Brotherhood program encourages Jewish education beyond bar mitzvah

Ira Gelman leads a Brotherhood talk in West Goshen with (from right) Alex Lunick, Jason Sewell, Cameron Trager, Matthew Warner, Zack Zoller, and Sam Miller.
Ira Gelman leads a Brotherhood talk in West Goshen with (from right) Alex Lunick, Jason Sewell, Cameron Trager, Matthew Warner, Zack Zoller, and Sam Miller.
Posted: March 22, 2011


About an hour into the lesson on Samson and the Philistines, the eighth- and ninth-grade boys talked about the power to fight anti-Semitism and how to stand up for themselves.

"I had a situation where someone said, 'You're such a Jew,' " said Matthew Warner, 13, of West Chester. The eighth grader didn't just walk away. He responded, unafraid, telling the student to stop making derogatory remarks.

The discussion about such exchanges came on a recent Sunday night at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Goshen Township. Six teenage boys met to talk about what it means to grow up to be a Jewish man.

The meeting was part of a pilot study for an education initiative aimed at teenage Jewish boys, who, studies show, drop out of religious education at a higher rate than teenage girls.

The Campaign for Jewish Boys, also known as the Brotherhood, is a series of sessions meant to encourage youngsters to remain in religious school after their bar mitzvah.

"Unfortunately a lot of teenagers see their bar and bat mitzvah as a graduation from Jewish life," said Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown nonprofit that developed the program. "They are dropping out just at a time in their life when they really need guidance."

Ira Gelman, a teacher at Perkiomen Valley High School who is leading the Brotherhood group, said boys were just bored.

"After a full day at school and having so much testosterone running in their body, chemically boys are at a different place than at Hebrew school," Gelman said. "They associate learning about Judaism with negativity."

Thirty-four percent of Jewish residents ages 18 to 39 in a 2009 study sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia reported that they had continued their religious education after 13.

Last year, Moving Traditions - which has a similar program for girls - released its own survey focusing on boys, and 17 percent said they had participated in Jewish education by 12th grade, one-third fewer than girls.

"The danger is that we have men in their late 20s and 30s who are starting families and not feeling welcomed or connected to the Jewish community," said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of Moving Traditions' initiatives for boys and men.

The dropout rate has long been a concern of Jewish educators, said Rabbi Phil Warmflash, executive director of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership in Melrose Park.

The concern has spurred drastic changes in the approaches of Jewish educators in camps, youth groups, and synagogues, Warmflash said. No longer is it enough to have students sitting in a classroom to learn about an academic subject. Educators lead sessions incorporating such subjects as music and the environment and apply Jewish principles to the students' everyday challenges.

The eight-week Brotherhood sessions include physical activity and the arts while blending the unconventional and the traditional. Exercises involving the distribution of tickets to buy pizza teach lessons on power and alliances. Games using a blindfold teach about trust. Readings from 2,000-year-old Jewish texts are the basis for a discussion about what it means to be a righteous man.

The program is funded with $50,000 in grants from the Jewish Federation and the Lasko Family Foundation and is offered in partnership with the Jewish Community High School at Gratz College. Moving Traditions hopes boys' groups eventually will start up across the United States.

At last week's meeting, Gelman began by having the boys do running exercises and push-ups. After that, they lounged on a leather couch and talked about the lessons in the story of Samson.

"Samson did some good things and some bad things," said Alex Lunick, 14, of West Chester.

"People have power and control" over situations, he said. "They control how they react."

Jason Sewell, 13, also of West Chester, added that "you don't have to sink to the level" of your agitators to be a man.

Sewell's mother, Bethany, at first was reluctant to enroll her son in the Brotherhood because it meant pulling him out of other Jewish education classes, she said, but eventually she was convinced.

"This is more geared toward Jewish male identity and interpersonal skills," she said. "That's invaluable, and you don't learn about that in a textbook."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or


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