Shevet Session Summaries

Manhood

The opening session of Shevet engages teen boys in critical discussion around the concept of masculinity. Boys watch videos, play active games, and explore multiple messages that they have received about “being a man”—both the positive messages about manhood that they may have received from people, peers, popular media, and elsewhere as well as the messages about being a man that are confusing or reductive. They will ask: 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? What does it mean to be a mensch, and how does being a mensch relate to manhood?

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Establish guidelines for the group as a place where boys can be themselves
  • Identify core models of masculinity in American culture and to begin thinking critically about them, and the messages boys have received about them
  • Raise awareness of the limitations imposed on men by preconceived notions and stereotypes of manhood, and the messages boys have received about them
  • Help teens explore how Jewish wisdom might expand their ideas of manhood
  • Empower participants to view and consciously express a positive vision of manhood, and of being a mentsch in their own authentic ways

Wisdom

In other cultures, the transition from boy to man might consist of hunting an animal, making a solo canoe trek, or going to war; in Judaism, it consists of reading and sharing Torah. As Jews, we place a high value not only on literacy, but also on education and intelligence in general. For some, this value continues to be a motivator, but for others, the value of learning may seem limiting. In this session, boys take a look at different types of intelligence, guided by the theory of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence developed by Howard Gardner, a psychologist at the Harvard School of Education. As part of this exploration, boys will practice active listening and empathy skills.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Think critically about what it means to be “smart” and to expand their ideas about different types of intelligence
  • Have an opportunity to reflect on the different messages they are receiving about achievement as boys, the media, parents, peers, teachers, and Jewish tradition
  • Understand and consider the value of emotional intelligence

Friendship

According to Niobe Way’s research, friendships between boys tend to be strongest during early and midteen years, but then they decline. Many men tend to have very few strong friendships, leaving them isolated as they get older. In this session, boys identify characteristics of healthy and supportive friendships and explore the Jewish values related to friendship. They leave with the understand of what role friends play in their lives and why maintaining close friendships is so key to health and well-being.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the messages within Judaism and popular culture about male friendship
  • Describe characteristics of healthy and supportive friendship
  • Describe the role of a friend and why it is important to have friends

Competition

Most teen boys engage in multiple forms of competition. Not only the obvious competitions: sports, popularity, academic challenges, and gaming, but the more obscure—they compete to see who can gross each other out in the cafeteria and who can do the most daring physical stunt. Some teen boys withdraw from social settings to avoid this type of competition. Many other boys like it. To explore this dynamic, we ask in this session: What messages do boys receive about competition? What are the benefits and drawbacks of competition? And how does competition relate to Jewish values?

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Think critically about social and cultural messages they receive about competition
  • Have an opportunity to reflect on the drawbacks and benefits of the various competitions (academic, athletic, artistic, etc.) that boys are pursuing, or might pursue in the future
  • Explore the interplay of Jewish values regarding pride, humility, and fairness

Money

Many teen boys fantasize about what it would be like to be a millionaire or billionaire. Jewish tradition values wealth as a positive. On the other hand, the Torah advocates for economic justice, and offers many ways of measuring wealth besides financial success. In this session, we examine cultural messages about boys and money, and societal expectations on men to be the breadwinners in their families. We ask teens to think on a personal level: “How am I using my money? How much money is enough? Is there a relationship between money and happiness?”

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify Jewish values around money, particularly around fairness, knowing how much is enough, and the imperative to give
  • Discuss social, cultural, and gendered messages regarding money
  • Critically reflect on how they use money, when they ask for it, and when they give it to others

Sexism

Boys witness overt sexism in the media, from words and behaviors of powerful men, to gender wage gap in sports, to the ways women are portrayed in comics and video games. Sexism may show up in daily ways at school, like hearing that someone throws “like a girl,” reading predominantly male authors in English class, or seeing movies whose heroes are men. In this session, we will explore questions such as, “What is sexism?”, “When are men being ‘sexist’?” and “How can we respond to sexism?” This session will challenge boys to think critically about gender and the media and help boys to think about the ways that both sexism and its critiques can be found within Jewish tradition.

