Moving Traditions’ Shevet
In the biblical Hebrew, “Here I am” is rendered poetically as Hineini, which I interpret as, “Here I stand before you—ready and waiting.” Today many of us want to say to our boys, Hineini—we are here for you, ready to love and value you, and to help you through the journey to manhood. Moving Traditions’ new educational approach helps join word to deed, theory to practice, and desire to action. It gives us a way to be present for Jewish teenage boys in a manner that respects and responds to their needs. Moving Traditions’ new, exciting work shows that Jewish teenage boys long to be connected with the meaning of our traditions and engaged by caring adults who recognize their pain, empathize with their struggles, and seek to create safe, shame-free zones for them.
So Hineini—that is what we are telling our Jewish boys, and it is what Moving Traditions says to you … we can work together to engage the teenage boys in our lives and create a new “Jewish holding environment” in which they can journey successfully into Jewish manhood and a brighter Jewish future.
—William S. Pollack, Ph.D, Author, Real Boys, Associate Clinical Professor, Harvard Medical School
Shevet, launched in the Fall of 2011, empowers teen boys to navigate competition, aggression, social pressure, and other challenges in their lives, to challenge sexism, and to explore what it means to be a Jewish man and a mensch. This growing program has now been adopted by over a hundred Jewish institutions and close to three hundred men have been trained to serve as mentors for teen boys in their communities.
What is Shevet?
Shevet developed as a result of a three-year research project and 40 pilot groups with teen boys. Seeing that boys were disconnecting from Jewish community at a time in their lives when the guidance, friendship, and sense of purpose that the community can provide were most needed, we set out to reimagine the years between bar mitzvah and high school.
We found that teen boys actually enjoy spending time in a “guy’s space.” and that this type of space can both give them a strong sense of connection to the Jewish community and provide them with the support and guidance that they need to navigate teen life. With the support of local Jewish Federations, the Covenant Foundation, the Lasko Foundation, the Rose Foundation, and many individual donors, we are able to train mentors and provide them with a curriculum that helps connect Jewish wisdom to the typical male experiences of competition, aggression, power, academic stress, pursuit of extremes, and pleasure. In partnership with local Jewish institutions, we have created a new model of experiential Jewish education specifically for guys that balances physical play and engaging debate that guys really enjoy.
Initial findings regarding the impact of the program are strong. In an anonymous online survey conducted after the 2017-18 academic year:
- 86% of teen boys reported that they “got to know myself better”
- 81% of teen boys reported that they “learned that Judaism can help me in my personal life.”
- 92% of teen boys reported that they “became more aware of gender stereotypes and inequality in society.”
- 69% of teen boys reported that they “learned skills to help me tackle problems/challenges when things get hard or stressful.”
- 81% of teen boys reported that they “learned to think critically about what society tells us to be a ‘real’ man.”
- 56% of teen boys reported that they have “taken action to confront sexism” or “plan to take action to confront sexism”
- 87% of teen boys reported that they “strengthened their connection to the Jewish community.”
A Deeper Dive into Shevet
by Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Vice President of Education, Moving Traditions
How Jewish Boys Become Jewish Men
Close to eighty percent of Jewish boys in America experience a communal ritual in which they wear a suit, endure the stares of relatives and friends, sing in a language they barely understand, race through a written speech, and become “men.” The ritual also involves learning how to line dance to the latest hip-hop songs and to say thanks to relatives after counting checks. Every week, about a thousand newly minted men are lifted on chairs in synagogue social halls, hotel ballrooms and country clubs overlooking golf courses while photographers break into hora circles for a good angle. It is generally a lot of fun.
For a majority of these teen boys outside of traditional Orthodox circles, it is the last time they will be seriously involved in Jewish life. Research conducted in 2000 (by Max Kadushin, Shaul Kelner, and Leonard Saxe in their work Being a Jewish Teenager in America) found that 47% of teen boys see their bar mitzvah as graduation from Jewish education (as opposed to 34% of girls who have bat mitzvah) and that a majority of teen boys will have little connection to the Jewish community in the years that follow, which are often the most challenging, confusing and dangerous years in their development as men.
