The Chanukah party for Adat Ari El’s junior United Synagogue Youth group had all the elements the seventh- and eighth-grade members had requested: latkes, a gift exchange and a fierce board game competition. Yet, said, Julee Snitzer, the synagogue’s youth activities director, of the 13 who participated — only two were male.
Her experience is not unusual. Many of the informal Jewish education activities geared to teens in the greater Los Angeles area — such as camps, synagogue youth groups, school clubs and Jewish community centers — draw more girls than boys. The ratio in formal Jewish activities, such as Jewish high school and religious school, appears to be more gender balanced.
“Looking at what’s happening locally and nationally, we’ve found that fewer teen boys enroll in informal Jewish activities than they did in previous years,” said Lori Harrison Port, senior associate director for planning and allocations at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
A survey done by her department showed that informal Jewish education programs generally attract 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys. The lack of participation among boys could lead to a weakening of their Jewish affiliation over time, some fear.
A special report analyzing results from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 indicates that participation in camping and youth groups may impact Jewish identity as much as or more than attending up to six years of supplementary religious school. The impact is directly linked to the length of involvement in those youth-oriented activities.
Last fall, The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education hosted a conference for Jewish youth professionals to explore the issue and generate ideas for cultivating greater male involvement in informal Jewish activities. Held at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, the program was an outgrowth of the bureau’s Youth Professional Advisory Council, which facilitates sharing of ideas and resources for those serving Jewish teens.
Keynote speaker Bob Ditter, a Boston-based psychotherapist who consults nationally with camps and other youth-targeted agencies, shared insights about boys’ development and led attendees in discussing how to design their programming and marketing to attract boys.
“The central [element] in boys’ development is task and action. Boys want to feel that they’re good at something,” Ditter said. “Boys develop friendships through the stuff they do. Girls develop friendships and then go do stuff.”
Ditter said that boys engage in activities — such as tossing a ball or comparing video games — as a way to connect. He suggested that youth group leaders and counselors allow boys to do an activity first before expecting them to sit and talk.
He also urged group leaders to recognize that boys initiate connection through a challenge or dare. For example, Ditter witnessed a teen participant make a sarcastic comment to his counselor at a camp’s opening campfire. Rather than feeling threatened or insulted by such remarks, leaders “need to hear the invitation [to engage] rather than the challenge” he said.
“It’s a myth that adolescents distrust or don’t respect adults,” he added. “They’re hungry for meaningful connections to adults they respect and feel respected by.”
The group also discussed the underlying pressures that children of all ages face to compete and excel, whether that means getting into the right preschool or taking the most Advanced Placement courses.
“At social events, they just want to hang out,” Ditter said. “They need to depressurize.”
Looking at how these factors might affect marketing to teen boys, the conference participants agreed that programs — and their promotional materials — must reflect teens’ reality and clearly state the benefits of participation, such as providing community service hours or leadership opportunities.
Ellie Klein, Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth director, noted that many students are attracted to participate in the synagogue’s Wednesday night program, which consists of dinner, a recreational elective and a Jewish-themed seminar, because there is excellent tutoring available through the program’s supervised study room.
Wilshire Boulevard bucks the norm by attracting more boys than girls at its programs. Klein said she’s baffled by the male-to-female ratio, although it helps that eight of her 11 staff members are men and one of the synagogue’s rabbis, Dennis Eisner, is popular with the youngsters and actively recruits participants.
“I’m not selling basketball,” she said. “I’m selling community and connection.”
Temple Sinai’s Sinai High, an educational program for eighth through 12th-graders that draws from the synagogue’s religious school graduates, also boasts a good ratio between boys and girls. Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, who oversees youth programs, said programming is specifically geared to attract boys. As an example, he noted a popular series of classes that examined Jewish values as evidenced in “The Simpsons.”
Schuldenfrei said the trend of females outnumbering males is not limited to the teen realm. Sinai’s ATID group for young professionals in their 20s and 30s struggles to attract a male audience. For Sukkot, ATID held a Sukkah Sports Night, offering a televised game and beer, as well as a holiday teaching under the sukkah, and was rewarded with more male participants than normal. Schuldenfrei said that programming “needs to speak to males, as well as females.”
This advice may apply throughout the age spectrum. “In liberal communities,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, “60 percent to 70 percent of people participating in adult education are women.”