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Rosh Hodesh It’s a Girl Thing! The Early Years

In the 1990s, RRC developed Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, to provide academic resources for our rabbinic program. Kolot also incubated and then spun off a program called Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! which was aimed at Jewish teen girls. In November 2015, RRC President Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., will be joining the Philadelphia Celebration of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, and in honor of that we are sharing this early history of Kolot at RRC.

As remembered by: Lori Lefkovitz, Debra Brodlie, Juliet Spitzer, Margot Stein, and Ilene Wasserman

Rosh Hodesh It’s a Girl Thing! was created collaboratively over a decade, with its earliest seeds planted by young women who eventually became rabbinical students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), where their experience with teen girls was recognized for its transformative potential and developed into a national project by Kolot:  The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at RRC.  It is delightful to remember those early years and a privilege to recognize the contributions of the founding generation of this life-shaping initiative. 

The Germ of an Idea whose Time had Come:  It was at Harvard Divinity School, where (now Rabbi) Mychal Copeland (then Rosenbaum) had co-run a conference for girls in 1994 that the idea for teen Rosh Hodesh groups was conceived.  Separately, (now Rabbi) Alison Adler had led a group for girls through the Hebrew School at which she taught.  As RRC students, Mychal and Alison co-led a teen Rosh Hodesh group in Philadelphia.

Planting:  In 1996, Lori Lefkovitz was hired by then RRC President David Teutsch to direct the “Jewish Women’s Studies Project” (JWSP), a student-faculty initiative (founded in 1989) to transform rabbinical education and Judaism through feminism.  Rabbi Margot Stein (in her final year as a rabbinical student), invited Sally Gottesman, Juliet Spitzer, and (and silent partner) Barbara Dobkin to join her in funding the Center that they would rename “Kolot,” under Lefkovitz’s directorship. Sally became the chair of the board, with Lori as founding director (appointed, in 2000, to the Gottesman Kolot Chair in Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, the first chair in this field in the world).  Mychal and Alison described their experiences with teenaged girl groups to Lori, the new professor of Gender and Judaism, who saw both the value of these groups and had a glimmer of its potential to fulfill the mandate expressed in the first sentence of Kolot’s newly composed mission:  to bring “insights and innovative practices from the study of gender and Judaism to the Jewish community.”

Kolot’s Roll-up-your Sleeves Advisory Board:  This national board/working group, which met regularly in 1996 and the years following, with Ilene Wasserman often in the room as volunteer organizational consultant, embraced Lori’s suggestion that a Rosh Hodesh program for teen-aged girls would be an especially worthy first national project for a rabbinical school Center, where students would have the knowledge and energy to run groups, develop, and pilot the program.  At the end of that year, Jan Goldman joined this activist funding board, contributing her expertise as a psychologist.

A Joint Effort of the Kolot College Committee and National Kolot:  The College committee, made up of faculty and students and always chaired by a rabbinical student, planned programs designed to transform rabbinic education, while Kolot’s national Advisory Board supported curricular initiatives, raised funds, and developed the national program.  In its earliest years, the Rosh Hodesh program was a joint effort of the faculty-student Kolot College committee (chaired by Rachel Gartner) and the small national board.  In 1997, Kolot organized its first Rosh Hodesh groups in the living rooms of the families of girls in Philadephia. 

“Food, Body Image, and Judaism” and Developing the Theoretical Framework for the Rosh Hodesh Project:  In the hope of finding synergy between the Rosh Hodesh initiative and the therapeutic mission of the Renfrew Center Eating Disorder Treatment Facility, Alison Adler introduced Lori Lefkovitz to (then) Renfrew psychologist, Karen Smith.  Kolot’s next major initiative was a collaboration with Renfrew, a groundbreaking, first-of-its kind and oft-imitated conference on Food, Body Image and Judaism, co-chaired by Lefkovitz and Smith, and coordinated by Alison Adler.  The day-long conference took place in Philadelphia on May 3, 1998 with Lefkovitz, Smith, and Catherine Steiner-Adair as keynoters.  The program included a session co-led by Rachel Gartner and Alison Adler called “Beyond Bat Mitzvah:  Jewish Spiritual Resources for Adolescent Girls,” to “discuss issues openly and present alternative, Jewish models that incorporate sacred space, rituals, and relationships.”  Alison was by then leading two Rosh Hodesh groups for girls, and Rachel was leading a group for teen girls using the arts.

Articulating Compelling Rationales for the Rosh Hodesh Project:  At the conference, renowned therapist Steiner-Adair talked about the possibility of Judaism being a counter-cultural opportunity for Jewish girls, a second mental track, an antidote to negative social messages directed at girls that erode their self-esteem.  Lefkovitz observed that too often, we step in to remedy existing problems, such as eating disorders, and she emphasized the importance of proactive programming for adolescent girls to build self-esteem using the time-honored resources of Judaism.  She taught about Rosh Hodesh as a classical holiday with special value to women and articulated the rationale for the Rosh Hodesh project that would later be codified in Kolot’s first grant proposals, describing the project as “a Jewish response to Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994).”  Rather than reacting to such crises as the epidemic in eating disorders and other consequences of a culture that diminishes women and girls, the Rosh Hodesh project would do what consciousness-raising groups and women’s Rosh Hodesh groups had done for women in previous decades:  create a fun place for girls to build intimate communities, celebrate themselves, identify their values and priorities, and develop a healthy perspective on life.

