Achim on the Web
From 1926 (three years after its founding) until 2010, MRJ (formerly the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods) printed and distributed the premier Jewish men’s magazine in North America. For over four decades the magazine was called The Jewish Layman, then the magazine’s title was changed to Brotherhood in the 1950’s, and then again in the late 1990’s to Achim (Hebrew for Brothers). Throughout its nearly 85 years of publication, the magazine sought to provide brotherhood members with outstanding articles on numerous topics of interest to adult Jewish men, from men’s health, Israel, contemporary gender issues, to updates on the national organization’s programs (e.g., the Jewish Chautauqua Society and Reform on Campus). Achim-on-the-Web has been designed to use ‘new’ technology, but seeks to continue that proud 85 year tradition of excellence!
Brother Keepers: New Essays in Jewish Masculinity:
Co-edited by Harry Brod and Rabbi Shawn Israel ZevitPublished by Men's Studies Press: Order from www.menstudies.com
A MAN OF VALOR
Rabbi Shawn Israel ZevitA man of valor
WHY MEN GATHER (The Jewish Men’s Retreat Journey- excerpted)
Allen Spivack and Yosaif August
Brother Keepers: New Essays in Jewish Maculinity:
Co-edited by Harry Brod and Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit
Published by Men's Studies Press: Order from www.menstudies.com
(The following is excerpted and re-worked by Harry Brod and Rabbi Shawn Zevit from the Introduction and Dedication of Brother Keepers: New Essays in Jewish Masculinity: copyright Men's Studies Press 2010.)
Our title of Brother Keepers is of course intended to provide an affirmative answer to the question posed by Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?’ It is also indebted to the term “brotherkeeper” originated in the early 1990’s by Yosaif August, co-author of the essay on the Jewish Men’s Retreat excerpted below. He defined a brotherkeeper as “a man who inspires other men to be their best,” and used it to create a brotherkeeper button which he continues to see as a catalyst for men to reach out and support each other’s growth. Hundreds of these buttons have been utilized as part of the closing ceremonies of the Jewish Men’s Retreat over the past twenty years where each new attendee is given three buttons: one for themselves, and two to give out to men in their lives who either embody the qualities of a brotherkeeper or whom they want to inspire to move in that direction. Our book shares such inspirational aspirations.
For years, we had been tossing around the idea of joining to co-edit a sequel to an edited book Harry published in 1988, A Mensch Among Men: Explorations in Jewish Masculinity. Through our mutual interest in Jewish men’s issues, we had gotten to know each other when we lived in Philadelphia in the late 90s. Our idea now was to combine the essays we had in hand with the project we had envisioned. The result is this book and the excerpts we offer you, both setting the intention from the book's dedication, and connected to the title, from the chapter on the Jewish Men's retreat at Elat Chayyim/Isabella Freedman in honor of the 20th annual retreat to be held in September of 2011 (http://isabellafreedman.org/mens):
A MAN OF VALOR
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit A man of valor
He has been found.
His compassionate heart
Shines like the sun.
His passion is embodied, shared,
More than words,
He lives out the search
For a balanced life
In a loving commitment
And the welfare of the planet.
His love includes and transcends
Those his soul touches.
His courage to explore
To holy and ethical action
Is not limited by a theological particular
Yet he grasps his place in a Cosmos
Of incredible beauty and suffering.
He knows the testament to his leadership
Lies not in how many followers he has
But how many leaders he raises up.
Is like the heaviest steel
Unbreakable, yet flexible
In the cauldron of life.
Radiates the gift
He embraces life’s lessons.
In his heart there is a longing
To fill the empty spaces
And connect beneath the faces
To touch to feel the intimate.
Through the lessons of his losses
Felt the grief and empty darkness
Fill with deep love and the promise
Of a healing.
A man of valor
A man of God.
We dedicate this book to all the men of valor, and the men and women who supported and challenged them to become the role models, inspirations and teachers who have enabled us to reach this moment.
