Jewish Girl Power

Talia Kovacs remembers a moment during a girls-only group in high school when she was asked a question she had never heard before. “We had to go around the room saying what we thought our favorite part of our bodies was.  I was so uncomfortable. I remember skipping my turn and going last. Eventually I said my ears, because they were functional.”  

For Kovacs and her friends, the group—Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing— provided a safe space to talk about what was really going on in their lives “without worrying about who was listening. That’s not always possible as a self-conscious teen surrounded by boys,” she says. The national program that began ten years ago has reached 11,000 girls in sixth through twelfth grades and has expanded to almost 350 groups this year. Through discussions and projects at the beginning of each new Hebrew month, girls learn how Jewish tradition and values can help them with their everyday challenges. They find their voices and build positive relationships with one another and with a trained adult mentor. Some groups have been meeting through middle and high school—for up to seven years.

Now 24 and a first-grade teacher in Washington, DC, Kovacs says she makes it a point to tell her younger sisters what she likes about them—not just their internal qualities but also their physical attributes. “They should know they have a beautiful part on the outside too, and not in a vain or bad way.”  Kovacs also regularly hosts a women-only Shabbat dinner, and seven of her Rosh Hodesh friends originally from Great Neck, NY attended her wedding this past August.  “To see them dancing around her was one of my proudest and most profound educational moments in 25 years,” says the group leader, Moji Pourmoradi.

Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, a program of Moving Traditions, pioneered the field of programming for Jewish girls. Today, projects for girls have proliferated across the country and focus on issues from self-esteem and leadership to financial literacy and bat mitzvah. What they add up to is empowerment, framed in a Jewish context that can foster healing, meaning and possibility.

“There’s nothing more central to human beings than their gender,” says Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, which advocates for an expansive view of gender in Jewish learning and practice, and co-founded Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing (with Sally Gottesman and other women). “It’s also incredibly complicated. Culture defines gender, and tells us who we can become. We started with teens because it’s such a critical time in shaping identity.” Though many teen girls, Jewish or not, struggle with similar issues, “what motivates us is the place of Jewish values and being part of a community,” says Pippi Kessler, program director at Ma’yan, a feminist nonprofit research and education incubator in Manhattan.  

Women’s organizations with an adult lens have realized the import of directing their efforts to young women. They have added college campus projects and are now introducing teen programs. “When you get inculcated with ideas about gender, it’s harder to challenge later in life. To instill gender equity and feminism earlier we must start earlier,” says Elana Sztokman, a leading writer on issues of Jewish feminism and executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which is piloting a program for teens and is dedicating a track of its annual conference this fall to teens.  

This past December, the Hadassah Foundation, which supports programs for Jewish girls (including many mentioned in this article), convened a symposium for its bat mitzvah year to highlight the needs of Jewish girls and to discuss how the Jewish community can better empower and nurture this population. According to its website, gender issues come into sharp relief during adolescence, when girls experience intense pressure “to be everything to everyone all the time. Girls have the right to be themselves and to resist gender stereotypes; to prepare for interesting work and economic independence; to take risks, to strive freely and to take pride in success.” The symposium is available online (https://www.box.com/s/zo4edsgvaphrw0k6ziq8)

“Girls today are expected to be good at all the traditional girl ‘stuff’—being pretty, nice, empathetic and cooperative—and also at most of the traditional guy stuff—getting straight As, being super-athletes, being assertive and aggressive,” says Bergenfield, New Jersey psychologist and Judaic Studies teacher Aliza Frohlich. “There’s still a lot to be done to create a world in which girls and women have the opportunity to do whatever they want with full agency and safety and the support of culture,” agrees Meyer, 55, who experienced youth empowerment and leadership first-hand as a camper and leader in the Labor Zionist Habonim-Dror movement.

The issues the Rosh Hodesh groups explore are power and authority, body image, sexuality and intimacy, and relational issues that include bullying and friendship.  Moving Traditions is updating its curriculum to reflect new issues like online pornography, sexting, financial literacy, prescription drug abuse, internet and cell-phone bullying, and leadership in a coed world. “We explore what messages girls are receiving from the outside world, how they understand them and help them negotiate these messages, keeping them connected to themselves, their families, and Judaism,” says Meyer.

