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Far from Home

“The taxi driver is not your friend,” seminaries inform students. “It is not part of the chavayah to engage him in conversation.”

The seminary year can be transformative, offering girls a solid Torah outlook that will stand them in good stead for decades. To maximize this opportunity, it’s important to stay safe. Seminary educators and mental health professionals speak about the potential pitfalls — and how to avoid them — so girls can make the most of their year

Seminary acceptance letters have just arrived, and many envelope-ripping girls are looking forward to a transformative year in Eretz Yisrael. They have a solid precedent: three generations of girls have returned home from seminary with a wealth of wonderful experiences — some profound, some funny, many inspiring, and some downright life-changing.

“I credit who I am today to my teachers in seminary,” says Meira, a mother of three who experienced a rough patch during her teen years.

“I was a madrichah in a seminary for a year,” echoes Batsheva. “It’s beautiful to see how years later, many of them point to the lessons and role models of their year in seminary as a pivotal influence in their lives.”

But the year away from home also presents unique challenges. In a foreign country, far from parental guidance, and independent for the first time in their lives, students may face difficult or awkward situations they feel unequipped to handle.

Many girls (and their parents) mistakenly assume that Yerushalayim is inherently safe.

“This naivete,” says Mrs. Chana Rabinowitz, staff social worker at Darchei Binah, “can sometimes backfire. There’s stranger danger with frum Jews, too. That’s why we spend hours talking about this during orientation.”

“Seminaries have been sensitive to boundaries and propriety since their inception,” says Batya Weinberg, a mechaneches who has been teaching in seminaries for the past 24 years. “The rabbanim and mechanchos are G-d-fearing, caring, and professional — and extremely vigilant. For decades, the seminaries have been working hard to guide talmidos responsibly.”

Recently, many seminaries have become even more proactive in this area, augmenting their years of dedication by upgrading existing protocols further to ensure that their students’ chavayot are 100 percent positive.

“A person who fastens his seat belt when flying on a plane can go distances he never dreamed of,” says Rabbi Michoel Green, overseas director of Sharfman’s. “And a girl who does seminary right can develop an unequaled amount of kochos hanefesh. After all, avirah d’Ara machkim [the mere air of the Land of Israel makes one wiser]. You just have to make sure the seat belt is fastened.”

What are some of the safety concerns? What are seminaries and professionals doing to avert them? And what should every seminary girl know?

Empowering Students

At the start of every school year, seminary administrators conduct an orientation that includes detailed safety instructions. Now there’s also a resource for those who wish to start the discussion before their daughters even step on a plane.

Mrs. Debbie Fox, LCSW, is a social worker who has spearheaded personal safety awareness in the frum community for nearly 30 years, and now directs Magen Yeladim International. She’s recently compiled Seminary Savvy, a guide for handling common and not-so-common seminary situations. The soon-to-be-published handbook also features comical cartoons to hold teens’ interest.

“We presented a holistic approach to very real situations that happen during the seminary year,” Mrs. Fox says. “It’s about empowering girls and parents to create the healthiest, greatest year.”

Topics in the book include learning to heed one’s inner voice, relating to males appropriately (rebbeim, fathers of chesed families, Shabbos hosts, relatives), safety on tiyulim, taxis, and public transportation, Shabbos Visiting 101, nutrition, sleeping right, and establishing healthy boundaries — with friends, newlywed siblings, teachers, and chesed families.

Another initiative launched to ensure student safety is Project Shomreini, unrolled several months ago by Magen of Beit Shemesh — a child protection organization serving Anglos across Israel. Project Shomreini offers seminaries conduct code templates and other carefully worded documents (e.g., staff guidelines, letters to parents, points to discuss with students), which seminary administrators are invited to review and customize.

“We are not foisting anything on anyone; we want schools to do what works for them,” explains Shana Aaronson, who created Project Shomreini in her capacity as Magen’s social services coordinator. “But it’s important they do something. Faculties who create clear, effective guidelines protect themselves as well.”

Mrs. Debbie Gross, an Israel-based psychologist who directs Tahel, a crisis center for religious women and children, has recently been hired by several seminaries to train staff in personal safety. She mentions a little-known statute: Israeli law requires every school to designate a “go-to person” trained to deal with cases of abuse and harassment. “A problematic person will be much more careful… in a school where there’s a policy, a trained monitor,” she says.

