I am writing this on my way home from New Orleans where I spent four days at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA) and International Lion of Judah Conference. JFNA, the umbrella organization for the Federation system, coordinates an annual conference with more than 4,000 people from around the world.
Before I share my experiences at the GA, I want to go back to our incredible Campaign Kick-Off, Under One Roof, last Saturday night. 600 community members came out for a night of food (well, not enough and we apologize), fun, and festivity. The aim of the program was to bring the community together under the Federation banner – and for those who were there, I hope you found it as wonderful as I. We shared Federation’s newest video – a short piece with many recognizable faces. It was a tremendous evening and we owe a great deal of gratitude to Shari Levinson and Marshal Spector, along with their committee, for their leadership, hard work and efforts.
The GA was filled with plenaries about the Jewish future, dignitaries (Vice-President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu), and many friends and colleagues. Past Federation President, Liz Menashe, was recognized for her achievements at the Lion of Judah Conference with the Kipnis-Wilson Friedland Award and Sharon Weil led two important sessions on the importance of endowing one’s gift.
One session, based on its title, “Where Have All the Boys Gone” captured my immediate attention. The session highlighted a major issue in Jewish communal life that I never truly thought about – the dramatic reduction in the number of boys involved in the Jewish community post bar mitzvah. “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” according to the recently released study, Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action. This study was conducted by Moving Traditions, the Philadelphia based organization that founded the girls empowerment program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing (coordinated here in Portland by the Portland Jewish Academy) and “aims to help energize and inspire Jewish communities to renew their commitment to young men…by drawing on inspiration from the perspectives and ideas of the boys themselves.”
I was shocked to learn that 70% of participants in Jewish teen activities are girls. (I do not know what the balance is here in Portland.) This imbalance continues on in campus activities and later Jewish communal involvement. I have read that the Reform movement is looking closely at this issue based on lower attendance at religious services for males.
In the study, boys strongly identified as Jewish and wanted to connect to Jewish guys, yet found existing programs boring, insubstantial or too unstructured. Boys want “experiences that include physical activity, excitement, humor, and a healthy dose of playfulness.” The programs must be engaging, challenging and relevant to a teen who is “connected 24/7”, as well as “integrate their peer relationships so there is space in the educational enterprise for boys to “just be” together.” On a deeper level, the study found “that the stronger a boy’s Jewish identity, the more his personal conception of masculinity can withstand the distorting pressures of mainstream, secular culture (i.e. toughness, stoicism, inability to express feelings).”
Deborah Meyer, Founder of Moving Traditions, says, “It’s crazy, we invest all this time and energy in boys and then we let them go…Jewish life loses out because boys go off and don’t come back.”
That is crazy – thus, “What can we do to get them back – and most importantly – how do we inspire them to stay?”
PS – Two of my first three “meet and greets” are next week. Please join me for breakfast at the MJCC on November 16 or lunch at the Benson Hotel on November 18.