Yesterday, I mentioned how I had received a number of books from our Men’s Club president for me to read — bounty from his recent forey into the wilds for Ft. Lauderdale for the 44th MRJ Biennial Convention. One of the books talks about the importance of Men’s Clubs and Fellowship, and doing various mens-only activities. This whole notion is, in many ways, foreign to me… and so I decided to blog about it.
Note that, in many ways, this isn’t a particularly Jewish issue. Most religious groups have auxiliary fellowship organizations — ladies auxiliary, etc. These groups served the community in various gender-stereotypical ways. The sisterhood would put out the food at events. The men would grill the meats. The ladies would have sewing circles. The men would have a baseball league. The usual intent of such groups was to promote fellowship between members, do service for the congregation and the community, and raise supplemental funds to support various special congregational needs. As a by-product, the groups also built up a team of leaders-in-waiting, who would eventually serve congregation-at-large positions. These groups, by the way, were very different than the traditional congregational committee — the brotherhoods and sisterhoods were membership organizations open to any members (of that gender) in the congregation who contributed dues (or in some cases, time); they were financially independent with their own bank accounts and spending priorities; and they often worked towards multiple goals.
But times have changed — certainly in Judaism, and quite likely in other religions and communal groups as well. Whereas men traditionally had leadership roles, the power dynamic has shifted. More and more often, the leadership roles in congregations are held by women. Perhaps it is the opportunity, perhaps it is leadership skills, perhaps it is the fact that men are often more and more consumed by work at all hours. Whatever the reason, the role of men in congregational leadership has declined.
Additionally, the acceptance of same-sex organizations has declined. In today’s egalitarian society, why have brotherhoods and sisterhoods? Where is the benefit? If there is one, how do we repurpose these organizations to the needs of today? Can a brotherhood or sisterhood in the style of the 1950s-1970s still have a purpose today?
These are the questions the book I’m reading is raising… and these are things I don’t understand. In many ways, I’m not the stereotypical male. I’m not the type that likes to go out and drink beer (I prefer tea). I’m not the athletic type, and I’ve never been into watching or participating in sporting events (give me a good board game, or a night at the theatre). I’m not into gambling or poker. Further, looking back, I’ve never had close friendships with men in particular — I’ve never had a regular ‘bro, I’ve never gone out (or even felt the need to go out) with the boys. I guess I’m just not someone who fits the stereotype.
So, when I read this text about creating a sacred men’s fellowship, I’m confused. Sure, I want to have a “farm team” for men in congregational leadership, but what I really want is a meritocracy of leadership — having congregational leaders that are the best in terms of skill, independent of gender, and independent of their ability to contribute monetarily. I want leaders that can lead and inspire, not just pull out the checkbook or plastic. However, I can see a men’s club as a place to train that leadership, and just like you have multiple feeder teams, you can have multiple feeder organizations.
I can also see the men’s club as a viable service organization, funding those activities that it feels to be appropriate, providing activities that are fun for its members, and raising funds the best that it can. But these are all traditional “brotherhood” activities. The question the book is asking is: How does one use a brotherhood to bring men back to congregational life? How can the organization go beyond the stereotypes and benefit men?
According to the book, one of the ways to do this is creating sacred men’s only spaces … by creating opportunities for men to talk to men, and lower the barriers that often prevent men from talking about issues. This makes me a little uncomfortable — if I’m uncomfortable talking about an issue, it doesn’t make a difference regarding the gender of who I’m talking to. Still, I can understand creating the spaces and how they might be useful. I’m guessing this is something I’ll need to explore — perhaps I should go to one of our “men’s only” groups when we get them started up again.
As for the other ways to get men back to congregational life, I think the answer is to go beyond the stereotypes. This is why I’m trying to do boardgaming within the men’s club group. This is why I’m trying to organize arts and theatre outings. This is why we need to go beyond the baseball, golf, poker, and barbeque. Perhaps this is where the men’s only groups might come in… Just working this out in my head, but I can easily see such groups as a way to reach the single father households, to reach the men who want to be better fathers. The book talked about emphasize being better male role models — and that I can see as being beneficial. For many, our fathers were good role models, but for many others, the father wasn’t a role model or was absence. This is something we can teach.
More importantly (and I know I’m rambling here, but this is my blog, and I can ramble if I want), we can be proper male role models to demonstrate proper ethical behavior. This is where we can teach that violence is unacceptable as a way to get what you want. This is where we can teach that harassment and bullying is wrong. Leadership in a men’s organization means teaching which masculine stereotypes are wrong. It is where we can use religious teachings to teach proper ways to behave to others in society — male or female. Perhaps in doing this, we can achieve the true purpose of a men’s club.
By now, you’re probably asking why I joined the men’s club in the first place and got active. The answer, actually, is relatively simple. At $current_congregation-2, I was over involved in Board activities, and burned out. It was a 70 family congregation, which was good in that you knew everyone, but bad in that you easily took on too much. At $current_congregation-1, I wasn’t involved at all. So at $current_congregation, a 500+ family congregation, I joined the men’s club because it was a smaller way to get to know people. Over time, I’m slowly accepting leadership positions again. I’m also, as a side effect, slowly building some friendships with men as men. This is something new, and none have reached the level of what you see on sitcoms.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this — as I said, I’m rambling to figure things out. I think the question is what do you think a brotherhood (although even that is an archaic term — it is now “Men of xxxx“) can uniquely bring to a congregation? What do you see as the benefit of promoting friendship and fellowship specifically between men? What can a men’s organization of the 21st century bring to the game that it couldn’t bring in the past?
Music: A Little Night Music (1973 Original Broadway Cast): “A Weekend in the Country”