Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action

Reference: Moving Traditions

Executive Summary

The Jewish community is losing boys who drop out of Jewish life after bar mitzvah in
unacceptably large numbers. Jewish institutions are struggling to keep teenage boys
engaged. Left unaddressed, the trend threatens to undermine the Jewish future and
leave a generation of boys ignorant of the wisdom, core values, community, and
spiritual nourishment Judaism provides.

As an organization uniquely equipped and positioned to engage Jewish teens, Moving
Traditions presents Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action. We invite policy
makers, funders, parents, clergy, and educators to join us in better understanding
teenage boys and adopting new ways to work with them. By doing so, we can help
Jewish boys connect meaningfully with their Judaism, their masculinity, their peers,
and themselves.

Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action draws on knowledge distilled from
three years of research, focus groups with Jewish boys, and program development,
and grows out of the success of our work with adolescent girls. Moving Traditions
innovative program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, draws on an understanding of
gender and core Jewish values. It has helped thousands of teenage girls negotiate
adolescence and develop meaningful identities as young women and as Jews.
The report contains seven lessons and seven principles, supported by a marketing
toolkit, a program curriculum sample, appendices describing the research, and a list
of resources. Together they provide Jewish educators with the research, concepts,
and resources needed to understand and meet the unique needs of Jewish boys.
Moving Traditions calls on Jewish communal leaders and educators to join us in
partnership to reverse the exodus of teenage boys from Jewish life through a connected
set of actions:

1. Advocate for gendered spaces for Jewish teenage boys. Being male matters to
boys: the literature shows it, and our focus groups and action research confirm it.

2. Train educators and build the field. Our ability to engage Jewish teenage boys
is limited by a lack of trained men in Jewish education, and a lack of understanding
on the part of men and women in education about who boys are.

3. Implement Moving Traditions’ program, The Brotherhood. When boys
participate in programs that put the lessons and principles in this report into
practice, they become more engaged in Jewish life.

By working together, we can help adolescent boys grow into self-aware Jewish men
comfortable exploring both their religion and their masculinity, strengthening the
broader Jewish world that is so precious to us.

Foreword

Hineini – Here I am before you, grateful for the opportunity to introduce you to the transformative research, insights and curriculum that have emerged from Moving Traditions’ intensive study of the question, Where have all the Jewish boys gone? Four years ago Moving Traditions invited me
in from the secular world to think about how my research on boys could help us connect with Jewish male youth, a sacred task whose first step has been accomplished by the work encapsulated in this volume.

This report focuses on seven lessons and seven principles to more effectively reach Jewish teenage boys, to help them reconnect with the educational, social and home environments many readers have lovingly created. Indeed, as you read on you’ll be given a “taste” of a unique, single-gender curriculum  sensitive to young men and designed to regain the Jewish nefesh, the soul
and the heart of post-bar mitzvah teenage boys in our Jewish communities.

In the biblical Hebrew, “Here I am” is rendered poetically as Hineini, which I interpret as, “Here I stand before you – ready and waiting.” Today many of us want to say to our boys, Hineini – we are here for you, ready  to love and value you, and to help you through the journey to manhood.
Moving Traditions’ new educational approach helps join word to deed,  theory to practice, and desire to action. It gives us a way to be present for Jewish teenage boys in a manner that respects and responds to their needs.

Genesis deals with the provocative subject of potential human sacrifice.  Yet the original text refers to the story of Isaac’s miraculous rescue from harm as akeida: not sacrifice, but rather the “binding” of Isaac. There is a meaningful duality of crisis and opportunity, of annihilation and connection that describes the dilemma facing teenage boys today, as well as the dilemmas
confronting the women, men, girls, and other boys who love them.

This is a central conundrum of our society, one I have set as my task to address. Over years of study with adolescent boys, my research partners and I have uncovered the contradictory, confusing and atavistic injunctions about what “masculinity” is supposed to mean in our culture. We have outlined the treacherous trajectory from boyhood to manhood, shaped and often distorted by the “boy code” or the “code of masculinity.” And we have explored the pervasive, nagging sense many boys have today, that they never quite know what it means to be a “real” boy, and they never really feel secure on their path to “real” manhood.

With the publication of this report, Moving Traditions vividly establishes that the challenges of young manhood ring true in a specifically painful way for Jewish teenage boys. In this Call to Action to engage Jewish teenage boys, we see the duality of Isaac’s akeida. 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. At the same time this crisis gives  us an opportunity to offer Jewish teenage boys our best traditions of  menschlichkiet, which are so much healthier and ultimately more compelling than pervasive secular images of violent male movie “heroes,” murderous video games, and sports “role models” with moral feet of clay. Many adults have written off boys who may never have had the opportunity to link the soul-saving values of Judaism with what it means to be a male. Our research shows that when you really connect with teenage boys by engaging in “action talk” and “doing empathy,” boys’ natural inclination to “do good” emerges and takes concrete form.