What does it mean to be a “man” today? Why do so many of our newly dubbed “men” drop out of Jewish life in eighth grade? And, more importantly, if we were actually able to reach these teens, what kind of Jewish men would we want them to aspire to become?
We ask these questions with an awareness that today’s teen boys are under multiple pressures and are given multiple messages about what it means to be a man. Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perlilous World Where Boys Become Men paints a detailed picture of the conflicting social messages received by teen boys. One underlying theme communicated by coaches, sports commentators and popular films is that real men are destructive, confrontational, and heartless. Boys are called “fags” if they violate any unwritten codes about being men. They are told that girls are smarter and that girls have better social skills, and that boys should be more “sensitive” when they speak in class. Boys are pressured by friends to brag about their sexual exploits and exposed to pornography that valorizes male dominance. They are pressured by parents to succeed in school and to find a pursuit other than violent video games to occupy their time. Many boys fear sharing any emotion other than anger. Even when they have friends, they experience social isolation and a sense that something is missing from their lives.
But there can also be some incredibly positive forces that are at work in the lives of teen boys:
- Some teen boys have mentors who can help guide them through the stresses of school, family life and friends.
- Some teen boys have close friends who they can talk to about what they are feeling and experiencing, which may be relationships that may be the foundation for lifelong bonds.
- Some teens have an environment where they can challenge unrealistic cultural expectations of what a man should be and form their own vision of manhood.
- Some teen boys have a sense of responsibility beyond themselves—for others and the world—that guides them through their teen years and beyond.
All these positive forces are elements that the Jewish community could provide for our teen boys. The bar mitzvah ceremony could be re-imagined as an entrance into a community of young men who are, together, thinking about what it really means to be a man and a mentsch —a person who acts with integrity, compassion and wisdom – in our world.
So, what would it look like if we completely re-designed what it means to become a man in the Jewish community?
Jewish Men in America: A Brief History
A hundred years ago in America most Jewish men lived in crowded apartments, worked twelve hour shifts in the garment trades, felt homesick for the places they left behind, struggled to erase accents from their broken English, and dreamt of being seen not as Jews but as Americans. Their sons, faced with discrimination from private colleges, law schools and medical schools, flocked to public universities, formed Jewish law firms, Jewish hospitals, businesses, and hundreds of other institutions.
These Jewish men naturally felt an affinity to and cared for the Jewish people as a whole. They built up Jewish agencies that helped the hundreds of thousands of immigrant Jews who came penniless to the United States. These men helped contribute en masse to the building of the State of Israel and built synagogues, as well as Jewish summer camps and community centers; they served on boards of synagogues and ensured that their sons—and later their daughters— received a Jewish education. (These daughters, in fact, became the most educated women in history.) Women’s organizations thrived as well, but men gained their respect as men from other men through participation and communal membership.
The Decline of the Jewish Man in American Judaism
Over the last thirty years, the prominent role of men in nearly all aspects of Jewish life outside of traditional Orthodox circles has gradually diminished. While leaders of most major organizations and synagogues remain men (a glass ceiling that still needs to be shattered), the vast majority of participants are women. Moving Traditions’ research has shown that this drop-off begins for young men at age fourteen and continues throughout young adulthood. Recent studies by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University (notably by professors Len Saxe and Sylvia Fishman) have found that young men are underrepresented in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips, social action initiatives, Hillels, and ultimately under the chupah. Sylvia Fishman cleverly coined the term “patrilineal descent” to describe how men have slipped away from Jewish volunteer and philanthropic circles and Jewish communal life in general. Those of us who have taken on leadership roles in the Jewish community might ask: How are we failing so many young men?
While participation rates for young women have also declined in liberal Judaism, they have not declined as much as those for young men. The contributing factors that led to this growing gender imbalance in Jewish life are numerous. In the last three decades, barriers of prejudice breaking down in politics and in once closed philanthropic circles led men to pursue opportunities outside of the Jewish world. As America embraced a multicultural ethos, many Jewish men left behind their ethnic affiliations. They preferred an emerging secular globalism to what seemed like an outdated, provincial and religious worldview.
