Girl Power!

by Alanna Berman January 30, 2012


By Alanna Berman

In early 2009, the Jewish Women’s Foundation, part of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, set out to change the lives of women and girls in the community. Their efforts — including a community-wide assessment, focus groups and interviews conducted with rabbis, community leaders and the girls themselves — culminated in a total of $225,000 in grants for five brand new programs serving Jewish middle and high school girls in San Diego County.

“When we [conducted] the focus groups about four years ago, we were really struck by how frequently we heard both rabbis and agency heads speak to the needs of teen girls,” JWF Chair Jennifer Levitt says. “The concern that they expressed [ranged from] issues with self esteem, body image issues, drug and alcohol abuse, peer-related challenges… and we at JWF really had this sense that it was our responsibility to take a leadership role in terms of promoting more programming in the community that served specifically Jewish adolescent girls.”

For those focus groups, they sought out local girls themselves for information on the types of programming that would be of interest to them. A nine-month process, involving several group and individual interviews with girls aged 11-17, selected from synagogue groups and day schools in town, brought some common themes to the forefront.

“One of the things that came out very clearly was that girls wanted a place where they could be with other girls and adults they respected. [They wanted to be] in an atmosphere where they could feel comfortable and real, that was non-competitive and felt safe, [where they could] just share their experiences in an atmosphere where they weren’t being judged,” Levitt said. “The girls were really looking for a forum to discuss very specific issues, and they were looking for information on body image and ways to deal with peer challenges and effective ways to deal with drug and alcohol use among their friends… they were looking for very specific information about the challenges they were facing.”

The search was on for programming that would “foster self esteem, develop leadership skills, and engage young Jewish women between the ages of 11-17 in San Diego County.” Letters of intent, followed by project proposals, rolled in.

The result was outstanding. With the exception of one program, all were new to the San Diego community, created and funded by JWF. Local agencies act as program facilitators and work together on programming, although each is separate in membership and outlook. With one of three years of funding already passed, the programs are already well on their way to changing the lives of teen and preteen girls in San Diego. Here’s a brief look at each of the grantees and what they’ve done with their funding so far.


Girls Give Back (Jewish Family Service)

A leadership, empowerment and service-learning program for young women, Girls Give Back began with an intensive summer leadership and service-learning program. Based on JFS’s nationally recognized Hand Up Teen Leadership Program, Girls Give Back was developed to engage high school girls in giving back to the community by responding to issues facing women and girls. They do this by becoming experts on specific community issues, using what they learn to design, plan, execute and reflect on impactful service projects.

Teens meet once a month. A recent topic and project included a discussion on healthy relationships and how teens can identify an unhealthy relationship. The girls then created a community art project to be hung at Becky’s House, which supports women and families escaping domestic violence.

Future plans include partnering with more Jewish organizations (Girls Give Back has already worked with Project SARAH, the YWCA, Junior Achievement and the Foundation for Women, to name a few) and increasing the number of participants in the program, as well as growing their role in the community.

“[Girls] are really looking for an opportunity where they can be leaders and where they can really plan something, take control of it and take ownership and make decisions, so it’s been exciting to watch these teens take projects that they are interested in and follow them through,” says Girls Give Back coordinator Jessica Nare. “I really hope all the girls continue to participate in the program and that they don’t join for one year or just for one session, but that this is really something they can grow with and see throughout their high school years.”


Girls Life (Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center)

An interactive wellness program for girls 11-14 years old, Girls Life promotes self-respect and healthy lifestyles through physical activity. Located at the JCC, which already has an established teen program, the hope is that Girls Life participants will go on to become members of the Teen Leadership Council, educating younger generations in the process.

“We meet twice a week, and at one of the sessions each week we focus on physical fitness, body image, just overall being well,” program coordinator Carly Ezell says. “At the other meeting each week, we talk about leadership, time management and life skills that are good to learn at an early age so that they can prepare for high school and join leadership organizations later on when they get into college.”

Each meeting revolves around Jewish values and core Jewish morals. Topics of conversation include: female empowerment through community service, tikkun olam, leadership and nutrition. With the Qualcomm Fitness Center at their disposal, the girls have already taken Zumba®, spin, Pilates, lifeguarding, self-defense, gymnastics and water sports classes.

“The girls feel really safe here, and I’ve seen a lot of change within them, just in the way they think about themselves and the way they project their attitudes and how they participate in discussions,” Ezell says. “A lot of them really came in kind of closed off and didn’t really want to talk about things that were a little more sensitive, and in the end, they all felt so comfortable around each other that they formed these lasting bonds.”


Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!


The only program of the five grantees that was not brand new to San Diego, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, was a program of the Agency for Jewish Education from 2005-09, when lack of funding and the impending absorption AJE programming into the JCC resulted in its discontinuation. This time around, the JCC, in collaboration with Temple Adat Shalom, Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Solel, has taken on the program, with help from the JWF.

