One "girl" tells the group she doesn't sleep enough; another admits she has bad skin.
A third rather nonchalantly mentions that she smokes "three or four a day."
As a facilitator with Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing!, it's not Shani's place to play the parent or the teacher here. She wants to create a "safe space" where girls feel comfortable saying anything about themselves.
At the same time, she needs to teach the group that it's not okay -- or cool -- to smoke.
So, she turns to Judaism.
She tells them: "Your body should be a temple. It's hard, but we should try not to do things, like smoking, that don't respect our bodies."
Such Jewish values are the cornerstone of the Rosh Hodesh educational model. Targeted at teen and preteen girls, the program -- based in Fort Washington -- applies a Jewish lens to issues like body image, friendship, family, stress and assertiveness. In doing so, program architects and facilitators hope to leave girls with both a bolstered sense of self-esteem and a strengthened Jewish identity.
As Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, the group that sponsors it, explained, "We're really seeking to empower the girls as they come up through adolescence to stay healthy, and to stay Jewish."
She said that the curriculum takes a proactive approach to reversing the drop in female Jewish participation post-Bat Mitzvah, and the negative messages young girls receive through popular culture. She described it as building a framework for healthy decision-making on both counts.
How to Engage Teens
Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing! -- which was founded by a center at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College before spinning off into the independent Moving Traditions organization -- now operates 200 groups in this country and Canada. Timed to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh, which marks the first day of each month on the Hebrew calendar, It's a Girl Thing! is inspired by an event adult women have celebrated since biblical times, and that was rediscovered by Jewish feminists in the 1970s.
But as Congregation Beth Am Israel facilitator Leslie Lieberman points out, using Rosh Hodesh to reach younger girls just makes sense.
"Judaism thinks about all the issues teenage girls are thinking about, and we're trying to communicate that to them," she said. "That you will find a Jewish viewpoint or an argument on anything you are feeling."
Popping into a two-day training retreat recently, Meyer underscored the importance of facilitators "using the right voice" in presenting Jewish ideas.
"It's like we're giving them the tools so it feels like they're coming to it naturally," said Meyer. "It's more informal, experiential learning.
"It's not critical of education, of course," she was quick to add. "It's just, how do you engage teens in a voluntary way?"
Facilitators say that enlisting teens sometimes means pushing them to try new things.
By way of example, It's a Girl Thing! director Mindy Shapiro cited Adar, the month of Purim, when it's customary to create masks. Though some girls may be self-conscious about letting others touch their face, "when they do it, it builds such an intimacy with each other," said Shapiro. "Sometimes, you want to push them past their comfort zone."
Other times, the opposite is true. When one facilitator mentioned that she had a girl who refused to participate because she wouldn't sit on the floor in a miniskirt, Shapiro suggested working with the girl instead of against her. She said the facilitator could plop down pillows and blankets to put the girl at ease.
The goal, noted facilitators, is to promote a positive vibe, and to avoid the often competitive aspects of female interaction.