Are Jewish boys in crisis?

From left, Zach Feinberg, Danny Jackson and Eliav Ehrenkrantz of Philadelphia spoke about Jewish life with Deborah Meyer, the executive director of Moving Traditions, which started a campaign to reverse boys' mass exit from and dissatisfaction with Jewish life. (Moving Traditions)

From left, Zach Feinberg, Danny Jackson and Eliav Ehrenkrantz of Philadelphia spoke about Jewish life with Deborah Meyer, the executive director of Moving Traditions, which started a campaign to reverse boys’ mass exit from and dissatisfaction with Jewish life. (Moving Traditions)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — At 15, Apollo Lev was the physical embodiment of healthy, rosebud youth, with cherubic features — bright clear skin, plump lips, a faint smudge of pale cherry pink on each cheek.

Despite his disheveled clothes — hooded sweatshirt and jeans frayed within an inch of their existence — author Malina Saval never guessed that her teaching assistant for fourth-grade Hebrew school was a recovering drug addict “who spent much of his early teens scoring speed in the alleyways of Hollywood’s boutique-laden Melrose Avenue.”

Saval, a journalist and screenwriter who taught Hebrew and regular school between gigs, was fascinated by Apollo (not his real name, to protect a minor). How could this self-reflective, hyper-intelletual, culturally aware, music- and fashion-obsessed nonconformist have gotten into drugs at such a young age?

“With his unique insights and cheeky witticisms, Apollo acted as my conduit into the thorny world of adolescent pop culture," Saval writes in “The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens” (Basic Books, 2009). "He often functioned as a teen culture consultant, even drafting a glossary of terms and definitions.”

Saval’s book is one of the latest tackling the subject of the crisis of teenage boys. They include “Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men” (Basic Books, 2007), by Leonard Sax; “Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different — and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men” (Celestial Arts, 2008), by Steve Biddulph and Paul Stanish; and “The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance and Direction in Their Lives” (Jossey-Bass, 2009), by Michael Gurian.

“Boys are the new girls,” Saval said.

Girls — specifically teenage girls — took center stage in 2002 with the release of Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence,” which spawned a feature film (“Mean Girls”), more books (“Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”) and a national debate about the problems with teenage girls.

“No one was really talking about teenage boys,” said Saval, who followed Apollo and other teenage boys for a 2006 L.A. Weekly article that resulted in her new book.

Now they are: Educators, psychologists and authors have diagnosed a serious crisis for boys.

“Something scary is happening to boys today," Sax writes in “Boys Adrift,” in which he says that a combination of social and biological factors is creating an environment that is literally toxic to boys. "From kindergarten to college, they’re less resilient and less ambitious than they were a mere twenty years ago.”

The problems, experts say, range from academic failure to absentee parents (and fathers) to gangs, bullying, drugs, teenage pregnancy and their general lack of a clear sense on how they fit into society.  

How do Jewish boys fit into the equation? Are Jewish teenage boys in crisis, too? Is it even possible in today’s integrated society, where most Jewish teenagers attend public school, to make a separate statement about Jewish teens?

Not exactly, since it is equally impossible to distinguish all Jewish boys from non-Jewish boys and to lump together all Jewish boys.

In her book, Saval profiles 10 different “types” of boys — three of whom happen to be Jewish. (Originally there were four, but one dropped out because his parents worried that he wasn’t portrayed well.)

There’s Apollo Lev, the recovering addict whose chapter is called "The Mini-Adult”; Maxwell Scheffield, a nerdy, ambitious perfectionist who at 14 runs numerous businesses, organizes his parents’ law practice and lives for getting into Harvard; and “The Rich Kid,” Preston Bard, whose money couldn’t save him from a severely debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.

They all feel isolated, different, alone. Is that a teenage characteristic or a Jewish one?

“I think I mention the fact that I’m Jewish mostly when talking about how I don’t belong or how I can’t ever fully relate to so many parts of society,” Apollo says in the book.

Other boys in the book include “The Teenage Dad,” “The Troublemaker” and “The Average American Kid.” Some stereotypes are less recognizable in the Jewish community — the absentee father, the parents who don’t help their sons with school, the teenage father, the gang kid.

That’s because Jewish boys are not exactly in crisis, says Gurian, the author of “Purpose of Boys.”

“Jewish boys are doing better than other boys," he said. "I wouldn’t say they’re in crisis in the same way other boys are in crisis.  If we define crisis as severe falling behind” — which he writes about in his many books on boys — “we wouldn’t find that with Jewish boys.”

