This week we celebrated our 20 year high school reunion. Twenty years! In real life, that feels like a really long long time! Despite the amount of time that has passed, my love of people and parties has not waned in the slightest. However:

a) the event was to take place in Melbourne while I live in New York and
b) it was being held virtually, which meant I had no excuse not to attend and there wouldn’t even be any cocktails served!

The time difference meant that I would need to rise at 6.30am, splash my face with ice cold water to remove the puffiness FAST, get dressed (at least from the waist up) and slap on some hair and make up. But, I had just finished packing my daughter up for a month-long American summer camp and it was way past my bedtime. As I was drifting off to sleep I suddenly remembered the reunion and begrudgingly set my alarm clock for 7am and not a second earlier. I was exhausted. If I was really going to attend this thing I would do the bare minimum preparation at this point: remove my sleep mask and open my eyes.

In my world in New York, the school my children had attended for their entire schooling, Lamplighters Yeshivah had suddenly just closed its doors. Could this possibly have been part of the reason I was feeling dejected about revisiting my own school experience by attending the reunion?

Lamplighters Yeshivah had been growing and blooming for ten years. Beautiful, strong, strange and wonderfully complex ideas about how Jewish education could be and what Jewish education did not have to be – couldn’t all fit into this one concept and then it exploded and it was rather messy. Nine years ago I risked so much by putting my kids in a new school. The school was about educating each individual child in their own way, “al pi darcho” and catering to the different ways children learn. It sounded utopian and I was smitten. It was a dream.

Back to reality, beep beep beep! Argh. Are you serious? Already? I shut my alarm off and lay in bed for a few minutes deciding whether I really cared enough to attend this reunion. Do I care to see all of these people with whom I haven’t bothered to keep in touch with for twenty years? And do I really want to be reminded of my school experience? Sure, I had a fun time in school, an unforgettable time really. But I remember feeling incredibly restricted much of the time for different reasons. Like I was this tropical storm being told that I should downgrade to a summer shower.

I always thought I loved my school and I was so proud to be a Beth Rivkah girl, but as I examine my ambivalent behaviour when I had the first ever an opportunity to attend a reunion, it turns out that my love for Beth Rivkah Ladies College (BRLC) seems to have diminished over time. What is the point of a reunion anyway? I was still in touch with some of my closer school friends and wasn’t it really just a competition of sorts? Does it not simply come down to who has the fewest wrinkles, the best job, the most kids? And then of course, after this there will be nothing until the next reunion where we will do it all over again but at least by 2030 there will be hors’ d’oeuvres!

I was being pulled by the thought of those 65 girls – excuse me, now 65 women – that could be on that screen and this was an opportunity to connect and all I had to do was press a button. So I rolled out of bed and logged on from my bathroom sink while brushing my teeth and began flipping through each screen on my cell phone, Tinder style! There were so many faces, it was immediately fascinating to swipe through to see who I recognised instantly. There was a slideshow, messages from a couple of teachers, was that Mrs. Bernshaw with blond hair? She was talking about how strange it was to begin at an archaic religious girls school but then how she fell in love with the warmth of BRLC. Who knew Miss Belz was such a deadpan comic? Man, I am sad about losing Miss Mac whom I cannot believe let us call her “Miss” anything. Was Mr. G’s Russian accent always that thick?

Next, classmates were being called at random, to say a few words. It was short, there was no interaction because everyone else was muted but suddenly we were given a tiny glimpse into one another’s lives. A bright smile, a shy smile, a tired smile. Memories and feelings flooded my heart and my mind. Whilst some classmates remembered our school with pride and positivity, expressing the fact that they had the best memories, for others it wasn’t so. It was also nice to hear how many still feel a sense of commitment to the school and have their own daughters enrolled.

One woman talked about a difficult childhood and how she so appreciated all the efforts of the school and that one of the teachers even bought her clothing and a school uniform. I felt immediately emotional because I remembered something about her situation but I really never knew and I certainly didn’t do anything to help her. I felt sad that I had spent so many years just a few desks away and I never got to really know so many of these people.

I myself am a mother, but I was fascinated by the fact that so many of my classmates were also mothers and some were pregnant and some were career women while others were home with the kids. I wondered about how all these different people managed their lives. I felt both amazed and empowered and proud to come from such roots that could produce so many accomplished women contributing to the world in their own way. We had at least ten different cities represented over five different continents and we got to wave and say hello and remember or possibly even connect.