Pourmoradi holds the Rosh Hodesh meetings in her own dining room. She drapes the table with a cloth the girls have decorated with their names, and scatters icebreaker questions that she has written on cards: What’s the nicest compliment you’ve ever gotten? The best book you’ve ever read? Your favorite place to be alone? After the girls pick a question and answer it, they begin the Jewish-themed program from the curriculum. For Hanukkah, Pourmoradi asked what it means to be a light. Each girl wrote on their own candle with sticker letters what endows them with the power to become a light. The answers ranged from music and yoga to parent and friends. “Now they have the candles in their rooms whenever they need it,” Pourmoradi says. “I want the girls to be connected to Judaism in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. To show teenagers that we are all in this theological journey together is a priceless gift.”

Her daughters, Rachel, 14, and Amy, 16, are both in the group and encourage their friends to join. “Ï tell them they’ll feel good after they come,” says Rachel. “We’re all friends and we’re all there for the same thing.”

Meyer’s daughter, Carla Golden, 22, a senior at Penn State, saw the positive impact the Rosh Hodesh group had on her younger sister Talia (now 19). “She found support from women and learned how to talk to girls in a noncompetitive way. It promoted leadership from a place of equality for everyone.” Disappointed that her own group didn’t gel, she created a college version that she leads, a Hillel-supported club open to both Jews and non-Jews.

 

While the Rosh Hodesh project reaches thousands, Ma’yan has made a big investment in a seemingly small group of girls—just 35 so far over the course of four years. Founded 20 years ago to act as a catalyst for change for women and girls, it shifted its focus to girls in 2006. A research training internship (RTI) for girls in grades 9-11 covers different topics each year: a broad survey of attitudes and experiences; the meaning of bat mitzvah, and the ethics, structure and impact of community service.

“We engage girls as experts on their own group,” notes Beth Cooper Benjamin, Ma’yan’s director of research. The research that previously existed, she says, was designed and collected by adults. “We are generating data missing from our knowledge base, and are giving girls the opportunity to inform our inquiry and interpretation.” It’s not that Ma’yan assumes everything a girl wants is good for her, says Benjamin, but being responsive means “listening first rather than being prescriptive.”

The current cohort is researching “secrets of the perfect girl”—the pressures and expectations girls perceive themselves to be facing. “Girls are still given few stories about what is acceptable,” says Kessler. On top of the things that were expected decades ago, she and Benjamin agree, today girls are not supposed to look like they are trying.

Rachel Abeshouse, 21, a student at Vanderbilt University, participated in RTI in 2007. “It makes sense to ask girls about girls. The program treated us as adults and allowed us to think through things ourselves.” She learned, for instance, that parents’ expectations affect girls differently. “It can be worrisome when girls are pigeonholed and expected to become doctors or lawyers.” Abeshouse says her “first foray into research” helped her decide to follow a scientific path, to understand the value of mentors like Benjamin, and to look more critically at her own choices. “In talking to young girls I would say pursue the avenues you are interested in rather than others’ expectations.”

In Ma’yan’s social justice apprenticeship, “That’s Not Fair,” girls examine privilege, power, injustice and advocacy, and use arts media like political theater to educate, provoke and create change. Another program, a filmmaking intensive, resulted in a short documentary, “Bat Mitzvah Dress Code,” which  not only taught girls the logistics of interviewing and filmmaking but also tackled tough questions about custom, expectations, family, community and Jewish values around religious identity and clothing choices. The film was screened in conjunction with a symposium, “What To Wear,” held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. (The film and research findings are available free on Ma’yan’s website, www.mayan.org.)

The emotional and developmental milestones around bat mitzvah are at the core of several programs. “Beneath the Surface,” a three-session program for girls and their mothers, was developed by Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh and education center in Newton, MA, with the guidance of feminist scholar Penina Adelman. “There’s a concern that bat mitzvah has become just a show and then it’s over,” says Lisa Berman, Education Center Director. “We need to deepen that experience, and to allow moms and daughters to connect more deeply with each other about something other than the guest list, tutoring and dresses. It takes all that off the table.” The safe, quiet, neutral space opens the door to conversation and activity–moms to moms, girls to girls, mothers to daughters.

Mother-daughter pairs make their own midrash and rituals and learn about the history and significance of the mikveh. One pair brought an old family ladle, scooped water out of the mikveh and washed each other’s feet. Another pair purchased a decorative floor plant indigenous to the area of China in which the adopted daughter had been born; they watered the plant with water from the mikveh. Immersion is not required, says Berman, since it’s a personal choice that might deter some potential participants. But about half of the 61 pairs that have participated have returned at the time of bat mitzvah to immerse.