Another factor needs to be mentioned: The changing roles of women in American society at large and the Jewish community in particular had a profound impact on men. While it is critical that we do not project a “cause and effect” approach that blames men’s lack of involvement on women’s empowerment, the growing leadership of women in liberal Judaism is part of the equation. Men under age thirty have grown up with almost exclusively female religious teachers and in some cases both female rabbis and cantors. Young men in many congregations rarely see men who are devoted to Jewish learning and even fewer who care about Jewish liturgy and prayer. The impact of this lack of male mentors on teen boys has yet to be studied, but if it is like any other activity that becomes weighted to one gender, concerns for the continued participation of the other gender—here young men—are warranted.
Is Reclamation Possible?
At the same time that these mixed signals about men have emerged in liberal Judaism, Chabad rabbis fanned out to nearly every American zip code and offered a clear role for Jewish men. Reaching out to all Jewish men to put on tefillin has affirmed the unique value of Jewish men offered by traditional Orthodoxy. The messages stand in contrast to one another: Liberal Judaism says “come and be equal in our welcoming congregation” and Orthodoxy says “we need you specifically because you are a man.” While we have no statistical evidence yet regarding the power of this draw to Chabad or other outreach movements, we imagine that it is double-edged. Some men see these efforts as unwanted proselytizing and others feel that they are needed as men by the Jewish community and welcome the opportunity to try Orthodoxy. While most men who participate in activities with Orthodox outreach rabbis do not hold the same theological or messianic views as these rabbis, they do feel comfortable learning with them and feel as if their contribution is valued.
Given that men often feel comfortable when other men are involved in social activities and that many crave to be accepted by a community of men, how can those of us outside of the Orthodox outreach world think differently about engaging teen boys?
The Moving Traditions Approach
Rosh Hodesh- the Moving Traditions’ program for girls – has grown from dozens of groups to hundreds, training over 1,000 mentors and touching the lives of over 10,000 girls throughout North America. During the initial stages, the founders looked at Rachel Adler’s book Engendering Judaism (1999), which illuminated the ways in which traditional Jewish literature and theology might be a springboard for a new, egalitarian ethic. Adler’s particular take on feminism was critical of those who attacked Judaism as being essentially misogynistic or homophobic. She argued that while patriarchy was, indeed, embedded in Jewish tradition, we could also find stories that explored the complexities of gender dynamics and critiqued the power imbalances of patriarchy. Adler argued that these stories, properly understood, would help the Jewish community and the wider world to develop a new, liberated and more egalitarian understanding of gender.
At the time when Adler’s work was being discussed in Jewish circles, there was also a growing awareness that many tween and teen girls were having a difficult time navigating gender expectations in what was a supposedly post-feminism era. Reviving Ophelia, a 1995 work by psychologist Mary Pipher, helped draw attention to the ways in which girls were self-destructing (including eating disorders, cutting, and drug abuse) in the face of multiple social pressures.
Rosh Hodesh drew on Adler’s approach to Jewish tradition and addressed the concerns that Pipher and others were discovering regarding tween and teen girls. Girls were taught by mentors to think critically about the gender expectations placed on them, to explore the multiple ways that the Jewish tradition could expand the conversation about what it means to be a woman, and to begin to support one another in affirming what it meant to be Jewish women and to live in a Jewish community. The program has now helped over thousands of girls to look at themselves differently and to see the Jewish community as a place that nurtures their growth as Jewish women.
Today one might argue that lives of teen girls are even more complicated. The discourse of chat room ranting and cyber-bullying has made the need for a healthier gender ethic even more pressing. And now, over ninety percent of teenagers, girls and boys, have Internet pornography as a mode of sex education. While girls continue to need a place that responds to their “coming of age” from the bat mitzvah year and beyond, we also need to think about what boys need and how the Jewish community can better meet those needs.
