More than a decade ago, one of my colleagues called to discuss a concern. He had observed that men seemed to be forming fewer friendships and as a consequence were more isolated and alone. He was also concerned that this failure to form strong friendships could result in a diminishment of all of their relationships as well as their ability to influence their children. He asked if I thought that this was symptomatic of a larger trend. I hadn’t given the issue of male friendship much thought – after all, I had my circle of friends – but out of respect I made a few calls to some congregational rabbis. I also brought together a focus group of FJMC men to discuss the topic.
I was amazed by the responses. When asked if they perceived a change or a decline in the ways men connected with one another most of my colleagues paused. It was a question they also had never really thought about, but on consideration, they agreed that men weren’t connecting to one another as they had in the past.
The group of FJMC men also agreed and suggested that the lack of connectivity was symptomatic of a host of larger concerns: family and job pressures, the failure of synagogues to address their spiritual needs and those of their families, and unrealistic expectations that life should only be pleasurable.
I asked what needs our synagogues could address that were specific to men. One gentleman gave an example of a program that did just that. His men’s club had sponsored a forum entitled, “When a Member of Your Family Is Chronically Ill: How Do Men Respond?” More than 100 men in a synagogue of just 250 members showed up. Three physicians were to present case studies, but they never got beyond the first case! Many of the men in the room had a spouse or an afflicted family member and realized that they didn’t have anyone with whom they could share their feelings.
That was the beginning of the Hearing Men’s Voices initiative, which now includes five books of lesson plans and programmatic suggestions, along with a series of essays that shed light on what is impacting Jewish men today. At regional meetings and biennial conventions, dozens of men have been trained to lead discussions on a variety of related topics.
My grandfather would not have understood the challenges that Jewish men face today. Dual career families, single parent families, intermarried and multiracial families were not part of his world view. Neither was being a stay-athome dad, or accepting the fact that an increasing number of men were choosing not to marry or partner.
He might have understood that some men would feel guilty if they survived the loss of a spouse and wanted another long term relationship. But he certainly would not have related to the challenges of retiring or how, as men age, their sexual desire changes, and if by chance he did, he certainly wouldn’t talk about it!
Jewish Men at the Crossroads is a new collection of essays published by FJMC, designed to highlight the numerous situations and concerns that Jewish men confront on a daily basis as they strive to become better men, husbands, fathers, and family members. We are realizing that fewer Jewish men are visible in our synagogues. Jewish Men at the Crossroads asks why generations of men are increasingly ambivalent about prayer and are hesitant to become active volunteers in Jewish community life.
Jewish Men at the Crossroads places the issues on the table in hopes that it becomes part of every family and synagogue’s agenda. The role that Jewish men play in Jewish life has changed in the past century. It’s up to us to ensure that while it continues to evolve, it continues to engage the men of our community.