Jewish men and women in the United States have become characterized by a gender imbalance that differs from most Jewish communities historically and from many other Jewish communities around the world today. In liberal Jewish America, women have become central and men have become marginal.
The “feminization” of almost every aspect of non-Orthodox American Jewish life means not only that girls and women outnumber their male counterparts, but also that Jewish activities have less value and seem less appealing to Jewish boys and men. American Jewish women are more engaged than American Jewish men in the “peoplehood” aspects of Jewishness: visiting Israel, seeing Israel as very important, having mostly Jewish friends, wanting to marry a Jewish husband and to raise Jewish children.
This contemporary American Jewish gender imbalance reverses a historical gender imbalance that is still characteristic of Orthodox Jewish societies in which girls and women are marginalized from public Judaism. American synagogues, Jewish classrooms, religious ceremonies, rituals, and secular cultural expressions disproportionately do not engage boys and men. The challenge facing the American Jewish community is not that women are more active—surely a positive development, but that men and boys have retreated from much of American Jewish life.
The feminization of religion has long been common in Protestant America, and the feminization of Judaism can be regarded as a dimension of assimilation. American social scientists routinely assert that women are more “religious” than men, whether through essential psychological differences or social conditioning: “By now it is so taken for granted that women are more religious than men that every competent quantitative study of religiousness routinely includes sex as a control variable.”2 But the feminization of American Judaism has an insidious sociological impact on Jewish societies. Because Jews have regarded themselves as a people—not only as a belief system—the disengagement of men constitutes a crisis.
Gender Roles in Jewish Societies Yesterday and Today
In historical Jewish societies women were largely absent from—or invisible in— male public religious settings like the synagogue and the study hall. Although women were central to the religious life of the home, their visibility was limited even at home.
Yet the premodern Jewish construction of gender was idiosyncratic. For centuries, Jews often differed from their neighbors in how they understood “maleness” and “femaleness.” The Jewish ideal of masculinity emphasized ritual piety, spiritual intensity, and intellectual learnedness, instead of physical prowess and stoicism. Traditional Jewish ideals of femininity also differed from non-Jewish societies; Jewish women in medieval societies were often actively involved in economic and even educational pursuits.3
Emancipation and Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) were among the multiple factors that transformed Jewish gender role construction, along with many other aspects of Jewish life. In nineteenth-century Germany, while Jewish men immersed themselves in commerce according to the middle-class pattern, and Jewish thinkers reformed and transformed synagogue life, Jewish women became the transmitters of Westernized lifestyles and forms of Judaism to the next generation.4
When the Western, assimilated Zionist theorists created their images of a “new” Jew, they rejected the pious masculinity of the shtetl, which they perceived as being powerless and thus effeminate. In its place they proposed a new Jewish masculinity that incorporated all the physical prowess and aggressiveness that the old Jews lacked.
With emigration to America, West European gender role constructions became normative for Jewish new Americans. Expectations that religiosity would be an attribute primarily of females and not of males had already begun to permeate the American Jewish community during the period of rapid socio- economic upward mobility in the 1930s and 1940s.
Nevertheless, synagogues within liberal wings of Judaism remained male bastions of religious leadership, as trained male leadership presided over passive male and female worshippers. This all changed with the rise of American “Second Wave Feminism.” American Jewish feminists in the 1960s and beyond questioned many primary tenets of middle-class institutions and social structure, including the until-then nearly universal assumption that rabbis should be males.
The rise of women into leadership of the American Jewish community was part of an environment in which activism and spiritual searching helped produce a readiness to experiment with new forms of religious expression. Sweeping social-historical changes provided impetus and context for transformations in women’s roles.
Rather than devoting their excellent educations to volunteer work, which had been the previous American Jewish pattern, in the 1960s Jewish women began to take jobs for pay outside the home.5 Today, the majority of American Jewish women are employed for pay even when they have young children at home. For American Jewish women, this strong work profile has had an extremely important influence on expectations of the Jewish world as well. Jewish women grew to expect to achieve in Jewish environments because they were able to achieve in the world outside.
Jewish feminists have had several different areas of primary interest. New or revised celebratory rituals sacralized women’s lifecycle events, with women and girls as leaders and participants in Jewish public worship. Women also upgraded their Jewish education and cultural literacy, promoted scholarship by and about Jewish women, and examined Jewish religious texts, laws, customs, and culture through the lens of gender equality.
