By Molly Meisels
“I can see down your shirt,” reproached my high school principal as she pointed to the undone button near the nape of my neck. I took a deep breath and buttoned it up, ready for discomfort to accompany me for the rest of the day. This instance of tzniut (modesty) policing was not new to me. My principal was a principled Chassidic woman, and she believed that by ignoring my lack of tzniut, she would be doing me a great disservice. “Inappropriate” aspects of my dress were made the focal points of my education for as far back as I can remember. My very first preschool memory involves a lesson about Ruth and her extreme piety as she knelt modestly in Boaz’s field. My fellow four-year-old classmates and I spent time practicing how to kneel, for Ruth’s tzniut was the epitome of a Jewish woman’s responsibility.
The first eighteen years of my life revolved around my mode of dress. My Chassidic community and my schools were hyper-focused on the length of my skirts and the tightness of my shirts. I believed this to be the natural way of the universe until I was empowered by friends and my literary heroes to believe otherwise. My eighth-grade teacher called me aside and caringly informed me that since my skirt did not reach four inches below my knees, I would not enter Heaven. She asked me if I wanted something as silly as my skirt length to prohibit me from entering God’s kingdom. On another occasion, she complimented my new school sweater before whispering that I should never wear it again, because it highlighted parts of my body that were better left unseen. That was the year I became aware of my body. I was ashamed of it. I noticed all the curves of my newly formed female figure and was disgusted – I did not want this. I did not want a body that demanded to be hidden. How could I focus on the rest of my education when I was so preoccupied with my physical appearance? I was taught that while Jewish men had to focus on Jewish learning, we women had to focus on our modesty. I was taught that the ideal Jewish woman wore loose shirts, long skirts, and had a modest demeanor. I was taught that I was not the ideal Jewish woman.
I arrived at Stern College for Women straight from high school. I was ready to start anew in a university priding itself on religious diversity. I could finally follow my form of Judaism in an environment engineered to facilitate open Jewish learning. I knew that Yeshiva University welcomed Jews from all backgrounds, and that I could expect to socialize with classmates from public schools as well as those from religious homes. I was ecstatic, but my bubble burst rather quickly. Sure, there were plenty of women like me at Stern. There were women who showcased their religious identities through forms other than exterior proofs. But Stern’s dress code prohibited the full extent of that expression.
Yeshiva University’s dress code is as follows: “Female students are required to wear dresses or skirts that are knee-length, and tops that have sleeves and a modest neckline. Male students are required to wear pants and shirts.” While this makes it seem that male students at the university must adhere to a dress code as well, this is not truly the case. In our general society, men tend to wear pants and do not go shirtless to class. However, women do not limit their fashion choices to knee-length dresses and skirts. This is no different in Stern College for Women. Stern serves a diverse group of women, with diverse outlooks on religion and modesty.
When fellow students discovered that this article was being written, I was flooded with messages, each detailing negative experiences women at Stern have encountered due to the dress code.* “Stern’s dress code conveys to students that they cannot exercise autonomy over their own bodies… The dress code does not consider students from all backgrounds,” one student anonymously commented.
While I understand that the dress code is the baseline of Modern Orthodoxy, it is not the baseline for Modern Orthodox women. Modern Orthodox women encompass a broad spectrum and many women identifying as Modern Orthodox would consider the dress code outside of their comfort zones. While many wish to be respectful in our university setting, especially in regard to rabbis, by telling our students that pants are less respectable than skirts and dresses we are telling them that if they wear pants, they are not reaching a Jewish ideal – that their modesty, something they must strive for, is lacking, and therefore, they are lacking. An anonymous student comments on this notion of an ideal, “They advertise the fact that they accept people from all different backgrounds, yet they expect us to dress in a way that we may not feel comfortable with.”
The dress code is not enforced at every juncture. Students at the university will attend class in pants, or skirts which do not reach their knees, but the code is enforced through other means. The first example is on the sixth floor of 215 Lexington, where the registrar, deans’ offices, and academic advising are located. Many students I have spoken to will avoid walking on the sixth floor in pants lest a university employee spot them. Others have been told by administrative faculty that they should put on skirts. The policy is also enforced via shame. The students who dress in a manner which adheres to the dress code are treated as the Stern College for Women default. When one sees advertisements for Yeshiva University, one never sees a woman in pants or a short skirt – they see a woman with a knee-length skirt. These are the women Yeshiva University wishes to portray, even though a huge percentage of the student body does not dress in this manner. “The dress code does not consider students from all backgrounds. I particularly remember a girl on my floor freshman year panicking because she didn’t own any skirts,” says a student. Many times, women who do not abide by the dress code are viewed as irreligious or apathetic about Judaism. Yet this is not the case; Stern College for Women is composed of intelligent and beautiful deep thinkers from diverse backgrounds. They are religious in their own ways, and worship in ways which are meaningful to them.
This culture of Them vs. Us is toxic for the students at this university. It makes so many of us feel uncomfortable in our own skins. How can we learn when we are worried about a dean reprimanding our appearance? How can we learn when we can’t express our Judaism in the way we choose to? The school will continue ostracizing individuals who wish to attend, solely because of a dress code. Our university has so much to offer, but it needs to remain an open environment, where those of all religious backgrounds can prosper. We cannot have a default. Stern College for Women is a phenomenal institution with dedicated professors, caring rabbis, and an extensive support system. However, these positive aspects of our school are shrouded by an intolerance towards religious diversity. Modern Orthodoxy is expansive and accepting. It is a movement which prides itself on our differences, instead of our similarities. Yeshiva University is the embodiment of “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one. We are different, but those differences should be celebrated, not shunned. Yeshiva University will continue to prosper as the leading US school for Jewish education when it opens its hearts and minds to those from all walks of religious life. Our learning and Jewish growth supersede our appearances, and it is time the university recognizes that.
*I will be quoting many women anonymously in this article, due to the controversiality of this topic.