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From Bais Yaakov to MD
From Bais Yaakov to MD:
A Post-Charedi Bais Yaakov Graduate Speaks Out
Guest post by Dr. Efrat Bruck
I surreptitiously angled my test paper so that light would filter through and I would be able to see the question. I was in the 9th grade, and we were taking the NYS regents biology exam. A giant white sticker covered question #19. Luckily, it was a sunny day and faint rays of sunlight filtered through. I could just make out a diagram of male anatomy with an arrow pointing to the vas deferens. Funny how the topics our school avoided teaching us ended up seared into our minds. “The arrow is pointing to which structure?” I filled in the correct answer knowing it wouldn’t help. We would all automatically get that question “wrong”. That was my high school’s policy.
It wasn’t surprising to us. After all, they tore out of our textbooks all the chapters covering evolution and reproduction. The former, perhaps is understandable, but the latter still baffles me; some of the students were literally 3 years away from getting married and starting families. I recall feeling anxious and angry. Somewhere, is some recess of my mind, I wanted to become a doctor. Would there be another five questions on reproduction or evolution causing my baseline score to tank? Would it affect my chances of going to college? My older sister had started the exam off with a 90% and I had even heard of one class that sunk to the 80’s.
But I shouldn’t have been so worried. There were only two “bad” questions on our exam and we started off with a 99%. In addition, it would be a while till I would actually pursue medicine and by then, this particular score wouldn’t matter that much. What should have worried me more was how the philosophical underpinnings of my environment would affect me in the coming decade. For example, the time a seminary teacher spent an entire lesson telling us a story of a graduate from our school who went to Touro College in Brooklyn (a college that is set up to serve the frum community, with separate classes for men and women and professors staying clear of topics that would be considered inappropriate) and then went on to marry her non-Jewish professor and become irreligious. The teacher then paused, closed her eyes dramatically, and said: “Then she got cancer. May it be a kaparah for her.”
I’m writing this essay in a format addressing those who are part of the charedi leadership. I’ll be using “you” when referring to the charedi world/leadership and “we” collectively to address myself, as if I am part of the charedi world, simply because this makes for easier writing. If you are curious to know why an otherwise successful product of charedi chinuch chose not to continue in this path, read on. If you are a charedi leader, you probably care to know why people are “leaving”, and rest assured, they are. Some make a lot of noise or go OTD. Some just want to live their life peacefully and make a quiet, graceful (I hope!) exit, finding other branches of Orthodoxy.
I see myself as part of the latter group, but having reached a number of milestones in my life lately, and having had some time for self-reflection, I’ve decided that I didn’t come this far to hide in the shadows and leave my people behind. Despite my personal choices, I am very connected to the charedi world and I care deeply about it; my roots lie there, forever. I still read their publications, have many charedi friends, and my immediate and extended family is, for the most part, all charedi. My purpose in writing this is to bring awareness to issues so that they are addressed and the lives of those in the charedi world are improved. But if you don’t like to hear criticism about the charedi world, please just stop right here.
The contents of this article notwithstanding, if you are in the hospital, or if you are a premed trying to get to medical school, I will be your fiercest advocate. I want to make it very clear that my overarching criticism of charedi ideology and practice does not translate into disliking charedi people. Especially since most of them have had nothing to do with constructing the system they were born into. I’m happy to talk to people about my personal choices, in the appropriate setting and context (so not on the operating table please). But no, I will not try to convert you to my brand of Judaism or try to pull you away from yours.
Are you part of the leadership in the charedi world? And even if not, are you someone who wants to help minimize shedding from charedi society and improve the lives of those living there? Here’s a checklist for you.
1. Please stop selling the charedi lifestyle as the happiest, most fulfilling, most satisfying life.
This one really bothers me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it is people who have never lived other lifestyles, people who have only peaked surreptitiously and superficially at other streams of Judaism, who so arrogantly proclaim that being charedi is the “best”. In full disclosure, I want to publicly apologize for doing this as well during my work in kiruv. I did not know any better at the time. The modern orthodox, reform, conservative, secular, OTD, non-jewish-fill in the blank with whomever you’d like-many of them live very happy, fulfilling lives and are actually happy not to be charedi.
