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Women top men in Jewish study

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NEW YORK, March 14 (JTA) — At the burgeoning international network of a two-year Jewish study program, the Florence Melton Adult Mini- Schools, Jewish women comprise about 60 percent of the pupils.

Women also are approximately 60 percent at Me’ah, another long-term course involving Jewish history, texts and values that is offered in a growing number of communities around North America.

Clear away your stereotypes of Jewish men poring over religious texts while the women stay home for the cooking, child-rearing and candlelighting aspects of Jewish life.

In what researchers are heralding as a profound cultural reversal, a new study released this week at a Brandeis University conference reveals that women are more likely than men to be engaged in adult Jewish learning.

The study, based on a national sample of 1,302 adults, is part of a larger research project on Jewish adult education being conducted by Hebrew University sociologist Steven Cohen and Aryeh Davidson, dean of the education school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

The gender gap is most dramatic among Jews who are religiously observant, but not Orthodox.

When ranked according to level of ritual observance, 57 percent of women who are very highly affiliated Jews study a moderate amount, compared with 45 percent of men. Among highly affiliated Jews, 48 percent of women study a moderate amount, compared with 36 percent of men.

There are few gender differences, however, among Orthodox Jews and Jews with low levels of affiliation, according to the study. Orthodox men and women both study Jewish topics a great deal (37 percent of men and 39 percent of women report high levels of Jewish study) while unaffiliated Jewish men and women both study Jewish topics very little (86 percent of men and 87 percent of women report low levels of Jewish study).

Indicating how women may influence the burgeoning field of adult Jewish education, the study also finds that women and men have different interests and motivation for enrolling in Jewish studies courses.

For example women tend to be more interested than men in learning about Jewish spirituality, ritual observance, Jewish values and Jewish art, while men express a greater interest in learning Talmud and Jewish history.

According to Sylvia Barack Fishman, co-director of one of the study’s sponsors, the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, women are not only more likely to engage in Jewish study but have also played a key role in the revival of adult Jewish learning.

Women’s excitement about text study was “the galvanizing force in creating this whole sea change,” said Fishman, who is a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis.

“It’s now cool to do adult study. Twenty years ago it wasn’t. What made it cool was women being excited about having access” and “they’ve changed the culture,” she said, noting that synagogues that have brought in the Me’ah program often do so at the urging of female congregants.

Rabbi David Gordis, the president of Hebrew College in suburban Boston and one of the founders of Me’ah, also attributed the statistics to a sort of renaissance among Jewish women.

“Women have emerged much more visibly both in positions of Jewish leadership and prominence and have been re-empowered Jewishly and in many cases they have taken that very seriously and wanted to reconnect substantively,” he said.

He added, however, that in some communities — such as Florida — there are simply more women around than men, while in others a sizeable number of women do not work, thus giving them more time for study.

While Me’ah and the Melton Mini-School nationally report a 60-40 ratio of women to men, in at least one community, women make up an even greater majority of adult learners. And they are inspiring a women’s day of learning and a spring semester focusing on women’s studies.

“All our classes are geared toward or about women,” said Nancy Lipsey, who coordinates educational programs at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, where more than 75 percent of participants in the Melton Mini-School — and the majority of students in the JCC’s other courses and book discussion groups — are women.

“We know who our audience is,” she added.

Lipsey said she did not know why women dominate the class rosters, noting that most of the students work full time, dispelling any speculation that it is stay-at-home moms or retirees who have more time than their male counterparts.

“Why do more men watch sports?” she asked rhetorically.

Betsy Katz, the North American director of the Melton Mini-School, also was not certain why more women enroll in adult Jewish learning, but suggested it has to do with women taking a more active role in educating their children Jewishly, as well as women outnumbering men in the Jewish communal agencies — like JCCs and federations — that often encourage or subsidize employees to enroll in the mini-school.

However, while the mini-school has adapted its curriculum to respond to women’s interests, Katz said, “we need to work harder to recruit men” by making the program more accessible, including offering more courses in the evenings and at workplaces.

Already, there is a mini-school for Microsoft employees that takes place at the company’s suburban Seattle headquarters.

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