Boys to men
It was by far my hardest speaking gig ever.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah invited me many months ago, to speak to the synagogue men’s group at 7 p.m. on June 12. Of course I said yes — it was one of those gracious invitations with so much advance notice that the day seemed as far off as Saturn and as wide open.
What we couldn’t have guessed was the Los Angeles Lakers would be playing Game 3 of the NBA Championship that night.
The rabbi hosted the event in his backyard. I walked through the gate at 7. The guys were eating barbeque, drinking beers and Cokes, watching a big-screen TV set up on the patio. Fifty pairs of eyes shifted to me like I was the mom, they were 10 and it was time to go to bed.
Rabbi Vogel leaped up and flicked the TV off. He introduced me, and the guys were more than welcoming. I decided to speak about the election. I figured what could possibly compete in excitement with the Lakers vs. Celtics? Obama vs. McCain. By the end, we got into it pretty good. Phil Jackson had his strategy; I had mine.
What I decided not to tell the men’s group was my dark, dirty little secret: I couldn’t care less about the game.
Yep: Lakers, shmaykers. Pro sports bore me.
How’s that for coming out of the closet? I would rather watch a rerun of the “Mad Men” episode when Peggy finds out she’s pregnant than the last pass in the closest Super Bowl ever.
I love tennis, but as many men have reminded me over the years, that doesn’t count. In tennis, nobody checks anybody, no one loses his teeth and girls can beat you.
In general, I’m just not supermacho. And I’ve been wondering lately if that accounts for my deep involvement in Jewish life.
It turns out, see, that I am endangered: I am a non-Orthodox Jewish man engaged in Jewish life.
According to a new Brandeis University study, men are becoming less and less active in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations.
“American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue at almost every age,” begins the report, titled, “Matrilineal Ascent, Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life.”
Anecdotally, we all know boys and men in Jewish schools, camps, shuls and organizations. But the study, headed by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, used hundreds of interviews Fishman conducted for the American Jewish Committee and for two of her previous books, as well as data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study. What they found is that non-Orthodox Judaism has undergone a long process of feminization.
As Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries turn out more female rabbis and cantors, fewer boys than girls join non-Orthodox youth groups, attend religious schools or summer camps, and fewer men serve on synagogue or federation committees.
“Over the ages, men felt very involved in Judaism,” Fishman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It was their responsibility. This is gone today, except in the Orthodox world. We need to look at how we are raising our Jewish sons.”
Fishman believes the “Boy Crisis” is serious because as Jewish boys and men turn off to Judaism, they tend to marry non-Jewish spouses, and their children are less likely to be raised Jewish.
That women have entered Jewish life en masse is not just good, it’s great. But one theory is that in breaking down the gender barriers of Orthodoxy, the liberal movements have neglected something men need: Time with men.
Outside the liberal Jewish movements, Jewish men have the minyan, where 10 can gather for a shot of prayer and a glass of schnapps. “For all except the old and the rigid, the minyan is gone — an opportunity lost,” Rabbi Steven Leder wrote several years ago in — natch — Playboy. “But in the process men lost the opportunity to create something they need and have always lacked, times and places to talk and to be with each other.”
The advent of men’s groups is a direct response to this phenomenon. Leder pioneered one at Wilshire Boulevard Temple almost a decade ago; I’ve spoken to groups from Encino to Palos Verdes. They don’t just talk politics and watch (yawn) ball games; they also bring in relationship experts, talk over feelings, fatherhood — the big stuff. The idea, as Leder wrote, is “to create something the minyan could have provided if men were better at talking to each other.”
I like the men’s group concept, but I’m not certain it alone will reverse the trend. I have a different theory for the Boy Crisis: The problem isn’t that Jewish life treats men like women, it’s that it treats them like children.
At 13, we’re told we are men. From then on, as boys really do grow into men in the secular world, they get treated more and more like children in synagogue. Rabbis guide them through the service; they’re told the rules and expected to go along, and every life cycle from marriage to their kids’ bar or bat mitzvah is as deep a transaction as an allowance.
I once asked a world-famous doctor why he walked away from Judaism. “Because I couldn’t stand being infantilized,” he said. “I was 40; I was at the top of my field, and they talked to me like I’m an idiot.”
The weakness of Orthodoxy is that it doesn’t (yet) fully include women. Its strength is it pushes men to step up to the plate and become active in meaningful, mature ways in their spiritual life: not just as members of a minyan but as teachers of their own children, as Torah readers, as prayer leaders, as the Jewish leader in their own home.
That’s a long-term strategy for male Jewish involvement.
Though beers and barbeque aren’t a bad start.