A Safety Trailblazer Tackles Seminary

sem savvy cover - cropped copy

By Ronit Dorfman

Debbie Fox may live in Los Angeles, but she’s got name recognition across the world. The social worker, safety pioneer, and children’s advocate has touched the lives of thousands, particularly through her Safety Kid educational series. Her latest project, a recently released guidebook for seminary girls (Seminary Savvy: Every girl’s guide to a successful, safe, and satisfying experience–in seminary & beyond; Debbie Fox, LCSW, with Michal Eisikowitz; Menucha Publishers) is especially timely, and initial feedback from rabbanim and educators has been promising. But will the book–which tackles tough safety issues in a clear, candid way–be embraced across the board? Mrs. Fox offers her take.

RD: Why did you write this book?

DF: Prevention is my passion. My focus the past ten years has been developing awareness programs and presenting them in schools and communities across the country.

Sending girls to Eretz Yisrael without any awareness or prevention tools makes them very vulnerable. I think parents and educators are increasingly realizing this.

This past summer, eight mechanchos from across the spectrum of girls’ high schools in Los Angeles sat around my dining-room table. We wanted to answer one question: How could we help ensure that girls experienced a safe, healthy, and satisfying year in seminary? As the evening unfolded, humorous, touching, and meaningful stories of our own seminary years rose to the surface. By the end of the night, though, every woman present had also disclosed a disturbing or uncomfortable incident that occurred during her time in seminary. The next morning, I e‑mailed a dear friend, a rebbetzin,  about our project. She wrote, “The memories of my experience on a Jerusalem bus still haunt me today.” Thus the idea for Seminary Savvy was born.

RD: Who is the ideal reader of this book?

DF: Girls about to leave for seminary–and their parents. Ideally, my vision is for mother and daughter to spend a Shabbos afternoon reading the book together, and then talking about it. The book is full of compelling stories and eye-opening realities, so it provides lots of conversation-starters. It’s a great way for mothers to show daughters that they’re available and interested to discuss all concerns–even sticky or sensitive ones.

RD: What did you learn in the process of writing this book?

DF:Seminary Savvy started out as a collaborative effort of several dedicated teachers and therapists. Initially, we developed an eight-page guideline, a mini-packet to give girls heading to seminary. What became clear–with the ongoing input of various educators and reviewers–was that we needed more than a pamphlet. There are so many relevant issues we just don’t talk about in our community. As the stories and anecdotes poured in, we realized that our girls are not equipped to face many difficult situations in seminary. We became determined to fill in the gap.

One very important message I learned in the writing process is that we don’t communicate openly enough with our children about important topics. Post-seminary girls who read pre-print versions of the book said they wished their parents had discussed these issues. What was inspiring for me, however, was seeing how open and forthcoming people became upon hearing about my project. Girls, parents, educators–they all showed a real willingness to broach sensitive issues and create a forum for conversation. Their stories form the basis of the book.

On a lighter note, the girls who read the first incarnation of the book said, “Great book, but girls don’t really read books anymore. We need things short. You need to entertain us, like with comics. Then we might read the important parts!” Well, we listened! We added lots of humorous, skillfully illustrated cartoons to keep the girls reading. We also changed the format significantly, so that the text is composed almost entirely of real stories and scenarios, which is very engaging. Thankfully, it looks like we succeeded; the girls who read the final version said they read it in one sitting.

RD: What challenges did you encounter in writing the book?

DF: Where do I begin? For starters, the book was basically written three times. After each major revision, it was sent to different groups of readers for feedback and suggestions. It was read by therapists, pre- and post-sem girls, moms, mechanchos, rabbanim, and laypeople, all who received it well. In fact, the main critique was that we didn’t include enough material! There were always more topics to add. For instance, one young mechanechet read the book while flying to the East Coast. The man next to her was very intrusive and kept lifting the armrest between the seats. She was really uncomfortable and struggled with how to deal with it. She immediately wrote to me and asked that we include some guidelines in the book. Voilà–a new subsection on planes!

