(RNS) For the past seven years, a group of Jewish men in Philadelphia have been gathering together one evening a month for prayer and study. They also share their personal news with one another: A young husband whose wife is about to give birth to their first baby voices his fears and anticipation, while another man cries as he talks about the recent death of his elderly father.

They end their meeting by going outside in the darkness to a nearby park, where they can see the moon. There they conduct Kiddush Levanah, a blessing over the new moon; afterward they add a touch of New Age to this ancient ritual by forming a circle and conferring blessings on one another.

It's all part of a trend that some are calling a "Jewish men's movement." Jewish men, many of whom had fallen away from their religion, are beginning to reconnect--not only as Jews, but also specifically as men.

They are going on men's club retreats and joining all-male study groups, where they discuss such sensitive matters as infertility and faithfulness, or health issues like prostate cancer, or what it means to be a good father--all in the context of Judaism.

Not that the numbers are large. There are no huge gatherings in stadiums 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, for example, draws only between 40 and 60 men.

"The Jewish men's movement," says Rabbi Shawn Zevit, who became involved in it while a student at the Reconstructionist College in Philadelphia, "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 life was dropping drastically among all branches, except for the Orthodox.

Leaders attributed this to various reasons: Men were working more hours, were too career-oriented and had too little time, not only for temple but for their families. They also noted that some had lacked Jewish 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 brothers as Jewish men," said Douglas Bardin, executive director of Reform Judaism's North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. But Bardin and others were careful to distance their movement from organizations like Promise Keepers, which Bardin characterized as "exclusionary and scary."

"The Jewish response to male issues is not sitting on rocks with tom-toms. It is not some nouveau-Jewvo Robert Bly," said Rabbi Charles Simon, director of Conservative Judaism's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, 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 and bonded together wild-man style.

"Rather it is through study, through which men become more connected Jewishly and with family," Simon said. He said "really serious men" are getting involved with study; currently he is working on the fourth workbook for men's clubs in an ongoing series titled "Hearing Men's Voices."

Bardin said that Jewish men--as well as women--are clearly searching 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 Jewish man's crisis of faith in his recently published book, "Searching for My Brothers," says he learned the "tools" of the Jewish men's movement by reading feminist thinkers.

"We are trying to lead a `movement,' just like women did," Bardin says. 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's seders, men also need the comfort of being just among themselves," said Bardin. "It loosens them up. They can talk about things they wouldn't mention when there are women around."

Jewish feminists, meanwhile, are expressing approval of this increased male activism.

"I applaud the efforts by leaders of many of these movements to increase both men's participation and passion in the context of Jewish spirituality," said Rabbi Shira Stern, who heads the Women's Rabbinic Network of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Lori Lefkovitz, associate professor of women's and gender studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, praises these men for adopting study groups and helping men find access to their emotions.

"They have taken their cue from the feminist groups," said Lefkovitz. Even so, Bardin and others sense that their need for Jewish "men-only" clubs within the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism might touch a still-raw nerve.

After all, only a generation ago all of Judaism was an all-male affair. Jewish feminists fought hard -- and continue to fight -- to rid Judaism of exclusivity and sexism. Orthodox Judaism still excludes women not only from the rabbinate but from just about all religious participation. When asked about the Jewish men's movement, Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said he had never heard of it.

After listening to an explanation, he asked, "Why do they call it a men's movement?" He then added, "We want all Jews to become more involved, not just men."

But male-dominated Orthodoxy never experienced the exodus of men that Bardin and others bemoan. And unfortunately, said Bardin, "men began deserting their synagogues at the same time as women began taking their rightful place as cantors, rabbis and temple presidents."

The aim of the men's movement, of course, is to bring those men back.

"I want to create a bridge back to Judaism for Jewish men," Salkin said. "We're looking to reclaim a sense of maleness in Judaism."

In the introduction to his book, he asks, "What do Jewish men have that is still exclusively theirs?"

The modern Jewish man, says Salkin, "is hurting Jewishly. He is not in touch anymore." And one of the reasons, he said in a recent interview, is that a tradition that for 2,500 years was incessantly patriarchal suddenly stopped speaking to them. Spirituality, says Salkin, has become "feminized."

In other words, has letting women into Judaism somehow made it less attractive to men? Salkin even goes so far as to suggest resurrecting the figure of God as father.

"If we want to have a relationship with God, then the highest form of relationship in Judaism is the parent-child. And in Judaism, fathers are viewed as loving and nurturing."

But here Salkin may have crossed a line.

When asked about "God the father," Stern said that she had spent her entire rabbinate fighting this image. Giving God a gender, she said, "distorts the essence of Judaism."

"A disproportionate number of people who come to me for counseling tell me about father abuse," said Stern. The notion of father overlaid on one's vision of God, she said, is problematic.

Jewish feminist scholar Lefkovitz was even more blunt.

"If the emotion that the Jewish men's movement accesses for men turns out to be anger, and results in the reclamation of male territory and power, then it could be a bad thing," Lefkovitz said. "Men need to feel what is tired and irrelevant about the religion with its sexism. They'd better keep their eyes open, and not reclaim the old patriarchal strategies."

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