Voices from the field

Educating Boys

By Daniel Brenner

The iChallenge Ideas Incubator is pleased to be hosting Rabbi Daniel Brenner for our spring professional development session. Rabbi Brenner is the Director of Initiatives for Boys and Men for the New York-based Moving Traditions.

Rabbi Brenner’s session will focus on exploring Jewish education through the eyes of boys and young men, and will rely on his experience leading a national effort to train a cadre of educators and mentors who can connect the ethical insights of Jewish life to the challenges facing today's teen boys. Brenner's commentaries have been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Forward, Jewish Week and on the NPR show The Infinite Mind. In 2009, he was named by Newsweek Magazine as one of America’s most influential rabbis.

Session Description

During my first gig teaching Hebrew School, twenty years ago in a basement classroom in Suburban Philadelphia, I spent half my time screaming “boys, stop swinging on the water pipes!”  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with some wise educators who have mastered how to take what some folks have mislabeled as “boy energy” and transfer it into something redeeming. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with psychologists who have helped me understand boys who withdraw from the water pipe swingers and what that might mean. I’ve also raised a couple of boys to become young men and volunteered teaching a number of boys in my community who are equal parts wacky, warped and wonderful. Suffice it to say that boys are complicated. (Heck, gender is complicated.)

Today’s boys are blasting and crushing and slashing away for hours in digital environments each week. They are also consuming vast amounts of information via video formats and expanding their vocabularies every nanosecond. What they are doing less of is playing outside and actually speaking to and listening to other people. And research suggests that 68% of them think that Jewish education is “meaningless and boring.” If you’ve seen any of these patterns, then you might be asking some of the questions that I’ve been wrestling with lately:

  • What messages are the boys we work with receiving about what it means to be a man?
  • What impact is the decline of boys academically in American education having in Jewish circles?
  • What do boys see when they look at men in the Jewish community and why does that matter?
  • What Jewish wisdom might we draw on to think about males and their inner natures?
  • What rituals might be reclaimed to engage boys in Jewish tradition?
  • What would it take to re-envision bar mitzvah as a rite of passage more closely aligned with values that we imagine for Jewish men?
  • What do we want to teach boys about being boys, about girls, and about gender in general?

These are just a few of the questions that come up when I think about the challenge of educating boys. I look forward to tackling some of these questions and discussing your experiences with boys in Jewish educational settings. I hope that you’ll join me.

Learn more about the iChallenge Ideas Incubator