This is something I would never believe when I was 20. I believed that if they were only exposed to our world, if only they knew the “truth”, they would surely see that charediism is the best, the only authentic path, even if they weren’t “brave” enough to join us. I think this is something that was hammered strongly into the girls’ chinuch and not so much on the boy’s side, probably because this tactic is not effective on men. My brothers (I have a lot of them) don’t recall lectures about how “frum Bais Yakov girls make the best wives and charedi children are raised in the best way”, but I can write a book about how Lakewood boys make the best husbands, career women regret how their children turn out, and modern orthodoxy is a “dying movement”. The charedi leadership often speaks as though they have a copyright on both happiness and authenticity of religion.
Since I’m already confessing my sins, I’ll go into some more detail. I have been involved in kiruv formally for close to a decade. I cherish those years. My students were everything to me at the time, an no doubt the experience of teaching and mentoring gave me an edge in the application process to medical school and helped catapult me into a career of service. But I was guilty, first subconsciously and then perhaps consciously, of “selling” the charedi lifestyle.
Let me be clear; I happen to think that living an observant lifestyle, one that follows halachah, can definitely enhance one’s life; that’s just my opinion. But it’s not the case for everyone, everywhere, at all times, under all circumstances. Whether or not this is of any significance is a totally separate discussion.
Getting people to believe that the charedi lifestyle is superior and leads to more happiness and fulfillment is a staple of many kiruv endeavors. We can have just as much fun, we are more emotionally healthy, our children are happier, and our souls are not empty. In my case, there was somewhat of a status differential between myself and my students that made it easy and natural to portray this message. But I had skeletons in my closets just like them; I was just better at hiding them. Oftentimes, people who join the charedi world are utterly surprised to find out that being a baal teshuvah makes them second-class. The same people who were mekarev them would never consider them for a shidduch and familial dysfunction can hide behind glittering shabboss tables. I’m not here to say that there is any more or less dysfunction in the charedi world than anywhere else. I’m here to say that it’s dishonest to sell the charedi lifestyle as superior as it relates to happiness, fulfillment, and relationships.
The ”our life is better” argument is often deployed when serious questions are brought up - questions with no good answers, questions with answers that make people feel uncomfortable, or questions that, the power that be, don’t really want to address. Consider this clip (1:00:00) from the 2019 Agudah convention where the moderator poses the following question to Rabbi Elya Brudny and Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky:
“I work at Mishpacha…we don’t print pictures of women’s face… every year we get more antagonism and pushback to that decision…hurt and confusion from people connected to the torah world, from people in our tent who send their sons to Yeshivas and their daughers to Bais Yaakovs… we’ve seen this again and again, pushback to dinner ads featuring pictures of men or men addressing women’s events and not vice versa. However, most of these decisions are based on halacha, which delineates the role of men and women. Is what we’re seeing based on the rise of liberal values in general society? Does it mean that we failed in conveying the glory of bas Melech p’nimah? Does it mean that we went too far with chumros and maybe have reason to assess on a case-by-case basis? What is the position of the roshei yeshiva on Orthodox feminism?”
Every sentence in this paragraph is a gem and represents a deeply-held charedi value. From seeing the outside world as an ever-constant threat, to declaring a copyright on halacha (not printing pictures of women is halacha, for sure), to using “kol kevudah” as a battle cry for men to decide what exactly women should and should not be allowed to do.
But the answers of the rabbis tell us even more. Rabbi Brudny does not have any answers and cracks jokes. There are businesswomen whose advertising options are directly affected by these policies; I’ve heard of countless people who won’t read these publications because of the hurt at being obliterated. It really isn’t something to shrug off and laugh about.
Rabbi Lopiansky had the courage to answer. He starts to talk about the #metoo movement and then says that not printing pictures of women is a “geder tznius”. Can someone please explain to me how not printing pictures of women equals the prevention of men acting inappropriately? Am I missing something here? Somehow, when there is a problem with men, the answer always has to do with further limiting women in some capacity.