The Problem With Today’s Young Men
Listen to talk radio on any given morning and you’ll hear that there is still a gender war being fought. One of the key catch phrases of that war is “the problem with” followed by women or men. It has turned into a competition to show who is more oppressed or shut down or disadvantaged. We see this clearly with the debates over #metoo, but we also encounter this phenomenon in civil discourse when we ask: Why are boys failing out of high school, teen girls getting pregnant, boys committing crimes, and girls abusing prescription drugs? These arguments blame feminists or the Christian Right or teachers or parents and they solidify a sense of a particular gender losing in the face of gains by the other gender.
Our contention is that it is possible to address the real problems of teens without turning all culture discussions about gender into a competition. We live in a world that offers unrealistic gender norms for both women and men, narrows the possibilities for both women and men, and feeds off of the rivalries between women and men. That said, it is important to look at the gender expectations that are bearing down specifically on today’s teen boys and to understand what they are.
The Trouble With Boys
Media criticism on the blogs Good Men and Manvertised point to the ways in which the dominant culture still purveys the image of man popularized in the average beer commercial. “Dudes” are supposed to be confident, emotionally distant and able to get any girl to do whatever they want with her. They should also be able to kick anyone’s butt, as well as own multiple cars and guns, and worship sports above all. And men should be surrounded by blondes in string bikinis or a particularly attractive woman who is ready to please. That’s what is considered cool and “dominant.”
The fantasy lives of teen boys are occupied by these images of men. Younger teen boys spend hours each week playing games in which their avatars are buffed up muscle men with large firearms and deep voices. Sports figures such as Ben Roethlisberger project an image of toughness and are notorious for their date rapes. Teen boys also watch a great deal of pornography in which powerful men have their way with women.
Some have argued that teen boys have always had to deal with such codes of cool and that today’s teens are facing a similar dynamic to those of teens in prior eras. There are, however, a number of social critics who are focusing our attention on the unique factors facing today’s teen boys.
Peg Tyre’s work The Trouble with Boys documents the current academic struggles of teen boys. Boys no longer see themselves as smart and the dropout rates for teen boys are escalating as the grade point averages decline. Today young women make up over 60% of college students and an even higher number of college graduates. An additional perspective on the trouble with boys is found in the work of William Pollack (Real Boys) and Michael Kimmel (Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men). Both speak about a “man box” of gender norms and the unrealistic expectations that are placed on boys. They point out the ways in which media has been saturated with visions of hyper-masculinity, often as an overt backlash to feminism. Both Pollack and Kimmel write about how damaging these codes of machismo and stoicism can be to boys and men.
A spiritually centered perspective on teen boys comes from New York University Professor Niobe Way. In her new book Deep Secrets—Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, she speaks of the gradual deterioration of boys’ friendships with other boys. Her research shows that as teen boys progress from middle to high school, they lose the intimacy they once had with best friends. This move away from close friends eventually leads to social isolation and destructive behaviors that come from a place of disconnection.
These perspectives point to an over-arching reality of our times: Teen boys are not sure what it means to be a man and if they will ever be successful men. They get mixed messages about what is “manly” and they are balancing visions of being a man that are connected to parents, other family members, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and celebrities—all in an attempt to grasp a sense of manhood that is congruent with who they are internally and who they want to be. At the root of these questions about being a man and who to emulate are often more existential questions about what a man is and what a man should be and, ultimately, what it means to be human.
The Campaign for Jewish Boys
Moving Traditions began working intensely on the issue of teen boys in 2007. We not only wanted to understand what educators and youth workers were doing to motivate teen boys, but we wanted to hear from teen boys themselves and to learn what concerned them, why they were unsatisfied with Jewish offerings, and what they wanted spiritually and intellectually from the Jewish community.
Dr. Max Klau, director of leadership development for City Year, was commissioned to do a literature review (Promoting the Religious Development of Jewish Boys: A Literature Review and Environmental Scan) and a survey of current efforts to engage boys in and beyond the Jewish community (On Working with Boys: Intriguing Practices from Program Directors in the Field). These studies were followed by extensive action research conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Dr. Michael Reichart, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and Dr. Sharon Ravitch of the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania (Wishing for more: Jewish Boyhood, Identity and Community and Offering Boys Lives of Possibility: An Evidence-based Framework for the Jewish Community.) The studies were summarized in the 2010 publication Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action.
