Elizabeth’s Story: Creating a Space for Jewish Girls

elizabeth featured image

This profile was brought to The Layers Project Magazine through a partnership with The Jewish Education Project. 

(1/5 ) “A Space for Jewish Teenage Girls”

“I have three daughters – almost 11, 9 and 6. They are fierce, assertive, loud, brave and fearless – and I want them to stay that way. I know that as they grow older, media, community pressures, and social pressures are going to bear down on them and make them feel like they need to make themselves smaller and quieter. I started to think about what I would want for them to have, in order for them to know that their voices matter and what they have to say counts.

In American society, we give messages to girls about how they should behave. We tell them to be nice, to be kind, to help others, to say yes when asked to help. And the Jewish community comes with its own pressures to behave in certain ways. These aren’t necessarily negative qualities. At the same time, if we don’t balance this, we are teaching them to put aside their own needs and wants in order to support other people, and help others get what they want. They are taught to support others at the expense of their own needs, wants and ultimately autonomy. It’s extremely important that girls are taught that their wants and needs are also important and that they should express and pursue them.

In 2014, I started to think about what I could do to create a space not only for my daughters but for all our daughters, where their voices would be nurtured and taken seriously. Also around that time, I started seeing examples in the press of amazing things that Jewish teenage girls were doing that had an impact. But these girls’ stories were being featured in newspapers and on blogs targeting adults, and not in spaces they would be read or seen by the very girls to whom they could offer a sense of community and belonging. It occurred to me that what I wanted for our Jewish daughters, was a space dedicated only to them and their voices –  their fears, struggles, achievements, interests – where they would know to go to find examples of young women like them being brave, loud and assertive, and where they could also express themselves and know they were being heard.”

(2/5 ) “Validation and Autonomy”

“There are specific pressures that Jewish girls face- that vary from community to community, culture, religious observance, and socioeconomics. I’ve been thinking a lot of about issues around ‘identity’ and how people interpret their Jewish and female identities. I wondered, what could I do for Jewish teenage girls, who are growing into these identities, and are developing independently from the adults in their lives, as is natural in teen years. What would be helpful to them in that time to successfully and safely explore their identities at the nexus of being Jewish and female?

I thought about what had been important for me, and that was having a community both of people who were very like me, where I could feel understood, and very unlike me, so I could explore who I wanted to become. I wished I had had access to more diverse models of what Jewish life could look like when I was a teenager. It was also important to me to be able to reach out to a broad community when I became a mother, to find media spaces that reflected my identity and stage in life. Both adolescence and motherhood reflected an enormous change in how I saw myself, what my priorities were, and what my identity was. While there was no internet when I was a teen, being able to go online and find a community of other women who were wrestling with being Jewish, female and in a specific stage in life, was validating for me as I went through new, life-altering experiences.

I realized that bringing a widely diverse group of Jewish teenage girls together, to create a space on the internet where they could help each other figure out what it meant to be Jewish, female, and a teen – could be a safe, supportive, and exciting space to explore. In that spirit, I started an online magazine, where Jewish teenage girls are the editors and contributors, called ‘jGirls Magazine.’”

(3/5 ) “The Importance of Diversity”

“We actively seek out girls for our editorial board who are diverse. We ask on our application forms for our applicants to specify how they identify Jewishly, and we offer over 15 different options and still some young women choose to specify ‘other’ and write in their own definition. We are at an age where the way that people identify themselves is much more complex than when I was growing up.

Until I went to college, I didn’t know anyone socially who was different from me. I struggled with understanding my role as a girl in Jewish life. I know it would have been beneficial for me to see other ways for Judaism to look. When teenage girls meet people who are different from them, their understanding of the Jewish community and Jewish life is broadened and enriched with understanding. It’s an opportunity to hear from, talk to, and wrestle with these large concepts of identity with other people who might have different perspectives. The experience of exchanging ideas with people who are different than us can broaden your own understanding of an issue, and concretize your own perspective.

All Jewish people are an extended family and it is important for us to get to know each other. Particularly at this time in society, we have lost the art of respectful dialogue and civil disagreement. For girls, at a time when they are forming their identities and honing their communication skills, it’s important to have the opportunity to learn how to dialogue about differences in a safe and respectful environment. That you can learn about others’ opinions and expand your horizons without having to change your mind about your own. These young women can grow up to be Jewish institutional and communal leaders and will bring with them personal experiences learning from people who are different than them. There is often animosity between Jewish communities who have practices and perspectives that are different, in all directions. These young women who are on our editorial board, once a week have the opportunity to communicate about differences and identities. These conversations grow into friendships. Then, people who are different stop being ‘other’ – they become people to respect, learn from and work with.”

(4/5) “jGirls Magazine”

“After over two years of work, preparations, and experimenting, we officially launched jGirls Magazine this past December. Our teen editors receive editorial training and education modules around identity and community. They put this training and education into practice as they review and curate content and shape the tone and direction of the magazine. The autonomy and independence that the editors have, coupled with the friendships that they are forming, the skills and tools they are being taught, and the deep conversations they are having around issues of identity, literature, art, and writing, make for a very empowering experience for them, in addition to being of great practical value.

We have 12-14 editors selected from all across the country and from all different backgrounds. They are divided into five departments – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual arts & music, and now a brand new culture corner, a new department completely initiated by teen editors and alumnae advisors. We have received content from girls all over the world – over 200 submissions from 120 girls in 24 states and 7 countries. Our editors train with a range of experts and educators; The Jewish Education Project has provided us with microgrants to provide them with training related to social media engagement and talking about Israel to our audience, who all have different backgrounds. Once a month, everyone on the editorial board meets for trainings, review and catch up. Each department receives department specific training, where they are paired with an adult editorial expert in that field. We do other identity and inclusion specialized training as well.

The editors get the opportunity to put into play the skills that they are learning, and to wrestle with issues that we have been talking about. They also have the opportunity to learn about what it means to make spaces for others. They review submissions and then respond to their peer authors, telling them that their voices are important and deserve to be heard. These young women will grow into adults who will know how to open the community, focus on inclusivity, and validate the experiences of their peers. They are using their roles and power to do incredible work, but also know when to step aside and make space for others. This is female leadership. A truly powerful gift.”

(5/5) “I Have to Do This”

“It means everything to me to be able to do this work. I am so proud and privileged to watch the girls, their dedication, ideas, and the way they inspire each other. Their commitment to their Jewish female selves is inspiring. I wake up every morning and feel so grateful.

Some people are just entrepreneurial by nature. I’m not one of those people. But sometimes you get an idea that feels so critical and vital to what you want to see in the world, and you can’t shake it. That’s what happened to me.

I love The Jewish Education Project. They believed in jGirls from the beginning. I remember going three years ago to introduce the magazine concept to them, and they told me ‘This is a phenomenal idea. How can we help you? How can we support you?’ They embraced me and helped make so many connections for me all over the country. They invited me to join their professional development series, which was amazing for me, particularly because I needed help networking and thinking about Jewish teen education. And through their microgrants initiative, they’ve also supported me in teaching jGirls staff essential skills that they now use as editors.

This has been an essential learning experience for me and has made jGirls a stronger space. The Jewish Education Project has supported me in so many ways, professionally and financially, helping me actualize my dream. I went to them when the magazine was just an idea, and I had no idea how it was going to resonate with teens, and teen professionals and the people who really know this field. The fact that they supported my idea and offered help, at that vulnerable point, made the difference. Knowing I had their support, it pushed me to go for it. It made me go from feeling ‘I want to do this’ to ‘I have to do this.’”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.