Likewise, Moving Traditions’ new, exciting work shows that Jewish teenage boys long to be connected with the meaning of our traditions and engaged by caring adults who recognize their pain, empathize with their struggles, and seek to create safe, shame-free zones for them. As you will see in the pages that follow, much like Jewish girls, Jewish teenage boys are loving, empathic and yearn for the teachings that Jewish adults can offer them, if only we listen to Jewish boys’ voices as Moving Traditions has done.

In connecting meaningfully with Jewish teenage boys, we enact one of  our most important traditions: tikkun olam, repairing the world. And we do so not from the top down, but from the boys-eye view, supporting the actions they yearn for and need to engage in, and connecting them to the central moral fiber of Jewish heritage. Indeed, in a secular culture where we are still told that males and females come from different planets and so have little hope for connecting with, let alone respecting each other, what better antidote than our modern Jewish tradition of gender equality?

And what better organization to promote this healing than Moving Traditions, which has accomplished so much with Jewish girls across North America through its acclaimed Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! program. Having so successfully reached out to connect modern girls’ developmental journey to womanhood with the meaningful ideals of Jewish life, Moving Traditions is uniquely poised to launch a program tailored to boys.

Even more importantly, when Moving Traditions does gender-based research and delivers single-gender programming, it never falls prey to the all-too-common belief that meeting the needs of boys or girls must be a zero sum game. Quite the contrary – as you will observe in these pages and in the boys’ program, Moving Traditions’ work rests firmly on the principle of being boy-supportive while remaining girl-affirmative. In fact, bringing post-b’nai mitzvah boys back into a new embrace with Jewish adults and peers will strengthen the work we have begun, to revivify the importance  of girls and young women as equal partners in their Jewish heritage of meaning. Reconnecting with our disconnected Jewish male youth reaffirms their, and our, support for Jewish girls and women.

This moment of cultural crisis offers tremendous opportunity: the potential transformation of Jewish teenage boys’ lives into ones healthily intertwined with ours, bound together in a new community of love, informed by the most meaningful lessons of our Jewish traditions. We see the potential for transmitting this love, these traditions, and this binding in a new manner that we now know boys yearn for and want us to provide for them.

Whether you read this document from the perspective of a Jewish educator, parent, camp director, rabbi, congregational lay leader, or philanthropic supporter, you will find a wealth of guidance in Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action. If you are hungry to better understand how to reach out to teenage boys from within Jewish tradition, and if you thirst for the
wisdom to connect to these boys’ very real struggles growing up in secular American society, I can promise you ample nourishment in the following pages. Hopefully, you will take away the pieces best suited to your circumstances. And hopefully you will be inspired, as I have been, to create new connections with Moving Traditions, working side-by-side with them to meet the needs of the Jewish teenage boys you know, teach, and love.
So Hineini – that is what we are telling our Jewish boys, and it is what Moving Traditions says to you with this Call to Action. Using the insights you find here, we can work together to engage the teenage boys in our lives and create a new “Jewish holding environment” in which they can journey successfully into Jewish manhood and a brighter Jewish future.

B’Shalom,
William S. Pollack, Ph.D.
Founder and Director, Centers for Men and Young Men
Associate Clinical Professor, Harvard Medical School
Author, Real Boys and Real Boys’ Voices

Introduction

Educators struggle to attract teenage boys to Hebrew high school classes and youth groups. Camp directors try desperately to fill boys’ bunks. Funders investing in the Jewish future discover that less than 30 percent of the teens they are investing in are boys. Throughout the North American Jewish community, the questions prey on our minds: where have all the young men gone? What can we do to get them back – or most importantly, how do we inspire them to stay?

Moving Traditions views Judaism through the lens of gender to create a vital Jewish future.* Our unique role in the Jewish community – posing gender-related questions about Jewish teens, generating useful hypotheses, and building effective programs based on those hypotheses – has motivated parents, rabbis, educators, and funders to ask us why Jewish boys are so absent from Jewish communal life.

The problem is clear: boys drop out of Jewish life after bar mitzvah and they are greatly dissatisfied with much of Jewish programming.

