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Without Any Help from God, Humanistic Jews Look to Expand

May 9, 2006
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When Rebekah Rosenfeld was 10 years old, she started the “I don’t believe in God” club. A logical choice for Rosenfeld, since she was raised in a secular humanist Jewish family in Rochester, N.Y. “We didn’t actually do anything,” Rosenfeld recalls with a chuckle, “but I had this idea that I was going to form this atheist club. I even made up application forms.”

Now, 11 years later, a junior at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, Rosenfeld admits she is not so sure.

Rosenfeld, who delivered the teen and young adult keynote address at the conference of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, describes herself as on a search, and says that while she values her upbringing, she is trying to find a level of observance that is comfortable for her.

Rosenfeld’s search exemplifies the challenge faced by the organization.

Founded in 1969 by a small group led by Sherwin Wine, an ordained rabbi who left the Reform movement, the Society for Humanistic Judaism rejects the concept of God. Instead, adherents celebrate Shabbat, holidays and b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, emphasizing Jewish identity through the lens of Jewish cultural and historical traditions.

At a time when Jewish organizations are continuing their seemingly eternal quest to attract younger Jews, leaders of the Society of Humanistic Judaism say the tenets of their philosophical, humanist approach to Judaism most resembles the secular character of a majority of Jews today.

Its leaders are embarking on new initiatives to attract new members in the United States, Israel and, increasingly, in Europe and South America.

The April 28-30 conference of 120 participants from across the United States attracted 40 teens and college students who participated in workshops such as Women in Humanism and volunteered for a community service program at a local charitable organization.

The conference posthumously honored Sigmund Freud on the 150th anniversary of his birth. The society says the beliefs of the leading figure in modern psychology epitomized the tenets of secular Judaism.

The humanistic movement would be wise to avoid the tactic of merely trying to reel in young American Jews, cautions Joshua Neuman, who is editor and publisher of Heeb Magazine, which caters to young Jews in their 20s and 30s.

In his keynote speech at the Cambridge, Mass., convention, Neuman, who is not affiliated with the movement, describes his generation as having no connection to organized Jewish life, “although many [have] a feeling of deep connection to their Jewish identities.”

Young people are looking for authentic experiences, and are drawn to “real, open-ended conversations where there aren’t preordained answers, and about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century,” Neuman told JTA.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism is in a unique position to connect with young Jews if they respond to these needs, he says.

The appeal of cultural Judaism to young people is evident in the rise in interest in Jewish college courses, says Susan Shapiro, associate professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts.

“There are clearly students who would not take Judaic studies courses if they are about the Jewish religion, but they would take courses on Jewish culture,” says Shapiro, a member of the board of the Center for Cultural Judaism in New York, which provides grants to her department as well as other Judaic studies programs to develop and teach courses.

Courses on Jewish culture offer a “way in” for many students because they come from secular families, or because they are not religious themselves but want a connection, Shapiro says.

While a majority of Jewish college students define themselves as secular, this does not mean they subscribe to the principles of humanistic Judaism, says Amy Sales, co-author of the recent Brandeis University study “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus.”

Sales cautions that college students don’t use the same language used by followers of humanistic Judaism. “We find that there are students who define themselves as secular or non-denominational Jews but they’re not atheists.”

The mission of attracting new members of all ages rests in large part on the increasing number of leaders being trained in the secular Judaism movement.

“We feel we are serving a part of the Jewish people who have not been adequately served before and that gives us great gratification.”

From the first humanistic congregation at the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Mich., in 1963, the Society of Humanistic Judaism has grown to 31 local branches in North America serving 10,000 members.

While the society began with individual memberships, they found people were looking for a group or congregation, explains Rabbi Miriam Jerris, director of the society’s international rabbinic program.

The rabbinic program, which Jerris says includes traditional studies of biblical text, Talmud as well as practical studies in congregational life, is a four-year program, including one year of field work. Students are required to have at least an accredited master’s degree in Jewish studies, which they can earn simultaneously, Jerris says. They must also know Hebrew.

With 11 ordained rabbis in North America, the society is attracting a growing number of students into its own rabbinical program.

Since 1997, eight rabbis have been ordained, and three more are enrolled in the four-year program, says Jerris, who was the group’s first executive director. Jerris has known Wine since her childhood, when he was the rabbi at her Reform congregation in Canada.

Last Friday, Rabbi Peter Schweitzer was inducted as the first full-time humanistic rabbi in New York, at the City Congregation, a humanistic congregation that will receive a $50,000 Pivnick community development grant established by Lorraine and Ben Pivnick. Adat Chaverim in Los Angeles is the second recipient of the three-year grant announced at the conference.

Schweitzer, who like Wine was ordained in the Reform movement, left his position at a Reform congregation in 1982 when he realized his secular beliefs did not mesh with the Reform philosophy.

But the latest and most exciting frontier for the society is unfolding in Israel, according to Wine, where, in December, for the first time, nine rabbis who are enrolled in the Israeli branch of its rabbinical institute will be ordained.

Others will follow, Wine predicts, as there are 34 Israeli students currently enrolled in the institute, located in Jerusalem.

“Israel was established by secular Zionists, not by conventionally religious Jews,” Wine says.

But Wine says that there has never been a movement that has adequately served the philosophic or spiritual needs of the mostly secular Jews in Israel.

Wine points to the large number of Israelis who go to India following their army service. “They’re searching for some kind of message,” he says.

“We weren’t sure what the response would be,” Wine recalls of the decision to establish a rabbinic institute in Israel, at the urging of an Israeli rabbi who was ordained in the North American program.

“Most secularists had been hostile to any form of ‘institutionalization.’ But we found there were a considerable number of people interested in becoming secular rabbis.”

The Israeli rabbinical students range in age from 30 to 50 years old, and are choosing a second career, Wine says, many having worked as teachers, social workers and community organizers.

“They really feel they have a mission. They have organized themselves as a group of people who can perform secular ceremonies for people, for newborn babies, bar and bat mitzvahs, and funerals, and are beginning to create their own communities.”

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