The Problem With 'Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys'

Jewish boys apparently want a room of their own. This is the main conclusion from the new curriculum “Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action,” an educational program aimed at resolving the so-called “boy crisis” in Jewish communal life. The program encourages the creation of all male spaces, such as a “Brotherhood” groups, in which boys can freely discuss life, philosophy and Jewish identity, and also play some basketball. The theory is that women and girls have been conducting Jewish ritual and consciousness-raising in all-female spaces for a while, and boys can use some of that empowerment, too.

There is no doubt that the Jewish community needs to enable boys to explore their gender and Jewish identity in safe educational environments with skilled and compassionate facilitators. While women have been grappling with Jewish meanings of femininity for several decades, there has been only scant attention given to meanings of masculinity. In that sense, it is a great idea to give boys — and men, for that matter — an opportunity to explore gender expectations and roles and conflicts in identity in order to help them form stable, balanced identities.

That said, creating all-male spaces in a tradition that is still male-dominated is problematic.

The boy crisis notwithstanding, the fact remains that while women are more likely to be involved in Jewish communal life, [men who do get involved tend to dominate. They earn more money, they are given more leadership positions, and they sit on more boards and senior staffs. So let’s not confuse boys’ and men’s reluctance to commit Jewishly with real disempowerment. Jewish men are socialized into many things, but powerlessness is not one of them.

Moreover, there is a troubling undertone in the call for all-male spaces — and that is, that the removal of women is a great thing. Actually, Jay Michaelson pretty much said just that in a recent column in the Forward. “Obviously, there’s no inherent reason that gender-egalitarian and otherwise inclusive congregations can’t offer the same kind of spiritual zets, or punch, as Orthodox ones”, he said, “but let’s admit it — apart from a few exemplary congregations, they don’t.” Through this argument, that egalitarianism induces boredom for men, he idealizes Orthodoxy, a system in which men do everything and women do nothing. Rather than argue that Orthodoxy is great despite the troubling gender thing, he pretty much says the opposite — that Orthodoxy is better is because of women’s exclusion.

So Michaelson’s pining for an empowered male space completely fails to account for the role of power hierarchies in his version of masculinity. Let’s be clear about this: Men and boys are never systematically silenced the way women are in his idealized Orthodox synagogue. If men choose not to lead services or head a shul committee, it is out of choice, not out of entrenched inequality. It is very hard to muster sympathy for a guy who is bored because women have stepped in and ruined all the men’s fun. His gripe reflects the classic position of the master who has lost his slaves. Or like Archie Bunker’s fantasy, “And you knew what you were then: girls were girls and men were men.”

This new curriculum for boys is a very important, even groundbreaking initiative, but in practice, it has to be careful not to enter treacherous waters. The researchers found that “being male” is very important to boys, and they want to give their “customers” what they want, as Deborah Meyer told The Sisterhood’s Debra Nussbaum Cohen. But perhaps the role of the educator is not to “give them what they want” but rather to help them unpack societal and cultural messages. After all, what do the boys think that “being male” means? The curriculum seems to be encouraging a certain “menschlechkeit”, the idea of being a man of character and goodness, as well as playing sports. But I can’t help but wonder which of these items is actually male. Isn’t being good a message for people and not just boys? And what are the implications of associating physical strength with masculinity? What happens to boys who are not athletic, or to girls who are? Aren’t we falling right back into the very traps that feminism has sought to deconstruct? Isn’t a boys-only program that encourages masculinity a reversion to old patriarchal structures? When does the vision of educating boys evolve into a vision of educating everyone?

In the debates over single-sex education versus co-ed education more broadly, even the greatest proponents of feminist all-women’s spaces understand that this is not an ideal. A woman’s “room of her own” was created not to encourage femininity but in order to protect women from men. In women’s and girls’ institutions, women and girls have more access to computers, math, science and sports facilities than they do in co-ed institutions, and are less likely to be raped and harassed. In Judaism, the women’s spaces are where women were allowed to read Torah and learn Talmud, and to this day a woman is more likely to do hagbah in a women’s service than in an egalitarian one. Women’s spaces give women freedom from physical, economic, social and cultural threats to their freedom and autonomy. So what are boys getting in all boys’ spaces? It is possible that the absence of girls gives boys permission to take ownership of their emotional processes; that is, in co-ed spaces girls dominate events involving care and nurturing the way boys dominate the soccer field. But there is another issue: The main threat from women’s active involvement in Jewish life is that it encroaches on men’s power. That is uncomfortable, for sure, and perhaps even threatening, but it is a sentiment that requires spaces to be unpacked and understood rather than encouraged.

Overall, I think it’s high time that the issue of socialization into masculinity became a central topic in Jewish educational and communal life. And raising boys to be compassionate, caring, expressive and brotherly are fantastic goals. I would just caution educators from reifying the all-male spaces of old, which were places of power for men but at significant social and emotional cost — for both women and men.

The Problem With 'Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys'

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The Problem With 'Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys'

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