The research found that teen boys in the Jewish community enjoy being in all-boy environments and that Jewish environments gave them a healthy alternative to the social pressures of middle and high school. Moreover, the research suggested that teen boys are searching for meaning, asking profound questions about their role in the world, and thirsting for an intellectually stimulating environment that is independent of the academic grading system.
In piloting a program for male mentors and teen boys during the last two years, we found that teen boys expressed initial reluctance to the idea of being in a guys’ group. However, after their first meeting, boys reported extremely positive feelings about being with each other, being in a “male” space, being with a male mentor, and being able to engage in a Jewish environment that valued them as men and as thinking people.
The elements of the group that were most powerful came as a result of the interplay between activity-oriented games and informal conversation. The teen boys valued the ability to “destress” in a Jewish space and to talk openly about the pressures and responsibilities that come with being a Jewish man. They found Jewish wisdom regarding personal character to be applicable to their own struggles as young men, sensing that there is wisdom to be found in the Jewish intellectual, spiritual and ethical tradition. They also felt an emerging sense of community, one they wanted to continue beyond the official meetings of the group.
Borrowing from an Old Model
Men gathering to share stories, study Jewish texts, play, sing, and eat is not a new development. Two centuries ago, in the Chasidic world, there were two prominent informal male gatherings outside of synagogue. The one most widely known is the tisch, which were large gatherings of men focused on the teachings of the Chasidic rebbe. After Friday night dinner or the third meal on Shabbat, chasidim would gather at the table of the rebbe to sing and listen to the teachings of their master. The less widely known gathering of men is called the “shevas achim,” which was held without the rebbe’s presence; these were often smaller gatherings with other teachers in the Jewish community.
The model of shevet achim—small gatherings where a teacher builds ongoing community with a group of men – is the one that we are evoking with our Shevet program for teen boys.
We have seen that teen boys who are invited by Jewish men to be part of a small gathering of guys, to discuss the emotional, spiritual and ethical challenges of being men, have a greater sense of not only their place as Jewish men, but their responsibilities towards women and men in an egalitarian world.
Can These Conversations Help Redefine What It Means to Become a Man?
Is it possible that Jewish men can return to being a contributing force socially, economically, spiritually, and intellectually to American Jewish life? Will young men once again feel as if they have a place in the Jewish community and a responsibility to carry forward? More importantly, can they do so without disempowering the millions of American Jewish women who have just begun taking on significant leadership roles? Can men share power? Can they be better men?
Our premise is that a Jewish community where both men and women contribute, participate and lead is possible and in fact necessary for the flourishing of the Jewish people. For this to happen, we will need to take a deep look at what Jewish texts and traditions might offer men and answer the question: “How should a Jewish man differ from other types of men?” It will require thinking about a number of issues that men deal with in the wider society (competition, wealth, stress, romance, family, and civic responsibility) and thinking through Jewish responses to these issues that may offer more possibilities than the current gender expectations.
We believe that the steps that a few committed men are taking today – namely committing their time to mentoring teen boys—will illuminate a path towards a new type of men’s participation in the Jewish world. But to do so will require a deep dive into the ways that we define masculinity and men’s role in the world.
The Original Man
What are men? Who are men at their root? Are they wild? Are they barbarians? Savages? Cave men? Nonviolent plant-eaters? Thieves? Schemers? Or are they something else?
As Jews, we don’t often think of our stories about the first man as being ancient or mythic in the same way that we might read of first men like Enkidu in the Gilgamesh epic, Pangu in Chinese folktale, or Manu in Hindu tradition. But the story of Adam, the first earthling, is very much an ancient origin of man story that is concerned with his role in the world and man’s roles in general. (Like in many ancient Jewish texts there are times when the story is about man specifically and about humans generally. We’ll look at this man/human dynamic in other Jewish narratives later in this guide.)
