Shira’s Story: The Birth of The Layers Project
Photographed by Sara J Dsign
“It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years. Sometimes it seems like those memories are from a lifetime ago, yet the creeping fear of those days remains.
I spent that summer bed-bound. I was 28 and diagnosed with a mysterious chronic illness that never seemed to fit, the doctor told me that if I had walked more than five minutes over a span of three days, I might never recover from the exhaustion. They wondered if I had cancer, heart disease, numerous tumors, neurological disorders. I was so afraid. Afraid of the things I didn’t know, false diagnoses, terrifying prognosis. Fear of dying and leaving my young family behind.
I spent a lot of time alone, in the quiet of illness. I tried to make sense of this offroad track that I had not expected my life to take. I had always been so full of fire, passion, and energy. I wanted to do everything by myself, embrace others with nurturing and help those in need. Now, I was relegated to the couch, sitting still in the swirling rage and fear that kept me company. I continually asked myself — and God — ‘Why?’ I figured there must be a reason for my illness. I believe that everything happens for a reason. If this was meant to happen to me, I figured at least I should make meaning out of it and try to come up with a lesson.
Later on, I wrote, ‘Being stripped of confidence, I have uncovered gentleness. In removing fear, I have found bravery. Deprived of assurances, I discovered faith.’
I had spent a better part of the five years when I was chronically ill keeping it quiet, like a terrible secret. Few but my close friends and family knew the hell that we were experiencing. I was so ashamed of being ‘sick,’ as I was only able to see the world through the binary of able bodies and broken ones. At a certain point in the winter of 2015, I reached my limit. I tried to submit some pieces of writing to several blogs. I asked to keep those pieces anonymous. Though the editors liked my writing, they encouraged me to publish with my name. If I wanted others to pay attention to the message behind my words, I had to stand up alongside it.
I was sick of feeling alone. I was sick of feeling different. I had reached a point where I realized that I was keeping myself a prisoner in this state of seclusion. I was carrying the burden of my pain alone. It wasn’t fair to me or to my husband to keep these realities hidden. I wondered what would happen if I spoke my truth and let other people hear my story.
On the second night of Channukah in 2015, I started a blog about my secret. I shared my anger, fear, and struggles. Ultimately, I ended my first post with this:
“Last night after we lit the Channukah candles, I sat with my son in the shadows and watched the fire breathe. In those quiet moments, I sang his bedtime ritual, ‘Shema Yisrael,’ ‘Hamalach Hagoel,’ and ‘Hatikva.’ I witnessed the flames dancing to the music of whispered promises of redemption, inheritance of blessings, and the covenant of faithfulness.
I invite you to join me on my journey of healing. Not just a healing of the body, but an invigorating of ability to see the good in the struggles that we all face. A reclaiming of the promises of our potential, and a prayer to live in the light.
For now, may we all continue to find the strength to have faith in the dark.’
While I hit publish on that post, my heart was pounding. Then the messages started to come.”
“Within the first moments of publishing my essay, I was flooded with comments. My friends and family offered so much sweetness and support, I remember I just sat in front of my computer weeping while the notifications continued to ring. Then came the private messages, from friends who had no idea that I was going through a hard time, and just wanted to reach out. From acquaintances who wanted to tell me they were inspired by my story. And from those who reached out to share their own stories. Not just of illness but of all sorts of pain. Most of those people were like me, keeping their secrets close to their chests; I was the first person to whom they disclosed their stories. All of a sudden I was offering support and a listening ear. Through all these varied dynamics and exchanges, a new identity was forming.
From that moment on, I chose to operate under the assumption that everyone I came in contact with knew that I was struggling with chronic illness. This enabled me to release myself from the yoke of shame, the feeling that I had to maintain a secret that was suffocating me. I entered every interaction with the confidence that I was attempting to accept what God had given me with grace and humility. The meaning I created when I took control of my personal narrative emboldened me to live that life to the best of my ability. I was resolved to embrace the positive personality and dynamic changes that illness brought on its tailcoats.
Two weeks after I published that post, I received a call from my mother. Someone she knew had seen my blog. After reading it, this woman had a feeling that she might know my ‘true diagnosis’ he called my mother and suggested that I speak to her son, who had experienced exactly the same symptoms. After our first two hour call, he told me radically new information. After going to a new doctor he recommended, a new diagnosis was confirmed.
That moment changed my life forever. I now knew ‘what was wrong with me’ and how to fix it. Thank God, after months of hard work, I did.
