Shul men’s clubs adapt to an egalitarian culture

With a dated image, groups try new ideas for ‘next generation’

Back in the day — a men’s club gathering at Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange in 1951.

Adam Kramer is working hard to attract members to the men’s club at B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Orange.

“Membership is definitely down from years past,” he told NJJN. About 10 people attend men’s club events regularly, a far cry from the crowds that used to come.

“We’re trying to come up with ideas — a cookout, or maybe a Scotch tasting,” he said.

For more than a decade, Jewish leaders and academics have been lamenting the disappearance of boys and men from non-Orthodox Jewish life. Men’s clubs, operating at more than 250 North American Conservative synagogues, are among those trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

“The challenge facing the American-Jewish community is not that women are more active — surely a positive development — but that men and boys have retreated from much of American-Jewish life,” wrote Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer in the fall 2008 issue of Jewish Political Studies Review.

Some, including Fishman, call it the “feminization” of liberal Judaism, a term that raises hackles among those who don’t wish to see women’s ritual gains reversed or blamed for the retreat of men. But the phenomenon is readily apparent and has elicited scores of programming initiatives.

Many parallel women’s initiatives. The Man Seder, an all-male Passover seder held at American Jewish University in Los Angeles since 2006, is patterned after the feminist seders that emerged in the 1980s. The teenage boys’ programs developed this year by the organization Moving Traditions were an outgrowth of its popular program for teenage girls, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing.

A number of Reform and Conservative synagogues run a program usually called 100 Jewish Men, a series of dinners with speakers who talk about their relationship to Judaism, their families, and their careers.

“At so many synagogues, especially in the non-Orthodox world, the men are not there and the men’s clubs skew older,” said Rabbi David Woznica of the Stephen S. Wise Temple.

His large Reform congregation in Los Angeles launched a Jewish men’s series four years ago for its members between 30 and 55. Nearly 100 men signed up in the first year, and the project is still steaming along.

‘The next generation’

The most aggressive pursuer of the great disappearing American-Jewish male is probably the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the umbrella group for Conservative men’s clubs in the United States.

These clubs are trying to cast off the backroom, cigar-chomping image of yesteryear and pull in younger men, getting them to talk to each other and their sons. Ultimately the goal is to get them into the synagogue — perhaps to pray, but at least to find Jewish community and pass it on to their children.

Eighteen months ago, the FJMC launched HaDor Haba, Hebrew for “the next generation.” The project brings men younger than 45 to training seminars so they can learn how to lead men’s activities for their peers. Nearly 70 men attended the second annual seminar in January, including Lou Piels, 42, a trustee of the men’s club of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.

Last year, Beth Shalom’s club sponsored a steak dinner at a kosher Japanese restaurant for 15 young fathers of children in the congregation’s religious school as a first step to raising their involvement.

A “guys’ night out” followed, but then the members decided that they wanted wives and children along.

“The whole concept of a men’s club may be dated,” Piels acknowledged. “Why would we want to be just among men all the time?”

That raises a central question for men’s club leaders these days: In an egalitarian world, is a single-sex organization still relevant?

For many of the area’s Conservative synagogues, the answer is no. Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, for example, no longer even has a men’s club.

Kramer, of B’nai Shalom, pointed out that men have other roles in the community.

“They don’t necessarily have the time to be involved [as] they once did,” he said. Not only are many men working longer hours, they are also helping carpool the kids to various activities. And many want more time with their families, he added.

Rabbi Robert Tobin, who came to B’nai Shalom this summer with three other pulpits under his belt, agreed.

“We have a generation of ‘young families’ who tend to be involved as families rather in gender-based affinity groups,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My experience in four pulpits is that this is the modern trend.”

Piels now sees his club’s purpose as spearheading events and community service initiatives that are open to the entire community. At the same time, he doesn’t want to alienate older men, who are used to a male-only club.

“That old ‘clubhouse’ view also has a place,” he said.

Beer and Bible

At least one local Conservative synagogue, Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, is bucking the trend. A group of men including Alan Winkler of Millburn, 53, decided about six years ago that they wanted to revitalize a sagging men’s club. Now with over 100 members, some men are even signing up their teenage sons. They were specifically after the male camaraderie that others are casting aside, said Winkler.

The group’s most popular events include an annual white-water rafting trip, a weekly “beer and Bible” class with the rabbi at a local bar, and a congregation-wide spaghetti and meatball dinner. They also take on tzedaka projects, like cleaning up a Jewish cemetery on Staten Island where indigent Jews were buried at the turn of the 20th century.

“It’s the spirit behind the men’s club that’s so important,” said Winkler. “We really get out of the house and have fun with other guys. It’s a way to integrate into synagogue life in a way that helps you feel socially connected. There’s a lot of fulfillment in it because you’re having fun and doing good things.”

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