Mrs. Schapira wasn’t bothering to return my increasingly frantic calls? And then there was the choking desperation: Kaila couldn’t be sent home. She couldn’t! Didn’t they realize what this would do to her? To her siblings? To all of us?
“It’s not just about this summer, it’s her whole future, she’ll become ‘the girl who was sent home from camp,’” I told my sister Nechama. “And the craziest thing is, there’s no one to talk to! I just want an open conversation, to see if we can work something out…”
“Fight for it,” she advised me. “I worked in a camp for years, you need to get your voice heard. If you go over there all nicely and pick up your daughter, they’ll never take you seriously. Be assertive, let them know you want answers, you want to talk through the options… sending her home is a cop-out and you both know it.”
Emboldened, I decided to try again. This time, I didn’t just leave messages with the secretary, I sent Mrs. Schapira a long text message and a voice mail, asking her to call me back before she took drastic action. I also called our rav, who knew about the difficulties we were having with Kaila. He promised to intercede on our behalf.
“Kaila’s a good girl who’s going through a hard time,” Rabbi Goldman told my husband and me reassuringly. “Whatever it was that she was doing, I’m convinced that this scare will make sure she doesn’t do it again, and she can be given another chance.”
That was exactly what I was hoping for.
I’m not even sure what exactly happened in the end, because Mrs. Schapira never ended up returning those calls — but I did get a message from the camp secretary (whom I’d taken to calling twice a day, trying to get hold of the director) that she was “thinking it through.” Eventually, I got in touch with the camp mother, a vague acquaintance, who promised to look into the situation. She eventually got back to me with the good news that Kaila seemed to have settled, and the director and head counselors had discussed the situation and would allow her to stay on condition that she toe the line for the rest of the summer.
I felt relief, thankfulness, and utter exhaustion.
It had only been a few days, but I felt like I’d aged a year. The threat of Kaila being publicly humiliated, sent home in disgrace, with the shame that would follow her for years, had been overwhelming. Forget about special time with Chani or the other kids, I’d barely served supper. When the whole sorry saga was over, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep for a month.
That was typical of our experiences with Kaila: sudden, dramatic, and completely all-encompassing. One day I’m feeling like things are settling down, it will be okay, and the next day we’re in the middle of a crisis and everything else simply falls away while we try to navigate Kaila’s latest emergency.
And of course, it’s Chani who takes the slack. With Dovid away in yeshivah and Gila in shidduchim-land with plenty of drama of her own, my quiet younger daughter is the one who washes the supper dishes, does her homework, helps out with the little boys, and doesn’t ask for anything for herself.
That’s why I was so excited about camp. Chani needed a break. She didn’t have the easiest time socially, but her solid group of friends were all going to camp — the same one Gila and Kaila had attended — and Chani was excited at the opportunity to go together with them and navigate a new social scene with the support of her best friends. She spent a while filling out the application, carefully selecting who to put as her references. I felt like telling her it wouldn’t make a difference — there was nothing bad for any of them to say. She was refined, eidel, friendly, helpful, willing, and had amazing middos — there was no reason for a camp to reject her.
Except, apparently, there was.
The rejection letter caught us by surprise. Chani’s friends had received their acceptances the night before, and we were sure this was hers — but instead of a welcome-to-camp letter, we’d received a cold, impersonal rejection.
We are sorry to inform you… due to the significant number of applicants…
Number of applicants? Gila hadn’t had a problem getting in. Neither had Kaila.
…Oh. It was about Kaila. It was because of Kaila.
That night, I stood on the landing just outside Chani’s room, listening to her muffled sobs, and my heart quietly broke.
And then, bone-weary and with a strange feeling of déjà vu, I started making calls.
Chani’s teacher, who we’d put down as a reference. (She was shocked. I have only the nicest things to say about Chani!)
Chani’s friends’ mothers, who were just as surprised. (The camp rejected her? But they even took so-and-so, you know, from the group who was suspended last winter…)
I even called the principal. She was sympathetic, but apologetic. (There’s nothing I can do to interfere with a camp’s decision…)
We called Rabbi Goldman again, the camp mother, and Mrs. Schapira. The rav, endlessly patient and encouraging, promised to put in a good word for Chani with the camp administration. The camp mother had left the job, but gave me some phone numbers of other head staff members, maybe they could help? And reaching Mrs. Schapira took a week of trying, until finally, finally, she called me back.
“Thank you so much for calling,” I told her. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week. It’s about my daughter, Chani.”
Her voice was cold. “I know that, I’ve been getting a lot of messages from you — and from other people.”
Was that a hint? Surely she wasn’t angry that I’d asked people to speak up on Chani’s behalf — how could she be? The camp didn’t know my daughter; I did. She was a gem, she’d be an asset to any program, and she so badly, so badly, needed this getaway.
“We’ll put her on our waiting list, but tell your daughter not to expect anything. We’re very full this year.”
I was left with the phone in my hand, my mouth slightly open. She had hung up already? But I had so much to say — how this was Chani’s first chance to go to sleepaway, it was where all her friends were going, how much she’d suffered because of Kaila’s struggles, and how this just wasn’t fair, Kaila’s behavior wasn’t her fault at all…
But there was no one to talk to.
If I could tell Mrs. Schapira one thing, it would be: How could you hurt an innocent girl because of her sister?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 864)
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