'Where have all the men gone?'

As the role of women increases in Judaism, questions swirl about a gender imbalance

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

American Judaism has a boy problem.

After several thousand years in which women were relegated to the sidelines of worship and community leadership, scholars and denominational leaders now say that women are significantly outnumbering men in numerous key segments of non-Orthodox Jewish community life.

At the Reform movement's seminary, 60 percent of the rabbinical students and 84 percent of those studying to become cantors are female. Girls are outnumbering boys by as much as 2 to 1 among adolescents in youth group programs and summer camps, while women outnumber men at worship and in a variety of congregational leadership roles, according to the Union for Reform Judaism.

The evidence is everywhere. At Temple Sinai in Sharon, nine of the 11 members of this year's confirmation class were girls. At Temple Beth David in Canton, last Saturday's Bible study drew 11 women and no men. At Temple Isaiah in Lexington, the executive board for the last year had eight women and one man. And at the Prozdor, an intensive supplementary high school program at Hebrew College in Newton, 59 percent of the students are female.

"After bar mitzvah, the boys just drop out," said Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and the coauthor of a study on "Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life," which was publicly released last week.

"American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism in almost every venue and in every age, from school-age children through the adult years," the study declares. "Contemporary liberal American Judaism, although supposedly egalitarian, is visibly and substantially feminized."

As with so much about gender, everything about this subject is highly controversial. Some Jewish leaders dispute the statistics, citing contradictory evidence, or pointing to the continuing presence of men at the helm of the biggest community organizations and synagogues. Others question whether a preponderance of women is a problem, or just progress. No one is clear whether the trend, which has only emerged in the last few years, is a temporary phenomenon or a sea change.

But scholars and rabbis say they are concerned that diminished participation by men in Judaism threatens the health of the Jewish community.

The Brandeis study argues that "men's decreased interest in Jews and Judaism walks hand in hand with apathy toward creating Jewish households and raising Jewish children."

"Men need to be encouraged to come back into the synagogue," said Stuart M. Matlins, editor in chief of Jewish Lights Publishing. The Vermont-based publisher has a long list of women's studies books, but this fall is publishing a guide for Jewish men, and next spring is publishing a modern men's Torah commentary. "The welcoming of women into leadership positions is something I have worked very hard on, but we don't want to lose the men."

The phenomenon is most pronounced in the Reform movement, which is the largest branch of Judaism in the United States, but is also being observed, to a lesser extent, in conservative Judaism. In Orthodox Judaism, where traditional gender roles are maintained, a more familiar struggle is underway, as orthodox feminists agitate for greater roles in worship and possible ordination as rabbis.

There is no consensus about why women are now disproportionately represented in non-Orthodox settings, although scholars and Jewish leaders note that the pattern, although a departure from traditional Judaism, mirrors the pattern seen in mainline Protestantism.

"It's an American phenomenon," said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "It's not clear that there's anything uniquely Jewish about it."

The umbrella group of Reform synagogue brotherhoods - organizations that have lost thousands of members over the last several decades - has renamed itself Men of Reform Judaism and published a men's Passover Haggadah intended for use at all-male Seders.

The Reform movement is trying to add more adventure to its Israel trips, saying that boys seem to be drawn to risk.

It is also improving athletics programs at its camps and is encouraging synagogues and camps to explore programming for men, including father-son events.

Ethan Bair, a 27-year-old seminarian from Jamaica Plain, said that in his rabbinical class at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, there are nine women and three men. Male seminarians gather monthly to study together, he said.

"We talk about this a lot, but there are no clear solutions yet," Bair said. "I'm sort of hoping it will correct itself."

Some Jewish leaders argue that the preponderance of women in segments of Jewish community life reflects pent-up demand for involvement by a gender excluded from leadership for much of religious history.

Some suggest that in the Western world, spirituality, especially in more liberal denominations, has become associated with femininity. Others believe that men are reluctant to join organizations unless they can play leadership roles, and with the entry of large numbers of women into synagogue life, there are fewer such opportunities for men.

"Perhaps one factor is that men are devaluing something that is done by women, while another factor may be that men have less free time then they did a generation ago, and they're choosing to use that free time for child-rearing and family activities," said Rabbi Joseph Meszler, of Temple Sinai of Sharon. Meszler, the author of the Jewish Lights book on men's responsibilities coming out this fall, is an advocate of giving men a time to talk apart from women.

He has relaunched his synagogue's defunct brotherhood, held a men's barbecue, and started men's study groups.

"We need to reintroduce men to the synagogue, but on their own terms," Meszler said.

Several local rabbis said addressing the situation is fairly simple.

"You have to define the problem in order to solve it," said Rabbi Susan Abramson of Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington. Abramson, the longest-serving female rabbi in Massachusetts, is not shy about gender issues - she has authored what she says is the world's first comic book series with a female rabbi superhero, Rabbi Rocketpower - but she is now concerned about the role of men.

"Two or three years ago there were hardly any men on the temple board or as committee chairs, and we had a discussion that we need to get some men represented in the top layer of the synagogue, so we've brought them back," she said.

Similarly, Rabbi David B. Thomas of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury said his synagogue has sought to ensure a gender balance on its board.

But he said that he still occasionally finds himself the only man in meetings at his congregation, and that so few men have volunteered to read from the Torah during worship - traditionally a high honor in Judaism - that one Saturday morning he had to get up at services to encourage men to "take their responsibility and come up and read."

The phenomenon is not universally observed. Several local rabbis, including Shoshana Perry of Congregation Shalom in Chelsmford, Joel Sisenwine, of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, and Jeffrey S. Wildstein of Temple Beth David in Westwood, said they do not see the pattern in their congregations.

Rabbi David S. Wolfman, the director of the Northeast region for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited statistics showing that Massachusetts Reform congregations have 36 men and 17 women rabbis, and 23 men and 22 women presidents. He said gender balance is "a nonissue," and that "the question of 'Where have all the men gone' may be perceived more than it is real."

"It's wonderful women are reclaiming religion as their own," he said. "What's not to be excited about?"

Others said they believe the discussion is often freighted by bias or loaded terms like "feminization."

"The concept has a negative connotation, as if prestige is reduced by the presence of women," said Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel in Boston. "Can it mean that the presence of women has actually had a positive effect on the transformation of the synagogue?"

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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