No boys allowed &mdash its a girl thing

This is your assignment, should you choose to accept it: Flip through magazines such as People, Us Weekly, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Cut out pictures that illustrate positive and negative images of femininity. Find five of each.

Nine girls at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom did this in January as part of a monthly gathering for Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! The program aims to empower middle-school girls by incorporating Jewish themes into contemporary issues. It’s rapidly taken off in the Bay Area after starting less than a year ago. Nine groups were formed in the fall, and the organization expects an additional eight to begin in September.

The girls at Netivot Shalom looked through a dozen magazines. While they had no trouble finding negative images, they struggled to find five that were positive. They glued their results on a handmade scroll as visual representations of their “song of songs” and “lamentations.”

Zephira Derblich-Milea, 24, led the activity and was saddened the girls couldn’t find more positive images in the magazines that saturate newsstands.

Not so Jewish, right? But, in the spirit of Rosh Hodesh, she gently guided the conversation to the upcoming Purim holiday.

“We talked about how Esther was chosen by King Ahasuerus because she was so physically beautiful — it’s right there in the text,” Derblich-Milea said. “But then I asked, ‘Why do people know about Queen Esther?’ Not because she was so beautiful. Because she was courageous and strong.”

In a country obsessed with low-rise jeans and Ugg boots, these are lessons that middle-school girls don’t often get. Meanwhile, the hormones kick in. The girls fill out. The boys notice. And suddenly, parents can’t help because they are, like, totally uncool.

“Middle school is just a really scary time,” said Derblich-Milea. “Rosh Hodesh takes these issues and gives the girls a safe, healthy space to talk about them, and connects it to Jewish life, text and values.”

Rosh Chodesh means “head of the month” in Hebrew. It’s a minor monthly holiday and, according to the Talmud, a day in which women are exempt from work. That has inspired a slew of women’s groups (aptly named Rosh Chodesh) in synagogues across the country.

Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! adapts this practice for girls in grades six through 12. Groups focus on contemporary issues such as self-respect, body image, consumerism, materialism, and parent-daughter relationships, and link them to Judaism through discussions, songs and interactive activities. Each group is run by a trained adult leader.

Rosh Hodesh is a program of the Pennsylvania-based Moving Traditions. There are 200 chapters across the country. In the Bay Area, programs have been launched at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, Kehillah Community Synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Congregation Beth Am, Congregation Etz Chayim and Temple Beth Jacob.

Congregation Sherith Israel will start its Rosh Hodesh group in March, and Jewish Community High School of the Bay hopes to start its first group this fall.

Corinne Taylor-Cyngiser, the Bay Area Rosh Hodesh coordinator, said she has exceeded her initial goal of starting three chapters. The ultimate goal is to create 40 Rosh Hodesh groups in the Bay Area, helping to keep 400 to 500 girls per year healthy and Jewish.

“People might think we’re done with girls — that they’re empowered, they get it,” Taylor-Cyngiser said.

But the research, she notes, indicates that while young girls have the information about healthy choices, they’re not making them.

“Girls are still making choices that are hurtful or harmful or negative,” she added. “Rosh Hodesh is looking at how to support girls in changing those habits.”

The initiative is funded by Moving Traditions, and by the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, and Brad and Emeri Handler.

The program costs $2,500 to start (organizations that sign up to start a group before May 1 will pay a reduced price of $1,800).

So far, parents have responded with enthusiasm. Derblich-Milea said one mother told her that Rosh Hodesh is the first Jewish activity in which her daughter actually wants to participate.

Derblich-Milea recalled her own middle-school experience — clouded by insecurity and self-doubt. She remembered feeling like she had no one to talk to.

“But the first place I felt safe to be me was my Jewish community,” she said.

Rosh Hodesh “is something I needed but didn’t get when I was that age. I love that I can give that to other girls. It’s been a joy.”

Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! is currently looking for partner institutions. To sign up, contact Corinne Taylor-Cyngiser at (415) 550-8592 or [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.