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Separate-Gender Jewish Activities: It’s Good To Have Rooms of Our Own

I have to disagree with Chanel Dubofsky’s Sisterhood post in which she contends that new interest in Jewish men’s clubs reflects male anxiety about a supposed women’s takeover of Jewish organizations and life. I think it’s great that a non-Orthodox Jewish organization is making progress in engaging Jewish men. The goal is to have everyone involved.

As far as I can tell, there hasn’t actually been a women’s takeover of Jewish organizations. As illustrated in this New York Times article a few years ago, and this more recent article in the Forward, it is true that, among teenagers, programming in the non-Orthodox community has attracted more female participation than male. And the Reform movement, for one, has been working to achieve more parity.

As important as egalitarian access to Judaism is to me, we also need separate-gender spaces (as the title and subject matter of this blog reflect). It is not anti-feminist to recognize that there are differences beyond the physical between men and women, and that we tend to develop most close friendships with those of the same gender. There is something to be said for the safer space of being with others of the same gender.

At the same time, of course, we must ensure that both women and men have access to leadership of every sort in Jewish groups. In this, as the Forward’s salary surveys illuminate, women continue to lag.

Some organizations, like the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and Moving Traditions are working hard to develop programming that will attract and engage Jewish men and boys. And more power to them. Moving Traditions developed a successful nationwide program for adolescent girls called “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” and has, for the last few years, been developing a parallel curriculum for groups of adolescent guys dubbed “The Campaign for Jewish Boys”. Their report, “Teenage Boys: A Call to Action,” is full of fascinating data culled from studies about the differences in the ways boys and girls learn and engage with each other and with programs.

I’ve seen this learning first-hand with my kids. My 17-year-old son has remained very Jewishly engaged through his time in a large public high school and was known, even in a school with a large number of Jewish students, as “the Jewish kid.” He participated in a fantastic Hebrew high school program called Bogrim, run by two Conservative synagogues in Brownstone Brooklyn and has been involved in Jewish singing through HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. But his is a rare experience. Most of the other guys who graduated with him from Jewish day school after 8th grade have not stayed very involved in Jewish life. As Boychik shortly heads off to college, I know that he will stay engaged in Jewish activities and networks.

I also see the challenges of achieving gender equality in leadership. At our family’s Conservative synagogue, both the rabbi and the cantor and, currently, the board president, are women (and more power to them). It is important that boys see models of male Jewish leadership as well, so I make a point of thanking our rabbi for making sure there are men as well on the bimah during High Holy Day services, for example, when there are lots of people taking turns leading readings and parts of the service.

My children live in a Jewish world where women are the most visible leaders: the head of their Jewish day school and the leaders at shul. It’s important to me for both my son’s and daughters’ sakes that they see both men and women in leadership roles.

And if part of their Jewish engagement means being involved with same-gender programs from time to time, that’s great. Do I want them in a single-gender school? No. I think that learning to work with people of both genders is an important life skill.

If guys feel attracted to the baseball games and steak dinners being offered by men’s clubs, so what? It’s no threat to me. In fact, the other Conservative synagogue in our area of Brooklyn (not the one we belong to) has a group of women who get together every couple of weeks. They call themselves shvesters (sisters) and get together to study, eat and socialize. I think it sounds great. Maybe I’ll start something like it at our shul.

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