The Wisdom of Turning Toward Gender in Our Time
At the still point of the turning world…
There the dance is…
…Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”
To lead a changemaking organization, I’ve learned to keep my eye on the still point, advancing with my colleagues and partners toward our north star as the world evolves.
As co-founder and CEO of Moving Traditions since 2005, two activities stand out as central to success: defining a clear vision and building strong relationships. When I have done so, I’ve been able to move everyone together toward our shared goals.
Vision is key. I’ve learned the importance of determining our north star, defining the change we want to make. Vision requires initial inspiration, certainly, and strategy—and making progress requires researching, listening to the people whose lives we hope to impact, experimenting, gleaning, analyzing, and refining.
The most important and effective use of my time, every single workday, as well as my greatest joy and frustration, has been building relationships and working with other people. The source of the joy and frustration is the same– we are all human beings. We can be wondrously talented, and yet we are all flawed. Balancing my perfectionism with compassion has been my learning edge. What I have gained is the understanding that a committed group of people with the right variety of talents can get the job done. As individuals and as an organization we constantly need to pick up each other’s slack, stand up after falling down, take note of where we failed, and try again.
By building authentic relationships, I have organized others to help me—and to take leadership beyond me—in creating and building the programs, partnerships, and financial resources that have brought Moving Traditions’ vision to reality. And by building authentic relationships, I have inspired people and institutions to fund our work.
The vision of Moving Traditions itself is centered on the sacred potential of relationships and the understanding that the world is peopled by a multiplicity of sacred possibilities:
Drawing on the belief that all human beings are created in the Divine image (b’tzelem Elohim), Moving Traditions envisions a world where Jews, Judaism, and Jewish communities are a force for wellbeing, equity, and justice.
I founded Moving Traditions with Sally Gottesman, our founding Board Chair, to infuse Jewish life, and Jewish pre-teens’ and teens’ secular lives—still today limited by the patriarchy—with progressive understandings of gender and identity so that all people will experience Judaism as a force for good.
We sought—and still seek—to infuse a gender lens into the core Jewish education curriculum so that it supports Jewish youth in 6th to 12th grades, just at the stage of life when they are forming their identities.
Our approach is to embolden pre-teens and teens in navigating their joys and challenges by using Jewish values, a feminist lens, and leading-edge approaches to healthy adolescent development, including social-emotional learning. As they develop—asking questions such as, who am I? What does it mean to be a good friend? How do I deal with academic and social pressures? How can I make the world a better place?—we make it possible for the Jewish community to give pre-teens and teens the tools to grow and thrive.
Our mission grounds this work in Jewish values: “Moving Traditions emboldens Jewish youth to challenge gender stereotyping and other forms of discrimination and to pursue personal wholeness (shleimut), caring connections (hesed), and a just and equitable world (tzedek).”
When we started Moving Traditions, we already had launched across North America a program for Jewish adolescent girls, then called Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! (As times changed, we dropped the subtitle.) We soon added Shevet for teen boys, and then Tzelem for gender nonconforming teens. Recently we successfully launched new offerings—Jewish pre-teen family education for the years leading up to B-mitzvah, a teen social change fellowship, now named the Meyer-Gottesman Kol Koleinu Feminist Fellowship, and CultureShift, which grew in response to #metoo, to train camp and youth group leaders to create environments of safety, respect, and equity.
From the start, our strategy was based on leveraging relationships—by partnering with congregations, JCCs, camps, and other organizations to deliver our programming, and by training their clergy and educators in our approach.
I believe that Moving Traditions has had a fundamental impact on Jewish education and engagement. At the start, we got a lot of push back for focusing Jewish education on building mental health and wellbeing, and on questioning restrictive gender norms. Today, every mainstream Jewish youth organization focuses on mental health. Gender is now part of the Jewish conversation, across denominations and organizations.
The evaluation data tells the story of our impact on pre-teens and teens. Because of participating in Moving Traditions programs:
- 83% of 6th and 7th graders said the B-mitzvah sessions “help me feel like I’m part of a Jewish community that supports who I am.”
- 86% of teens said their Rosh Hodesh, Shevet, and Tzelem groups “prepare me to tackle problems when things get stressful.”
- 93% of Kol Koleinu Fellows agreed that “the fellowship helped me to grow as an activist.”
Moving Traditions is in a position of strength, ready to transition to our new CEO, Shuli Karkowsky, and to scale our reach, because it sits on a foundation of healthy relationships. We have invested in delegating authority and developing organizational culture. We have built our governance and the participation of Board members. And we are blessed with the good will, deep connections, and financial generosity of hundreds of people and institutions.
Moving Traditions is not strong because we are perfect, but because we recognize that we are all imperfect: we are committed to learning and growing. We are created in the Divine image, yet because we are human, we are flawed. Holding both truths firmly in hand, we set the vision and together advance toward our still point, our north star, moving the Jewish community and emboldening Jewish youth.
Deborah Meyer (she/her/hers) has dedicated her career to building change-making organizations focused on gender and Jewish life. In 2005 she founded Moving Traditions with then Board Chair, Sally Gottesman, and led the organization into 2022. She serves on the boards of the Covenant and Hadassah Foundations, and on the Executive Committee of Philadelphia’s Women of Vision. Deborah loves sharing her homemade soup with friends and family, dancing, and exploring Philadelphia’s streets and green spaces.