Objectives

Food

In our Jewish lives, we are surrounded by food. From seders to simchas, Shabbat challah to the latke/hamentaschen debate, food permeates our holidays and celebrations. Even Jews who identify solely as “cultural” Jews have their culinary touchstones—bagels, pastrami, hummus or halva. Then there is our American cultural landscape—millions of Americans struggle with diseases related to obesity, yet our airwaves are saturated with advertisements to indulge in everything from Doritos to Baconators, Coke, and stuffed pizza. For our boys, eating is an important part of their personal and social identity. In this session, boys explore what influences the choices they make about what, and how, they eat—as boys, and as Jews.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Work toward cultivating awareness about the choices we make about how and what we eat, and with whom
  • Explore the various values that American and Jewish life place on food and eating
  • Explore how food and eating connects to Jewish cultural identity and religious values
  • Encounter different ideas about food and masculinity, and different perceptions about what makes certain foods more “manly” than others

Courage

Jewish tradition and text are full of courageous men: Abraham leaves behind a world of idols, taking a stand against the dominant religion of his homeland and family. Nachshon ben Aminadav walks into the Sea of Reeds until the waters almost cover him and God splits the sea. Today, too, we have stories of Jews taking stands of bravery and resilience in the face of danger and fear: Jews made up at least 30 percent of the white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South during the Civil Rights movement, risking injury and death. In 2017, 19 rabbis were arrested in New York at a sit-in protesting antiimmigrant policy. The traditional Jewish notion of courage, Ometz Lev, focuses on internal strength of conviction and the capacity to stick to ethical ideals. Courage takes many forms, big and small: climbing a mountain, being the first person to say, “I love you,” or “I’m sorry.” In this session, boys will reflect on the messages they have received about when and how to be brave. They will also think about how they can challenge themselves to demonstrate courage in the face of fear.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Explore the messages boys get from culture, peers, friends, and family about how men should demonstrate courage
  • Discuss strategies for deepening one’s capacity to be resilient in the face of fear
  • Consider multiple Jewish models of courage

Vision

In the last session of the year, boys will celebrate the year’s end, reflect on what they’ve learned and done in Shevet over the past months, and express appreciation and gratitude to one another. They will revisit the Jewish idea of being a mensch and think about what it means to “have a good name.” Does it require having many friends or being loyal to a best friend? Does having a “good name” mean being humble all the time, or is there a place for pride? Does it require fulfilling obligations to parents or might it require breaking from the expectations of parents? What does it mean to have a “name”—something that is unique to you, that sets you apart? In this session, the guys will think about what kind of name they are making for themselves in both their social circles and in their imagined futures.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Reflect on behaviors and beliefs they want to take with them based on this year’s discussions, using Jewish ideas to guide them in this process
  • Discuss ways that social and cultural messages undermine or support their dreams for themselves
  • Express appreciation for the journey they’ve undertaken together over the past year, and say “goodbye” to the group as they adjourn for the summer

Jewish Identity

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a central Jewish theologian and thinker of the 20th century, wrote that there are many ways to be Jewish. Jewish identity, he said, is about belonging, behaving, and believing (later, people have added becoming). Examples of Jewish “belonging” might include having Jewish friends, or going to synagogue. Jewish “behaving” might include keeping kosher or engaging in Jewish prayer or rituals. And Jewish “believing” could mean having feelings and ideas about God. In this session, boys consider the questions “How am I Jewish” and “What makes me Jewish?”

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • (Re)-establish guidelines for the group as a place where boys can be themselves
  • Experiment with a Jewish personal practice (e.g., ritual, study, prayer)
  • Use Jewish text study as source of wisdom and support
  • Respond to the questions “How am I Jewish?” and “What makes me Jewish?”

Balance

Maimonides believed that internal balance was essential for living a healthy and fulfilling life. That is, a person must take care of their mental needs as much as their physical needs. In our culture, men receive countless messages that lead them off-balance (e.g., “go big or go home”—do whatever it takes to get ahead in your career) and there is a stigma against men seeking help. However, particularly in the work of Maimonides and in the work of the Musar and Chasidic movements in the 17th and 18th centuries, self-help was placed at the center of the spiritual path. The question: “Who am I and what do I need to do to grow closer to the man I should be?” was central. This session helps guys to do a self-assessment to think about how balanced a life they currently lead and how to create balanced, healthy habits in their lives.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify with the concept of “balance” as a Jewish value
  • Demonstrate strategies to manage stress at home, with friends, and at school
  • Describe how self-management can positively contribute to their overall well-being and mental health

