The Avodah Blog

Being Male and Being Present: Part I

This month, Moving Traditions published an interesting report that attempted to address the following concern: “The Jewish community is losing boys…in unacceptably large numbers, leaving a generation of boys ignorant of the wisdom, core values, community, and spiritual nourishment Judaism provides.” Struggling to find a stop-gap, Moving Traditions put together a resource guide, available for downloading here, to provide educators with the means to “reverse the exodus of teenage boys from Jewish life through a connected set of actions”.

Moving Traditions’ guide, entitled Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action, aims to help young Jewish males find meaning and role models in their own traditions. The Call to Action invokes “the duality of Isaac’s akeida”, writing: “We see the imminent possibility of the sacrifice of our teenage sons, of their disconnection, of our loss of them from Jewish life and their own loss of a sense of genuine meaning in the labyrinth of today’s secular culture.”

If the Moving Traditions publication is worried about how to engage a generation of young Jewish men that they feel to be slipping through the cracks and away from Jewish engagement, this reflects a general sentiment in Jewish institutions across North America. There exists a pervasive anxiety, rarely addressed explicitly, that there ‘aren’t enough men’ in jobs that serve the Jewish community, whether it’s as social worker, educator, non-profit worker, community organizer, or synagogue staff person. The feeling is that women are dominating these ‘caring’ professions; that men have somehow elected – or been forced to – sidestep a caring career in favor of one that focuses on money, or success, or self-promotion – all, we’re led to believe, ‘masculine’ ideals.

AVODAH as an organization has also had to deal with these concerns surrounding gender and sexual identity, engagement, presence, and absence. In most national AVODAH cohorts, female participants significantly outnumber male. In the 2009-2010 AVODAH year, in fact, there were only 5 males in all of AVODAH.

I emailed AVODAH’s male alums to try to learn more about how AVODAH’s men – many of whom go on to work in social services and social justice fields – experienced their year of service as a minority in a majority female-identified milieu. Josh Ontell (New York 08-09) responded, “I enjoyed being in a predominantly female environment. It taught me to value certain aspects of myself that I had neglected when being in mostly male company (sensitivity, expressing feelings, etc.).” Aaron Walker (Chicago 08-09) reflected, “I have always been surrounded by strong Jewish women, be it my first rabbi when I was a child, my mother and her mother running the temple, etc.  I was pleased to defer to their leadership, and lead whenever I had the specialty.”

Josh Neirman (DC 09-10) spoke about how he worked with AVODAH staff to organize a focus group among the 5 men in AVODAH last year – all of whom were in DC. Their minority status was an issue they discussed, and they spoke of how to recruit more male applicants to the program. They theorized that AVODAH could make the service year more appealing to male applicants by advertising ‘the position’ they could attain with AVODAH, rather than ‘the experience’.

Josh worked at Housing Unlimited, providing housing for low-income adults with psychiatric disabilities. He acknowledged that his workplace was male-dominated, especially in the higher-up positions, and that that likely reflected a trend in most non-profits. All three men agreed that generally, men weren’t adequately represented in the Jewish social service and social justice sphere, but they were all unsure as to what the underlying reasons might be.

Next week: AVODAH alum Rachel Lee offers a new perspective on the gender gap.

One Response to Being Male and Being Present: Part I

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