 

For the Jewish Women’s Archive based in Brookline, MA, offering girls the possibility of new role models is the crux of its online “MyBatMitzvahStory,” launched a year ago (http://mybatmitzvahstory.org.) At a time when families are thinking about family history, Jewish identity and peoplehood, the program provides heroes beyond biblical matriarchs or even iconic Zionists like Henrietta Szold. Stories of women like Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, or pop vocalist Regina Spektor can build girls’ connections to Judaism, says Etta King, Education Program Manager. “We’re striving to recognize the multifaceted aspects of the American Jewish woman in each person.” At her own bat mitzvah, says King, three grandmothers were present—her mother’s non-practicing Christian mother, her Irish-Catholic step-grandmother, and King’s Jewish grandmother from her father’s side. “I was carrying on what all three taught me but I am a Jewish woman. I thought about how their lessons resonate in my life.”

An online toolkit wit templates for conducting family oral histories and collecting artifacts simplifies the research process. “The stories that came before us are important, and part of the responsibility of being Jewish adults is telling those stories,” says King. Unaffiliated and interfaith families or those doing nontraditional ceremonies may especially benefit from the program.

In fact, much of the programming for Jewish girls doesn’t attract the Orthodox community and few resources exist for Orthodox girls. JOFA’s pilot program at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, led by feminist educator and artist Chava Evans, engages high schoolers who want a role in Torah reading, prayer and ritual, supplemented by hesed projects and social programming.  Named B’not Tzelophchad for the five daughters who petitioned to inherit land in ancient Israel, the support and consciousness-raising network teaches teens “to speak up for change in their schools and synagogues, to determine how they fit into prayer, and to discuss sexuality, gender and relationships,” says JOFA program director Rachel Lieberman. “They learn to articulate their spiritual needs and religious ideals and translate them into action.”

 

JOFA also encourages girls to write for its blog, as did Eden Farber, a 16-year-old from Atlanta who chronicled her story of empowerment last year at Young Israel of Toco Hills. In fact, Farber led the way for the women of her synagogue. With her mother’s help, Farber sent out an email inviting the women to her home to discuss ritual inclusion. The group began “a leyning initiative” and culminated in a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah. The second session of the group has attracted two other teens.

[Note from JOFA re link to the blog:] we’re in the middle of changing web platforms, so we won’t have the better URL for another few weeks. in the meantime, the landing page is  http://www.jofa.org/blogs.aspx?blogid=103079215064

[do you want to put this I a box? Excerpt from the blog] “This is not an egalitarian community, and that’s fine,” Farber wrote. “The women reading Torah did not read it to say, “Hah!”—they read it to read it. These women, whom I am proud to know, wanted a genuine religious experience. They wanted to connect to God in a way they never had before—yet in a way they knew they must; they wanted their daughters to see their future as strong and independent talmidot Torah. They are building Am Yisrael.

 

“Watching one of my own hanikhot [campers], who was too young to leyn at this reading (though she did learn to leyn with us) but got to watch her mother and grandmother read, reminded me of the other side of why this was so important. It’s not only the mothers setting religious examples for their daughters, but entire communities creating new models. It was not just important to me; it was not about a personal opportunity to leyn. Because at the end of the day, I am an individual, and this was an event of a community—a community of women that wanted to learn and develop a skill, and teach unto their children, as the Torah tells us; a community that would defy gravity if they had to, just to learn. The message was loud and clear: We matter, our daughters matter, and this Torah is our Torah too.” [end of blog excerpt]

“What my community needs is groups and programming for everyone–girls and boys, teens and adults–to redefine what it means to be a Jewish woman,” says Farber. “All too often, the role of a Jewish woman is likened to a housewife. We need representation from people who model active religiosity. Jewish teens today can’t see strong, observant, active women–so how can we be them?” She adds that Orthodox girls are put into a “small, constrictive, dark, gloomy box” in which they will subsequently be stuck forever unless they are better educated about religious participation, Torah and Talmud, and the laws of modesty. In the absence of any organized groups for girls in her community, Farber counts an 87-member Facebook group, Teenage Orthodox Feminists, as her online community.

The request for “girls-only” time often comes from the girls themselves, as it did at Paramus, NJ’s Yavneh Academy where Aliza Frohlich teaches. The coed social-emotional curriculum for middle-schoolers discusses issues from self-esteem to peer pressure and stress management, but Frohlich started an optional girls-only class to address body image, media pressures, modesty, prayer, female role models and women’s role in Judaism.  ”It’s an opportunity for the girls to understand situations that will confront them in life,” says Frohlich. “The girls cherish the time together.” The messages of Judaism are the messages of healthy, well-adjusted women, says Frohlich “They are one and the same.  I revel in the idea that through the Torah our girls will develop stronger self- images and become more resilient to the pressures they experience.”

