a circle of 11 men in their 20s and 30s seated and holding hands
Ophir and Dor Haberer lead a men's retreat in Colorado in 2018. (Photo/Brian Hedden)

At virtual retreat, men embrace vulnerability, reckon with patriarchy

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The young men sit alone in their bedrooms, living rooms and backyards. One is shirtless, eyes closed in meditation. Another burns white sage, explaining its power to make your soul feel “clear.” A third takes a sip of coffee and adjusts his headphones.

Together, the 25 participants do some breathing exercises, turning their attention to the second chakra — the area of the body that includes the sexual organs.

“Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to,” the facilitator says. After several moments of silence, the facilitator speaks again: “I’m going to begin with this loaded word. We may have heard it a lot. Maybe we are confused about what it means. That word is patriarchy.

It is a Sunday morning in May, and these Jewish men — many of them sporting quarantine beards — have congregated from around the country via Zoom for a virtual men’s retreat sponsored by Moishe House and supported by MenschUp, a relatively new initiative from Shalom Bayit, a local nonprofit that works to prevent domestic violence and assist victims. Born of the #MeToo era, MenschUp aims to bring Jewish men together in an effort to demonstrate authenticity, responsibility and respect, with an eye to promoting safety in Jewish spaces.

For three days, the “Embodied Brotherhood” retreat participants have been engaging in conversations and activities focused on fostering healthier relationships with others, themselves and nature.

On this, the final day, facilitator Ophir Haberer is asking the men — straight or gay, singled or partnered up — to reflect on how they have been conditioned by patriarchal systems to think and behave, and to account for the ways they actively or passively perpetuate those systems.

One expresses unease about the way he, as a man, is fully accepted and honored in synagogue settings in ways that women sometimes are not. Another tells a story about the “cognitive dissonance” he experienced while pledging a Jewish fraternity in college and learning to sing a song glorifying date rape.

“That resonates,” a participant writes in the online chat box, and others chime in with words of recognition and support.

“It’s so deeply healing for this society for us to just take a moment to notice these things,” Haberer says, “so thank you for taking that time to notice.” He then directs the participants to bounce their shoulders up and down and wave their arms, a symbolic shaking off of shame and trauma.

“My approach is learning with, not teaching to,” Haberer, 29, said in a post-retreat interview.

Born on a kibbutz outside of Jerusalem to Israeli parents with Moroccan and South African heritage, Haberer grew up in St. Louis in an enclave of Israeli immigrants. In high school he was taken by the work of Henry David Thoreau and other transcendentalist writers, and at Tulane University he studied sustainable development (a hybrid of economic development and environmental studies). While there, he brought a farmers market to campus, worked with the university on a composting system, and started an urban farming project in New Orleans to address a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food.

a smiling brown-skinned man in his 20s with a goatee outside, seen from the shoulders up
Ophir Haberer at the first MenschUp retreat in July 2019. (Photo/Jonathan Kiem)

“I grew up with such a negative stereotype around farming and its connection to poverty,” he explained. “There were a lot of different narratives at play, especially for immigrants to America like my family. But the second I got my hands in the soil, it felt really liberating.”

After teaching English in Vietnam on a Fulbright scholarship and traveling through Thailand and Cambodia, Haberer moved to California in 2015 and reimmersed himself in earth-based education. For example, he did a seed apprenticeship with an Indigenous woman from the Mohawk people and became involved with Wilderness Torah, the Berkeley-based nonprofit that runs outdoor Jewish experiences.

Inspired by honest conversations among Wilderness Torah staff and participants about power and gender dynamics in Jewish spaces, Haberer and his twin brother Dor decided to create their own retreat for men to “start unpacking the way patriarchy lives in their bodies,” Haberer said. In 2018, he and Dor, a shiatsu practitioner who is studying “ecosocial design,” gathered a group of men together in rural Colorado. (Haberer believes that being twins gives both unique insight into “what male intimacy and accountability could look like.”)

He and Dor have led five men’s retreats to date, all of which were sponsored by Moishe House. Haberer has also participated in several retreats for his own edification and growth, including one in the Mendocino National Forest organized by the author Michael Meade. Last year he joined the Shalom Bayit team as the lead facilitator for MenschUp, which was started last year and has formulated workshops and curriculum. Information and details on how to get involved are available here.