As late as the 1960s, in all sectors school-age boys were more likely than girls to receive Jewish education, partially because preparing for the bar mitzvah (coming of age) ceremony was a prime educational motivator for many families. By the 1970s and 1980s, that gender gap had narrowed significantly in response to the spread of the bat mitzvah (coming of age) ceremony for girls. Today, the gender gap has been reversed for American Jews in the liberal movements, and school-age Jewish girls are more likely to receive Jewish education than Jewish boys. Differences in Jewish educational levels of young girls and boys become major as they enter their teens: after bar/bat mitzvah age, girls are far more likely to continue in formal and informal Jewish educational settings.6
Jewish girls in college participate in Hillel activities and take Jewish studies classes in much greater numbers than Jewish boys, except for the Orthodox young men. On an elite level, increasing numbers of women have become Judaic studies scholars, teaching and publishing in all areas of the field.
For many observers, the impact of Jewish feminist change has been epitomized by the movement of women into public religious leadership roles. In 1972 the Reform movement ordained the first female rabbi, followed in 1974 by the Reconstructionist movement. In 1985, urged on by the Jewish feminist group Ezrat Nashim and a determined group of rabbis, the Conservative movement’s first woman rabbi was ordained. Today, women constitute a large proportion of rabbinical and cantorial candidates, and serve in numerous congregations.
Attitudes toward Religion and Judaism among Men and Women
American social scientists assume that women are “naturally” more religious than men, as we have noted. It has certainly become characteristic of liberal American Jews. In the interview data that we analyzed for this study, women—both Jewish and non-Jewish—were more likely to describe themselves as more “religious” than their husbands.
Women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were more likely to describe their intermarried households as relating to one of the movements of Judaism, while men, both Jewish and non-Jewish, leaned more toward calling the household Secular or Cultural, or Atheistic or Agnostic. Mothers, rather than the fathers, said it was important that their children have some type of religious orientation. Men are much less convinced that organized religion is the foundation of moral and ethical behavior.
A substantial minority of Jewish and non-Jewish fathers of “Jewish” children saw religion as a good framing structure for children as they grow up but unnecessary for adults, something that could and should be put aside as people mature. Men typically said they feel “disconnected from religion,” and that they would tell their children about their real values during “their early teen years.”
Our study statistics, which depict the importance of being Jewish among in-married and intermarried affiliated and unaffiliated intermarried families, are particularly revealing. The majority of intermarried Jewish women (54 percent) who are affiliated with a synagogue or temple in any wing of Judaism say that being Jewish is “very important” to them, compared to 27 percent of affiliated intermarried Jewish men. Put another way, intermarried Jewish mothers are twice as likely to see Judaism as “very important” as are intermarried Jewish fathers.
In the American setting, in which religiosity is perceived as a female rather than a male characteristic, it is not surprising that secularized Jews have absorbed that expectation. Jewish fathers as well as mothers in in-married families often have extensive connections to Jews and Judaism, and are committed to raising Jewish children, while Jewish fathers in intermarried families have limited or weak connections and are much less likely to be committed to raising Jewish children. In-married Jewish fathers play a much more active role in the family’s Jewishness and in familial relationships. More than three-quarters of both in- married husbands and wives feel religion is important in their lives and in the way they raise their children. Yet the feminization of Jewish gender roles is apparent even in in-married families, though less so than in intermarried families.
Synagogue Life: A Gender Shift to the Distaff Side
For much of Jewish history, the synagogue was the place where little boys left the world of their mothers to join the world of their fathers. Today, females are much more active than males in almost every aspect of religious and educational Jewishness within liberal American Judaism. In the fall of 2005, women outnumbered men two to one in the entering rabbinical class at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. Girls outnumbered boys in all youth activities, in proportions anywhere from 57 to 78 percent according to Rabbi Michael Friedman, director of junior and senior high school programs at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
Friedman graphically connects this demographic shift directly to the movement’s ordination of female rabbis and the predominance of female cantors:
“Before it was always a man high up on a bimah [platform in synagogue] wearing a big robe in a deep voice, a model of leadership that was male- only and top down,” Friedman comments. “Those synagogues now have everybody sitting in a circle with someone playing a guitar and sharing feelings…they are styles that women may be more comfortable with than men…[boys] don’t necessarily see themselves there.”7
Reform rabbi Jeffrey Salkin notes his reflections on “The Retreating Man” in an issue of Reform Judaism. “Liberal Judaism is following the lead of liberal Christianity,” he notes, but it is the Christian Right that is growing today, while liberal Christianity is shrinking. “Tough Christianity” does well because it makes demands on its adherents, especially men, Salkin asserts. Liberal Judaism, like liberal Christianity, makes few demands.
