Book Review: Seminary Savvy

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Seminary Savvy: Every Girl’s Guides to a Successful, Safe, & Satisfying Experience – in Seminary & Beyond by Debbie Fox, with Michal Eisikowitz (Menucha Publishers 2015)

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Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner.

Designer of the pioneering Safety Kid program and founder of Magen Yeladim International , Debbie Fox has made a name for herself teaching kids the skills they need to avoid potential threats to their physical and mental wellbeing. She has now turned her expertise as a clinical social worker towards a new audience: young women entering seminary. In her recently released book, Seminary Savvy, Fox offers guidance on how they can maximize the pleasures of their Israel year and minimize its hazards.

Seminary Savvy came about because of a conversation Fox had around her dining room table with eight staff members from local Jewish high schools. She writes, “As the evening unfolded, humorous, touching, and meaningful stories of our own seminary years rose to the surface. By the end of the night, however, every woman present had also disclosed a disturbing or uncomfortable incident that occurred during her time in seminary (p. 17).”

At the beginning of the book, some of the tips will sound familiar to those who have seen Safety Kid materials. However, the book quickly heads into less well-known territory. Topics include transportation to and around Israel, sleep, homesickness, dealing with relatives in Israel, how to be a good Shabbos guest, doing chessed, interacting with males, friendships, and how to report abuse, mental health issues, or the like. A registered dietician and specialist in eating disorders, Dina Cohen, contributed chapters on nutrition and eating disorders. Some of the problems Seminary Savvy addresses would never have occurred to me if Fox hadn’t brought them up.

Fox recommends that parents and their teens read the book together and use it for a springboard into discussion of delicate subject matter. Parents might be concerned about how sensitive topics are handled. Fox employs clear but dignified language throughout. The book has an impressive list of haskamos including those from Rabbi Zev Leff of Moshav Matityahu and Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski. All of the rabbis and professionals offering endorsements felt the subject matter was appropriate.

Seminary Savvy is more than a list of dos and don’ts. It is well-designed and very readable, with a friendly and engaging tone. Each chapter is followed by a “Make it Real” scenario, where the young lady puts herself in the shoes of a protagonist in a tricky situation and then must decide what she would do in her place. Fox based these little sketches on actual interviews she did with seminary students and alumnae, and their realism made them really resonate with me. On the other hand, I giggled over the cartoons which pepper the text. These really helped to lighten up the serious material.

A few peccadilloes: I wished that a little bit more practical advice were offered on the less touchy topics. For example, I think a lot of teens could use direction about laundry and light housekeeping (while many will have learned these things at home, others won’t have), creating and sticking to a budget, and also more specific advice about guarding oneself against ID theft and other online threats. I also would like to see a companion guide for young men headed off to yeshiva out-of-state or out-of-country.

While we can never protect our children from every misadventure or challenge they might encounter – whether they are still small or all grown up – we owe them preparation before they venture out into the world. Seminary Savvy will be a wonderful resource for young ladies heading to seminary in the coming weeks, and in the years to come, as well as for their families and teachers.