In a place where there are no men, try to be a man
—Pirkei Avot

In this session, you will introduce teen boys to the group and will help them think critically about the multiple messages that they have received about “being a man.” You will have them reflect on the positive messages of manhood that they may have received from fathers, grandfathers, coaches, teachers, peers, popular media, and elsewhere as well as the messages about being a man that are confusing or reductive. What messages are unrealistic, simplistic, or confining? What does it mean to be a Jewish man in an America that celebrates a particular kind of masculinity?


  • To identify the idea of masculinity in American culture and to begin thinking critically about it.
  • To raise awareness of the limitations imposed on men by preconceived notions and stereotypes of manhood.
  • To help teen boys think about the messages they have received about masculinity from their family, school, and beyond.
  • To help teens explore how Jewish wisdom might expand their ideas of manhood.
  • To empower participants to view and consciously express a positive vision of manhood and of being a “mentsch” in their own authentic ways.

Physical Activities

The themes of the physical activities in this session are collaboration and competition. We suggest beginning with the collaborative circle toss game as a way to break the ice and introduce guys to the group. The second physical activity, anti-gravity basketball, is a competitive game that allows for different skill sets and requires that players coach one another.

#1 Circle Toss/Name Game

Place objects in a bag, taking them out one at a time.

Suggested objects:

  • Toy wrestler or other male “doll”
  • Men’s deodorant
  • Men’s vitamins
  • Shaving cream bottle (better to use an empty one!)

 Explain the activity:

The object of this game is to learn one another’s names through the action of tossing objects to each other. (If the guys already know one another, then you can substitute names for something else, such as an animal that they identify with.)

  • Everyone stands in a circle in which all members are standing at arms length apart from one another and no one is inside or outside the circle.
  • Take turns tossing an object from person to person.
  • Starting with one object, the first person to throw has to say the name of the person he is throwing to, and the catcher needs to say the name of the thrower.
  • The person who caught the object now becomes the thrower, and repeats the process.
  • Then you can add more tossing things and speed things up.
  1.  Once each person has gotten the object and seems to have learned everyone’s names, modify the game by challenging them to speed up the pace or add more objects so that multiple namings/throws are happening simultaneously.
  2. Now time them to see how fast they can get all the objects to go around the circle. They will likely mess up and have to start from the beginning; let them coach each other to make it work.

Once the game is complete, help the guys reflect on the experience. Ask:

  • What did you have to do to make this work?
  • Who took on a leadership role?
  • What was the experience of messing up like?
  • What was the experience of being successful like?
  • What does this game have to do with thinking about what it means to be a “man?”

 #2 Anti-Gravity Basketball

Anti-gravity basketball is played with a ball made of bubble wrap and a plastic bag. The ball is dribbled by hitting it upward. The object is to shoot the ball into a paper bag.

To prepare:

Make a “baggy ball” (use duct tape for a solid ball).

Mark the court by placing two lines of masking tape as your basket areas. Here’s a guide to making your own baggy ball.

The bags (baskets) are held by players on each team who must stand on the end lines.

We suggest that the game is played in two rounds. First play with a timer to force rushed play. Next switch the teams and play with a “first team to five points” goal.

Post-Game Wrap-Up:

  • Who won and why?
  • Was there anything that you felt was unfair?
  • Which was better, playing with a clock or without a clock?
  • Who was the “on court” coach?
  • What does this game have to do with “manliness?”

Cognitive Activities

Setting Ground Rules

You might say to the guys something like this:

“In this group we are going to talk about stuff that really matters to us as guys. And we’re probably going to argue and joke around. But before we start discussing things, we want to make sure that everyone agrees about how we will spend time together in this group. So let us put down some group rules. Does anyone have a suggestion?”

(We suggest using a large Post-it board and a magic marker and actually writing down their ideas.)

The group will probably suggest: Be respectful, no interrupting, and not talking too long.

If the guys do not make suggestions, give them some guidance by saying:

  • “Should we have something about how much people should talk?” and
  • “Should we have something about listening?”

If the group does not address confidentiality then say:

  • “What if someone says something or tells a story in this group and then someone else in the group tells people outside of the group about it. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

Once the rules are up on the Post-it board, make sure that everyone is in agreement. This could be documented by signing the sheet, initialing it, or even putting their handprints on it. (This last step requires washable paint!)

Once you have established the rules, you can launch into one or more of the following four exercises, which are all about challenging the “man box.” As a group leader, your role in all of these exercises is to challenge the judgments that the teens make and to ask them to challenge one another.

Here are some sample ways that you can provoke conversation:

  • “Who has a different take?”
  • “Who wants to challenge what he just said?”
  • “Who agrees with that? Why?”

All of the exercises can be used as a lead into the Jewish texts found in this section.


#1 Men in the Media

Here are provocative clips that will get a conversation started about what it means to be a man. Watch the clips before the session so that you feel comfortable with the images and the potential issues that they will raise.