Bnot Torah/Sharfman’s is one such seminary. Their ombudswoman — a respected Jerusalem-based, chareidi psychologist — is the address for students, parents, teachers, even third parties.

“Say you hosted seminary girls for Shabbos, and something unsettled you,” explains Sharfman’s Rabbi Michoel Green. “Who would you turn to? Now, all parties have an easy, accessible address.”

Sharfman’s also posted a groundbreaking, crystal-clear faculty conduct code on their website. Male teachers, for example, may not receive calls from students past 11 p.m. Students may never be called by a nickname. Faculty members must address each other with titles (Rabbi Ploni, Mrs. Ploni).

“We call it the kiddush Hashem document,” Rabbi Green says. “We’ve already been contacted by a US university. We said, ‘Please, plagiarize it!’ It’s about the way a Yid conducts himself.”


Away from Home

Why the heightened emphasis on safety in Eretz Yisrael, our national home?

“Girls living away from home are vulnerable,” explains Shana Aaronson. “Many have never been away for this long, or in such a foreign place.”

Many well-meaning girls — raised on idealistic visions of the Holy Land — buy into the illusion that Israelis are one big happy family, and they let their guard down.

“If a suspicious-looking character approached them in a Chicago alley, most girls would have the sense to run away,” Shana says. “But if a young man with a yarmulke approached them on a Geula street corner, they might not.”

Jerusalem may boast negligible levels of petty crime, but that’s only one part of the equation. Far from parents’ watchful eyes, personal safety incidents — often perpetrated by people the girls know well — become more of a concern, especially because perpetrators know that shidduch-minded sem girls are unlikely to press charges.

A recent sem returnee related the following story: An older man found himself sharing a bus with a gaggle of gregarious American girls. “How did you like camp this summer?” he asked one girl.

“Which camp?” the girl replied, laughing.

“I can tell you’ve gone to Camp Reena,* the same camp as my granddaughter. Do you know Sorah? Kaylee? Chani? How about Bella?”

“Omigosh, they’re my best friends!!” the girl squealed. “I can’t believe you know them!”

The man proceeded to ask detailed questions about the trips, night activities, and color war, showing extensive knowledge of the camp’s program.

Several minutes later, he turned to the girl before getting off the bus. “You’re fortunate that I’m a grandfather and don’t want to hurt anyone,” he said. “My granddaughter isn’t in any camp in America. I read the camp name and the campers off your sweatshirt. You were very loud about different experiences so I put it all together. You need to be more cautious.”

With their distinctive speech, dress, and mannerisms, sem girls are glaringly conspicuous as naive foreigners. They are also more vulnerable thanks to a self-imposed “need” to have outrageous experiences.


“The girls are in chavayah-land,” rues Miriam, a former madrichah at a popular Bais Yaakov seminary. She says the pioneering, let’s-brave-it attitude leads girls to make bad choices, like walking through Shaar Shechem. (“Most sane Israelis wouldn’t do that!”)

Most significantly, girls who come to Eretz Yisrael require extra protection because they’ve lost their support systems.

“It’s a new world, with so many new experiences and dilemmas,” says Mrs. Fox. “Their parents are far away. When something uncomfortable happens, girls don’t know who to turn to.”


Trusted Adult

For this reason, a recurring theme in Debbie Fox’s Seminary Savvy is the need for girls to draw up a list of trusted adults — people with whom they’d feel safe sharing sensitive information: a parent, teacher, therapist, older sibling, etc. At least one adult should be Israel-based, for immediate reachability.

“When there’s no address, they may live with the anxiety and shame for months — even years,” she says. “When there’s a trusted adult, girls faced with a concerning behavior will likely speak up, possibly preventing situations from getting much worse.”

Shifra, a sweet, refined young woman, once got lost coming back from the Kosel and became frightened. Noticing her distress, a “super-helpful” young Israeli man gallantly escorted her back to seminary, comforting her along the way. When they arrived, he said, “Call me from your room so I know you got in safely.”

That’s when the phone calls began. He would call and call, several times a day, asking her to meet him. She tried to gently stave him off — even meeting him once to tell him in person — but the calls continued. After months of suffering and worrying, she finally told one of her rabbanim, who answered the phone himself and resolved the issue at last.