Breakthrough Growth and More Hands-in-the-Soil Planting:  1998-2000 created possibilities for significant development and expansion of Kolot and the Rosh Hodesh project.   In 1998, Lori Perlow and Debra (then Solomon) Brodlie joined the board, and Andrea Jacobs was hired as Kolot’s administrative assistant.  Debra’s particular enthusiasm was for the Rosh Hodesh project, and for Hanukah 1999, Juliet Spitzer and Debra Brodlie hosted a fundraiser in Juliet’s home, at which Lori taught about Rosh Hodesh in an effort to promote the program and its importance locally.  With Andrea’s assistance, Lefkovitz submitted grant proposals to National Hadassah and the Chicago Women's Foundation, and Debra and Ilene’s synagogue, Beth Am, sponsored an adolescent Rosh Hodesh group, inaugurating the model of institutional sponsorships.  In 1999, Joyce Goodman joined the Advisory Board, and Kolot’s first NYC Benefit, honoring Pat Barr, raised $350,000 for RRC Kolot programs and our national initiatives.  These funds created hiring, marketing, and all manner of possibilities for the flowering of the project.

In 2000, Mindy Shapiro was hired with the Rosh Hodesh project as her full portfolio; Deborah Meyer was hired as Kolot Managing Director, and Stephanie Nachum was hired as Kolot Assistant.  Mindy renamed the program Kolot’s Rosh Hodesh: It's A Girl Thing! We learned that Kolot’s Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! had secured $105,000 from the Hadassah Foundation for 2000-2002.  That year, we had four pilot groups in Philadelphia. 

But What Should We Do in Our Rosh Hodesh Group?:  (now Rabbis) Renee Bauer (who became student chair of the Kolot College committee) and Amita Jarmon, who were running the Beth Am group, asked Lori that question.  Lori suggested a loose structure based on her own experience with a women’s Rosh Hodesh group in New York years earlier:  a go-around candle-lighting ritual to bless the new month and check in; some information about the new month with a text learning and discussion related to both a theme of the month and the concerns of girls; an art project; a closing ritual.  The big takeaway from this pilot year of groups was the need for a curriculum and trainings to support leaders and facilitate expansion of the program. 

The Genesis of the First Sourcebook for Leaders:  Lefkovitz and Debra Brodlie wrote a sample month for a “Sourcebook for Leaders” as a prototype for Mindy to develop a year’s sample curriculum.  The sample included “featured heroines of the month,” readings, a ritual, an art project, and a discussion guide.  Mindy devoted herself to the national promulgation of the program and to marketing and community building and hired Rachel Gartner, former student chair of Kolot, as someone who combined Jewish expertise and group-leading experience to develop the curriculum. Rachel quickly identified the importance of bringing in someone with expertise in education and curriculum development, and Debra Brodlie suggested her friend, a talented and experienced educator, Barbra Berley-Mellits. Barbra and Rachel worked side by side, refined the template, and composed the monthly curriculum. 

More roll-up-your-sleeves collaboration:  After each month was drafted it went to Lori, who functioned as executive editor, for revision and general editing, and after revision, the chapter would come back to Lori and Mindy for final readings.  Deborah Meyer and the more active board members often read and commented on chapter drafts.  Group leaders, including Lauren Polkriss and Merle Berman piloted the developing curriculum, to which Rivkah Walton also contributed.  As an extension of the project, that year Kolot ran a Mother/daughter program at Jewish Museum with Theatre Ariel in support of programming for teens. 

Growth from Trees to an Orchard:  In 2001-2002, Linda Kriger, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, and Cheryl Kritz joined Kolot’s Advisory Board.  At our national benefit, we gifted each guest with a sample month from the developing sourcebook, and supporters received each new month to add to their Sourcebook loose-leaf binder as it was finalized. The Kolot’s Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! Sourcebook for Leaders first draft was completed in 2002 and endorsed by the national advisory Committee.  Kolot now sponsored 12 groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, NYC, and Princeton.  We held a Mother/Daughter program at the Temple Art Gallery in Philadelphia and a program in NYC.  Deborah Meyer and Lefkovitz organized our first program evaluation, undertaken by Christina Ager.  The program was awarded a UJA-Federation 4-year, $168,000, grant to bring the Rosh Hodesh program to NYC.

Gifted to Moving Traditions:  Having successfully completed the development of the first edition of the sourcebook and piloting and evaluating over 150 groups around the country, in 2004, Kolot and RRC spun off the program to Moving Traditions, which is now making it available to girls of all denominations and affiliations in communities across North America. Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing!—an experiential program created by Kolot—strengthens the Jewish identity and self-esteem of adolescent girls through monthly celebrations of the New Moon festival.­­­­­­­­­­­­