Is Judaism Becoming a Girls’ Club?

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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2 thoughts on “Is Judaism Becoming a Girls’ Club?

  1. 1/ Females are more spiritual than males so unless males are in charge any religious group will become overwhelmingly female.

    2/ ‘Moving Traditions’ beliefs that boys are just slightly more masculine girls won’t help.

    3/ The de-Maccabeeing of Chanukah doesn’t help. Do any JCC’s have boxing/MMA programs? How many temples and synangogues have any connection with the Betar movement?

    4/ Does Brandeis have an ROTC program? Instead of its Cohen Center doing studies maybe it should advocate for an ROTC program at Brandeis.

    4/ Yet again this is an issue that the ultra-Orthodox don’t have.

  2. women are commonly more involved in religious life than men. it’s the women who create the homelife and it’s the women who give birth to the next generation. if a Jewish woman intermarries, her children will be halachically Jewish even by Orthodox standards. but how they are raised poses an entirely different question. while it’s not entirely impossible for children of intermarriage to be raised as Jews if only the father is Jewish, it seems more likely that they will be raised Jewish if the mother is Jewish.

    drawing upon my own personal experiences, involvement or affilation with Jewish life has generally been off balance when it comes to gender. throughout all my years of Day School education (kindergarten through 9th grade, then switched to public school due to personal reasons), the boys always outnumbered the girls. yet on a recent trip to Israel with Birthright, it was the other way around. i also want to point out that participants in my group from in-married families were the minority and those from interfaith or conversionary families ranked in the majority. so the theory that people from interfaith backgrounds or in interfaith relationships (as there were a few in my group that had non-Jewish significant others back at home) have little to no attachment to Israel isn’t exactly accurate.

    i have a mixed circle of friends, but most of my female friends are Jewish. a large quantity of my Jewish friends grew up Reform or Conservative. the majority come from in-married families, but there are a few from interfaith or conversionary households. all of my Jewish friends were Bar or Bat Mitzvah’ed, had some form of Jewish education growing up, attended shul on the major holidays, and participated in youth groups like USY or NFTY or attended Hillel events in college. only a handful have been to Israel and hardly any keep kosher. none are Shabbat observant. only a small percentage actually remember how to read, write, or speak Hebrew (i’m one of them). as far as dating/marriage is concerned, there is less interest in dating/marrying other Jews among the females. the males would prefer to meet Jewish women, but don’t place it as the number one criteria when seeking a partner. of those involved in relationships, only two are with other Jews. the rest are with non-Jews or are single. parental opinions on interdating/intermarriage range from non-negotiable (unless conversion is involved) to being more concerned with personal happiness and success.

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