Testing a model for teenage empowerment

Testing a model for teenage empowerment

Educators evaluate a monthly program for Jewish girls

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Girls at Rabbi Paula Mack Drill’s Rosh Hodesh: It’s A Girl Thing group in November 2003. Vered Idan is on the sofa at left.     
Girls at Rabbi Paula Mack Drill’s Rosh Hodesh: It’s A Girl Thing group in November 2003. Vered Idan is on the sofa at left.     

Vered Idan, 23, has fond memories of the young women’s empowerment group she joined in middle school.

Led by Rabbi Paula Mack Drill and known as Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, the group started in 2003 in the Caldwell area — the first such group in the Greater MetroWest area.

Most of the young participants, members of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, continued through high school. 

“She had a talent for making us feel the group was really cool,” Idan recently said of Drill. “Paula always made sure the group was safe, warm, and welcoming. No parents were allowed. It allowed us to develop a self-assuredness and realize these girls, all of us, have had different experiences and that this was a place we could come together.” 

Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! — the groundbreaking initiative for Jewish girls in the throes of adolescence — is undergoing its own evaluation at the age of 12, according to Moving Traditions, its umbrella organization.

Developed by educators at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the project aims to create a monthly meeting place for Jewish tweens and teens to discuss their own issues and see them through a Jewish lens.

Moving Traditions lists current groups, including a boys’ counterpart, at six area synagogues and institutions (see box).

“The project has reached a milestone of more than 1,000 educators trained and more than 10,000 girls participating, after more than a decade,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education and programs, who lives in Montclair. “We need to do a systematic, independent evaluation.” 

Brenner is betting the results will be positive.

“We think the intensive two-hour block of time through high school is a model of tremendous potential,” he said. “But we need to know: What is the right dosage? What is the amount of participation needed to see it as creating authentic Jewish community and a springboard to more Jewish involvement? This is about what models are effective for adolescents at a time when we are seeing a decline in youth group involvement among teens.”

The study was launched in May and will conclude at the end of June. Evaluations focus on 100 leaders and 500 girls who participated in 2008-09. 

Idan is among those who have completed the evaluation.

Now living in Washington, DC, she works as a program associate at Meridian International Center, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for international exchanges of ideas. Idan just accepted an offer to lead the first Rosh Hodesh group at Shaare Torah Congregation in nearby Gaithersburg, Md. She is the first participant to do so. 

Drill was “the first person I called when I found out,” Idan said. “I called her even before my mom.” Drill, who lives in West Caldwell and is a longtime CAI member, is now associate rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, NY.

Idan, who grew up in North Caldwell, was recently home visiting with two friends who were also part of the group. 

“We spent two hours together talking about the Rosh Hodesh experience,” she said. “We all had different memories of different parts of the group that were our favorites: the arts and crafts, the yoga, the text study, meditation, volunteering. The activities ran the gamut.” 

Idan, a graduate of Golda Och Academy in West Orange, then known as the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, said she’s always been “heavily” involved in the Jewish community, and it’s hard to identify which pieces of her Jewish upbringing had what impact on her. She currently helps lead USY groups and teaches at a local religious school. “I love taking a break from work to hang out with kids,” she said. 

Madeline Berse, 21, also from North Caldwell and Agudath Israel, was a member of a different cohort of the group. She couldn’t rattle off specific activities or even the group leader’s name, and she couldn’t remember whether she participated for one year or two. While she said her experience was entirely positive, she wasn’t sure how much of an impact it has had on her. 

“It was fun getting together once a month. It was nice to hang out and talk about girl stuff,” she said. She remembered the group was “inspiring and made me think about my role as a Jewish woman. I just remember feeling good after every session. We did a lot of crafty things and worked together.” 

Berse, who is finishing up a degree at the University of Michigan, credits the experience with her current interest in giving back to the community.

Brenner said if the evaluation analysis comes back positive, the model is one that could offer some answers to the puzzle of engaging teens in Jewish life.

“In the Jewish teen space today it is harder to figure out what will attract someone — what has to be college-focused, and what can be just about being a teenager? Our model is interesting because it places personal development at its core.”

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