Esther Petrack: Modern Orthodox Jewish Girl on America's Next Top Model Drops Shabbos on Television

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Esther Petrack © CW

MUST READ UPDATEEsther Petrack’s Mother Speaks: Esther is observant, it was all editing

Tablet Magazine reports that there is a Modern Orthodox girl from Massachusetts on America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks.

It’s always cool to see a fellow member of the tribe on TV show, even a reality show. It is more than a little counter-intuitive to see a Jewish girl competing for a modeling contract when you consider the tradition of tznius (something akin to modesty) that has been a hallmark of observant Judaism. In fact it probably breaches most tznius standards to just participate in a reality show, but certainly a show that celebrates the barely clothed human body.

Yet, I was still wondering (hoping?) that somehow Esther would follow the lead of her biblical namesake (Queen Esther of Purim fame) and somehow make a kiddush Hashem (glorification of Godliness) on the show.

Tablet Magazine reports the following conversation took place:

After letting Esther say a bit about herself—namely, that she was born in Jerusalem—[Tyra] asked her about her Orthodox Jewish practice. “Do you honor the Sabbath?”

“Yes I do,” Esther responded, proceeding to explain the rules regarding the usage of electricity, computers, cell phones, and cars on Friday night and Saturday. Tyra sternly informed her that ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week. … Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule? Her Jewish identity was all of a sudden squarely on the spot…

…She replied after a momentary hesitation: “Yes, I would do it.”

UPDATE: There is a good chance that this was edited to sound worse than it actually was live. I really hope that is the case. However, the feelings I experienced READING the transcript are colored by the way CW depicted the conversation. My main point is not relevant to whether Esther is a Shomer Shabbos or not. I hope she still is…

I know many non-observant Jews. I know many Jews who “honored the Sabbath” at some time in their life and no longer “honor the Sabbath”. This is different. Not because she is on TV or seeking a career in modeling. It’s different because the world saw the moment that she made the decision. We were witnesses to the “moment”. One minute she was Observant and the next moment she was not.

To me, that is a very dramatic moment.

We all have those kinds of moments in our life. That moment of choice. We are told “Choose Life”.

Tablet Magazine’s Dvora Meyers then goes on to write that this is another harsh blow to Modern Orthodoxy. On that point I disagree. Every sect and stream of Judaism has those who stay on that path, others move to more traditional practice and others to less practice. It is not a “problem” unique to Modern Orthodoxy.

Also, don’t think for a second that the story of Esther Petrack’s connection with her Judaism has been written and is now over. People change. Teenagers do things they later regret. Especially as we are now in the final days of Judgment and we are very aware of the power of Teshuva (Essay: What is Teshuva (repentance) and How Does It Work in Judaism?) it is important to realize that we have all done things that we regret. Esther dropped Shabbos on national TV but we have all dropped things in our lives.

The beauty of this time of the year is that we have a wonderful opportunity to pick things back up. Hopefully, Esther and all of us along with her will be able to pick ourselves up and be the Jewish people that we truly want to be.

  • You are so right! Imagine what that would have been like…

  • I would have liked to see Tyra’s reaction if she had said she wouldn’t be working on those days. I worder if a celeb would “fire” someone so very publicly for religious practices.

    • Here is a link to the story of a kiddush Hashem regarding a famous television program –

        • FYI: There is a great thread on my Facebook Page as well:

        • Yeah, that one! 🙂

          • robert

            “Dvora Meyers then goes on to write that this is another harsh blow to Modern Orthodoxy.”

            A person who would so easily say that she would cease being sabbath observant can hardly be considered orthodox, modern or not.

            • I disagree.

              Modern Orthodox, like Charedi or Yeshivish are social constructs. They have little to do with observance and more to do with one’s social environment.

              • robert

                So a person who doesn’t observe dietary laws or the sabbath can be considered modern orthodox?

                • It’s not a matter of “considered”. If a person is part of the modern orthodox community, it doesn’t really matter what their halachic observance is, they are part of the MO social community.

                  That is what I mean.

                  Take a charedi who cheats on his wife. He is still charedi, just a charedi who fails to observe halacha.