Rabbi Lopiansky then goes on to say that “some women on a case-by-case basis” – I’m not sure what he is referring to. Perhaps learning torah, gemara? But we have to check “is it real or is it an ego thing”. Are the men also subject to this scrutiny, to see if they want to learn gemara for “real” or if it’s an ego thing? Funny that we automatically assume that men have pure intentions but women are doing it for their “ego”, whatever that means. Then he says “we don’t have those stories that you have… and if we have them occasionally it’s one in a thousand ”. Truly ignorant - those stories are unfortunately not uncommon - but fine.
But then Rabby Brudny chimes is with some highly scientific pearls. “This is probably scientifically fact… take 100 bnei torah types… what we authentically consider bnei torah (aka charedi) and 100 non-bnei torah (aka non-charedi)… which are treated with more dignity b’derech klal? If we would do a scientific assessment, it would stop the conversation in its tracks. Bnei Torah, by definition, there are always exceptions, will treat the women in their lives with dignity... I don’t think it’s a safek… wives of bnei torah are treated with more dignity…”
So interesting. We’re back to square one, with the ultimate argument being, that the charedi way of life is superior, happier and has better marriages. Well, Rabbi Brudny, I have some upsetting, but actually scientific news for you right here. But according to Rabbi Brudny, charedi men treat their wives better, so…. who cares if we don’t print your pictures. Having a husband who respects you is so much more important, right? Plus, did you know that erasing women from our literature is a form of dignity meant to prevent men from acting inappropriately? Charedi men are still teaching and lecturing women though. Because they have the purest of intentions. Don’t worry about all the scandals; they’re one in a thousand.
You know what might actually prevent things that gave rise to the #metoo movement? 1. Not concentrating all the decision-making power solely in the hands of men and 2. Not perpetuating large power differentials between your men and women. (Women can’t speak in front of men, but it’s ok for men to lecture large groups of women. Your magazines splash successful men on the covers and your women are lucky that their names are printed. The message about power and influence is crystal clear.)
To be continued. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.
About the Author:
Efrat Bruck, MD, graduated from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and is now an anesthesiology resident at the Mount Sinai Hospital. Before medical school, she taught Judaic studies, Hebrew, and Biology to 1000 now-alumni of Be’er Hagolah Institutes, in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Bruck has worked as a content specialist for Khan Academy and created over 30 MCAT preparation videos on topics in molecular biology, DNA, and genetics that have also recently been translated into foreign languages. Her videos have been published on the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) website, Khan Academy, and YouTube, accruing millions of views on the latter. Dr. Bruck has published research in Nature, the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, and Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dr. Bruck founded and leads the JOWMA PreMed Society that aims to advance Jewish women, from all backgrounds, in medicine. Dr. Bruck is a fierce advocate for premed students from insular and underrepresented backgrounds and strives to provide them with the resources and tools necessary to compete. (www.jowma.org/pre-med). She was among two out of 200 graduating MDs, PhDs, and MD/PhDs at Sinai’s recent commencement to be awarded the Patricia Levinson Award for the Advancement and Inclusion of Women in Medicine. Dr. Bruck, along with her colleagues at JOWMA, is also currently in the process of constructing a cultural competency curriculum that will help healthcare professionals in New York City hospitals provide culturally sensitive medical care to Jewish populations across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy.
Dr. Bruck’s experiences in education, acceptance to nearly 10 US MD programs, and service on the admissions committee of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have led her to have a highly successful track record helping premeds navigate the medical school application process. She is the founder and CEO of MDInspire, a medical school admissions consultancy that provides professional consulting for fees that are reasonable and a fraction of the standard costs. Dr. Bruck specializes in helping people weave their stories seamlessly through their application, building stellar personal statements and activities sections, interview preparation, and coaching students on how to study smarter, not harder. For more information, please visit: www.MDInspire.com.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the opinions or positions of JOWMA.