“When I went to Israel last summer with my youth group I was totally excited to have our first Shabbat at the Western Wall. When I got there all the girls could do was watch from the women’s side of the mechitza while all our guy friends were having the peak Jewish experience of their entire lives!” Unfortunately, this plaint is not unusual. The energy and funding focused on giving teens a trip to Israel often fails to prepare them adequately—leaving girls, for instance, desolate and confused over the exclusion of women from public prayer at the Wall.
Look at clothing catalogs, popular music and TV sitcoms. You might think that teen girls are taking up all the available oxygen. But look again. While teenage girls have become a huge market for new products, studies show that American girls, who by and large feel good about themselves in their elementary school years, suffer diminished self-esteem in early adolescence and don’t recover those positive feelings about themselves through high school. Despite the current intense attention to girls as consumers, the internal life of teen girls—including Jewish girls, who wrestle with a whole range of issues from stereotyping to religious participation— remains mysterious.
We need to hear girls’ voices and their needs. A comprehensive 1996 monograph, The Jewish Youth Databook, reports the results of numerous surveys of Jewish youth by denomination, by geography, by levels of Jewish education, by parents’ financial status, but not by gender. Yet we know (from the story of the young women at the Wall, among other examples) that the experiences of Jewish girls and boys often differ. Similarly, a just-released study of organizations and synagogues for Young Judaea puts out a call for more and improved “youth services” without realizing that the services provided for girls and for boys may need to be quite different. And a December 1998 announcement from the Reform movement, acknowledging that it is “failing to actively engage the majority of teenagers past the age of 13” doesn’t note that there may be significant differences in what teen girls want from their Jewish educational experiences.
The invisibility of girls extends to funding. Less than 5% of all foundation funding goes to women and girls; some claim that in the Jewish community the percentage is even lower, with only a tiny fraction of this already small fraction going to girls. But today the tide may be changing. The Chicago Jewish Women’s Foundation has just made its historic first set of grants to projects which will enhance the lives of Jewish women and girls, and LILITH is among the first grantees the trustees of this exciting new foundation have chosen to support! Over the coming year LILITH will explore what programs and projects successfully respond to the needs of Jewish teen girls in those vulnerable years between Bat Mitzvah and the end of high school.
The timing could not be better. In five years, the teen population will peak in the U.S., with the largest number of teens ever, children of the baby boomers. LILITH’s work right now—uncovering programs that work for teen girls and writing about them—can change the climate for the large numbers of Jewish teen girls who will be coming of age as we round the corner into the new millennium. We have a window of opportunity to help re-frame how the Jewish community engages our girls.
Celebrate this grant with us. Make a tax-deductible contribution to LILITH for the girls’ project (to honor a young person, perhaps). And join this special effort by informing us about projects that hear girls’ concerns and help Jewish teen girls see for themselves a woman-positive Judaism.