From Your Father’s House: Jewish Men Today, 2017

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BY RABBI SHAWN ISRAEL ZEVIT

PARSHAT LECH LECHA

Dedicated to the life and memory of groundbreaking thinker and writer on Jewish men’s issues, Harry Brod, Feb. 1, 1951 – June 16, 2017

“God said to Abram, lech lecha (get yourself up and go) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you … and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).

The lech lecha of today requires a road map that is informed by the past, not limited by it.

To get up and go from the “house of our fathers” or as some interpretations suggest “lech lecha — go deeper into your own soul and awaken to the promise that you are,” can bring a sense of loss as well as possibility, a relinquishing and reassessment of privilege, power over others and examinations of the structures we as men have participated in and benefited from at the expense of others and our own well-being.

For some men who are hearing the call to awaken to new expressions of masculinities and/or Jewish experience, we may have been handed the richness of our faith, with its customs, rituals and insights and so can add our life stories to that of Avraham.

However, for many Jewish men or men who are not Jewish partnered with Jewish women or men and/or raising children in a Jewish home, this is not a given.

We may have received little from our parents, or were antagonistic to what we experienced. Some men have experience in men’s groups and movements but have been out of touch with their Jewish identity. Others are well-grounded in Jewish life, but have never explored being in a group of men, or have few or surface relationships with other men. Still others have had neither or very little of both.

The idea of gathering as men in a Jewish context and taking a journey from the familiar to a place of promise, whether through a deep spiritual call or a professional or relational opportunity, or even through forced expulsion, is both a historic experience for us as a people, and has new contemporary manifestations.

In North America, some of us grew up within the framework of the Brotherhood or Men’s Club of our synagogue, Jewish Community Center or B’nai B’rith lodge. The formal men’s groups within Jewish institutional life continue to shift and try to meet contemporary needs, while many men have found a home in informal groups that meet once or twice a month in group members’ homes.

For others and many younger Jewish men today, those traditional groups and structures are not places they gravitate toward by default, and yet there is a longing or curiosity about how to break through the overwhelm and isolation many of us struggle with today, and forge meaningful connections in some Jewish context or with some Jewish content.

Even though I grew up with a rich and mostly positive Jewish familial and community experience in Winnipeg and Toronto, I began searching for something more in my connection with other men in a mutually shared context in my late 20s.

Along with Yosaif August and other Jewish men, we began co-creating our own North American gatherings, literally beginning with parshat Lech Lecha as a focal point more than 25 years ago. This grew into what became the annual Jewish Men’s Retreat (this year Nov. 10-12) with regional gatherings as well. Between 80 and 90 of us gather from across Canada and the United States, with a solid contingent of Philadelphia-area men.

As of last year we founded our own nonprofit Menschwork, which “supports men to become mensches — men of compassion, integrity and spirit — in their families, communities and in the larger world. We develop transformative program models, deliver programs and create resources that encourage men to take the bold, next steps in their journeys as empowered mensches. The connection among men created by these programs is deep and abiding.”

Recent revelations have shed light on the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of men in power in the entertainment, corporate and political spheres up to the highest levels.

The egregious reality is that these behaviors are not new at every level of our society especially toward women, gay, and bisexual, transgendered or gender-fluid men and women. Our efforts are more imperative than ever.

If anything, building trust between us and learning how to relate to each other as men beyond the avenues previously afforded, allows us to push past, challenge and change the larger cultural norms of male competition and control, and the damage we have done and are doing to each other and our precious planet in the process.

Forging a compassionate, relevant and authentic spiritual life deepens this dimension so that our renewed Jewish expression enhances and supports our journeys as adult men and for our boys and teenagers in an age of rapid change in roles and expectations. The assertion of identities and spiritual expression must neither be dominating and abusive, nor so passive and apologetic that it leads to a total flattening of behavior that de-energizes and immobilizes.  

As previous hierarchical power structures and roles are being challenged and transformed, albeit painfully slowly at times, men have often isolated themselves to face these changes alone. We must create these connections with other men and women, within and beyond the Jewish community in such a way that values what is rich and meaningful in the past, and allows us to work together and support each other in creative, compassionate and insightful ways toward a healthy future.

Like the charge to Avram to become all that he might become, to grow into Avraham in a new place he did not know, and then be blessed, so we are asked to expand our self-image to more fully reflect the values and Godly potential in our lives. Then we will come to know the blessing we inherently are meant to be. I hope to see you on the path to this place of promise.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi for Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and a widely-known consultant, teacher, author, spiritual director, musician and community organizer. He is the co-director of the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.