For too many boys in our community, bar mitzvah represents the end rather than the beginning of their formal Jewish involvement and education.
It’s no secret that our institutions are facing a losing battle in keeping Jewish teenage boys engaged.
They are dropping out of organized Jewish life at a disturbing rate, complaining that post-bar mitzvah programs are too boring and not relevant to their interests.
Studies show that 70 percent of teens involved in organized Jewish activities are girls.
That imbalance holds true for campus activities as well, and the Conservative and Reform movements report a decline in the number of young men enrolling in rabbinical school. What’s more, the dramatically decreasing attendance of men at Reform services has become a significant topic of concern.
Faced with the prospect of a Jewish future largely missing male involvement, an organization with a track record of success in engaging young girls in Jewish life has turned its attention to boys.
Moving Traditions, which focuses on gender differences in seeking to inspire young people to become more Jewishly involved, this week announced an ambitious program to attract and involve teenage boys, based on three years of extensive research.
“The surprise of our study,” explains Deborah Meyer, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Moving Traditions, “is how much Jewish boys like being with other Jewish boys and want to spend time thinking about what it means to be male.”
The organization, founded in 2002, has reached about 8,000 girls (grades 6-12) around the country through its monthly program, “Rosh Hodesh: It’s A Girl Thing,” designed to build skills in self-esteem, leadership and Jewish identity.
For its latest effort, Moving Traditions engaged psychologists, Jewish professionals and parents, and conducted 40 focus groups with Jewish boys. The result was an approach that emphasizes boys’ interest in male-focused programming and blends friendship, physical activity and meaningful Jewish content.
“The main focus of effective Jewish education for boys,” the 50-page report asserts, “is not how they can get closer to Judaism; it’s how Judaism can get closer to teenage boys.”
That’s why the experts concluded that post-bar mitzvah programs in a traditional classroom setting are a distinct turnoff. Instead, based on the boys’ own observations, the educators heading the project used “action research,” a collaborative approach to problem solving. They came up with a set of principles and lessons for more effective Jewish education, as well as a model program curriculum, marketing toolkit and implementation plan.
The good news, they found, was that Jewish boys — most of those interviewed were 14 to 17 years old — are proud of their heritage and feel connected to other Jewish boys. And while they are dissatisfied with current programming aimed at keeping them involved Jewishly, they are interested in experiences that challenge them to think, mixed with “physical activity, excitement, humor and a healthy dose of playfulness,” according to the report, “Engaging Jewish Boys: A Call To Action.”
It adds that the key to gaining the boys’ interest in Jewish education is to “link Jewish themes and knowledge” to the developmental process of their “journey into manhood.”
A sample from the suggested curriculum, called The Brotherhood, presents various Jewish texts that relate to masculinity, and offers exercises to promote deep discussion.
For example, a selection from Psalm 34 is cited: “Who is a man?” the psalmist asks. “Someone who appreciates life, who loves each day, who sees the good … who seeks and pursues peace.”
There is also the famous passage from Rabbi Hillel: “In a place where there are no men … strive to be a man.”
Boys would be asked to relate to these and other passages, as well as discuss clips from popular films like “Good Will Hunting,” and to compare stereotypes of “men” and “Jewish men.”
The experts tested this approach and found that boys were responsive, even enthusiastic. Now Moving Traditions, with help from funders (including UJA-Federation of New York), is prepared to train educators to lead The Brotherhood programming.
Deborah Meyer said the key is to engage boys soon after their bar mitzvah. “Give them something [substantive] before they’re too far from the bima and out the door,” she asserted.
Some boys who were interviewed wondered why they had never been presented challenging material before, she reported. The goal now is to engage them in a thoughtful way while making the experience enjoyable.
Easier said than done, but Moving Traditions bases its recommendations on solid research and its success in applying its curriculum to a number of groups of boys.
It’s time for the community to focus on the problem, train laymen and professionals, experiment with the program and help reverse the exodus of boys from Jewish life before it’s too late.