A New Approach for Teens

What is the approach we take with our students in the area of tzeniut, and how do we present the concept in a way that is relevant, relatable and practical?

It has admittedly been a painful evolution.

Our school is a community school, with a co-educational population that represents a wide range of religious observance. Approximately 30 percent of our students are from Modern Orthodox homes. The majority are from homes that range from unaffiliated to Conservative to Reform. (All of our Judaic studies teachers are Orthodox Jews, many products of the yeshivah system.)

This demographic requires a great deal of sensitivity—a balance between fidelity to halachah and a deep understanding of the lives of our students and their families. The challenge is making sure that contextualizing our message does not imply compromise of hashkafah or halachah. Prescribing a strict adherence to the accepted practice in Modern Orthodox schools was just not working for our students, and our efforts were doomed at the outset. After appointing one teacher after another to be the “uniform czar,” we found that the role was impeding that teacher’s relationship with the students and causing unnecessary resentment and loss of morale, with little improvement in compliance. 

All of this necessitated a shift in the way we viewed tzeniut, and the way we articulated that view to our students. We began to describe tzeniut as an external manifestation of an internally held value. This provided us with the opportunity to guide, teach and influence our students not merely in the way they dress but, more importantly, in their attitudes, their speech and their actions. 

This is where the power of the well-known verse from Michah (6:8) can be applied: “U’mah Hashem doresh mimcha ki im asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatznei’a lechet im Elokecha—And what does G-d require of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your G-d.”

 Putting “mishpat” and “chesed” on the same plane as “hatznei’a lechet” seems to imply that tzeniut should be looked at as a character trait, a middah, an internal value that has external manifestations. Viewed through that lens, tzeniut then has relevance equally for boys and girls.

In a co-educational environment, this approach becomes that much more relevant to both girls and boys, and certainly more teachable than a limited emphasis on feminine clothing alone. This concept takes on even more immediacy in this age of Instagram and TikTok, where girls think nothing of appearing dressed very immodestly in a public forum. Actually, even when dressed modestly, our children are in blatant violation of our definition of tzeniut when they lip-sync to songs with lyrics that are misogynistic at best and blatantly coarse and explicit at worst. 

Trying to convey a message that speaks to our students, we crafted an approach that centers around the student’s self-image, as well as the image he or she wishes to convey to others. Asking questions like “How do you want to be viewed?” and “Are your actions and speech congruent with the person you are or the person you aspire to be?” changed the conversation from accusatory and judgmental to reflective, thoughtful and student centered.

Thus, tzeniut, translated as “dignity,” becomes a standard of speech and action that presents the student as someone in control of how he or she is viewed—by others and by themselves. (I would even venture to say that we moved away from an emphasis on halachah to an emphasis on hashkafah.)

An analogy we often draw is to the description of the aron in Shemot (25:11): “V’tzipita oto zahav tahor mi’bayit umi’chutz tetzapenu.” We are commanded to overlay the ark with gold inside and out—a powerful image of “tocho k’baro,” being consistent in character internally and externally. 

Being “countercultural” is no longer an embarrassment, but a source of pride.

That value is internalized, after repeated and consistent discussions and conversations that are overt and unapologetic, with meaningful applications to everyday teenage life and practical examples transcending the traditional understanding of tzeniut. These include an emphasis on the everyday vocabulary we use to refer to both girls and boys, to show respect and avoid objectification of others. When the broader meaning and implications of tzeniut are reinforced and internalized through everyday modeling, we begin to have a shared lexicon that represents a value system with a high degree of consonance not only between students and teachers but, more importantly, between the inner student and her outward persona. Being “countercultural” is no longer an embarrassment but a source of pride.

When discussing their actions, as well as the way they speak to and about each other, my senior class used words like “dignity” and “sending a message that I deserve your respect.” Their language thus becomes an outgrowth of our value system and serves to inform it and reinforce it as well. Another direct outgrowth of this value system was a conversation impressing upon our seniors who had recently received college acceptances that demonstrating triumphalism regarding their acceptances is the antithesis of tzeniut. In this way, we emphasized that the value of personal dignity is part and parcel of tzeniut—an approach that resonated with our students overall and made tzeniut more relevant and aspirational for our non-Orthodox teens, many of whom are immersed in contemporary culture and fashion.

If we can succeed in helping our students internalize all of this, we will have succeeded in creating a “kinder, gentler” culture, in which the external is a reflection of the internal, a true culture of “hatznei’a lechet” where the lives of our students and their families are indelibly changed.

Dr. Zipora Schorr has served as director of education of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, in Baltimore, Maryland for the past four decades. She is a recognized leader in Jewish education and has been honored with numerous awards in the US and Israel. 

More in this Section

Rethinking Tzeniut by Bracha Poliakoff

Modesty: An Educator’s Perspective by Shifra Rabenstein, as told to Barbara Bensoussan

My Tzeniut Journey by Josepha Becker

Tzenius: The Key to an Inner Life by Rabbi Reuven Brand

Can Social Media and Modesty Coexist? by Alexandra Fleksher

Public and Private in the Age of Instagram by Rabbi Yisrael Motzen

To Post or Not to Post by Gila Ross

Walking a Tightrope by Rebbetzin Ruchi Koval, as told to Barbara Bensoussan

High Fashion, Higher Standards by Sandy Eller

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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