LOS ANGELES, Sept. 19 (JTA) — A law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired army colonel have one thing in common. They are Jews who generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yet, they are neither self-hating Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of American Jews, and 44 percent of Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Service. Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Pearl grew up in Bnei Brak, a fervently Orthodox enclave in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chasid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a non-believer, but Pearl did just that at the age of 11. “I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed,” he said. “Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers.” Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make kiddush. “My parents and grandparents did this and I do so in their memory,” he said. “Or perhaps to show my daughters something about their tradition.” Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills. “I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit,” he said. In other years, he will take the holiday walk along city streets. “For me, it’s a way of being of this world and not being of this world,” Israel said. He was raised in a Reform family in New York and had a bar mitzvah, but stopped going to synagogue during his college years. However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, “Somehow, it’s a cleansing experience.” Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, and generally walks out of the High Holiday services before they conclude. A University of California, Los Angeles law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues. However, “I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual,” he said. And “I don’t like other people praying for me.” Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and 1940s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, “but we always had chicken soup,” he recalled. “And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes.” When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah. “They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles,” he said. “I read without understanding anything.” As an adult, Rubenstein moved to Los Angeles, got married, and when his two daughters grew up, “they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it nor against it,” he said. Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, “more to listen to the sermon than for the service.” But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined. So what makes Rubinstein a Jew at all? “Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment, it’s in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about,” he replied. “I feel connected to Israel and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated.” Dr. Irwin Silberman’s great-grandfather was born in Safed, Israel. Six of his seven sons became rabbis. The exception was Silberman’s father, a jeweler, who immigrated to the United States. Today, Silberman is a tall, hearty world traveler, after retiring as a colonel from the army and subsequently from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. His father was a physician with the Navy. Young Irwin had his first taste of High Holiday services in Norfolk, Virginia, and found them boring and incomprehensible. He had a “rushed” bar mitzvah, because his father was about to go overseas. “It felt like a graduation and I felt I had now done my duty,” Silberman said. His first Jewish act post-bar mitzvah was to get married at a Reform temple. But Silberman does not reject his ancestral past. “I feel connected to Jews by a bond of common heritage,” he said. “We’ll meet a Jewish couple on a cruise and feel drawn to them. I know they grew up in the same environment and the man was also called a ‘Jewboy’ at some time.”
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.