Girl power

Orna Isaacson, at far left, surrounded by several members of her group in the Nishmah program, It’s a Girl Thing. While some girls drop out after a year or two, the majority of Orna’s group has stayed together for four years, and even voted to extend it by a year.

Ellen Futterman, Editor

Girl power

Amarah Friedman first got involved with Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! when she was entering fifth grade. The girls Jewish youth program, hosted locally by Nishmah at the Jewish Community Center, is based on a national program called Moving Traditions. According to its website, the experimental education program uses “Jewish teachings and practices — in a five-year cycle of curricular materials — to give girls a place to feel safe, articulate their deepest concerns, consider the impact of gender on their daily lives, have fun, and be ‘real’ with their peers.” In St. Louis, the program is designed for girls entering fifth through eighth grades. 

Since its inception here in 2006 (nationally it was begun in 2002), some of the girls who join may spend a year or two attending, but then drop out because of other time commitments such as homework, extra-curricular activities and bat mitzvah studies, explains Simone Picker, who coordinates the program at Nishmah. Later this month, however, when the program resumes, the majority of the girls who began in fifth-grade will return for their fifth consecutive year, now as as ninth-graders. 

The group meets once a month for two hours. Picker says this particular group, led by 46-year-old Orna Isaacson, “has been so strong, and bonded so thoroughly, that they voted to extend the program a year because they didn’t want it to end.”

Amarah says that when she first joined she figured she would try it for a year and then stop if I didn’t like it. But that never happened.

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“Orna is the sweetest, most fantastic person,” says Amarah, 14, who is entering her freshman year at MICDS and attends Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. 

“She’s extremely caring and considerate, and wants to know what is happening in your life. I also like that I’ve been able to meet and become friends with Jewish girls from throughout the (St. Louis) area.”

Sarah Baker agrees. She joined the group in sixth grade, but has stayed with it since — she will enter ninth grade later this month at Clayton High School. She, too, points to Orna as the glue who keeps the group together, though Sarah is quick to add that there’s also something special about these girls.

“We just have all really connected in a meaningful way,” says Sarah, 14, whose family belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth. “We have different units for each year and share personal stories at the beginning of each session. Orna usually leads an activity that could be an art project or community service project. We do team building games; we may talk about a particular Jewish holiday and its relevance today. 

“Pretty much Orna helps us understand the lessons of Judaism and how to incorporate them into our daily lives. She’s just so great and shares personal stories, too.”

Orna says she got involved as a leader with the program for the first time five years ago at the recommendation of a friend. A core group of six girls have been in the group the whole time, she adds, which is part of what makes it so special. 

“At first,” says Orna, “when the girls were 10 and 11, the focus was more on art projects related to Jewish holidays. 

“But as time when on, we would talk more about who they are as individuals and how they can contribute to society and more about their own their character within the framework of Judaism,” she adds.

Character building and learning leadership skills have been a big focus the last couple of years. “I just want them to have enough inner-strength and confidence to stick up for what they believe in even if it’s not the most popular view,” Orna says. “To know that they can think critically and listen to their own inner-voice even when it’s challenged, but also appreciate other people’s point of view. 

“I want them to be confident, feel like they belong, and are appreciated, feel validated and know how to seek out those types of connections and stay away from those who don’t treat them the way they deserve to be treated.”

Orna, who is married with two children and works as a clinical social worker at a state psychiatric hospital, says she gets as much, if not more, out of the program than the girls.

“I work in a psychiatric hospital with children who are the same age as these girls,” she says. “It really helps me to be with these girls who are so much more well-adjusted. I adore them. I try to look at each one of their strengths and appreciate them for who they are. We bonded so much. I didn’t expect to enjoy the program as much as I have.”

Still, says Orna, she has concerns about this generation of girls, especially when it comes to bullying. “What concerns me the most is the peer pressure and desire to fit in and the length that they will go to fit in. We’ve done scenarios and we’ve talked about what you would do in particular situations. They have grown over the years and become stronger and more independent and more secure in who they are. I have a lot of faith they will do the right thing, or if they are struggling they know where to go to get the support they need.”

Like Amarah and Sarah, Orna, too, feels bittersweet about this being the last year for the group. When asked if Orna would do it again, she says:

“It will be hard because it feels like a betrayal but I think I will do it again. A part of me can’t imagine it could be as good as it is with this group but a part of me also thinks how couldn’t it be. It’s just so much fun.”

For more information about It’s a Girl Thing, visit  jccstl.com/programs/nishmah.

No trivial matter

We’re instituting some new short features in the Light, which you can find running down the left side of Page 10. Beginning today, we will highlight a Yiddish Word of the Week. In addition, we will offer a couple of Jewish-related trivia questions, which we hope you will find challenging, or at least, illuminating. 

These new additions will run in the same place each week on the front of the Features page and take the place of “Around the Web.” If you have ideas for trivia or Yiddish words you’d like to see included, contact staff writer Eric Berger at [email protected]

Stars of the Games

Among the 1,200 athletes at the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games last week were five youngsters known as Star Reporters. Instead of competing on the field, this group documented the Games with words and pictures.

Volunteer Marcy Cornfeld, who took on the job because she enjoys being around teenagers, mentored them. Light managing editor Mike Sherwin and staff writer Eric Berger helped as well, as did Phil Ruben and Sydney Pultman with the Jewish Community Center.

Thanks to the Star Reporter team for their great work, including the “Maccabi Moments” newsletter, which you can see online at stljewishlight.com/maccabi-moments