We didn’t really know each other but we shared an experience. We were stuck in the same hot classrooms, the same small campus, the same funny or silly or naughty moments. We went through puberty together and tried to hide our development from each other. We competed with each other ruthlessly in sports but simultaneously screamed our voices hoarse in support of one another. We bonded over boy crushes, running away from school and being starving less than half way through the day. We definitely cried together, created world-record-worthy-human-massage-chains and hugged and screamed as much as infinitely possible. I have heard teenage girls referred to as brave explorers of emotion who travel to emotional states to which no other human dares venture and that is the truth. We were an intense bunch of teenage girls. We were amazing. The fact is, so is any bunch of teenage girls.

This though is about the sacred bond of a group of girls, protected and surrounded by a tight knit community built on loving-kindness and inclusion. We were in a bubble of sorts, but not with flimsy walls that could burst at any moment. I butted up against those walls and pushed them as far as I could but they held me and kept me safe. I felt the restrictions of the school and the community – but I also felt the protection. I did not know this at the time and in many ways, that was the freedom in itself, not seeing how protected and loved we were. I guess I had to come to a point of maturity to really embrace and acknowledge it for being loving rather than just an expectation or a burden.

I think ultra-orthodox Judaism has a way of channeling so much unnecessary sexism while at the same time, Lubavitch (and other) women in single-sex schools are fed strength and female empowerment in large doses and sometimes behind closed doors. In Crown Heights they might refuse your child entry into a school if the mothers’ dress does not conform to a seemingly random rule, but at the same time, Crown Heights girls are jumping into lakes in Camp Emunah and screaming cheers for colour war at the top of their lungs. They’re watching Rebbe videos where little girls are performing the 12 pesukim in front of hundreds of people with the Rebbe cheering them on. That is the real stuff and the more we have of that, the stronger our community because ultimately, won’t acts of goodness overcome the narrow-mindedness? The way Beth Rivkah taught us how to be women and how we can chase big dreams is the strongest antidote to sexism.

The Jewish in us also adds another layer to our strength and empowerment. We are born of war and suffering. Studies have shown that trauma carries through DNA – and it certainly gets passed down in other ways when you have Jewish grandparents giving you a piece of cake while reminding you that they had no cake. We have a certain resilience or even toughness that might be the combination of our ancestry, the nurturing shelter of the wider community and the female voice of no limits.

Beth Rivkah Ladies College was founded, post war by Mrs. Suzie Herz, a survivor who wanted to have a girls’ school that could run alongside a secular world but with a strong base of Judaism. She was as radical as Sara Shnirer in a way: BRLC could be seen as an educational experiment based on the teachings of R’ Shimson Raphael Hirsch. Chabad came on board a few years later and continued the path of a religious girls’ school with higher level secular subjects. I personally feel that BRLC is the epitome of what the Lubavitcher Rebbe envisioned as true outreach in a community school. The integration and religious diversity was truly unique. I know that BRLC’s curated environment helped shape me into the accepting person I am today.

My four daughters were students in Lamplighters Yeshivah and then suddenly, they were not. I am sad that their school closed because I know that such a school is needed, badly. I know Jewish education needs to change and no, I don’t know what that change should be. I am not an educator, but I am proud of my involvement as a parent in that school and the trust, commitment and support I gave. We do not all have the energy and vision to open a school, or change a school, or run a school, but when someone does and you see that they do it from their heart and they do it to better the education of children, I say, support it!

Now that my own children’s school has just closed its doors, it is the end of a chapter that began as a brave new concept. In many ways it was just that, a rush of growth and potential and a wider exploration of the future of Jewish education.

Beth Rivkah was my school and will always have a special place in my heart. Beth Rivkah is a school that is closely tied with its founding community. The connection is so strong that it seems when the community thrives, so does its school. It helps when the community values things that actually matter in the bigger picture, such as: respect and acceptance of the fact that there are varied ways to serve hashem, the infinite divine.

My mother was a proud BRLC student and her granddaughters currently are too. Beth Rikvah has gone through much change. I hope it continues to grow with emphasis on inclusion, warmth, kindness and respect. When you have a group of children that are loved and protected by a loving and supportive community, it goes a long way. As they say, it takes a village.

To BRLC class of 2000, I see you! That was a real Covidik reunion! Blessings for the future! Stay connected to that which inspires you and keeps you wanting to grow.

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Itta Werdiger
Itta Werdiger, (class of 2000) has worked in New York’s kosher food industry for over a decade. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

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