Where The Boys Aren’t
Tue, 11/02/2010
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

For too many boys in our community, bar mitzvah represents the end rather than the beginning of their formal Jewish involvement and education.

It’s no secret that our institutions are facing a losing battle in keeping Jewish teenage boys engaged.

They are dropping out of organized Jewish life at a disturbing rate, complaining that post-bar mitzvah programs are too boring and not relevant to their interests.

Studies show that 70 percent of teens involved in organized Jewish activities are girls.

That imbalance holds true for campus activities as well, and the Conservative and Reform movements report a decline in the number of young men enrolling in rabbinical school. What’s more, the dramatically decreasing attendance of men at Reform services has become a significant topic of concern.

Faced with the prospect of a Jewish future largely missing male involvement, an organization with a track record of success in engaging young girls in Jewish life has turned its attention to boys.

Moving Traditions, which focuses on gender differences in seeking to inspire young people to become more Jewishly involved, this week announced an ambitious program to attract and involve teenage boys, based on three years of extensive research.

“The surprise of our study,” explains Deborah Meyer, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Moving Traditions, “is how much Jewish boys like being with other Jewish boys and want to spend time thinking about what it means to be male.”

The organization, founded in 2002, has reached about 8,000 girls (grades 6-12) around the country through its monthly program, “Rosh Hodesh: It’s A Girl Thing,” designed to build skills in self-esteem, leadership and Jewish identity.

For its latest effort, Moving Traditions engaged psychologists, Jewish professionals and parents, and conducted 40 focus groups with Jewish boys. The result was an approach that emphasizes boys’ interest in male-focused programming and blends friendship, physical activity and meaningful Jewish content.

“The main focus of effective Jewish education for boys,” the 50-page report asserts, “is not how they can get closer to Judaism; it’s how Judaism can get closer to teenage boys.”

That’s why the experts concluded that post-bar mitzvah programs in a traditional classroom setting are a distinct turnoff. Instead, based on the boys’ own observations, the educators heading the project used “action research,” a collaborative approach to problem solving. They came up with a set of principles and lessons for more effective Jewish education, as well as a model program curriculum, marketing toolkit and implementation plan.

The good news, they found, was that Jewish boys — most of those interviewed were 14 to 17 years old — are proud of their heritage and feel connected to other Jewish boys. And while they are dissatisfied with current programming aimed at keeping them involved Jewishly, they are interested in experiences that challenge them to think, mixed with “physical activity, excitement, humor and a healthy dose of playfulness,” according to the report, “Engaging Jewish Boys: A Call To Action.”

It adds that the key to gaining the boys’ interest in Jewish education is to “link Jewish themes and knowledge” to the developmental process of their “journey into manhood.”

A sample from the suggested curriculum, called The Brotherhood, presents various Jewish texts that relate to masculinity, and offers exercises to promote deep discussion.

For example, a selection from Psalm 34 is cited: “Who is a man?” the psalmist asks. “Someone who appreciates life, who loves each day, who sees the good … who seeks and pursues peace.”

There is also the famous passage from Rabbi Hillel: “In a place where there are no men … strive to be a man.”

Boys would be asked to relate to these and other passages, as well as discuss clips from popular films like “Good Will Hunting,” and to compare stereotypes of “men” and “Jewish men.”

The experts tested this approach and found that boys were responsive, even enthusiastic. Now Moving Traditions, with help from funders (including UJA-Federation of New York), is prepared to train educators to lead The Brotherhood programming.

Deborah Meyer said the key is to engage boys soon after their bar mitzvah. “Give them something [substantive] before they’re too far from the bima and out the door,” she asserted.

Some boys who were interviewed wondered why they had never been presented challenging material before, she reported. The goal now is to engage them in a thoughtful way while making the experience enjoyable.

Easier said than done, but Moving Traditions bases its recommendations on solid research and its success in applying its curriculum to a number of groups of boys.

