Where The Boys Aren’t
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Is it fair to trace our communal challenges of intermarriage, assimilation and lack of affiliation back to boys losing interest in Jewish life after their bar mitzvah celebrations? You could make the case that since non-Orthodox young men drop out of Jewish religious and educational activities at a far higher rate than girls, and intermarry at a higher rate than Jewish women, we need to find a way to involve and inspire boys Jewishly at an early age. And then presto, the worrisome decline in our numbers and affiliation would be reversed. Wishful thinking? Gross stereotyping? Not exactly. “Boys expressed consistently less interest in things Jewish, held more negative opinions about past Jewish experiences and generally considered Judaism more peripheral to their lives” than girls, according to “Being A Jewish Teenager In America: Trying To Make It,” a recent study of nearly 1,500 Jewish adolescents by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. This attitude resulted in relatively low rates of participation in youth groups, camps and visits to Israel among boys by the end of high school, and “should be a cause for concern,” the study found. Now comes a savvy Jewish organization called Moving Traditions that is engaged in some serious research to help determine not only what does and does not interest boys about Jewish life, but what kind of programming could be put in place to address those findings. It’s still early in the fact-finding process, cautions Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, a Philadelphia-based organization best known for its work with pre-teen and teenage Jewish girls. Its multiyear, monthly celebration of the New Moon, called Rosh Hodesh: It’s A Girl Thing!, launched in 2003, now has more than 200 chapters around the country, aimed at building self-esteem, leadership skills and Jewish identity among girls. Meyer said her organization believes it has found a “magic formula” for countering some of the prevalent cultural trends in American society that finds girls as young as 9 worrying about being too fat, becoming sexually active in junior high school, and being prone to drinking, drugs and poor self-image. “We were able to draw on the calendar and Jewish teachings,” Meyer said, to create an informal education program that allows girls to meet and discuss their concerns and interests, guided by a trained adult leader and a step-by-step manual. Now the group is focusing its attention on boys as they go through adolescence, conditioned by society not to show their emotions, and bombarded by images on film, television and music videos that depict dominant, even violent, relations with women. “We know how seductive, confusing and negative the messages can be,” Meyer said, “and we think the Jewish community can help boys form healthy identities and better ways to understand the world and themselves.” William Pollack, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and pioneer in the area of studying American boys, is working with Moving Traditions in addressing what he calls “the reality of the ‘Jewish boy crisis.’” He has written that Jewish boys “have become more disconnected from the adult role models within our educational settings and institutional lives, which they find dull, stultifying and boring.” (Part of the reason why boys in the Orthodox community are an exception to the rule may well be the positive relationships many have with their rabbinic teachers in yeshivas and day schools.) Moving Traditions has engaged educational researchers to talk to boys, their parents, educators and youth leaders. Six months into the project, the researchers report some counterintuitive, encouraging findings based on intensive discussions with about 40 boys in the Denver area. “We are seeing an almost countercultural force among boys we’ve talked to who speak about loving and respecting their parents, valuing deep friendships with other boys, and expressing emotions,” noted Sharon Ravitch, a professor of education and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and research co-director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives. In addition, the boys — from a variety of Jewish backgrounds — sensed an awareness of and value in being part of a people with a history of persecution, and expressed the importance of helping the Jewish people survive, marrying a Jewish woman, and supporting Israel. This “resiliency” in the face of a society in which Jews are a small minority is not only “surprising and powerful,” Ravitch said, but “inspiring and heartwarming to me as the Jewish mother of two young sons.” Her colleague, Michael Reichert, the executive director of the Center, noted that educators in the Jewish community acknowledge the dearth of programming for adolescent boys. But he was encouraged that the boys he spoke with said they were “very willing to get together,” though they balked at the notion of adult-driven programs geared to meet an adult agenda. The boys who were involved in Jewish life actually looked and sounded more self-assured and engaged than the less affiliated ones, Reichert observed, noting that “they didn’t look stamped from the same mold of conformity.” He and others speculate that the Moving Traditions programming that will come out of these studies will be different than the group’s work with girls, and probably be a blend of action-oriented projects and discussion, with an emphasis on offering adult role models who relate well to boys. Reichert envisions creating a training curriculum for adults working with Jewish boys that will include an understanding of boys’ development. A key question, he said, is whether the community is prepared “to embrace boys as they are and help them make healthy choices, or are we going to make them conform to our wants?” Deborah Meyer of Moving Traditions is excited that the findings soon will be applied in practical terms by partnering groups working with boys. “This is action-oriented research, not theoretical,” she said. “We want to come out of this with good practices that can connect with and inspire boys.” The Jewish community should be watching the results carefully because so much of our future is at stake. E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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10/01/2009 - 11:33
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