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'A Call to Action': Getting Boys Involved

November 4, 2010 By:
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Four years ago, nearly six times as many women as men enrolled in Avodah, the Jewish Service Corps.

The disparity was even worse at Hillel's Tzedek Advocacy program, where only two of 14 interns were male.

And at Hebrew Union College, women comprised more than half of the rabbis ordained at both the Los Angeles and New York campuses.

Synagogues, Hebrew schools, youth groups, summer camps and other Jewish programs report similar dips in male participation.

Jewish leaders say the number of boys involved in Jewish life has been diminishing for decades, but their absence only recently raised enough alarm to prompt Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown-based nonprofit that promotes Jewish identity, to research the trend.

The findings, released this week in a report titled "Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action," suggest that boys aren't purposefully rejecting Judaism; they just don't have compelling reasons to devote time to it. The challenge for the Jewish community is figuring out how to generate that interest before they completely drift away, said Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions.

"What we're really talking about is meaning-making," she said. "They're not looking to make a menorah out of pretzel rods and peanut butter. They want more sophisticated content, and they want to figure out who they are."

Jews aren't the only ones struggling to keep boys engaged.

Statistics show that males in general make up a disproportionate number of dropouts and criminals, said report researcher Michael Reichert, who also directs the Center for the Study of Boys' and Girls' Lives in Wilmington, Del.

It's not so surprising, given the country's long history of dismissing certain risk behaviors -- from unprotected sex to bullying -- by saying, well, "boys will be boys," he said.

"There's been a sort of a tacit way that we have accepted male casualties, whether it's violence or education or relationships that aren't working," explained Reichert. "What's new today is that we can actually care about that and do something about it."

Helping Women Be Equals

Those failings perhaps went on without much outcry for so long because the public had first focused on helping women reach their potential as active equals in society, he said.

Likewise, over the past generation, the Jewish community has made concerted efforts to ensure that Judaism could serve a valuable role in helping girls navigate between being desirable and functional, explained Meyer.

Moving Traditions was a part of that, developing a program called "Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing!" in 2000 after conducting a similar gender study. More than 300 communities now use the curriculum.

Meanwhile, "the world has changed dramatically for boys, but no one's talking to them about it," said Meyer.

What's promising about the disengagement among Jewish boys is that Judaism appears to have a strong potential to reverse the trend, said Reichert.

Unlike other demographic groups he has studied, the researcher said Jewish boys recognized that their religion gave them "room" to decide what it meant to be male, regardless of stereotypes. Through their Jewish identity, they could care about each other, or take a stand against dehumanizing pressures of masculinity, hierarchy and hazing.

"Simply because there's a set of values, a history, a heritage that comes along with being Jewish, it impacts the formation of identity in very positive ways," said Reichert.

In 40 focus groups over a three-year period, Meyer said researchers found again and again that the boys, even if they didn't do anything Jewish, strongly identified as Jewish.

What's more, she said, they wanted to connect to other Jewish guys, but complained that existing programs were boring, insubstantial, didactic or too unstructured.

Drawing on this research and experience with "It's a Girl Thing!," Moving Traditions started working on curriculum that would "meet boys where they are," said Jennifer Groen, director of education and programs.

"Anyone can say they care about boys, but what we've found is that's not really enough," she said. "If we want them to be satisfied and inspired, we've got to do better."

Synagogue staff helped researchers find teenagers who had recently become Bar Mitzvahs and dropped out of Jewish life, in order to test their ideas in Philadelphia and two other cities.

At first, Meyer said, parents were dubious. They said their sons only agreed to participate for the $50 they would get by the end of the six-week session. Then, halfway in, they came to her saying, " 'I don't know what you're doing, but he's mad at me if I don't get him here on time,' " recalled Meyer.

Now, years later, the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College will be among the first communities to pilot the "Brotherhood" project. They'll start this coming semester with a small group of eighth- and ninth-graders in Chester County, an area where Jewish kids are often isolated minorities in their public schools, said director Ari Goldberg.

Goldberg said he's been waiting for something like this ever since "It's a Girl Thing!" became popular, but "there was nothing to offer the boys."

"All of us, whether adults or teenagers, there really is a craving for trying to figure out the meaning in life," he said. "You go to Barnes & Noble and that section on self-help books or spirituality, it gets bigger every year."

According to research, "Jewish kids don't necessarily feel they can find the answers to those questions in Judaism. They end up looking everywhere except Judaism."

Thoughts Pour Out

Perhaps boys can satisfy some of those questions -- or at least have an outlet to really explore what it means to be young Jewish men -- if educators create the right environment, said Goldberg.

"In a mixed-sex class, the boys are not going to start talking about how they feel about dating," said Goldberg.

"When they have an opportunity to be with a strong male role-model mentor, all of a sudden all these feelings and thoughts start coming out," he continued. "Maybe they'll go to the first session because their parents are making them do it but after that they'll continue because, 'Wow, I didn't know I could have these types of discussions with other guys.'"

While it may take a few years to formalize the "Brotherhood" program, Meyer said she hoped the report would motivate the public to advocate for male engagement. Perhaps it could even prompt policymakers at educational institutions to offer professional development or create their own program geared toward young men.

It would be a waste not to at least try something, she said.

"It's crazy, we invest all this time and energy in them, and then we let them go," said Meyer. "So boys lose out from our wisdom, and Jewish life loses out because boys go off and don't come back. For Jewish life to remain relevant, we need to think about the conditions people are facing today, and how people can live the most rich and full lives they can."

Read the full report at: www.movingtraditions.org.

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