Where The Boys Aren’t
News Flash: Men are inherently less spiritual and religious than women, and require different and more structured programs to spark and maintain religious commitment. This difference, first recorded in Torah and Talmud and codified into Jewish observance ever since, has been rediscovered by liberal Jewish groups now struggling to explain why teenage boys are much more likely than their female counterparts to bolt Jewish involvement after Bar Mitzvah. Highlights from the Jewish Week include:
In startling numbers, boys are simply ceasing their involvement in Jewish activities around the time they become bar mitzvah, according to Moving Traditions. As a result, many Jewish programs for teens and young adults are disproportionately filled with girls.
“Boys consider bar mitzvah their graduation from Jewish life, more than girls do,” says Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, which recently started a three-year research project to identify what boys need.
Underlying issues aren’t unique to Jewish boys. A Newsweek cover story last January focused on the struggle of increasing numbers of boys in education. And American boys are more suspicious of religion than girls, according to a National Study of Youth and Religion (youthandreligion.org).
That teenagers and young men share a sense of alienation from Jewish activities is clear. Why, and what can be done to address it, is not, say experts.
Moving Traditions’ interest in boys emerged after its chair, Sally Gottesman, who works as a management consultant for non-profit groups, noticed that clients were struggling to attract young men to their programs. “Everybody individualized it to their group, wondering ‘how can we get more boys to participate in Hillel, or in our Israel trip,’ as if it were their fault that boys weren’t involved. But it’s a communal issue,” said Gottesman.
[UPDATE: I didn’t notice the radical step undertaken by the Reform movement in response to this crisis: “There have even been gender-segregated prayer services at the camps and at the conventions of the National Federation of Temple Youth.”]
Far be it from me to make a suggestion that has eluded the experts, so I won’t. But Torah and Talmud state repeatedly and emphatically that the key to long-term Jewish survival is for Jewish males to study Jewish texts on an ongoing basis. That’s not my suggestion; it’s 3300 years old.
That’s not to say that every boy finds learning inspirational — we know that’s not true. In the Orthodox community, as well, young men are more likely to abandon Orthodox observance than are young women (and, once again, we have “individualized it to our group,” failing to recognize that we are observing a universal distinction between young men and women). As one young woman explained, “it’s easier to be a ‘good’ girl than a ‘good’ boy.” She’s right — a “good” boy is expected to approach marital age still studying full-time and achieving a modicum of success, while a “good” girl can be pursuing her individual religious and secular interests. Nonetheless, Jewish learning deserves far more attention than it is currently given.
I remember the first time I sat down to learn Talmud. This alone should tell you something. Everyone knows that certain events, expected and unexpected, will be remembered — our Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, births of our children, etc. Everyone alive at the time knew that Sept. 11, the Challenger disaster, the Kennedy assassination or the bombing of Pearl Harbor would be engraved in memory. But who remembers what they learned the first day in any of their college classes?
At any rate, my teacher was Rav Moshe Carlebach in Ohr Somayach. He’s an advanced scholar — his brother is a Rosh Yeshiva in the Mirrer Yeshiva Jerusalem — and here he was, helping rank beginners put their toes into the sea of Talmud for the first time. He launched into the first Mishnah of Bava Metziah, a tractate dealing with financial laws.
Two people come into court holding a garment. They both claim to be the garment’s sole owner. How do you divide it? Good. Now how do you make them swear to ensure they are telling the truth, in a way that both maintains the veracity of their original claims, and also does not have them swear that they own something that the Court then proceeds to deny them? If one party swears that he owns the whole thing, and we then give him half, we’ve said we don’t believe him or his oath.
And if you figure out that puzzle, take the case of two people coming in, one saying it’s all his, and the other saying no, we own it 50/50. Now how do you divide it, and how do you make them swear?
Perhaps the real “flash” came when, after asking us to devise our own solutions to this second problem, Rav Carlebach told us the Talmud’s. I realized that what I had first imagined to be a perfectly reasonable answer was in fact illogical — and the Talmud was teaching logical thinking like nothing else on earth.
Now, would you like to know the answers to the above questions? Delighted to hear it — our own Jewish Learning Network can help you find a class or place to learn more, while Partners in Torah can find you someone with whom to study on the phone. It’s never too late to get started!