Rabbi Rona Shapiro
As children we loved to put on my mother’s old nightgowns, makeup, and heels and pretend we were Queen Esther. Somewhere around adolescence this became a little uncomfortable. Why was Vashti banished for refusing to dance according to some, wearing only her crown for the drunken King Achashverosh and his buddies? Wasn’t that the right thing to do? And what was a nice Jewish girl like Esther doing in a beauty contest for the Persian king?
Today, in a world saturated by images of beauty and still uncomfortable with a woman asserting her power, these remain relevant questions. How are Jewish girls faring amid this sea of contradiction?
By many measures, Jewish girls are thriving. They are leading extracurricular activities, bettering the world around them, excelling in sports, and studying at elite universities. At the same time such success often comes at a cost for girls.
Research and anecdotal evidence point to girls’ perception of intense pressure to accrue academic and extracurricular distinctions. Simultaneously girls feel bound by the constraints of feminine "niceness," through which individual ambition becomes untenable, aggressive, and selfish.
For some girls, the impact of these contradictions causes suffering. For others it can lead to the development of eating disorders, cutting, relational bullying, precocious sexuality, abusive relationships, and low self-esteem.
Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project believes that it is critical to help girls and those who work with girls address these contradictions.
Take for example, the case of NFTY, the Reform youth group. Recent reports have sounded the "boy" alarm: 60 percent to 80 percent of participants in Reform youth groups, leadership training, camp, and Israel programs are girls. The Union for Reform Judaism has inaugurated a Young Men’s Project to address the dearth of male participants.
What is heard less often is that this year and it appears not to be atypical all of the national NFTY officers are boys. An organization in which the overwhelming majority of participants are girls is still led by boys. Leaders involved with the program report that the girls are content with this arrangement, do not seek leadership, and are happy to do the behind-the-scenes work.
In other words boys, though few in number, are eager to lead and are apparently groomed to be leaders. Girls, like women in Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, do not seek leadership, presumably out of fear of being seen as "bossy" or "presumptuous," or unwilling to set themselves apart from their female peers. Despite their strength in numbers, the girls say they prefer a more collaborative model of leadership.
What future is predicated here? Do we want girls to grow to be women who collaborate nicely and plan events while the men are given center stage? Do we want girls to grow to be women who compose the backbone of the workforce while the male CEO occupies the corner office? What does it mean if boys, so few in number, still rise to the top?
We should explore these questions. The Jewish community of late appears to be more interested in questions that concern boys’ absence rather than girls’ lack of leadership. Picking up on national news trends, the Jewish community has sounded its version of the "boy crisis" alarm. Boys are the new girls and are depicted as failing academically, suffering emotionally, and dropping out of all things Jewish. Implicit in these arguments is the assumption that attention to girls has served its purpose and should now return where it was always due to boys.
Although pundits typically lump all boys’ issues into one puddle and declare it a "crisis," the reality is that Jewish boys are not, and never have been, failing academically. If we are really concerned about boys in crisis, we should turn our attention to poor boys and boys of color, who are truly suffering.
Boys and boys’ issues are worthy of attention, and the Jewish community is surely not serving its sons as well as it could just as there are gaps in our attention to girls’ needs. Indeed, if it is the case that young men’s participation falls off precipitously after the age of bar mitzvah, it is definitely worth looking at what it takes to engage young men and their interests.
I am agnostic on the question of inherent difference between boys and girls. It is clear, however, that boys and girls from the earliest age are subject to vastly different experiences, which in turn shape them. To truly meet the needs of both boys and girls, we will have to pay specific attention to gender socialization.
Boys and girls must be given the opportunity to explore the social construction of gender, challenge gender norms, examine gender privilege, and create a balance of power between boys and girls. We must prepare our daughters to be strong leaders well armed against the sexism they will face in the media and employment at the same time that we raise young men who share an interest in their sisters’ achievements, who have full access to their feelings and who are engaged by Jewish life.
Toward this end, Ma’yan recently launched Koach Banot, Girl Power! Through training, advocacy, and education, we aim to raise the profile of Jewish girls in the community, make excellent resources including curricula and programs more widely available, and to train those who work with girls to better understand issues that confront girls and learn how they can utilize resources to best serve their population.
By exploring these issues and questions together, we can steer clear of the zero-sum game of boys vs. girls and enter into a rich exploration of gender and its implications for our community.
Rabbi Rona Shapiro serves as a senior associate at Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project.