It’s time for the community to focus on the problem, train laymen and professionals, experiment with the program and help reverse the exodus of boys from Jewish life before it’s too late.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

 

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Someone said: >I know from personal experience, growing up in a non-observant family that >belonged to a Conservative shul. I attended a post-bar-mitzah program, but I >tired of it quickly because I was taught by examples of my parents and peers >that secular activities, material success and Democratic politics were more >important to Jewish identity than was practicing Judaism. I think this is the problem. Well said! Although I consider myself Conservative, I grew up in a fairly-serious Reform family, and my Jewish education went all the way through 12th grade. The leadership of my temple and many (although not all) of my Jewish peers constantly presented the unspoken message that material success was what really counted. They didn't always say it in words, but one always knew it was there. I remember an experience in high school when one of our rabbis taught a class. I came in on a Sunday morning, and the rabbi greeted me with the comment, "You look tanned! You must have just come back from Florida!" We lived in a northern state, far from Florida, and I told the rabbi I had never been there. He looked at me with mock horror, and responded in a joking way, "What? You're a Jew and you've never been to Florida!" I laughed, but felt uncomfortable. I attended a Jewish summer camp during my teenage years, but I stopped going because the other Jewish boys became unbearable. Incidentally, my daughter later attended the same camp for several years, and her experiences were the same with unbearable Jewish girls. I had plenty of Jewish friends, but it's sad to say that I always looked forward to returning to my public high school after a weekend of Jewish activities because everyone there was more down-to-earth. It's unfortunate that my own kids sometimes had similar experiences. Whether one is Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform, what is needed is a serious commitment to Judaism in the home. Programs like Moving Traditions are well-meaning, but I really wonder if they'll really be successful. I remember a type of all-boys program that was once popular, but didn't survive (although it may still exist in some places). A large non-egalitarian Conservative shul (that was once located near me) was proud of its Tallis and Tefillin club. It was all boys of course, and they'd meet on Sunday mornings for davening, breakfast, and bowling. They were a rowdy bunch, and they acquired a bad reputation. They needed an advisor, and I was offered the job. I declined. They eventually folded, and it's now long-forgotten.
I certainly agree that boys’ disengagement from organized Jewish life is an issue that the Jewish community must address. I attended the launch program for Moving Traditions boys’ initiative and am glad that professionals and lay leaders are having important conversations. I had hoped, however, to learn more about the underlying reasons why boys are retreating from Jewish life. Moving Traditions reports that “While [boys] are dissatisfied with current programming aimed at keeping them involved Jewishly, they are interested in experiences that challenge them to think, mixed with ‘physical activity, excitement, humor and a healthy dose of playfulness.’” That’s fair, and not surprising. But is the “dissatisfaction with current programming” really about the programming itself? Or is it about the program participants and leaders? Meaning, are boys disengaging because they are turned off by the involvement and leadership of girls? If so, I think that a critical piece of the work to engage boys needs to involve consciousness-raising and education around sexism—work that I believe can be done creatively and in a fun, engaging, and interesting way. (It's significant that many of the comments here argue that Orthodox Judaism is the ultimate answer to "the boy question." I'm sure that this is not what Moving Traditions has in mind, but I think it reveals a lot about the level of discourse around this issue and the dangers of tackling it.) I also think that male Jewish leaders need to model the kind of teaching, language, behavior, and action that will dismantle the stereotypes and assumptions about how boys “should” be in the world—i.e., assumptions that boys fall in love with girls; that they like video games; that they play sports; that they can’t be affectionate with other boys; that they shouldn’t cry. Developing lesson plans that encourage teenage boys to explore these assumptions and discuss social pressures is a good start. But I really think success depends on Jewish male leaders and the Jewish media "walking the walk." We need this to happen so that more boys—boys with many different interests and of all sexual orientations and gender expressions—can see their lives, their interests, and their experiences represented in the Jewish community.
