When my oldest daughter was seven, she took it upon herself to write to an app company to complain that boy characters in their game could dress as doctors and astronauts, while girl characters only had choices of various dresses. “For example,” she wrote, “I want to be a chemical engineer.” She is now 11, and she and her sisters, ages eight and five, like to climb trees and perform in talent shows. Their teachers tell us that they are often the first to speak up in class, and that, when they are wrong, they try again, unflustered and undeterred. I want them to always stay this way, brave and assertive. Yet, as they move into their teen years, media messaging, social pressures and Jewish communal mores will encourage them to become quieter, smaller, self-conscious, less self-assured. Statistically speaking, they will probably stop taking risks and stop demanding to be acknowledged.
To be sure, there are examples of outspoken Jewish teenage girls and young women all around, challenging gender-biased dress codes in their schools, fighting for more religious opportunity, and now, in the United States, getting involved in gun-control reform on the public stage. Yet, research carried out by various organisations in the Jewish community and in wider society shows that these girls and their adult counterparts are the exceptions, not the rule.
I would like my daughters to consider careers in Jewish institutional leadership, but I hesitate because here in the US only 17 per cent of leaders of top Jewish non-profits are female and the pay gap persists within those organisations. Worse yet, those speaking up as part of the #GamAni movement (Jewish #MeToo) tell us that sexual harassment and assault are pervasive in Jewish spaces, particularly against women at the beginning of their careers. When women feel able to report it, they are often dismissed or disbelieved. Of course, the absence of women in positions of power and the voicelessness of women without power are related. These issues are not unique to the Jewish community, but, as in other communities, they are unacceptable and they damage its very fabric.
I envisioned a project that told girls, we want you, we value your voices, we believe in what you have to say, you matter. To this end, in 2016, I started developing jGirls Magazine, an online forum for Jewish teen girl leadership and expression. Today, jGirls features the voices, opinions, successes and challenges of girls through their writing, art and music. Along with training and support, our teen editorial board members are given autonomy and decision-making power, selecting content, shaping the direction of the magazine, and amplifying the voices of other girls like them. The magazine brings writers, artists and readers together to create a community of girls who believe in and support one another.
If you have a teenage girl in your life, directing her to jGirls and otherwise finding opportunity for her to express herself in a safe and supportive environment demonstrates belief in the power of her words, and sets her up to believe in herself. For girls who are not inclined to write or produce art, reading the work of other girls facing similar challenges or modelling success is also an opportunity to feel pride and connection.
Supporting, encouraging and celebrating the voices of girls in their teens builds a pipeline to future bold, committed Jewish female leaders and enhances our community overall.
Indeed, the girls I work with, editors and writers, have told me that their experience with jGirls has made them feel more confident in school, taken seriously by those around them, and more connected to and valued by their Jewish community. And my daughters know that, when they are older, there is a world waiting to cheer them on.
Elizabeth Mandel is the founder and executive director of jGirls magazine.jGirls accepts content submissions from self-identifying Jewish girls, ages 13-19, from across Jewish backgrounds and across the world.