Students respond to new policies on appearance
Administration asks for balance between personal freedom and Jewish law as new rules prevent dyed hair and boys’ earrings
January 25, 2022
Last Aug. 4. Principal Mr. Daniel Weslow sent out an updated version of the Shalhevet Student Handbook to students and parents.
Almost no students – or maybe none at all – actually read it. But when a few students were told by the administration that they had violated some new prohibitions, they were not happy.
The new 2021-22 student handbook — online only so far – contains two new prohibitions in dress code: one banning any unnaturally colored hair, and the other prohibiting boys from displaying piercings of any kind.
“While we allow for flexibility and expression in hairstyle, length, and color, it must not become a distraction,” the handbook now states on page five. “Dyed hair can only be of a shade that can be considered a natural color. All of this is to be determined at the discretion of the administration.”
During the second week of school, junior Noach Guttman was asked to re-dye his bleached blonde hair. He quickly re-dyed it himself at home, but he felt that the rules infringed on students’ ability to express themselves, something he believes is necessary for teenagers’ self-growth and development.
“At this age, one of the most important things is figuring out who you are,” said Noach. “And I think a big way to find that out is, you know, whatever crazy wacky things you could do with hair, piercings, whatever. Sure, we do our best to promote self-expression… But there are boundaries, because we are an Orthodox day school, and there’s halacha, and halacha doesn’t take the back seat.” — Rabbi David Block, Head of School
Sure, we do our best to promote self-expression… But there are boundaries, because we are an Orthodox day school, and there’s halacha, and halacha doesn’t take the back seat.”
— Rabbi David Block, Head of School
“Having unnatural hair is self-expression,” he said. “You might think back in five years and regret that you did that, and think oh, that looked silly, but it’s important to do it, to learn from it, and to grow from it.”
“I do feel like Shalhevet should allow students to express, to experiment, to learn from things, and to figure out who they are,” Noach Guttman said.
To Head of School Rabbi David Block, appearance is a chance to express the Jewish values of modesty and conforming to Orthodox Jewish practice. The newly prohibited kinds of appearance, he said, were banned because they were a “distraction.”
“I don’t mean a distraction as in people can’t learn otherwise,” Rabbi Block said in an interview Nov. 24, “but in the sense that it moves from the element of self-expression to something that is, you know, ‘look at me.’”
Attracting attention is not tzanua, he said, using the Hebrew word for modesty.
“That moved out of the realm of what we consider to be a tzanua,” he said. “Modesty is not just about inches of a sleeve… Modesty is about saying that I dress in a way that I feel good about myself, I dress in a way in which I look nice, people can notice I look nice, but it is not about calling attention to, ‘Hey, look at me.’”
Males wearing piercings, he said, also do not align with a religious identity.
“Piercings for boys have many elements to it, but it is not the way a ben Torah dresses,” said Rabbi Block. “Ben Torah” literally means “son of the Torah,” but can mean one for whom Torah is a guide, like a parent.
That did not make sense to junior Batsheva Glaser.
“I find a lot of the changes to be kind of ridiculous…” said Batsheva. “I think it is ridiculous that one gender can and one gender can’t.”
Rabbi Block explained that although the school aims to provide male and female students with the same educational opportunities by offering co-ed classes and a single curriculum, it cannot always do so while still remaining within the strictures of halacha.
“There are certain areas in halacha that do differentiate between men and women, and I am entirely unapologetic about that – that is true,” said Rabbi Block. “Halachas [Jewish laws] of tznius are going to apply differently to men or to women. It’s not better or worse – there’s different halachos.”
He said he decided upon the new rules regarding hair color and piercings with Rabbi Jeremy Weider, and that they were based on Jewish law. Rabbi Wieder is the school’s halachic adviser, or posek, and Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological seminary at Yeshiva University.
“Sure, we do our best to promote self-expression,” Rabbi Block said, “and to promote individuality, and to make people feel comfortable regardless. But there are boundaries, because we are an Orthodox day school, and there’s halacha, and halacha doesn’t take the back seat.”