In order for teen boys to have a deep understanding of what it means to be a Jewish man, it helps to re-visit the Torah’s Gan Eden story. What does it mean that Adam is, according to midrash, first created as an androgynous being with both genders? What does it mean that Adam, according to another midrash, invents language? What does it mean that Adam is alone? Why does he listen to Eve? What happens when he opens his eyes?
We re-visit the Gan Eden story with these questions in the context of a society that teeters between two dominant narratives about the origin of man: one Christian and one Darwinian.
Jewish teens growing up assimilated in America’s “ambient Christianity” have heard the story of Adam presented as a dark view of man’s inner nature. In the “fall of man” narrative, we learn of an original sin that can only be cleansed through the blood of sacrifice (the crucifixion). In this commonly held reading, man’s nature is to disobey and men are seen as savages at heart. Men are only able to redeem themselves because of a divine intervention that brought the world a perfect man (a god-man/Christ). This narrative also explains the historic role that American men played in bringing “savage” men (natives or slaves) closer to the redemptive power of Christ.
Teenagers are also exposed to a truncated narrative about evolution that often focuses on the “survival of the fittest” as the most important lesson from Darwin. In the classroom, they absorb a theory of evolution that focuses on man’s brain and the development of tools and how those tools lead to man’s domination of other men, women and the natural world. They learn about opposable thumbs, but rarely if ever do they learn about the development of altruism, morality and other traits that we now understand are inherent structures in the human mind developed via natural selection. The narrative that they come away with offers them very little to answer questions about what it means to be human or what it means to be a man.
What Does Judaism Have to Say About Being a Man?
According to midrash, two ministering angels were opposed to man’s creation. The angel of “truth” and the angel of “peace” complained to God about what they were certain would be a disastrous creature who would only promote lies and war. Luckily, the angel of “righteousness” and the angel of “kindness” voted in favor and God decided to go ahead with the plan to create man.
This theme, that man’s inner nature from the very beginning contained seeds of both benevolence and deviance, is a dominant one in Jewish wisdom. In the Torah, these competing impulses are personified in the first men to be born—Cain and Abel—and later in the story of twin boys—Esau and Jacob. The story of these twins, one a hairy hunter who aims to please his father and the other a smooth skinned tent dweller who aims to please his mother, allows for a rich discussion of the male psyche. But what does it mean to think of men as having competing internal impulses? Is this like the little angel and little devil that perch on Homer Simpson’s shoulders?
The Jewish tradition’s take on these dueling impulses is a little more complex. In the Talmud, the impulses in man are spoken of as “yetzer ha tov” and “yetzer ha-rah.” These impulses are often mistranslated as “good inclination” and “evil inclination” but are better understood to mean “inclination towards others” and “inclination towards the self.” We are taught, perhaps surprisingly, to value both. As the Midrash states: “If it were not for the inclination towards the self “man would never marry, have children, build a house, or engage in a trade.” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). All of these supposedly selfish actions are valued, but the danger of the “inclination towards the self” is described in a parable: “You might invite in a guest to your home who eventually eats all your food and becomes master of the house.” (Talmud, Sukot 52b)
In the medieval era, Maimonidies wrote elegantly about how this struggle between impulses plays out in the lives of men. What is the righteous path, according to Maimonidies? “One should not be easily angered, nor should one be like a dead person who does not feel, but one should be in the middle.’ (Hilchot De’ot 1:4)
Maimonidies felt this way about all emotions—one should not be consumed by pleasure or avoid pleasure, one should not be full of pride or be overly humble—he felt that each man should look into himself and balance his emotions.
Jewish mysticism took the idea of internal struggle and the “way of the wise” even further. Positing a theology which described God as a complex network of attributes, mystics created a mirror in which they could describe the multiple pulls on a man’s soul. The meta-level approach that they taught delved into human consciousness as they wrote: “The power of thinking has two servants: the power of memory and the power of imagination.” (Zohar iv, 247b)
Men could use their power of thought to control their desires, the mystics taught, and to elevate all base desires into holy acts. All of these sources—and many, many more—describe nuanced Jewish responses to the question “What is man’s essence?”
