The Wisdom of Turning Toward Gender in Our Time

This week’s post is by Deborah Meyer (she/her/hers), the Founder and CEO of Moving Traditions.

“Turn it and turn it again, for everything is within the Torah.” So we are urged by Ben Bag Bag in Pirkei Avot.

From the first century to the early 20th, when Franz Rosenzweig advocated for a new kind of learning “in the opposite direction”, which is “a learning, no longer out of the Torah into life, but out of life, out of a world that does not know about the law, back into the Torah.”

My older brother had a fancy bar mitzvah with scores of family members coming from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to hear him read Torah on a Saturday morning at our Conservative shul in northern Virginia. For my bat mitzvah in 1973, I was allowed to read Haftorah on a Friday night and only our closest family members made the trip. When I asked my parents about the difference, my mother comforted me, “Don’t worry, for you there will be a big wedding.” The message was clear about my purpose and place as a young woman in Jewish life.

At Jewish summer camp I learned from a slightly older teen camper that there could be alternative understandings of biology, gender, and power. Think about it, we read in a pamphlet, who is truly the stronger sex? Men, with external genitalia vulnerable to a knee, or women, with their life-giving ovaries and wombs, protected within?

My generation of women asked, “Who has access to Jewish teachings and who can be a Jewish leader?” We answered the question by stepping forward.

In the 1980s, many liberal and progressive Jewish women repossessed the tradition of gathering on Rosh Hodesh. At the new moon we studied, created Jewish rituals to sanctify moments in our lives that had previously been ignored, and entered into Jewish life in new ways. We questioned the maleness of our ultimate authority, praying to God in the feminine Hebrew, “Bruchah At Yah,” and we prayed in Marcia Falk’s poetic construction, “N’varech,” “Let us bless,” avoiding gender, and taking the act of blessing upon ourselves.

Locating the Truths for Today

What are the pressing issues of life today? What wisdom do we embrace and then discover rooted in Torah?

For me, growing up in the 1970s, and still for youth today, gender and restrictive gender norms can lead us out of Jewish life. Fighting those norms can lead us back to Jewish wisdom.

Today the challenges for pre-teens and teens are greater than ever. They face enormous pressures to achieve academically, to get into the best college, and social pressure to present perfection on the unrelenting 24/7 cycle of social media. They are confronted by a confusion of messages, from easily accessible hardcore porn online, to #metoo, and hate speech and violence rooted in antisemitism, racism, and sexism. Teen rates of stress and anxiety are off the charts.

With all of the progress girls and women have made since I became a bat mitzvah, gender norms can still be rigid, binary, and soul-crushing—for girls, for boys, and for nonbinary youth.

So where is the Jewish community in addressing these issues?

I co-founded Moving Traditions in 2005 to embolden Jewish pre-teens and teens by fostering self-discovery and challenging sexism in Jewish community, thereby inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning.

We began with Rosh Hodesh, a monthly program for those identifying as girls to help them navigate adolescence in a peer community of ten, facilitated by an adult woman mentor trained by Moving Traditions. We used the arts, deep conversation, games, text study, and creative ritual to explore big questions —Who am I? What is society telling me about what it means to be female? How do I negotiate power, truth, sex, love, ambition, and friendship?

In scores of focus groups, teen boys told us that they also want the opportunity to come together to explore these issues with other Jewish- and male-identified youth, so we created Shevet. And then, as our understanding of gender deepened, we created Tzelem, for trans and nonbinary teens.

Moving Traditions’ strategy is to change Jewish life by investing in Jewish community, partnering with synagogues, JCCs, camps, and emerging organizations to help pre-teens and teens grow and thrive by:  

  • Integrating  Jewish wisdom  into a social-emotional learning model  that guides Jewish youth to grapple with questions of gender and identity, learn to relate to others with compassion and respect, experience the value of participating in their peer communities, and develop their own moral compasses.    
  • Researching  issues  and creatin g resource s imbued with this unique  approach  to help pre-teens, teens, and their parents  explore and make meaning of the issues they care about most.  
  • Training  clergy, Jewish educators, and other adult mentors to facilitate open and honest conversations and transformative Jewish experiences using Moving Traditions resources.

Today, most Jewish parents and youth today are not in the pews, although the majority of Jewish children still enter their teen years through b’nai mitzvah. So, Moving Traditions created a new model of family education for 6th and 7thgraders and their parents, drawing on the issues that arise at this time of life, including at b’nai mitzvah, through the lenses of gender, human development, and Judaism.

Turning the texts of our society—on screens large and small, at school and at parties, in advertisements and in the news—and reaching back into the Torah for wisdom, we embolden Jewish youth to explore identity, ethics, and society. We help them to consider:

Who is HaAdam, the earth-being, made in God’s Divine Image, B’Tzelem Elohim?

What does it mean to be a human being?

Deborah Meyer (she/her/hers) is the Founder and CEO of Moving Traditions, following a career dedicated to building change-making organizations focused on gender and the Jewish community. Deborah serves on the Covenant Foundation Board and she credits her commitment to feminism, social justice, and Jewish life to her involvement as a teen in Habonim Dror.