Secular Judaism bounces back in US

By Sue Fishkoff, March 4, 2010
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When Mark Neuman of Vancouver celebrated his barmitzvah seven years ago at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, he did not read from Torah, wear a kippah or say Hebrew blessings - he gave a talk on the psychology of Jewish humour.

That's how bar- and batmitzvahs are marked in the Congress of Secular Jewish Organisations, a loose-knit association of about two dozen North American communities that celebrate Jewish history and culture while disavowing Jewish ritual and belief in God.

"I feel Jewish," says Mr Neuman, now 20 and a teacher at the Peretz Centre. "It's about the history, the Holocaust, the holidays, the language - all these are very important to me. But I don't believe in the religious aspects."

The Secular Jewish movement, founded four decades ago, is a more Yiddish-centric, socialist cousin of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which has roots in the Reform movement, ordains rabbis and holds Shabbat services.

Both belong to the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews. Communities affiliated with the Congress do not hold worship services, although they do mark the major Jewish holidays by focusing on their cultural-historic significance, or importance in the agricultural calendar.

The secular movement has very little infrastructure, few rules, and no pulpit rabbis. But as other North American Jewish groups struggle to retain members, the number of communities affiliating with the Congress has held steady for decades.

More to the point, the Congress has been quite successful at holding on to the children and grandchildren of the founding generation.

What keeps them involved? For some, it is a way to stay in touch with childhood friends. For others, the pull is more intellectual - they don't believe in a deity and feel uncomfortable at worship services.

But many point out that the children of secular Jews stay involved because they see how committed their parents are to the movement. Parents don't drop kids off for religious school; they come into the building for their own adult learning. In the absence of rabbis, it is the parents who do the teaching, who help the children prepare for their barmitzvahs, who decorate the community Succah.

"It's very clear to us that our parents and grandparents are very committed to this," says 22-year-old Shoshana Seid-Green, who co-chaired this first West Coast Regional Conference with her 20-year-old sister Yael.

Jewish secularism is making a comeback in America. Popular in the early 20th century, it fell into disfavour during the Cold War, when it became associated with Communism. But as fewer young American Jews today anchor their Jewish identities in the Holocaust and Israel, they are looking to earlier, pre-war models of Jewish engagement. That includes Yiddish literature, Jewish history and Jewish ethical values - all central parts of Jewish secularism.

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey shows that American Jews are more secular than Americans in general, and younger Jews are more secular than their elders. Thirty seven per cent of Jews responding to the survey said they have "no religion", versus 15 per cent of all Americans. Nearly half of the Jews described themselves as "secular" or "somewhat secular."

Last updated: 4:58pm, March 4 2010