Had Shifra felt more comfortable disclosing what happened earlier to a trusted adult, she might have avoided months of needless discomfort.

In contrast, Darchei Binah’s Chana Rabinowitz designates herself and another faculty member as “safe females on staff” with whom girls can share all concerning information. When a similar incident occurred (a boy stalking a girl who’d unsuspectingly lent him her phone), the student told Mrs. Rabinowitz immediately, who went so far as to change the girl’s phone number.


Going off Grounds

Savoring newfound independence, seminary girls often gallivant around the country using various modes of transportation. While most taxi and bus rides are uneventful, girls need to be prepared for less favorable eventualities.

“The taxi driver is not your friend,” seminaries inform students. “It is not part of the chavayah to engage him in conversation.”

Former madrichah Dvori recalls one coming-and-going type who eventually snagged herself a “personal driver.”

“She was never in seminary, always visiting Arzei or Sorotzkin. Eventually she found a nice driver with a comfortable car. They exchanged numbers, he knew her daily schedule, he drove her everywhere. When he started bringing her gifts, she realized something was off.”

Sometimes it goes further. Magen social services coordinator Shana Aaronson is familiar with several cases of girls who were inappropriately touched in a taxi at night.

“A girl alone in a cab is not a smart thing,” says Mrs. Chana Flam, principal of Seminar Yerushalayim. She steers girls to travel in pairs and even avoid cabs entirely whenever possible.

Most seminaries also warn students that an Arab taxi — or any taxi from an unapproved company — is categorically off-limits.

Dafna learned this the hard way when she entered an unmarked taxi loitering outside Kever Rochel. (The driver had offered her a bargain.) When she found herself headed into an Arab neighborhood, she insisted on getting out. She tried walking back to Kever Rochel but struggled to find her way. Finally, an Israeli bus stopped and the driver flung open his doors, motioning frantically.

“What are you doing, walking in this neighborhood?” he yelled. “You could have gotten killed.”

If you ever feel unsafe, Mrs. Rabinowitz from Darchei Binah advises girls, call someone immediately. Say “I’m on Rechov Strauss in a Bar-Ilan taxi. I’m going to stay on the phone until we get to sem. Let the eim bayit know to expect me any minute.”

When it comes to personal safety, buses — with their well-lit seats and other passengers — are generally safer than taxis, especially at night (Seminar, for example, strongly encourages girls to use public transportation). But buses also have their pitfalls. One prominent Midwest rebbetzin shared that as a seminary girl, she found herself sitting next to a man who began doing something inappropriate, and she couldn’t easily get away. “It affects me until today,” she said.

To avoid such encounters, Mrs. Fox recommends that girls always sit on the outer seat. “If your seatmate is making you queasy, get up and get off the bus.”


Careful Boundaries

Part and parcel of the seminary experience is interacting with all types of people, many of whom are men — from the rabbis who teach the girls’ classes to the fathers of the chesed families they help. The halachos of yichud and negiah are our greatest safeguards, and they must be impeccably followed at all times, in all situations, and in all relationships. The following concrete examples are not meant to sensationalize, but to highlight how no situation or relationship should automatically be assumed to be safe.

Two years post-seminary, one girl confided to her therapist that her brother-in-law once gave her a ride back to seminary, taking the “scenic route” through the Jerusalem Forest. He then touched her inappropriately.

Kayla, a former madrichah of a Bais Yaakov seminary, recalls the story of a girl who was molested by her cousin when she stayed with her aunt and uncle for a few days before seminary. The school only discovered what happened several months later, after hours of listening supportively to understand why the otherwise sweet girl was acting out of character.

By prepping girls with knowledge of relevant halachos — and teaching them how to react during and after compromising situations — schools can prevent these kinds of awful scenarios. Beyond the boundaries of inviolable halachos, there is a vast gray area, a swath of “fifth-Shulchan Aruch” behaviors that defy the spirit of the law. Girls must be equipped to spot them.

Former madrichah Miriam remembers Tamar, who reported “sitting for hours with my brother-in-law looking through seforim” to prepare a beautiful devar Torah. She didn’t see anything inappropriate with it, notes Miriam.

In another case, two girls were hosted several times by a family for Shabbos. The husband would tell the girls that he loved when they came, because they were such deep thinkers. Though the wife went to sleep early, he would stay up late shmoozing with them. Often, one of the girls would fall asleep and the other would speak with him until 2 or 3 in the morning. He told her “these conversations are really special to me.”