Jewish parents tend to be from a higher socioeconomic background, they tend to be more verbal, they tend to read to their children at younger ages and tend to push college prep as a necessity.

“Jewish culture tends to provide mentoring systems via synagogue or commmunity,” Gurian said.

He created a mentoring program for all boys called “Hineni” (Here I Am), which he started at his synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane, Wash. The program aims “to lead and supervise boys into healthy male adulthood through organized physical and spiritual actions of risk and challenge,” the author said.

But Jewish boys — and others from “high performing” subgroups — do have some of the problems affecting many boys: entitlement, overmedication, high expectations and lack of purpose.

“I say every boy should work at age 16; everything is given to them. That is something I do work with in the Jewish community,” said Gurian, a family therapist who founded the Gurian Institute to train educators how to teach boys differently.

As boys’ brains develop later — sometimes boys don’t read until age 7 or 8 — highly involved parents (read: Jewish) worry early, concluding that “we have to medicate,” he said. Another problem is expecting a son to be good at everything “when he’s asserting what he’s really good at.”

Gurian says it is the expectations that must change.

“That’s something the Jewish community has to deal with,” he said.

Aside from lofty expectations, Jewish educators are worried that Jewish boys are more likely to fall out of religious training than Jewish girls.

Leonard Saxe (no relation to the author Sax) and Shaul Kelner, authors of “Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It” — a report based on a 2001 survey of 1,500 Jewish adolescents and their parents — wrote that they consistently “found that girls were more likely than boys to be active members of their Jewish communities, to espouse Jewish values, and to enjoy participation in the community; boys more readily bid farewell to Jewish involvement.”

“Why do you think that is?” asked Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the popular “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Scribner, 2001), a book that tackles the problems of affluent, upper-class (often Jewish) parents and children.

“Jewish life gets a little bit low in the pecking order for boys,” Mogel said. “Parents are in terrible anguish — the people I see are having problems, so it’s not the average teenage boy. The boys say ‘I’m not doing any more homework.’ ”

Mogel says religious life has opportunities more natural to teenage girls, like tending to younger kids and teaching them, and socializing, while boys prefer more dangerous and risky activities. Another factor, she said, is that children today are increasingly busy.

“It’s so much effort for parents to push boys that are not naturally engaging into something like SAT prep, that they just give up on the other things like religious school,” Mogel said.

In fact, according to another survey, 47 percent of boys think the bar/bat mitzvah was graduation from Jewish school,” compared to 34 percent of the girls, and 41 percent of the boys said Jewish-sponsored classes or activities “offered nothing of interest to me,“ as opposed to 32 percent of the girls. The survey was cited by Dr. Michael Reichert and Sharon Ravitch in a study for Moving Traditions, an organization that engages people more deeply with Judaism using gender as a framework.

For many researchers, the numbers in its study suggest that the “boys crisis” is really one facing the whole society — for parents, for girls and for women who eventually have to marry these boys.

“If we don’t meet the needs of teenage boys and girls today, we are not going to have Next Gen people to talk to in five to 10 years,” said Deborah Mayer, the executive director of Moving Traditions.

Her organization just started a “Campaign for Jewish Boys” to reverse their mass exit from and dissatisfaction with Jewish life. The program, which complements the organization’s “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing” initiative for girls in sixth to 12th grades, aims to educate the Jewish community to better understand and meet the needs of adolescent boys, to spark their interest and maintain their participation in Jewish life, and build boys’ Jewish identity.

“What can we be doing in the Jewish community to meet their needs as boys with Jewish offerings?” Meyer asked. “By doing that we will be building Jewish identity more effectively.”

Steve and Carol Meranus’ 14-year-old son just finished the pilot program in Philadelphia. For a few hours every week a group of boys met at each others’ homes with the 26-year-old group leader, engaging in activities such as playing sports, watching movies, hanging out and talking.

Not that the Meranuses knew exactly what was going on — “Boys don’t talk,” Carol said — but they knew their son really liked the program.

“He was the one making sure he was prepared and ready to go on time,” Steve said.

When their family hosted the last session, their son said, “I gotta go out and make sure everyone’s greeted, and they know where to go.”

His father was impressed.

“That’s very highly unusual behavior for most kids that age,” Steve said, adding that he grew up “like a cork in the ocean” — the only Jew among non-Jews — so he was happy to see his son doing “guys’ guy stuff” with other Jewish kids.

“Maybe," he said, "it will help him still be connected to that when he’s older.”

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