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.”
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.