A Shul for Secular Jews in America

The million-plus American Jews who declare they are 'of no religion' don’t want dogma or liturgy but are still hungry for community and Jewish identity.

Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen
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Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen

The recent Pew Research Center survey findings that almost one-third of Jewish-American millenials (those born after 1980) describe themselves as having no religion - and that this cohort is far less likely to marry other Jews, raise their children Jewish or feel connected to the Jewish community – has provoked considerable hand-wringing in the institutional Jewish community. Even Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the liberal Jewish Daily Forward, described the survey results as “devastating." Slate magazine columnist Jessica Grose, a millenial, is sad, worried and guilty that American Jews are abandoning religion so broadly. Nonetheless, she says, “I can’t see myself bringing my daughter to temple every Friday to honor a God I don’t believe in. What’s the solution?”

Almost thirty years ago, a small group of Boston-area parents, who were struggling with that very question, came together to find an answer that would work for them. Hailing from families – including ones with a non-Jewish partner - whose range of religious observance and non-observance was wide, these young adults agreed that the available options of Jewish denominational practice wouldn’t work for them. Politically progressive and non-religious boomers, they were intent on raising their children in an inclusive community that would impart a Jewish identity grounded in history, culture and ethical values, rather than a particular dogma or liturgy. They started a small Sunday school, a shul, with one class of about ten students, and launched what has grown into today’s Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice (BWC).

BWC has become a Jewish communal home in Boston for many of the Jews-of-no-religion and intermarried families the Pew survey identified. Last month, its secular High Holy Day observances drew close to 600 multi-generational participants to moving – and for many, “spiritual” – services that resonate with the emblematic sounds of timeless Jewish practice (Kol Nidre, the Shema and the Shehecheyanu blessing, for example), while focusing on the holidays’ ethical lessons for living in the here and now. Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino songs are interspersed with contemporary readings and folk ballads that deliver calls for social justice and Middle East peace.

What’s the draw? Clearly, many of the non-religious, unaffiliated, often intermarried, politically progressive Jews identified in the Pew study are hungry for both community, akin to a denominational “congregation,” and a non-exclusivist, cultural Jewish identity for themselves and their children. To service those needs, BWC’s secular shul now teaches close to 100 young people, from pre-kindergarten through its community bar/bat mitzvah celebration, at which each graduate speaks publicly about what it means for her or him to be Jewish.

BWC hosts Shabbat dinners, a large community seder and other holiday gatherings. It offers Yiddish classes and adult education on a range of Jewishness-related topics. (This fall’s program focuses on Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi culture.) Social justice activities include a Middle East Working Group (long ago declaring its support for an end to the occupation and a viable two-state solution), an Acting for Economic Justice committee (focusing on workers’ and immigrants’ rights), and active participation in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (addressing issues like universal health care and income inequality). A few years ago BWC took a leading role in promoting Jewish-Muslim relations in Boston, in the wake of a conflict over the building of a new mosque. And BWC boasts what it contends is the largest Yiddish chorus in the known universe, 100 strong, singing at Holocaust memorials, historic commemorations and interfaith and cultural events.

BWC isn’t alone. Its Sunday School is a member of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring network of Learning Communities that includes locations in Long Island, midtown Manhattan and Westchester, New York. A 113-year old fraternal organization founded to assist immigrant Jews in their transition to life in America, WC/AR today organizes and promotes communities that learn and celebrate Jewish culture, values and social justice activism together.

The Pew survey clearly suggests that the million-plus American “Jews of no religion” - many of whom both value their identity as Jews and espouse liberal views - offer fertile ground for the seeding of new Jewish culture and social justice communities around the country. But: can these communities sustain themselves? BWC takes that challenge very seriously. Several years ago, its board of directors, recognizing that millenials weren’t well represented in either the overall membership or in leadership, decided to invest significant staff time into a young adult organizing project. Today, BWC’s signature event for this cohort – its “radical” Purim Party, “Gragger” – attracts 300 young adults. Twenty-somethings who were drawn in a few years ago are now getting married and having babies, and are actively organizing their peers. Sunday school enrollment has grown 20 percent in the past three years. Parental leadership for the school consists entirely of a new generation of (30 and 40-something) parents. And the BWC board is now one-third young adults; the new president is 28.

Understandably, the Pew study has sounded an alarm for some sectors of the Jewish community. But for Boston Workmen’s Circle and its kindred Jewish cultural and social justice communal organizations, it confirms what they already knew. They offer a Jewish address for the perhaps hundreds of thousands of progressive “Jews of no religion” and their families, who now find themselves homeless. Some part of the Jewish American future – perhaps a significant part - lies down this path.

Michael Felsen is an attorney and member of the board of Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. From 2007-2013 he was president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, which he has written about here.

A Boston Workmen's Circle demonstrationCredit: Boston Workmen's Circle

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