                  • robert

                    I feel that anybody who self identifies as orthodox should as a minimum be observant of those mitzvot by which orthodox are understood to observe. If they do not observe these mitzvot, then even if they are associated with the orthodox community, they themselves are not orthodox. A chareidi who is dilligent in his observance of shabbat, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha laws is orthodox. A chareidi who desecrates the shabbos, or eats trief is not orthodox (by definition) even though he lives in the chareidi community. Its the same for an MO. Thus Esther, even if she is associated with the MO community is not herself orthodox, and Dvora’s rant against MO is not valid.

                    I think we can agree that a person can be part of the orthodox community, even though they themselves are not orthodox. And yes, every segment of orthodox has their share of “members” who are not observant even while associating with their orthodox communities.

                  • While “Orthodox,” “Modern Orthodox,” and “Chareidi” may well be social constructs, there are halachic categories; apikorus, mumar l’teiavon, mumar l’hachis, pasul l’eidus, etc, with differences among them.

                    Chilul shabbos is, TTBOMK, the only aveirah about which a mumar l’teiavon has the same status as a mumar l’hachis. Nevertheless, we find all sorts of “heterim” to avoid putting people in this category (e.g., if he would be embarassed to do so in front of at least one specific person).

                    I’m not sure one can apply any such heter here; she seemed, based on the quotes [I haven’t and won’t watch the video] to be rather sure of herself. I can’t believe that someone applying for a TV show like this wouldn’t find out what it entailed first; I doubt this was truly spontaneous.

                    Except, of course, that she wasn’t actually mechalel shabbos, just said she would be… but if that time were to come, I don’t see how she can be considered anything but a mumar l’hachis, with all of the accompanying side effects.

                  • Also note that a Chareidi, or MO, can still call himself “amcha” etc. even if he cheats on his wife. [unless it’s with another married woman, perhaps…].

                    Ditto for someone who (even publicly) refuses to pay taxes, announces that he cheats the gov’t, or most other mitzvos. He may be an avaryan, maybe even a rasha, but still is considered a full fledged Jew.

                    It’s only at the point when he begins to violate mitzvos davka l’hachis that he loses some of his status.

                  • tesyaa

                    HH, is there any sector of the community that doesn’t disappoint you?

                    People aren’t always going to live up to your unrealistic expectations of them.

                    • >People aren’t always going to live up to your unrealistic expectations of them.

                      Disappointment is part of life. Fine. Im just saying I’m not surprised anymore. I used to. But, I take note that keeping the shabbat, is not an unrealistic expectation from an orthodox Jew. Meaning, she deliberately chose to go into this career, and this show, knowing what it asks for and in front of millions of people said being a model is more important then keeping the Shabbat.

                      It almost reminds of me of a kippa sruga Jew in Israel that participated in Israel’s version of ‘Survivor.’ One of the tests was to eat something non kosher. He ate it, then justified it by saying he wanted to make a kiddush Hashem and not disappoint his team mates.

                      It’s simply not a surprise, because to every life decision, there are consequences. The ghetto mentality of some charedim have their consequences. Well, the MO have theirs too. Being too much in secular culture…well….this is what it can lead to.

  • This brings to mind Dr. Laura who converted to Judaism and then gave it up years later:

  • The sad part is this, (for me at least): When I see news segments with charedi Jews being arrested for such and such I am simply not shocked anymore. It’s almost like a “what did you expect” feeling I have.

    I am starting to have the same feelings toward MO.

  • at the end of the day, people are people. we all have tests, we pass some, and we fail others.

    until this point, this woman was Modern Orthodox. She probably kept shabbos her whole life, and adhered to the rules of tzniyus, as she saw them. She was now put to the test and she failed.

    She can repent, like anybody can. if she continues down this path, she wont be considered Modern orthodox or any form of Orthodox. The community wont allow it – strutting around in her underwear on tv and on shabbos and calling herself orthodox? not gonna happen.

    if at some point she regrets what she did (probably after she loses the competition), she can do her teshuva and go back to being Orthodox again.

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  • Akiva

    I’m not exactly sure the point Dvora Meyers was aiming at when she said that this was a blow to the modern orthodox. Did she mean that people will now have a different opinion of what modern orthodoxy is or did she mean this displays the failure of the movement in general.
    In truth is it is not a blow because the modern orthodox movement as a whole doesn’t care, nor do they voice outrage at such public acts of failure. However, I do think that a possible point she is driving at is that this displays the failure of the movement in general, albeit, in a very isolated example.
    As a person who grew up going to a modern orthodox shul every shabbos I have seen the decline of the movement in general. Not just in my community but the modern orthodox communities all over are declining in numbers. The children are moving either more to the right or more to the left. This is a similar problem that killed out the conservative movement. It is happening less rapidly than the conservative movement because the movement is based for the most part on Torah values. However, I do think that although it is an exaggerated example, Esther represents the problem that exists in the movement. Because the movement has changed its priority from being a “Torah Jew” to being a Jew who also observes the Torah, the next generation is more likely to sacrifice the Torah to further their own dreams.

