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Missing in Action: Males Disappear from Jewish Life

The stereotypical portrait of a seder table with the man of the house leading the service may look out of place to the next generation of liberal Jews.

This is because outside the Orthodox world, men are becoming less and less engaged in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations.

Numerous studies show that fewer boys than girls go to non-Orthodox youth groups, religious schools or summer camps, fewer go into the rabbinate and cantorate, and fewer serve on synagogue or federation committees.

This comes as women and girls in the liberal movements are benefiting from a host of programs and initiatives aimed at increasing their Jewish involvement, from gender-neutral prayer books to the popular Jewish identity-building program for teenage girls, “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing.”

Some are calling it the feminization of liberal Judaism — but few say so out loud.

“It’s not politically correct,” says Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, whose new report “The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life” gives statistical muscle to anecdotal evidence that has been piling up for several years in liberal Jewish circles.

The report will be published later in May, and will be available online June 1 at www.brandeis.edu/hbi.

Fishman notes that some experts reject the notion of a “boy crisis” in liberal Judaism. It’s a particularly touchy topic for feminist scholars.

“Thirty-five years ago — when women were not ordained as rabbis, when girls in the Conservative movement celebrated a bat mitzvah on Friday night, when Orthodox girls did not receive an education remotely comparable to that of their brothers, when women were not called to the Torah for aliyot or allowed on the bimah at all — where were the headlines proclaiming a girl crisis?” wrote Rabbi Rona Shapiro, senior associate at Ma’ayan: The Jewish Women’s Project, a program of the JCC in Manhattan, in a Jan. 2007 op-ed.

“Given the history of women’s exclusion within the Jewish community, approaching equality should be something to celebrate, not a crisis in the making,” she wrote.

For Fishman, “As soon as you say that women dominate certain aspects of Jewish life, it sounds as if you’re saying, ‘Let’s go back to the way things were.’ That’s not the point of my research, but we need to look at what’s happening and be honest about it.”

Fishman goes further: As Jewish men outside the Orthodox fold become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life, the more likely they are to marry non-Jewish women, her report suggests. And because women usually set a home’s religious tone, even if non-Jewish women are open to raising Jewish children, they will rarely do so because they are not encouraged by husbands are who are “ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to” Jewish tradition, she says.

She concludes that the boy crisis in liberal Judaism is leading to a continuity crisis that will not be resolved until liberal Judaism finds a way to engage its boys and men.

Using hundreds of interviews she conducted for the American Jewish Committee and two of her previous books, as well as data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study, Fishman and her student co-author Daniel Parmer describe an American Jewish life increasingly populated by women.

Ironically, this increased involvement of women in liberal Jewish life does not extend to the highest levels of Jewish organizational leadership, where top professionals remain overwhelmingly male.

The dominance of women is especially apparent within the Reform movement, where decreasing numbers of boys in its post-bar mitzvah religious schools, youth groups and summer camps has caused concern. This absence goes all the way to the top levels of religious leadership: More than half of the recently ordained Reform rabbis are women, as are all this year’s entering cantorial students.

To help re-engage Reform men in religious life, the Men of Reform Judaism has sponsored men’s worship services at the last few movement biennials, and published a “Men’s Haggadah” that more than 250 congregations ordered for Passover.

“We have women’s Seders, we have Rosh Hodesh groups. When do we create safe space for men to talk about their fathers, their sons, their brothers, their lives?” asks Doug Barden, the executive director of Men of Reform Judaism who is spearheading many of these initiatives.

But waiting until adulthood isn’t good enough, Fishman says. Efforts must begin in early adolescence. Whereas Orthodox boys go through “rites of passage where they feel better and better about their Jewish engagement — that furniture is not being installed in the minds of non-Orthodox Jewish males,” she says.

Liberal Jewish teenage boys don’t have models of adult male commitment to Jewish life as do their Orthodox peers. This sets up a vicious cycle that repeats from generation to generation.

Some groups are more successful than others at attracting Jewish boys. One is B’nai Brith Youth Organization, BBYO, which claims that 47 percent of its 23,000 teen participants are male.

The group’s director, Matt Grossman, says this is because BBYO chapters have always been single-sex. This model is gaining ground in liberal circles, although not without criticism.

“We can target programs to boys without throwing fake stuff out there,” Grossman says. While most other non-Orthodox Jewish youth groups report declining membership, he says that BBYO has been growing by 20 percent a year.

“We tell them, we need you guys to help strengthen the Jewish world. And that resonates with them. We have guys doing what guys like, and girls doing what girls like.”

Jason Wachs, BBYO’s 18-year-old international president for the boys’ chapters, says the concept works. “It’s not cool for boys to be in touch with their emotions or care about the environment or religion when girls are around,” he says. “BBYO allows them to open up.”

The Orthodox world has always promoted single-sex group activities. It may be time, some adolescent experts suggest, to revisit the notion.

Moving Traditions, the non-profit that runs Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, has launched “Where Have All The Young Men Gone,” a three-year research and action campaign that is studying the groups that have been most successful at attracting and holding young men, from BBYO to Boy Scouts.

Many of those groups are for boys only, notes Deborah Meyer, the executive director of Moving Traditions, which is based in suburban Philadelphia.

“Seeing what Rosh Hodesh has done for girls, hearing the feedback from the girls and their parents and educators, why not do something like it for Jewish guys, who are dropping out from Jewish life more than girls, and are less satisfied with Jewish life than girls?” says Meyer.

Fishman’s report notes that “a disproportionate number” of young Jewish men doing cutting-edge innovation in Jewish cultural and religious fields has come from Orthodox backgrounds. “This illustrates the power of these environments to prove intellectually and spiritually compelling to men, even when men reject their patriarchal premise,” she notes.

The challenge to the liberal Jewish world, she says, is to provide the same compelling stimulus to its young men without sacrificing egalitarianism.

“Over the ages, men felt very involved in Judaism,” she says. “It was their responsibility. This is gone today, except in the Orthodox world. We need to look at how we are raising our Jewish sons.”

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