Lighting the Fire
Mrs. Esti Goodstein Ignites the Jewish Spark in Students with Love – and Acceptance
When Esti Khusid Goodstein was a twelfth grader, her principal, Rabbi Yehuda Oelbaum, took her aside and asked about her post-graduation plans. She told him that she was to attend seminary in Israel and pursue a psychology degree. Rabbi Oelbaum replied, “That’s all?” And in a loud voice he announced, “I am a chassid of Esti Khusid! I am your follower. You’re not going to be a psychologist. You’re going to change the world. Now go out and do something good!”
“At that moment,” Esti reflects, “Rabbi Oelbaum created the principal that I am today. What he taught me at that moment was that when we principals get off our high horses and connect with a child on a soul level, we build them up.”
Back when she was a student, Esti Goodstein attended Machon Bais Yaakov, which shared space with Shalsheles, the only kiruv school in Boro Park. One day as Esti passed one of the Shalsheles classrooms, she observed a girl reciting Shema. “She said it with such passion, and it touched me to the core, like this is a child who is so close Hashem. And I remember that even as a 15-year-old, I davened to Hashem that I should have something to do with these kids, to please let it happen.”
Today, Esti Goodstein serves as the Hebrew principal of Shalsheles, in addition to teaching psychology in a number of local girls’ schools and speaking regularly before audiences of all walks of Judaism. “I love my students,” she tells me, “and I love Yiddishkeit. When they walk into school, I want my girls to feel both of those things.”
That drive permeates the halls of Shalsheles, where Esti often makes the rounds just to let “her” girls know how much they mean to her. “I go into the classrooms and tell every kid what is amazing about them.” Esti shares, “I spend four or five minutes going up and down the rows with specific amazing details about each of them. There could be a kid who was just thrown out of a different school, and I’m going to tell her why she’s the best thing that ever happened to my school. All of a sudden, the hoodie comes off and this girl is looking straight into my eyes.”
If a girl walks into school an hour late, she’ll be greeted with a smile instead of admonition. “I’ll say something like, ‘I know you had a rough morning. You’re a real hero that you came to school even though life is hard. I want you to be here tomorrow at nine. Thank you for coming in today because I know you have the choice to bury yourself in bed and instead you showed up.”
“I Wanted to Continue What They Had Started”
The senior Goodsteins emigrated from Vilna, Lithuania and had already become observant by the time their daughter was born. “I’m definitely more open-minded, as are all children of baalei teshuvah,” Esti reflects. “You get to make more choices in life, and you get to see all different types, you see all different things. So at the end of the day, there is, there is more exposure. That made me stronger in my Judaism, knowing that there isn’t just one way. My parents were open about their choices. I heard about how hard my parents fought in communist Russia. That created a passion. I wanted to continue what they had started.”
One Friday, a girl approached Esti and asked in confusion why dismissal was at noon; she didn’t understand that a four P.M. dismissal would conflict with Shabbos observance. Another girl wanted to keep Shabbos, but she was very concerned about how she would manage without her phone. “I kept thinking that there had to be a way I could get these girls to want to keep Shabbos,” Esti recalls. “For the girl who is struggling with Shabbos, but her parents are observant, I wanted to give her the chizuk to want it. And for the girl who’s keeping Shabbos on her own, I wanted to give her the chizuk to be able to do that. So what we do now is that every Friday, I gather the girls into our hall. I shut the lights and light candles, and when I do the hand motion before lighting the candles I say, ‘Come, come, come, Shabbos into my life.’ I give the girls a brachah that they should be happy and healthy and feel emotionally safe. And then I just speak my heart out. Sometimes I’ll share a touching story, and other times I’ll just speak about the beauty of Shabbos. We have a guitarist, and the girls get into a circle and sing, and they erupt in dancing. It’s a moving, positive experience. A lot of girls tell me afterward, ‘I’m ready to go home and keep this. I want this.’”
Shalsheles caters mainly to two types of students: baalei teshuvah and girls who started out frum but are now struggling. Many of them have been asked to leave their schools or have left on their own. “So we give them the place to heal,” explains Esti. “If a girl has a learning disability, ADHD, or any sort of emotional difficulty, we can deal with that, as long as she wants to grow.”
Out of the Box
“Our students sometimes go around and talk to students in other schools about how much they fight for Judaism, and the mainstream girls get very inspired,” says Esti. “Sometimes, the learning in a non-kiruv school can be a bit too technical. It’s a problem, although it’s not one that I experienced during my years of schooling.”
While Esti’s experience as a student left her feeling fulfilled and inspired, she recognizes that achieving that in a mainstream system can be a challenge, particularly when a girl is what she considers “out of the box.” “In my opinion, the box is beautiful. A lot of beautiful Jews fit into that box. But when you create a rigid system, you’re creating a situation where people who don’t fit in feel unloved. I love the system and I am grateful for it. It created who I am and it created many other wonderful girls. But it’s not fair that we’re boxing people out. It hurts me to hear that there are girls who are not accepted to high schools every year.”
Each year, Esti is faced with a larger number of applicants who have been rejected – or ejected – from other schools. “I’ve never seen things like this before,” Esti admits. “I think it’s important for principals to have a good relationship with the students. There’s a lot in that relationship. If they can somehow meet with every girl to let her know that they are loved and appreciated, it will make such a difference. That’s the number one chinuch rule if you’re a principal, that every student in your school should have a good relationship with you.”
