An Idea

I participate in a few writing groups. One of the groups is specifically for memoir. Last Thursday I shared a piece with that group which may be the introduction to my book. I say ‘may be’ because the project is still so raw, I can imagine that it might change. That aside, the essay I brought explored my identity as a secular Jew – a person who identifies with the culture (the values, humor, food and history) but not the faith in God. I was gratified to receive positive feedback from the group. One person in particular commented that I got it exactly right – it resonated with his own experience. It was encouraging.

Friday night I went to Sabbath services at a local reform synagogue because a friend was celebrating her bat mitzvah. It is quite an undertaking to achieve one’s bat mitzvah, especially as an adult, since it involves learning to read Hebrew and chanting in front of the congregation. My friend had been studying for a solid year. I was very pleased for her and know it was quite meaningful for her and her family.

Over the years I have flirted with the idea of studying for my bat mitzvah. When I was growing up it was not common for girls to go through the process. The first time I seriously considered it was when my children were getting further along in their Hebrew School education and I wanted to be supportive. I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t read Hebrew. We were going to services regularly at that point and I thought I would get more out of it if I studied. So, I took some classes with our rabbi. The classes had an unfortunate effect of reinforcing my lack of belief. Though I appreciated learning to read Hebrew (which I didn’t keep up so I no longer can), the discussions we had focused on the meaning of rituals and how they related to God. It left me cold. After trying a few different classes, I stopped.

I would not go so far as to claim that I am an atheist. I am in doubt as to the existence of a higher power. I am not in doubt, though, about the emptiness I feel when saying the prayers that are part of the liturgy of synagogue services. The God of those prayers, the God described in the Torah, doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t worship that God. But I like the feeling of gathering in community for common purpose.

Sitting in the sanctuary Friday night, I thought once again about becoming a bat mitzvah. And, once again, I rejected it. I keep running into the same wall – how can I go through the motions of professing a faith I simply don’t have. I do have faith, but it isn’t in that God. My faith is in the potential of humanity. (I can write about how that belief is currently being tested, but that is a subject for another time.)

I feel a kinship with other Jews – we often share a sensibility, as well as all the things I mentioned above that are part of our culture. I would like to nurture that connection.

While sitting through the service on Friday night, on the heels of my experience at Thursday night’s memoir group, I had an idea. Could there be a place for secular Jews? I started imagining a center of study (of our history), a place to explore and develop our shared values, to share food and humor. I could imagine celebrating holidays there, but without all the praying to God.

We are coming up on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This period of time doesn’t need God to be meaningful to me. I have always appreciated it as a time of reflection, an opportunity for growth and to make amends with people who I have wronged. I would welcome the opportunity to gather with people to observe the holiday, to discuss the challenges that introspection brings. We could still blow the shofar as the symbolic reawakening that it is intended to be.

Does such a thing exist? One could argue that the Jewish Community Center (JCC) plays some of that role. But, it doesn’t really. Maybe it could, but so much of the emphasis there is on recreation and servicing specific populations (children and seniors) – as it should. Other programming is offered, but not what I am imagining.

The great fear of Jewish organizations is that the religion will die. After surviving centuries of persecution, it may die of neglect. The only areas of growth are among the Hasidic and Modern Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking and struggling. My future, as a Jew, will not be with Hasidism or Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure my children won’t go that route either. Is there a viable alternative? Is it possible to create a movement of secular Jews?


4 thoughts on “An Idea

  1. Excellent essay. I agree with so much of what you have written. I feel proud to be Jewish by culture and history. But, like you, the belief in the liturgy is lacking. I enjoyed Passover at Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara’s house last spring for two reasons – 1) the family was all together; and 2) whenever we read the Hagaddah (spelling?), I feel a sense of unity with all the Jews in the world that are doing the same thing on the same night. I don’t have a religious feeling about these kind of occasions. I really like your idea of having a secular Jewish center where we could explore our history and traditions. I do get some of the experiences of secular sharing through my Jewish women’s groups (I belong to two). Thanks for writing about something a lot of people don’t discuss. As usual, it’s very thought-provoking.


  2. This blog post is extremely thought provoking and I have given it some thought. You make several important statements of fact that I will briefly repeat.
    First, Jewish survival is threatened. Second orthodox and Hasidic Jews are increasing in numbers while the rest of us are dwindling.
    Why are the non-orthodox groups declining? By and large, the answer is understood to be intermarriage which eventually can lead to the children or grandchildren no longer being Jewish. This is not always true, but it is often true. Perhaps those Jews just don’t have enough connection left to sustain the hard work of being a minority.
    This brings me to my final point: critical mass. The one place where a population of mostly secular Jews stays Jewish is Israel. Is there a way to do what you imagine and generate critical mass here in the US?
    Thank you.


  3. I suspect there are more than just you feeling this way and just not speaking up as not to be “A bad Jew”. Is there a way to frame it as a group to study the history and culture without prayer because prayer is a deeply personal thing? Is there a Program Group at the JCC which looks at “Program Pitches” and they’d be willing to offer a meeting space if you were willing to do the leg work so to speak?


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