Growing up in Manhattan, I developed an identity deeply connected to a vibrant Jewish community, but also one influenced by tremendous cultural diversity. Especially on Shabbat, my home is a place of great hospitality (hachnasat orchim), filled with people from all backgrounds, religions, opinions and viewpoints. The combination of openness, while also remaining true to tradition, shapes my Jewish identity. It is with this belief in my religious obligation to repair the world and my conviction that everyone is created in the image of God that I became so committed to Girl Up, a project of the U.N. Foundation, which helps position girls to be leaders in the movement for gender equality.
As the leader of the organization’s local chapter, the N.Y. Coalition, I seek to build a world where all girls can grow up free from violence and with educational and economic opportunity. I have been working hard to achieve this goal and so it has been immensely gratifying to be recognized by the Jewish community with a Diller Tikkun Olam Award, which honors up to fifteen Jewish teens who are outstanding leaders in community service.
Ironically, I might never have gotten involved in this type of advocacy work had I not experienced a rare, life-threatening autoimmune encephalopathy that was almost misdiagnosed as psychosis. Along the way to the correct diagnosis and treatment, I saw first-hand how often teen girls’ medical problems can be dismissed by medical professionals as anxiety, depression or attention-seeking. Narrowly escaping a fatal misdiagnosis inspired my passion for helping other girls learn to advocate for themselves and others.
And while my story is unique, I am not the only one whose personal experiences have motivated them to get involved with Girl Up. I find that many girls unconsciously gravitate to Girl Up to first challenge gender inequality abroad before beginning to organize against the very real, often gendered, obstacles in their own lives. In my life and as the leader of Girl Up NY, I see the power unleashed when girls learn to advocate, fundraise and organize around issues that they are passionate about. The skills acquired and self-confidence gained through Girl Up translates to all other aspects of their lives, and soon there are ripple effects of girls inspiring others in their schools, homes and neighborhood to believe they too can make a difference.
At Girl Up we like to say, “I am strong, but together we are stronger.” For me, our collective strength comes from recognizing our moral obligation to repair our broken world and uniting with others to multiply our efforts. By building opportunities for girls in developing countries and cultivating the leadership skills and confidence of girls in our country, I feel myself in partnership with God creating a more just world, making space so that everyone can be at the table.
Yardena Gerwin recently graduated from Beacon High School in Manhattan and will begin as a freshman at American University.