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The ‘Boy Crisis’ That Cried Wolf

Ever galvanized by a good emergency, the American Jewish community has been mobilizing in response to a recent spate of articles depicting a looming “boy crisis.” The Union for Reform Judaism inaugurated a “Young Men’s Project” to “address the dearth of boys and young men in our congregations,” and plans to hold a pre-biennial symposium next December on the topic of gender. Moving Traditions, sponsor of the program “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing,” has also begun a major initiative on boys, engaging prominent boys’ development researcher and author William Pollack to head up the project.

To be sure, boys — and, by the way, men — seem to be having a difficult time finding their place in certain areas of Jewish life. In the Reform movement, boys constitute only 22% to 43% of youth group participants; 28% of campers at the Reform movement’s leadership camp for teens, Camp Kutz, and 33% of first-year rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College. And while the numbers are not as dire elsewhere in the Jewish community, a recent study of affiliated Jewish teens at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies indicates that girls outnumber boys in youth programs 2-to-1, a ratio made all the more disturbing by the fact that women have only recently become leaders in the Jewish community.

Yet as much as these numbers may be cause for concern, we need to think more carefully about how we phrase and contextualize this issue — because when we fail to do so, our concerned talk about boys can quickly degenerate into sexist talk about girls and women.

For starters, I have difficulty calling this current dearth of boys in Jewish life a “crisis.” While there is substantial evidence to support the argument that there is a boy crisis in American education, there is relatively little to indicate that the Jewish community is suffering from the same problem.

Poor boys of color in this country are genuinely in trouble, graduating high school and matriculating at college at significantly lower rates than their white and female counterparts. If we are really concerned about boys in crisis, we will focus our attention on these boys — and not label the anomie or angst besetting Jewish boys a crisis of similar proportion.

After all, when four out of every five college students were male, nobody thought there was a “girl crisis.” Thirty-five years ago — when women were not ordained as rabbis, when girls in the Conservative movement celebrated a bat mitzvah on Friday night, when Orthodox girls did not receive an education remotely comparable to that of their brothers, when women were not called to the Torah for aliyot or allowed on the bimah at all — where were the headlines proclaiming a girl crisis?

What’s more, in the boy crisis that the Jewish community is supposedly now experiencing, even the numbers don’t seem to add up. Every study of Jewish teens indicates that while boys drop out more than girls, Jewish teen participation is low in general. And while the Reform numbers are indeed disheartening, many other programs — Birthright Israel and the Prozdor high school program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary, to name just two — report either roughly equal male and female participation or growing equality with boys still outnumbering girls.

Given the history of women’s exclusion within the Jewish community, approaching equality should be something to celebrate, not a crisis in the making.

Furthermore, we have no longitudinal studies with which to compare these numbers. In the absence of such studies, one wonders if Jewish life was ever different. Is it possible that boys have, for a long time, dropped out after their bar mitzvahs, only to return as adult men when they establish families? This trajectory might not be ideal, but if it is indeed what is taking place, would hardly constitute a crisis.

More insidious is the assertion made by some boy-crisis advocates that men are retreating from active engagement in Jewish life because women now dominate it. This characterization simply smacks of backlash.

Women have maintained their involvement in a Judaism dominated for centuries by men, but the minute women get a toehold in leadership, men pick up and leave? Pollack, the boys’ development researcher heading up Moving Traditions’ major new initiative, refutes the inherent sexism of this argument, insisting that women’s leadership is not responsible for boys’ retreat from Jewish life.

“Boys haven’t found a way to” adapt to the sharing of power with girls and women in Judaism, he argued, “because men haven’t found a way to change.” If Jewish men, young or old, are turned off by women’s leadership, then our commitment to justice requires that we call this what it is — sexism — and work to change the attitude instead of accommodating it.

Boys and girls alike suffer under the constructs of a patriarchal society, and from Judaism’s patriarchy, as well. The suffering looks different depending on gender. Girls will be denied opportunities for leadership and advancement and will be encouraged to cultivate their beauty and sexuality at the expense of their full selves; boys will learn to swallow their feelings, or act them out in ways that harm themselves and others, and pursue greater material success at the price of healthy relationships and a healthy inner life.

Men and women need to work together to address discrimination against women in the Jewish community, as well as men’s perception of Judaism’s irrelevance to them. We need to prepare our daughters to be both strong leaders who are well armed against the sexism they will face in the media and employment and mothers who are able to raise young men who share an interest in their sisters’ achievements, have full access to their feelings and are engaged by Jewish life.

We need not make a Solomonic choice between our children — rather we must continue to work for the health of all of them, while taking into account the unique needs of each.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro is a senior associate at Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, a program of the JCC in Manhattan.

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