NEW YORK – The branch of American Judaism that pioneered elevating women to leadership positions is now wrestling with an uncomfortable issue: Where have the men gone?
Reform Jewish leaders in many communities say that females outnumber males in areas ranging from summer camp to synagogue leadership, prompting concern that men feel abandoned by the religious movement and are turning away from it.
The issue is being raised by both men and women who insist they are feminists with no desire to roll back the gains of the last few decades.
“Men just don’t know where they fit in,” said Doug Barden, executive director of the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. “They’re kind of betwixt and between.”
Although an equal number of men and women are studying to become rabbis at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform seminary, women outnumber men 2-to-1 in its cantorial school, administrators say.
The same 2-1 ratio can be found among the staff and campers of the top Reform camp program — the Kutz National Reform Jewish Leadership Center in Warwick, according to the center’s director, Rabbi Eve Rudin.
Youth program directors and participants also are overwhelmingly female in many regions, as are Jewish educators, said Rudin, who also directs the Reform North American Federation of Temple Youth.
And several rabbis said it is not unusual to find synagogues where the clergy and lay leadership of the congregation are nearly all women.
“There’s been what some people call a feminization of our movement,” Rudin said. “We need to have a Reform movement for everybody.”
Some Reform feminists see signs of a backlash.
The liberal branch of U.S. Judaism — which is now the largest, with about 920 synagogues — was the first to ordain women rabbis in 1972 and has carved out greater opportunities for them ever since.
Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, said Judaism has a long history of relegating women to supporting roles, and it’s destructive to now blame them for gender imbalance.
“Women have become very involved,” she said. “To see that as a threat to men is an extremely, extremely dangerous way of looking at it.”
However, those raising the issue say they’re not assigning blame — just seeking ways to make boys and men feel less alienated.
“I think that Jewish feminism and empowerment of women is still so new that it’s a very tender topic,” said Dru Greenwood, director of outreach programs for the Union for Reform Judaism. “Does this mean we should pull back from women’s leadership? Absolutely not. What we’re looking for is a way to honor the gifts of women and the gifts of men. We need them both.”
The Conservative movement, which began ordaining women in 1983, is not facing a gender imbalance problem in leadership posts, several of its officials said. The Orthodox, who are the most traditional, do not ordain women.
Men are not leaving the Reform movement, as much as staying on the sidelines in the absence of special programming geared toward their interests and concerns, some rabbis say.
Rabbi Tom Wiener of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y., started a monthly men’s study group after realizing that his synagogue offered retreats, study groups and special lectures only for women.
Wiener also organized a father-son Jewish heritage and jazz trip to New Orleans that he said helped men feel more part of the congregation.
“We’re not going to the woods beating drums and beating our chests,” he said. “It’s not even reclaiming something from a number of years ago. Rather, it’s discovering something that we never had at all.”
Rabbi Jerry Brown of Temple Ahavat Shalom of Northridge said too many “touchy-feely” events in synagogues have been part of the problem. At a retreat he led, he saw why different approaches were needed for men and women when he asked participants to write an “ethical will” about the values they hoped to impart to their children.
“People were in tears as we first led them through a little process of preparing for this, with the exception of one of the men — who could be heard downstairs watching the NFL,” he said. “I couldn’t come up with a more striking example.”
A similar problem can be found at summer camps and in youth groups, Rudin said. Among the theories is that many of the programs — informal activities such as discussion groups — are less interesting for boys. Young men need more task-oriented, structured programming, some believe, and Rudin is considering testing that idea with a new sports coaching program that focuses on team-building.
Barden hopes that more Reform leaders will be open to discussing what he acknowledges is a very sensitive issue. His brotherhood organization has developed materials to help bring back men, focusing on men’s health issues, spirituality and their family lives.
“Men need male role models,” Barden said. “If a new young generation of teens or younger males does not see their fathers engaged in Jewish life, they’re going to read the signals.”