WHY MEN GATHER (The Jewish Men’s Retreat Journey- excerpted)
Allen Spivack and Yosaif August
Jewish men gather-to pray, share stories, solve a vexing problem, to complain, and even to worry a bit. Yes, generations of Jewish men have found their ways of connecting and through a variety of affiliations have found unique opportunities to connect as men and as Jews. The typical synagogue not so many years ago depended on men to bring their skills to ensure that the “shul” remained a vibrant, thriving institution. They hired and fired, raised money, established rules of governance and “mentored” leadership. Such was also the case in their lives as businessmen where the community of Jewish men developed a unique kind of “relating” (not unlike men of other ethnic groups) that established a special kind of trust and privilege. Perhaps no other group characterized this gathering of men as the synagogue’s brotherhood- a way of enticing a broader network of men to participate in synagogue life. Just remember those savory Sunday “brotherhood breakfasts” where men cooked and served and cleaned. There were other venues for men to gather too- the Bnai Brith lodges, charity golf tournaments, friendly poker games, Jewish only country clubs, and the Jewish Community Center sports teams.
Why did these men-our fathers, uncles, family friends, brothers-participate in these groups and activities? And what did they hope to get out of them? Seen from our perspective of today, these affiliations gave men opportunities to connect in an informal way since, for most, more “natural” opportunities (such as child-rearing and school-based activities through children) rarely existed for them in their lives. In my view, men were coaxed into these groups and then found something that they longed for- special and valued companionship through back slaps, humor, cooperation and teamwork that was generally unavailable in their “worlds of work.”
While these times of connection were often fleeting, many men used their Jewishness as the glue to build and sustain meaningful relationships.
My father is a classic example of this kind of affiliation. Nathan Spivack owned a pharmacy and usually worked seven days a week, often twelve hours a day. He had little relief from the daily grind of work. Fortunately, we lived in an apartment above the store, and so I was often entrusted to bring him lunch and dinner. I spent a lot of time with him in the store- talking, learning the business (as an eight year old!), even helping to stock shelves and wait on customers. He had so little time for anything other than his work. But there was one thing he always made time for, no matter how fatigued he might be, his twice monthly poker games rotated from house to house among the ten men who were part of the group. All Jewish, he had met these men either through business connections, the husbands of my mother’s friends or from activities he attended from time to time at the local conservative synagogue.
These games seemed to brush away the tiredness of his day. When the game was at our house, the men would gather, smoke, have a few drinks and eat some delicacies my mother prepared. Nat (as my father was called), allowed me to come and sit on his lap before bedtime. The men joked and chatted and exuded a sense of comradeship and devotion for each other. Now I appreciate how much they all relished their time together. When my father died suddenly, many of these men extended themselves to my family offering us comfort and support.
As I became a married man myself and father, I wondered how I would find my connections to other men. Like many men my age, life revolved around two activities-work and time with my wife and two sons. We had an active social network, but personally, I had few men with whom I could be in relationship. We always seemed to be with couples, and there were few opportunities available to establish my own time and space.
Like my father, I found many of my significant opportunities through Jewish connections, but unlike him, I found an alternative to the more casual relationship-building that went on with many of the men of my father’s generation. It was the 1970s and the world was awash in gender politics. Not only did we as men reexamine our attitudes and relationships with women but with men as well. I intentionally sought out other men who, like me, wanted relationships with men that were based on openness and intimacy. I hoped that by consciously cultivating supportive relationships with other men, I would discover new connections that would help me to find my voice, to understand power issues in my relationships, to nurture my sense of caring, to master a new vocabulary of relating, and to accept that men can love each other in profound ways.
As it happened, several men, all members of our spiritual community (an egalitarian, lay-led Minyan), discussed forming a father’s group. The group’s primary focus would be on our role as fathers. Inevitably, such discussions led to conversations about our relationship with partners and then to our relationship with parents, especially our fathers. And so it went. The six of us remained together for nearly sixteen years, meeting every three weeks. As Jewish men, we each owned a unique upbringing around Jewish learning and practice. Our politics differed widely, especially about Israel. Several of the group had spent years in the Jewish education system. Many of us struggled from time to time with our practice and ritual observance or had different expectations about ritual practice than our spouses. Yet it was our Jewish core that served as a unifying theme for us-whether to send children to the Jewish day schools or to take them out, how to understand the life cycle events we celebrated, and our dilemma when our children dated non-Jewish men or women.
