Finding a Welcoming Community By Building It

By Michael Felsen


When our eldest son turned 5, my wife and I decided it was high time we made some decisions about how to go about raising our kids Jewishly. In my youth, I had been part of a large Reform congregation in Queens, N.Y. My wife and I had met at a Jewish “Y” camp when we were teens, but she isn’t Jewish and had been raised eclectically. I’d been Bar Mitzvah, and even confirmed, but my family was essentially non-religious. Although my parents, both refugees who narrowly escaped the Nazi terror that gripped Germany in the 1930s, had been raised in Conservative Jewish households, observant Judaism did not move them.

As my wife and I grew into adulthood during the tumultuous Vietnam-era ’60s and ’70s, we both found that religious practice was inapt for what I would describe as our evolving progressive humanist perspective. Given my family’s history, and its recent experience of the Holocaust, I felt strongly that my children should be raised with a vital and unashamed sense of their Jewish heritage, and my wife agreed. We wanted a Sunday school educational experience that would offer our children Jewish identity and culture and ethics, without the trappings of religious dogma.

Yiddish Lives
Yiddish Lives–Wikimedia Commons

Workmen’s Circle, a century-old Jewish secular and politically progressive communal self-help organization, had previously sponsored a Jewish (and especially Yiddish) heritage and culture-focused shule in Boston, but attendance had fallen off and it had disbanded. In the late 1970s and early 80s, a number of activist, non-religious Jewish baby boomers like us had kids, and began the shule anew. We found ourselves joining together to create not only a Sunday school, but a community.

The shule was the seed. It started with one small class–whose first graduates are now 29 years old–and has grown to a thriving Sunday school with 85-100 students, an education director, teachers for each of seven grades, a music program, a culminating group bar/bat mitzvah/graduation. From day one, the shule warmly welcomed interfaith families. In its most recent bar/bat mitzvah class, seven of the nine graduates have one parent who isn’t Jewish. A key element of the shule’s success–in addition to its embrace of interfaith, racial and gender diversity–is that it operates cooperatively: every family contributes by taking on an essential task, from bagel and juice provider to teacher aide to volunteer coordinator to Shule Committee member. All parents know that the shule is a group project.

I found community in Sunday morning parent discussion groups, convened while the kids were in class. Over coffee and bagels, 15 to 20 parents discussed what it means to be a secular Jew, how interfaith couples could deal with Christmas, whether there is room for spirituality in a non-religious life, and other similar topics. Today our Sunday morning “kumzitz” discussion groups cover a wide array of subjects, including a recent series of classes on Jewish literacy, and are open to all members of our Workmen’s Circle community.

While we viewed our growing organization as secular, we recognized the importance of ritual and the value of creating forms of observance of the important holidays that would resonate for us. We formed a ritual committee, and organized relatively intimate Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur community “services” in a family back yard. We sang and read together and shared our understanding–as non-religious Jews and non-Jewish partners–of the core meaning of the holidays. Today our observance of the High Holidays can’t be accommodated in a back yard; attendance is now in the 450-person range. But the collaborative, community character of the observance and its way of stirring us profoundly is unchanged.

Ten years ago, looking for a chance to relish our culture by singing together, a number of us helped to found A Besere Velt (A Better World), the Yiddish Community Chorus of Boston Workmen’s Circle. Now 85 strong, with no auditions required, we enjoy calling ourselves the largest Yiddish chorus in the universe. (We’re pretty sure of this claim, but so far we haven’t been able to prove it conclusively.) While many of us have no facility in Yiddish, we recognize the importance of doing what we can to help keep this infinitely rich language of Eastern European Jewry alive. We have performed the deeply evocative songs in many venues, from Labor Day cultural festivals to Yom Hashoah observances to the interfaith dedication of a local mosque.

Social justice activism is just as important to our community as sharing Jewish culture. We have yearly joined our 5th grade shule students in their annual picket line that calls on companies from Nike to Walmart to improve working conditions for those who produce the products they sell. Workmen’s Circle members participate in the AIDS Walk and the Walk for Hunger and actively promote the initiatives of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to attain universal health care and dignity for nursing home workers. We have spearheaded efforts to improve Jewish-Muslim relations in the greater Boston area, and promote open dialogue on Israel/Palestine while actively supporting efforts toward a just and lasting peace in the region.

What has kept me and my wife involved with Boston Workmen’s Circle for more than 20 years, long after our three sons had celebrated their Bar Mitzvah is the process of working to build and sustain a vibrant, inclusive community that embraces the spirit of secular, cultural Jewishness, and, we hope, can be a voice for healing and change in the world. This Jewish community, with its purpose, its promise and its challenge, is one we’re glad we found.


About Michael Felsen

Michael Felsen has lived in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with his wife, Tolle, for 30 years; their three boys attended the Boston public schools and the Workmen's Circle shule. A senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, Michael currently serves as president of Boston Workmen's Circle and treasurer of the national Workmen's Circle organization (and he sings bass with A Besere Velt).