They end their meeting by going outside in the darkness to a nearbypark, where they can see the moon. There they conduct Kiddush Levanah, ablessing over the new moon; afterward they add a touch of New Age tothis ancient ritual by forming a circle and conferring blessings on oneanother.
It's all part of a trend that some are calling a "Jewish men'smovement." Jewish men, many of whom had fallen away from their religion,are beginning to reconnect--not only as Jews, but also specifically asmen.
They are going on men's club retreats and joining all-male studygroups, where they discuss such sensitive matters as infertility andfaithfulness, or health issues like prostate cancer, or what it means tobe a good father--all in the context of Judaism.
Not that the numbers are large. There are no huge gatherings instadiums like Promise Keepers, the evangelical Christian men's movement.A retreat at Elat Chayim, the Jewish renewal center near Woodstock,N.Y., that has taken place every November for the last seven years, forexample, draws only between 40 and 60 men.
"The Jewish men's movement," says Rabbi Shawn Zevit, who becameinvolved in it while a student at the Reconstructionist College inPhiladelphia, "is not exactly a movement, but Jewish men on the move."
The Jewish men's movement had its beginnings in the early 1990s,when Jewish leaders began to notice male participation in synagogue lifewas dropping drastically among all branches, except for the Orthodox.
Leaders attributed this to various reasons: Men were working morehours, were too career-oriented and had too little time, not only fortemple but for their families. They also noted that some had lackedJewish male role models, or had been brought up with no religion at all.Of those who had, many knew no Hebrew.
"We've recognized that we need to focus on the needs of our brothersas Jewish men," said Douglas Bardin, executive director of ReformJudaism's North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. But Bardinand others were careful to distance their movement from organizationslike Promise Keepers, which Bardin characterized as "exclusionary andscary."
"The Jewish response to male issues is not sitting on rocks withtom-toms. It is not some nouveau-Jewvo Robert Bly," said Rabbi CharlesSimon, director of Conservative Judaism's Federation of Jewish Men'sClubs, referring to the poet and de facto leader of a New Age-style"men's movement" in the late '80s, when men retreated into the woods andbonded together wild-man style.
"Rather it is through study, through which men become more connectedJewishly and with family," Simon said. He said "really serious men" aregetting involved with study; currently he is working on the fourthworkbook for men's clubs in an ongoing series titled "Hearing Men'sVoices."
Bardin said that Jewish men--as well as women--are clearlysearching for spirituality, which helps fuel the men's movement.
Another source of inspiration has been the work of Jewish feminists.Long Island Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who talks about the modern Jewishman's crisis of faith in his recently published book, "Searching for MyBrothers," says he learned the "tools" of the Jewish men's movement byreading feminist thinkers.
"We are trying to lead a `movement,' just like women did," Bardinsays. It was from women, he said, that Jewish men got the idea of"men-only."
"Just as there is something special about, for example, women'sseders, men also need the comfort of being just among themselves," saidBardin. "It loosens them up. They can talk about things they wouldn'tmention when there are women around."
Jewish feminists, meanwhile, are expressing approval of thisincreased male activism.
"I applaud the efforts by leaders of many of these movements toincrease both men's participation and passion in the context of Jewishspirituality," said Rabbi Shira Stern, who heads the Women's RabbinicNetwork of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Lori Lefkovitz, associate professor of women's and gender studies atthe Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, praises thesemen for adopting study groups and helping men find access to theiremotions.
"They have taken their cue from the feminist groups," saidLefkovitz. Even so, Bardin and others sense that their need for Jewish"men-only" clubs within the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism might toucha still-raw nerve.
After all, only a generation ago all of Judaism was an all-maleaffair. Jewish feminists fought hard -- and continue to fight -- to ridJudaism of exclusivity and sexism. Orthodox Judaism still excludes womennot only from the rabbinate but from just about all religiousparticipation. When asked about the Jewish men's movement, Rabbi StevenDworken, executive vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council ofAmerica, said he had never heard of it.