Jun 19, 2012
I Am "The Tznius Lady"
Mrs. Ella Lerman has been teaching in Bais Rivka for over 25 years, but recently she gained a new title - "the tznius lady" - and she uses it with pride.
By Ella Lerman
N'Shei Chabad Newsletter
Based on a talk given to Shluchos
I was born in Crown Heights and I have lived here all my life. My husband and I were directed by the Rebbe to stay in Crown Heights after we were married. I have been teaching in Bais Rivkah for over 25 years and now I have a new title. I am the tznius lady. It has taken me a while to say that out loud. Let me try that again with a little more pride. I am the tznius lady. It is hard sometimes, especially when I see people crossing the street when they see me.
I am nervous to be speaking to you tonight. Not only because I am talking to such a large crowd, kein ayin hara, of the Rebbe’s Shluchos, but I am also worried whether I will do justice to this topic. Will I be able to get you to feel the passion that I feel? When I go to speak to principals at our schools, my husband asks me why I am so nervous. I tell him how much is riding on getting people to see how vital tznius is. Are we up to the challenge?
This may surprise you, but I asked for the job of tznius lady. I told Bais Rivkah that someone needed to stand in front of their doors and tell mothers that they couldn’t enter if they were not dressed according to Jewish law, and I offered to do the job. My family was not excited about this.
Many women would get angry at me. They’d yell at me and give me dirty looks (one woman even spat at me). When I was done, I’d sit in my car, shaking and sometimes crying. One woman yelled at me, “How dare you tell me what to wear?”
I answered her calmly, “I dare because I have been employed by Bais Rivkah, so this is my job. Also,” I said, looking her straight in the eye, “if your parent was being disgraced in the streets, would you sit at home and do nothing, or would you be out in the streets to bring back honor to your mother or father? Well, it is my Rebbe, my Rebbe’s community, my Eibershter and my Torah that is being disgraced. I can’t just sit at home!”
I received many calls regarding my new job. Most people were very supportive and even excited that we were taking a stand. Some mothers said, “Can’t you instead motivate the mothers to dress in a tzniusdik manner with speeches and workshops?”
I explained to them that though all that is very important, the time had come for what I call “Mehn tor nisht, mehn ken nisht, mehn muz nisht.” We should not, we cannot, we must not. It is unacceptable to dress in a non-tzniusdik manner. It is against halachah and it will not be tolerated. When you are boarding a plane, the security personnel don’t say to you, “Let me first tell you about how wonderful it is to be safe from terrorism. Then, if you feel inspired to, you can leave behind your knives and guns.”
No, these are the rules if you want to board the plane. Of course, learning about the beauty of tznius is important and we want to approach everyone with love. But the time has come to say, “These are the rules; these are the halachos.”
It takes guts and a lot of courage to say something, but when it hurts enough you scream. My job here is to empower you to “say something.” We cannot be silent. Say something to your daughter, your neighbor, your student, yourself. Say it with love and let them see how much you are bothered by what we are doing to Lubavitch.
I spoke to a woman who teaches in one of our schools. I asked her not to wear dark- colored nail polish. She was not happy that I had called her. She said to me, “If you would just stick to the black-and-white areas we wouldn’t have such problems with tznius. It is because you pick on things that are in the grey areas, that’s why we are losing the girls.” I was almost crying.
I said to her, “Are you telling me that from a teacher in one of the Rebbe’s mosdos I can only ask for the basic halachos of tznius? Are you telling me that the girls in school don’t deserve role models? Do they have to see their mechanchos with very long sheitlach and dark nail polish?” I ask the same of the Shluchos that I ask of the Bais Rivkah teachers, the parents of our students, and Crown Heights residents. You are our teachers, our role models. You are who we aspire to be.
Last year, on the final day of school, a Friday, I was proctoring the 12th graders who were taking their last test. I saw one of my students with the buttons of her shirt open quite low. I knew I had to say something. She is a good student, the daughter of Shluchim, a really nice girl. I started to give myself excuses. “I don’t want to embarrass her. I will speak to her when she comes up to the desk to hand in her test paper.”
Well, when she put her test in the envelope I didn’t say a word. After all, there were other girls at the desk and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable.
That Friday night, I dreamt that I saw this student walking in the street with pants on. On Shabbos day, after a Pirkei Avos shiur, I told my friends what had happened and what I learned from it all. I didn’t speak to the girl, not only because I didn’t want to embarrass her, but because I didn’t want to appear not cool. I knew that the girl liked me and I didn’t want her to think of me as an annoying, nagging teacher.
When we don’t speak up it is because we want to appear hip and cool, G-d forbid.
From then on I decided to speak up. I encourage you to do the same.
I have asked women who struggle with keeping the halachos of tznius to come to my house dressed in a tzniusdik manner. I have refused to patronize stores in Crown Heights where the saleswomen are dressed in a not-tzniusdik manner... I have decided that it is cool to stick up for your principles!
Then I asked the Shluchos committee if I could speak to the Shluchos. I met a Shluchah who was visiting the school. She told me that she was having a hard time with the girls who were working for her. They were wonderful teachers but the way they dressed was not becoming for a bas Chabad and parents in her community had noticed. When I asked her what she was doing about it, she said she was afraid to say a thing to the girls. I was shocked. She is the Shluchah, she is their employer, she is an outspoken, tzniusdik woman and she can’t tell her employees that they need to dress appropriately?!?
I often wonder, how did the environmentalists make it so cool to go green? Recycling isn’t glamorous and using cloth diapers can’t be fun. Then I realized, they got celebrities on board and made it popular. The Shluchos are our celebrities. You are creative, devoted and so talented. If you decide to dedicate yourselves to bringing back the pride and dignity to our women and girls, and to restoring the glorious, shining name of Chabad, it will happen.
This is a call to action. It is time to take a stand. When people tell me the terrible things they are seeing in our communities, I tell them, “Don’t tell me the horror stories. Tell me what you are doing about it!” We need to be bold and brave. It requires strength and mesirus nefesh. This is not the battle hymn of the tiger mom, this is the battle cry of the Yiddishe Mamme. Mi laShem eilai. I am asking the over 1500 women in this room to stand up. If each one of us makes a decision to dress according to the law and to commit to living a tzniusdik lifestyle, the world will look very different tomorrow.
So, this is our challenge. When you finish reading this article, what will you do about the terrible chilul Hashem which we are seeing in our neighborhoods? Are you going to say, “Enough, from now on I will make sure that my skirt is covering my knees when I sit, walk and climb the stairs”? Will you be careful with necklines that fall too low and clothes that are too tight? Do we really want to cheapen our beautiful, Torah way of life for a few inches?
It is time for us to ask our boys’ and girls’ schools to set high and true standards for their students, teachers and parents. Many people do not have a Rav or a mashpia to guide them, but everyone sends their kids to school and they respect the school’s rules. We must demand from anyone who has authority: principals, camp directors, heads of organizations, etc., not to quietly accept and tolerate behavior that goes against halachah.
Many people will be reading this article. Will you be the one who will sigh and say, “This is terrible,” and then do nothing? Or will you decide that you can make a difference and take action right away? Our children need us to protect and guard our Yiddishe, chassidishe lifestyle, for them and their children. May we be matzliach and may we have, in abundance, true nachas from our children and grandchildren.
-- Mrs. Ella Lerman is a long-time teacher in Associated Beth Rivkah Schools in Crown Heights and a respected educator in the neighborhood. Her father was the talmid chacham and chossid R' Hirsh Chitrik OBM.