Language

From the first chapter of Genesis (“God said, ‘Let there be light!’”) to the nine little Aramaic words that create a newly married couple, Jewish tradition is full of examples of the power of words to create and change reality, form connections, or create distance, and to harm or to heal. In contemporary American culture, from the locker room to the school hallway, from the halls of Congress to Twitter, teen boys see and feel the tension between the need for self-expression and freedom of speech and the desire to create inclusive communities by using respectful language. They also see complicated role social media plays in their private lives, and in public life. How do we recognize and respond to the power of our words? This session will allow teen boys to explore the limits—and impact—of the words they choose to embrace, or refrain from using.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Explore and consider the evolving use of particular words in American culture
  • Reflect on the impact their words have on others
  • Learn the value Jewish tradition places on the spoken word

Body

The media is saturated with messages about male beauty standards (e.g., have a six pack, be tall, have big biceps, etc.), many of which are at odds with the Jewish men who appear in pop culture (think Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill, who are slightly pale and pudgy and act ashamed of their looks). In this session, boys will discuss Jewish male body image and male body image in general. They will critique the cult of male beauty and learn about health and strength and why they matter. Boys will draw from Jewish wisdom about responsibility to one’s body to respond to the questions: What parts of the body should be private? What should I feel proud of? How should I take care of myself? In what ways should I accept myself and in what ways should I undergo efforts to improve my strength, flexibility, or looks?

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the messages teenage boys get about their bodies from teachers, friends, family, and society at large
  • Reflect on the choices boys make about how to treat their bodies and how these choices reflect and shape their views of their bodies
  • Discuss how Jewish tradition understands our responsibility for our own bodies

Pleasure

Jewish tradition encourages pleasure within the boundaries of law. This attitude applies to many things that are seen as pleasurable—sex, alcohol, food, dancing, wearing luxurious clothing, jewelry, and even giving lavish gifts. Jews are encouraged to enjoy, but in moderation. Teen boys, on the other hand, live in a culture that shuns moderation; for instance, media communicates that it is manly to eat very large meals, and boys have access to unlimited pornography on the internet at a time when their bodies send them signals that they have never felt before. Boys also often feel uncomfortable or ashamed by some aspects of their pursuit of pleasure. Our session on pleasure takes a gradual approach. It begins with an eating-based activity that explores taste, diverse preferences, and the difference between what we imagine might be pleasurable and what is actually pleasurable. In the cognitive section, boys explore ideas around intimacy, the notion of consent, attraction, and objectification.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Reflect on what is pleasurable to them, the limits of that pleasure, and the diversity of ways people find pleasure
  • Explore what messages boys get from family, friends, and society about their relationship with pleasure and what should be pleasurable
  • Discuss what Judaism has to say about finding a balance between pursuing pleasure and exercising self-control within morally and socially acceptable boundaries

Consent

As anyone who has fumbled through a sexual encounter knows, real-life sex can be far more complicated than a poster declaring, “Consent is sexy.” Many remain confused about what constitutes sexual consent and talking about it in the moment can feel awkward. In the time of #MeToo, the debate about how to handle sexual consent has become louder than ever. Many sexual encounters seem to take place in a so-called gray zone of miscommunication, denial, rationalization, and, sometimes, regret. In this session, we explore what messages boys get about consent, explore ways to think about it, and get boys to reflect on how they can make thoughtful decisions when they are seeking physical intimacy with another person.

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Discuss sexual consent and the gendered messages that boys receive about consent
  • Explore Jewish ethics and personal behavior surrounding sexuality and consent
  • Give participants an opportunity to reflect on their own personal sexual decision making

Partying

It’s easy to find examples in the media of extreme high-school parties where teen boys take risks in order to prove their masculinity. Some of those risks may seem relatively harmless: sipping a beer or asking out someone they like, but others are more significant, like binge drinking and serious drug use. While the majority of teen boys might not be attending fraternity-level parties in high school, whether at parties or when hanging out with one or two friends, they will be required to make decisions that affect their well-being. The goal of this session is for boys to think about: How does Jewish tradition view partying? What are the ethics of being at a party? What will help guide a teen to responsible partying?

Objectives

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the messages boys get about partying from culture, peers, teachers, and family
  • Explore what Jewish wisdom says about partying
  • Reflect on the consequences of, and how to make responsible decisions, about partying

10th Grade Shevet

Tenth grade Shevet sessions cover topics such as Jewish identity and culture, stress, emotional management, healthy sexuality, and more!

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