Jewish; Gender;

Jewish Men

More than three years ago, an article in the New York Times reported that the Reform Movement of Judaism was examining ways to retain young men in the faith. It is well known that women are much more involved in organized Jewish life — at least in the progressive movements of Judaism (Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, and Conservative). Now, the same author of that NY Times article, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, writes in the Forward about a new initiative to keep post-bar mitzvah boys involved in Jewish life.

The article, Do Jewish Boys Need a Room of Their Own?, explains how the organization Moving Traditions, creators of the Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! program is now turning its attention to boys. Focus groups were conducted to research the developmental life of boys and how they felt about becoming involved in the Jewish community. Thus far, Moving Traditions has commissioned a research report, titled “Wishing for More: Jewish Boyhood, Identity and Community”. Most of the boys complained about the offerings available to them within organized Jewish institutions.

The organization is developing a program that can be replicated around the country, like the Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! program. Deborah Meyer, director of Moving Traditions said, “We’re going to come out with a program that can be offered to boys in a variety of settings, as well as a framework for working with Jewish boys. We want to know the most effective ways to get them in the door and to work with guys to have conversations of meaning. We want to help them form a Jewish identity and a healthy male identity.”

I’ve been noticing the trend of boys becoming less involved in the Jewish community for some time now. An article titled “Where Have All the Jewish Men Gone?” in the Boston Globe last year theorized that as the role of women has increased in Judaism, the gender imbalance has grown. In the Conservative Movement, as egalitarianism has spread throughout the synagogues over the past few decades women have eagerly embraced their new found ability to serve in leadership roles — from leading the congregation in prayer to leading the congregation’s board as president. The article opened by stating that “Judaism has a boy problem.” And it does.

Growing up, I sat in synagogue with two people — my grandfather and my mother. My grandfather came from the generation where men go to shul while their wives stayed at home and cooked. Not so for his daughter; my mother. My mother’s generation was still involved in the sisterhood, but they were also becoming officers of the congregation and being called up for an aliyah to the Torah. My generation of Jewish men has seen our female contemporaries become rabbis and cantors, leading the congregation in prayer. Women in the highest leadership positions of a religion once dominated by men can be a turn off for many men. And therein lies the answer to “Where have all the Jewish men gone?

The women’s liberation movement in Judaism fought to create Torah commentaries from a woman’s perspective. Those are no longer necessary as the newest Torah commentaries being published include the female perspective. Women wanted women-only prayer groups during the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, but they are no longer necessary as virtually all Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative congregations are completely egalitarian and more likely to be led by female congregants than men.

We are now seeing men who are desiring men-only prayer groups and a Men’s Torah Commentary, which would sound redundant a generation ago. The Reform Movement, concerned about the dearth of young men in organized Jewish life, has been examining this trend. The Union for Reform Judaism reported in 2007 that boys constitute only 22% to 43% of youth group participants; 28% of campers at the Reform movement’s leadership camp for teens, Camp Kutz, and 33% of first-year rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.

The Reform Movement’s press has published “The Still Small Voice” – a collection of essays about being a Jewish Man. They have also come out with a resource guide for beginning the conversation about men’s programming and a book titled “Wrestling with Jacob and Esau: Fighting the Flight of Men within the Reform Movement.”

Perhaps the answer to the boy crisis is that there really isn’t one. What we are witnessing is merely a leveling out period of transition. Feminism has been quite successful in gaining equal rights and equal access in synagogues and in the greater Jewish community. Now it is up to men to figure out how to position themselves in the egalitarian Judaism of the 21st century. Judaism is large enough for both men and women, boys and girls to participate.

William Pollack, a researcher for Moving Traditions insists that women’s leadership is not responsible for boys’ retreat from Jewish life. He sums it up best: “Boys haven’t found a way to adapt to the sharing of power with girls and women in Judaism because men haven’t found a way to change.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Fatherhood Jewish


My daughter had a fever today so I took my two sons out to lunch. Sitting at lunch I couldn’t help thinking about what a blessing it is to be a father. And then, as fate would have it, my father walked into the restaurant and sat down at the booth behind us for a business meeting. I overheard my father’s business associate comment that I am a “spitting image” of him, which is funny because I’m always being told that one of my sons is a “spitting image” of me.