Across the country, San Francisco’s Shalom Bayit, founded as an intervention and crisis program to combat domestic violence, began a prevention program for teens called “Love Shouldn’t Hurt.” Zephira Derblich-Milea, Youth Program Coordinator, does 70 workshops a year for teens and parents on healthy relationships, boundaries and dating violence. Sometimes teens approach Derblich-Milea following a workshop to talk about their own situation or that of a friend.  “They open up to me specifically because I am a stranger and probably won’t see them again.”

Six years ago, Shalom Bayit published a curriculum and facilitators’ guide for middle school, high school, college students and parents. It has been sold across the country and internationally. “Sexual abuse and domestic violence is everyone’s issue. It crosses all boundaries—socioeconomic, racial and ethnic,” says Derblich-Milea. “Most people in the Jewish community believe it doesn’t happen in our community, so we educate people that it does, and what our religion teaches us: Be there for others. Stand up for your neighbors. Protect yourself against verbal and physical abuse. Humiliation equals shedding blood.”

Jewish Women International, which also offers a curriculum promoting healthy relationships, has shifted its focus to advocating financial literacy for girls, says Deborah Rosenbloom, director of programs. Life$avings for Teens introduces high school girls to key elements of budgeting, saving, and asset building, all within a Jewish context. In addition to the teen workshops, it includes a mother/daughter seminar to foster conversation, training for educators to use the four-hour curriculum, a public awareness campaign, and online resources. Over 1500 teens have participated so far.

“The important piece is the message that mothers talk to teens about money along with other conversations. Teens don’t understand that having money gives you power. It is an important way to control your life. Every young woman should be as financially literate as she is academically accomplished.” JWI began its financial outreach on college campuses. But, says Rosenbloom, “once they are in college, credit card debt can escalate, and their career choices can influence their quality of life.”

The program also stresses the Jewish values of being responsible with money, not wasting, and of course, tzedakah. “The bottom line is that it’s a program by a Jewish organization, for Jewish teens and women. It is a way to help young women be independent and strong women,” says Rosenbloom. The ManhattanHigh School for Girls has made the curriculum mandatory for its students.

Jewish women’s foundations around the country (usually associated with Jewish federations) have also prioritized girls’ programming. After hearing from community leaders and girls themselves that girls’ needs were not being served, the San Diego Jewish Women’s Foundation budgeted $325,000 over four years for five programs promoting self-esteem, improving peer relationships and enhancing leadership skills. Facilitators are now being trained to make their projects self-sufficient so they can continue independently.  “There is a lot of pressure in Southern California to be perfect against an ideal that’s not attainable. It’s an airbrushed ideal,” says Tina Beranbaum, the foundation’s chair.

The foundation tailored the programs to appeal to different ages: High-school girls wanted a service element that they could include on their college-bound applications, so “Girls Give Back” stresses hands-on service learning and advocacy. This past year, the girls worked with five organizations, helping the homeless, cleaning up beaches, sustaining a women’s’ shelter, assisting refugees and helping children with special needs.

The social element of Girls Life, an interactive wellness program with physical fitness, leadership and Jewish values components draws younger girls (ages 11-14).

 

B’Not, Lead On!, an initiative of the national Friendship Circle, brings together typical and special needs teens ages 11-17. “Girls with special needs learn how to be friend and what it’s like to be included,” Beranbaum says. “Typical girls learn how blessed they are and how unimportant physical perfection is. They develop deep relationships that are life-changing for both.”

Marcia Jaffe, 17, the youth president of B’not, developed a leadership program to plan events and brainstorm new ideas. “My friend feels like she is a leader as well. It gives her confidence and comfort. Judaism isn’t part of my friend’s home or life. Through this program she sees the ideals of Judaism expressed.”

The San Diego programs have encouraged more teens to volunteer their time at local organizations and to take active roles in advocating for public policy changes, says Beranbaum. Older teens are training younger teens on the importance of giving back to the community and sensitizing them to negative images of women in the media. And because the programs span Jewish denominations, they are promoting tolerance and understanding.

Giving girls a voice will result in far-reaching effects on the Jewish community at large, girls and program organizers agree. “For the Jewish community—really any community—to succeed and advance,” says Kovacs, “each person needs to feel comfortable in his or her own skin.”