A new website aimed at teen girls isn’t about the latest must-have fashion accessory or perfect shade of lipstick.
Launched in June, jGirls is a pluralistic online magazine for female Jewish high school students looking to engage with serious subjects like feminism, Israel, mental health issues, sexual orientation and gender identity.
But jGirls is not only for Jewish teen girls, it’s also by them. The publication is produced by a diverse editorial board of 12 Jewish girls between the ages of 13 and 19 from across the United States. The board is entirely responsible for soliciting, curating and preparing the site’s content.
Jewish girls in the same age range from all over the world are invited to submit material for publication. An initial call for submissions yielded 127 pieces of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music and visual art from 72 individuals from 18 US states, the UK, France, Australia, Spain, and Israel.
The girls have a lot to say, and the material currently online indicates the teenage writers and editors have not shied away from dealing head-on with difficult topics like sexual assault, drug abuse, and suicide. June’s launch was a soft one, with many of the site’s features in place, but some still to be added or changed when a hard launch takes place in the fall as students go back to school.
“I wish I had a jGirls when I was 13, 14 and 15. It helps girls explore what it means to be a woman and to be Jewish. I hope it shows girls that what they say matters,” said 18-year-old editorial board member Penina Satlow, who heads off to Israel later this summer for a gap year before starting college.
jGirls is the brainchild of New York documentary filmmaker and social entrepreneur Elizabeth Mandel, who noticed that amid the internet’s cacophony, there was one voice missing — that of Jewish teenage girls. For her, it was an important voice that needed to not only be heard, but also amplified.
“There are dedicated publications and online spaces for Jewish women, such as Lilith, and there is Kveller for Jewish mothers to share their struggles. But no [online] space existed for pluralistic Jewish girls to share their experiences and to have civil discourse on Jewish differences,” Mandel told The Times of Israel.
There were already leadership and mentoring programs in Jewish communities, including the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Rising Voices Fellowship, which has a writing element; Ma’yan, which trains parents and daughters about “intersectional feminism;” and national education network Moving Traditions, which challenges and explores gender and identity.
“There was still a need for a publication by Jewish girls for Jewish girls,” said Mandel.
It was this emphasis on diversity and pluralism that attracted Satlow, a recent graduate of Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, to jGirls.
“I’ve rarely felt comfortable in established Jewish spaces unless they are pluralistic, and jGirls is exactly this kind of pluralistic space,” she said.
Mandel, a 47-year-old mother of three young daughters, thought about how she felt supported by her online communities of motherhood, and wanted her girls to have a similar experience when they became teenagers.
“Right now my daughters are strong and assertive. As they get older they will get the message to be quieter and smaller — and it will be at a time when they won’t come to talk to me. I wanted to create an online community where they could find older Jewish girls to turn to, who could help them explore what it means to live at the nexus of being Jewish and female,” she said.
Mandel began working on jGirls in 2015, quitting her day job to focus on the venture full time with the support of a Bikkurim residency at the Jewish Federations of North America.
Bikkurim executive director Aliza Mazor was impressed by Mandel’s vision.
“Jewish innovators often recreate the wheel, but Elizabeth wanted to add to, compliment and leverage what already exists. The idea of a magazine for girls is not new. What is innovative here is that Elizabeth is developing the girls’ leadership along with the magazine,” Mazor said.
“This is about the girls themselves. It’s their voices loud and clear. No one is telling them what to do or think,” she said.
The 12 teen girls chosen from 55 applicants to serve as the magazine’s founding editorial board worked collaboratively online for the last year with the guidance of Mandel and editorial consultant Katina Paron, a journalism educator. The girls built the publication from the ground up, beginning with creating its mission statement and editorial policies.
Mandel is currently fundraising with the aim of bringing in experts to work with the editors on thinking and talking about Israel across a diverse set of perspectives and experiences, and how that will inform editorial choices. Mandel is similarly planning to explore with the girls ways to maintain an inclusive political environment and foster respectful dialogue across differences “given the current political situation in the United States.”
Despite having grown up in the internet age, the teen editors discovered that holding editorial meetings exclusively by teleconference and marking up copy via GoogleDocs didn’t always feel completely natural.
“Working virtually felt very modern. It was somewhat challenging, and we had to develop specific procedures for working this way,” noted 17-year-old Gali Davar of Riverdale, New York.
Davar, who has been published in the literary magazine at her school, The Bronx High School of Science, thought making jGirls a national — and even international — initiative was worth the extra effort.
“By working virtually, it’s more accessible and widespread. jGirls couldn’t be as representative and diverse if it was just in New York,” she said.
Davar spoke to The Times of Israel several days before she was scheduled to meet fellow editorial board member Aliza Abusch-Magder, 16, in person for the first time.
“I’m so excited to meet her. She’s visiting New York from Atlanta. It’s been so great to make new friends from around the country through jGirls,” Davar said.
Abusch-Magder, who will in the fall enter 11th grade at the Weber School, an Atlanta Jewish day school, chaired the art department on the jGirls editorial board. She said she and her fellow department members worked hard to find the right balance between setting standards and creating community. There were instances when they rejected submissions, or sent them back with requests for changes.
“jGirls is about the community. We care about the quality of the work, but we want to make space for everyone. We want to reflect diversity,” Abusch-Magder said, who is also a former JWA Rising Voices Fellow.
Satlow is unclear as to whether she will be able to remain on the editorial board during her gap year.
“I hope I can still stay involved in some way,” she said.
Having come to jGirls in her senior year of high school, Satlow’s tenure with the magazine was short. However, she is happy she was part of the effort to found a publication that will benefit girls coming up after her.
Mandel believes that helping girls realize the impact of their voices will positively influence not only the girls themselves, but ultimately the entire Jewish community, as well.
“If you grow up exposed to a range of ideas and can discuss them in a moderated way, you will take that into adulthood. This can build a community of respectful conversation and shift the climate of the Jewish community and beyond,” Mandel said.