I believe that I got my health back because I shared my story within the framework of faith. I hoped to be honest in my self-reflection, earnest in my emunah, and grateful for the tough lessons I received from illness. I reached out for connection and found healing.”
“My husband Scott had always said, that the minute that I would feel better, I would be supercharged with energy and passion and try and restart my life immediately. Even though I had a degree in Social Work, I had so much creative energy left over from not really being able to do anything for so long. All I wanted to do was make beautiful things, be a part of living moments, and capture memories. So in the summer of 2016, I decided to open my own photography business and threw myself into learning the craft.
Six months into the business and I was looking for more. I can’t explain it, I loved the work, but there was something about what I was doing that didn’t feel finished. I felt as if I had not landed where I needed to be, just yet. Then one morning last January, I decided to do a ‘photo project.’
I brainstormed with friends and family to see what kind of images they would be interested in seeing, and I was given so many great ideas. There was the one thing in my mind that I couldn’t shake. I knew that I wanted to photograph Jewish women. I wanted to show them as glamorous and glowing, and honest and raw. There was no disconnect between all those things for me, and it occurred to me that I might have an opportunity to give back what I was given. What if I interviewed Jewish women about their challenges and triumphs, creating three-dimensional depictions of what it is really like to be a woman in our communities? What if I photographed them looking directly into the camera, so that no matter what they said, the reader would have to reckon with the truth in their eyes, and engage in the biochemical thing that happens when we make eye contact with another person? Maybe I could create a connection. If it was healing for me, maybe other people would want the chance to share their stories, too.
I posted on my Facebook page, describing my intentions with this new idea, and asking if anyone would be interested in participating in such a project. In the first day, I received messages from twenty women who were excited about being featured on my newly branded idea, ‘The Layers Project.’ I had a feeling that I had stumbled on something big, far larger than myself. A platform for Jewish women to take control over their own narratives, share their pain and blessings, and receive the support of their communities for being brave enough to stand up and work towards breaking stigma.
My role in this project is simple. I listen to their stories. I am present with them in their pain. I help them decide what parts are healing to share. I give them all the control- every word, every photo- they get the final say on. I want them to feel the way we tell their story is exactly how they want to be portrayed. Then my part comes in. I present them the way I see them. Through my lens, and through my own eyes- each woman glows in her own unique beauty, bravery, and resilience. These are ordinary women, who live their lives in extraordinary ways.
Each of these stories tackles different life situations or taboo topics, but regardless of what singular painful experience they struggle with, something about the way they make meaning of it, or an express faith, doubt or strength reflects back on the audience’s own individual struggles. These women teach us how to love through suffering and how to live beyond heartache. They teach us how to be sensitive to those who are different from us and open our minds to realities we never knew.
Each woman who participates in this project has touched thousands of lives. I have received the most remarkable messages over the last year. Women whose experiences were validated for the first time, through the story of another. Women who received support for the first time in their lives, because they had shared a particular story with her loved ones, who were then finally able to understand what she had been going through. Women who were eager to be empathic to their friends and neighbors, who were seeing ‘issues’ through new eyes.
The readers of The Layers Project have created a beautiful community of support and stigma-breaking. In the year I have been running this project, only once or twice have I had to actively moderate the group because someone was being disrespectful. Every single comment, on the hundreds of posts, was loving and respectful. In the world of the internet, that is practically unheard of. The women who stand up, and the people who reach back out to them with support, have created a tremendous community of healing, one in which I feel humbled to be included.”
“Big changes are coming to Facebook. In the next few months, the company is changing your newsfeed by removing business pages and groups from the place where you usually see them.
Facebook’s new algorithm will prevent you from seeing The Layers Project posts on your newsfeed unless we sponsor them. Many people have already told me that they are missing parts of the stories that never arrive on their newsfeeds. The rollout has been slow, and sadly, it’s cutting more and more people out of the conversation.
In my opinion, we’ve come too far to stop having these conversations. We need to do the opposite; share more, talk louder and include more voices in the discussion. We need to get bigger and bolder. We need to make space for more essays, more media, and more stories.
Six months ago, my dream was to turn the project into a women’s magazine. A space that would be an honest reflection of Jewish women- their stories, challenges, uniqueness, spirituality, and beauty. Historically and culturally, Jewish women have tremendous power. Power to navigate difficult moments, to stand up when the time calls us to make the right decisions. The wisdom to fuse our traditions with our environments, and to live successfully wherever we are. We are the spiritual compasses of our families and communities. More of our input would help create solutions to some of our communal problems. I wanted to create a media space that celebrated that, embraced that, and facilitated our voices and our faces to be seen and heard.
