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Mom for the Year

Riki Goldstein

Thousands of miles away from home, who will care for your seminary daughter should she feel homesick, get a bad case of the flu, or find herself facing a flooded bathroom? Why, the eim bayis, of course Every mother goes to sleep with no idea whether she’ll be woken for an emergency in the dead of the night — for a dorm mother, the responsibility is multiplied by a hundred. These dedicated supermoms wear many hats — they are educators, counselors, problem solvers, and surrogate parents rolled into one.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The teachers may be superb, the classes mesmerizing, but every mother of a teenager knows that if your kid is unhappy, she’ll gain next to nothing from even the most inspiring seminary program. “Our main job is to make a sem girl happy,” says Mrs. Tzortle Katz, co-eim bayis and wife of Rabbi Avrohom Katz, principal of Beis Chaya Rochel, Gateshead’s new sem. “We’re here to help the girls settle in, to speak things through, and smooth the way. We try to validate each girl and enhance her self-esteem so she can face both seminary life and her future with confidence.” “I’ve taken on the role of a real mom,” describes Mrs. Naomi Tainsky, eim bayis at Meohr Bais Yaakov in Yerushalayim. “I live with the girls, so I’m here 24/7, answering questions and soothing boo-boos.” In Israel, seminary girls are thousands of miles from their parents, but their New York counterparts are far nearer to Mommy and Tatty and often return home for Shabbos. Mrs. Malky Baum, who worked as a housemother in a popular Bais Yaakov seminary in Eretz Yisrael before returning to the States and taking on the same job at a seminary on the East Coast, finds the role of housemother much less crucial in an American seminary. “Here the girls go home or to relatives every week, so they don’t need the eim bayis as a sounding board as much as in Israel. While there I spent three hours in the dorm every night, now I shop and keep the dorm stocked by day and just drop by at night to see if anything needs taking care of — think blocked drain or burned-out lightbulb.” Practical tasks and responsibilities come first for an American eim bayis, agrees Mrs. Faige Brecher, who was housemother at the New York Seminary, led by Rebbetzin Ruthy Assaf and Mrs. Bella Weinreb. Her proximity to the dormitory, which was housed in the home of Rebbetzin Zehava Braunstein a”h, proved to be a bonus. “We live down the block, so I was very involved with the physical condition of the dorm and making sure out-of-towners had places to go for Shabbos.” Some housemothers are also responsible for those all-important dorm arrangements that can make or break a girl’s seminary year. It’s not easy to arrange roommates for 100-plus girls of varying backgrounds and temperaments. “Elul is by far the busiest time of year, with the job of helping every girl settle in,” Mrs. Katz explains. “We have students from North and South America, South Africa, Australia, Eretz Yisrael, all over Europe, and sometimes from the Ukraine too. Some of the foreign girls don’t speak English well, and many experience Gateshead as a culture shock. Developing the ability to get along with girls of different mentalities and characters is part of our girls’ chinuch, but we do switch rooms midyear to give everyone a fresh start.” Not all seminaries have an eim bayis on the premises; many rely on madrichot — post-seminary girls who liaise with the eim bayis and take charge of the dorm overnight. Still the eim bayis is often the one who enforces the house rules, like curfews. Many Israeli seminaries require students to be in the dorm by a certain time each night; when girls want an extension, they must call the housemother to request permission.

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