Burger King



Audi: Bravery is What Defines Us




Dos Equis: The Most Interesting Man in the World




For a fun article about the actor in the Dos Equis commercials, see here:


Chevy: “Man Step”



Old Spice: “Swan Dive”



Axe End of the World



Fantasy Greeting Cards: Football (Spicy)


Miller Lite


Questions for this clip:

  • Why do his friends point to the body wash?
  • What are men supposed to like? Taste? Prizes?
  • What is supposed to be funny about the ending?
  • What is the male code being enforced?

UFC Kiss (Spicy)


Questions for this clip:

  • What is the fighter who kisses trying to do?
  • Why does the other fighter react in this way?
  • What is the male code being enforce?


Snickers: Accidental Kiss



Rob Schneider: “Dude”


Questions for this clip:

  • What is being said about men and how they communicate?
  • What does “dude” mean?

HP: Sauce of Manliness (UK)



McDonald’s: Manly Beef (China)



Yorkie: It’s Not for Girls (UK)



#2 The Man Box

Draw an outline of a man on a large flipchart.

Say to the guys:

We are all told that we are supposed to be real men.  What are some positive things that a real man is supposed to be?

If someone suggests a negative quality, see if you can get them to change it to a positive articulation. (i.e. if they say violent, then say aggressive, or willing to get physical.)

Write each suggestion down on a post-it note (or have one of the guys volunteer to do this) and post the notes inside the man. Ask if anyone thinks that this quality should be outside the man.

Once you have six or seven qualities, then ask for positive qualities that are not manly. Ask them to reframe in a positive way, for example if they say “crybaby” say “expresses emotion.”

Next ask them to place one of the post-its in the “center” of the man.  Why is that one in the center? Does everyone agree that it should be there? Which other ones need to be close to the center?

#3 What is more Manly?

Each image in this slideshow features two objects, side by side. Eg. loafers vs. sandals, cowboy hat vs. baseball hat, hot dog vs. sushi — all of them prompt a judgment about masculinity.

Questions to ask:

  • Why did one thing seem more manly?
  • What are the factors that went into our decision?
  • Were any of these things truly manly?

#4 What does a “Real Man” look like?

While often associated with girls, body image is a challenging issue for many boys as well.  This is an exercise to generate a conversation around body image and the relationship between body image and masculinity.

Give guys a pile of magazines – news, men’s, sports, etc. – and ask them to pick images of what the ideal man looks like.  Discuss.

  • What are the differences, commonalities among the different choices?
  • What do the images suggest about the characteristics of the “ideal man”?
  • What characteristics of the ideal man are missing?
  • What characteristics of the ideal man in these images is real?  Which aren’t?

#5 Cool Guys

Before starting a debate on “What is cool?” we suggest showing the video clip “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions” by Andy Samberg ( It is a comic take on manhood.

Follow the clip by asking:

  • What are the cool guys doing in this video (other than not looking at explosions)?

Ask for two volunteers to debate on the topic of manhood.

Each volunteer must begin his speech with:

            “I’m going to tell you why cool guys should _______.”

In the blank, give the participants one of two cues (you can prepare these on note cards before the session or simply call them out).

  • Smell bad vs. Smell good   
  • Have long hair vs. Shave their head
  • Have all their teeth vs. Have a space where a tooth was knocked out
  • Have a full beard vs. Have a clean shave
  • Be funny vs. Be serious
  • Have a gang vs. Not Need Anybody
  • Wear sneakers vs. Wear boots 

After each set of speeches you could have a judge vote, a panel of three judges vote, or everyone can vote.

Jewish Texts on Manhood

Text #1

Three things you must know to be a man:

Don’t fool yourself. Don’t fool others. Don’t let others fool you.

—and do it all without trying to impress anybody.

—Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber (Russia, 19th century)

Questions for this text:

  • What does it mean to fool yourself?
  • What are contemporary examples of “fooling others?”
  • Have you ever been fooled? How?
  • What things that a man must know are not included here?

 Text #2

“The students of Reb Zusya, hearing that their teacher was about to die, came to pay him one last visit. But entering the room, they were surprised to see him trembling with fear.

“Why are you afraid of death?” they asked. “In your life, have you not been as righteous as Moses himself?”

“When I stand before the throne of judgment,” Zusya answered, “I will not be asked, ‘Reb Zusya, why were you not like Moses?’ I will be asked, ‘Reb Zusya, why were you not like Zusya?’”

Questions for this text:

  • What does it mean to be “like Zusya?”
  • What does this text say about having role models like Moses?
  • What does this text say about trying to be like a role model?

Text #3

“When Jacob and Esau were boys, their actions were not different and no one could see a difference in nature between the twins. As soon as they turned thirteen, one went off to the house of study and one went off to drunken pagan rites.”

—Rashi commenting on Parsha Toldot

Question for this text:

  • Is there something about turning thirteen that brings about a change in a man?
  • What is Rashi saying about the different paths Jacob and Esau took?
  • According to this text from Rashi, what do you think he would say is the most important quality of a man?
  • Does this take still hold up today?