I just had to respond to this weeks editorial. I am one of the boys that you are writing about Mr. Rosenblatt. I could not stand my Reform and Conserative hebrew school teachers. Yes, my Dad sent us to both congregations growing up, generally depending on which was closest to our home as we moved growing up. Both Reform and Conservative congregations never taught anything other than socialism as religion. Unions good, big business bad. Democrats good, Republicans bad. Homosexuals good, Traditional roles bad. I was so sick of it all I refuse to participate in this fraud and force my children to endure this abusive tradition. Let's face it, Jews don't enjoy fake religion. I am happy to be a cardiac Jew in my heart Maybe that's not such a bad thing after all. I believe I am the silent majority. Leave us alone !!!
Attend an orthodox synagogue service any Friday night, Shabbat, Yom Tov or during the week and see the synagogue filled with young men who have just had their Bar Mitzvah. This is not by accident. They have been taught by their Rabbis and families the importance of minyan and daily worship with Tallis and Tephillin. They take this own as an obligation and Mitzvah. All the Gimmicks in the world will not work, only a feeling of Torah dedication and obligation to the community is successful.
Such programs are a good way to try to keep or bring back those boys who still have a spark of a Yiddishe Neshama. But the disaffection of those boys is not the real problem, it is the symptom of the underlying problem that Yiddishkeit is treated in the non-Orthodox worlds as separate, alien, and burdensome. Too few of the boys (and girls, too) get the message from their parents EXAMPLE that Jewish learning and leading a Jewish life of mitzot (not just tikkun olam) is important. I know from personal experience, growing up in a non-observant family that belonged to a Conservative shul. I attended a post-bar-mitzah program, but I tired of it quickly because I was taught by examples of my parents and peers that secular activities, material success and Democratic politics were more important to Jewish identity than was practicing Judaism. When parents spend shabbos and weekday evenings watching TV, playing golf, shopping, etc. instead of davening and learning, the children learn that real Judaism is not important. When parents drive to shul from fancy but distant houses on shabbos, eat treif, and marry goyim, children get the message that those things are OK for Jews. When parents spend money indulging families in expensive vacations, second homes, and other material indulgence to the exclusion of Jewish day school educations with strong religious content and visits to Eretz Yisroel, is it any wonder that the children grow up not valuing Judaism, Jewish life, and Jewish learning and some even become anti-Zionist? The Orthodox world is not perfect in this regard, but the hypocrisy of Conservative practice and the inverted (man over g-d) theology of Reform is the primary cause of children drifting from Judaism, not the lack of post-bnai mitzvah education.
Is the issue really unique to the Jewish community. Boys seem to be loosing their sense of community and responsibility across all demographics.
Mort, You have every right to your opinions regarding feminism and progressive Judaism (a little narrow-minded if you ask me), but at the very least you could accurately reflect the history of the shofar. Here's a quick pull-quote from Wikipedia: The shofar was used in to announce holidays (Ps. lxxxi. 4), and the Jubilee year (Lev. 25. 9). The first day of the seventh month (Tishri) is termed "a memorial of blowing" (Lev. 23. 24), or "a day of blowing" (Num. xxix. 1), the shofar. It was also employed in processions (II Sam. 6. 15; I Chron. 15. 28), as a musical accompaniment (Ps. 98. 6; comp. ib. xlvii. 5) and to signify the start of a war (Josh. 6. 4; Judges 3. 27; 7. 16, 20; I Sam. 8. 3). The shofar is certainly not limited to Rosh Hashannah, and it's role in educational settings with Jewish children is well established. Ploni
Well Ploni, I wasn't referring to the historical relevance of the shofar or using it in chinuch (Jewish education). The Moving Traditions program uses it for neither of those purposes, but rather advocates blowing the shofar as a motavational tool dreamt up by some half-baked psychologist. The Shofar is used today, as opposed to in the time of Joshua, to satisfy a religious obligation (a mitzva) in a very specific way under very specific circumstances. In my opinion, and you are obviously entitled to your own, engaging in such a ritual completely out of context and with no accompanying explanation as to its true religious significance, which at least would serve an educational function, is both meaningless and disrespectful to Jewish tradition. I'm also not insensitive to the fact