Growing up frum: Observant teens navigate their way through famously liberal Bay Area

Sarah Engel, 15, loves to read. A few years ago, she was obsessed with the “Harry Potter” series, but these days she’ll read pretty much any fiction she can get her hands on. On the weekends, when she’s not catching up on homework, the petite, curly-haired high school freshman likes to hang out with her friends — they go shopping, see movies, bake cookies. In other words, she’s a fairly typical teenage girl.

She’s also Orthodox. She observes Shabbat in the strictest sense, follows kashrut, and is shomer negiah: She doesn’t have even the slightest physical contact with men or boys outside her immediate family, choosing to save that for marriage. During the week, Engel lives in Palo Alto, at Meira Academy — a small, all-girls Jewish day school — where she names Jewish Studies as her favorite subject.

Every Friday after classes, her dad picks her up and drives her to their home in Oakland for Shabbat dinner, and every Sunday evening she heads back. (Her overnight bag, which she toted to our Sunday interview at a coffee shop in Oakland, is with her much of the time.)

“I feel lucky that I come home every weekend, since there are other girls who board full time and only go home for big holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and I think that would be much harder,” she says with a shy smile. Even though the back-and-forth may get tiresome, she’s certain she made the right decision by deciding to attend a school with a strong Orthodox identity.

“Observing Shabbat and all the holidays is really important to me, and I think at another school that could become a challenge,” she says. “You’re hanging out with your friends and it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a party Friday night? Sorry. You guys want to come over for Shabbat dinner?’ ”

Though Sarah doesn’t face that particular issue at her school,  the interaction she describes is one that will likely sound familiar to a certain segment of the Bay Area Jewish community. It’s a small percentage, one that’s not immediately visible. But, perhaps in part because of that, the kids and teenagers who grow up frum, or religiously observant, in the famously liberal Bay Area experience a host of challenges and misconceptions — and, many were quick to point out, plenty of joy as well.

San Francisco’s Jewish community was established in the mid-19th century, with Reform German Jews from Bavaria forming Congregation Emanu-El, and Jews from Prussia, England, France and the eastern United States forming Congregation Sherith Israel. Orthodox Jews have been in short supply ever since, along with the usual accoutrements of the observant lifestyle, such as kosher delis and restaurants.

According to the 2004 Jewish Community Study, published by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, just 3 percent of the 230,000 Jews in the federation’s five-county region identify as Orthodox. By contrast, some 17 percent said they were Conservative, while 38 percent claim affiliation with the Reform movement. (The 3 percent Orthodox figure holds true for the approximately 200,000 Jews served by the East Bay federation, as well, according to its most recent survey, from 2011.)

Sarah Engel photo/emma silvers

Unsurprisingly, the local frum community is tight-knit. Several of the kids and teens interviewed for this article knew each other despite living on opposite sides of the bay. They get together often for activities, such as NCSY, the national Jewish youth group sponsored by the Orthodox Union.

Also, because there is no Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in the Bay Area, most observant teens here do not live in separate religious “bubbles.” Depending on their observance level, choice of schools and other factors, they may often find themselves the only strictly observant person in the room.

But depending on whom you ask, that might not be such a bad thing. Menucha and Shalom Ferris, children of Yehuda and Miriam Ferris, the rabbi and rebbetzin of Chabad of the East Bay, say that growing up in an area where they interact with Jews of all backgrounds has made them more open-minded and accepting than they might be had they grown up in a larger Orthodox community in New York or Los Angeles.

“I think if you grow up with only very religious people, you might not know how to interact or relate to people who aren’t exactly like you, and that’s when people can come off as cold,” says Menucha, 16, who’s in 11th grade at a boarding school for Orthodox girls in Los Angeles. She came home last week in anticipation of Passover, and sat on the back porch of her parents’ house for this interview wearing a long black skirt and a blue-and-white checked shirt.

