Will men become an unusual species in the synagogue

The question being asked more and more among rabbis of Reform, and some Conservative, congregations is: Where are all the men?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., writing in a recent issue of Reform Judaism, asserts: "The great, unspoken crisis facing modern Judaism is the disengagement of men in large numbers." He notes that "men are increasingly distancing themselves from congregations," and that on any given festival morning, 90 percent of the worshippers in his own synagogue are women over the age of 60.

A workshop at the Reform biennial last fall was devoted to the topic — and most of those in attendance were women.

Some Reform synagogues have an unspoken rule not to allow two consecutive women to serve as president for fear of alienating men, and there are "men-only" study nights at a prominent Los Angles temple.

In the Conservative movement, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, shares the impression that it is usually the mother bringing the child to services on Shabbat or a festival, and he wonders aloud if men are feeling displaced or stepping aside. Maybe, he says, men are "voting with their feet in terms of synagogue attendance and allowing women to serve as role models for their children."

While there is little hard data on the increasing absence of men in the synagogue — outside of the Orthodox movement — there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest a trend that is intriguing in its implications on political, cultural, spiritual and psychological levels.

Salkin, who is completing a book on Jewish masculine spirituality, believes the problem reflects the victory of modern-day Western values over traditional Jewish ones. Rather than aspiring to be Torah scholars and ethicists, males today strive to be materially successful. And the pressures of business may not leave much time, or inclination, for introspective reflection and prayer.

In addition, spirituality is perceived by many men as a soft, or feminine, quality that goes against the grain of male independence and toughness.

"The solution isn't for guys to go into the woods and scream and beat drums," Salkin says, "but rather to explore our Jewish teachings about what it means to be a father, a son, a Jewish man." He would like to see Rosh Chodesh (or New Moon) programs for men that would allow them to examine and discuss upcoming Jewish holidays from a male point of view.

Such a notion would doubtless bring a smile to many women, particularly those who have created a liturgy — including Rosh Chodesh services and feminist seders — precisely because they feel that for centuries Jewish males have excluded women from full participation in prayer.

"I know that masculine Judaism sounds redundant to many people," Salkin acknowledges, "but women have taught us that gender is important in how we see ourselves, and Jewish men today need to deal with these issues" and play a larger role in synagogue life.

This concern about the feminization of Judaism is not new. Indeed, it was the topic of a Reform brotherhood magazine cover story in 1927. But the situation has grown more acute since women have been more fully accepted into the Reform and Conservative movements — the flip side to equality and egalitarianism.

Once a men's club of sorts where making up the daily minyan was an exclusively male responsibility, the synagogue may be in danger of becoming an extension of the sisterhood.

"The more open synagogues have become to counting women in the minyan, the more difficult it has become for them to attract 10 men or women," says Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University. "It seems to lose its cachet."

She wonders why that is, noting that while some men may have been upset with women entering the legal and medical fields, "it didn't keep men from going to law school or medical school, because the end product was worth it."

So what's keeping them away from the synagogue?

The answer depends on what motivates people to attend in the first place, says Fishman. It's a basic, but largely uncharted area of study.

In the meantime, the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods is focusing on the crisis in male spirituality to stay relevant, and alive. Sunday morning breakfasts aren't enough to attract younger men these days, so the independent affiliate of the Reform movement is developing programs of more relevance and substance.

"We're sending signals to men that we care about them," says Doug Barden, executive director of NFTB, whose group is sponsoring health awareness programs, Jewish literacy courses, and retreats dealing with such male-oriented issues as divorce, becoming unemployed and taking care of elderly parents.

If, indeed, men are opting out rather than competing with women in the synagogue, far more programs of both a practical and personal nature will be needed to bring them back. And we will come full circle when rabbis and educators look back through the sources of our patriarchal religion to address the unarticulated but relevant male question of the day: What's in it for me?