The first version of the book was 80 pages; the current book is over 150 pages. That means we got a lot of feedback! The most valuable feedback was from girls currently in seminary, girls who completed sem, and madrichot (dorm counselors). These girls are in the trenches, and they clued us in to many quieter issues that apparently affect seminary girls in a big way, year after year.

So what were our main challenges? I’d say there were three:

1. No matter how many topics we covered, there were more to address. One issue we did not address is budgeting and money management in seminary. We plan to include that in the next edition.

2. There’s a wide range of girls who go to seminary each year. The current book does not address issues that many girls face, such as frequenting bars, using social media, dating, and meeting boys–and the challenges these activities may engender. We felt that if we included less-universal topics, many girls would feel that the book didn’t apply to them. So we’re hoping to include these topics in workshops centered on the book (presented to high schools) and possibly publish a companion volume to Seminary Savvy.

3. All the vignettes in the book are real. I believe that girls learn from stories rather than text; that’s the world we live in today. When it came to the more sensitive chapters, however, there was a lot of controversy: how true-to-life should the vignettes be? Some felt that girls needed vivid depictions in order to really internalize the messages and pitfalls. Others felt we might frighten the girls (or their moms!), as well as cast a negative light on other parties. I chose to err on the side of telling as many stories–and being as specific as possible–to really clarify the challenges, while not compromising on a respectful, appropriate tone. My feeling was that if the book is going to be written, and if the goal is to educate girls about the challenges, then it is my responsibility to do that in the clearest way possible.

RD: What kind of feedback do you anticipate?

DF: The goal of the book is to create awareness and open the lines of communication. It’s written in a light format with comics and humor. I think girls will really enjoy reading it–and close the book feeling prepared for seminary.

I am very aware that some of the book’s topics are not openly discussed in many homes. Some parents and educators will feel uncomfortable with the fact that these issues–for example, relating to males appropriately, dealing with inappropriate physical touch–are so openly addressed. But if girls are more prepared and educated, and if this book prevents even one uncomfortable or inappropriate incident, then it is worth it to me.

RD: What message do you want readers to come away with after reading this book?

DF: There are actually three messages I hope readers absorb.

1. Be aware. Awareness equals empowerment.

2. Learn to trust your “inner voice,” that gut feeling inside of each of us that says: something here is uncomfortable; something here is just not right.

3. Identify trusted adults. Know which adults you can talk to; discuss anything uncomfortable as soon as you feel concern. If you don’t feel understood, seek another trusted adult. Don’t stop until you really feel validated and supported.

There’s one more message. Before we made the book final, one of the rabbanim who reviewed it in great detail told me he’d be willing to write an approbation–on condition that we change the title. I was afraid he didn’t like the word “savvy,” which I thought really spoke to the girls. But that wasn’t his intent at all. His condition: we needed to add the word “beyond.”

“Girls shouldn’t feel that the lessons in this book only apply to seminary,” he said. “They apply to life.”

RD: What’s next for you?

DF: I just created a training video for Chai Lifeline volunteers, which I’m excited about. Chai Lifeline always prioritizes safety, and they felt that a comprehensive training would help ensure the safety of their clients and volunteers.

Next, I’m currently training a group of Seminary Savvy trainers–educators and professionals–to travel to high schools around the country presenting interactive workshops for seniors, as a complement to the book.

I would also like to create an enhanced version that provides guidelines for girls attending a broader group of seminaries, which might include challenges like drinking, bars, and relating to boys. Speaking of boys, one of the key consultants for this book was reviewing the final version on Pesach. Her 12th-grade yeshivish son–about to leave home for an out-of-town beis midrash– asked his mother if he could read it. She told him, “I don’t think you’ll relate to it, but by all means.” Four hours later, he returned, book in hand. “Mom, who’s going to write one for boys?” he wanted to know. “This stuff is important.” Could Yeshiva Days be next?

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