#JewishAndProud: Teen Women Leaders Identify Challenges, Issue Call to Action

JUF Resarch Training InternshipChicago’s inaugural cohort of the Research Training Institute has issued a report and series of educational videos to launch discussion about the roles of adolescent Jewish women in our community, and to serve as a catalyst to help Jewish institutions enhance programming and support for these teens.

Presented by the 15 high school-aged RTI interns at a DePaul University community forum in December, “#Jewish and Proud: A Study of Young Jewish Women in Chicago” challenges Jewish community leaders, Jewish communal professionals, parents and allies to engage in serious dialogue about how the dual experiences of privilege and oppression shape the lives of young Jewish women. RTI interns surveyed local female Jews ages 12-20 concerning interpersonal relationships, anti-Semitism, gender roles and sexuality, and mental health and substance abuse.

Their findings provide a sobering snapshot of some of the issues facing young Jewish women today – particularly the large minority who indicated that they are or have been in an abusive relationship or situation. Thirty-six percent of the teens surveyed reported that they are or were in a physically, sexually or verbally abusive relationship or situation – and 80 percent said they knew other Jewish teens that are or were in a physically, sexually or verbally abusive relationship or situation.

“While we did expect some self-reporting about unhealthy relationships, we did not anticipate the[se] staggering numbers,” the interns said. “We were shocked to see such statistically significant reporting about abuse in our peers’ lives, and wonder what role Jewish communal institutions might be able to play in providing safe havens to address these issues.”

Another striking finding was the proportion of the Chicago Jewish teen population that experiences mental illness. Of the survey respondents who reflected on their personal experiences, 63 percent reported having anxiety or stress; 28 percent reported experiencing depression; and 19 percent reported disordered eating. An overwhelming majority reported knowing other Jewish teenage women who are affected by mental illness, specifically anxiety/stress (88 percent), depression (79 percent), substance abuse (47 percent), and disordered eating (60 percent).

“While stress and anxiety are considered normal parts of growing up and not necessarily uncommon for teenagers to experience, we feel these self-reported numbers should not be discounted in our community,” the interns said. “While the Jewish community in Chicago does provide mental health resources for teenagers, we wonder how those resources can be better advertised and made more accessible to larger numbers of teens. Mental health issues pose a significant risk to the lives of our participants, and our data should serve as a call to action for members of the Jewish community.”

Anti-Semitism also remains an issue impacting young Jewish women. A large minority of respondents (29 percent) expressed frustration with their school policies’ surrounding absences, sports and other extracurricular activities, which fail to accommodate their Jewish identity and religious observance. Some 35 percent of respondents indicated that they are “strongly concerned” about anti-Semitism on college campuses. An additional 23 percent are “strongly concerned” and say it plays a role in what college they choose to attend.

Based on their overall findings, the interns made three public awareness videos to launch community conversations surrounding these issues. Links to each are at http://juf.org/teens/RTI_Research.aspx

The group also issued recommendations for Jewish community leaders, agency representatives, parents and allies to Jewish teenage women seeking to better address societal ills, expectations and inequities, including:

  • Expanding communication between Jewish teens and the Jewish adults in their lives to address both the external and internal expectations they face;
  • Promoting #JewishAndProud as part of a public awareness campaign to combat the use of the term “JAP,” particularly by Jewish teen women themselves;
  • Increasing communication with school administrations to create a more accepting and respectful climate in public schools, including outreach to discuss ways to ensure teachers accommodate Jewish students during the High Holidays;
  • Encouraging leaders of youth programming to facilitate discussions on issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity, along with the familial and societal expectations surrounding these issues, with young people of all genders; and
  • Allocating additional resources to ensure that Jewish students know about mental health resources in the community and are able to access them financially and geographically.

The complete #JewishAndProud report is available for download here.

RTI is conducted in Chicago by the Jewish United Fund in conjunction with DePaul University and the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community, with support from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Ellie Fund of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. RTI originally began as a New York-based program through the Jewish social justice and feminist group Ma’yan.