  • morgan

    You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish. It doesn’t say anywhere in the Torah that X individual is “more” Jewish than Y if he or she does ABC… So your concept of status is more a demeaning personal construct than anything predicated upon actual law. In addition, doesn’t it say somewhere to judge favorably? I know it does. And if you don’t have a Halachic Beit Din, no one is fit to judge sans God. So I at least personally think you should give the benefit of the doubt and assume they edited it or what have you… Regardless, excuse my simplistic take on things, but no one here is better than anybody else who has not harmed anyone, so cut the judgmental crap, and show your faith not by holding your nose up at others, but solely by your own PERSONAL actions, which should invariably exude what you claim to be an intrinsic part of your commitment, and maybe then you will be deserving of some level of respect.

    • Who are you talking to? and in reference to what?

      • Probably me.

        Morgan’s position is not necessarily simplistic, nor would I describe it as “crap,” but it is Halachically incomplete.

        Anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish. Period.

        However, there is also a Halachically recognized category called “amcha”. Everything I wrote above is true as practiced by Halachic authorities from the Shulchan Aruch and onwards [we have somewhat of a dearth of sources for the practice in Talmudic times].

        Regarding dan l’kaf zechus, I’m sure that it was edited. But so what? How much could it have been changed? Maybe she deliberated and hemmed and hawed for 30 minutes. Good for her. But so what? Once this video was released, either she or her representative (or family, or Rabbi) could easily issue any clarification. In the absence of such, I have to assume that her beliefs were, broadly, correctly portrayed.

        Perhaps the Karaites see it differently. I know Jesus did (or at least the records the Christians bring say that he did). I don’t care about either of them, nor their analyses, and I suspect our host feels the same way.

  • marina

    Dear Rabbi,

    We have never met but I am Esther Petrack’s mother and I just happened to read your article about her. There would be material for a long conversation but let me just clarify a couple of points.

    The fateful words “I will do it” in an answer to the question about working on shabbat were the result of editing. Esther never meant or said that she would give up shabbat for the show, neither did she do it. These words were taken from a long conversation about the principles and laws of shabbat and how Esther was planning to observe them. The producers cut out these 4 words to create a more scandalous storyline; judging from the amount of reaction, they were quite successful!

    Careful viewers could see that there was editing and I would have hoped that non careful readers would have gieven Esther the benefit of the doubt, kaf zechut…

    I m proud of Esther’s midot and comittment to mitzvot which she carried through the show. As a cute example, since you probably know that the girls were housed in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocen in Venice, Esther used the ocen to dunk (tovel) a pot she bought to cook for herself in the house.

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m very glad to hear that this was just editing; I am not a Rav, but it would seem to me that given the reaction [which is still justifiable, even if wrong], this needs to be circulated as widely as possible. I’m sure most of the Jewish media would be more than happy to write about this; I would welcome publicizing this.

      We will probably have to agree to disagree about whether this is overall a positive experience to be proud of or a negative one, but there is no question that al pi halacha, Shabbos is a unique category, and a definite “red line”.

  • Marina:

    Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to write.

    It is wonderful to hear that Esther never intended to give up shabbat for the show.

    As was pointed out in the post, I was not “judging” Esther from the show. Rather, I was reacting to the conversation that was transcribed by the show. It was about the drama of the moment. It was about seeing someone observant one moment and not-observant the next moment (even if that was not an accurate portrayal of her real life choices).

    I will do a full follow up post and try to spread it as widely as possible – I promised myself I would do that if this came to light.

    I actually had no idea that the girls stayed in Venice. Perhaps, Esther would like to come back to Venice and spend a shabbat in our shul? Her mother is invited too… 🙂

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  • Moshe

    I posted in Rabbi Finks new post as well.

    Marina: Do you feel it is OK from the orthodox standpoint to parade on national television in one’s underwear? Does this cause any issues with your daughter?

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  • Anonymous

    Our girl has joined the IDF –

    Now that’s a real kiddush Hashem!