There has never been a better time to be a Jewish woman in America. But to be a Jewish man in America today, you can expect not much more than the same old, same old.
So what, you wonder? After all, the same old was pretty good for Jewish men for millennia. But today membership in the boys’ club has fewer privileges, and, partly as a result, Jewish men are dropping out. Across America, in all denominations of non-Orthodox Judaism, men and boys seem to be disappearing from religious life. Reports of their shortage come from all corners: youth and adult educators, seminary professors, clergy and synagogue attendees. Women outnumber men at Hillel gatherings on campus, in applicants for rabbinical school, and at Jewish summer camp. “Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age, from school-age children through the adult years,” comments Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, who has been studying the trend.
Larger surveys over the last decade confirm that this is true. The study “Being a Jewish Teenager in America,” published in 2000 by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, at Brandeis University, showed that, following bar mitzvah, Jewish boys drop out of formal Jewish education at a far faster rate than do girls. The 2001 National Jewish Population Survey showed that not only are Jewish men more likely than women to intermarry, but that that trend is tied to a weaker sense of Jewishness. And by 2005, the rabbinical school of the Reform movement’s primary seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion , was reporting a twoto- one ratio of women to men in their incoming class; among Reform educators, nearly 90% are female.
Most recently, last year Barack Fishman published “Matrilineal Ascent/ Patrilineal Descent: Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” in which she contended that Jewish men and boys are fast fading out of organized Jewish social and religious life. Girls outnumber boys in Reform movement youth activities, sometimes constituting 78 percent of all attendees, while in Reform families with two born-Jewish parents, mothers are twice a likely to go to weekly services as fathers. According to the report’s intermissing view data, women in general, Jewish and non-Jewish, are more likely to identify as “religious” than men are.
“The majority of American Jews espouse equality as an important value, but Jewish life today is not gender equal,” Barack Fishman explains in the monograph. “When it comes to gender equality or gender balance, contemporary American Jewish life is caught between a rock and a hard place” — between a patriarchal Orthodoxy and a liberal Judaism that is “visibly and substantially feminized.”
For feminists who have fought for a place at the table, the development of an organization called “Men of Reform Judaism” — the new incarnation of the 80-year-old National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods — or the Conservative movement’s “Beer and Bible” groups for men would be almost a parody: first came the Sisterhoods, then the feminist seders because, it was understood, the rest of Judaism was basically arranged for the benefit of men. But increasingly Jewish leaders are realizing that they just may need something resembling a Jewish feminism — for men.
Still, not all feminists are so comfortable with the attention on boys and men. Lori Lefkovitz, professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and founding director of Kolot, the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, believes that much of the current discussion of boys and men may be “pushback” against women’s gains. “Women’s enfranchisement within Judaism has not yet been normalized,” she explains, and although some people may be discomforted by an increased women’s presence, she cautions against creating a “gender competition. When we envision the system as a competition rather than cooperation, we do a disservice to the entire Jewish enterprise,” she says. “We’re not in this as men and women. We are in this together as a mutually-dependent collectivity.”
Barack Fishman acknowledged that people have avoided discussing the problem “because they are afraid that the topic itself can be used as a weapon against women.” But she hopes that the problem of male disengagement from Judaism will be seen as a “problem for the entire Jewish people, just like the problem of women’s exclusion was.”