“Especially growing up here in Berkeley, we have people coming in and out of Chabad or coming to our house who are completely not Orthodox, not wearing a kippah or anything … and I can’t imagine being like ‘No, I won’t [associate with you],” says Shalom, 14. “It definitely helped me to develop an open mind. I mean, we’re all in this together.”

Shalom is in eighth grade at Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School in San Francisco. His days are academically rigorous, filled with Talmud study (which he loves for the way it “gets your brain going, sharpens your mind”) and classes in Hassidic history in addition to English and math. He wears the typical Chabad uniform of  black hat, pants and coat to school every day. He doesn’t watch movies, play video games or listen to secular music, in accordance with Hassidic norms; he feels strongly that these forms of entertainment often glorify violence and in general “impart the wrong messages.” On Sundays, he helps a friend of a relative who grew up non-observant — an accountant in his 30s — with Hebrew and Torah study.

Shalom does like to read (mostly Jewish-themed books “that have at least some suspense and action in them”) and he especially loves to draw. In addition to a family newsletter that he publishes every few weeks, he draws a comic that features his four brothers-in-law getting into adventures and, sometimes, mutating. (Shalom and Menucha are two of nine kids in the Ferris clan.)

“Drawing is the place where I can let my imagination go. I mean, we do know how to have fun,” he says. “I think people tend to think that being Orthodox is all ‘no this, no that, do this, don’t do that,’ and it’s not. The other misconception I want to clear up is that all ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox people are very sheltered and totally uneducated. I have English studies, I do learn math. I’m quite proficient in it, in fact.”

Shalom says his friends include not only other students at his school, but also less observant kids who attend public school but somehow are involved with Chabad. They might attend his parents’ summer camp or their families come to services at the major holidays. He says he’s never felt burdened because of his observance level.

“Frankly,” says Shalom, “I’ve never been tempted by a cheeseburger.”

Shalom Ferris photo/emma silvers

Menucha says most of her close friends are other girls at her school, which she has attended since eighth grade. Still, she does find herself in situations where she needs to explain that she won’t touch the opposite sex. “Someone will go to shake my hand and instead it’s, ‘OK, spiritual handshake!’ ” she says. ”People understand most of the time, and if not, honestly, that’s kind of their problem … because I’m as nice as can be about it.”

In her free time, Menucha volunteers with a Los Angeles chapter of Friendship Circle, which pairs special-needs kids in the Jewish community with teen mentors. She also loves to sing and perform in her school’s drama productions, and she recently started taking guitar lessons. When she graduates, she plans to go to Israel to study in a women’s seminary, which serves as a kind of a gap-year learning program for Orthodox girls.

As for the pressures around dating that might affect 16-year-old girls who aren’t Orthodox, Menucha says she “thanks God” that the observant approach to romantic relationships makes sense to her.

“I think it lets you focus on what you’re learning. It would probably be distracting [to have boys] in class,” she says.

“It’s just something that you don’t focus on until you’re ready for marriage,” she adds, referring to thoughts about the opposite sex. “Why would you want to waste your passion on trivial people that will just pass through your life, rather than save it for the person you’re going to share your life with?”

When it comes time to begin dating — and Menucha wants to marry “relatively young,” which is encouraged in the Hassidic world — she says it will help to know more or less what she wants. For now, she thinks she might like to marry someone whose parents did not grow up religious. Her mother, Miriam, will likely be involved in helping to match her with someone suitable, which also makes sense to her.

Menucha’s friend has an analogy for the frum dating process: “It’s kind of like [the shopping website] Zappos,” she explains, laughing. “If you know you’re looking for a black shoe with a bow on it, size 8, you click on what you’re looking for — you’re paring it down from thousands to maybe 10.”

Of course, the term “Orthodox” includes various levels of observance, and the experiences of the Bay Area’s Orthodox teens vary accordingly.

For Avigayil Edelman, 14, and Havneh Feder-Haugabook, 17, who both attend Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, it’s a question of navigating an overwhelmingly non-Orthodox social scene — both admit readily that they’re in the minority at the high school — while remaining true to their own values. Both say it’s actually easier than one might think.