Salkin describes a kind of “Catch-22” situation. On one hand, “demonstrating Jewish skills—like davening [prayer], chanting Torah, and putting on t’fillin [phylacteries]—is a kind of Jewish macho that fathers want to pass on to their sons,” a pattern that can be very engaging for boys and men. On the other hand, these skills are often not salient to men in the liberal wings of Judaism, although they have become desirable to many women in recent years. Perhaps even more important, if men do not have the skills, expecting them to have them can actually alienate men by making them feel incompetent.8
Synagogues: Afffiliation and Belonging
Our quantitative and qualitative statistics show that how often Jewish parents attend synagogue varies by four characteristics: (1) whether they are married to a Jewish spouse; (2) what wing of Judaism they affiliate with, if any; (3) whether or not they are synagogue members; and (4) whether they are male or female. Among in-married Jewish parents, if they are Orthodox Jews, almost nine out of ten men attend synagogue weekly or more, compared to four out of ten women.
Conservative men (14 percent) and women (16 percent) have almost identical weekly attendance rates. Reform women (17 percent) are almost twice as likely to attend services every week as Reform men (9 percent). At the low end of the in-married spectrum, affiliation or lack of affiliation was far more important than gender: “Never attending services” was reported by 34 percent of unaffiliated mothers and 37 percent of unaffiliated fathers, with affiliated mothers (16 percent) and fathers (15 percent) half as likely to “never attend.”
However, among intermarried Jewish parents, gender made a difference within the affiliated population. Of affiliated Jewish mothers who were married to non-Jews, 54 percent said they attend services twice a month or more, surprisingly similar to the synagogue attendance rates of affiliated in-married Jewish mothers. For the intermarried Jewish fathers, however, the rates were strikingly different. Of affiliated intermarried fathers, 41 percent said they never went to synagogue services. Fifteen percent went there once or twice a year. About one-third (32 percent) of affiliated intermarried Jewish fathers said they attended services twice a month, compared to well over half of intermarried mothers. Among intermarried, unaffiliated men and women the rates of synagogue attendance were exceedingly low.
Gender is also much more of a key factor affecting ritual observances in intermarried families. Simply put, homes with Jewish mothers tend to have much higher levels of ritual observance than homes that have Jewish fathers and non- Jewish mothers. Whether one speaks of yearly rituals, or weekly observances such as Shabbat, having a Jewish mother makes a big difference. Perhaps most symbolically, American Jewish mothers, including intermarried Jewish mothers, were far more likely to insist on their sons having a brit milah (ritual circumcision) than were Jewish fathers.
American Jewishness and the Religious Factor
For many secular Jews in the United States the measuring of variables such as synagogue attendance or Jewish ritual observance may seem irrelevant. Synagogues are not central to their lives. Why then does our study focus on religious aspects of Jewishness when assessing the centrality of Jewish connections?
American Jews who have Jewish social networks find those networks by associating with Jewish institutions. The more Jewish institutions, the more Jewish friends. This is why, on a sociological level, synagogues matter.
The same is true for children and teenagers and Jewish schools. Attending Jewish schools from the preschool through the teen years is important, because for most American Jews the way young Jews create Jewish friendship networks is by attending Jewish schools. Jewish friendship networks matter because they are the single factor that is most predictive of whether or not an individual will have a positive Jewish identification and Jewish connections as an adult.
As we noted, teenage girls are much more likely to continue their Jewish education after bat mitzvah than boys are after bar mitzvah. Partially as a result, they also have more Jewish friends. The combination of more Jewish education and more Jewish friends is part of what makes American Jewish adult females more attached to Jewishness.
Within each wing of Judaism some Jews develop extensive Jewish social capital. Some of this capital can be defined as “secular.” Some of it is specifically religious. In Jewish culture, the ethnic and religious aspects of social capital have long been intertwined. Even today, “secular” Jewish ethnic social capital may be derived from and borrow much from religious terms, history, concepts, and activities.
Jews increase their ethnic social capital when they learn Jewish languages, are involved with Jewish organizations, read Jewish books, listen to Jewish music, and view Jewish films. Social capital deepens when Jews are engaged by ideas of Jewish peoplehood, when they make and keep many Jewish friends, and visit and care about Israel.
Within the more traditional wings of Judaism, these characteristics typify both men and women. Within the liberal wings of American Judaism, the Jews who are most likely to have religious and ethnic social capital today are female Jews.
Research and Policy Implications of the Gender Imbalance
Our research shows that the alienation of boys and men from Jews and Judaism is a systemic problem in liberal American Jewish society. It affects not only religious rituals and synagogue attendance, but also attachments to Jewish peoplehood, in the form of friendship circles, marriage choices, caring about Jews in Israel and around the world. This phenomenon has been developing for many decades, but it has been virtually ignored, and today it has become a crisis.
American males are less attached to Jewish life not because men are innately “less religious” than women in some essential psychological way, but because American culture and society value religious activities and behaviors for women but devalue them for men.
It would be a mistake to regard male distance from Judaism as a kind of tsunami that cannot be addressed or ameliorated. There are at least two sources of models that can and should be worked with in devising strategies to create stronger bonds: models provided by girls and women, and models provided by traditional Jewish communities.