“[Rosh Hodesh] is not a class, it’s sort of in between a youth group and a class, but it is neither of those,” says Marcia Tatz Wollner, director of literary arts and educational resources at the JCC. “It’s a facilitated discussion, so there is a lot that the facilitator does to lead the discussion or give the girls some information ahead of time so that they can lead the group themselves.”

The national, values-based program centers discussions and projects around the New Moon each month, drawing on Jewish tradition to give girls a place to voice concerns while building positive relationships with one another.

“We take something with a historic or biblical base, and we apply it to today,” Tatz Wollner says. “We want them to uphold their Jewish tradition, and we want to make it fit for them in terms of their Jewish identity today. As the kids get older within the curriculum, more pieces that deal with service learning, how to go out into the community and their role as a leader [come into play], so there is a lot of leadership discussion and community service projects.”

In its second round of programming since being reestablished, Rosh Hodesh has added two new groups, for a total of five groups across congregations, with the first groups moving into the second phase at each synagogue, and new groups at both Beth Israel and Temple Solel. (national program site)


B’Not, Lead On! (SD Friendship Circle)

The Friendship Circle’s new initiative focuses on girls aged 11-17, both typical and those with special needs, using Jewish values to promote leadership skills and emotional growth.

“This is the first time we are doing something where everybody is equal, and it’s not a mentor situation,” says Elisheva Green, executive director of the Friendship Circle. “We have a whole group of teens; some of them have special needs and some of them don’t, but they are all planning activities for the group and some [of the larger Friendship Circle programs].”

Participants must complete a course about working with children with special needs prior to involvement in group activities, and upon completion of the program, they receive a certificate for their community service work.

“I would hope for all the girls that they are learning leadership skills, to come up with an idea and then to talk to the group about how to execute it,” Green says. “We’re giving them the skills to form the idea and to get something to actually happen.”

Recently, B’not participants helped plan and run the Friendship Circle’s annual Chanukah program. For many of the girls in the group with special needs, Green says, this is the first time they’ve had the chance to be in a leadership position, where they feel like they are valued as a group leader.

JWF Scholars Society (collaboration)

The last of the grantees to begin programming, JWF Scholars is a collaboration between Reform Temple Adat Shalom, Conservative Ner Tamid Synagogue, and Chabad of Poway, along with the Jewish Women’s Archive of Boston. The program brings girls together for meetings with oral historians to discuss what can be learned from older generations. Organizers for the first ever program of its kind held their first gathering at the end of January.

“Some of the data about girls and storytelling [shows] that girls who know their family stories are more resilient … so we [created] a project for girls to tell the stories of an older woman,” says Susan Cohn, director of education at Adat Shalom. “We [wanted to give] these girls the opportunity to learn the story of someone who they want to honor and thereby become aware of the challenges in that woman’s story and see how they can relate to and learn from it. JWA is an organization that collects Jewish women’s stories, and that’s how I began to think about what we could do with adolescent girls to strengthen them and to give them a sense of accomplishment and to help them work on their self esteem.”

Almost all of the participants in the first year chose to interview their grandmother for their storytelling project, which they will present as a group at a symposium in May.

For more information, contact Susan Cohn at (858) 451-8480.

Though each of the JWF grantees’ programming is decidedly different, the goal of each remains true to the findings of the community assessment and interviews conducted nearly three years ago. Supporting Jewish teen girls in San Diego and ensuring they grow up to become confident, healthy adults is something to which each of the community partners has dedicated themselves. And both JCF and JWF will be with them every step of the way.

“The Women’s Foundation not only has the goal to give money, but also to provide support to these grantees, because the programs are new,” says JCF Senior Vice President Charlene Seidel. “At least every other month, [someone] meets with the coordinators of the different groups to share their needs and progress. At least twice a year, we will have events where the grantees can get together, because the connections we can help make for them are just as important as the funds we’re giving them.”

Only time will tell what real effect these programs will have on the community, but if early indicators reveal anything, the result will be profound.

“Obviously [these projects] don’t just affect the girls in the program,” Levitt of JWF says. “These girls have become leaders among their peers, and I have no doubt the positive effects on the community will continue.”

As for what’s next for JWF and its grantees, the funding will continue for two more years (the grants were awarded in fall 2010 for a three year period), and afterward, programs will have to become self sufficient or seek other forms of funding.

“JWF is committed to continuing to assess needs in the community, and our mission would be to go forward and identify other needs that are at the forefront at the moment, while ensuring these programs can be sustained over a long period of time,” Levitt says.

For information on the Jewish Women’s Foundation or their grants program, visit


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