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Foundation Steps Up to Help Meet Needs of Young Jewish Girls

March 15, 2006
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It’s not unusual for participants in Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, a nationwide enrichment program for teenage Jewish girls, to jump from Judaic teachings to modern-day society. Even so, this may have been the first time the Purim tale of Queen Esther was likened to the popular TV series “America’s Next Top Model.”

“It’s exactly the same,” Natalie Oppenheimer, 11, explained to her peers one recent Sunday afternoon, sitting cross-legged on her basement floor in suburban Philadelphia. “Half of what people see is always what you look like. It’s just reality.”

As a chorus of “uh-huhs” rose from the crowd, the conversation, which took place over pizza and a few cases of soda, drifted from Miss America to Ahasuerus, Megillah readings to Elle Magazine and body image to perceptions of women in the ancient world.

The Rosh Hodesh group was founded by Kolot, the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and then spun off to the independent feminist organization Moving Traditions.

Deborah Meyer, Rosh Hodesh’s national director, described the program’s eclectic nature as a drawing point for participants.

“This is not Hebrew school or day school or something that you have to do,” she said. “They’re practicing a Judaism that really meets their needs, that really speaks to their lives.”

Rosh Hodesh is just one of several programs working to empower young Jewish women today. Other initiatives tackle domestic violence, eating disorders, physical inactivity, self-esteem and general health, among other things.

The Hadassah Foundation, established in 1998 as a funding arm of the women’s Zionist organization, has become a major source of income for such initiatives.

Love Shouldn’t Hurt is a dating violence prevention program in the San Francisco area that targets Jewish teens. Run by Shalom Bayit, a parent outreach center, the program’s youth-led workshops draw on Jewish values and perspective.

On the East Coast, the Washington-based Jewish Women International offers an informational toolkit called When Push Comes to Shove…It’s No Longer Love. The package includes a short film documenting Jewish experiences with relationship abuse, as well as a discussion guide to the issue utilizing Jewish texts.

Other, more secular programs have been adapted to serve a Jewish audience as well.

Harvard Medical School colleagues Catherine Steiner-Adair and Lisa Sjostrom are working to create a supplement with Judaic texts and values to the wellness guide they published in January. That curriculum, Full of Ourselves, aims to boost teen and pre-teen girls’ self-esteem while preventing the development of eating disorders.

Other programs, like the Women’s Sports Foundation’s GoGirlGo! project, serve a mixed demographic through Jewish community centers around the country. A physical activity and health outreach program, GoGirlGo! tries to get girls aged 8 to 18 involved in physical activity, using champion athletes to deliver messages on sports, fitness and nutrition.

Experts say the need for such material and programming is critical. According to Kathryn Wheeler, who serves as executive director of the Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston, only 6 percent of philanthropic dollars are allotted to programming specifically geared toward girls.

Wheeler, whose umbrella organization coordinates networking, education and advocacy for girls in the Boston area, said coed programming is more likely to pay attention to boys.

“Girls are underserved in current programs,” she said, speaking at a March 5 Hadassah Foundation luncheon called “Growing Great Girls,” which brought together activists for a roundtable discussion on the feminist agenda. “We still have not achieved equity.”

For Jewish girls, the situation may be even graver.

Steiner-Adair argued that Jewish girls are more vulnerable than others to eating disorders due to the high stress levels and expectations for achievement placed on them.

For example, at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder clinic in Philadelphia, 13 percent of the beds go to Jewish patients, Steiner-Adair said, far more than the percentage of the local population that is Jewish.

Hadassah Foundation director Linda Altshuler said the foundation undertook its grant campaign after a strategic planning review found “a lot of unmet needs both in Israel and the United States.”

“Many girls in the American Jewish community are fortunate to come from a comfortable financial background,” she said. “That doesn’t mean all their emotional and psychological needs are being met.”

She also expressed hope that the campaign would spur more Jewish involvement among young Jewish women.

“A lot of women in our chapter were saying, ‘We want something for our daughters, something for our nieces,’ ” Altshuler said.

Betsy Landis, president of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, seconded the call to arms.

“If we want a healthy Jewish population in 25 years, we need to be talking about girls and doing whatever it is they want to do,” Landis said.

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