Turning Jewish Boys Into Mensches

Teaching teenagers how to navigate a world that encourages aggression, cutthroat competition, and misogyny

By Marjorie Ingall|February 1, 2019 12:00 AM


The news abounds with stories of young white men behaving abominably. Privileged private-school boys taunting [1]a Native American activist, donning blackface [2]. Athletes [3]repeatedly accused [4]of sexual assault, without long-term consequences. Mothers fiercely defending [5]college-age sons who’ve been suspended or expelled from college for sexual misbehavior. Men exploding in social media fury at a razor commercial (a razor commercial [6]!) for its vile offense of depicting men standing up to bullying, stepping in to stop sexual harassment, and rejecting the notion that “boys will be boys.”

Young Jewish men aren’t exempt from such toxicity. I will never forget my teenage daughter telling me about boys in her progressive Jewish summer camp chanting “fag, fag, fag” to torment another boy. Or about the boy at camp who, when challenged about his belief that women didn’t become CEOs because they weren’t as smart as men, told a girl, “Just kill yourself.” (And no one—no tween or teen camper, no teen or 20-something counselor—did anything to help.) All too often, we hear of situations in which boys who aren’t bullies fail to be upstanders [7], the term now used to differentiate passive bystanders and active helpers.

So, in a climate of pussy-grabbing and fury, how do we raise Jewish boys who’ll grow into good guys? How do we encourage them to challenge poisonous old-school ideas of masculinity?

Moving Traditions [9], a Jewish nonprofit that runs educational programs for teenagers, thinks it may have the answer. Since 2011, it’s run a national program called Shevet [10]. The name comes from the familiar words to “Hinei Ma Tov,” (translation: here’s what’s good), the psalm about how wonderful it is when shevet achim gam yachad (when brothers sit together). It’s a men’s group, essentially, for post-bar mitzvah age boys. With an adult mentor, guys play games, cook, eat, go on field trips, and talk [11]about the challenges they face as young dudes in the world. (“Safe space!” I hear the right wing squawking. “Snowflakes!”) They also do a little Jewish study, with the purpose of using ancient texts to help develop empathy and encourage personal growth. They discuss manhood, friendship, competition, sexism, courage, balance, language, the body, consent, and partying. Held in synagogues, JCCs, Jewish day schools, and other Jewish institutions, Shevet aims to help eighth and ninth graders “explore what it means to be a Jewish man and a mensch.” In the 2018-19 academic year, there are 120 Shevet groups, working with over 1,300 post-bar mitzvah boys.

When Shevet began, Moving Traditions already had a group called Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! [12](The program’s chirpy name, which feels like it’s delivering double shooty fingers, is what has always prevented me from writing about it, even though the programming itself sounds nifty.) It uses Rachel Adler’s 1999 book Engendering Judaism [13]as a springboard. Adler posits [14]that patriarchy in Jewish culture and tradition isn’t a fixed, unsolvable problem. We’re all obligated to work for a more just world, and every generation can work toward a more egalitarian, righteous envisioning of our faith. The Rosh Hodesh program encourages girls to think about gender strictures and how the Jewish conversation could explore in a more just and open-hearted way what it means to be a woman and a member of community. And Moving Traditions also partners with Keshet [15]on a third program, called Tzelem [16](literally “image,” as in “we are all created in the image of God”), working with transgender, nonbinary, gender fluid, and gender-questioning Jewish teenagers.

For Jewish boys—and all boys—the challenge is figuring out how to navigate a world that encourages aggression, cutthroat competition, and sexism. Not so coincidentally, Shevet also strives to keep boys engaged in Judaism. Non-Orthodox boys are, it turns out, way less interested than Jewish girls in staying involved in Jewishness after bar/bat mitzvah. The program quotes statistics saying that 47 percent of boys see their bar mitzvah as graduation from Jewish study (only 35 percent of girls view their bat mitzvah that way), as well as studies showing that boys are woefully underrepresented in Jewish youth groups, summer camps, social action initiatives, and college Hillels.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education at Moving Traditions, told Tablet in an interview, “Essentially, at Shevet we pose one question: How are you going to grow? That’s at the very core of this work. What are the choices you’ll make as a man? Given all the expectations on men, what are you going to fulfill and what will you push back against?”

Brenner bristled at my use of the term “toxic masculinity.” He responded, “That’s not a conversation we’re interested in: ‘Oh, be a good male!’ We’re saying that you as a man will determine what kind of man you will be, and you have to know yourself and understand your disposition in order to grow.” Brenner favors Maimonides’ discussions of human nature and the way men struggle with conflicting impulses. For example, Maimonides wrote, “One should not be easily angered, nor should one be like a dead person who does not feel, but one should be in the middle.” In the group, boys ponder whether they’re too slow or too quick to anger, whether they’re perpetually in search of the new or tend to stick with the known and familiar, whether they’re pleasure seekers or whether they hold back, whether they tend toward pride or toward humbleness. No judgment. But boys have to figure out what their tendencies and inclinations are before they can figure out balance in their lives.

