Rising Voices, Growing Leaders

by Emilia Diamant, MSW

Working in today’s Jewish educational landscape, I know the buzzwords that get folks excited about new programs:

  • “Choice”
  • “Global”
  • “Interest-Based”
  • “Community Service”
  • “Leadership”

This is what teens and their families are looking for, so we give it to them. We provide amazing summer camps that target specific interests, we plan travel opportunities to give students a global perspective, and we train leaders. A lot of leaders. We train them in youth groups, in synagogue classrooms, in JCCs, at camps. We teach them to help younger students read Hebrew, or plan their own volunteer projects. And the model of a leader we frequently promote and admire is that of a teen who is able to get up in front of a group and inspire, motivate, encourage. This idea of leadership has saturated our Jewish institutions – and it is a good thing. I was given leadership opportunities as a teen, and I cannot begin to measure how much the skills I gained then have benefitted me since.

But since I began working with six young women as part of the Prozdor and Jewish Women’s Archive partnership on a Jewish feminist blogging fellowship, I’ve begun to think about leadership beyond my own training. What does it mean to teach leadership through the Rising Voices Fellowship, where teen bloggers are “leading” by communicating their message from their keyboards, on everything from Civil Rights to pop culture and all that comes in between? How do my co-director and I help the fellows see their role as leaders, even if they aren’t guiding a program or counseling a camper-filled cabin? JWA and Prozdor are now taking steps to directly empower Jewish female high school juniors and seniors with a passion for writing, Judaism, and feminism to find their voices, hone their writing skills, and communicate persuasively about the values they believe in and the challenges they confront in their lives. Through monthly blogging under the guidance of seasoned writers and mentors, these young leaders are advancing the conversation about feminism and Judaism among their peers. And as they gain confidence in their ability to address complex topics and support their arguments, they will also come to trust their ability to inspire others to take action.

I’ve been learning, through this process, about the power of language. The quiet leader, the one who shares themselves and their message with the world, is a harder student to teach about leadership. There are volumes upon volumes on how to create great teen leaders – teach public speaking, learn to deal with challenging group members, create community. Some of the subtler aspects of leadership are the ones we are trying to impart to the Rising Voices Fellows – clarify your message, find your voice, and then use it wisely. Make yourself vulnerable, but consider your safety. Be open to feedback and change. Whether it’s through seven or eight rounds of editing a piece, challenging word use in online meetings, or coaxing more personal stories out of the fellows, we’ve found that the difference is an exciting one.

These six young women have taken a big step with us. They are the first to claim the Rising Voices title, to try this crazy experiment we’ve put together and really make themselves vulnerable to the entire internet. They are role models – to their peers, to future generations, to all of us. They speak truth to power, share their voices with all of us, and lead us to do the same.

Rising Voices is a fellowship is open to female-identified teens in grades 11 and 12 who have a passion for writing, a demonstrated concern for current events, a commitment to improving their writing skills, and a strong interest in Judaism – particularly as it relates to issues of gender and equality. If you know of anyone who might be interested in the fellowship for 2014-2015, please visit jwa.org/blog/rising-voices/about and keep an eye out for the application after Passover. You can also contact Paula Sinclair, Director of Partnerships and Programs at JWA, at psinclair@jwa.org, or Emilia Diamant, Director of Programs at Prozdor at ediamant@hebrewcollege.edu.