It started when I was in first grade. I was an active kid with bright orange curls, and I'd never sit in one place long enough for my mother to even attempt to brush my hair. I was six years old, the youngest in my class, when my teacher called me to the front of the room. "This", she informed the rest of the class, "is what a Bas Yisrael does NOT look like." She then proceeded to braid my hair in front of everyone else as I did my best to hold back my tears.
That was the first time I realized that I was not going to fit in. That there was an "us" and a "them", and "they" were not to be trusted.
I attended Bais Yaakov for ten years. I participated in their day camp every summer. All of my friends were from school. This was my whole world, and I was prepared to be an outsider for a long, long time.
As we got older, we were split into two classes. The "high" class and the "low" class. Premeditated or not, the "high" class all had fathers in Kollel and lived in the same religiously insulated community. My daddy was a doctor, and it didn't matter that he finished all of Shas and had a chavrusah every night. My house was a mere ten minute walk from the neighborhood the other girls lived in, but that didn't make a difference. I wasn't "Bais Yaakov" and that was it. I pretended to own it - yeah, I was a rebel - but the truth is that everyone just wants to be accepted. I tried, but it was clear that I was never going to be. I wasn't a bad kid. I never did drugs and I didn't drink, I hardly talked to boys and I dressed more or less the way I was supposed to. It was other things. It was the fact that I'd go bike riding with my family, that we listened to the radio in the car, that I was a dramatic, sensitive kid who just couldn't accept religion the way it was given to me. I always needed to understand why, why I had to keep Shabbat, why the boys had to put on tefillin but I didn't, why saying Shema at night would protect me from all the evil in the world. I needed to know why, and the only answer I ever received from my teachers was "because Hashem said so". I would get frustrated and angry every time I hit that wall, and at some point they stopped calling on me and I stopped caring. Clearly, I was too dumb and too unconnected to understand what everyone else seemed to accept. Clearly, I was just bad at being religious.
I have ADD, and davening was basically impossible for me. I had a system with my friends where we would all leave at different points and meet up in the bathroom until it was over. We got caught a few times, but no one ever spoke to me to find out why I was skipping it. I just got in trouble over and over, reinforcing in my mind the idea that there was something wrong with me. I just wasn't ever going to be good at being religious.
In Bais Yaakov, you were either they way they wanted you to be, or you were wrong. Until I left the school - until I was sixteen years old - I actually thought that wearing short sleeves meant that you were irreligious. I thought that by skipping davening, I was "off the derech". The girls who were wearing nail polish, jeans, even sandals - they were either already a lost cause or close to it. It took me a long long time to break out of that mindset, to realize all of the colors and shades and layers there are in Judaism.
Now, thank God, I've left that world behind me. The only valuable lessons I've taken from those years are memories of all of the things that I will never tell my children, memories of feelings I will never allow them to feel.
I feel lucky that I refound Judaism in my own way, lucky that I can have a genuine relationship with Hashem. However, there are still some parts of my education that stick with me. Still a judgmental voice in my head telling me that I haven't gotten there yet. That I'm still not good enough, not religious enough. That if I can only conquer tzniut, if I can just daven mincha every single day, that THEN I'll be done. Then I'll be really religious. It's a perception I wish I could get rid of, but ten years of education is hard to unteach.
I'm not writing this to spread hate or to speak lashon hara. The Bais Yaakov system works for some people, and I'm glad it exists. But I wish that when I was growing up, there was someone telling me what Judaism is really like. Someone to tell me that Hashem loves us regardless of nail polish. That texting a boy doesn't mean cutting yourself off from religion. That wanting to express yourself and asking questions is a positive thing, something to be encouraged. I wish someone had been there to tell me all of the things I know now.
I can't change the way Jewish education is run. I can't change the way teachers will answer questions or the way kids will slowly stop asking them. What I can change is the way they feel about themselves, the way they see themselves inside of Judaism.
I'm writing this because I want to make a change. Because Judaism is too beautiful to reduce to skirt lengths and how long your shemoneh esrei is. Because someone has to tell a little six year old girl that no matter what her hair looks like, she will always be a Bas Yisrael, always be a princess of Hashem.