When junior Zach Rub got a cartilage piercing in his ear just weeks before the start of the school year, he – like Noach – was unaware of the change in policy.
Upon arrival at school he was asked to remove it, but he was allowed to cover it up with a bandaid until it healed. That seemed like a good solution, at first.
“The few days where I either forgot a bandaid, or I put it on too late or whatever, I got called into the office and it was like the biggest deal ever, over a small stud,” said Zach, describing his cartilage piercing.
He said he knew of one other male student who was forced to remove piercings too, and he thinks it’s unfair.
“They made it specifically that boys aren’t allowed to have piercings and girls are,” Zach said. “We’re an Orthodox school, but we’re in a progressive time, and a lot more people are figuring out themselves more, specifically with their gender, sexuality and orientation, and I feel like it’s a little unfair to say girls can and boys can’t.”
Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Abraham Lieberman said that the halachic issue with males wearing piercings is that it could contradict the Jewish law of not mutilating one’s body.
“In Judaism there is something called mutilation of the body – one is not allowed to mutilate a body while the person is alive, and also cannot mutilate the body If God-forbid a person has died,” Rabbi Lieberman said in an interview.
He explained its being directed towards men is related to societal understandings of the ancient world.
“It also has to do with what was accepted as things for women, and what was accepted as things for men,” he said.
But he also said that this could evolve, like the understanding of women wearing pants and kippot.
“It could very well be that some of these things will change,” Rabbi Lieberman said. “The basic idea though, of mutilation of the body, in a sense of let’s say tattooing – there is a specific verse that forbids it. That will probably never change because laws of Torah can’t be changed just like that. But sometimes it’s dependent on society, and that could change.”
That sets up a conflict with teenagers’ natural need to decide where they’re fitting in with society.
Ms. Gabriella Marcus, Director of Counseling and Psychology, said changing their appearance is something teenagers do to discover who they are.
“You are supposed to be questioning and trying to figure out your identity in your teenage years,” said Ms. Marcus. “That is like your job, it’s literally what you’re supposed to be doing. So I do think that it’s not strange that teenagers want to try out different hair colors, and get piercings, and use their appearance as a way of figuring out who they are.” I understand that it’s difficult and it’s annoying, and it can make you irritated, but I always say, find another way at school.” — Gaby Marcus, Counseling Director
I understand that it’s difficult and it’s annoying, and it can make you irritated, but I always say, find another way at school.”
— Gaby Marcus, Counseling Director
She also said that for a teenager, not having an outlet for self-expression could have possibly dangerous effects.
“Rebellion like pushing, trying, experimenting with things, like different identities or religious levels or whatever – those things are good,” Ms. Marcus said. “But then there’s [what’s] maladaptive, so doing things that are harmful to you, to yourself that are not super healthy, like experimenting with maybe drugs… Lots of things that we know can go wrong, if you don’t have the ability to express yourself.”
Ms. Marcus said she’d been approached by “two or three” students about the new appearance rules, and that although they were upset and even angry, they understood why they were in place. She said she tells them, “Listen, we’re Modern Orthodox, we gotta play by the Modern Orthodox rules.”
“I understand that it’s difficult and it’s annoying, but I always say: find another way at school,” Ms. Marcus said. “There is something to be learned from not needing to hide yourself. But there’s always other ways you can be who you are without necessarily having pink hair.”
She said there was something to be gained by learning to follow rules, “because we’re gonna have to follow rules in life, and you’re gonna have to learn that – we all do,” Ms. Marcus said.
Ms. Marcus said being restricted from dyeing hair or wearing a piercing would likely only cause a mental health issue if the student were facing larger challenges.
“If all the other pieces are in place [at school], of being able to support people for truly who they are — … having a place to feel heard and loved and all of those things — if that’s truly in place, then I think that the small damage that might be done by not being able to wear pink hair or have an earring won’t be super-terrible.”
