Being in Israel for six weeks made me realize that I have a problem with the way I am labeled by some Jews. Even friends call me a “cultural Jew.” I feel they are insinuating that I am less of a Jew all because I do not believe in God. But I want them to know that I am just as much a Jew as any Jew who calls themselves a practicing Jew and defines that practice as performing rituals that manifest their belief in God.
I like to say that I am a “traditional” Jew, meaning I come from a long line of atheists or Apikoras as it is called in Hebrew or Yiddish — because being Apikoras is a tradition among Jews. My grandfather was proud to report that he never set foot in a synagogue. He would drive my grandmother to the Pavolitch Shul (small synagogue in Winnipeg’s north end) and happily pick her up after the services there. Imagine someone telling my grandfather he wasn’t a Jew, or my father and mother for that matter, both of whom were militant atheists.
When my daughters were young, I sent them to Hebrew Day school, bringing them twice to Israel on Sabbaticals and celebrating holidays mouthing prayers to God because I knew no other way. Then when they were 14 and 16, I discovered Secular Humanistic Judaism and since then have practiced my Judaism by celebrating Jewish rituals and holidays without praying to a higher power called God. I accept the Jewish rituals that are meaningful to me and reject the ones that are not. Sometimes I fast on Yom Kippur because many Jews worldwide are fasting and I feel solidarity with them. Sometimes I don’t fast.
If you don’t know anything about Secular Humanistic Judaism or think it’s some kind of cult, I encourage you to do some research online. You will learn that it is a valid, meaningful way to practice Judaism for those of us who believe in human efforts and achievements, who believe in Jewish values such as Tikun Olam (Repair of the World) and that it’s people who are going to make a difference — not God. Regardless of our political stance on Israel, we see ourselves as Jews — not diminished as so-called “cultural Jews,” not less than, not lacking — but Jews.
In Israel, Judaism and Jewishness is everywhere. It’s in the language, the national holidays, the streets named after our historical figures, the flags waving proudly on Independence Day, the people standing outside their cars as traffic stops on Yom Hashoah. One does not have to go to synagogue or espouse one’s belief in God to be a Jew.
Of course, many here are religious and wear the appropriate garb to show just how religious they are and their commitment to their specific community and its esthetics. And that is fine as long as they don’t bother me but some do. Lubavitch, sometimes known as Chabad, stand on street corners and try to get me to pray and to accept their pamphlets. It reminds me a bit of the Christian sects who sell their wares on the street to passersby.
Although there is a secular humanist movement in Israel, there is no mention of this branch of Judaism at the museum called Anu (We or Us) which is full of the richness and diversity of our history and our culture. Even in Israel, we secular humanists are a tiny minority. Perhaps it is because it is more common here to celebrate the holidays as our ancestors did and to refrain from discussions about God as we mouth the prayers, sing the songs, and adhere to the traditions, or at least one tradition — because there were various traditions among our ancestors — yet no one back then ever dared question their members’ commitment to Judaism.
To start your journey to understanding Secular Humanistic Judaism, let me complicate matters by telling you that there are two groups within this branch. Secular Humanistic Judaism, founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, is connected to a congregation in a temple and CSJO (Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations) is community oriented with members meeting in private homes and community centers. Both groups celebrate life-cycle events such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and baby namings with secular rather than religious blessings.
Here are two websites to get you started: