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We Don't Need No Stinkin' Religion: A New Cultural Center Caters to the Secular Members of the Tribe

This article is reprinted with permission of Jewsweek.com. Visit www.jewsweek.com

July 31, 2003 -- When Benji Lovitt goes into work every day at the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, he's affirming his Jewish identity as much as if he was walking into synagogue. In fact, he may be affirming it more. A recent survey shows that Jews are becoming increasingly disaffiliated from synagogue life and a new organization has stepped in to fill that void.

This summer saw the launch of the New York-based Center for Cultural Judaism (CCJ), an association with a broad mission whose goal is to reach out to non-religious, secular or cultural Jews like Lovitt. Fueled by funding from the Posen Foundation, a group whose work tends towards the secular side of Judaism, the new CCJ has an optimistic, if overly expansive and slightly hazy, mission.

For many, this attempt to snatch the religion out of the religious experience seems ludicrous and, to some, even antithetical to core Jewish beliefs and values. "There is a danger of 'dumbing down' Judaism," argues Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Policy for Agudath Israel, "of sending the message that a complex and beautiful religious tradition that Jews have lived, and even died for, over the course of 3,000 years is nothing more than a 'culture,' and can be 'updated' or discarded at will."

Myrna Baron, Executive Director of the Center for Cultural Judaism, obviously disagrees. "The religious definition is very narrow compared to the full cultural experience of the Jewish people," she says. "We think that it's a very full and vibrant cultural heritage that can be understood and celebrated and studied, and it doesn't have to be limited to religiosity."

Nonetheless, some critics wonder if Baron and the new center are interested in broadening the Jewish rubric beyond religion or simply eliminating religion outright. In Rabbi Shafran's words, "If Sammy wants to groove to klezmer, that's fine, but if he is being told that klezmer is the replacement for the Torah, that's not."

Survey says...
The survey that got the whole ball rolling is the American Jewish Identity Survey (AJIS), conducted in 2001 under the watchful eye of Egon Mayer. That name should be familiar, as Mayer also worked on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

For that past decade, the 1990 NJPS has been the benchmark for understanding the statistical breakdown of the American Jewish community. In 2001, Mayer along with backing from the Posen Foundation, decided to undertake an updated Jewish population survey. Their intentions were two-fold. Aside from wanting to replicate the exact methodology of the 1990 survey, Mayer included questions that don't normally show up in surveys of the Jewish population.

"Part of the inspiration for the AJIS was demographic, but the other one was more intellectual, philosophical, ideological. Because previous surveys generally have not addressed those questions," Mayer tells Jewsweek. To that end, the AJIS included questions about belief in God and levels of secularization. Even the title of the survey revealed it's deeper ideological interests--the American Jewish Identity Survey.

The findings in the survey aren't likely to surprise many. Besides the decline in hard numbers of Jews, there's also a rising disaffiliation rate. While approximately 75 percent of the Jewish community expressed a belief that God exists (we're sure He's happy to know that), the AJIS also showed high numbers of Jews who remain unaffiliated with a synagogue. Among Jews who identify as Jewish by religion, only half are affiliated. That number plummeted into the teens among Jews who identified by parentage, but did not consider themselves religiously Jewish.

That is where the debate about cultural Judaism breaks wide open. Just how do we relate to Jews who only identify themselves as Jewish, but do nothing to show it? "Nearly half the Jewish population of adults consider themselves secular," says Mayer. Another sizeable chunk refuses to be classified as secular, but eschews religious labels as well.

"One could look at it with lamentation," adds Mayer, "or one could look at it with a sense of what an amazing opportunity to change how we approach our population."

Enter the secular humanists
Opportunity is exactly what the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews (IFSHJ) and the Posen Foundation saw in the survey's findings. In perhaps a case of the tail wagging the dog, they quickly launched the CCJ. Baron, however, is quick to point out that while the IFSHJ has a relationship with the CCJ, they remain separate entities. "Cultural Judaism, we believe, is a much broader category," she says. In that respect, she anticipates the CCJ will become a larger umbrella encompassing the IFSHJ amidst a myriad of other programs and initiatives.

