Just as Conservative and Reform synagogues are discussing mergers in some areas of the country, the Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ) and its Conservative counterpart, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), are talking on the national level about working together more closely, said Mark Young a member of Beth Haverim/Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Mahwah, and a former president of its men’s club.
“We’re definitely looking at ways regionally and among synagogues to have more synergy,” he said. He said that the Brotherhood, as many Reform men’s clubs prefer to be known, already engages in joint activities with other area Reform synagogues, such as Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.
The Reform movement’s men’s clubs are also getting a lot of support from the national organization, Union for Reform Judaism, he said.
“They’re very much in favor of our work. They realize this is important in trying to find avenues for inclusion.”
He noted that the MRJ website is filled with program ideas based on activities undertaken by groups throughout the country.
“We try to cross-pollinate,” he said. “And we’re trying to do more with less. The bottom line is: What can we do for Jewish men to help them feel more a part of the community.”
Bringing younger people into leadership positions, not just trying to attract them as members, is seen as a key to finding the synergy Young talks about.
According to Eric Weis, immediate past president of the Northern New Jersey region of the FJMC, his national organization realized that years ago.
“We’re already doing things,” he said, pointing out that FJMC Executive Director Rabbi Charles Simon has been working for more than a decade on the issues of outreach and intermarriage. He has also encouraged men’s clubs to better address contemporary issues such as wellness and the environment. The FJMC’s Shomrei Haaretz program includes promoting the use of Shabbat candles made of soy; the constructing and installation of solar ner tamids in Conservative synagogues; the distribution of special green metal water bottles to replace non-eco-friendly plastic ones; and the use in synagogues of eco-friendly plates and cutlery (available wholesale through the FJMC).
In addition, said Weis, four years ago Simon told the volunteer leadership that there was a need to “retool” the group’s leadership development institute, in order to attract and engage younger leaders.
Weis said that under the Ha’Dor Ha’Baa [“coming generation”] program, the number of young leaders has exploded. Where only a dozen or so attended the first meeting, the number soon grew to more than 40.
“At our last national convention [held in July], out of 400 participants, about 20 percent were young,” he said. “This was very different from past conventions. There was a lot more energy.”
Programming has also been tweaked to attract younger members, with an increasing focus on wellness and sports programs. Shomrei Torah has introduced family-friendly events to draw young men, as well.
“I’m optimistic that a transformation is under way,” said Weis, and that men’s clubs “will become more relevant to young men as time goes along.” Especially as life becomes more difficult, he hopes that “young men will begin to find refuge and meaning in a men’s club environment, which may lead them back to synagogue.”
Should they fail, he said, “In 10 years, there won’t be Jewish kids and grandkids.”