Let’s stop telling Jewish Girls they are the problem!

By Cheryl Weiner

I recently learned that a Jewish organization is offering a series of workshops for parents and educators to address Jewish adolescent girls’ “skyrocketing rates of mental health challenges,” such as self-harm, eating disorders, depression, and bullying. This is just the latest example of an unfortunately dated trend that persists in both Jewish and secular communities since the 1990s – the business of “saving girls from themselves.” I think back to the days when copies of Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia were flying off the bookshelves faster than Reebok hightops, and I have to ask, “Are Jewish girls still in crisis? Or is this a new crisis?”

These alarmist reactions about the status of Jewish girls’ social and emotional wellbeing are concerning. While mental health issues are a very real concern that have only intensified due to overlapping stressors from 2020 including systemic racism and COVID-19, this attitude of ‘girls in crisis’ reinforces limiting stereotypes that portray girls as hapless victims who are ill-equipped to cope with adversity. The literature shows that when girls are viewed this way, they are also at risk of internalizing these images. Simply put, the more girls hear about their victimhood, the more they believe it themselves. Furthermore, well-intentioned programs that problematize girls, rather than the culture in which they are raised, undermine possibilities for necessary long-term change to occur. It is time to retire these frameworks and privilege those that center girls and build for their strength and resilience.

Despite these challenges, there are good reasons to be optimistic. Recent and consistently emerging data reveal that while Jewish girls are negatively impacted by anti-Semitism, sexism, sexual harassment, abuse, classism, limiting definitions of gender and homophobia in both Jewish and non-Jewish spaces, they are seizing power and finding incredible ways to overcome these challenges. Moreover, what they most often need is access to spaces where they can discuss their lives, with mentors who support them. With support that largely comes from women’s organizations and foundations, Jewish girls are using their voices to talk back to sexism, to reimagine limiting gender constructs and gender roles, to investigate anti-Semitism and racism in their communities, and to challenge achronistic leadership structures in their communities. However, Jewish girls’ lives, challenges, and experiences largely remain in the background of Jewish educational and identity-based research.

In light of the lasting impact of the #MeToo movement and recent efforts to raise awareness about systemic racism in American society and the Jewish community, Jewish institutions are now engaged in a very important process of questioning research agendas and re-evaluating long established funding priorities. In the midst of all this, a new generation of girls is ready to be heard. The time has come for us to rethink best practices for working with girls. While I humbly acknowledge that I do not have all the answers, I am beginning a list that I hope my friends and partners in the community will contribute to. At the same time, girls – who are the best experts of their own experience – must be encouraged to share their input and contribute to this dialogue.

I propose the following priorities to guide communal institutions and academic research:

  1. Define who Jewish Girls are: Currently, we lack a consistent definition of what we mean when we talk about Jewish girls. Research overwhelmingly centers the experiences of white, middle-class Ashkenazi girls who engage in Jewish life and community and focuses on their experiences in Jewish programs and activities. These agendas – which have been shaped and controlled by the privileged few – erase the experiences of Jewish girls who are non-white, girls who are gender fluid and/or non-conforming, girls from interfaith families, girls who live in remote areas, and girls who do not access religion in traditional ways. This presents a limited view of Jewish girls. We must create research agendas that reflect the racial, ethnic, religious and economic diversity of Jewish girls’ lives and which interrogate the conditions of their lived experience.
  1. Girls are the best experts of their own lives: We must make every effort possible to include girls in research and programs that are intended to serve them. We can only do this through open and authentic conversations. The community of Jewish girls is diverse, and we have a lot to learn, particularly as they construct their identities in an era where they must navigate complicated issues around race, Israel, anti-Semitism, privilege, gender identity, class, mental health, and other identities they hold.
  1. See girls at strength, rather than at risk: Girls are most successful when they are seen from a position of strength. As adults and educators who care about girls, it is important to view girls from an asset-based approach and to remember that our job isn’t to “help” them, but rather, to work “with” them so they can access their own power.

There are already a few Jewish organizations that enact these principles by working with girls and supporting their development. These include the Jewish Women’s Archive, whose Rising Voices fellowship provides girls with mentoring and training to become feminist bloggers; jGirls Magazine, which offers girl-identifying participants space to publish thoughts and scholarship online — girls can also serve on its editorial board; and the Jewish United Fund of Chicago’s Research Training Initiative with DePaul University, which trains girls and non-binary teens to identify and study an issue of interest in their community using feminist research methods. Moving Traditions also offers a feminist fellowship and monthly Rosh Hodesh groups with a trained adult mentor for adolescent girls. The now shuttered organization Ma’yan conducted groundbreaking scholarship with Jewish adolescent girls to understand and investigate the conditions of their lives. Their closing leaves a gap that has yet to be filled.

While these examples provide some suggestions of the opportunities that lie ahead, I encourage Jewish professionals, lay leaders, academics and community members to reflect carefully on how we partner with girls. As you move forward, here are the questions you should be asking at your own organization:

  1. How are we currently supporting girls?
  2. Are we working with girls or for girls?
  3. Are our programs and offerings inclusive for all girls (including girl-identifying individuals, girls of color, girls from interfaith families, etc.)?
  4. Are we listening to what girls are telling us?

Cheryl Weiner is a doctoral student at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her work focuses on how Jewish adolescent girls who engage in anti-racist work experience their intersectional identities. She has worked with adolescent girls in Jewish and non-Jewish settings for more than twenty years.

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