Putting Gender Theory Into Practice

by Deborah Meyer

How can we ensure that the Jewish community offers meaningful avenues of participation and leadership to both women and men?

Adam Gaynor recently expressed his perplexity with Jewish educators’ focus on teen boys, given the “gross inequalities in favor of men in the Jewish professional sector.” He claims most Jewish educational programs are too narrowly focused and reinforce traditional gender divisions, and singles out Moving Traditions’ new Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood program as an example.

Gaynor is right that gender inequality persists in the Jewish world, as in the larger society. And he is right that Jewish education for teens must look beyond the surface and “see the context – the roots and pervasiveness of problems.”

But he’s dead wrong in his characterization of Moving Traditions’ work, which is in fact focused on getting to the roots of this problem. We see working with teen boys as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Like our award-winning girls’ program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, our new program for teen boys, Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, is based on exactly the kind of research Gaynor recommends; was crafted with the integral input of teen boys themselves; and is designed precisely to allow boys to safely question and explore gender and its expression.

Regrettably, Gaynor contents himself with quotations from a magazine article, having neglected to read our four research reports, examine the curricular resources based on that research, contact our staff, or peruse our website. Whether unintentionally, or because of a desire to create a straw horse to knock down, he completely misrepresents Moving Traditions’ work. We owe it to the thousands of educators, researchers, parents, and teens who have designed, supported, and benefited from our programs to set the record straight.

Based on years of research by scholars in the fields of gender studies, psychology, and education, and on focus groups with dozens of teen boys and their families, Shevet Achim not only takes the fluidity of gender into account, it puts it at the center of the program.

Adolescence is a time of intense change, insecurity, and questioning. It is also a time when children are most vulnerable to dominant, often-restrictive gender messages in our culture. In school, on the internet, on television, and in their social lives, teens routinely are pressured to “act more like a girl,” “man up,” be more assertive, be less assertive – and worse.

Moving Traditions’ programming helps teen boys and girls question and resist these pressures, and it taps the considerable resources of Jewish wisdom and practice to do so. In this way it helps promote healthy self-image, resilience, and a critical re-engagement with Jewish life in the post-b’nai mitzvah period, when boys and girls drop out in droves.

Why are we focusing on boys at a time when men dominate Jewish professional life? Because a fundamental tenet of gender equality is that girls and women cannot, and should not have to bring it about by themselves. Jewishly engaged men who challenge current gender definitions and who are committed to gender equality are essential to a future in which the Jewish professional sector, and all of Jewish life, is gender-equal and encourages each person’s full expression.

Gaynor’s problem with Moving Traditions’ programs seems to be their single-ed nature, which he assumes must make our curricula retrograde and problematic. But research – including by feminists and critical gender scholars – shows that adolescent boys and girls can benefit immensely from some single-gender “safe space” amid their otherwise coed lives. When created as part of well-designed programs, such safe spaces do not assume or restrict gender expression. Instead, they allow boys and girls the freedom to explore masculine, feminine, and transgender roles, and to question the definitions and boundaries of those roles – without the gender policing and self-censorship that often occurs in coed environments.

Shevet Achim is no more, or less, sports-oriented than our Rosh Hodesh program. But our research found that play is a critical starting point for many teen boys, and playing a physical game can serve for boys and girls as a social ice-breaker; a much-needed period of movement after intense study or discussion; or part of a varied session that may include music, art, debate, storytelling, or critical analysis of a viral video.

Gaynor calls for training “the thousands of professionals, lay leaders, and educators in our community” to “learn to see the world through gendered goggles.” To that we say, Amen, and welcome.

Moving Traditions has trained more than 1,000 Jewish educators and lay leaders to do just that. This coming year these Jewish educators will facilitate critical explorations of gender in more than 350 groups run by our partners, congregations, day schools, JCCs, and camps across North America.

Today through Tuesday, another 110 educators (70 women and 40 men) will gather in Philadelphia for Moving Traditions’ 2012 Training Conference before they launch new groups and inspire some 3,500 pre-teen and teen girls and boys to explore what it means to be b’tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image.

We invite Adam, and readers interested in learning about our work firsthand, to join us.

Deborah Meyer is the Founding Director of Moving Traditions.