Debbie Fox’s guide offers girls numerous examples of both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, urging them to listen to their gut when unsure: Does it feel right? If my mother, father, or family rav were to see me right now, would I feel comfortable?

To assist girls in developing boundaries, Mrs. Fox also identifies red-flag behaviors that are never acceptable for male teachers: entering the dorm, texting girls about personal matters, complimenting their appearance, offering solitary rides, and more.

There exists a conundrum in the world of seminary chinuch. Many effective teachers tend to have a “star personality,” which is certainly an asset in the classroom. However, it can come with a downside. One alumna related that after class, the “cool” girls would encircle a particular rabbi and ask detailed questions about male/female differences and pesukim in Shir Hashirim.

This happens despite the fact that seminary staff members are exceedingly careful in maintaining healthy boundaries.

Darchei Binah’s menahel, Rabbi Shimon Kurland, recalls the guidance his spiritual mentor gave him in the months before his seminary opened its doors. Pointing to his own white hair, Rav Nachman Bulman said, “With all these white hairs, we can never be too careful about how we interact with the girls.”

Twenty years later, Rabbi Kurland still lives by these words, enforcing clear rules about rabbi-student relationships.

For example, if a girl wants to join a rabbi for a Shabbos meal, she must arrange it with the rabbi’s wife. Rabbis can only speak with students in their homes if their wives are present.

Along similar lines, former madrichah Kayla remembers that when a student’s father died suddenly, the school’s principal drove the girl to the airport, but insisted on being accompanied by his wife. “At the time, I didn’t understand it,” Kayla admits. “Today it’s clear that he was simply being a yarei Shamayim.” Together, the couple was able to be extremely supportive at a very difficult time.

Shana Aaronson was in touch with a principal who — after facility renovations — refused to move into his office until a glass window was installed in the door.

Dini, who recently returned from sem, told a mentor about the time she tearfully began pouring out her heart about a stressful family situation to one of the rabbis.

“I see you are very emotional and need a lot of support,” the rabbi responded empathetically. “It would be best if Mrs. Schwartz [the eim bayit] would spend time with you and offer you the support you need right now. I’m going to speak with her.”

This noteworthy approach can be very appropriate when a girl asks a male educator about tzniyus, negiah, or marriage, or simply shows a need for attention.

Rabbi Kurland agrees, stressing the need for vigilance. But he expresses concern about taking the concept too far. “We have to figure out a healthy balance,” he points out. “If a girl is looking at every male educator as a potential predator, this can destroy chinuch. If my students don’t trust me, I cannot be effective.”


Shabbos and Chesed Families

Often tasked with finding their own Shabbos arrangements three weeks out of the month, seminary girls must be prepared to handle less-than-pleasant experiences. Former madrichah Miriam remembers a girl walking into the dorm Motzaei Shabbos, shaking. At the “normal, frum, American host family,” the husband had gotten drunk Friday night, and she was exposed to shockingly coarse words and scenes.

“If anything about your Shabbos made you uncomfortable in any way,” Chana Flam tells girls, “please tell me or the Shabbos coordinator immediately.” Possibilities include a serious lack of shalom bayis, a family that doesn’t seem able to afford company, a hostess who expects endless help, conversation that’s inappropriate, or attention from the host that makes the girls uneasy.

Mrs. Flam also tells girls they must ensure the woman of the house will be home for Shabbos. In one case, girls nearly ended up with a family whose mother was away, convalescing after birth. Due to the seminary’s diligence, the inappropriate setup was avoided.

Another Shabbos pitfall is the “all-girls” Shabbos, taking place in a hotel room or empty apartment. With no adult supervision, unwelcome visitors can take advantage.

In one case, girls intent on making their own Shabbos found themselves still apartment-less on Friday. A friend’s single brother offered his empty dirah — did they want to use it?

“The girls stayed in a boys’ dirah for Shabbos,” Miriam relates. “They cleaned it up, made it ‘nice’ for the bochurim, and of course crossed paths at various points. It was completely inappropriate.”

Chesed arrangements can present similar challenges. Because girls spend extensive time with these families over the course of a year, a warm relationship often develops, blurring healthy boundaries.

