Kol Koleinu Fellowship Develops Change-Making Jewish Teen Feminist Activists

The fellows are “feminists in the world and online, but haven’t really integrated it into their Jewish identity. Kol Koleinu helps them do that."
October 12, 2020
Members of the 2019 cohort at the November 2019 retreat at URJ Eisner Camp. Photo courtesy of Moving Traditions.

In late September, three West Coast teens — Ava Lifton and Adina Kurzban from Los Angeles and Allie Tarkoff from the Bay Area — launched YourBodyYourImage, a website chronicling people’s experiences with body image, and providing resources and stories to increase self-love and acceptance. 

In early October, Danielle Gruber from Long Island, N.Y., launched “Voting With a Feminist Lens: A Workshop Created by and for Teens,” in partnership with BBYO, Jewish Feminist Alumnae Network, Union for Reform Judaism (NFTY) and United Synagogue Youth (USY). The event was  a three-session workshop for teens to explore the history and current state of voting. The teens created their projects through the Kol Koleinu fellowship, designed to explore and deepen teens’ feminist knowledge, share their beliefs and create change in their communities.

Founded by Moving Traditions, Kol Koleinu is open to Jewish high school students nationwide. Fellows learn about gender analysis, feminism and social change, teach their peers and complete feminist activist projects. In previous years, the group met monthly virtually and then in-person a few times a year. This year, all planned gatherings are virtual.

Moving Traditions Founder and CEO Deborah Meyer called the fellows “a source of inspiration in these dark times.” Quoting Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), she said, ‘ “We are not required to complete the work, yet we cannot desist.’ By emboldening teen feminists to raise their voices and work for justice, we help fulfill this obligation.”

California Director Alisha Pedowitz said the fellowship is a “powerful addition” to Moving Traditions programs, like “Rosh Hodesh” for girls, “Shevet” for boys, and “Tzelem” for transgender and gender-fluid teens, offered in partnership with Keshet, which already serve 600 Jewish preteens, teens and their parents in greater Los Angeles. “Helping them to challenge inequities and unhealthy norms they see all around them and empowering them to create change in their own communities is what teens very much need while weathering the pandemic,” Pedowitz said.

“Jewish feminism has taught me that the fight for recognition does not end when I have achieved it but rather when all those around me have the same opportunity to grow.”  — Maya Martinez Lurvey

Rabbi Tamara Cohen, vice president and chief of program strategy at Moving Traditions, said the fellows are “feminists in the world and online, but haven’t really integrated it into their Jewish identity. Kol Koleinu helps them do that. They’re learning that they’re not the first feminist teens who are Jewish to think about these issues. We try to help them think about the Jewish sphere as an option. It’s part of who they are and they can hold that Judaism and feminism are not in conflict and that a Jewish community is supporting them.”

Moving Traditions’ Curriculum Manager Jennifer Anolik said the program includes various educational and pedagogical approaches and is “informed by the field of multicultural education and gender studies, specifically in conversations and activities related to systems of oppression, sexism and intersectionality.” 

USY and NFTY are collaborating with Moving Traditions on the fellowship.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, NFTY director of learning and innovation youth, said in an email that Kol Koleinu “not only gives teens an opportunity to do deep and meaningful learning, but also gives them the tools and mentoring to take action in their own communities and the world.” 

Rabbi Joshua Rabin, USY’s senior director of teen engagement, identified Kol Koleinu as an opportunity for USY to look inward about how well it is modeling community, and for young women “to think about issues of gender in a way where they can be our teachers to ensure that USY is the best possible community it can be.” 

Cohen said the fellowship was meant to support older teenage girls’ leadership and activism, and that the organization hopes to build a “pathway of teen engagement that I hope we’ll eventually have for teens of all genders.” Some Kol Koleinu participants identify as nonbinary, and the fellowship is open to anyone who identifies as a feminist, Cohen added.

The program included West Coast and East Coast fellows in 2019-20. For 2020-21, there are 50 fellows in three regional cohorts, aligned by time zone to make virtual meetings easier. The 10 local fellows span the diverse geography and demographics of the L.A. Jewish community. 

Two members of the 2019 Kol Koleinu cohort at the November 2019 retreat. (right) Meredith Rosenthal (from North Jersey) and (left) Maya Kendall (from Brooklyn). Photo courtesy of Moving Traditions

“The fellowship empowers teens to actualize the change they see is needed in their communities,” Pedowitz said, adding that the projects “represent real and intersectional solutions to inequities that our fellows see in their lives. They are truly creating the change that builds a more inclusive, expansive Judaism and society.” 

Ava, a senior at L.A.’s New West Charter School and Adina, a junior at Shalhevet High School, explained in a joint Zoom interview that the YourBodyYourImage website is meant to be a space “where anyone can write and share stories,” Adina said. Ava added that the plan is to add new content monthly, “trying to grow our audience and reach as many people as possible, to help one or more people and hopefully our stories resonate with people.” 

Via email, the Journal asked some other 2020-21 Southern California-based fellows about their definition of Jewish feminism and their goals for the fellowship.

“A Jewish feminist is someone who advocates for equality and justice while viewing the world through a Jewish lens,” Eliana Becker, a de Toledo High School junior, said, “utilizing the values handed down to me through Jewish tradition and lessons learned from Jewish communities (such as Temple Beth Am, Ramah California and de Toledo) to form responses to current events and injustices in our world.”

“Being a Jewish feminist can look different for each person,” Hannah Kupferwasser, a senior at Wildwood High School said. “For me it means that I believe in equality for each gender, sex, race, religion and each cultural identity while also finding meaning in looking at equality through the lens of Judaism.” 

“Every girl comes as she is, without shame or judgment and allows herself to be changed,” said Zoe Lanter, a senior at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) who also was seeking a space “where I could be myself — queer and observant — without being put on the defensive,” and to “engage in deeper and more nuanced explorations of Judaism and feminism.” She was also looking for “intersectional places on the left that I can participate in without ditching Israel” and wants to “use my privilege to amplify the voices of others without compromising my own. After all, feminism needs the voices of all who call for political, social and economic equality.” 

Maya Martinez Lurvey,  a 10th grader at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, said she’s hoping to grow representation for and learn the history of Jews of Color around the world. “Jewish feminism has taught me that the fight for recognition does not end when I have achieved it but rather when all those around me have the same opportunity to grow.” 

The other Southern California fellows are Malena Podolsky, a junior at Sierra Canyon High School; Miri Pottebaum, a junior at Beverly Hills High School, Michayla Brown, a sophomore at Immaculate Heart High school; Emily (Em) Renetzky, a junior at El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills; and Gabrielle Biederman, a junior at Pacific Ridge School in San Diego.  

Cohen said the program gives her “a lot of joy and hope. There are so many high schoolers who want to make a difference, who have energy, ideas and passion. We’ve seen some great support and funding coming to issues around gender equity and #MeToo. All of that is really important and this is another place that’s positive and proactive and equally deserving of support. I hope that the Jewish community can be even more open to supporting them. We need their creativity and their passion now, more than ever.” 

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