Do Teenage Boys Need a Room of Their Own?
It’s been clear for a while now that post-bar mitzvah age boys drop out of organized Jewish life, at least in the non-Orthodox world, far more than girls the same age do. In this article in The New York Times a few years back, I wrote about how the Reform movement had begun to address the gender disparity.
The organization Moving Traditions runs the successful program Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, which aims to improve the self esteem and strengthen the Jewish identity of girls in grades 6–12. This year there were 285 different groups all over the country and, since the program was begun in 2002, some 6,000 young Jewish women have participated.
Now Moving Traditions, which focuses on gender issues within Judaism and is based in the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown, is turning its attention to boys. It has been conducting focus groups in Denver and convening experts to do additional research into the developmental life of boys. Moving Traditions also commissioned a research report, titled “Wishing for More: Jewish Boyhood, Identity and Community,” from two University of Pennsylvania academics who study education and gender development.
According to “Wishing for More,” which has not been publicly released, the boys studied “were able to find their way to the Jewish community, fashioning a home for themselves by cobbling together their own particular mix of relationship, education, symbol and religious practice.”
However, their Jewish community did not make it easy for them to accomplish this outcome: on the contrary, most of the boys complained about the offerings available to them within organized Jewish institutions. From stale and dogmatic supplemental education, preachy youth outreach, anxious parents or overly secular youth groups, even the boys who were the most Jewishly affirming explained that they had to construct their Jewish identities despite significant barriers.
“The problem for Jewish boys is that Judaism and Jewish life are not there to help them consider what it means to be a man and as they face the pressures of adolescence,” Deborah Meyer, director of Moving Traditions, told The Sisterhood. “The end result of our inability to engage and inspire Jewish boys is that not only are few of them developing strong Jewish identities but we’re not helping them develop as mensches.”
Moving Traditions’s plan is to develop a program that can be replicated, like the Rosh Chodesh groups, around the country. It’s currently piloting a boys’ program in the Philadelphia and Boston areas, in Washington, and at a summer camp in the Poconos.
“The most strategic time to reach them is 8th and 9th grades, when there’s the greatest risk of boys stepping out of Jewish life. This is a time when we want to inspire them and give them a reason to stay rather than let them wander away,” said Meyer. “We’re going to come out with a program that can be offered to boys in a variety of settings, as well as a framework for working with Jewish boys. We want to know the most effective ways to get them in the door and to work with guys to have conversations of meaning. We want to help them form a Jewish identity and a healthy male identity.”
But the organization is also trying to come up with a snappy name for the boys’ program, and promises an iTunes gift card to anyone who comes up with the winning idea.