How to handle a (spiritually) hungry man

Women and girls more and more likely than men and boys to be active in their synagogues, youth groups.

conservative synagogue88 (photo credit: )
conservative synagogue88
(photo credit: )
I think I am spiritually challenged. For example, I have a tremendous respect for the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his role as moral exemplar and civil rights champion, but I think I lack the gene that lets me appreciate his spiritual insights. In fact, I find that whenever I hear someone quoting Heschel, or most spiritual thinkers for that matter, I'm compelled to respond, "Or exactly the opposite." Sometimes I'll take an actual Heschel quote, and then rearrange some key words to reverse its meaning. Twenty-four hours later I can't remember which one he really said. Try it: 1. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. 2. Just to be is not a blessing. Just to live is not holy. See what I mean? (The correct answer is number 1.) Again, this is my failing, not Heschel's. I tried the same test with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the Baal Shem Tov, and Deepak Chopra and, sure enough - not a single flash of insight, no hint of transcendence. Another confession: I'm not a guy's guy. I jog, I go to the gym, but you seldom see me around the poker table or cracking a beer at a softball game. Whenever the atmosphere gets just a little too male - by which I mean someone decides to snap his towel at my behind - I begin to yearn for the Sunday crossword puzzle and a mug of coffee. Decaf. I bring this up because of recent reports suggesting a "man drain" in religious settings, including synagogues. The research in Jewish institutions is piecemeal, but Conservative and Reform leaders see clear evidence that women and girls are more and more likely than men and boys to be active in their synagogues, youth groups, summer camps, and membership organizations. That the trend exactly coincides with the gains women have made in terms of gender equality has been an occasion for gloating by some traditionalists, while feminists fear a backlash. LAST DECEMBER, at its biennial convention, the Union for Reform Judaism directly addressed the needs of boys and men in speeches and workshops. "We need to reverse the disaffiliation of men without setting the egalitarian clock back 30 years," the executive director of Men of Reform Judaism (the former North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods) told JTA. Another group, Moving Traditions, is trying to draw boys back into Jewish life with its Campaign for Jewish Boys and Men. "Boys who find Judaism 'uncool' and irrelevant are turning away from Jewish experiences and instead are relying on popular culture for clues about how to become a man," according to the group's Web site. The goal of these efforts is to combine gender "differentiation" ("separation" is a dirty word) and spiritual experiences that directly appeal to men without implying that they need to "reclaim" the synagogue from the women. In Bethesda, Md., for example, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation has created a support group for men who are unemployed, retired, divorced, or separated. The Men's Transitional Support Group "deals with men's individual spiritual, religious, and emotional needs in times of difficulty," writes Adat Shalom's adjunct rabbi, George Driesen, in the latest issue of Reconstructionism Today. As for what, besides the setting, makes such a group Jewish: "I make it a point to bring texts and ideas from our literature that bear upon our ethical and personal dilemmas, as well as the feelings that we all share as we work together to facilitate one's life passages," writes Driesen. AS A spiritually challenged Hebrosexual, I'm not sure where I fit into all this. I'm a regular at shul because I like the company of fellow Jews, men and women. And if the liturgy doesn't take me to a higher realm, I still slip into it like a warm bath, peacefully floating in the melodies and familiar prayers. Clearly, that's not enough for many Jewish men. If the researchers and programmers are right, men are looking for an opportunity to be with other men and to share in ways that only men can share with one another. And perhaps they are looking to meet spiritual needs that they can't meet elsewhere - and if not in Jewish settings, where else? The irony is that the classic morning minyan - segregated by law and custom into a boys' club - served these needs for generations of Jewish men. But we should resist the temptation to bring back the mehitza, symbolically and otherwise. The strength of American Judaism is the array of opportunities for engaging with Jewish life. The mehitza is there for those who need it. For others, there need to be fresh ideas about how to make synagogues and institutions meaningful places for different types - guys' guys, women's women, and the occasional Hebrosexual. The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.