By Larisa Klebe and Judith Rosenbaum
“Before the Rising Voices Fellowship, writing was just a means to an end for me, a way to get good grades and maybe some praise. It never occurred to me that writing could further my commitment to understanding history, or cement my status as a feminist, or give me a voice in the world.”
RVF, funded in part by the Hadassah Foundation and the Phyllis Backer Foundation, is a unique thought-leadership program that empowers female-identified Jewish teens to develop the confidence that what they think and say matters and can have an impact in the world. Over the course of each Fellowship year, a national cohort of young leaders convenes to explore topics related to Jewish feminism and social justice, and they produce monthly opinion pieces that are published online by JWA and its four syndication partners. Fellows come from diverse geographic locations and backgrounds, and the skills they develop through exploring intersectional approaches to identity within a pluralistic community prepare them to be strong 21st-century leaders, adept at effective social change through nuanced advocacy and the art of writing.
In celebrating the fifth graduating cohort, JWA reflected on the program’s history and growth over the past five years. The keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony was Emilia Diamant, one of the founding directors of RVF, who recalled the program’s inception in 2013 as an idea that emerged over a cup of coffee. What began as a simple request for a teen to write a piece about a questionable move by the clothing company Abercrombie and Fitch, turned into a much larger discussion about creating a pluralistic program that would bring together self-identified young Jewish feminists, and create a space online for them to shape and share their own unique perspectives about Judaism, feminism, history, and social justice.
The first cohort of six young women from New England in 2013-2014 quickly demonstrated that the vision could be even larger – Rising Voices was not just a blogging fellowship but a breeding ground for Jewish feminist leadership, training young women to engage with and shape the important conversations of their communities.
In Year Two, the Rising Voices Fellowship went national, and since then has continued to grow, diversify, and deepen its curriculum. This fall, JWA will welcome eighteen new Fellows from thirteen states – the largest cohort yet. Meanwhile, the 60 alumnae of the program remain connected to the program and active in their communities and beyond, publishing in venues including The Forward and Huffington Post, and taking on leadership roles in their high schools and colleges. The continued high level of interest in this program tells us that young Jewish women are hungry for opportunities to hone their opinions, to make change in the world, and to engage deeply with other young women who share their passions.
At a moment of upheaval in our country, teens have been emerging as leaders of national movements. In the wake of the Parkland school shooting and the teen-led gun-control activism it sparked, the Rising Voices Fellows came together to use the online platform that RVF gives them to make their voices heard on this issue. About a week after the shooting we received an email from one of our Fellows, expressing how troubled and helpless she and her peers in the cohort felt. She said: “I propose that we write our feelings down, and use our writing to bring about change.” Several of the Fellows wrote beautiful reflections and calls to action, and the cohort as a whole helped to promote the final product and push it out into the world.
This is just one example of how our Fellows are using their writing to influence important conversations and effect positive change. Though we began the program to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow, initiatives like this remind us that they are already leaders today.
As we look to the next five years of this program, we are inspired by the continued opportunity to teach and mentor extraordinary young Jewish women, and to support the growing community of RVF alumnae. The Rising Voices Fellowship is the embodiment of JWA’s mission to document Jewish women’s stories, elevate their voices, and inspire them to be agents of change. True to JWA’s commitment to history, the RVF curriculum draws upon the rich history of Jewish women to encourage Fellows to see themselves as part of a long line of influential, creative, and bold Jewish women, and to understand themselves as history makers of today. We are confident that the Rising Voices Fellows will write the next chapters of Jewish women’s history.
To read these young leaders’ perspectives and opinions, visit jwa.org/blog/risingvoices
Larisa Klebe and Judith Rosenbaum are the Associate Director of Programs and Education and the Executive Director respectively of the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change.