Mark Young, former president of the Brotherhood at Mahwah’s Beth Haverim/Shir Shalom, said that people who argue that men’s clubs are losing their relevance see a glass that is half empty, when actually it is half full.
The Mahwah resident has belonged to the 400-member Reform synagogue for more than 20 years. He said that men traditionally had less time to attend events and meetings at the shul. Women, at least in the past, had more flexible schedules and thus more time to participate in activities such as sisterhood.
In some ways, Young said, the problems with men’s involvement “go beyond congregations. These things are symptomatic of a spiritual identity crisis in our culture right now. It’s a busy, confusing time,” he said.
In places where membership in men’s clubs is dwindling, the causes are not “cut and dried,” said Young. “[They’re] a mirror to what is happening all around.”
Eric Weis echoed Young. “This is not only a Jewish problem,” said the Wayne resident, a past president of the Northern New Jersey Region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), and of the men’s club at local synagogue Shomrei Torah. “It is characteristic of most religions here in the U.S., and perhaps social groupings, as well. Men appear to be working more and having less discretionary time for volunteer activities or hobbies. Whether that is due to the economy or to other influences is not clear.
“The only difference for Judaism is that our population is so small, the number of religious institutions is so small, that any group that participates less is bound to have a profound impact on the entire Jewish world.”
Weis estimated that there are at least 500 men’s clubs in the United States, about half of which are affiliated with the Conservative movement’s FJMC. Of the remaining 250 or so, about 150 are affiliated with Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ). Other clubs include unaffiliated groups attached to Conservative or Conservative-style synagogues; clubs tied to synagogues and kehillot that are unaffiliated with any stream; and groups associated with modern Orthodox institutions.
The number “might well be higher” than 500, said Weis, because many groups “really fly under the radar,” he said. “They can be amorphous, with no membership list or formal structure, but when the synagogue needs shleppers [people to do the grunt work, like putting up sukkot, or helping out at synagogue functions such as fairs and carnivals], everybody knows to turn to Sam, Herb, or Al.”
Young pointed out that the MRJ has long discussed the need to reach beyond members of Reform synagogues, including outreach to the unaffiliated. “It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We’ve had some success through social networking and with activities that involve men in the community without making them join.”
“We’re trying to see what young members’ interests are,” he said. “But we’re not pushing them too hard to make commitments. Who has time anymore? What we’re doing is looking at activities that are less structured-one-time things to get people involved.”
That kind of outreach is already possible in many of the FJMC-affiliated clubs, Weis said. The rules of each club differ from synagogue to synagogue. Some require that club members be members of their synagogue; some permit any Jewish man to join, synagogue member or not; some include women; and some-like his club in Wayne-are open to non-Jewish men married to Jewish women. “If the local group is comfortable, I’m comfortable,” Weis said.
Young said dwindling memberships are nothing new for men’s clubs. His Beth Haverim group, for example, was nearly sidelined “about 15 years ago [when] I was asked to help resuscitate it with a younger group of men.”
“Now we have activities all the time,” he said. “We used to be seen as the shleppers, but more recently we have become involved in charity projects that attract younger members of the congregation.”
Teaneck resident Stuart Kaplan, past president of Cong. Beth Sholom’s men’s club and like Weis a past president of the FJMC Northern New Jersey Region, also sees a cyclical factor at work in men’s clubs. While his club is undergoing changes now, he said “it did about 20 years ago,” as well.
The Beth Sholom group has about 60 members at the moment. While this represents a membership decline, it has not stopped the club from staying busy or relevant, Kaplan said. Members set up the synagogue’s sukkah, act as ushers on the High Holy Days, and participate in the FJMC World Wide Wrap, an annual event on Super Bowl Sunday that encourages the mitzvah of wearing tefillin.
According to Kaplan, one of his group’s signature events has been hosting a group from the Lower East Side for lunch, through a program organized by Project Ezrah in Manhattan.
“Currently, we need to find new leadership and ways to get more guys involved with the club,” said Kaplan, adding that “with the addition of a new rabbi, this could get us going.” Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky recently assumed the pulpit at the Teaneck congregation, replacing the retired Rabbi Kenneth Berger.
Weis’ history with men’s clubs goes back “about 30 years,” when he was drafted into the men’s club at Shomrei Torah almost immediately after joining the Wayne congregation.
“From there, I became club president-multiple times,” he said.
Despite the urging of longtime regional and national leaders that he become involved beyond his local group, Weis resisted. “There was a disconnect in terms of age,” he said. “They were 65 or older; we were between 20 and 40.”
In 2001, after much cajoling, Weis traveled to Toronto for his first FJMC national convention. The gathering made him “incredibly happy-moved me on all sorts of levels,” he said. He came back determined to become more involved in the region, becoming its president in 2008. He also became more active on the national level, chairing the FJMC’s Shoah Yellow Candle project, which he is now working on expanding.
Under his leadership, he said, “The region didn’t shrink. It didn’t grow, but it didn’t shrink. I thought that was a success.”
Young said he fully supports family groups, “since it doesn’t hurt to have a mix,” but he does not want to see those come at the expense of separate groups for men and women.
His 60-member Brotherhood is bullish on family activities, he said, with projects such as Pizza in the Hut, during Sukkot, and sporting events to which the entire community is invited. On the other hand, the male-only Men’s Seder launched by MRJ Director Doug Barden some five years ago, which includes discussions geared to men’s interests, is now an annual event that continues to grow.
The Reform group also sponsors Sunday morning discussion groups at a local restaurant in Ramsey.
“We get together and talk about anything we want,” he said. “There’s good attendance,” he added, noting that dress is informal and the topics are wide-ranging.
On the Conservative side, said Weis, the FJMC pioneered an approach called Hearing Men’s Voices, “designed to get men talking to each other about relationships, Judaism, family, health, work, interfaith issues, and more. These sessions are very powerful,” he said.
Young tells people to attend Brotherhood events because “it’s for their own good,” he said. “It’s about being more of who you are and relating better to your children, wife, and colleagues. It’s about social action and community service, but also about fun and relationships and personal growth.”
“No Jewish man is a Jewish island,” said Weis, explaining why he believes men should join a men’s club. “For the past two or three decades, most Jewish men have been functioning more and more as islands in their lives and in their Jewish lives. Our mission is to involve Jewish men in Jewish life.”
“Jewish men need Jewish life,” Weis added. “Jewish men’s organizations are the one entity focused on providing that bridge-not Hadassah, not the synagogue, not the gym.”
Weis also believes that men need “brothers.”
“Are men running for the hills? Not really,” said Weis. “They are hunkered down in those hills trying to cope with life. The men’s club movement is definitely trying to reach out to them, to overcome years of separation, boredom, apathy, or distaste. If they come to our dinners, if they come to any national events, they can get a taste of Judaism on steroids, Judaism with ruach [spirit], Judaism the way it was meant to be.”