Imagine that you’re a young woman with twin passions — Judaism and feminism — and you’re offered a way to combine them in the cause of productive social change.
Two New Jersey high school students, Sarah Gorman and Alexandra Sinins, have been given that opportunity as 2021-22 Kol Koleinu Teen Fellows.
Kol Koleinu — the name means “All Our Voices” — is a national feminist teen fellowship created by the nonprofit organization Moving Traditions four years ago. It brings together 56 Jewish teens in four regional cohorts: East Coast, Midwest, New York area, and West Coast. Moving Traditions, which was founded in 2005, is committed to diversity and equality, and to creating a safe space for all Jewish teens.
That commitment is made clear in a name change the organization made recently.
Moving Traditions’ decision to rename what was the B’nai Mitzvah Family Education Program — it’s now the Moving Traditions B-Mitzvah Family Education Program — “is based on trends in gender fluidity and our respect for the need to continually refine our offerings so that all people feel seen and embraced by Jewish life,” its website says. Its goal: “To embolden youth by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism, and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning.”
Kol Koleinu, which “invites young Jewish feminists to explore and deepen their feminist knowledge, channel their voices to share their beliefs, and use their skills to create tangible change in their communities,” is offered in collaboration with the Reform movement’s NFTY and the Conservative movement’s USY, with additional support from the Hadassah Foundation, Vector Consulting, and the Women of Reform Judaism.
Sarah Gorman of Montville, a 16-year-old junior at Montville Township High School, first heard about Kol Koleinu at a NFTY winter convention. “The presentation stood out to me,” she said. “It was about the intersection of two important identities. I knew that if I should do anything, it should be this.”
She is excited about the program’s commitment to community building, peer learning, and creating feminist social change projects, and she looks forward to the monthly Zoom meetings and occasional in-person retreats. The first Zoom meeting will take place September 26; the last is set for May 22.
While Sarah admits that some of her thinking about feminist issues is “all over the place,” she recently became interested in helping victims of the sex trade, “working to create an exit strategy, providing resources.” She plans to bring that idea to the program and she hopes to create a project out of it. She has been involved with the group World Without Exploitation, which works to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation, as well as with the Youth Coalition, which deals with sexual and reproductive rights. Sarah also is active in her synagogue community, Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, and has headed her shul’s youth group.
“I hope to gain communication skills, but I also want to share ideas and collaborate with like-minded individuals,” she said. “It will be exciting to be with them and to use our passions and what we’re excited about to create tangible change in our communities.” She isn’t sure yet how her two passions will intersect, or what her programs will look like, but said she looks forward to learning more.
She’s most excited about the opportunity to talk to, and connect with, other girls who share both her deep concern for Judaism and for feminist ideas, she added. At school many students espouse the same feminist ideas she does, but when it comes to organized school clubs, “there’s nothing that speaks to the intersection” of those ideas and a Jewish perspective. She’d like to “bring something to the school, a club,” that would answer this need, she said.
Alexandra Sinins is a 17-year-old senior at the all-girls Kent Place School in Summit and a former USY member. She lives in Maplewood; her family belongs to Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.
She heard about Kol Koleinu from a family friend, she said. “I wanted to be associated with it because it does a lot with women’s rights,” particularly education for young girls. “As a Jew, I wanted to learn more about the intersection between women’s rights and Judaism.”
Alexandra is concerned with access to education, an idea that first piqued her interest when she read “I Am Malala,” the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. She is the world’s youngest Nobel prize laureate.
Alexandra said she used to attend a co-ed school, “but there is a difference between education in different environments,” adding that “society conditions women to be in competition with each other.” At Kent Place, she said, the girls are in “competition with themselves,” to do as well as they can. A longtime member of the Girl Scouts, she won the movement’s highest honor, the Gold Award, working with boys’ and girls’ clubs on the issue of girls’ education.
Alexandra said she hopes to bring what she learns from Kol Koleinu to other communities. She intends to major in history in college, and to tackle both Jewish studies and women’s studies. “I want to create change,” she said. “I hope to gain new perspectives on, and awareness of, different topics, allowing me to create more programs.” Perhaps, she said, her experience with Kol Koleinu will create a new passion, although she expects it to reinforce what she already feels.
Past participants in Kol Koleinu have dedicated themselves to social change projects on a broad range of major issues, including body image, voting rights, the need for gender equality within their schools, and inclusive sex education.
“Incoming Kol Koleinu Fellows are ready to channel their energy toward meaningful social change, especially as they emerge from the pandemic,” Moving Traditions’ founder and CEO, Deborah S. Meyer, said. “In their applications, the fellows told us that they want to fight anti-Semitism, sexism, and racial injustice—and they want to work with their peers to advance feminism, reproductive rights, and positive body image, among other issues. Many have already stepped up as leaders in their local communities and are ready to take their activism to the next level.
“We’re looking forward to seeing how these inspiring teens will come together in Kol Koleinu to create change in the Jewish community and the wider world.”