We worked at building our connections with each other and defining how we as a group needed to evolve to sustain ourselves. These years of sharing and connecting really manifested itself for me during the High Holidays. I liked to stand in the sanctuary before our services began and search out each of my men. I could feel the wonderful strength and power of our collective history. It was nothing less than the power of love. This experience of connecting to my brothers made it possible for me to acknowledge that the traditional ways of being in relationship with other men in my life wasn’t working. The six of us had spent years breaking through barriers and building up connections, and now this new paradigm needed to be “the” model for my future relations with other men.
Our meetings were powerful reminders of this emerging new consciousness. We met every three weeks, and usually there was plenty to discuss about events in our lives. There was no agenda per se other than the agenda of listening. We evolved a set of simple, unspoken rules: no facilitators and no topics; check-in and listen; ask questions; offer support when requested; don’t get angry; don’t discuss sex. We would check-in about the past weeks-work, spouse, children, parents, ourselves, Israel, our spiritual community, the group rules. Frequently, someone would request time to discuss a contentious issue with a recalcitrant adolescent or a troublesome issue with an aging parent or a spouse who was unsupportive. We were a group of men, all now married, several divorced , with hundreds of years of cumulative relationship experience and we talked and shared and gave advice. We did this for 16 years, until it was time to move on.
The sinews that held us together all those years still keep us connected even though our group no longer exists. We share a love that only comes when men like us choose to sit together and open ourselves in honest and thoughtful ways. Our years together built trust and deep interconnections that allowed me to expose some of those painful personal stories that often remain hidden and haunting. One such tale began when, as an 11 years old, my father suddenly died at age 53. Our family was devastated, and I can remember feeling abandoned, lost, drifting and alone. My mother, in her desperation to help me cope, sent me to a local psychiatrist whom my father had helped out on a number of occasions. As I entered his office for the first visit, I saw two enormous German Sheppard dogs approaching me, snarling and then barking. I was terrified. Dr. Cass was close by and gave a command. They quickly quieted down and retreated. He led me to his office and we talked-about what I can’t recall. All I did was think about those dogs.
I continued to see Dr. Cass, and each time it was the same- the dogs, the barking, the fear. We talked about learning to deal with tragedy and moving on and finding ways to survive even when many obstacles stand in our way. He befriended me and kept repeating this theme of surviving and enduring. One Sunday, he took me on a trip to visit his two teenage sons who were living that summer at a camp on land Dr. Cass owned. He had built a simple dwelling for them and a few outbuildings, and his goal was to have them learn to manage on their own, to survive. When we arrived, they were glad to see him, but he kept his distance. They went to the car with him and brought back their supplies for the next two weeks. As they showed me around, there was a corral for several farm animals. Dr. Cass told me to pull the wires apart and go in, but when I touched the wires, I got a jolt of electricity that stunned me. He looked at me and said, “Don’t always do what people tell you to do.” All I thought about were the dogs.
On the drive home, Dr. Cass told me about his experiences in World War II-being a soldier in the Army, being captured in the Pacific and being a prisoner of war for several years. How he had endured death marches and deprivation and other horrors. How he wanted to make sure his sons knew how to survive and take care of themselves no matter the situation. Now I started to understand the dogs. The irony was that this bizarre, sick man taught me how to survive and endure through many difficulties in my life. He taught me resolve and resiliency and being watchful. He even had my mother send me to an Outward Bound School so I would know “how to survive on my own.”
The father’s group offered us all the opportunity to bear witness and to embrace a new vision of what was possible. This group of men helped me to become a man like my father, a man I deeply loved and admired, to learn ways to nurture and support, to kiss a man out of love, to relish the unique physical contact that men can share with each other. This group taught me how we could use one another to rehearse the new selves we wanted to become. It also opened the other possibilities for my own growth, if I was willing to be adventurous, daring and take some risks. I soon found this opportunity for my adventurous spirit when I heard about a Jewish Men’s Retreat (JMR) at a place called Elat Chayyim in the Catskills. My way to the JMR was both circuitous and fortuitous.
