Secular Jews find cultural comrades

Alternative: The Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah offers a sense of community without religion.

January 22, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It is a dilemma: The Jew who does not believe in God, yet longs for Judaism's sense of community and the cultural nurturing most commonly found in synagogue.

The Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah offers an alternative.

The chavurah (a Hebrew word that means "fellowship") is a newly formed congregation of Secular Humanistic Judaism, part of a 150-year-old movement that offers a home to those who identify themselves as Jews primarily through culture, history and family. An estimated 40,000 Secular Humanistic Jews live in North America.

"I've never felt comfortable in a religious congregation because I'm atheist. But I am Jewish, in a cultural way," said Fred Pincus, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County sociology professor who is a member. "This feels more comfortable, and it's a sense of community."

One way to understand Secular Humanistic Judaism is to break down the name, said Judith Seid, who started the congregation in September after moving to Baltimore from Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Secular means that we believe that this world is the only world we can live in or perceive, and that there are not supernatural forces affecting natural events," said Seid, who leads the chavurah. Seid is not a rabbi, but has been certified a Secular and Humanistic Jewish Leader by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews.

"Humanistic means we believe that people have the ability and responsibility to solve human problems," Seid said. "Judaism is the creation of the Jewish people in all times and in all places, as opposed to something given to the Jewish people. It is created by the Jewish people.

"We offer some way of being Jewish without people having to say something they don't believe. We're meeting a real need here," Seid said. "This is a very religiously conservative town. What that meant was there was a community out there just waiting for me."

About 80 people are on the Baltimore chavurah mailing list, and about a dozen come to the events, which are held at members' homes, she said.

Secular humanism grew out of the socialism, nationalism and Zionism that was brewing in Eastern Europe and traveled to the United States through Jews who emigrated in the Great Migration from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Three national organizations are in the secular Jewish movement: the Congress of Jewish Secular Organizations, the Workman's Circle and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Secular Humanistic Jews celebrate many of the rituals and holidays as observant Jews, but take out the religious language. Every third Friday night of the month, members of Baltimore's chavurah gather at the home of one of the members for the Sabbath, where they follow a ritual similar to that conducted in the homes of religious Jews -- without the religious content.

"It's just like you would make Shabbes [Yiddish for Sabbath] at home," Seid said. "We sing a lot. We read poetry. But the poetry we use is secular Jewish poetry. Some of the songs we sing are the same as what religious people would sing, but they don't say anything we don't believe."

They light the Shabbes candles, they break and eat the challah bread, they pour and drink the cup of wine. Instead of saying a prayer over the candles, bread and wine, they recite a dedication. On Jan. 15, when the chavurah met at Seid's Towson home, the Sabbath coincided with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, so dedications were done in the memory of African-American political, civil rights and cultural figures.

After the Shabbes ritual, members discuss some social or cultural topic. At the recent gathering, it was race and racism.

Similarly, Secular Humanistic Jews celebrate such holidays as Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, Sukkot, the harvest festival, and Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

"There are religious pieces to the holidays, but there are also ethnic pieces and cultural pieces and historical pieces," Seid said. "I just can't say it if I don't believe it. And there's lots and lots of good Jewish stuff without the prayers."

Pincus and his wife, Natalie Sokoloff, a professor at the City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had been members of Beit Tikvah, Baltimore's Reconstructionist synagogue, the most liberal religious strain of Judaism. Before coming to the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah in September, they joined Beit Tikvah when their son expressed a desire to have a bar mitzvah, the religious ritual that marks a boy's 13th birthday.

"My history is not secular Judaism. It's more religious. I grew up in a conservative religious family," Sokoloff said.

The idea of secular Judaism seemed, to her, an oxymoron.

"How could you be Jewish and secular? It didn't make any sense," she said. "But I think the values of being socially active and socially conscious as a group is important to me. I feel a camaraderie with these people and their values."

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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