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Reform trying to lure men back

A men's Shacharit service on Dec. 13, 2007 was part of the focus on men's spiritual needs at the Union for Reform Judaism's biennial convention in San Diego. (Michael Fox Photography)

A men’s Shacharit service on Dec. 13, 2007 was part of the focus on men’s spiritual needs at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention in San Diego. (Michael Fox Photography)

SAN DIEGO (JTA) – The men’s prayer service was the smallest of several morning worship offerings at last week’s biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.

About 40 men showed up, some wearing prayer shawls and kipot, others with bare shoulders and heads. A handful of younger participants wore tefillin.

There were no drums, not like the men’s service at the last Reform biennial. Instead, worshipers pounded rhythmically on the backs of their chairs as they sang, their deep voices blending in and out of the higher-pitched, more lilting melodies coming from the much larger women’s service down the hall.

Lest anyone confuse this robustly male minyan with an Orthodox shul, these men invoked the matriarchs along with the patriarchs, concluding their introduction to the Amidah by describing the Almighty not just as Abraham’s shield but, in accordance with their movement’s egalitarian emphasis, also as Sarah’s helper.

The relatively small turnout, as well as the inclusion of the matriarchs, illustrated the sensitive nature of what Reform leaders are trying to do: Bring men back to Reform Judaism without diluting the gains made by women. Sometimes, they say, that means giving men a space of their own, however “un-PC” that idea might sound.

Meeting the needs of boys and men was a major focus of a two-day, pre-biennial Reform symposium on gender differences in Jewish education. Among the speakers was Doug Barden, executive director of the Men of Reform Judaism, formerly known as the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods.

“Within the Reform movement we’ve confused gender stratification with gender differentiation,” said Barden, a major proponent of the separate-but-equal approach. “We need to reverse the disaffiliation of men without setting the egalitarian clock back 30 years.”

Women are more religiously active in most faiths in this country, and have been for a century. But the gender gap in Jewish life, particularly in the liberal movements, has grown greater in recent years.

Numerous studies reveal that more girls than boys participate in Jewish youth groups and attend summer camps. Women are more active in synagogues, Jewish community centers and federations, and are better represented than men at all levels except the top levels of governance.

All along the line, women are more involved in Jewish life than men, at least in the non-Orthodox world.

While the majority of Reform rabbis are still men, the upcoming crop from the movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is three-quarters female.

The recent symposium is only one of several recent examples of the Reform movement and other segments of the Jewish community attempting to address the gender gap on the participation front.

Most of the attention so far has been given to boys, whose participation in Jewish life is significantly less than girls outside the Orthodox movement.

Moving Traditions, the group that sponsors “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing” for Jewish girls in grades 8-12, is engaged in a three-year national research project to assess and meet the needs of Jewish boys.

The group is looking at organizations such as BBYO and the Boy Scouts that successfully draw large numbers of young men.

“We’re concerned about boys for themselves and for what they need to become Jewishly-connected men,” said Deborah Meyer, the executive director of Moving Traditions.

As part of its effort to address such concerns at the adult level, the Reform movement just published two new books from URJ Press devoted to men’s needs and congregational programming ideas, although neither publication received the splashy reception accorded the much larger, more scholarly “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.”

In addition, the Men of Reform Judaism just put out “The Men’s Seder,” a Passover Haggadah for men designed as a response to the women’s seder movement.

More than 250 Reform congregations have ordered the book, Barden said, and he expects some will sponsor men’s seders this spring. Once the idea takes hold, he plans to take the project to the Conservatives and Reconstructionists.

Focusing on meeting men’s specific needs is a “matter of great sensitivity,” acknowledges URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

“Let’s face it, men are not streaming into our synagogues,” he said in a talk to the same lunchtime crowd Barden addressed. “We have not been able to come up with an approach to gender that makes sense and can move us forward.”

But it’s something the movement needs to face fast.

