On a recent Sunday morning more than 60 people attended the Brotherhood breakfast at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (BHC) featuring storyteller and Baltimore oracle Gilbert Sandler. It was pouring rain and near freezing, but the social gathering and sounds of old and new friends catching up while sharing a meal warmed the synagogue hall.
The Brotherhood at BHC has been meeting since 1918, with origins at its Madison Avenue location. This concisely coincides with the timeline of synagogue-affiliated fraternal groups in the United States, their roots reaching back to the Eastern European emigration. Men arriving from common native homelands formed landsmanschaften, Yiddish for “countrymen organizations.” These landsmanschaften organized worship services in storefronts and homes, raised money to sponsor immigrating relatives, purchased land for cemetery plots and created free loan societies, all adding to the developing social network for each community. Initially, the concept of synagogue affiliation grew out of the fraternal order, instead of what might be assumed as the other way around. Not surprisingly, given the time period, early synagogues offered few places for women.
“In terms of the American Jewish experience in the early 20th century, there were no options for women to participate in what we would call coeducational organizations,” said Pamela Nadell, a professor and director of Jewish studies at American University.
Because it was more common for men to naturally come together in the business of a synagogue, Nadell explained, women had to be more intentional in gathering. For this reason, national sisterhood groups formed first, as early as 1913. The more social synagogue-affiliated men’s groups, most commonly found in Conservative and Reform synagogues, came afterward, likely in response to the success of women’s groups. Men’s groups appeared around 1920, with a Reform National Federation of Brotherhoods forming in 1923 and one for the Conservative movement in 1929.
“Now with the whole discourse about ‘Where have all the men gone?’ in liberal Judaism,” said Nadell, “there is a very sincere effort, especially in the Reform movement, to create unique spaces for men in their congregations.”
The number of synagogue-affiliated men’s groups in Baltimore, comprising not only Reform and Conservative congregations, but Orthodox ones as well, reflects that trend. Socially, many of the groups host their particular version of Orioles game events, brunches or breakfasts featuring a prominent speaker, Ravens tailgate get-togethers and dinner and entertainment events; most are open to members’ spouses, significant others and, sometimes, children.
In addition to social gatherings, today’s men’s groups provide a lot for their synagogues as well, such as fundraising for schools, monitoring traffic safety patrols, running Purim carnivals, catering for affiliated events, decorating the sukkah, leading Shabbat services and even ensuring there is always a minyan at a shiva service. As Joe Boccuzzi, immediate past president of the BHC Brotherhood, said: “Men like to do something. Chicken Flickers (the brotherhood’s catering group) and the ushers — this is something that men can actually do. We have an event at 9 on Sunday. So you show up.”
Greater community volunteering and outreach is a strong part of a men’s group mission statement as well. Groups raise scholarship funds and volunteer at places such as Our Daily Bread and Manna House, in addition to involvement in programs such as food and coat drives and men’s medical screenings.
“The Beth Tfiloh Brotherhood’s main purposes are fellowship, service for Beth Tfiloh — particularly giving back to the youth — and for the community at large,” said Charles Jay, president of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s brotherhood.
Though each group has its distinct personality and synagogue affiliation, there is, of course, a strong underlying Jewish commitment they all share. This is reflected in the mission statement of the recently resurrected and renamed Beth El Congregation Men’s Club, co-written by president Jack Boonshaft: “to involve Jewish men in meaningful religious service and social Jewish life while striving to embrace the welfare of Beth El Congregation by promoting Jewish values and traditions.”
Like many other Jewish organizations in Baltimore and across the country, brotherhood groups struggle to recruit new, younger members. There is some success with implemented programs such as a business-oriented speaker series, events that involve family and events that emphasize an opportunity to network with some of the experienced, connected members.
Men’s groups, though, also serve an unstated purpose, providing intangibles such as a sense of community and belonging.
“At different times in a man’s life it’s really helpful to be able to have a really deep connection to some other men to talk about the important things of what it’s like to be an adult guy in this day and age,” said Howard Reznick, LCSW-C, senior manager for prevention education at Jewish Community Services. “Like being a father, a husband, a good friend, especially when we realize at the end of the day that’s what is really important in life.”
Reznick spoke about the palpable experience when someone is really listening to you and is very present. There is a feeling created that your words resonate with the other person. If you place two stringed instruments in the same room, he offered by way of example, and pluck the C string on one of them, the other instrument’s C string vibrates.
Phil Abraham, a BHC Brotherhood member since 1970, lost two brothers in the past year. He turned to the brotherhood as a great source of comfort.
“That’s what brotherhood offers,” said Abraham. “The opportunity to be with the people in person, that’s when we develop those close relationships. … I can look at a friend of mine, just put my hand out and touch his shoulder, and we know we have that common bond, and [the] brother-hood offers that opportunity for us. … When we have something — a problem or a joy we want to share — these are the people we can talk to.
“And with the men, you know, with just a touch on the shoulder, you know they’re there,” he added. “And they’ll do whatever you need.”
“It’s a phenomenon called sym-pathetic resonance or sympathetic vibrations,” said world-class musician, composer and commercial real estate agent Gilbert Trout, a member of Shearith Israel Congregation.
Trout said that even though he and his fellow congregants pray together every day, there isn’t much conversation between them. “Doing something positive together makes a community, and I feel close to them just because of that time spent together.”