“If a basketball player always drives to the right, they have to learn to use their less dominant hand to be a great player,” Brenner said. “Similarly, you have to ask yourself, are you too quick or too slow to get angry? And then you have to learn the other way. That’s the primary framework, not saying, ‘Let’s reduce the toxicity of masculinity,’ because that’s too abstract.”

Also important to Shevet: not shaming other models of masculinity. “A guy might have had a grandfather or father or coach who exhibited very traditional masculine norms,” Brenner said. “But that person might have given them the confidence they need to take on challenges. We need to honor the positive experiences they’ve had with their earlier influences, because if you feel positive toward someone, you’re going to protect them. So we don’t say, ‘That’s toxic!’ Instead, the goal is to encourage boys to think, ‘I’m gonna take what I learned from them and at the same time challenge sexism, because I understand it hurts everyone—me, too.’”

Brenner continued, “We start with a sense that men are good at their core, and want to improve. We get the messages that we’re wild and savage, and it’s not true. So we start with the positive, then we get to the question: OK, what in masculinity hasn’t felt so good? What are the ways in which a man had to fight against being bullied or put down because they weren’t traditionally male?”

Most Jewish men, Brenner notes, aren’t physically aggressive with other men. Instead, their aggression tends to show itself intellectually and competitively. “What does that do to male psyche and male friendships?” he asked.

Let’s say a guy is a bystander to catcalling, the way a dude in a razor ad responds to a friend leering at a barbecue or hollering at a woman on the street. If threatening aggression feels like the way to go, then threaten aggression, Brenner said, to my shock. He pointed out the incident a while ago in which Drake, from the stage, saw a man groping women in the audience and yelled [17], “If you don’t stop touching girls, I will come out there and fuck you up.” Brenner noted, “That’s how men are socialized to respond, and if you’re of equal or greater power than the aggressor, you should get in their face. It’s your responsibility to use your power. But if you have less power, for whatever reason, you’re going to need to have alliances to trump the aggressor’s power.” And for that, you need to be able to build relationships with other men who will also be willing to step up when they see bad behavior. Collective power is big power.

Brenner speaks approvingly of programs aimed at teaching college athletes to protect each other at parties and around campus, by calling on their responsibilities to one another as teammates. To me, that sounded like trying to make sure males didn’t have to experience consequences rather than trying to make sure men didn’t rape. I blurted, “What about teaching them to see women as people?” Brenner laughed. “It would be wonderful if they could hear that, but that’s so far from what’s going on with them, and you’ve gotta think about what works. I’m very realpolitik about this in some ways. Sometimes you need brute force around aggressive men, and hopefully that will happen in the room.” He audibly rolled his eyes. “People hear ‘stop pouring tea on people [18]!’ and say, ‘that’s incredible!’ But it’s not that simple.”

Josh Martin Adamson, 20, is a junior at Stanford and graduate of the Shevet program. He’d initially wanted no part of it. “My mother [Madelyn Bucksbaum Adamson [19]] was on the board of the organization and pushed me into it,” he said in an interview. “I was hesitant, because my mom was involved. I didn’t want to do anything she’d have to thank me for later.” Furthermore, Josh was not thrilled about what he initially viewed as extra Jewish education. “After Hebrew school I thought I was done!” he said. But he showed up to that early group in the basement of B’nai Jeshurun on New York’s Upper West Side, and wound up staying because of the group’s mentor. “The leader, David Lieberman [20], was truly an incredible person,” he said. “The secret to a successful group is the leader—it doesn’t matter how great the group of teens are or the program is if the leader isn’t trusted and good.”

Josh was particularly taken with the sessions about masculinity and consent. “I remember distinctly David showing us ads showing toxic masculinity, saying, like, a man is a man because he’s strong! He likes beer! He likes sports! It’s most commercials, pretty much. Be a man, man! Then we had an honest discussion about what being a man costs, what pressures we’ve felt, the times we felt we had to act a certain way because we were guys. It was kind of shocking. We were all pretty smart but none of this was being taught at school, at all—none of it was!—and it was an important discussion to have before going to college.” He reflected, “It was important for me to learn that masculinity isn’t a monolith and healthy expressions of masculinity are so important.” And it was, indeed a safe space. “What happened in the Brotherhood stayed in the Brotherhood; what happened in the basement of B’nai Jeshurun stayed in the basement of B’nai Jeshurun.” For most kids, sex ed stops in middle school and focuses on avoiding AIDS and pregnancy. But by high school, Josh noted, “some of us were drinking and knew there were times when alcohol was involved and there could be a gray line around consent … and that was the first time we talked about it.” As a result, he felt a step ahead when he got to college. “In freshman orientation, we did consent training and I was all, ‘I’ve seen this before.’”

For me, as a mother to daughters and a friend to many feminist and women’s health activists, it was sometimes disconcerting to hear manly men confronting men’s socialization mannishly. But perhaps, as Brenner noted, “The only change will come from within the male community, from a space where we can transcend the socialization that informs so much.”

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