There truly is something so special about fatherhood. And I was thinking about it earlier in the week as well when I attended a retreat for Jewish educators at the Butzel Conference Center in Ortonville, Michigan. One of the speakers was Jonah Geller, the Executive director of Tamarack Camps, where I serve as the rabbi. Jonah spoke on the topic of “implementing change” and first asked us to list the five biggest changes in our lives. The biggest change in my life that I listed first was becoming a father. More than becoming a rabbi or getting married, and more than losing close relatives, this life-changing event was the most significant in my life thus far.

Since becoming a dad almost five-and-a-half years ago, my life has certainly been different in the most positive way. Having dependents is certainly a monumental responsibility and a life-changing realization. I’ve also found it wonderful to have children whom I also consider to be friends. The enjoyment and pride that a father receives from just looking at his children is such a blessing.

I often hear women lament that there shouldn’t be just one day called “Mothers’ Day” but rather every day should be devoted to heaping praise on hard-working moms. I agree. I feel the same way about “Fathers’ Day” too. It seems silly that one day a year, my kids should feel the need to honor me for the job of being their father. I have come to see Fathers’ Day (this Sunday) as a day not for my children to leave me alone and let me play golf, but rather as a day in which I make a concerted effort to thank God for the gift of fatherhood… a day in which I take the time to express my gratitude for my children. So, if Hallmark can sell more cards and stores can increase their revenue by advertising gifts for dads so be it. For me, Fathers’ Day is a day for reflection and appreciation.

Sam Apple - American ParentThere are some wonderful books on fatherhood that [coincidentally?] have been published recently. American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland is by one of my favorite authors, Sam Apple. In September 2007, I wrote on this blog about Sam’s brilliantly funny article in Parents Magazine. Since he became a father, Sam has written many hilarious pieces about the joys and challenges of parenthood. In American Parent, he visits with the mohel who circumcised him, enters a trance with a childbirth hypnotist, goes on a stakeout with a nanny spy, and attends a lecture on Botox for new mothers. Sam, a University of Michigan graduate, is the son of legendary author Max Apple. After having a son a couple years ago, he and his wife added twins to the family so maybe I can give him some fatherhood advice in that regard. Excerpts from American Parent are available on Sam Apple’s website.

I learned that another one of my favorite authors, Michael Lewis, would have a book on fatherhood coming out from his appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week. The author of Bringing Down the House and Money Ball has written about fatherhood in Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. The book is adapted from a series of Slate essays that Lewis wrote about what actually happened immediately after the birth of each of his three children. He’s a gifted writer and the book is very funny and engaging.

Jewish Dads - FatherhoodA book about fatherhood that I’ve had for several years is Lloyd Wolf’s Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love. It’s published by Jewish Lights, which is hands down my favorite Jewish book publisher. The book is a collection of stories and photographs celebrating the lives of contemporary American Jewish fathers. Wolf writes, “The image of the Jewish father is synonymous with the Yiddish word mensch, a good, kind, decent, human being. The word mensch has become part of America’s vocabulary. The first mensch that we meet in life is usually our father. Honest. Hardworking. Fair. Charitable. Funny. Reverent. Honorable. Responsible. A mensch. It is a standard to be lived up to, a standard that Jewish fathers have been charged with since the times of the Biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Finally, I found Adam Dickter’s essay on Fatherhood to be quite meaningful. In the NY Jewish Week’s blog, Dickter writes about his own experience as a father of three children. He quotes Adam Nimoy, who writes that his famous father, Leonard Nimoy “worked diligently, sometimes obsessively, to provide for his family, but like the stoic but efficient Spock character he played on TV, didn’t put much stock in bonding.” Dickter’s impression is that “Adam would have preferred a dad who swept floors and had time to go to ballgames.”

It’s not always easy to give 100% to the job of being a father. But it is so important to try. Fatherhood is the greatest gift!

So, to all the fathers and grandfathers (and great-grandfathers) out there, please accept my own wishes for a Happy Fathers’ Day. I’m proud to be part of this club and I know that while “Fathers’ Day” is the official day to celebrate us dads, everyday is an honor to serve in this special role.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Jewish Orthodox Judaism Reform Judaism

Kaddish for Conservative Judaism

There have been many changes in the top leadership of the Conservative Movement recently. First was the commencement of the Arnie Eisen era at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With the beginning of Arnie Eisen’s chancellorship also came the change in leadership at the Seminary’s rabbinical school with Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean. Second, came the change in leadership at the Rabbinical Assembly with Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld taking the RA’s top job. Yesterday marked the confirmation of Rabbi Steven Wernick (right) as the CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the arm of the movement representing the congregations.