"The traditional leadership has not paid any attention to [cultural Jews] which is unfortunate, because there is a great need for programs for the population that identifies itself as non-religious, cultural, secular," says Baron. The CCJ plans to focus on educational programs and outreach, an area Baron feels is lacking amidst the Federation system and other institutional Jewish groups.

"Isn't this just Judaism for lazy Jews?" ponders activist David Weinberg. "Let me get this straight. They want to take Jews who don't care about Judaism, build a place where they all can get together and not care about Judaism, and this is good? What a bunch of malarkey."

Although Shafran doesn't take such a heated approach, he agrees with Weinberg's contention. "I am not against reaching out to Jews with cultural Jewish experiences to bring them closer to other Jews or Judaism," argues Rabbi Shafran. "My only objection is to redefining Judaism to mean Jewish culture."

There are, of course, those who would argue the CCJ is not eliminating Jewish religion, but Rabbi Shafran isn't reassured by the influence of a secular humanist group. "I would consider its involvement to be detrimental to the Jewish community," says Shafran, "as it is a group dedicated to the tragic proposition that God has no place in Judaism."

Culture with a side of religion, please
Douglas Rushkoff, author of the controversial book Nothing Sacred, has no problems with diminishing religiosity amidst Jewish culture. In fact, he welcomes it. He wrote a whole book on "the move of modern Jews away from a relationship to deity [that] has been in progress a long time."

"I'm not a fan of religiosity, myself, but I do think some people who become cultural Jews will later look for something more obviously religious," Rushkoff tells Jewsweek. "Who is to say that these 'cultural' and 'non-religious' Jews aren't practicing the most authentic form of Judaism around?"

Still most self-affirmed cultural Jews are reluctant to go to such extremes and toss religion entirely. After all, though half of American Jews may consider themselves secular, the survey showed that the vast majority do believe in God.

Josh Eagle describes himself as "a cultural Jew who is trying to integrate some religious aspects into my life." As managing editor of GenerationJ.com, JewishFamily.com, and a series of other Jewish sites, he maintains the strong presence of religious influence on culture. "I think that religion is the base of Judaism. It informs every other aspect of Judaism, including culture," says Eagle.

Lovitt concurs. "My increase in engaging in culturally Jewish practices has only made me want to learn more about why we have done the things we have done for thousands of years." To that end, Lovitt includes Shabbat services on the list of things he strongly identifies with his own Jewish identity.

Whether they want them or not
Baron brushes aside the talk of outreach coming from the likes of Shafran and other more traditional Jewish leaders. "While the traditional leadership speaks of outreach, it's the same traditional language of rabbinic Judaism," she says. "Primarily why this group remains unaffiliated is perhaps because this language doesn't speak to them. It's larger than any of the denominations, and it's completely unserved."

Eagle echoes that sentiment, saying, "I think the phenomenon of cultural Judaism is relevant to many Jewish young adults, and the leaders of the organized Jewish world would do well to pay attention to it."

Beyond the debate, however, the Rabbi Shafrans of the world may have to face the reality of the Barons, Eagles and Lovitts. According to Mayer, "It's easy to assert what ought to be, but then what happens if what ought to be is not the case. It may not be what you want it to be, but it is what is."

Shafran has an answer: "The Jewish communal goal should be to bring marginal Jews closer to the Jewish religious, not merely cultural, tradition. That is what has the power to change lives and reach into the future."

Baron and the CCJ don't seem to mind that. When asked if the cultural Jewish emphasis is mutually exclusive from religiosity she says, "No, in fact there are communities that use non-traditional language that are set up on a congregational model."

That's likely no comfort for the likes of Shafran and other traditional Jews who'd like to see a greater emphasis on religion and torah-based Judaism. Still the cultural Jews have arrived, and they don't seem interested in leaving, whether they're religious or not.

Lovitt, as he leaves the Israeli Consulate each day, is a reminder of that face. "My love for Israel caused me to change careers. So in that respect, it's hard for an hour to pass by where I don't feel Jewish."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Bradford R. Pilcher

Bradford R. Pilcher is a staff writer and contributing columnist to Jewsweek Magazine. Over the past few years, he's been active in countering Holocaust denial and developing Israel education programs on his Web site Learningisrael.com. He comments regularly at his blog, Just Another Rant.

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