Modesty: An Educator’s Perspective

As told to Barbara Bensoussan

I’ve been teaching and counseling high school students for twenty-five years. I believe we’ve made great progress during that time in the way we approach teaching about tzenius. When I first started teaching, tzenius was almost exclusively about skirt length and sleeves, and the girls reacted with a certain resentment at their dress being targeted. Today we have expanded the concept of tzenius to include an all-encompassing type of conduct. Students are no longer surprised if we refer to tzenius as a middah. 

Two excellent curricula focusing on the inner self are now being used in more than fifty schools: Faigie Zelcer’s Penimi program, and Chana Noa Gelbfish’s Foundations curriculum (a broader program that includes two units on tzenius). Many schools use both programs. In a world obsessed with externals, the girls appreciate the shift away from outer appearance and the pivot toward core values and inner life. 

But I’m finding that despite the excellent teaching being offered, the girls are confused by the disconnect between what they’re learning, with its emphasis on penimiyus and authenticity, and the messages they get from the rest of the world, including the Jewish world. This was highlighted for me one day while I was having a class discussion with some twelfth graders. The conversation centered on a challenging, tech-related area of practice. All the girls acknowledged that this area was having a negative impact on their lives, and they wished it would change. But that would be impossible, they insisted, because of peer pressure. “Everyone is doing it,” they said.

“Why don’t all of you implement this change together as a group?” I suggested. “You can create your own support group.”

“Okay, I’m in,” said one of the students. “But only if our mothers do it first!”

This was a powerful moment for me. I realized that we, as adults, may be failing to model the messages we transmit to young people. We tell the girls that tzenius emphasizes the dignity of a person and the importance of what lies within. And so when it comes to shidduchim, the girls want to know why people are asking for a picture. “Why does everyone seem so concerned that I look a certain way?” 

We teach the girls to get in touch with their core selves, their inner values, their authenticity. Then when it comes time to choose a seminary, too often parents wonder aloud if it will look good on the resume, rather than asking, “Which seminary will be most suited to my daughter’s growth?” 

In school we try to teach them to be attuned to their inner world and to cultivate spiritual values, yet outside they are surrounded by a widespread material indulgence that is at odds with that message. When it comes to yom tov, the experience sometimes seems to revolve more around the tablescapes and the menus than the spirit of the holiday. When on vacation, we can seem more concerned with showing others where we are than the experience itself. 

Tzenius teaches us not to take an inner, private experience and turn it into a photo-sharing session. It’s about valuing the self and our relationship with Hashem. We should be asking ourselves where our choices come from. Do they emerge from what is right and in sync with who we are as individuals, or are we focused on what other people will think or say about us? 

Reb Yisrael Salanter is credited with having said (I’m paraphrasing): “I set out to change the world, but I failed. . . 

Then I directed my efforts toward my town, without success. Then I tried to change my family, and that failed too. Finally, I decided to change myself. And that’s how I had an impact on the world.”

We can’t change the world, but we can take small steps ourselves. It’s up to us to bridge the gaps between the values of tzenius we espouse religiously and the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that have become so common, even reflexive, in today’s externally-oriented world. We should be able to appreciate ourselves and others from the inside out, and to enjoy authentic experiences in life without needing to publicize them for others. As parents, we need to work on internalizing these attitudes ourselves, sending the right messages by modeling the values we hope to promote.

Shifra Rabenstein is a well-known speaker and educator. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her family. 

Barbara Bensoussan is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

More in this Section

Rethinking Tzeniut by Bracha Poliakoff

My Tzeniut Journey by Josepha Becker

A New Approach for Teens by Dr. Zipora Schorr

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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