Elyse Rast is the founder and CEO of G.I.R.L.S., a Jewish education program for young women. She has Master's Degrees from BU and Wheelock College, and has 15 years of teaching experience in the Boston area. She taught at six local synagogues and created four youth groups and ten Jewish girls' groups. Currently, Elyse is the Holocaust Educator for JCRC and the NE Holocaust Memorial. She also teaches Holocaust history and runs girls' groups at Prozdor Hebrew High School. Elyse plans to begin a PhD program at Lesley University next fall.
One glimpse at your biography makes it clear that you are a seasoned professional with deep connections in the Jewish community of Boston. What's the appeal of CJP's PresenTense Boston Fellowship for you?
Several years ago, I started my own company… and failed miserably. Sure, starting a venture has something to do with connections, but you also need to know how to run a business. I've been telling people that the PresenTense Fellowship is like getting a business degree in five months. We've learned how to create budgerts, how to make pitches, how to compile our ideas into something that's going to work and be relevant to our audience… how to create change and make our dreams a reality.
Thursday, May 26 is Launch Night, when all the Fellows present their ventures to the public. What are your expectations for that evening?
I hope to meet members of the community excited by my venture who want to build the company with me. I'm looking forward to connecting with people who see the need for G.I.R.L.S. and want to make sure as many girls in the Boston Jewish community can access the information that G.I.R.L.S. is going to provide.
What I love about this community is that you don't have to exist in a bubble. In some ways, I've been working for the past five months in a protected space with the other fellows, and now I can't wait to launch and see how it's received by the community.
You've been leading girls' groups for a number of years. Why was this the moment to take your idea to the next level?
I am where I want to be professionally. I have a strong network. I am confident in my ability to teach — I've been teaching for fifteen years. I'm about to being my PhD at Lesley University, studying the impact of girls' groups, it seemed like a perfect complement. And I feel like I'm making a real difference in the lives of these girls. But I think about the society pressures on girls today, and I want to help as many girls as possible. It's always been difficult to be a teenager, but with today's social media outlets, the decisions girls are making today can impact their whole lives. And despite having close family and friends, these girls tell me they feel alone in making very grown-up decisions. I see this work not as something "nice" or "supplementary" but really necessary in the lives of girls.
Clearly, the challenges that teenage girls face today are not limited to the Jewish community. Why are you approaching this issue with a Jewish answer?
It's crucial to connect girls with Judaism at this point in their lives, before they leave religious school and go to college, never to be seen again… I'm not just providing these girls with tools; the groups also connect them to Jewish friends and the Jewish community. We're using the wisdom from our Jewish foremothers and texts and helping girls to see this isn't just ancient wisdom; it's related to their reality. So they end up equating all this positive change in their lives with Judaism.
To learn more about Elyse and G.I.R.L.S., visit MyGirlsGroup.org, or come to CJP's PresenTense Boston Social Entrepreneur Launch Night on May 26th and meet Elyse and the rest of the Fellows.