It seems as though all the players who have the potential to put the Conservative Movement on the right course have taken the field. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring.

The Conservative Movement has done a very good job of staying in the news recently. Unfortunately, not all news is good news. The latest round of infighting and hand wringing within the ranks of the Conservative Movement has been prompted by the emergence of two groups of movement leaders.

One group, Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, is made up of the rabbis and board presidents of the largest congregations in the country (here’s a link to the list of group members which has recently opened up membership to the leaders of congregations of all sizes). The second group, calling itself “Bonim” is a grassroots coalition of fed-up lay-leaders from approximately forty congregations threatening to leave the Conservative Movement. Both of these groups have made headlines with their allegations toward the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Essentially, they have formalized the complaints from member congregations that have been informally articulated over the years. Add to this the Canadian congregations that have left the Conservative Movement to form a new organization in response to the decision to admit gays and lesbians into the rabbinical and cantorial schools at the movement’s seminaries

But, perhaps what has produced the most headlines about the Conservative Movement in recent weeks was an interview with Rabbi Norman Lamm (left), Yeshiva University luminary and a modern Orthodox scholar.

In the interview with the Jerusalem Post which took place in Israel, Lamm prophesied that the time has come to say “Kaddish” for Conservative Judaism. He included Reform Judaism as well in his premature obituary. “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” said Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. He went on to add that the “Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”

Lamm’s pronouncement prompted many responses from Conservative Movement leaders. All criticized Lamm for his inappropriate comments and most found aspects of Conservative Judaism to be proud of. Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld (right) penned an articulate response in which she underscored the authenticity of Conservative Judaism and mentioned some of the recent changes she has already implemented in her new position. [I can personally vouge for her hard work and initial success by way of example. Rabbi Schoenfeld has convened a subcommittee, on which I serve, to help improve the technological resources available through the Rabbinical Assembly and in only a couple months, much has been accomplished.] She also remarked that at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference, the majority of the rabbis in attendance were members of the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic group.

Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld also underscored the popularity of the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. She writes, “many of Rabbi Lamm’s Orthodox constituents who are in agreement with my colleague, Rabbi Morris Allen’s call that we take ethical mitzvot as seriously as ritual ones in the preparation of kosher food. The message we are hearing loud and clear is that the American Jewish community is quite literally hungry to lead lives where the ritual is bound up in the ethical underpinning.”

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Masorti Movement, Conservative Judaism’s Israeli branch, fired back writing a response to Rabbi Lamm in the Jerusalem Post in which he took him on point by point. Richard Moline, the director the Conservative Movement’s college outreach program Koach, wrote an op-ed piece for JTA encouraging Conservatives to look in the mirror and shoulder the responsibility rather than blaming the institution. My favorite response was by one Conservative rabbi who questioned which “Kaddish” Rabbi Lamm proposed be said for Conservative Judaism: Full Kaddish, Rabbi’s Kaddish, or a Mourner’s Kaddish?

The most scholarly and perhaps the most convincing rebuttal of Rabbi Lamm’s comments came from the preeminent scholar of Modern American Judaism, Prof. Jonathan Sarna (left), who reminded Lamm of the predictions in the 1950s that the demise of Orthodox Judaism was an inevitable reality. In the Forward, Professor Sarna wrote:

Lamm’s triumphalistic prediction has, unsurprisingly, elicited strong and angry responses from Conservative and Reform leaders who consider their movements youthful and vibrant. For a historian, though, the prediction cannot help but call to mind earlier attempts to divine American Judaism’s future.

When Lamm was young, those who followed trends in Jewish life expected to say Kaddish for Orthodox Judaism. A careful study in 1952 found that “only twenty-three percent of the children of the Orthodox intend to remain Orthodox; a full half plan to turn Conservative.” The future of American Jewry back then seemed solidly in the hands of Conservative Jews.

Years earlier, in the late 19th century, Reform Judaism expected to say Kaddish for other kinds of Jews. The great architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, titled his prayer book “Minhag Amerika” — the liturgical custom of American Jews — and given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid-1870s believed, as he did, that the future of American Judaism lay in the hands of the Reformers.

Before then, of course, those with crystal balls expected to say Kaddish for Judaism as a whole in America. One of the nation’s wisest leaders, its then attorney general, William Wirt, predicted in 1818 that within 150 years, Jews would be indistinguishable from the rest of mankind. Former president John Adams likewise looked to the future and thought that Jews would “possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”

All these predictions made sense in their day. All assumed that the future would extend forward in a straight line from the present. All offered their followers the comforting reassurance that triumph lay just beyond the horizon.

