In the opening line of his latest column for The (New York) Jewish Week, Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt asks:
Is it fair to trace our communal challenges of intermarriage, assimilation and lack of affiliation back to boys losing interest in Jewish life after their bar mitzvah celebrations?
It’s a provocative question that relates to a familiar problem to anyone who’s spent time in synagogues or at Jewish organizations in the last 10 years: Judaism is going female.
While the highest echelons of leadership in the Jewish world remain stubbornly male, the grass roots of Judaism, in synagogues, youth groups and local organizations, is increasingly female. At a conference of young Jewish leaders I attended in November, 23 participants were women–nine were men.
Rosenblatt draws his concern from a study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. (Note: Rosenblatt calls the study “recent,” but according to the website of the Cohen Center, it actually dates to 2000.):
“Boys expressed consistently less interest in things Jewish, held more negative opinions about past Jewish experiences and generally considered Judaism more peripheral to their lives” than girls, according to “Being A Jewish Teenager In America: Trying To Make It,” a recent study of nearly 1,500 Jewish adolescents by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. This attitude resulted in relatively low rates of participation in youth groups, camps and visits to Israel among boys by the end of high school, and “should be a cause for concern,” the study found.
Responding to this potential crisis, explains Rosenblatt, is a group called Moving Traditions, which had been focusing most of its energies on the self-image and behavioral problems of adolescent girls.
Moving Traditions has engaged educational researchers to talk to boys, their parents, educators and youth leaders. Six months into the project, the researchers report some counterintuitive, encouraging findings based on intensive discussions with about 40 boys in the Denver area.
“We are seeing an almost countercultural force among boys we’ve talked to who speak about loving and respecting their parents, valuing deep friendships with other boys, and expressing emotions,” noted Sharon Ravitch, a professor of education and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and research co-director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives.
But it’s an open question whether it’s even possible to be equally welcoming to boys and girls. If Jewish involvement feels too female, many boys will avoid it. If it feels too male, many girls will avoid it. There are few activities that appeal equally to adolescent boys and girls (I know what you’re thinking–get your mind out of the gutter). The Jewish community has quite a challenge to overcome.
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