When Farrah Cukor was asked to leave a United Synagogue Youth service during a convention almost two years ago because she was wearing dress pants instead of a skirt or dress, she was shocked.
“I was told to go home and change,” said the East Brunswick resident. “It was at that moment that I realized that change was needed.”
Farrah, who is membership and programming vice president for the North/South Brunswick chapter at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, quickly launched a petition drive and rallied so much support the board voted to rescind the prohibition at this spring’s regional convention in Bridgewater.
“Most people were just surprised that there was even a rule, to be frank,” said Farrah, a 16-year-old senior at East Brunswick High School. “They mostly all thought it was just ridiculous. Boys were only required to wear a dress shirt and dress pants, but girls had this whole array of rules.”
Moreover, the Conservative movement has no such ban on adult women wearing pants to services. That made the rule seem even sillier to Farrah, the daughter of David Cukor of East Brunswick and Marla Cukor Camins of East Brunswick.
Dassy Mark, the youth director of the Hagalil Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the adults on the international USY youth commission in 2002 enacted a dress code “to encourage appropriate dress at all times.”
As part of that, girls were barred from wearing pants to Shabbat services. USY is the teen program of the Conservative movement.
Mark said that while some USY regions across the United States and Canada have rescinded the pants ban, Hagalil, encompassing northern and central Jersey, had never addressed the matter.
“We are one of the more traditional regions, so we kept it,” she explained. “One of the advantages of a dress code is that it sets a tone. How you dress is how you act. That’s why it stayed. It is in line with USY tradition.”
However, Farrah said, she did not regard that correlation as valid and was determined to modernize the dress code.
“If the Conservative movement is egalitarian and we’re going to allow girls to read from the Torah and wear kipot and tefillin, it would seem to be only logical that they would be allowed to wear dress pants as well,” she said. “The shul I go to allows women to wear pants. I think in all my years going there it has not ever affected the ritual or spiritual experience.”
Farrah found out that even many of the adults enforcing the rule didn’t agree with it.
In fact, Farrah appreciated the support Hagalil’s adult leadership gave her throughout her drive, particularly from Mark, who described the teen as “very goal-oriented.”
“USY is all about developing leadership,” said Mark. “We encourage young people to step up so we thought what she did was great.”
About 200 kids singed Farrah’s petition at a USY dance. After she posted it on line, she handed it in at the end of her sophomore year with about 600 names.
The USY outgoing and incoming teen executive boards took up the issue at the most recent regional convention, debating for hours into the night, said Farrah.
Mark said that the few holdouts on the boards had no objections to girls wearing dress pants, but rather were concerned that inappropriate Shabbat attire, such as jeans, might be worn.
“At the end of the day they decided this archaic rule had to end and that it was time to modernize and institute the change that was needed,” said Farrah. The annual week-long USY Encampment at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pa., which ended on Aug. 25 and which Farrah cochaired, was the first regional event where the rule change was in effect.
“It was so rewarding to see change occur from something I started,” said Farrah, who wore black dress pants, a white shirt, cranberry blazer, and a black bowtie. “I never expected tons of girls to wear dress pants because many love getting dressed up and wearing a skirt or dress. I just wanted girls to have the option.”
“I myself never felt comfortable wearing a dress or skirt. I truly felt it affected my ability to study because I was so uncomfortable. I can honestly say I got more out of this Shabbos experience in terms of spirituality and study than I ever had before.”
To Farrah’s dismay, she learned that pants were banned for girls on Shabbat by other USY regions throughout the United States and Canada. She spoke at a convention with USY international president Aaron Pluemer, who is from northern California, about developing a strategy for change.
“I don’t intend on stopping at Hagalil,” she said. “I would love to see every region allow girls to wear dress pants. I plan on contacting the president of each region to ask them to discuss it with their executive boards.”