NEW YORK (JTA) — If you happened to be sunbathing on Central Park’s Great Lawn last week, you may have caught one of the most highlight reel-worthy sporting events to take place in Manhattan since Connors and McEnroe were in the U.S. Open Final.
You would have seen men from across America competing in an Ultimate Frisbee spectacle that featured jaw-dropping catches, somersaulting dives and stunning leaps. Guys were taunting one another one moment and executing end-zone runs the next. And after the game ended and the usual high-fiving commenced, you may have wondered about the unusual display of sportsmanship as the opposing teams sat together in the grass to talk about competition, aggression and teamwork, and what they all have to do with being a man.
Who were those men in Central Park?
As part of the inaugural national launch of Moving Traditions’ program for teen boys, Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, 25 men gathered for a training seminar in New York. In the mix were professional Jewish educators (rabbis and rabbinical students, teachers, directors of teen programs and summer camps) and men that work in the wider world (two lawyers, a pediatrician, a sommelier, a yoga instructor, a film editor and a sportswriter) who are willing to serve as mentors for local Jewish teens.
The point of the gathering was to ask the question: Given the high post-bar mitzvah dropoff rates for guys, how can the Jewish community do a better job of reaching out to teen boys?
Many of the future mentors gathered in New York for the training gave firsthand accounts of the depth of their community’s problems reaching guys: Parents who tell their sons “just do your bar mitzvah and I promise you’ll never have to go to synagogue ever again”; teen guys whose only form of connection is participating on the youth group’s ski trip or amusement park trip (and quickly zoning out if there is any introduction of Jewish content); and synagogue-based social action events that go into panic mode when they realize that they have 20 girls enlisted and not one guy. The mentors reported that many teen boys find Jewish life “nice,” boring, politically correct, predictable, conventional and, in a word, irrelevant.
But these failures and apparent gender imbalances are somewhat superficial when compared to a deeper problem in the Jewish world that a few people are finally waking up to — the simple fact that educators and volunteers have not been trained to address the core issues that challenge, confuse and at times endanger teen boys.
This is not to say that all boys face these challenges in a particular way or that girls do not have similar challenges, but that the vast majority of teen boys are wrestling internally with what it means to be a man in a culture that sends them mixed messages. Should a man be loyal or defiant? Sensitive or tough?
Should he show off his intelligence or keep it hidden? Should he flaunt his money or keep people guessing? Should he strive to have many friends or a few good ones? Should he work his abdominal muscles into a six-pack to show off at the beach or protect his modesty? Should he text his sexual exploits to his buddies or keep quiet and risk being seen as a prude?
From graphic video games to aggressive pornography, raunchy politicians to swaggering athletes, guys are seeing plenty of men whose motto is to have whatever they want when they want it — and to take it by force, if necessary.
If Jewish communities aren’t seriously engaged with the question of what it is to be a man in light of these messages, and positing alternative paths that can guide young men in balancing the desire for power and attention with a desire for connection and purpose, then they are not going to be relevant to most teen males.
Dr. Richard Stern, the clinical psychologist who helped design and execute the training, spoke in clear terms about male socialization.
“Teen boys are often inadvertently pushed into being emotionally stifled and ‘supposedly’ independent — but they are far from being independent,” he said. “The unconditional love that they once felt from parents or from peers has often been displaced by pressures to succeed academically or to be cool. Even guys who have many friends feel like they have no one to talk to.”
So how might the Jewish community provide space where guys can really speak to one another?
Our goal is to train mentors to use play, critical thinking and storytelling to engage teen boys in the question of what it means to be a mensch. We see this effort as an inherently Jewish activity, focusing on the ongoing character development and values education that we have traditionally done on a weekly basis through the cyclical study of Pirkei Avot.
During the training, we delved into Maimonides’ ideas about extreme personalities and how these energies are balanced through self-awareness and discipline. We shared Chasidic teachings on maturity, and we traced the last 3,500 years of Jewish men, unearthing multiple models of strength, kindness and courage.
After the Frisbee game, a few of the mentors noted how they had pushed themselves physically on the field. One said it was the first time he had been in a public group with men who were wearing yarmulkes. Another said it was the first time he had played group sports with guys since he was a boy. Someone else remarked on how we had all paused when a player had fallen. And as if on cue, one man in the closing circle simply repeated the final score, savoring the victory, lovingly rubbing it into the faces of the losing squad.
After Rosh HaShanah, these men will begin to meet with teens in their communities and develop ongoing forums where teen boys can meet, hang out, play games and talk about what it means to be a man. The programs will take place in six metropolitan areas, with plans to expand to additional cities in the coming year.
Will it catch on? Well, let’s say that the Frisbee is still floating. But at least we have recognized that there are hundreds of thousands of guys sitting on the sidelines of Jewish life and we have a few coaches who are ready and eager to pull them off the bench.
(Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is the director of initiatives for boys and men at Moving Traditions.)