Avigayil, a high school freshman who lives in Oakland with her parents and four siblings, says when she was younger she used to get frustrated occasionally about not being able to hang out with her non-Orthodox friends on Friday nights and Saturdays. But in recent years she has come to appreciate it. The family attends Shabbat services at Beth Jacob Congregation; Avigayil, who loves kids, helps with child care at the Saturday service.

Avigayil Edelman photo/cathleen maclearie

“Shabbat’s always been a huge part of my life, and I think it’s nice to just have that day off, just to be able to relax and be with family,” the teen says during a lunchtime interview at school. “Recently there was a birthday party on Saturday night that started before Shabbat [was over] and I guess I was bummed that I couldn’t be there on time … but I just went later. No big deal.”

Most of her friends at school don’t keep kosher, but she says that’s never really presented a problem. “I’ll still go out to eat with them and just get a drink or a salad or something if I know what’s in it, but I actually really love keeping kosher. It’s never made me feel ashamed. It makes me feel like I’m a part of something.”

Avigail, who wears jeans and doesn’t keep shomer negiah, blends in with the rest of her JCHS classmates. But she says going to school with less observant teens has actually made her aware of her potential to educate people and dispel misconceptions about what it means to be Orthodox.

“When people don’t really know about it, it’s nice to be able to be an example for them, show them that it’s not super weird,” she says with a laugh. “Yeah, we have some restrictions, but it doesn’t affect being educated, it doesn’t affect your ability to be part of other communities.” She loves sports: She plays soccer and basketball in addition to taking jazz and modern dance classes.

Havneh, 17, lives in the Parkside neighborhood of San Francisco. He attended Hebrew Academy of San Francisco for elementary school, then South Peninsula Hebrew Day School before coming to JCHS. His family keeps a kosher household and belongs to Congregation Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul. Havneh says his mother — who moved to Israel on her own as a teenager — is the most observant member of the family, but she’s given him room to work out his own identity for himself.

“She’s always said, ‘I want you to choose what you do, how observant you are, with knowledge and education and not out of ignorance,’ ” says Havneh, who wears a knitted kippah.

What that means for him right now, says the high school senior, is that he doesn’t always keep kosher outside the house. He also doesn’t keep shomer negiah, but “feels very strongly” about eventually marrying a Jewish woman. He helps lead worship with a youth group at his shul on Saturdays, and is involved in NCSY activities. In his free time he does CrossFit, a high-intensity exercise program.

Havneh Feder-Haugabook photo/cathleen maclearie

As for growing up Orthodox in the Bay Area, Havneh sees a big difference between San Francisco and Oakland. “It’s hard living in San Francisco, because there really just aren’t that many Orthodox people here. And there’s maybe one kosher restaurant?” he says. “In Oakland, it’s not like there’s a lot of restaurants, but there is definitely more of a community.”

Havneh’s been to Israel several times — most recently on an all-boys religious trip through NCSY that he found “deeply inspiring” — and plans to join the Israeli army after graduating this June. “I figure there’s nothing I’m going to miss if I go to college three years from now rather than right after high school,” he says. “But the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Menucha Ferris echoes Havneh’s sentiment about the power of choosing to be observant rather than simply following in your parents’ footsteps.

“The Rebbe’s teaching is that it doesn’t matter what your family does, you have to choose for yourself to be Jewish, and to be observant,” she says. “Everyone has their own relationship with HaShem, and your family doesn’t dictate that.”

For Sarah Engel, her choice to be observant is one she’s never doubted — and she certainly has never seen her observance level as a hindrance of any kind.

“I might have a slightly different routine, but I’m a normal person,” she says, laughing, as her dad arrives to take her to Palo Alto for the school week. “Sure, there are little things that can be challenging; on fast days maybe you walk past something that smells amazing.

“But in general, I feel that keeping all the mitzvot and being observant has added so much meaning to my life, has been so fulfilling, that I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be any other way.”


on the cover
photo/emma silvers
Shalom Ferris, an eighth-grader at Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School in San Francisco, at home in Berkeley

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.