It was clear that something unusual was going on in the Orthodox-only village of Nof Ayalon, in central Israel, when residents spotted a bikini-clad teenager strutting her stuff.
Nof Ayalon, near Modi’in and not far from the Green Line, very much bears the imprint of its founders. It was set up in the mid-1990s by the nearby Yeshivat Sh’alvim, and ever since it has been a bastion of punctilious observance and modest dress.
Until, that is, the middle of May, when a British teenage girl with a penchant for provocative outfits arrived as part of a reality TV show. Also taking part in the program was a teenage boy who is a self-styled Goth and body-piercing enthusiast.
Both youngsters are non-Jewish high school dropouts from Hampshire, England, and the idea of the program they were taking part in was to see whether a week living with an Orthodox family could transform them from madcaps to menches.
The show is part of a BBC series, “The World’s Strictest Parents,” in which unruly British teenagers are sent to live with strict families in different countries. The episode filmed in Israel is due to air later this summer.
As the program will show, the battle lines between the Israeli family and the youngsters were clear from the start. You don’t get keener devotees to authority than Tzipi and David Shaked (pronounced sha-kayd) and their five children, whose ages range from 5 to 18. The Shakeds live in accordance with every dictate of Jewish law, and moved to Nof Ayalon to be among others who do so. And few people have such an aversion to authority as their houseguests, Jack Travers and Gemma Lyons, aged 17 and 16, respectively.
“We saw it as a rare opportunity to extend a hand to troubled non-Jewish teens and in so doing, showcase Jewish values which should be seen by the outside world,” said Tzipi Shaked, who, like her husband is American born.
In terms of Jewish doctrine, the Shakeds were determined “to push nothing down their throats,” but when it came to their guests’ conduct, discipline was in no short supply. Travers and Lyons were expected to overhaul their dress habits — skimpy in her case; medieval-style clothing, multiple piercings, thick black eyeliner in his — and observe various Jewish practices, including some Sabbath laws and rules of negia, which forbid members of the opposite sex from touching. The teenagers got a further dose of discipline from the army: they spent a day training on an Israel Defense Forces base.
The Israel episode produced a stormier clash than any that had occurred in the previous two seasons of the show — other host families have included Alabama Christians and Indian Hindus. Lyons was infuriated by the modesty expectations and flouted them by donning her bikini. The family threw her out of the house, and producers had to take her to a hotel — something that has never happened on the program in the past. “It was a massive deal,” director Colin Rothbart told the Forward. After a day and a half, she apologized and was allowed back in.
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Lyons has an anger problem — an issue the show’s producers tried to address in a novel way. “The teenagers met a Holocaust survivor who has every reason in the world to be angry, but who had a smile on her face. The boy gets depressed, and this also helped him put things in perspective,” Rothbart said.
Despite the fireworks, the family’s values resonated with the teenagers in the end. “She’s a pretty girl, and the mum said people may not judge her by who she is but what she’s showing, and she began to accept this,” Rothbart said. “In fact, now [that] she’s back home, she’s dressing more modestly.”
When it came time to observe the Sabbath, which occurred toward the end of the trip, Travers and Lyons were intrigued by Jewish observance. While the Shakeds expected their guests to observe the Sabbath laws only when in public, they chose to do as the family did. “They wanted to experience what it was like from our perspective,” Shaked said.
For Travers, the Sabbath was a turning point. He stayed up until 4 a.m. chatting with the local youngsters who, Shaked reports, had resolved “not to judge a ‘Goth’ by his cover.” She recalled: “It was a revelation to him that the teens of Nof Ayalon can hang out on a Friday night with no fistfights and without alcohol, but having fun.”
The producers of “The World’s Strictest Parents” are not allowing the teens to be interviewed, as they are still following their progress, but they said that Travers has admitted since the trip that he smuggled alcohol into the Shakeds’ house, but said he did not drink it, as he found family life there enjoyable without stimulants.
It seems that some other religious concepts impressed Travers and Lyons, as well. They heard about the Jewish idea of teshuvah, or repentance, and both plan to make amends with family members and teachers and return to their studies back home. And in a surprising endorsement of Israel, they both want to go back this summer — Lyons to spend time studying in university, and Travers to work on a kibbutz.
Nathan Jeffay is the Forward’s Israel correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.