Where The Boys Aren’t


Andrew Roberts, an articulate 16-year-old junior at the Riverdale Country School, enjoys Judaism in an intellectual way, like when he discussed the Torah portion each week while attending the Rodeph Sholom Day School through eighth grade.

Now in high school, his focus has shifted away from Jewish activities. He has played tennis and basketball and is starting a sports magazine at school. He went to synagogue with his family on the High Holy Days but doesn’t go other times, though there’s a Torah discussion group he says he’d probably enjoy. He also hasn’t gone to the youth group where his sister was active.

"I’m sort of regretful about not being involved," says Roberts, who lives on the Upper West Side with his parents and 12-year-old brother. His 18-year-old sister is at college. "The process of getting there, into the m indset of going, is the hardest part," he says. "I found it more meaningful when I was younger."

He has a lot of company.Judaism is facing a "boy crisis," according to a growing chorus of voices, and a couple of groups are trying to address it."

The anomie that many young males feel has definitely gotten worse," said William Pollack. A psychologist on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, Pollack authored "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood" (Random House). He is also working for a new organization, Moving Traditions, which sponsored a session last week titled "What’s Up With The Boys?" at the JCC of Manhattan. Pollack spoke at a session crowded to capacity despite a downpour outside.

In startling numbers, boys are simply ceasing their involvement in Jewish activities around the time they become bar mitzvah, according to Moving Traditions. As a result, many Jewish programs for teens and young adults are disproportionately filled with girls.

Several people interviewed for this article attend Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a popular, creative Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, and each of them volunteered that they notice an absence of boys and young men from the services and youth activities.

Deborah Pinsky, the synagogue’s executive director, said that there have long been far many more girls involved.

"Boys consider bar mitzvah their graduation from Jewish life, more than girls do," says Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, which recently started a three-year research project to identify what boys need.

"Not only do fewer boys participate, but boys have more complaints about Jewish programming," Meyer says. "As a community we’re clearly not meeting boys where they are."

Underlying issues aren’t unique to Jewish boys. A Newsweek cover story last January focused on the struggle of increasing numbers of boys in education. And American boys are more suspicious of religion than girls, according to a National Study of Youth and Religion (youthandreligion.org).

That teenagers and young men share a sense of alienation from Jewish activities is clear. Why, and what can be done to address it, is not, say experts.

"There is very little data about what adolescent Jewish boys are thinking and doing, especially those not involved in Jewish activities," according to Pollack.

Birthright Gender GapLen Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, has investigated the topic, in the context of birthright israel and Jewish camping.

While the early days of birthright israel had more girls than boys, when the second intifada started the percentage of boys soared. "While parents could say to their college-age daughters ëwe don’t want you to go,’ and the women would say ‘OK’, the guys would go anyway," said Saxe.

Participation in the birthright trips is now about equally split between young men and women, said Jay Golan, president of birthright israel foundation, but has recently been as much as 55 percent female. Participation mirrors the pool of applicants for the free 10-day trips, he said. In focus groups, Pollack says, boys "found Jewish programs boring, not interesting. They found sports and other action activities a better draw. Some boys said they felt burnt out after their bar mitzvah and wanted some time off."

"We haven’t helped boys understand how the traditional values of Judaism can have meaning in their everyday lives," Pollack says.

Moving Traditions’ interest in boys emerged after its chair, Sally Gottesman, who works as a management consultant for non-profit groups, noticed that clients were struggling to attract young men to their programs.

"Everybody individualized it to their group, wondering ‘how can we get more boys to participate in Hillel, or in our Israel trip,’ as if it were their fault that boys weren’t involved. But it’s a communal issue," said Gottesman.

Moving Traditions this year is running 190 "Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!" programs for girls in grades 6 through 12 in schools, synagogues and JCCs. Eventually, the organization hopes to publish recommendations about effective ways of reaching boys in a variety of Jewish settings.

Conservative Challenge

The crisis appears to be well entrenched for the Reform movement, but a possibly emerging challenge for the Conservative movement. Last year the Union for Reform Judaism surveyed its youth programs. Looking at attendance records dating back several years, it found that girls accounted for 57 to 78 percent of participants in youth groups, leadership training, camp and Israel programs for teens and young adults. In none of the 50 programs surveyed did boys outnumber girls.

At Kutz Camp, the Reform overnight summer camp in Warwick, N.Y., boys have accounted for just 28 percent of campers over the last several summers, according to a new website focusing on the URJ’s Young Men’s Project (urj.org/gender).

Several camps, including Kutz, have in the last few years run separate activities for boys and girls, said Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs for URJ. There have even been gender-segregated prayer services at the camps and at the conventions of the National Federation of Temple Youth. The movement as a whole is attempting to address it by researching best practices and publicizing them on its Web site and in a book URJ plans to publish before its next biennial convention, in December, 2007. The pre-biennial symposium next year will focus on gender, said Rabbi Mellen.

The exodus of men is visible even in the Reform movement’s seminary. Between 2000 and 2003, men and women each were half of rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But suddenly women jumped to 71 percent of first-year students in 2004, and 67 percent of students starting rabbinical training this year.

While the Conservative movement’s New York rabbinical school continues to have far more men than women as students (currently 90 men and 49 women), that tide may also be changing.

According to Rabbi Charles Savenor, admissions director, while the current fifth-year class has 17 men and three women, the gap may be closing. The second-year class has eight men and seven women, and the first-year class has 16 men and 12 women.

This year, for the first time, the mechina preparatory program has more women than men (10 women and eight men).

For the rabbinical school overall, "I don’t predict that women will outnumber men," said Rabbi Savenor, adding "we would welcome a class that was 50/50." The high school program at JTS, Prozdor, has about half girls and half boys, according to its principal, Bess Adler. Female participation has recently edged up, however, with girls comprising 51 percent of students in the 2004 academic year, 52 percent in 2005 and 53 percent in the current year.

Heads of the Reform and Conservative movement’s synagogue men’s clubs have both been active in trying to reach boys. The 15 regional retreats of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which has 29,000 constituents, have in the last two years reached out to get young men to come with their fathers, with good success, said Rabbi Charles Simon, the executive director.

Some observers, including Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, suggest that men are retreating from active engagement in Jewish life because women now dominate it. Rabbi Salkin, rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, was interviewed in an article titled "The Retreating Man" in a special section of Reform Judaism magazine devoted to "Re-Engaging Men" in the Fall 2006 issue. In it, he says that the trend toward spirituality in the Reform movement and in American culture "seems too cloying, too feminine, for many men."

"If you add to this the fact that many of the public practitioners of this spirituality are in fact women, it may seem to many men that what they are really good at is no longer appreciated or needed."

The "feminization" of Jewish life since women entered the rabbinate in appreciable numbers is not something to blame for the boy crisis, says Pollack.

"I don’t think boys have dropped out because women are leaders," said Pollack. "They see how women can play their roles but don’t see how boys can change their own roles to be beside those girls and continue to be leaders. Boys haven’t found a way to change because men haven’t found a way to change." The need to come up with ways to reach the missing males is urgent, say those involved.

"People tend to look too late at an issue, after a tipping point has happened. It’s our generation’s responsibility to look at this now," Gottesman says. "There is lots more to do for girls, but also lots to do for boys. It’s not either/or, and it’s a long process. Judaism will thrive when men and women and boys and girls are all engaged in it."

"When the Creator called out to our forefathers and foremothers they said ‘hineni,’ ‘here I am.’ Boys are calling out to us by their actions, not so much in words, ‘are you there for us?’ " says Pollack. "Are we going to respond by saying ‘hineni,’ or walk in the other direction?"