This past month, filled with holiday and synagogue activity, provided me with the opportunity to visit a number of different shuls in the Northeast. I visited chavurot, small, medium and cathedral synagogues. For some reason, perhaps because the services were so long, I found myself counting and comparing the number of men and women who were actively participating. In one synagogue, the ratio of female Torah readers to male was two to one. In another, three to one and in yet another it was 50/50.
In each instance, I attended the Kiddush (after-prayer collation) where being a stranger made me fair game for every "greeter" or "welcomer." It was as if I was wearing a sign on my head, which proclaimed, "I'm new here, so please introduce yourself."
"Hello, I'm so-and-so, welcome to our community, who are you?" the designated community greeter would ask. Gratefully, I supplied my name, praised the service and asked my new friend to tell me about their community.
As the conversation progressed, I would ask my key question: "Do you have any idea what the relationship of men to women is on your synagogue board? Do you have any idea what percentage of your volunteers are men?"
At that moment, I noted that the energy in the festive room began to shift. The friendly conversation became strained -- and then I would be introduced to the rabbi.
In most cases the rabbi recognized me and was able to answer my questions. Sixty to 70 percent of the people sitting on the synagogue board were women and most likely that number paralleled the percentage of female volunteers. But if 70 percent of the volunteers in the community were women, what did that say about the men?
I knew if I pressed further I would likely hear the explanation that men were less present because of the difficult economic times or because they needed to work harder but I knew that most of the women who were volunteering were also engaged full-time and most likely with similar if not more prestigious positions. After all, more women are currently graduating from universities than men; women are outperforming men in a number of professional fields and as a result obtaining better placements. In some fields this is more pronounced than in others. Benedict Carey reported in The New York Times on May 24 that psychotherapy has evolved into a field that primarily attracts women. As a result of the dearth of men in the profession, women who treat male patients are being trained primarily by other women. He adds that psychology, pediatrics, social services and elementary education are just a few of the fields in which women are dominant and therefore, providing the majority of treatment and education to men and boys.
Expanding on this theme, at the Second Conference on Male Studies held in Manhattan in the spring of 2011, Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. noted that "women are a majority of undergraduate degrees in biology, social sciences, history, education and psychology."
The presence of women in the university, in the workplace and indeed, at the helm of many professions is well documented. Gone are the days when female volunteerism was in lieu of professional work. If men are less present in the volunteer world and specifically in the Jewish world, it has to be due to other reasons.
The drive toward egalitarianism began in Conservative Judaism nearly 30 years ago. At the time, a number of people predicted that since the synagogue was the last vestige of male domination, once it became an egalitarian venue, men would flee. While it is true that smaller percentages of men are currently active in our synagogues, I doubt it is for the reason that the Conservative shul is no longer a boys' club. If men are less present in synagogue life, other factors are to blame.
I believe that these factors are rooted in a negligent attitude toward changing male social roles that was an unfortunate side effect of the effort to help women achieve equality in the religious realm. Just as women's inclusion in the life of the Conservative synagogue was an imperative (witness the large number of female rabbis ordained by our movement over the past 23 years), is it not of vital importance that we advocate for the inclusion of men to counteract the attrition that is taking place?
Thirty years ago, the Jewish community began to allocate a tremendous amount of resources toward the creation of programs, like adult bat mitzvah. They were extremely needed and successful but at the same time the community assumed that men's needs would remain the same; after all, they were the ones who had all the rituals. At that time, discussions of gender roles within our movement did not have to do with men at all but with women. There was so much to fix on the female front that the pioneers of change did not consider how men's needs might change as well and that new types of motivational strategies would be needed to keep them engaged.
While Jewish leaders are beginning to think about the diminishing number of men who are active in our institutions, the issue is more far reaching and requires much broader thinking than simply: How do we motivate men to volunteer? The lack of volunteerism is a symptom, not the problem itself. There are pressing issues relating to male self-esteem, to father-son relationships and to the development of boys, especially within the setting of educational institutions.
In my recent paper "The Diminishing Role of Jewish Men in Jewish Life: Addressing the Challenge," I suggest that in order to rectify the gender imbalance that is occurring in the general and specifically Jewish volunteer world, organizational leaders and educators need to incorporate what education and developmental gender research is telling us about how boys learn, because the implications of this information predicts a challenging, if not dismal, future for Jewish men and the families that we hope they might create.
In order to address this concern, the FJMC has created a number of venues designed to empower and motivate men at their different life stages. These venues include providing fathers with relevant information about the use of fatherly influence to enable them to make educated decisions how they parent as well as gender needs based motivational seminars designed to provide a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
It may not sound politically correct but the future of Jewish men is indeed being challenged and this needs to be placed on our community agendas. I call on the Jewish community to respond. In the liberal Jewish world, men are not oppressors and patricharchy is considered an antiquated word. We have a responsibility not only to ourselves but to our sons and daughters to build a strong community where male leadership is reinterpreted for the 21st century.