David Malchman of Morris Plains will tell you that there’s nothing like a little men’s bonding. A member of the Conservative synagogue Adath Shalom in Parsippany, he has been involved in the men’s movement for 14 years, and has been attending an annual Jewish men’s retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut for the last six years. This year, the 19th annual Jewish Men’s Retreat will be held the weekend of Oct. 29-31, and Malchman will serve as cofacilitator.
A systems analyst for AT&T, Malchman teaches Jewish meditation workshops and percussion/chanting workshops. He has been a member of Men Mentoring Men in Somerville since 1996, and serves on its board. He has also performed with the Rhythm Monsters, a West African percussion group that raises money for the village of Kopeyia in Ghana.
NJJN spoke with Malchman on Oct. 20.
NJJN: Why do men need their own space?
Malchman: Men have a different way of communicating. Men need their own space to say what’s important, what’s on their minds, without being judged….
This allows us to explore other areas of our lives, to examine and delve deeper, and, by the end of the weekend, be ready to take action.
We also need feedback from male counterparts. Feedback is different from a male perspective…. Men want to solve, and women want to help and listen. If we mainly bounce ideas off of someone of the opposite gender, it’s just a different mindset or frame of reference. That’s why these weekends are needed — to get a different perspective.
NJJN: Do you worry that this seems a little retrograde?
Malchman: My gosh! Everything we do is now cutting edge. There’s a version of Christian men’s retreats known as Promise Keepers that wants to keep women at home — that’s not our perspective. We very much take into account the world today, which is changing very fast. Our group offers a culture of comfort to explore and question our beliefs — far from being old, I think it’s innovative.
NJJN: The idea of men’s retreats became popular with the publication of Iron John by Robert Bly in 1990. How have the movement and this Jewish men’s retreat changed since then?
Malchman: Iron John does not really reflect what’s going on today in the men’s movement. First of all, the movement is more popular than ever. I can tell you that in the six years I’ve been participating in the Jewish men’s retreat, our attendance has gone from 30 or 40 each year to more than 70. We already have more than 75 people signed up this year from all over the country. I think men are looking at ways to be in community and to be in their own space that’s different. They want to gain strength and learn how to be a mensch and do it all in a Jewish way.
NJJN: Studies have shown that as women have taken more leadership roles in Jewish communal life, men have been dropping out. Does this retreat seek to address this issue?
Malchman: We hadn’t really sought to address this issue, but yes, I would hope we can address this point. If we were to create a mission statement, we would not be saying we want men to go back into synagogue life, but we would say men need to be menschen in their communities…. It’s a great issue. The question we have to ask is, what could we do?
NJJN: How are Jewish men’s retreats the same as or different from Christian men’s retreats?
Malchman: I think they are similar in terms of the combination of using tradition, history, culture, religion, and religious teaching to bring people together to learn. But they are different because we have no expectations — we don’t convey the idea that this is what your role should be, or that you should be the head of your family. We don’t focus on your role in the family, but rather on your role in the community. We say, here’s how Judaism guides me to be in the community. Also, we don’t presume men are married. We include gay men, older men who have never married, men who are divorced. And we have men from all [Jewish] backgrounds, from Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, non-aligned. It’s just a place where men have the opportunity to learn and celebrate the spirtualness of Judaism collectively.