There are, of course, some Jewish texts that offer praiseworthy visions of Jewish men made at the expense of women or non-Jews. But there are many texts and parables and commentaries that offer more positive models for us to reclaim. Our work in returning to these stories is to re-connect to ancient Jewish questions, expanding the definitions of what it means to be a man and to be human.
Bringing Jewish Teen Boys Together
In the Gan Eden story, God has two comments about man. The first is that man is very good (tov meod). The second is that it is not good for man to be alone (lo tov heyot adam levado). These are the central assumptions of our work in creating community for teen boys: Men are good and it is not good for men to be alone.
These ideas may seem elementary, but they are worth repeating. All too many times, teen boys hear critiques of patriarchy or male power and experience these as male-bashing. The flip-side of misogyny misandry—is prevalent in popular culture (watch one episode of Sex and the City or Entourage) and is accepted in many high school classrooms (eavesdrop on a conversation about Lord of The Flies). Men rarely hear the message that men are compassionate, resilient, emotionally expressive, sensitive, and intelligent. Nor do men hear that they possess innate instincts to care for others and to place others before themselves.
We want to be true to God’s original assessment: Men are essentially good. But when men are truly alone, that is emotionally isolated from friends and family, goodness is often supplanted by more destructive forces. Thomas Scheff, professor emeritus of sociology at University of California Santa Barbara, wrote of the “shame/anger spiral” of men who feel intense social isolation. Scheff chronicled how in extreme cases, this isolation leads men to commit physical and sexual abuse and to enact their homicidal fantasies.
Most teen boys do not feel extreme isolation. They do, however, feel loneliness, anger and shame that lead them to minor acts of aggression, such as destroying property, bullying, and speeding (This is well chronicled in Michael Currie’s Doing Anger Differently).
So how do we help teen boys to understand the isolation that many men wrestle with? How do we help them to deal with their own sense of isolation? How do we help teen boys to react to peers who are experiencing this isolation?
First, we can help teens to develop a sense of self-awareness that makes them conscious of the competing impulses and sense of balance that Maimonidies speaks of. Teens are bombarded with confusing messages about what it means to be a man, and it is helpful for them to think about the modern “dispositions” of men and the potential dangers that are attached to them. Men who pursue danger often end up confined to a hospital bed while men who are risk averse limit their social experiences. Men who are always obedient erase themselves while men who are always defiant cannot maintain a relationship. Men who always pretend to be happy ignore those who suffer while men who always complain interfere with the ability of others to enjoy life. These extremes are not unique to men, but men do have a tendency to go to extremes and to tell stories about extremes to justify their behavior. When teens have an opportunity to unpack the complicated messages they receive and to absorb some of the alternative messages about what it means to be a mentsch from Jewish sources, they can then develop a sense of selfhood and manhood that can better navigate the extremes.
But even more important than the sense of selfhood that we can help foster in teen boys is a sense of what it means to develop authentic friendship in the context of Jewish community. If it is not good for man to be alone, then friendship matters. Not popularity, but friendship. If a guy has someone who he can talk to about the pressures he is facing, he will generally be able to cope without destroying himself or someone else.
In Niobe Way’s research, she found that for the majority of boys, the male friends that they develop in early teen years are the key to their health and well-being as young adults. While a small number of boys develop friendships with girls, and some boys do not develop friendships at all, the boys who are able to develop close friendships with one another and to maintain these friendships over time are the ones who avoid the pitfalls of academic failure, violence, drug abuse, and imprisonment. Intimate friendships, Way found, produce enormous positive effects for teen boys, increasing their sense of connection to community and their hope for the future.
Shevet is clearly having a positive impact on the lives of over 1,000 Jewish teen boys who are participating in our current groups. And we are just now beginning to see and hear about long-term impacts as the program’s first participants are drawing from their Shevet experience to face the pressures of college and beyond.