“If you get there and the wife is not home, turn around and leave,” psychologist Mrs. Gross tells girls unequivocally.

One young woman shared that one Thursday, she and her friend found their destitute chesed family’s apartment empty; they had been evicted. The girls finally discovered the family living in a tiny, one-room apartment. On their own, they resolved to become the family’s saviors, handing them most of their own savings and tirelessly fundraising to provide daily meals — until a seminary teacher got wind of the endeavor that was consuming the girls and transferred responsibility to more appropriate resources.

Girls must also be prepared to deal with the rare chesed family — or teacher — who takes advantage, using guilt or “attention” tactics to pressure them into helping excessively with housework and kids.

In one example, girls placed at a family with an elderly grandmother were asked to fulfill tasks inappropriate for their age and stage.

Most seminaries work hard to preclude such situations by carefully vetting both Shabbos hosts and chesed families. But if a girl does feel uncomfortable with her placement, she’s encouraged to tell the coordinator — which is precisely what happened with the girls-cum-aides, who were immediately switched to a different family.


The Height of Tzniyus

Seminary girls are at a transitional, critical life point, and most seminary administrations are dedicated to ensuring the safety of this vulnerable population. But awareness of the issues — and learning to deal with them — goes beyond the year in Israel.

“How many married women get victimized in some way and freeze?” Shana Aaronson asks. “Unfortunately, workplace harassment and abuse does happen.”

She, for one, isn’t fazed by those who question the tzniyus or directness of educational programs centered on personal safety. “There is nothing more tzanuah than maintaining personal boundaries, than learning how to respect the body Hashem gave you,” Shana says.

“There is no greater chillul Hashem than when children are being hurt,” Meohr principal Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald said at the recent Tahel conference, quoting Rav Moshe Sternbuch’s response to people concerned about the chillul Hashem repercussions of reporting a known “rabbinical” abuser.

But even as they clearly address the issues, the programs are carefully calibrated to empower — not frighten. “This is about giving our girls tools,” Mrs. Fox says. “The seminary year is a great one, and our goal is just that: to keep a great year great.”

All material we publish is reviewed by our internal rabbinic board. Due to the sensitive nature of this piece, additional leading rabbanim and roshei yeshivah were consulted as well, and they reviewed and approved the feature.


Parents, Where Are You?

Sem girls are on the cusp of adulthood, but they’re not there yet. Parents still play an integral role in their daughters’ personal safety. Debbie Fox designed her guide for both parents and girls; she wants both generations to read it, creating a shared understanding that encourages ongoing dialogue.

“Personal safety is not a one-time conversation,” says Magen’s Shana Aaronson. “The talk has to flex and adjust with every stage of life.” For example, while school-age children might learn about good versus bad touch, teenagers need different concepts — because touch that feels very good in the moment might ultimately be harmful.

Parents should show reasonable involvement by calling the seminary periodically, asking pointed questions about their daughter’s wellbeing. They should also be more insistent on measurable safety protocols.

That’s not yet happening. In a Q & A session at the Tahel conference, Darchei Binah menahel Rabbi Shimon Kurland noted that in the school’s 20 years of existence, not one parent ever inquired about safety protocols. But this reality, he says, simply underscores the profound trust parents place in the seminary — and the resulting achrayus that administrators must feel.

“Parents trust us,” he told other seminary menahalim. “That’s why it’s so important for us to have the right safeguards in place.”


What to Ask

When choosing a seminary, advises Sharfman’s Rabbi Michoel Green, parents should be discerning consumers. “Parents are our partners. I encourage them to ask as many questions about safety procedures as they do about cell phone policies.” Some questions you may want to ask:

  • How can I easily contact staff?
  • What is the ratio of madrichot to students?
  • What time is curfew? How is it enforced?
  • How do you ensure dorm safety regarding break-ins and fires?
  • Does your school have an Ethics Protocol? Can I see it?
  • Who is the designated adult girls can turn to if they have a sensitive concern?
  • Do you let students sleep out during the week? If so, how do you ascertain their whereabouts?
  • What areas of Israel (and Jerusalem) are off limits?
  • What extracurricular events outside of school are available to my daughter so that she doesn’t just have time on her hands?
  • What arrangements do you have for Shabbos and Yom Tov?


Originally featured in Family first

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