By Bethany Strulowitz
Gathered around a pristine lake in the Poconos last summer, far away from the noise of late bells and midterm exams, I sat with a group of female high school students representing diverse Orthodox Jewish high schools all across the country. These girls are more than just fun-loving campers to me; they are bright, articulate, and thoughtful. They are curious and reflective. They are bold. So, I decided to take a leaf out of their playbook and be bold myself. I took a deep breath, leaned in, and asked them what they thought about the dress code at their schools.
I expected an onslaught of complaints: Why can’t we just wear whatever we want to? Where’s our individuality? Why do our teachers care more about the length of our skirts than about who we are as people? But surprisingly, I didn’t hear any of that at all.
What I heard instead were two profound insights that we need to think deeply about as we work to resolve the dress code dilemmas in our schools.
The girls shared over and over again their frustration at the lack of consistency in implementing dress code in their schools.
On Tuesday, I wore a shorter skirt, and nobody said a word. But on Thursday, when I wore the same exact skirt, I got in trouble!
I always fix my skirt when I see certain teachers, but I know other teachers don’t care how short my skirt is.
One morning, I was sitting next to my friend during davening, and the principal said something to my friend about her skirt being too short but never said anything to me even though my skirt was shorter!
I learned at my school that you just have to be careful about dress code in the first few weeks of school; then the teachers leave you alone.
To summarize in three short words, consistency is key. When we are consistent with our expectations, students are given the space to develop self-confidence, self-discipline, and a sense of security. This in turn promotes better student-faculty relationships as well as a more positive school culture overall. Our students crave that consistency, especially when it comes to dress code.
The girls also asked for honesty. They do not want to hear that a rule is a rule is a rule. They do not want to hear that every school or business has policies surrounding dress. They do not want such inauthenticity when they sense that an Orthodox school’s dress code is spiritual and thus inherently valuable.
Instead, our students want to understand the thinking behind the dress code and why it is important. They want to be able to ask questions and have open-minded conversations. They want to see religious sincerity from their teachers and role models. They want to feel inspired. They want to connect. They want to nourish their G-d gene, Dean Hamer’s theory that spirituality is actually hardwired into our DNA and is “one of our basic human inheritances.”
We therefore need to be thoughtful in our approach to dress code if it represents a core spiritual value in our schools, much in the same way that we would be thoughtful in encouraging our students to internalize other core values like kindness, integrity, and resilience. We need to collaborate with stakeholders and have essential conversations clarifying our goals. We need to reflect on our past strengths and challenges in implementing this core value. And we need to be dynamic in developing a thoughtful educational plan that both incorporates consistency and nurtures our students’ growth in spirituality as they seek to find meaning. Richard Weissbourd of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education articulates that our schools and teachers do not get to choose whether we teach values; rather, the choice lies in whether or not we are deliberate about it.
Above all, we need to be bold. Our students are asking for it.
Bethany Strulowitz teaches Middle School at Yeshiva Beis Hillel in Passaic, NJ, and is the Chinuch Director and Camp Rebbetzin at Camp Maor NCSY for Performing Arts. She is also pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from Azrieli Graduate School.