Are men’s clubs still relevant?
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Are men’s clubs still relevant?

Groups ponder how to attract men back into communal life

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Men’s Club of Shomrei Torah during World Wide Wrap. Courtesy Shomrei Torah

SAN FRANCISCO”“Mitchell Ross remembers his grandfather hanging out with the men’s club at his Conservative synagogue.

“I always felt it was something older Jewish men were involved in, the over-60s club,” said Ross, a 39-year-old cardiologist in Phoenix, Ariz.

Today, Ross is active in his own men’s club at Har Zion Congregation, a Conservative shul in Scottsdale, Ariz., and he is working hard to attract men his age and younger to a Jewish world that many of them have dismissed.

“I’m into fitness, into biking, and the men’s club has a wellness initiative, so we do a lot of hikes, as well as community service activities,” Ross said. “It offers a way for younger men to get involved.”

Good luck with that, say Jewish leaders and academics who, for more than a decade, have lamented the disappearance of boys and men from non-Orthodox Jewish life. Men’s clubs, operating at many North American Conservative and Reform synagogues, are just one of many groups trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

“The challenge facing the American Jewish community is not that women are more active-surely a positive development-but that men and boys have retreated from much of American Jewish life,” wrote Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer in the Fall 2008 issue of Jewish Political Studies Review. The article was titled “The Policy Implications of the Gender Imbalance Among America’s Jews.”

Some, including Fishman, call it the “feminization” of liberal Judaism, a term that raises hackles among those who do not wish to see women’s ritual gains reversed or blamed for the retreat of men. The phenomenon, however, is readily apparent and has elicited scores of programming initiatives.

Local club cited for Chanukah charity effort
The Men’s Progress Club of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/ Congregation B’nai Israel has won the Torch Award from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs at its national convention, recently held in California. The MPC was the only group in the northeastern region to have won an award.

The group was cited for its Hanukkah Candle Distribution/NACOEJ program. Volunteers distributed candles to every member household of the Fair Lawn synagogue. In return, the group received donations to the NACOEJ Limudiah program, which aids Ethiopian immigrant children in Israel. The award will be presented to the Fair Lawn club on Tuesday evening, September 6, by Dave Mandell, president of the Northern New Jersey region of the FJMC.

Many of these parallel women’s initiatives. “The Man Seder,” an all-male Passover seder held at American Jewish University in Los Angeles since 2006, is patterned after the women’s s’darim that emerged in the 1980s. The teenage boys’ programs developed this year by the organization Moving Traditions grew out of its popular program for teenage girls, “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing.”

Age a factor

A number of Reform and Conservative synagogues run a program usually called 100 Jewish Men-a series of dinners with speakers who talk about their relationship to Judaism, their families and their careers.

“At so many synagogues, especially in the non-Orthodox world, the men are not there and the men’s clubs skew older,” meaning they do not attract younger members, said David Woznicka. He is rabbi of the Stephen S. Wise Temple, a large Reform congregation in Los Angeles that launched such a series four years ago for its members between 30 and 55. Nearly 100 men signed up in the first year, and the project is still steaming along.

The most aggressive pursuer of the great disappearing American Jewish male is probably the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), the umbrella group for Conservative-affiliated men’s clubs in the U.S. On the Reform side, there is Men of Reform Judaism (formerly known as the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods).

Men’s clubs are trying to cast off the backroom, cigar-chomping image of yesteryear in an effort to draw in younger men, and getting them to talk to each other and to their sons. Ultimately, the goal is to get them into the synagogue-if not to pray, then at least to find Jewish community and pass it on to their children.

“We’re trying to make men realize the tremendous impact they have on their children,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, the FJMC’s executive director, who writes and speaks extensively on the importance of men volunteering and taking charge of their personal lives.

Simon says his organization is making a concerted effort to attract younger men. At the group’s national convention earlier this summer in Costa Mesa, Calif., a curriculum to engage men at different ages was unveiled. It will be piloted at several Conservative congregations next year.

Eighteen months ago, the FJMC launched HaDor Habah, Hebrew for “the next generation,” a project that brings men under age 45 to training seminars where they learn how to lead men’s activities for their peers. Nearly 70 men attended the second annual seminar in January.

Mark Kluger, 43, says the retreat was eye-opening. Back home at Temple Israel in Longwood, Fla., he launched a signature FJMC program, “Hearing Men’s Voices.” He gathered the men in a circle, warned them they were going to think it was corny and then opened the session by asking each one to answer one question: “Who am I?”

‘Talking circles’

“For 2 1/2 hours, people told their stories,” Kluger said. “We had people crying. It was such an unbelievable outpouring, a shedding of the veil. It really hit me that men, Jewish men, we don’t have a lot of outlets. We don’t talk [to each other] like our wives and girlfriends do.”

In addition to these talking circles, which do not appeal to everyone, Conservative men’s clubs around the country organize all kinds of activities to attract a younger demographic-ski trips, pizza and beer evenings, trivia nights at local pubs.

Community service is also a big draw. A men’s club in Chicago sponsored a sub-club for men in their 20s, which recently held a fundraiser for ALS research. Rather than a $1,000-a-plate gala dinner, they held it in a pub and charged $16.

Justin Ross, 26, helped organize the evening, but he said such efforts may not work with most men his age. With all the financial pressures on his age group, and the fact that most are single, to chew the fat with a bunch of other guys on a regular basis is not that appealing.

What does he think men’s clubs need in order to attract the younger men? Women. “The next logical step is to create a coed club,” he said.

That is the central question for men’s club leaders: In an egalitarian world, is a single-sex organization still relevant?

Yes and no, says 42-year-old Louis Piels, a trustee of the men’s club at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.

Last year, Peils’ club sponsored a steak dinner at a kosher Japanese restaurant for 15 young fathers of kids in Beth Shalom’s religious school as a first step to raising their involvement.

A “guys’ night out” followed, but then the members decided that they wanted wives and children along. Since then, the group has held apple-picking days, a bike ride, ice skating, a mountain hike and scavenger hunt, all of them family-friendly.

“The whole concept of a men’s club may be dated,” Piels acknowledges. “Why would we want to be just among men all the time?”

Piels now sees his club’s purpose as spearheading events and community service initiatives that are open to the entire community. At the same time, he does not want to alienate older men, who are used to a male-only club.

“That old ‘clubhouse’ view also has a place,” he said.

For some of the younger men, who were drawn to their men’s club in search of camaraderie or as a way to do community service, club involvement has indeed led them back to shul.

Adam Ruchman, a 41-year-old technology manager in Livingston, has belonged to Conservative synagogues his entire married life. He did not join the men’s club at Temple Shalom, however, until Piels invited him to last year’s dinner. Now he’s vice president of membership, is on the organizing committee for an upcoming golf fundraiser and is training as a gabbai.

Despite all his years in synagogue, Ruchman says he has never held a ritual role before. Talking about his upcoming debut as a gabbai, he said, “Hopefully not too many people will be there that Shabbat.”

JTA Wire Service

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