In November, the Strong Women’s Fellowship had the opportunity to meet with the co-founders of the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, Valerie Habif and Joanie Shubin. They started their organization amidst the controversy from the Affordable Care Act in 2012. Together, they shared how that one issue sparked the formation of their group and how they utilized Facebook to gain members and popularize their group. They sought to form a political group in which progressive thoughts and ideas could be exchanged and to create an encouraging and accepting environment in which to do so.

Valerie and Joanie presented their story of growth in a very engaging way. They discussed the issues their group initially focused on, mainly the ACA, and explained the other problems they began to take on, such as gun violence and education. They helped us explore the depths of these issues, the importance of advocacy, and the capacity of their Jewish values. They explained that their group uses these values, such as Tikkun Olam (repair the world) and Kehillah (community), to navigate various political issues. The JDWS is comprised of hundreds of like-minded people who are passionate about enacting change in these areas and more. 

Hearing about what the organization accomplishes and what its meetings involve have changed my essentially uninformed idea of what a political group entails. I now know that it is a very effective and mind-opening method of bringing about change on any scale. 

One of the activities we partook in was generating our responsibilities as citizens. Of course, the obvious answer and the first that came to my mind was to vote; however, we listed a couple of others, but the critical job that was the last to be named was the responsibility to follow up with the people we elected into office. I did not realize how essential it is to hold those who earned our votes accountable for what they do and/or fail to do. I learned our representatives need to be actively striving to meet the needs of those they have been elected to represent, and most importantly, if they fail to do that, it is our civic duty to inform them.

Another discussion Valerie and Joanie led was one regarding ways of getting in contact with legislators. Although email is most convenient, this conversation truly enlightened me that writing a letter to my local politician would be more effective. Simply because these legislators receive fewer letters, they are more likely to prioritize them and take the time to resolve the matter voiced in said letter. The way to bring about the most change in one’s community is by contacting one’s local legislator, so I am happy to have learned that a letter will ensure my concerns are voiced and responded to.

The main takeaway I got from this meeting was that there are more things that I, a 16-year-old, can be doing to be politically involved in my community. I can advocate for the issues I am passionate about. I have attended a few marches, and I can continue to do so or even organize my own. I can follow politicians who believe in some of these same issues on social media and spread awareness on platforms such as Instagram. I can write to local politicians to urge them to vote on changing a policy or possibly vote on adding one. I also learned that I could register to vote this upcoming year, which I am incredibly excited about. Ultimately, this meeting with Valerie and Joanie has made me feel much more capable of my abilities as a young Jewish woman. They have prepared me with a valuable skill set to enter the political realm of my community successfully, and for that, I am very grateful.

Many teens who identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community struggle daily with accepting their own identities due to the hetero-normative society that we live in. Learning about the struggles that LGBTQ+ youth go through is an essential step in creating an accepting and supportive community in our schools, homes, and workplaces. SOJOURN is creating huge strides to educate and support the Southern, Jewish community on these issues, to ultimately better our community.

On October 3rd, the young leaders of the Strong Women Fellowship had the pleasure of learning from McKenzie Wren from SOJOURN. McKenzie is the program coordinator of the organization. SOJOURN’s goal is to empower communities to advance and celebrate gender and sexual diversity across the South through education, outreach, advocacy, and support. 

Our session was focused on the pillar of education, primarily focused on gender. We learned about the Gender Spectrum, the difference between gender identity and gender expression, the vocabulary used to describe different gender identities and sexual orientations, and tied gender back to Judaism. We were given the space to ask uncomfortable questions that people often fear to ask. Those who didn’t previously understand the gender spectrum were given the opportunity to learn in a non-judgmental space. The fellows had a very positive experience with SOJOURN and felt comfortable in the community that was created. 

I am interested in the idea of the gender spectrum and hope to study Gender and Women Studies in college, so this session drew me in. I learned interesting facts about how to further explore this topic and was able to engage in meaningful conversation with my peers. The conversation of gender is usually tip-toed around and it is important to discuss it in a productive and welcoming way. This is exactly what we experienced with SOJOURN.

My gap year has been absolutely incredible so far. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to live in Israel for the year, and I am truly seeing and doing everything I can.

My school is located in the Old City of Jerusalem just a three-minute walk from the Kotel. I can actually see the Kotel from the balcony of my school. It’s difficult to put into words just how special and spiritual it is to be that close. On Chanukah, our entire school lit menorahs at the school window overlooking the Kotel, and it was such an incredible and spectacular sight. We also have amazing restaurants close by with the best falafel and shawarma in Israel. I enjoy learning in my classes every day and connecting to my Rabbis and teachers.

While growing up in Atlanta, I learned so many amazing stories in the Torah. This year I have been able to see exactly where all these events happened. We went on a school trip to Chevron, the place where the matriarchs and patriarchs in the Bible are buried, and visited the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as well as those of Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.

Another incredible experience was a three-day trip to the Negev in the desert. We spent our days exploring and learning about the land of Israel. Each day we had the opportunity to focus on making a closer connection with our own selves, our peers and with G-d.

Next week we are going to Poland where we will visit the concentration camps and see the atrocities of the Holocaust up close and personal. I cannot even imagine what that will be like.

There are not enough words to describe this incredible experience I’m having living for a year in the holiest city in the world. In the short four months I’ve been here, I’ve already made lifelong friends, grown, matured and learned so much. I am certainly looking forward to the rest of the year and more amazing adventures.