From Day School to High School: An Exploratory Study on Jewish Adolescent Girls’ Identity Development


Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 86:2, 196-229 


This exploratory study focuses on the experiences of three Jewish adolescent girls who are recent graduates of the Shalom School, an independent day school outside a major city in North America. The girls are all in the middle of their freshman year in high school. While two girls attend local public high schools, one attends an independent Jewish high school. I used a narrative approach to examine how they are navigating the process of identity development in their new school environments. I was able to connect with the girls through word of mouth. I kept the sample intentionally small so that I could understand each girl’s perspective deeply.

The goal of the study is to understand how the girls made sense of their identities in their new sociocultural environments. While I do not intend to draw conclusions about their lives, or present new knowledge about Jewish girls, I suggest that the girls have lived experiences that have not been looked at before because they been buried under other groups. Rather, I hope to point to new directions to help unpack deficiencies that have yet to be identified in the literature.


I collected data using a semistructured interview. This qualitative approach provides a structure for the participant to tell her story and enables her to contribute new information to the issue that is being investigated (Galletta, 2013). While I generated a list of questions, the girls spoke about issues that were meaningful to them and from their own perspective. I adopted a feminist, power-sharing approach (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2013; Reinharz & Davidman, 1992) and took great measures to reduce power between myself and the girls.


As the examples imply, Jewish girls have complicated and varied identities. At the same time, this small sample demonstrates that Judaism plays a fundamental role in how the girls see themselves as they go through the process of identity formation. While the girls have voice, they are figuring out when and where to use it and, most importantly, how to use it. While the results are by no means generalizable due to the small sample size, working with a population of this size enabled me to build deep relationships with the girls and to listen closely to their words. The analysis raises important questions for future research with Jewish girls – with those who attend day school, and those who do not – and also with girls who also relate to other religious, racial, and/or ethnic identities. The findings reinforce the need for girls to feel heard, and for the listener to be mindful of mitigating influences, such as class, religion, and race, when Jewish girls discuss their lives.

It should be noted that these girls do not represent the general population of Jewish girls, and that the findings are too small to make any generalizations. Rather, they are a group of three girls who are raised in the context of a very specific sociocultural experience who are navigating an important stage in their lives. While they are engaging in the process of identity development, which is a process that all adolescent girls go through, they are also navigating their Jewish identities in a new school environment. This speaks to the importance of context in shaping Jewish girls’ lives.

For their 1992 study, Brown and Gilligan met with girls annually for three years to understand their process of identity development (see Brown & Gilligan, 1992). It would be interesting to meet with Shayna, Sarah, and Julia at later points in time to see how they are adjusting to high school life and how they feel about themselves. Would they feel differently about their connections to the Shalom School? Would they feel more or less settled in at their new schools? Would they feel that they are more or less outspoken? How would they relate to their Jewish identity and their girlhood? I would be curious to know about their experiences as they continue with their own development and to learn about the experiences of Jewish girls who attend other day schools and those who attend public schools and those who engage with other Jewish programs.


Brown, L. M., & Gilligan, C. (1992). Meeting at the crossroads: Women’s psychology and girls’ development. Harvard University Press.

Galletta, A. (2013). Mastering the semi-structured interview and beyond: From research to analysis to publication. New York University Press

Hesse-Biber, S. N., & Leavy, P. L. (2013). Feminist research practice: A primer. Sage Publications.

Reinharz, S., & Davidman, L. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. Oxford University Press

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020