Text #4

(As this is a folktale, we recommend telling it in your own words rather than reading it.)

A King had a son. He said to his son, go away to the kingdom in the mountains for one year and learn from the elders there about how to be a man. The son obeyed his father and went to the kingdom of the mountains. But he did not pay much attention to the elders. After a year he returned home.

His father said: “Son, see that rock that has fallen onto the garden path. It has blocked my entrance into the garden. I would like you to move the rock.”

The son looked at the rock. It was huge, weighing close to a thousand pounds. Wanting to impress his father he said: “Father, it would take ten men to move that rock.”

“I want you to move the rock, son,” said the King.

“That’s impossible,” the son said.

His father said: “My son, you have not yet learned what it means to be a man. Go speak with the gardener and ask his advice.”

The son was upset. He went to the gardener’s shack and explained his dilemma. The gardener went out and looked at the rock. “It is true, this rock cannot be lifted by one man. But it can be moved by one man. Take a sledgehammer and break the rock into many small pieces. Then your father will know that you have become a man.”

Questions for this text:

  • What does it mean to be a “real man?”
  • What might the rock symbolize?
  • What might the sledgehammer symbolize?
  • How do the father and the gardener each move the boy on a journey towards manhood?

Emotive Activities

As a group leader, you will want to be prepared for this session with three stories.

  1. A story that speaks to the “box” – a time when you or a friend were told directly or indirectly that something that you were doing was not “manly.” How did it feel? Why was the box a cage? What were the consequences of stepping outside the box?
  2. A story when you or a friend questioned an expectation that was being placed on guys.
  3. A story about becoming a man. This story can be about your teen years or later on.

#1 Bar Mitzvah

Ask the group collectively:

  • What does it mean to go from being a boy to becoming a man?

(Share an appropriate experience that happened in your life that helped you feel like you were becoming a man.)

Some optional clips to trigger this conversation:

“I am a Man” by Sean Altman (Spicy)


Trailer for “Keeping Up with the Steins”


SNL Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy


Ask guys to pair up and tell stories that relate to the theme:

Did your Bar Mitzvah have something to do with “becoming a man?” If it did, how? If not, why not?

#2 Role Models

Have guys sit in pairs and pose the following question for them to discuss.

What is one way that the male role model in your life (could be a father, grandfather, stepfather, uncle, friend, etc.) is like the American concept of a “real man” that we have discussed? What is one way that he is unlike the American concept of a real man?

#3 Beyond Anger

Have the guys sit in pairs.

Explain to guys that the Man “code” includes an idea that the only emotion men are “supposed” to express is anger. Ask them to quietly think back to before their bar mitzvah and to remember a time in their lives when they were truly sad and a time when they were truly happy. Give them time to think.

Ask them to choose which memory that they want to talk about. They can talk about either one.

Ask them all which memory they chose to share…happy or sad.

Group discussion:

  • Do you think it is difficult to experience or to express a range of emotions – happy, sad, angry, anxious, fearful, excited, etc.? 
  • Why do you think there is a stereotype that men have trouble expressing emotion?  Do you think this is accurate or not? 
  • What do you think are the benefits of experiencing and expressing a range of emotions?  What could some negatives of this be?
  • Do you think that that traditional idea of a Jewish man experiences and expresses emotion differently from the traditional American man?  Why or why not?

#4 Group Dynamics for Guys

Tell the guys: “Move from one side of the room to the other based on how you see yourself on the spectrum that is defined. The two sides of the spectrum will be called out for each element and we will have an opportunity to discuss some of them.”

I’m used to being the smartest guy in the room.
I rarely feel like the smartest guy in the room.

I’ve been in a lot of all guy environments.
This is kind of new for me.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am Jewish.
There are people who know me but don’t know that I am Jewish.

I want everyone to know that I am a Jew.
I generally don’t advertise my Jewishness in public.

I have a Jewish friend in my life whom I really trust.
I don’t have a Jewish friend in my life whom I really trust.

Between age 7 and now I’ve been in a physical altercation with another male.
Between age 7 and now I have not been in a physical altercation with another male.

Most of my friends watch ESPN every day.
Most of my friends do not watch ESPN every day.

There have been times when I have hidden the fact that I am a Jew.
I have never hidden the fact that I am a Jew.

In groups I keep quiet and wait.
In groups I jump right in.

In groups I tend to argue.
In groups I avoid conflict.

In groups I tend to be the clown.
In groups I tend to be the serious one.

So far, this group is all right.
This group stinks.

Closing Ritual

The blast of the shofar is heard in the month before the High Holidays and is heard many times on Rosh Hashannah. But in ancient times, it was also used as a call for men to come to assembly and as a call to battle to protect the homeland. (You might want to mention that the group will use the shofar as a closing ritual for all the meetings.)

Have the group gather in a circle and ask everyone to call out the word for the blast—“Tekiyah!” and then blast away.