The 12 Year Old Orthodox Girl Who Does Gymnastics In A Skirt

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This past week was a sort of watershed moment for me as an Orthodox Jewish mom.

My 12-year-old daughter, who had never shown any particular interest in gymnastics, suddenly HAD to join a local gym, with her bestest girlfriends, like…ASAP. I casually asked if the class was all female, because she is over the age of bat mitzvah and therefore she follows all the same modesty rules I do – which includes wearing skirts and covering her upper arms when in the company of non-related males. I was told that it was an all-girls group so we excitedly signed her up.

She ‘LOVED LOVED LOVED’ (her words) the first session, but came home troubled that there were indeed men in the room. I told her that I’d drive her to the next session – we had carpooling, so I didn’t drive the first week – to see for myself what the situation was.

I smelled trouble brewing. I didn’t want my young daughter to get the message that if you’re religious, you can’t have fun, or that there’s anything shameful about her body – neither of which are true! I also want her to know that physical fitness and fun are important and that she should feel proud and never ashamed of our religious values. I apprehensively walked into the gym the second week and observed. Indeed, while all the participants were female, some of the instructors were male and there were also some dads there watching their girls. I told my daughter that she should switch to a long-sleeved workout top and put a little skirt over her leggings for the following week. She agreed. I also asked my husband (who happens to, conveniently, be a rabbi) about the male instructors and he said that part was fine since they are there in a professional capacity.

Week 3. My daughter cheerfully heads off in her new gymnastics attire, but comes home upset.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t do this!” she sputtered. “It’s just not going to work! They told me it’s not safe to do gymnastics in a skirt! And that there are other Orthodox girls and they take their skirts off! And I was so embarrassed and it’s not worth it!”

Yikes. Eeps. I can just see the headlines – ORTHODOX GIRLS DISALLOWED FROM GYMNASTICS BY MEAN MODEST MOM. No! This isn’t what modesty means. The incident only strengthened my resolve to figure out a Plan B.

The truth is, some Orthodox girls DO take their skirts off, for a variety of reasons, and this made it harder for us. I praised my girl for sticking to our values, calling her a hero. I told her I would find another activity that she enjoyed that would accommodate her needs. I supported her and empathized. I was proud of my response.

Then I saw this and did what any good Jewish mom would do: I contacted my lawyer friends.

Three of them, to be exact. And I asked them if there was anything legal I could do to have the gym accommodate my daughter’s outfit. After talking it through, I decided to start out with diplomacy – talking it out politely with the gym owner to see if we could meet halfway and to assess the nature of the safety issue, which is obviously important to us! If that didn’t work out, I’d turn to my lawyer friends to discuss next steps.

I headed into the gym and spoke to Maureen, the owner…and shockingly I was so pleased with our conversation! I made a lot of “I” statements, making it clear that these were OUR sensitivities, and that we wanted to understand the safety issues. She, in turn, explained that actually only one of the activities would be unsafe in a skirt, and I suggested that when it was time for that activity, my daughter could assess if there were men in the room, and if not, take her skirt off and participate. If there were men around, were there other activities she could do? Of course, Maureen agreed. Yay! Win-win. I was thrilled, my girl was thrilled, and I gave Maureen a big shout-out on Facebook for a little social media love:

I am really impressed with Jump Start Gymnastics in Beachwood. I went in there today to discuss my daughter’s participation, and if it would be OK for her to wear a short skirt over her leggings to accommodate our religious values. They were so respectful and we came to a mutually acceptable agreement whereby some activities would be fine to do in a skirt, and the bars would not be safe in a skirt, so we came up with other activities she could do during that time. Proud of my girl for sticking to her religious principles! So happy I could teach her that there are plenty of things a religious girl can do with a bit of diplomacy and creativity. Really pleased that companies like Jump Start exist – who were so accommodating and worked with us wherever possible!

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Ruchi Koval About Ruchi Koval

Ruchi Koval is the co-founder and Associate Director of the Jewish Family Experience in Cleveland, Ohio. She runs women's character-development groups, and is a certified parenting coach, motivational speaker and blogger at http://outoftheorthobox.com. Her first book, Service of the Heart, a women's prayerbook, is due out this winter. Ruchi and her husband, Rabbi Sruly Koval are the proud and busy parents of seven wonderful children and one Goldendoodle puppy.

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  1. Jonathan Gewirtz says:

    This is such a beautiful story, and to know that people understand that the Torah is not intended to hold us back is very heartening. May you be blessed with much more similar nachas, and may HaShem Himself enjoy such nachas from all His children.

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