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Dialogue: Jewish Girls Reflect on Feminism At Harvard

On a Sunday morning in April I joined 38 other high-school girls at Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel for a daylong conference titled “Reflections of Jewish Women: Conversations between Graduate, Undergraduate and High School Women.” Upon arrival I was handed a folder with my name and workshops printed on the front, and inside were the day’s schedule, biographies of the graduate students who were leading the workshops, and three sheets of blank notebook paper. This personalized folder gave me a strong feeling of being welcomed.

My two friends and I entered a room filled with breakfast foods and smiling teenage girls. I eyed three girls from my high school—Brookline High in Brookline Massachusetts, where I’m a tenth grader— and quickly entered into a conversation with them. After about ten minutes we were asked to join the graduate students in the main room for the opening session. We watched clips from “Half the Kingdom, ” a film in which several women explore their relationships to feminism and to Judaism, and heard personal anecdotes from each graduate student to explain why they had organized the conference. One said that she’d never had any role models for being Orthodox and feminist until she went to Israel and met a married Orthodox woman who wore a sheytl and shorts! Then we discussed in small groups why each of us had come.

For the first workshop, I headed to “Exploding Stereotypes.” As an icebreaker, the 16 girls were split into two groups to play a game of Pictionary. We were asked to draw “JAPs” and other stereotypical Jewish images, and discussed stereotypes of what a typical Jew looks like, stereotypes within the Jewish community, and the difference between stereotypes and cultural images. About ten girls were active speakers.

After a short break I continued to my next workshop: “Body Image and Food.” I found this workshop informative and interesting. Pretty much all of us spoke up. We discussed a range of things from girls’ self-consciousness about their weight to girls’ seeking approval from guys, to society’s rules for beauty. Many girls became very personal; one even discussed her bouts with bulimia.

Ironically enough, after an intense discussion about food, it was time for lunch. The fare was Mediterranean—humus, tabouli, pita, etc. We also ate birthday cake in honor of one attendee’s birthday.

After lunch we were sent off to our third workshop. With five other teenagers and one graduate student, I excitedly walked up the stairs to an empty room where we each choreographed a dance about our favorite Jewish activity. I chose singing Jewish songs and portrayed a camp scene. Others chose reciting the birkat bamazon (Grace after Meals) and sharing seder with relatives. I enjoyed this workshop immensely; I loved being able to express my emotions through movement.

As a final activity of the conference each participant was given a white challah cover to decorate. It was nice to have, besides our thoughts and memories, a weekly reminder of this wonderful day. Since my bat mitzvah I haven’t had any opportunities to express my views in a Jewish context. The conference was a great chance for young Jewish women to speak up about what matters to us. At the end of the conference one of the organizers asked if the group was interested in continuing to meet. I certainly was, and so were most of the others. It would be nice not to have to wait till I am a graduate student to be part of a Jewish women’s group again.