After leaving my full-time fundraising work with the local Jewish federation and spending two years staying at home caring for my two sons when my wife went back to work, I began to spend some of those free hours doing handyman jobs here and there. I always had some facility for manual work and learned as I went. People always needed a little of this and a little of that done, and soon enough I had a real business! I started getting busy. The handyman work became a home renovation business with employees and partners and lots of tools and equipment.
I used to call myself the "other Jewish carpenter" and many of my clients were people in the Jewish community. Many thought it odd to have a Jew doing this kind of work. I still juggled caring for my sons and work, dropping them off at school, running to the lumber yard, “strapping on the toolbelt”, working and supervising, meeting with my business partners, and then picking the boys up and heading to after-school activities. Evenings were filled with dinner and then looking at potential jobs and doing estimates. As the business grew, I needed another carpenter and hired Steve, yet another Jewish carpenter! We worked well together and talked about everything from framing to family life, from nail guns to finding our way in this new world as men. Who would have ever suspected that my entry point into this lifelong work-helping men to find healing and strength-would come from banging nails? This is certainly one of the great ironies of my life- a true re-visioning of my masculine identity in that most masculine of male bastions- the building trades.
One day Steve told me about a Jewish men’s retreat he attended the previous year, and how it had opened him up to so many new possibilities in his relationship with other men and with his wife. I asked him, “What’s so different about this retreat? I mean I’m already in a father’s group.” But there was something in his voice that intrigued me about this event.
He talked about the singing, the conversation at meals, the davenning and spirited praying and even dancing, the small group meetings that helped each man to search deeply. Steve said that Torah stories came alive and took on a whole, new meaning.
Steve encouraged me to attend the third JMR in the fall 1994 with him, and we made the drive from Boston to a place called Elat Chayyim, then in Accord, New York. As we entered the main building, I noticed that there were lots of drums scattered about. Men embraced. What was this Jewish Renewal everyone was talking about? I remember feeling anxious and uneasy and wondered if I had done the right thing agreeing to attend. Yet as the weekend progressed, I recall how profoundly I was moved by so many things-the intensity of the davennen, the spirited singing and dancing, the willingness of many men to reveal the pain in their lives, the risk-taking and sharing and sense of self-discovery that exploded around me. I was captivated and paralyzed simultaneously.
This is how I found my way to the JMR, an event unlike anything I have ever experienced before, or since, in my adult life. Men come together for a weekend and weave themselves into a community of brothers. Men let go of pretense, posturing, and their armor as each steps delicately into a world of new expectations where openness, softness and caring are the norm. Men move beyond the masks of their normal lives- as the breadwinner, husband, father, son, sexual purveyor, competitor, stoic- and venture out on new turf where suddenly the rules of engagement are different. It has been a painstaking journey- embracing those new personal masks that strengthen, support and enrich me and discarding those that restrict, limit and subvert who I believe I want and need to be.
For example, I chose to be a full-time partner and a full-time father. I chose to find an emotional core for myself by discarding those stereotyped beliefs about how men need "to be". I chose to find humor and lots of laughter in life. I tore off that mask of indestructibility and invulnerability and chose instead to love hugging men and finding new ways of building intimacy and doing work that I cared about. I gave up the mask of a stodgy, uninspired Jewish practice for the exuberance of Jewish Renewal. I rejected the security of playing it safe and making sure everyone was happy and painted a mask that let me take more risks and accept more failures. I ask “what would I love to be doing?” rather than “what should I be doing?” While Steve never came back, I never stopped attending.
Mine is a familiar story for those many men who have participated in this remarkable event. Each man is an accretion of personal stories and experiences -some more dramatic and challenging, others more pained and tragic-but events that shaped each person’s journey toward manhood and beyond. Some men attend once and disappear while others return, year after year, building a strong, loyal corps of mensches who reserve one special weekend in October for the JMR. We return year after year to celebrate our companionship, exuberance, acceptance, spirit and sense of renewal.