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Finding God in the Stories of Young Jewish Women

Finding God in the Stories of Young Jewish Women

Two girls jumping in the air on the beach

In the fourth grade, I told my town’s then-mayor about my plans for when I grew up: “I want to be chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I also want to be an author, a civil rights lawyer, a microbiologist, a rabbi, a pediatric surgeon, president, and maybe a history professor. I want to go to every country in the world, speak at least seven languages, have four kids, hold public office, cure malaria, and read every book in my local library.”

Baffled, he took in my long pigtails and pink dress and responded: “But you’re a girl.

My teacher leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Don’t worry, Zoe. He doesn’t know you.”

At that moment, I decided that one day, he was going to know my name.

The full force of the mayor’s comment didn’t hit me all at once, but it had an impact that was years in the making. Like an old sprain, it flared up periodically: when I tried out for my first sport, earned straight A’s and a place on the honor roll, or read from the Torah. It nagged at me, always in the back of my head: “But you’re a girl.

It wasn’t until I fell in love with Judaism that I stopped seeing my successes as being despite my womanhood but rather because of it.

When I was 14, I found God in an unfamiliar synagogue in Plantation, FL. It was my first event with NFTY (the Reform Jewish youth movement), and I wasn’t quite sure how I’d landed there.

I’d had a bat mitzvah, sure, and I volunteered at my temple’s religious school every Sunday, but Judaism was, to me, the equivalent of a second cousin – you know you’re related, but you don’t really know how. Yet there I was, at that unfamiliar synagogue, and two teenagers I’d never met were putting their arms around me and singing a version of the Bar’chu with so much joy that I could hardly believe it was a prayer. I opened my mouth, and, suddenly, I was praying, too.

I believe with all my heart that I wound up there because it was b’sheret – meant to be.

In the three years since, I have attended countless regional NFTY events and spent two summers at URJ Kutz Camp (NFTY’s summer home). At Kutz, I prayed for peace at the top of my lungs, led a discussion about the intersection of racism and sexism, danced on Shabbat wearing neon leggings, and recited the Shehecheyanu on the day the United States Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land.

At Kutz, I was a girl, and I was Jewish, and I was powerful.

The next summer, as a URJ Kutz Camp Fellow, I was asked to create a project to engage my peers in meaningful Jewish life, the way NFTY had done for me. With this goal in mind, I created Know Her Name, a site that invites young Jewish women to share their stories. In return, I send them a wristband to pass along to another young Jewish woman as encouragement to become engaged in Jewish life. They, in turn, empower others to continue the chain, with each young woman sharing her own story on the site.

I created Know Her Name because I am a girl.

I created Know Her Name because I know how it feels to be told that you can’t, to be drowned out by men who assume you can’t possibly know what you’re talking about. I know that feeling in the pit in your stomach when boys catcall you during cross-country practice, and I know about the lump in your throat when you ignore it and just keep running.

I created Know Her Name because beyond reading Torah, celebrating the High Holidays, and lighting Shabbat candles, the stories of Jewish women are holy to me. Listening to the stories of my bubella (grandmother), the sermons given by my female rabbi, and the reflections of bat mitzvah students is how I find God.

I created Know Her Name because others can’t possibly know all the things we want to be when we grow up. Neither can they know the worlds we can change nor the multitudes we contain. We don’t need others to tell us who we can be!

Let’s engage each other, and let’s inspire each other – because we are girls.

Zoe Terner, a student at the University of Florida, is the immediate past social action vice president of NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement. In February 2018, she joined students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to facilitate a lobby day in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. More recently, she has served as the gun violence prevention campaign chair and a legislative intern, both at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., and the program manager for Not My Generation: A Summit for Young Adults Against Gun Violence. Zoe currently works as a legal intern with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, dedicated to bringing criminal justice reform to her home state.

Zoe Terner
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