“We don’t have 10 years to do this, or even five years,” Yoffie said. “In the next year or two, we need to find practical ways to attack the problem.”

Some are calling women’s increased participation in Jewish life the “feminization” of Judaism. But they say it quietly, fearing a backlash.

That backlash comes fast. One woman asked Barden testily after his address to the symposium what he meant by saying “a form of censorship has taken over the movement.”

A different kind of pushback is coming from women – and men – within the movement who say women’s gains are too fragile to be taken for granted and there is no need to “feel sorry” for men, the gender that has controlled Judaism for thousands of years.

William Pollack, a psychology professor at the Harvard medical school and the founding director of the Real Boys educational program, says that’s ridiculous.

“There aren’t cadres of men wanting to come into Reform Judaism and throw the women out,” he insisted.

“Most men are not anti-egalitarian,” he asserted. “They’re just confused.”

That confusion – or loneliness, as many put it – is at the heart of these new Reform efforts. They’re not aimed at beefing up numbers, although that would be nice, Reform leaders admit.

These new initiatives, from the books to the men’s groups to the separate-gender worship services, are aimed at something deeper: admitting that men have spiritual needs that are not being met by their Jewish communities.

“It never occurred to me there were ‘men’s spiritual issues,’ ” said Art Grand, who has since organized a men’s group at Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale, Calif.

Grand describes how the group’s members help each other through divorce, job change, death and anything else that affects their lives.

“We all want the same thing – a connection to God, a sense that our lives are holy,” he said. “But some were afraid to use those words.”

Other men in the session talked about their loneliness, the difficulty of making friends and how rarely their sons ask them for advice.

“I think we go to poker games and play on softball leagues and help our buddies move because we hope we’ll have an ‘I-thou’ moment,” surmised Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana, Calif., editor of “The Still Small Voice,” a collection of Reform men’s essays just published by the URJ Press.

One of the experiments being tried, however tentatively, is separating the sexes, a technique used by several of the more successful boys’ groups. If women have healing circles and Rosh Hodesh groups, why shouldn’t there also be men’s services, father-son retreats and other all-male gatherings?

Barden calls these “a safe space” for men to talk with other men.

Not everyone supports that idea. Iris Petroff, the program director at the Temple Society of Concord in Syracuse, N.Y., teaches confirmation classes at her synagogue.

“The kids come out as real friends,” she said. “Losing that by separating the genders would be really hard.”

Steven Cohen, a professor of Jewish social studies at Hebrew Union College in New York, questions the wisdom of the Reform movement focusing on men’s spiritual needs.

Presenting an August study he co-authored for the Florence G. Heller/JCC Association Research Center, Cohen noted that men in the liberal Jewish movements become more involved in Jewish life after they marry in every area except spirituality. Jewish women in the study reported significantly greater spiritual experiences than either their single or married male counterparts.

So why, Cohen asks, should the Reform movement focus on closing the widest gender gap? Why not, he suggests, focus on those areas of involvement that men are “naturally drawn to,” such as political activism, sports or social justice work?

He warns that spiritual initiatives aimed at men will “only appeal to a small market.” Others disagree.

“To believe that men are not interested in spirituality is problematic to me,” Barden said. “Given the right space, they are.”

Participants at the men’s worship service last week confirmed Barden’s viewpoint, giving it a resounding thumbs up.

“It was enjoyable,” said Marc Colton of Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, N.J. “The deep voices give it a different feel, a different dimension.”

Haim Ainsworth of Congregation Kol Ami in Hollywood, Calif., agreed.

“Certainly I would not want this to become the norm for Reform practice,” he said, “but I think it’s always good to have options. There are differences in the way genders relate spiritually.”

Watching the service, Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, URJ’s worship director, admitted she feels torn.

“It is hard, from a feminist perspective, as someone having fought so hard for equality,” she says. “But they have to be able to articulate and express what it means to be a Jewish man today. And if the women’s movement has inspired them to do that, how fabulous is that?”

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