Although commitment to following Jewish law and expressing a non-traditional or ambiguous gender identity may seem like unbridgeable ideas, Rabbi Block thinks that if necessary for a particular student’s well-being, the two can coexist.
He said he would be open to resolving individual issues on a case-by-case basis.
“If there is a particular situation, in which Gaby [Marcus] with her remarkable expertise can come over to me and say, ‘Hey we have a particular issue, there’s this element of dress code which is particularly dangerous or harmful for this student,’ I welcome those conversations, and I have had those conversations in the past,” Rabbi Block said.
“And sometimes the answer is no, and sometimes the answer is yes,” he continued. “But I have done that in the past. I will continue to do it on a case-by-case basis when there is a particular health issue involved and wellness involved. I take that very seriously.”
Zach said that although he is open to such discussions, others are not, especially if they’re questioning their gender identity or sexuality. For them, case-by-case consideration does not help because they are not comfortable discussing their personal struggle in the first place.
Rabbi Block thinks that’s not fair to the administration.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the people who are expressing these things to you have never come to me, and had a conversation with me, and I find that sad,” Rabbi Block told the Boiling Point. “It feels like people are up in arms without actually having a conversation.”
Zach has not spoken to Rabbi Block about it, but said he had raised the subject with three other rabbis at school.
“The responses I got were, you know, ‘I’m sorry but it’s not me vs. you, it’s the dress code vs. you,’ or ‘It’s a case-by-case scenario – somebody’s having difficulty with gender identity then they can talk with Rabbi Block about it,’” Zach said. “But that’s kind of the issue. It’s that not all these people who are struggling with gender identity are open enough to talk about it with them.”
Zach said that after speaking to Judiac Studies faculty and administrators brought no improvement, he was convinced that speaking with Rabbi Block would be ineffective and has not tried.
Told of Rabbi Block’s willingness to discuss individual problems and possibly make exceptions, Zach said he felt comforted. However, he believes that this solution is not good enough. We do go to a Jewish school after all, but the reason that I picked Shalhevet was that I thought it was a very open-minded school. I expected them being open-minded that they would allow us to have dyed hair.” — Arielle Geuorgiev, 10th grade
We do go to a Jewish school after all, but the reason that I picked Shalhevet was that I thought it was a very open-minded school. I expected them being open-minded that they would allow us to have dyed hair.”
— Arielle Geuorgiev, 10th grade
“I know that one of the responses is going to be like, well if they can’t talk about it then there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “But I feel like there is something we can do.”
Not all students who are objecting to the piercing and hair color rules are concerned specifically about gender or sexuality. But acceptance and support for LQBTQ+ students has been widely valued at Shalhevet, especially since its adoption of an LGBT non-discrimination pledge, co-authored by former Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal and Shalhevet alumnus Micha Thau ‘17 in 2016.
The goal of the pledge was to bring awareness to the struggles faced by LGBT members of Orthodox communities and to ensure them full acceptance and equality at Shalhevet, and beyond.
It was written with the intent and hope that other Orthodox schools would commit to it as well, Rabbi Segal said at the time.
“People are getting shot and killed because they are gay,” wrote Rabbi Segal in an opinion piece in 2016. ”People – our children – are in pain… Jews have always stood up to protect the weak.”
“We know better than anyone what it is to be hated and persecuted for something that is essentially beyond one’s control. We have a moral imperative to stand up and do what we can on this issue.”
Rabbi Block said he supports the pledge and values its mission of welcoming members of the LGBTQ+ community into Judaism and Orthodoxy.
“I think the Orthodox world has not done a great job of inclusion in many ways, and I think we’re trying to move the needle in that way,” Rabbi Block said. “It’s a process–and I think that in that process, we can still hold both things at once. We can hold love, want for inclusion, and a sincere love for every single person, and certain values that are at least representative of the majority of our students on the other hand.”