that not everyone wants to be or can be religiously observant in the Orthodox sense. I believe that the Orthodox community needs to be mindful of that fact and genuinely welcome all Jews, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof (as Chabad does and Orthodox communities outside of the NY area often do), into their synagogues and schools if we are to have any hope of stemming the tide of assimilation. But the simple reality is that programs like the ones invented by Moving Traditions and its fellow travelers in the Reform and Conservative "movements" are motivated by "modern" ideals (as stated in the Moving Traditions program itself) rather than Jewish thought, belief, custom and practice. How can we hope to keep kids interested in Judaism by offering them trite psychobabble rather than a chance to learn about and actually experience -- together with their parents -- Jewish learning and practice that has kept our pepole alive for thousands of years?
I read it ! Gandhi ? Primal feel?! Why don't you learn something from successful frum programs such as Pirchei, Camp Gan Israel and Avos & Banim which pack thousands and thousands on boys into being Jewish!
So I guess we just throw away anyone who is not part of a traditionally observant family. And for those who - while having been brought up in the kind of environment Mort describes - have questions about the way they want to be Jewish going forward, well let's just toss them as well. The strength of Judaism, I believe, has been its willingness to embrace differences, to respect alternative practices and theology, to engage Jews in dialogue with each other and with Jewish text and wisdom. I sincerely hope that openness will continue to be a part of the Jewish world, and that we will continue to reach out to the less-engaged while never neglecting those who are already firmly part of the community.
Oh...and of course the psalmist is asking, "Who is the man who seeks life". But even if he asked "who is a man?" relating the psalm to something specific to masculinity would be....toasted.
On the one hand, the traditional non-egalitarian prayer services provide the opportunities for male bonding that are missing. Yet presumably this opportunity to "be with other Jewish boys" is rejected in favor of egalitarianism. What is the new solution? To take texts that are not aimed at a particular gender and re-read them in sexist ways that wouldn't occur to a Jew steeped in the traditional, non-egalitarian model. Psalm 34 is not asking what is a man. Rather it is asking, who is the human being who desires life. Man here is a generic term. Are the developers of the curriculum arguing that women aren't instructed to guard their tongues from evil, to do good and seek peace! Similarly, Hillel's injunction is not really sex-specific, despite the gendered language in which its couched. The psalmist and Hillel had never heard of politically correct him/her, wo/man formulations, and so their injunctions are written in the same manner in which up until recently English speakers used "man" to denote members of the human race. (Have the authors of the curriculum forgotten feminist theory 101? Were the bias in the word "man" to denote humanity overt and intended by authors/speakers, it would not have been so insidious, and we would not have required academic theorists to explain it to us....) So this is progress and the cure and "substantive material" - reinterpreting Psalms to young boys as outrageous sexist twaddle?! Or is this some kind of post-modern joke that I'm not getting?
I read the Moving Traditions program and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. One idea for they have motivating teenage boys -- turn down the lights and blow the shofar at the beginning of a meeting. Why? What relevance does the shofar have taken out of the context of Rosh Hashana? None. This is typical progressive Jewish pablum that will do nothing to fix the very real and critical problem of assimilation and lack of connection among Jewish young people. As with anything else in life, there are no quick fixes or easy answers. If Jewish organizations really want to stem the tide of assimilation they must work to achieve the following: 1) urge parents to attend synagogue WITH their children every Shabbat, not just once a year; 2) light Shabbat candles and increase observance of Shabbat laws; 3) learn Torah together with your children, in particular traditional Jewish texts taught by a knowledgeable teacher, not liberal/feminist/"progressive" ideaology spun and repackaged as Judaism (do you ever see a program espoused by progressive Jews that doesn't mention "tikkun olam"?); 4) keep a kosher home and increase observance of kashrut outside the home; 5) send your children to a Jewish day school if at all possible. After reading about this I now understand better why, sadly, Conservative and Reform synagogues are closing left and right.

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