The name is a play on the phrase “man up,” which often has been used to shame boys for showing emotion, according to Suzanne Amor, Shalom Bayit’s community outreach program manager.

One in four women in the United States will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, Amor said, and there’s no reason to believe that the situation is any better in the Jewish community. “There’s no way to end domestic violence unless we’re engaging men in the solution,” Amor said. “Ophir helped me to understand that that starts with men first having a safe place to talk with each other about how patriarchy has affected them.”

Amor said that at the pilot MenschUp retreat, held in person last summer, Haberer asked participants to raise their hands if, when seeking emotional support, they turn to female confidants before turning to men. Everyone did.

MenschUp programs — online workshops, as well as more intimate conversations for smaller groups, or “MenschUp minyans,” led by Haberer — are designed to help men feel more comfortable being vulnerable with each other. The hope, Amor says, is that they will then become better allies to the women in their lives, as well as advocates for gender equity.

While “men’s work” has grown in popularity in recent years along with other wellness trends, Amor believes it is especially important during this extended period of social isolation due to the pandemic. “This is obviously a time where everybody is experiencing a lot of pain and grief and sadness as we lose control of our lives,” Amor said. “MenschUp can provide a space for men to talk about their emotions and be supportive.”

Benny Amón said he felt “less alone” after participating in the virtual retreat. A 31-year-old musician who was raised in Davis and Fairfield, Amón said men tend to be “very isolated in their own emotions, and it leads us to not live as full, healthy lives as we can.”

He decided to join the retreat from his home in New Orleans after spending a few years trying, on his own, to bring “more vulnerability, freedom and possibility” to his relationships with other men. It is important, he said, for men to talk to other men about uncomfortable issues.

“The truth is, we’re all shaped by patriarchy and gender roles and different forms of homophobia and transphobia and classism and racism,” he said, adding, “We have work to do as Jewish men with respect to how we show up in the world.”

We have work to do as Jewish men with respect to how we show up in the world.

David Waksberg, the recently retired CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks, recorded a video for Shalom Bayit’s “MenschUp May” social media campaign. In it, he talked about his experiences, years ago, counseling men who committed violence against women; many of them learned that “to be a man” required them to suppress “whole ranges of emotions,” including grief, tenderness and openness.

“There’s a way in which men enjoy the privilege that comes with the patriarchy, but it’s a trade-off and we end up learning how to shut off part of our humanity in the bargain,” Waksberg, a member of MenschUp’s advisory committee, said in an interview. “I think that’s a bad bargain for everyone.”

He said he is a fan of the MenschUp approach and believes many Jewish men, including his peers, are attuned to changing social dynamics and would participate in a workshop.

“Ultimately the job of Judaism, the job of any religion, is to help us understand what it means to be human and how to be good at being human, and I see MenschUp in harmony with that agenda,” he said.

For the past 1½ years, Haberer has lived at Canticle Farm, an interfaith intentional community in Oakland. During quarantine he has spent a lot of time gardening, homesteading and hiking the nearby trails. He also participates in a weekly men’s group with other Canticle residents.

“Overall there’s a lot of beauty for me in things slowing down and tending to the place that I live and being in relationship with the people I live with,” he said. “When we’re all busy, and there’s so much outward focus, then it’s so easy to miss each other.”

The pandemic has forced Haberer to take his healing work online for the time being, which he said is not ideal for building intimacy. On the bright side, he has been able to reach a wider audience — men from Los Angeles, Oregon, New Orleans and New York were among those who joined the May retreat — without having to worry about the logistics of an in-person retreat.

Moving forward, he said he is eager to work with groups of older men. “It is really important for them to have a younger facilitator who’s really tuning in to ‘Where are we at right now’ [and] ‘What are the asks of this generation,’” he said.

For now, he will be leading two more Moishe House retreats this summer; for details, email him at [email protected]. He is also incubating his own organization that will offer a variety of men’s programming outside of the retreat format.

“My work is not about making men feel shame for their role in patriarchy,” he said. “It’s about helping them heal the impact of patriarchy in themselves and support each other so they don’t further perpetuate it. No one can do that alone.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.