But Zach said that’s not how it feels.
“You think, oh it’s a little earring, it shouldn’t affect me that much, but it does,” said Zach. “It affects my expression.
“Because most of the things that we can do about our gender expression are things that we have to change on our physical appearance,” he said. “And what else can we do besides dying our hair?”
Mashgiach Ruchani and Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Yagil Tsaidi said that just as the school needed to stand firm on its belief in LGBTQ+ inclusion, it also needed to stand firm on its belief that religious values are what’s most important.
“If a kid who I was recruiting said, ‘I would come to you if you get rid of GSA,’” – the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance – “ I would say, this isn’t the school for you,” said Rabbi Tsaidi, who is involved in admissions interviewing this year. “But on the other end, with earrings and hair, let’s say, we have to abide. We have to stick to some form of our Orthodox tradition and rules, rules that we believe in.”
Rabbi Tsaidi said that Shalhevet strives to do what’s best for the community, and that the school does not focus decisions on how they will be perceived.
“I think Shalhevet’s motto is we do what’s right, not always what’s popular,” he said.
Rabbi Block said new limitations on appearance do not mean the school has changed its attitudes toward student expression. Rather, he thinks students are taking advantage of the school’s openness to ask for more.
“I struggle with that piece because it feels like you give an inch, and you take,” Rabbi Block said. “So we’re sensitive – and now that we’re not everything that a student wants us to be in every single way, now ‘I can’t believe it.’
“To use the idea that we’ve been sensitive and that we care so deeply and then to say well, it’s crazy that we have restrictions – no, it’s not crazy that we have restrictions,” he said. “There are halachot that we have to be very careful about, and there are certain things that are just lines that we don’t cross.”
Rabbi Block said he believes the school has drawn that line in the right place. I think Shalhevet’s motto is we do what’s right, not always what’s popular. ” — Rabbi Yagil Tsaidi, Judaic Studies
I think Shalhevet’s motto is we do what’s right, not always what’s popular. ”
— Rabbi Yagil Tsaidi, Judaic Studies
“My conversations with students about any decision I made over the last many years have always reflected that,” said Rabbi Block. “Sometimes people think it should be more – sometimes, trust me, people think it should be less.”
However, Zach thinks the decision to ban piercings and hair dye should have involved input from the Just Community. He said he wished for a Town Hall where not only his voice, but the voices of all kinds of students could be heard.
“I want them to hear it from other students,” said Zach. “I want there to be an actual conversation, maybe a compromise. What can we do to fix this issue, because it’s definitely an issue, and it’s not being addressed.”
Sophomore Arielle Geuorgiev, who was asked to dye her bright-pink hair an alternative color last year, is someone else upset by the changes.
“I can’t say I’m surprised, we do go to a Jewish school after all,” said Arielle. “But the reason why I picked Shalhevet was that I thought it was a very open-minded school… I expected them being open-minded that they would allow us to have dyed hair.
“But there’s no line to be drawn between Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy, because how far can we go being open-minded until you obliterate all the laws that we have?”
That’s a question different people might answer differently – and one that Rabbi Block said he’d continue to consider.
“The real message that I am sending is that I am not just blatantly saying that we have a policy … this is it — finished,” said Rabbi Block. “That might be true in most cases, but for people who are struggling, the message that I want to send is that I hear you, I want to see you, I want to have a conversation.
“I can’t promise that the policy is going to change just because someone has a conversation with me, and I can’t promise that the result is always gonna be what you want it to be, but I can promise you that I’m listening, I hear you, and I promise that I want you to be here, and that you’re an important part of this community.”
Ms. Marcus thought that such acceptance could be enough to overcome some effects of limiting expression.
“If kids are really feeling heard, loved, supported for genuinely who they are and what they believe in and what they identify as the important part of themselves,” she said. “then even if they’re pissed off because they can’t wear the earring, or they can’t dye their hair purple, the damage won’t be too crazy.”