Preteens, Teens Question Gender Roles in Groups

A group of Moving Traditions students and group leaders | Photo provided

In one of her Moving Traditions groups, 12-year-old Haley Adelman cut out pictures of girls from magazines.

The purpose of this exercise, like much of the Moving Traditions curriculum, is to provoke questions and discussions about gender and identity from preteens and teenagers.

“We learned that girls can be whatever they want to be, and they can look whatever and however they want,” Haley said.

Moving Traditions is a national organization based in Jenkintown that provides programming for students sixth through 12th grade. Moving Traditions partners with other organizations throughout the country, such as synagogues, and trains their educators to teach its curriculum.

The groups provide a space for teens to talk and ask questions about identity and gender — all within a Jewish context. Much of the curriculum, for example, covers heroines from the Torah. The purpose of the organization is to adapt and “move” the tradition to make it more meaningful for the students.

“We were thinking about how do we continue to help change and move the tradition so that Jewish life and Judaism remain moving and central to the lives of Jews today and into the future,” Moving Traditions CEO Deborah Meyer said.

Moving Traditions breaks the teens up into groups of nine to 11. The boys are in groups called Shevet Achim, while the girls are in groups called Rosh Hodesh. Recently, Moving Traditions also launched a new online program for transgender or gender-nonconforming teens. About 350 students in the Philadelphia area are enrolled in Moving Traditions groups, meeting once a month.

“The last several months of upsetting and emerging stories of sexual harassment and assault at work really show that power and sexuality and gender are really pervasive aspects of our lives, and if we don’t directly talk about them and explore them, they can become very problematic,” Meyer said.

Meyer founded Moving Traditions 12 years ago, but the girl’s program began in 2002. Rabbinical students at the Kolot: Center for Jewish Women’s & Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College wanted to start doing girls programming. Meyer came on board to help run it.

Though Moving Traditions started at RRC, it was never intended to be a Reconstructionist program; in practice, it has worked with synagogues of all denominations.

Three years after its original founding, Rosh Hodesh broke away from RRC to become Moving Traditions.

In 2011, Meyer and her co-founder, Sally Gottesman, decided to expand Moving Traditions to include a boys program. They wanted boys to ask similar questions about gender, so they hired men to research and develop Shevet Achim.

“What does it mean to be a boy? What does it mean to be a man?” Meyer said. “The opportunity for who you can be as an adult has changed so much in the last generation. Men are not just bringing home a paycheck. … We wanted to help boys figure out what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a Jewish man.”

Meyer first started contemplating how to include trans and gender-nonconforming students about seven years ago, when a trans girl joined Moving Traditions. They spoke to a trans educator about how best to proceed.

“We worked to help that group leader and that trans girl and the girls in the Rosh Hodesh group really benefit from the experience,” Meyer said. “We wanted to work for everybody, not just that trans girl but also for the other girls in that group.”

The online element of the new program offers both technical and social benefits. Because there aren’t enough transgender teens in any one area of the country to form a group, online groups allow the teens to connect from across the country.

It also makes it easier for the teens to participate without having to come out to their families and communities.

Moving Traditions’ groups, though, also help with the other issues that teens face on a daily basis.

The biggest one, Meyer said, is stress.

“Parents and schools, especially Jewish parents in many cases, are very focused on helping their children succeed and get into good colleges,” Meyer said. “The academic pressure is being applied even more steadily and at even younger years, so that’s a big problem. At the same time, teens are under enormous social stresses with their own 24/7 connectivity.

“It’s just really hard to unplug, and your sense of whether you belong, and you’re comparing yourself to other people and their fabulous lives. It just doesn’t stop.”

Sharyn Adelman, Haley’s mom, said Moving Traditions provides a comfortable space for Haley to speak out. Because the girls don’t all go to the same school, she can also talk about problems she might have at school.

“It’s been really positive to see her connecting with the topics each month and really making connections to how it affects her life.” 

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