In addition, American culture’s definition of masculinity sends teenage boys mixed messages and makes conflicting demands upon them. Popular culture geared toward teenage boys often promotes a masculine norm that is  sexually predatory, physically aggressive, and emotionally impoverished.  A strictly peer-enforced code of male behavior makes it difficult for boys to
figure out who they are and to display their hearts. At the same time, boys see men taking more active roles in family and home life.

Yet by and large, Jewish programming is not helping teenage boys explore
what it means to be a man. Moving Traditions seeks to pursue mutually supportive goals: when we help teenage boys navigate the choppy waters of 21st century masculinity by integrating Jewish values into their lives, we also help strengthen their Jewish identity. This conviction is based on our success with girls through our program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, launched in 2002, which builds self-esteem, leadership skills, and Jewish identity for thousands of teenage girls across North America. It is reinforced by our study of positive youth development, which advocates building teens’ healthy development through programming that includes connection to a rich community of  values like that offered by Judaism.

* We endorse the view that while sex is biologically determined, gender is socially created. Gender norms and expectations differ across cultures, and these various conceptions of masculinity and femininity shape psychological development and socially acceptable life choices – especially for teens, whose developing bodies figure prominently in their search for identity. Gender norms are both pervasive and largely unexamined, so it is important to help adolescents learn to read, filter, and actively choose among the gender messages they receive from the culture in which they live. It is also important for adults who work with adolescent boys to be aware and accepting of the sexual orientation and gender identities of boys, whether straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

We firmly believe Judaism embodies values that can support adolescent boys as they face the contradictory challenges of growing into men in today’s world. To test this belief, Moving Traditions spoke directly to teenage boys and asked them to tell us what they thought. We focused our research on boys in the years immediately following bar mitzvah, when many drop out of Jewish communal life. The timing of this loss is doubly bitter, coming just after the Jewish community has invested so much in them, and just when the boys most need our guidance.

Moving Traditions began this initiative in 2007 with the generous support of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and other funders. In consultation with a national advisory committee of experts in the fields of formal and informal education, both Jewish and secular, we embarked upon a rigorous, two-part research and development process. We reviewed the literature on adolescent religious involvement in America, positive youth development, and Jewish boys’ involvement in Jewish life; conducted an environmental scan of existing Jewish and secular programs for boys;  completed focus groups with 8th to 11th grade Jewish boys, their parents,
and Jewish educators; hosted a roundtable conference in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education; and conducted market research.

We then engaged Dr. Michael Reichert and Dr. Sharon Ravitch to conduct action research, a reflective and collaborative approach to problem solving. Drawing on our initial findings, Drs. Reichert and Ravitch generated key curricular themes that would most resonate with boys and meet their developmental needs. From these themes we created a draft program and field-tested it with groups of 8th and 9th grade boys at 14 sites. This process allowed us to evaluate how the boys responded to the curriculum while using their feedback to revise the program and to create the framework of the seven principles outlined in this report.

Informed by this research and development process, Moving Traditions has crafted a comprehensive initiative to help both formal and informal Jewish educators better serve Jewish teenage boys:

• A Conceptual Framework. The seven lessons and seven principles for
more effective Jewish education described in Parts I and II of this report
outline in a concise, organized fashion all we have learned through a
rigorous process of listening, action research, program experimentation,
and evaluation.

• A Marketing Toolkit. Part III of this report includes a set of resources
produced in concert with the marketing firm AMP, outlining best
practices for more successfully reaching Jewish teenage boys.

• A Program Curriculum. Suitable for stand-alone use or for incorporation
into any number of settings and programs, The Brotherhood is a new,
boys-only program developed and tested by Moving Traditions with the
input of 8th and 9th grade boys. A sample of this eight-session
curriculum is included as Part IV.

• A Path to Implementation. Moving Traditions offers professional
development and training to prepare Jewish educators to implement the
seven principles in their work with Jewish teenage boys. The report’s
conclusion, “A Call to Partnership,” describes these opportunities.

Some of the findings in the following pages might seem familiar or obvious, validating and confirming what you already know and do. Other insights may seem surprising and offer inspiration for transforming educational  methods or crafting new initiatives. Moving Traditions’ ultimate aim is to energize and inspire Jewish communities throughout North America to
renew our educational commitment to the precious young men in our lives. In this regard, it is fitting that we draw inspiration from the perspectives and ideas of the boys themselves.

We look forward to working in partnership with you. Together we can help teenage boys grow into self-aware Jewish men, building healthy individuals and our Jewish future.
Sally Gottesman                          Deborah S. Meyer
Board Chair                                 Executive Director

To read this study in its entirety, click here.