In Their Words: How to Build the Next Generation of Jewish Feminist Activists

By Paige GoldMarche

The last generation of feminists fought hard for bodily autonomy, reproductive freedoms, and the right for me to marry my wife. Teens today are not guaranteed these freedoms, many of which are on the chopping block. The Jewish teens and college students I’ve worked with over my career are seeking ways to connect their activism to protect these rights and freedoms with their proud identity as Jews.

I am blown away by their passion and am aware of how much they can benefit from learning how to translate their big ideas into local action. Based on my experience – and with evidence from real teens in the Meyer-Gottesman Kol Koleinu Teen Feminist Fellowship – here are five life lessons to impart to Jewish high schoolers to help them thrive as the next generation of Jewish feminists and activists.

1. Instill a sense of confidence.

When our teens feel proud of who they are, and supported in what they care about, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. With a strong sense of confidence, a young person is more likely to propel their ideas into action. And at times, it’s completing their idea with support from an adult that can give them that confidence to keep going and think bigger.

Adina, a junior at a University in Wisconsin is the Operations Director at her campus feminist fashion magazine. While in Kol Koleinu, she and two fellows created a website and social media page dedicated to positive body image. She explains that Kol Koleinu taught her management and social media skills as well as strategies to run an organization. She shared that the most important thing she took from Kol Koleinu is to “be confident in the change I want to create and how I plan to do so.”

2. Develop skills to build their activist toolbox.

In Kol Koleinu, teens learn activist tools that can be used when creating a changemaking project, as well as in everyday life. Chief among these is networking skills, which can help teens make valuable connections to help their cause.

For example, Laine, they/them, a junior at a Washington, DC University, shared about their Kol Koleinu Capstone project Queeriosity, an LGBTQ Resource Guide for High School educators. Laine’s experience gave them the confidence to continue their changemaking work in college: “I was contacted by a trans educator who was working to start a middle school for gender-diverse youth in New York City. They had read my social change project and valued my perspective as a queer and trans student activist. Two years later, I am a member of their Queer and Trans Advisory Committee, have lent my writing support to developing founding documents and proposals.”

3. Deepen their connection to Jewish identity.

Our youth need to feel connected to Jewish community, and more importantly, their Jewish identity. Kol Koleinu provides the tools for them to possess Jewish confidence when they arrive on campus. We do this through text study that draws parallels between ancient and modern Jewish texts and present-day activism, learning about Jewish feminist icons and an incomplete Jewish feminist timeline, and more. For those in Kol Koleinu, most of whom are already Jewishly connected will feel prepared to sustain their Jewish identity when they get to college.

Julia, she/her, a junior at a small western Massachusetts college, has found it challenging to have community on campus as their Hillel leadership goes through transition. Julia created a Jewish discussion group inspired by what she learned in Kol Koleinu: Judaism, social justice, and pop culture. “When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I consulted the lessons and teachings I co-created to reinforce the Jewish values surrounding reproductive rights.”

4. Mentorship matters.

The experience of working with an adult mentor to help their capstone come to life can have lasting effects. Once mentored, a teen may become inspired to become a mentor themselves. We have seen fellows become mentors to middle school students or later in life, to high schoolers like their former selves. Laine is a Moving Traditions Tzelem group leader and mentor for trans and non-binary high schoolers through their local synagogue. Laine has created sessions for their teens such as Judaism, Art and Gender, bringing together both their passion and their teens passions to spend meaningful time together.

5. High School is not too soon.

Ari, he/him, a junior in high school in NYC, shared, “The wave of migrant families moving into NYC is an advocacy issue on my mind lately.” He created the Interactive Bilingual Children’s Program (IBCP) for his Capstone changemaking project, which cares for kids of immigrant parents while they are in ESL classes. Throughout the program year, the children participate in vocal practice, make homemade playdoh, practice vocabulary and the alphabet, create Mothers’ Day cards, and more. Through the fellowship, Ari developed planning and outreach skills to create this program, and recently expanded with the help of two volunteer co-directors. With another year in high school, Ari plans to focus on the two sites, expand when possible and will begin to onboard the next generation of passionate volunteers like himself. Ari said, “Kol Koleinu fellows in my old cohort have generously helped me with my work (volunteering, giving advice, and spreading the word) and my mentor has given me so much support and opportunities to develop my project.”

With These Lessons…

When teens are equipped with these five learnings – confidence, activist tools, deeper Jewish confidence, a mentor relationship, and the understanding that you do not have to be in college to make the next change – they are more engaged and prepared to create the change they wish to see.

The Meyer-Gottesman Kol Koleinu Teen Feminist Fellowship has produced 135 alumni since 2017 who have entered the world with tangible tools to be changemakers – and we are currently recruiting for next year. Our fellows spend the year building their activist toolbox with skills like public speaking, listening, power mapping, researching, and goal setting. They end the year having created, with a mentor, a changemaking project that impacts their local community. Alumni are proud to have participated in Kol Koleinu and take these skills with them into their next life stage.

I have always said that as long as my students continue to feel a connection to Judaism, I am doing my job no matter where they engage in their Jewish identity. There are fortunately lots of amazing programs like Kol Koleinu to help teens connect Judaism to action.

With these life lessons and a strong Jewish identity, our teens today can become the feminist, activist leaders of tomorrow.