‘I want to see our fences become fringes’

‘I want to see our fences become fringes’

Where the secular Jews are

Of the “classical” Jewish secular organizations of the 20th century, today’s survivors include the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (www.circle.org), which had more than 80,000 members in hundreds of branches across North America at its height in the 1930s. WC/AR now has close to 10,000 members and maintains a summer camp and an adult lodge (Kinder Ring and Circle Lodge) north of New York City, as well as a network of 10 shules (schools). Historically associated with the Jewish labor movement, it functioned for most of its century-plus life as a Yiddish cultural hub and a “fraternal organization” that bestowed life insurance, health care, and burial benefits upon its members. Today, under new leadership, WC/AR is consolidating its activities and redefining itself as a shule-centered organization. Its Boston group, with a sizable membership consisting mostly of baby-boomers (and the world’s largest Yiddish chorus), provides the likeliest paradigm for the organization’s future.

Whereas the Workmen’s Circle was socialist in orientation, its arch-rivals were communists: the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order of the IWO (International Workers Order), which ran Camp Kinderland and another network of Yiddish-oriented schools and adult clubs or branches. The JPFO and its parent organization were hounded out of existence by the New York State attorney general between 1947 and 1954. The surviving affiliates, along with some newcomers, formed the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO; www.csjo.org) in 1970. CSJO, with 28 affiliates in North America, convenes annually to rub shoulders and discuss issues of secular Jewish education.

Within both CSJO and the Workmen’s Circle are some remnants of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, a third, non-partisan, secular Jewish educational and cultural network that held its own from 1918 until the 1970s. All of these classical secularist groups are marked by a dedication to Jewish social action and the Yiddish language, and they have more and more mixed it up with one another in various collaborations over the past decade. (From 2004-2009, the Workmen’s Circle took on responsibility for publishing Jewish Currents, the IWO-founded magazine that I now edit, until WC/AR’s financial woes forced it to restore the magazine to independence.)

A very different paradigm for secular Jewish organizing was launched in 1963 by Sherwin Wine, an atheist refugee from the Reform rabbinate, who created the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ; www.shj.org). The SHJ uses the standard synagogue model – congregation, rabbinical leader, school – and the standard denominational model – congregational network, rabbinical training program, rabbinical association – and has attracted many synagogue-going Jews who could not bear the cognitive dissonance between God-praising liturgies and their own skepticism. SHJ has thirty affiliates in North America and others in Israel, Australia, Belgium, France, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Uruguay. The movement publishes the journal Humanistic Judaism. Neither the Yiddish language nor socialist politics is a foundational part of SHJ’s culture.

Secularism has a potent Zionist history as well, embodied by, among others, Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist youth movement that boasts 7,000 members worldwide. With 40 to 50 percent of Jews in Israel identifying as secular, however, Israeli secularists generally seem to feel little need to organize themselves in educational or activist groupings. (When Meretz MK Yossi Beilin tried to launch a Knesset caucus for secular Jews in 2007, only four legislators showed.) The Israeli education system provides Israeli secularists with the Jewish identity-building information that American secularists might seek in a shule, and the line between religious and secular Jewish practice in Israel can be fuzzy. According to a 2008 survey, for example, close to 40 percent of Israeli secular Jews keep kosher most or all of the time, and many if not most Israeli secularists “observe” the Sabbath with family get-togethers, as much of the public square shuts down.

In both North America and Israel, many younger secular Jews are seeking spirituality in ways that have challenged their elders to open their institutions to more and more experimentation with Judaism. High holiday and Sabbath observances are now common in communities that once limited their celebrations to the “historical” holidays of Passover and Chanukah. A secular yeshiva, the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, opened in Tel Aviv in 2007. The secular-religious boundaries are, indeed, becoming porous – and hybrid identities are increasingly common among young Jews.

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