And all proved utterly and wildly wrong. Lamm’s prediction is unlikely to break this depressing streak of failures.

Well, I certainly find Lamm’s suggestion that it is time to say Kaddish for Conservative Judaism to be both inappropriate and narrow-minded. He was looking to be controversial. Before reacting to his comment, it is first necessary to make the distinction between Conservative Judaism (an ideology) and the Conservative Movement (an institutional denomination).

Conservative Judaism is a centrist ideology of Judaism. It promotes an understanding of Judaism that retains the authority of the Torah (tradition) while also remaining open to modern innovation (change). It leaves enough room for its adherents to choose various options with regard to the authorship of the Torah, from divine authorship with revelation at Mt. Sinai to human authorship over time, with several options in between.

Conservative Judaism is a viable ideology of Modern Judaism. It is the centrist position situated between the Reform ideology on the left and Orthodoxy on its right. It is the Conservative Movement that is in trouble. The movement found its heyday in the middle of the last century. It was growing by leaps and bounds with the largest Hebrew schools, high holiday services overflowing into social halls and school gymnasiums, and youth groups with expanding memberships. The movement took this success for granted. At the time, it was the movement that had the congregations that people found to be the perfect balance between the Orthodoxy they were raised in and the liberalism that they desired. With the rise of intermarriage, many flocked to the inviting and more tolerant Reform congregations. Others drank the Kool-Aid at Camp Ramah and moved to the right of the Conservative Movement by embracing a modern Orthodox lifestyle and joining an Orthodox shul.

Yes, there are still programs with the Conservative Movement seal for which movement members should take pride. The Ramah camping program is a clear success, but to be fair so are the Reform movement camps. Jewish summer camping in general is a success story. And I can speak of the local success of the new consolidated Hebrew High School program here in Metro Detroit. ATID (Alliance for Teens in Detroit), a weekly after-school informal Jewish high school program, is a collaborative effort by the Conservative synagogue’s in town. It is a program for which the Conservative Movement should be proud.

The real complaint about the Conservative Movement is not really with the movement. It certainly isn’t with Conservative Judaism as a way of practicing the Jewish faith either. It is with United Synagogue as an organization. And that’s actually a good thing because it is much easier for an organization to change (and I wish Rabbi Wernick the best of luck because it will be an uphill climb). The allegations are that Conservative synagogues have been paying hefty dues to the United Synagogue (headquartered in Manhattan) without seeing much value in return. When the economy was stronger, the congregations paid their dues knowing that if they didn’t they would have trouble getting a rabbi or cantor placed at their congregation and their youth would be barred from attending youth group conventions. Times have changed. Every dollar counts and congregations have begun to withhold these dues until they get more (and better) services in return. I think that’s a valid demand.

Going forward, the Conservative Movement must be less concerned with numbers. It doesn’t much matter how many families have left Conservative synagogues. Many of the families that have left likely shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Movement leaders also should be less concerned with how many synagogues are merging as there were likely too many shuls in the same geographic area before.

So, what should the leaders of the Conservative Movement be concerned about? For starters, they should promote the Conservative Judaism ideology and way of life. That would require a collaborative PR effort among all the arms of the movement including the seminaries, professional organizations, camps, youth groups, Schechter day schools, and the movement’s Israel and overseas branches. The movement (read: United Synagogue) must do a better job of educating its members about its raison d’etre.

United Synagogue also has to do a better job of operating with less. That means taking the Reform Movement’s lead and getting rid of the regional offices. (Note: this has already begun with plans to merge several USCJ regions). I would also recommend finding some less expensive office space, which might entail moving out of Manhattan.

Finally, I would recommend encouraging collaboration among member congregations. Use the ATID model if you’d like. It is what happens when a few Conservative congregations that spent decades competing with each other were able to come together collaboratively for the sake of their teenage populations and Jewish education. USCJ should urge and facilitate the merger of two struggling Conservative congregations in the same area. If handled correctly, it will benefit both parties. The movement should also merge its Israel trips for high school youth. It is redundant to send teens to Israel through both United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah.

Does the Conservative Movement need to look in the mirror more? Probably. It’s a good practice for all of us. But more than anything, movement leaders should stop caring what old, retired Orthodox university scholars are saying and begin moving forward into the future together with pride. Time is of the essence.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |