There have been numerous articles and discussions about the growing disappearance of Jewish men from today’s synagogue life. In order to understand what is happening to Jewish men it is necessary to study what is happening to men in North America in general. An increasing amount of available information sheds light on the changing status, role, and involvement of men in the secular and Jewish worlds. This information provides insight into the challenges facing Jewish men at various stages in their development and helps us learn how to position our organizations and institutions to better assist them to become more effective husbands, fathers, sons, and partners.
Today’s boys are suffering from poor imaging (role models), a lack of paternal involvement, and the failure of fathers to encourage their sons to be intellectually curious. Decades of research have demonstrated a strong correlation between fatherlessness and underperformance. While growing up without a dad is not a guarantee of failure, it is one more hurdle for any boy who hopes to become a success.
It remains true that men continue to serve as role models for their sons, whether they realize it or not. It is certainly the case that men who are less involved or minimally engaged in their community will raise sons who are less involved. To state this more succinctly, if fathers have been dropping their sons off every Sunday morning for religious school and then they themselves go to the gym, decades later a strong likelihood will exist that this behavior will be replicated.
One of the lessons that Jewish men need to learn is that their ability to influence their children is always present. All too often, due to a lack of awareness, it is wasted. The father of a toddler influences the child’s behavior, as does the father of a preteen or high school student. The father of an emerging adult who has left home and is in the process of becoming independent requires a different type of modeling. While a father’s influence extends to both sons and daughters, it is particularly important in light of the challenges Jewish young men are confronting for the father to understand how he can influence his sons.
If we wish to change the attitudes and commitments of boys and more effectively engage them in Jewish life, appropriate strategies need to be developed and put into play. For nearly 30 years people increasingly have been asking, “Where are the men in the volunteer world?” But strategies of engagement have not been forthcoming because the issue is much more complicated than is generally believed.
Fathers have been taught to plan for their children’s future, and if and when possible to save to be able afford tuition for camps and post-high school education. When possible, they also plan and save to provide their children with gifts should they choose to marry. If we apply what is being learned about the development of men in the secular world, it is possible to provide fathers with the knowledge of how to parent sons in a manner where they can learn to more effectively influence their children’s future Jewish choices.
Synagogue leadership’s challenge is to present this information to fathers of toddlers, preteens, teens, and young men of marriageable age in a manner that allows them to develop their own problem-solving strategies; that is, to make decisions that could work for their families.