I know I am not alone in this dream. For many months now I have heard rumblings of the frustration about Jewish women being removed from so many media spaces. Our pictures and sometimes even our names are deemed too ‘immodest’ to be seen in a magazine, or even on something simple as a wedding invitation. I am sick of seeing blurs on our faces, and a ‘Kallah’ or ‘Mrs.’ where our names should be. We have too much to offer our community and the world at large.
So in response to the demand and new changes to how we consume content, I decided not to wait. Now is the time to launch The Layers Project Magazine- and G-d willing, on December 13th- the second night of Channukah- two years to the day of my first step that led to this miracle of a new life, we will be taking another step forward: launching our new online magazine.”
“So what does ‘online magazine’ mean? The goal is to create a media space online to showcase the voices of Jewish women. We are going to continue what The Layers Project is known for, and continue to profile and photograph women would want to tell their stories for the purpose of creating communal healing, education and stigma breaking. The stories and the way that you consume them will stay the same. The only difference is that the long form profiles will be hosted on our new magazine website.
We will now have a features section that will showcase personal essays and reported pieces from women who have new insights and thoughts to share. Sometimes, when we are running a series in the profiles section, we will have corresponding pieces that will tackle the same theme in some of our sections on the magazine. The goal will be to fully flesh out topics and get well-rounded opinions and perspectives.
I am so excited to offer an “Ask the Therapist” section, which will offer essays and perspectives from professional therapists in the field. They will give us their clinical opinions and provide valuable supportive information to our readers. We will also have a Health section, that will tackle many topics relating to women’s health, providing the readers with important discussions on how to manage our health.
We are also going to have sections found in traditionally female magazines, like food and fashion, but they are going to be done with a Layers Project twist. We will be looking for meaning in the expression of personal style, modesty, eating to live and enjoying healthy and delicious food that is good for our bodies.
We will be looking to present some of the brightest female writers in our fiction section. The best fiction can introduce us to a world or experience we never knew, and teach us something new about the world. Personally, I am so pleased to make a space for Jewish female fiction and poetry writers to publish their work, and be able to engage with their niche audiences.
In our culture section, we will feature Jewish female artists in all mediums. Highlighting new art, new media, and new talent. I am especially thrilled to offer “Layered Sounds”, a series of music videos that will showcase female Jewish musicians and their talents. There are so many incredibly talented observant women out there, and yet so few platforms on which to share their music. We look forward to creating a community that raises these women onto the stage they deserve, simultaneously introducing our subscribers to music they want to listen to.”
“The goal of the magazine: to feature Jewish women in a space that is their own. Our collective voice will become stronger. Our collective vision will become clearer. Individually and as a community we can be a powerful force, telling untold stories, introducing untapped talent and discovering new inner worlds to be explored.”
“What you have seen from us on social media has just been a small glimpse into the full vision of The Layers Project. Tomorrow we will be launching our website and online magazine full of new stories and ideas.
Our goal is to create passionate, thoughtful and relatable content curated exclusively for Jewish women. Paid subscribers will have exclusive access to editorial content, behind the scenes material, audio features, video access and so much more. We have a creative team who are dedicated to delivering unique and reflective material. The magazine is a warm and open environment, engaged with important and unique points of view. Join us and become part of this dynamic community.
With your subscriptions, we will be able to pay our editors and contributors for their hard work and vital content. We believe that a brand representing Jewish women should recognize that they deserve to be treated like professionals and compensated fairly for their time. We know that women (especially in creative fields) are frequently undervalued and unpaid. We are proud to stand together with you to give new opportunities to one another, as a community.
For the price of one latte (per month), you will get 4 to 5 new pieces of content a week specifically curated to your interests. You will also be a part of a model that promotes opportunities for showcasing the many talents of Jewish women on a new platform.
We go live tomorrow. Give yourself a small Chanukkah gift — subscribe and try your first month free. You deserve it. The profiles from the original project will remain free to everyone and hosted on our social media accounts, with a new series coming soon!
Our team of editors has been working tirelessly with me to get this grassroots project off the ground. Headed by our Editor-in-Chief, Hannah Dreyfus and guided by our stigma-breaking Clinical Director/Editor, Rachel Hercman, LCSW, we hope to bring you content that inspires, uplifts and connects. As for me, I can’t wait to show you what Jewish women can do.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in 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 made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.