The Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has a new Web magazine, Mentschen. Co-editor Dr. Robert Braitman,, a Massachusetts pediatrician, is a former FJMC president, and hopes that it will both provide a forum for virtual conversation around topics meaningful to Jewish men, and that it will attract younger men to the organization, he told The Sisterhood.
The current issue of the monthly webzine, which launched in February, has articles profiling a Jewish theater director and on American foreign policy, in relation to Israel and about embracing “heartfelt Judaism.” “Some men just aren’t going to go to a Tallis and Tefillin Breakfast,” which is the kind of Sunday-morning event traditionally run by Conservative synagogue men’s clubs, said Braitman. The FJMC has some 20,000 members in 250 local men’s clubs.
“Not everybody finds ritual as compelling as others do, so people would stay away. But when you have a discussion of something like mid-life job loss, it really strikes home,” Braitman said, referring to an article in the current issue of Mentschen.
But why do men need male-only space? Isn’t the Virginia Woolf aphorism that women need a room of their own (she actually said “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” still true when much of the time in American life, men’s expectations and styles continue to dominate professional and social interaction in the private and public spheres?
“I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I don’t know the answer,” said Braitman.
But Doug Barden, executive director of the Men of Reform Judaism, says that men should be following the feminist model developed several decades back, though he bristled at the notion that they are merely mimicking the same work done by women’s groups.
“We’re really asking men to do the kind of work the women’s movement did in the 1960s and ‘70s,” a time when women began to examine and re-construct their personal and professional roles. “Men need to do that as well. So we’re trying to play catch up,” Barden said.
But “if we decide to model some of the good things that have happened in the women’s movement we get criticized for that? What’s wrong with that picture? The goal is to explore opportunities for how Judaism can resonate with men. Some temples are happy if men are just doing ushering or fundraising. I take a broader perspective. I want men’s as well as women’s spiritual needs to be met.”
The Men of Reform Judaism also has about 20,000 members, in 200 Reform temple brotherhood chapters, and a magazine, ‘Achim’ (Hebrew for ‘brothers,’) which has some articles available on the group’s website.
The reality, these and other experts say, is that men feel more comfortable talking about meaningful subjects when they’re with others of their gender.
According to New York City clinical psychologist Alon Gratch, who writes about men’s roles and relationships, “They can talk about certain things with men more easily and it helps them feel like ‘one of the guys,’ so that their masculine identity is less threatened. They’re less likely to open up with women.”
Gratch authored the book “If Men Could Talk: Unlocking the Secret Language of Men.
Other sources, like this article, attribute it in part to neurological differences between men and women. Writer Dave Zinczenko, in this article from his book “Men, Love & Sex,” attributes it to gender communications style differences.
In an email interview from Israel, where he was vacationing, Gratch told The Sisterhood: “For reasons both physiological and psychological, men’s defenses tend to make it easier for them to distance themselves from their emotions, so often they don’t actually know what they feel. In fact, if you ask a man “how do you feel” about something, chances are he would respond, “I think…”
“Men fear being perceived and experiencing themselves as more feminine than masculine. That fear, by the way, is also a wish: unconsciously, men would like to have the advantages of femininity, which at least traditionally means being more emotionally open and less competitive,” Gratch wrote.
The men’s groups, in their on-line and in-person versions, also help foster relationships between men that otherwise may not otherwise extend beyond superficial chit-chat.
“We’re trying to give men an opportunity to come together to explore the value of fellowship and friendship with other males in a culture where there’s little encouragement to bring men together in non-competitive situations,” Barden said. “I now have young men [in Reform brotherhood chapters] who have grown up in such a co-ed environment that they don’t value what can happen with male bonding that speaks uniquely to them as men.”
And while there was a time when women had to fight to create space for their own voices, today, at least in the context of Judaism’s non-Orthodox movements, that’s generally no longer true. According to Barden and others, because women now occupy many of liberal synagogues’ leadership roles, it’s now the men who have to work to find comfortable space for themselves.
Barden points to the fact that teen boys drop out of organized Jewish life at much higher rates than do teen girls as proof of the need for male role modeling and mentoring. The trend has been studied and documented by the Reform movement. More about that can be seen here. Men’s clubs and their publications, like Mentschen.org and Achim, are “a way to bring men together to talk about more than the Superbowl,” Barden said.