A Secular Jewish Alternative


I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.

Jewish Children's Folkshul of PhiladelphiaIn Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.

The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.

I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.

For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.

4 thoughts on “A Secular Jewish Alternative”

  • Please check out a program in which 6th and 7th graders can do service projects in a safe and supervised setting. My Philly Mitzvah Project will enable B’nei Mitzvah students to fulfill the “Mitzvah” portion of their preparation through participation in local service projects. Some students may have already chosen a personal project, but for others this might be the perfect answer to a time when they are overwhelmed by all the decisions they are making. For some parents the idea of having an organized as well as supervised program where their children can meet other teens and do service together would be quite appealing. Copy the following into your browser for more information:

    Note: Jewish Community High School is a supplementary Jewish High School with many different branch locations throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Our students attend public and private schools and come to Gratz for their Jewish connection! Students are from all religious backgrounds and we provide our students with a caring and respectful atmosphere, taking into account each student’s social,emotional and intellectual needs and abilities.

  • Jewish Children’s Folkshul is part of CSJO, The Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, which is an international organization focused on promoting and educating a secular Jewish world view. CSJO is comprised of communities, schools and individual members.

    If you are looking for a way to be culturally Jewish, looking for a way to connect with your Jewishness through the history, culture, and ethical values of the Jewish people, looking for a way to celebrate Jewish holidays and life cycle events with relevant and meaningful words and music, looking for a way to express a Jewishness that’s progressive, modern, and personal, looking for a Jewish community that welcomes all Jews, including multicultural families, gay men and women, and self-identified Jews, or looking for an educational or enriching program for yourself, your children, or your whole family then consider finding a local group at csjo.org!

  • For those seeking Secular Humanistic Judaism around the country, Canada and Israel, consider exploring the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s listings at shj.org.
    There are many exciting, thriving communities doing Jewish, welcoming interfaith couples and families and providing options that emphasize culture and values.
    Beth Ami in Colorado offers services, holiday celebrations, youth and adult education, all life cycle events and engagement with many other Jewish groups in the Denver/Boulder area.

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