Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life


Source: Hadassah-Brandeis Institute


A new study published by The Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute finds that as the liberal Jewish community empowers its women, its men appear to be losing interest in their Jewishness. Outside the Orthodox world, men are becoming less and less engaged in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations.


For this study, Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman and her student, Daniel Parmer, obtained quantitative data from a new analysis of the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. Much of the qualitative discussion is based on data drawn from a new analysis of existing transcribed interviews, from two research projects originally designed to compare the factors leading up to and the religious behaviors within Jewish inmarried, conversionary, and intermarried households. The original analyses of these interviews, were published in two AJC reports and a book, Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage. The more than 300 transcribed interviews were reexamined to study a new subject: the relative impact of gender and family type in connections to Jews and Jewishness and as regards parental ethno-religious goals.


Among the findings of the study:

Jewish women are more likely than Jewish men to say the religion of Judaism is very important to them.

Women retain closer ties to family members than men do, and create social networks for the whole family. Jewish women stay close to Jewish family members, and create largely Jewish social networks for their families.

Liberal synagogues and temples have become “the world of our mothers” . Women comprise many of the rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents, and the majority of the worshippers.

Jewish girls and women attend synagogues more often than Jewish boys and men, especially in Reform and other liberal congregations.

Jewish females today get more Jewish education than Jewish males, from childhood through the teen and adult years.

Jewish men have less Jewish social capital than Jewish women do. Men are less likely to stay in touch with family members. Their personal friendship circles include more non-Jews, especially in intermarried families.

Jewish boys and young men in liberal congregations complain that their synagogues are primarily places for women.

Psychologists and gender theorists say that teenage boys and young men crave activities which separate them from their mothers and establish them in a male world—a form of socialization prevalent in traditional Jewish environments.

Suggestions for the Future:

The researchers suggest that in order to increase their involvement in Jewish life, programs for Jewish boys and men are needed that create positive connections to Jews and Jewishness, beginning with the pre-school years, targeting the all-important middle-school and teen years, and extending over the life cycle of the individual.

They also suggest that additional research on Jewish organizational activity be carried out in order to answer the following questions: What programs successfully appeal to Jewish males? Why do they appeal? How can these success stories be replicated?

Updated: Jun. 17, 2008