Bais Yaakovs keep a short rein on their students, but sometimes it’s the teachers that get out of control. That’s what happened at an infamous shabbaton that ended in tears, hysterics, and according to some, an eventual mass OTD exodus*.
The setting for the Shabbaton was the Catskill Mountains. Fresh, crisp spring air, wispy clouds in a blue sky, students in uniforms larking about on the grassy lawns.
The theme of the Shabbaton was – dum-da-dum – tznius! (Shocker, I know.) Most of it was standard stuff. There was a skit that included the song:
Monkey see, monkey do
We always run to see what’s new
Our own opinion doesn’t seem to matter.
It doesn’t matter how or why
The new style we run to try
Not caring if the fashion doesn’t flatter.
Our own taste goes to waste
Because we have a passion.
We must always wear the latest fashion.
We wear each style with a smile
Convinced it’s elegance.
We never use our own intelligence.
There was also a newsletter that every student received with some warnings about
“Devastation caused by newspapers and books:
Adult and children read everything, especially material for which the person has a yetzer hara. Such papers are lethal for all member of the family, even though the damage is often not apparent for quite some time.
Case histories are known of girls who had a very good start in life, succeeded in their teenage years, and developed into fine young women. Eventually, however, they became shallow and superficial, losing their Torah outlook and former refinement. When questioned how this depressing decline occurred, they confessed that the daily papers and magazines which were brought into their parents’ home had a very detrimental effect on them. It them [sic] on a day by day Torahdik chinuch into the grime and impurity which exudes from the daily press.”
And there were speeches and workshops and thought-provoking games… and here is where memories diverge.
“I believe it was just that one workshop and most of the others weren’t that bad. I don’t even remember my own…I happened to pass by this one [workshop] and all the girls were crying, which is why I went to report it.”
“Not really. I was hopping between two because our class was split up and I was a rebel. All the seminary schnooks were given the same speech to give.”
Friday night – and/or Shabbos afternoon – the students were split into groups for “workshops.” The workshops were carried out by seminary students. But they were led by a teacher from a chassidish school, who provided the script for them to follow.
Some of them looked at the script and blanched. Others dove in, happy to say whatever was necessary to ensure the right behaviors by their impressionable wards. Either way, there was no time to debate the content.
“I was helping out somewhere else and was late for the workshop groups so I sat in to the closest group. It was bad!” an alumnus recalls.
“They went through everything that was supposed to be covered from their neck down,” another student related. “She told the girls…that now they know all the halachos if they don’t cover up every single limb or whatever then they will burn in hell because they learnt the halachos and now you don’t have an excuse.”
Esther recalls: “The burning was framed as – every limb you expose will burn in commensurate degree to the amount of times it was improperly exposed.”
It was late at night. Imaginations got graphic. Students huddled into themselves and imagined the skin on their arms bubbling in the heat.
Not that they routinely walked around with their knees or elbows showing. But there was always that game of machanayim where their sleeve slipped down. And that windy day on the train platform when their skirt blew up. Nobody was safe from exposure of some sort.
“They also made it sound like if you didn’t want to be punished [as atonement, then you weren’t really penitent about it and] you probably, deep down, wanted it to happen, wanted men to see your thighs… so we have everyone doubting themselves and wanting to be burned but also terrified of being burned, and terrified because they aren’t even aware of their subliminal desires [toward immodesty].”
When a student reported the hysteria, the principal sent a young teacher to calm them down.
“Don’t worry,” she soothed the sobbing students. “You’re crying – that means you’re doing teshuva. That’s the first step. And you’re promising not to do it again. That’s the second step. You have nothing to worry about.”
When the principal heard more details on the workshop contents, she was perturbed. “Tznius should be something positive,” she is quoted as saying. However, she declined to make a speech against the contents of the workshop. “Students will come to me if they want to discuss it,” she said.
“[They made] havdala as soon as possible because one girl was in tears after being told all this all Shabbos long. She left immediately after havdala with a teacher. This girl is and was the most amazing of bais Yaakov girls.”
Everyone else stayed over til Sunday morning, when they boarded the bus bleary-eyed and with their pajama pants under their uniform skirts.
And that was it, folks. The shabbaton from Gehinnom.
* Quote from one of my sources: “This was when I realized that everything they told us was just BS to keep us in line. And the good girls were the only ones who fell for it.” Editorial note: I have done considerable filtering of tone, language, and emotion in this post.