Rosh Hodesh, the monthly Jewish celebration of the new moon, has a special significance for teenage girls around the country.
“Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” is a program designed to counter the onslaught of negative messages broadcast to American girls through the media, using monthly group meetings to strengthen adolescent girls’ Jewish identity and bolster their sometimes shaky self-esteem. Created at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and launched nationally in 2002, the program has spread to some 200 groups in Jewish educational institutions — day schools and congregational schools of different denominations, as well as less formal settings.
Now, building on its success, the program is poised to expand with a new supplementary program aimed at high-school girls.
“Instead of waiting until girls are in crisis, why not use Jewish teachings to help them stay healthy and help them stay Jewish?” asked Deborah Meyer, co-founder of “Rosh Hodesh” and executive director of Moving Traditions, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that addresses life-cycle events in Judaism through the lens of gender, and now houses the program.
Girls, Meyer explained, often drop out of Jewish life after their bat mitzvahs. Targeting girls in sixth through 12th grades, “Rosh Hodesh” aims to engage them long after their rites of passage are complete, she said. Participating girls attend monthly meetings on the night of the new moon, either at an educational institution or preferably, said Meyer, at a group member’s home, where they can discuss the pressures they feel and learn to apply Jewish teachings to their personal lives. “The idea is to create an intimate space,” she said, adding that the girls “find this a real touchstone and a place where they can really be themselves.”
Group facilitators, who are required to attend an intensive two-day training program, lead the meetings. Activities range from informal discussions of friendships and peer pressures to highly structured creative projects connected to Jewish holidays. During the Jewish month of Adar, for example, when the festival of Purim falls, the girls make two scrolls. To one, they attach positive images of girls and women that they find in the media, and on another they affix images they deem to be negative. They then discuss what it means to use female beauty in a healthy way, and how it can alternatively be used in an unhealthy way. As a final component, the girls are taught to take action by writing letters to the companies that use negative images of women in their advertising, asking them to reconsider their portrayals of femininity.
Pictures of nipped-and-tucked, rail-thin women in magazines, on television and in cyberspace have no doubt influenced the current generation of young girls. As never before, girls are subject to a flurry of images of perfected beauty that can potentially distort their own body images. While there are no studies that show these images to affect girls’ health directly, it is widely documented that eating disorders in the teen population have reached epidemic proportions and that depression is on the rise among adolescent girls. That is why “Rosh Hodesh” tries to change not only how girls feel about Judaism but how they feel about themselves.
For the past two years, Moving Traditions has appeared on the Slingshot list, a project of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies designating the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations. But “Rosh Hodesh” continues to evolve: Moving Traditions is developing a new curriculum to add to the program, which currently provides enough material for 28 months. This supplementary program was conceived specifically for girls in high school and focuses on developing leadership skills. The program would also take on more mature subjects, such as sexuality and what it means to be in an intimate relationship, so that “it can be food for thought for girls as they grow up,” said Meyer.
The idea for the new curriculum was born when Moving Traditions performed an evaluation and found that some girls who finished the “Rosh Hodesh” program wanted to lead their own meetings. However, said Meyer, often times the girls didn’t know what it meant to really be at the helm of a group.
Moving Traditions is even considering expanding the program to adolescent boys, who drop out of Jewish life in even greater numbers than girls. Moving Traditions is currently evaluating what Jewish boys want and how Judaism can help meet their needs. The end product will be a set of recommendations for the community, said Meyer, and, possibly, an entirely new program hatched from her organization.