Ethan Brecker, 15, of Randolph is blunt when asked if his male friends get involved in Jewish life after bar mitzva.
The other boys his age “just don’t care anymore,” he said. “After Hebrew school, they just don’t care. They don’t want to go.”
Brecker isn’t saying anything that his peers and Jewish educators don’t already know: Outside of Orthodox settings, teenage boys are dropping out of Jewish life in disproportionately greater number than their female peers.
Only 17 percent of boys participate in Jewish education by 12th grade, one third fewer than girls, according to a study conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The boys who do participate in Jewish life are greatly dissatisfied, calling much of what is being offered “stale,” “preachy,” and “dogmatic.”
Young adult programs, like Hillel’s Tzedek Advocacy and Avodah, The Jewish Service Corps, often enroll many more women than men.
Of the 14 Reform rabbis ordained at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2009, 10 were women, only four men.
The dilemma has spawned a shelf of studies and now a possible solution that some might consider radical: to bring in the boys, leave out the girls.
Moving Traditions, a Philadelphia-based organization working to increase teen involvement in Jewish life, is proposing a boys-only program designed to make issues of masculinity central to educational programming.
This month it announced “The Brotherhood,” an eight-session curriculum to be launched in spring 2011. The first cohort will be limited to between 15 and 20 schools or synagogues.
“Our research shows that boys are really interested in exploring what it means to be male,” Moving Traditions executive director Deborah Meyer told NJJN by phone from her office in Philadelphia. “This is a real opportunity for the Jewish community to meet boys where they are.”
Moving Traditions has a track record in single-gender programming for teens: Some 8,000 girls have participated in its Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing curriculum.
Its research suggests boys would also benefit from such an approach.
“It’s really important for boys to have a gender-specific space to explore who they are and take a look at what it means to be male,” said Meyer. “The world has changed a lot in the last generation, and there’s no one to help boys figure out what it means to be a man. What kind of spouse do I want to be? What kind of man do I want to be?”
The Brotherhood curriculum was developed with input from 40 boys’ focus groups, held around the country over the last few years. Two were held in Essex and Morris counties, organized for Moving Traditions by The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Mostly in grades seven-nine, the boys taking part came from liberal denominations. Orthodox boys were not included, but Meyer said she believes the curriculum can be adapted to any setting.
“We are offering Jewish content that will help boys figure out where I am in the world, and Orthodox boys need this as well,” she said.
Partnership executive director Robert Lichtman jumped at the opportunity to have local communities participate in the study. “We are always looking for the most effective ways to engage learners. This is another resource to help us. We wanted to be involved in the process, from the ground floor,” he said.
Whether such programs will appeal to boys is another question. Some local teens interviewed in recent weeks were somewhat skeptical.
“I don’t think any program can essentially tell you what it means to be a man. It is up to the individual to decide,” said Darren Rabinowitz, 18, of Morristown. “The only real way to know is to get out into the real world and have experiences that make you ‘man’ up.”
And although Nathan Feinberg, a 16-year-old from Short Hills, initially echoed that assessment, he went on to say he likes the idea of a boys-only space. A student at Newark Academy in Livingston, he said, “[C]oming from a private school I feel like it would be nice to meet other Jewish teen boys my age instead of just hanging out with the same old crowd every day.”
Contrary to common stereotypes, Nathan said he did not continue his involvement in the Jewish community “for the ladies.” Rather, “I did it to learn more about myself and the Jewish community. So, this idea of a boys-only space could only help me find the answers of what’s my role as a Jewish male in this community and how I can give back.”
Darren and Nathan were among a group of teenage boys interviewed at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany during the Nov. 7 Global Day of Jewish Learning. The group comprised teens participating in three different learning programs.
The programs themselves suggested the efforts going into attracting and keeping teens involved: the Iris Teen Tzedaka program (a local project to engage Jewish teens in philanthropy), the Diller Teen Fellows program (a national effort to create a new generation of Jewish leaders), and JTeens, a post b’nei mitzva community-wide Hebrew high school program.
The teens ranged in age from 13 to 18, and live in either Morris or Essex County. They discussed why they continued their involvement after becoming b’nei mitzva and why many of their friends “drop out” of Jewish life and Jewish education.
Many pointed to the pull of friends: If their friends continued, they continued; or if a friend mentioned an interesting Jewish project to them, they might check it out.
Others were lured by the promise of a trip, while some noted that parental push is all-important.
And several acknowledged that they are the exceptions, a self-selected group who happen to have an interest in continuing to learn about Judaism.
Darren, a junior counselor for the Diller program, drew a straight line from his social circle as a young teen to his continued involvement.
“I had a solid group of friends I’d see every Monday. I really enjoyed spending time with them and learning in classes with them. They were my Hebrew school friends,” said Darren, whose family belongs to Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. “We decided as a group…to do the confirmation program.”
His friends “petered out” after confirmation, but he heard about Diller from a friend, and it kept him involved. He has enjoyed interaction with people from many different backgrounds, he said, both here and from Israel.
Two students, Ben Kursman of Rockaway and Ben Steindler of Randolph, came to JTeen with the drive to learn more about Judaism. They know, however, that they are the exception. As Steindler pointed out, he’s the only one from his class at Adath Shalom in Parsippany to continue on.
What none of them enjoys is simply sitting in a classroom. They suggested that active learning — doing karate with a Jewish twist, for example, taking on community projects, or engaging in discussion groups on issues like sex and drugs — holds more interest for them.
Jason Roth of South Orange, part of the Diller program, has done mitzva clowning, served as a teen helper in his synagogue’s Hebrew school, and taught magic to local Jewish educators. He said he thinks there are many more portals into Jewish life than most of his peers realize.
“A lot of people get the impression that there’s one way to practice Judaism — studying or praying or going to synagogue on Saturday. I don’t think that’s the case, and I don’t think people realize that they can also connect through Israel, or a youth group, or being involved in a community,” he said.