Some people are joiners. Lena Lewis is one of them.
“I was in BBYO in high school and in a sorority in college,” she says.
In her 20s she began attending events for young Jewish adults in Washington. “I wanted a network of Jewish singles my age and to meet men.”
Around the same time, she joined Hadassah, the veteran Zionist women’s group most often associated with American Jewish life before the rise of the baby boomers and feminism. Today, at 36, Lewis is one of the youngest women in her Hadassah group.
Yet, “I’m drawn to the people and what Hadassah stands for,” she says.
A product of the early 20th century, single-gender groups — sisterhoods, men’s clubs and others — endure. In spite of women’s entrance into the workplace and rise to positions of prominence in government, business and religious leadership — an egalitarianism unknown in the first half of the 20th century — women still want to gather with women and men want to gather with men.
The difference today is that they have a choice. “You can be involved in many different organizations,” Lewis says. “You get different things out of different organizations.”
Tami Wolf, director of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s EntryPointDC program for young adults, puts it this way: “We don’t need these groups for the same reason they were established, but they’re still valuable.”
Where women’s groups once provided members an opportunity to do good works in the community, to complement men’s occupations in the workplace, “they’ve become more affinity groups, which I think we do still need,” Wolf says. “You get to meet like-minded people.”
While not the powerhouse it once was, Hadassah still has 300,000 women on the rolls in the United States, says Marcie Natan, the organization’s national president. To help younger members network, Hadassah instituted affinity groups called “councils,” in which doctors can meet doctors and lawyers can meet lawyers.
A few years ago, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, which is busy retooling Jewish life for Millennials, introduced an innovation — a sisterhood. Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood is a series of programs rather than an auxiliary. Where Bubbe cooked in the synagogue kitchen or worked in the gift shop, the Sixth & I sisters gather for discussions like “What’s in a Hyphen?” about women changing their names, and “Maybe Baby” about freezing eggs.
The idea came from two women who were active with the synagogue, according to Jackie Leventhal, associate director of Sixth & I. “It’s one of our most successful series.”
There is a good reason to bar men from the discussion — even at such an egalitarian synagogue, she says.
“There are certain things women will say around other women that they won’t say in front of men. Why did Lean In take off?” she said, referring to women’s groups inspired by the book of the same name by Sheryl Sandberg “There’s obviously a need for that kind of thing.”
That used to be true of Jews in general.
“When people studied why Jews want to be with Jews, people said it was because they could let their hair down,” says Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University. “There’s a certain level of relaxation in being together with at least one aspect of one’s own.”
Men like to get together too. The popularity of men’s scotch and cigar nights at synagogues points to more than just an affinity to single malt, says Rabbi Scott Perlo, associate director of Jewish programming at Sixth & I.
“They point to what all of us want to feel like. They are also opportunities to think of other finer things in life. It’s a springboard for conversations you can only share around a table.”
This spring, Sixth & I restarted a series called Man’s Attempt at Thoughtfulness, the XY version of Not Your Bubbe’s. Actually, Perlo says, chromosomes are not inspected at the door. “We welcome anyone who identifies as a man.”
The point of this brotherhood for Millennials, he says, is “not a separation from women, but to get guys comfortable to open up — about sex, about their fears, their worries about adequacy. I don’t buy the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus argument. What we’re talking about is a sense of privacy.”
At Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, a single-gender night out for men means dinner and a movie. That’s how the Boyz Club came together a several years ago on a whim. It’s now the young adult subset of the Conservative synagogue men’s club, offering a monthly poker game and a book club (Next book is The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart). A big turnout is about 10 men, says Lloyd Malech, who leads the group.
Members are also fathers and so the Boyz Club means “a couple evenings a month where I go out and do something else. You hang out with other guys, like-minded men,” Malech says.
The group makes movie night (most recent screening: American Sniper) men only for two reasons, he says.
“We watch movies that you don’t want your children to see and your wife won’t want to see.”