Ma’yan is a nonprofit research and education incubator that focuses a feminist lens on the cultural challenges and identity issues facing Jewish girls in contemporary society. Through research, innovative programming, and community events, we work with these girls, their parents, and their educators to provide resources that help all youth grow into critical, curious, and committed global citizens.
Around ten years ago during a Pilates class at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), I met Eve Landau, Executive Director of Ma’yan, a program of the JCC in Manhattan. We have had many conversations through the years based around our shared interest in women’s equality. Recently, I sat down again with Eve to learn more about the work Ma’yan offers to teenage girls, parents, professionals, and the Jewish community.
During our conversation, Eve gave me “Listen for a Change,” a brochure that began with “Why We should Listen.” Based on some of the ‘listening’ research that Ma’yan had done, the brochure states that, “The girls most often served by Jewish communal institutions—many of them socially, economically, and racially privileged—are thriving.” However, later in the text, I read that, “They (the girls) are surrounded by mixed messages about femininity and anger, affluence, beauty, and more.” As Eve pointed out and the brochure states, listening to girls, rather than just adults, in order to serve the girls’ needs, “also models a kind of power sharing or partnership between adolescent girls and adult leaders, which we think is key to cultivating girls’ skills and capacities as leaders.”
At the end of our meeting, Eve suggested that I attend “Who is served by our community service?” a program where I could listen in person to the presentations by the most recent cohort of Research Training Interns (RTI), Ma’yan’s premier program for Jewish teen girls. According to the organization’s website, “Based on the model of Participatory Action Research, the RTI engages Jewish teen girls in original research addressing issues that affect their lives and those of their peers. Past cohorts have conducted a broad survey of Jewish teen girls and examined girls’ experiences of Bat Mitzvah.”
Dr. Beth Cooper Benjamin, Director of Research at Ma’yan, led a cohort that started in late 2010. Beth guided the girls in RTI to develop their critical thinking skills by picking a topic, designing a survey for their peers, interviewing administrators, summarizing their findings, sharing what they learned then seeking ways to act on their recommendations.
At the program, I was part of an audience of parents, siblings, and others who listened to the voices of nine teenage girls tell us what they learned developing and administering surveys on the topic of community service. Eve told me that the “Girls are in line to be leaders in the community and the world at large” and I listened to the first presenter echo the future of the young women by stating the girls are “Starting a path to make a difference.”
One presenter said that during the community service assignments they sign up for in high school, “Teens aren’t learning…teens are dealing with symptoms of causes and not the long-term.” Girls felt that not learning the depths of an issue impeded their ability to make an impact when working with those in need. They radiated confidence, however, in their skills and ability to be involved on higher levels of service.
“We don’t need to have things sugar coated,” one presenter noted and agreed that “We are motivated to community service if we can love what we do.” Some presenters spoke about their service at Habitat for Humanity, a school for troubled children, and building a community center in Africa. The discussion then focused on how a community agency—or high school—can motivate teenagers.
Some ideas from the presenters included making community service more meaningful and effective, with greater frequency of service, regular placements, etc. They suggested that volunteers should be matched up with an organization by interest and passion. Teenagers wanted to build a relationship with the staff in a service program or agency and be given appropriate tools on how to be part of the service.
All the young women I listened to have great leadership potential. Their voices were authentic ones, echoing their commitment to help save the world. Ma’yan is poised to support the teenagers’ learning further so that they can, as the brochure states, “develop into compassionate, conscientious, and powerful adults of vision and conviction.” The next step is to share the results of the research project with others, especially those who take action on the recommendations from those in Research Training Internships.
Ma’yan was founded in 1993 by Barbara Dobkin, the leading Jewish feminist philanthropist in the United States, and Eve, who became Ma’yan’s Executive Director.