Strategies for men can be based on the way Jewish women have reclaimed many traditional lifecycle rituals for their own use, and are inventing other rituals to help them sacralize lifecycle events that are specific to the female experience. Women have sought out and revitalized some and created other Jewish rituals because many people find ritual meaningful and satisfying on a personal, communal, and spiritual level.
Because so many Reform-affiliated Jewish homes include weakly identified Jewish men and their non-Jewish wives, the Reform movement is leading the way in exploring strategies to engage Jewish boys and men in Jewish experiences and connections. At the 2007 Biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism, for example, a men-only minyan (prayer group) took place, along with the more typical egalitarian services. Reform Jewish educators and men’s club leaders are increasingly devising activities that will meet men’s needs for male bonding and increase their engagement with Judaism.
One of the problems that leaders trying to engage men struggle with is that men seem to be more sensitive than women to feelings of incompetence. When men think they should have the skills to do something Jewish, and they do not have those skills because of gaps in their education or Jewish experience, they often avoid Jewish activities. They may not articulate their avoidance in this way. Instead, they often say, “I don’t like that,” or “I’m not interested in that.” This avoidance is observed among men who have never learned Hebrew and feel deeply uncomfortable in services that include substantial amounts of Hebrew. But when men are given the opportunity to acquire the requisite skills, they may then enjoy the activity.
Applying creativity in adapting traditional Jewish activities to men’s lives— as women have done—is one very important positive response to the challenge of gender imbalance. For example, Mayyim Hayyim, an independent communal mikveh (ritual bath) and educational facility in the Boston area, created by author and activist Anita Diamant, is hosting a first-ever “Men, Mikveh, Macanudos and Single Malt” event for men only.
The invitation states: “Mikveh is not just for women. At Mayyim Hayyim, men immerse to celebrate milestones, for healing, to prepare for Shabbat and High Holidays—for a whole host of reasons. With this event, we hope to reach out to more of the men in our lives and our community.”9 It is true that in traditional Jewish communities men’s mikveh immersion can offer a male bonding experience. Similar creativity is taking place with classes, trips to Israel, cultural events, weekend retreats, and sports activities for fathers and sons and male peer groups.
Models for bringing Jewish boys into a positive relationship with their own Jewishness can be fruitfully adapted for liberal Judaism from traditional Judaism. Observant societies did, and still today, effectively enculturate boys into Jewish male roles with step-by-step socialization. Toddlers, school-age boys, and young teens each in turn have positive bonding experiences within their peer group. Such boys typically admire the boys and men slightly older than them who model the next accomplishments: the first haircut, the first day at Jewish school, the first leading of the congregation in the closing hymns, the first leading the congregation in the prayer service as a shaliakh tsibbur (cantor), and ultimately as a groom standing under the wedding canopy. For these boys, bar mitzvah is no stand-alone event terminating Jewish education. It is one of many steps certifying bona fide membership in a male community, a position that carries with it status as well as responsibility. The challenge today is how to recreate that status, without making it dependent on marginalizing girls and women.
Research and policy discussions about gender imbalance must start with an awareness that gender imbalance is not a foregone conclusion. For much of Jewish history men have defined Jewishness. Without advocating that historical Jewish gender imbalance, we must acknowledge that many American Jewish men are alienated, and Jewish peoplehood needs men as well as women. It is now “politically incorrect” to confront this issue, and research and discussions exploring it are attacked as attempts to discriminate against women.10 Now that we are finally confronting this critical issue, it would be tragic for the Jewish community to turn away. We need targeted research, along with honest and open conversations to learn from each other how to honor “Jewish sisterhood” and “Jewish brotherhood” as well.
For a more detailed version of this essay, see: Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, “Policy Implications of the Gender Imbalance among America’s Jews,” Jewish Political Studies Review, 20, nos. 3–4 (Fall 2008).
- Rodney Stark, “Physiology and Faith: Addressing the ‘Universal’ Gender Differences in Religious Commitment,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, no. 3 (2002): 495–507, 496.
- Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004); Elisheva Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
- Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family and Identity in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Sidney Goldstein, “Profile of American Jewry: Insights from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey,” American Jewish Year Book 1992 (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1992), 115–16.
- National Jewish Population Surveys 1970, 1990, 2000–01.
- Debra Nussbaum-Cohen, “Reform Jews Examining Ways to Retain Their Young Men,” New York Times, 4 February 2006.
- Jeffrey Salkin, “The Retreating Man,” Reform Judaism, 35, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 70– 71.
- For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See, for example, Katha Pollitt, “Who’s Afraid of Judy Maccabbee,” The Nation, 21 July 2008; and Rona Shapiro, “The Boy Crisis That Cried Wolf,” Forward, 5 January 2007.