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Friday, December 13, 2019

Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. The underpinning of yeshiva high school dress codes is that how students appear externally should reflect who they are internally: their Jewish identity, commitment to learning and their individual personalities. No one likes being told what to do, especially teenagers. Yeshiva high schools strive to make dress conform to halacha, more specifically tzniut, loosely defined as modesty, while giving adolescents room to express themselves. Several administrators from New Jersey yeshiva high schools opened up about how they accomplish this feat.

Bruriah High School for Girls, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, requires students to cover their collarbone, elbows and knees. The girls are encouraged to dress in “their own style in the framework we are giving them,” said Aliza Blumenthal, director of student life. “We feel this model offers an important life lesson. School attire should command respect and we want them to realize that you dress for the environment you’re in. This is a special value that is very evident in our school environment.”

Blumenthal said that when she graduated from Bruriah in 1995, girls wore mainly denim skirts and long-sleeve T-shirts. Times have changed, she observed. She said the girls are now wearing black skirts and tops, with form-fitting black booties in winter and white sneakers in spring. While the school dress code doesn’t dictate style, there are popular trends. “The girls say dressing more formally keeps you awake and keeps you in the situation,” she said. “The vast majority look totally put together every day, as Bruriah girls take their appearance seriously.”

Adhering to the basics of the dress code is an extension of school policy. “We tell parents and kids that this is part of the school rules,” said Blumenthal, “and there are consequences for dress-code issues. It typically involves a meaningful conversation and progress happens.” In addition, girls in high school are still growing. A favorite skirt doesn’t grow with them. Parents: pay attention.

“Getting appropriate clothes shouldn’t be a problem,” said Blumenthal. “There are enough clothes out there that are school-friendly, in both Jewish-owned and not-Jewish-owned stores. Girls don’t need a million skirts; three or four are fine. The key is that school should not be a fashion show, with everyone noticing who’s wearing what. It’s not like that. We don’t want it to become pressure on the family. Get a few skirts and shirts for school clothes and you’re done. Bruriah embraces individuality while promoting dress-code mindfulness in fashion choices.”

Bailey Braun, dean of students at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, said the students are told to keep elbows and knees covered, necklines not too low. “The girls are not hyper-focused on fashion at school,” said Braun. “They want to be comfortable. Generally, they have two skirts—black flared and straight, some wear them with leggings—and sweatshirts and moccasins. No one wants to be spending hours picking outfits.”

Not that the girls aren’t interested in fashion; most follow frum fashion bloggers. “In school, they don’t want to be different; they’re very laid back. Out of school they can dress for Shabbos and a simcha and that’s fine,” Braun said.

Ma’ayanot educates the girls about why a dress code is necessary, said Braun, noting that the school introduces new programming ideas for tzniut education all the time. The school had one full morning devoted to the issue, and one of the teachers provided links to stores where students can find a good selection of clothes.

Dress is approached in the context of behavior, speech and middot put together. “The teachers talk about what it means that God is hidden, or how pop songs can fixate on the female form, or the difference between covering up and being ashamed. It is not simply about rules and regulations but broader discussions about what being tzniut means,” she said. “The focus shouldn’t be on how you look but on who you are. It’s about independence, empowerment and having a sense of self.”

The best way to avoid a focus on dress, and confront problems when they arise, is for the teachers to have approachable relationships with the students. “Sitting down with a student is better than saying they are dressed inappropriately,” said Braun.

Students also see teachers as role models for their future selves. Their style of dress changes accordingly, and sooner than you might expect. “My experience is that it comes with time and maturity and commitment,” said Braun. “I see a big change between 11th grade and seminary.”

Although tzniut comes up most often in relation to girls’ clothing, boys are also expected to adhere to a dress code. Rabbi Asher Yablok, head of school at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) for boys, said students should dress in a way that is appropriate for a yeshiva environment in which they are learning and davening. “A dress code appropriate for Torah and tefillah is of paramount value. We have found that the way students dress has an influence on their mindset. It makes a difference in the quality of learning and in their behavior.”

Boys are expected to wear collared shirt with buttons, either a polo or button down, and dockers, on the waistline; no jeans or athletic pants. Last year the school decided not to allow hoodies, hooded sweatshirts or shirts, to the chagrin of some students, and indicated that they need to be removed in order for a student to be permitted to attend classes. “Some students didn’t like the hoodie rule,” Rabbi Yablok said. “When they reached out to us, we listened and explained our reasoning for the new rule.”

Rabbi Yablok said they met with focus groups on the hoodie rule, listened, decided and gave feedback. “Hoodies are a different look, not as studious. We didn’t investigate whether the boys were wearing a polo underneath, although that was our expectation. With the hoodies on, the boys presented as less-prepared to apply themselves to their studies. There is a different look and feel now to the building. We still give the boys plenty of freedom to express themselves.”

Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, said their overarching approach to dress is to be consistent with Orthodox norms while recognizing that there is a wide range of families who attend the school. “Our community is not a monolith but there are times we have to make decisions to be consistent with our mission statement.” The mission statement defines the school as a co-ed Modern Orthodox yeshiva that seeks to inspire students to live lives of Torah and mitzvot.

Girls are required to dress with sleeves to mid-arm, skirts to the kneecap. All styles are OK if they meet the length requirements. Rabbi Rubin said there is a cohort of women in school to speak to girls about the dress code. “We try to be very discreet; we want to recognize the sensitivity around girls’ choices for clothing and what motivates them. An Orthodox school in secular society has a dress code not aligned with the style and standard of the general culture.” Rabbi Rubin added a “design your own skirt” project is in the works in conjunction with the art department to let girls personalize their skirts and make their own fashion statement in an appropriate way.

Dress for the boys is more about “dignifying the school and respecting the institution.” Boys are required to wear button-down collared shirts and pants—no jeans or athletic plants. Sweatshirts are permitted with the shirt collar showing.

Rabbi Rubin emphasizes the values behind the dress codes: “Students should understand, however, that religion is much greater and deeper than the length of a skirt. We try to impress upon students to demonstrate respect for themselves and others. Internal values and character should be the benchmark in school that is looked at and appreciated.”

By Bracha Schwartz