Womens groups pass the torch with a girl thing for teens

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NEW YORK — Since the 1970s, growing numbers of Jewish women have popularized the ancient new moon ceremony of Rosh Chodesh, turning it into a monthly opportunity for women to study together, pray together and shmooze.

Now, with funding primarily from two women's foundations, Rosh Chodesh is being tailored for girls and teenagers.

The holiday is being used to boost self-esteem and provide a supportive all-girls environment at a time when stick-thin magazine models and peer pressure make many girls feel bad about themselves and their bodies.

Under the auspices of a pilot project called Rosh Chodesh: It's A Girl Thing!, 50 Jewish girls ranging in age from 11 to 14 meet in four groups — led by women in their 20s and 30s — each month in the Philadelphia area.

In its first year, the project — created through Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — is expected to spread nationally.

Plans are under way for additional girls' Rosh Chodesh groups in Baltimore and Chicago. Although the curriculum is being developed at the Reconstructionist seminary, the groups are for girls from all streams of Judaism.

"The idea was to give the girls a gift of a holiday that already belongs to them," said Lori Lefkovitz, academic director of Kolot.

"There's something therapeutic and valuable about celebrating in a community and having a mentor who's a little bit older," she added.

A typical meeting starts with an opening ritual, in which girls introduce themselves using their own names and their mothers' and grandmothers' names, share their favorite Jewish heroines and light candles together. Then they read and discuss a biblical story, eat a snack, do a hands-on activity and part with a closing ritual.

Teens from all four groups and their mothers got together shortly before Passover. They wrote poems together, watched a performance on the history of Jewish women in America, and made tambourines to commemorate how Moses' sister, Miriam, led the women in singing and dancing during the Exodus from Egypt.

Issues like body image and friendships between girls are woven throughout the meetings. For example, the curriculum for the month of Kislev suggests that girls read the story of Judith and discuss how they feel about a woman using her beauty and body to get what she wants.

Later, the curriculum suggests talking about why Judah the Maccabee gets so much more attention than Judith.

The Rosh Chodesh groups represent one of the few "opportunities for single-sex education in the liberal Jewish community," said Sally Gottesman, chair of Kolot.

"You can discuss certain things that would kind of be uncomfortable around guys," said Ronya Gordon, an eighth-grader in one of the groups. "You don't have to feel self-conscious."

Another eighth-grader, Elana Baurer, agreed. Around guys "you can't relax completely because you always feel you're competing or putting on a show or being watched."

"Girls understand each other so well," Baurer added. "We know the problems we face and can help get each other through it."

The groups may not be rivaling Britney Spears concerts, but so far, they are generating a good deal of buzz, particularly among the younger girls.

Many have mothers who are also involved in Rosh Chodesh groups.

"I was a little bit of a naysayer at first and thought girls wouldn't want to do this, but they see it as hip," Gottesman said.

The groups are friendly and provide an opportunity for bonding, said Baurer.

"When you walk in, everyone says hi to everyone," she said. "It's a good feeling of friendship and acceptance."

So with girls having their monthly gatherings, will Jewish teenage boys be clamoring for something as well?

Lefkovitz says boys are less "vulnerable" than girls at this age. That's because, she says, society celebrates the early-adolescent changes boys' experience — like deepening voices and facial hair — while often making girls self-conscious and ashamed of things like breasts and the onset of menstruation.

However, boys might benefit from special programming at an earlier age, Lefkovitz said.

But the groups are about more than just self-esteem or body image, and are certainly not just another way to get girls involved Jewishly, said Lefkovitz.

"This is not something we're doing for Judaism — we're not recruiting girls for another Jewish activity," she said. "Rather, it's something Judaism can do for them."