Often, parents of girls who attend mainstream schools tell Esti that their daughters don’t feel inspired by their learning. “There are not many girls today who appreciate only intellectual learning,” Esti explains. “Yes, there are a few schools that attract intellectuals, but in general, students need that passion. So maybe cover a little bit less material and share more inspirational stories. Bring in amazing speakers and play that song that will make everyone cry. The world needs more teachers talking about the beauty of Yiddishkeit, keeping that passion real. I think that Judaism has to be more experiential in our schools.”
What’s a parent to do when their child is feeling disconnected and uninspired? Esti’s answer is simple: “There’s nothing like spending time with your kids.” Esti makes a point of picking her children up from school, despite her busy schedule. “We walk home, and that’s when I ask them about their day. We’ll pick up some ice cream if it’s a warm day, or buy some stickers, something that they like.”
Esti explains, “Building a close relationship won’t necessarily keep a child from getting into trouble, but it will keep them close. Sometimes it will keep the child in the house and bring them back. I just had a kid in the office who is not doing such good things, but she was sitting there next to her mother. She may be out partying at night, but this kid is coming home. Spend time with your kids, give them lots of hugs, and tell them how happy they make you. That relationship will get them through a lot of hard times.
There’s one more thing that’s important, and I don’t judge parents who do this because we’re all human, but parents should try not to fight in front of the kids. I’m a principal and I see how badly it stresses kids out when their parents fight in front of them. It’s painful. It scares them so badly because they’re feeling like their two pillars, their rocks in my world are falling apart. That’s when the kids come to school with the hoodie on their heads and they just can’t concentrate. Kids can see you bicker once in a while, but it can’t be a constant state of war. Kids need peace to thrive.”
What Love Can Do
“There was one girl, I’ll call her Sarah, who showed up in pants to the interview,” Esti recalls. “I started talking to her and she seemed upset, like she really didn’t want to be there. So I said to her, ‘You seem kind of resentful to be here. I’m not judging you, but I’m just wondering – most girls who come to an Orthodox school for an interview put on a skirt out of respect. I pass no judgment. I’m just wondering what the message to me is. So, she says to me, “My message to you, Mrs. Badstein is that I don’t want to be here.’”
Esti told the girl’s father, “Your daughter doesn’t want to be here. I don’t think this will work out.”
“He started to cry,” Esti says now. “He told me that if I don’t accept her, she’ll get killed. She was a small girl in stature, but she was being taunted for her Judaism at the public school she attended, and she spent her days fighting back physically – and losing.
“I said, ‘Wow, Sarah, you identify yourself as a Jew and you’re willing to fight for that. You are a very special human being and I’m accepting you. You’re going to start tomorrow, wearing a white shirt and a black skirt. Be respectful. One day you’re going to inspire the world with your story.”
The next day Sarah showed up in a white shirt and black skirt – with six pairs of earrings in her ears. Esti asked her to hand over five of them, explaining that it was not a tzniyus rule but a school rule, and sent her off to class, where she proceeded to disrupt every lesson. “I called her into my office and said, ‘Sarah, please just make this work. I’m not asking you to leave my school. But you have to let the other kids learn.’ Something I said touched her and she started to be respectful. You could almost see this emotional healing begin.’”
Sarah continued to grow, letting go of friends who pulled her down and building real friendships with girls who helped her grow. She asked questions and formed relationships with her teachers. Eventually, she began to accept the laws of tzniyus, much to her father’s chagrin. Things came to a head when her father, who had once begged for her acceptance, accused Esti of brainwashing his daughter and told Sarah that she had to pick between religious observance and a relationship with him.
“I said, Sarah, I can’t tell you what to do,” Esti shares. “Your Judaism has to be real. This decision is yours. But I have to tell you that I am here for you unconditionally. Everything’s going to be okay.’ We never discussed it again. I think she just wanted to think the whole thing out. In twelfth grade she decided that she wanted to go to a mainstream Bais Yaakov seminary in Israel. She was accepted, which was a miracle. Her father let her go, which was another miracle. Our school paid for her plane ticket. We paid her tuition. We raised money for her wardrobe. We taught her the Bais Yaakov lingo. We paid for tutors. We took her out to eat the night before she left and gave her a bracelet that says Ein Od Milvado, and the next day we brought her to the airport.”
Today, Sarah is married to a boy whose mother heard her speak when she returned from her second year of seminary. She lives in a different city, and her father moved so he could live near her. Each morning he drives Sarah’s two little girls to their Bais Yaakov school, and each afternoon he picks them up.
“At Sarah’s wedding, I danced with her, and we were surrounded by a circle of my students. It was like being surrounded by all my mitzvos; it was such a beautiful moment. ‘Go say mazel tov to my father,’ Sarah told me. I didn’t want to; because I was sure he would yell at me again. Instead, he thanked me. I went back to Sarah, and I said, ‘You did it. You walked into my office in black tight pants and you’re coming out with this white gorgeous dress.’ Sarah told me, ‘No, Mrs. Goodman. You did it. You told me I was going to inspire the world with my story, and I believed you.’”
That’s the power of a real mechaneches. The power of belief in a child. The power of unconditional love. These are the secrets to Esti’s success as she guides her students through their journeys from turbulent teens to happy, connected adults. They are the secrets that can ignite the fire in our own students and children, if we only show them that we care.
You must be logged in to post a comment.