When Mark Neuman celebrated his bar mitzvah seven years ago at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver, B.C., he didn't read from Torah, wear a yarmulke or pronounce Hebrew blessings. He gave a talk on the psychology of Jewish humor.
His brother Ben's bar mitzvah "portion" was a report on their grandfather's escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.
That's typical in the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, a loose-knit group of some two dozen North American communities that emphasize Jewish history and culture while eschewing Jewish ritual, faith and anything that smacks of a deity.
In contrast to the better known Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1963 by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Secular Jewish communities are lay led and emphasize Yiddish rather than Hebrew. But the philosophy and beliefs of both groups are quite similar.
"I feel Jewish," says Mark, now 20 and a teacher at the Peretz school. "To me that means upholding the culture. It's about the history, the Holocaust, the holidays, the language - all these are very important to me. But I don't believe in the religious aspects."
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the secular congress is tiny compared to larger synagogue movements. But it has demonstrated an ability to attract and hold its next generation in a world where most Jewish organizations wrack their brains trying to figure out what young people want. At a recent West Coast regional conference of Secular Jewish communities, two, three, even four generations showed up in family units, and the conference chairs themselves were two young women who had grown up in the movement.
"Our generation was all born into it," says Neuman, who came to the conference with half a dozen other 20-something secular Jews from Vancouver.
Fine, but why do they stick around?
For 36-year-old Jamie Ireland of Castro Valley, Calif., who grew up in a Secular Jewish community in Southern California, it's about seeking her comfort zone. She explored Hillel at college, but found it "too religious."
By contrast, national conferences of the secular congress were filled with the secular Jews she'd known since childhood. "It's where my friends were," she says. "I feel this is where I belong."
Other longtime members of Secular Jewish communities say kids stay involved because parents do. Instead of dropping off their children for religious school, parents in most Secular Jewish communities come inside for their own adult classes, modeling the concept of lifelong Jewish learning.
"It's very clear to us that our parents and grandparents are very committed to this," says 22-year-old Shoshana Seid-Green of San Mateo, Calif., who co-chaired this year's West Coast Regional Conference with her 20-year-old sister Ya'el.
There is a conscious effort to bring the next generation into the movement's leadership. Young people sit on the national board, teenage representatives elected by teenagers who attend national conferences join in, and at those gatherings, teenagers, parents and grandparents lead and attend many of the same sessions.
"The young people are really involved; they are not just window dressing," says the executive director of the secular congress, Rifke Feinstein.
Jewish secularism, which engaged a large number of American Jews in the early 20th century, seems to be making a comeback.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, has posited that as the Holocaust and Israel cease to resonate with young American Jews, they look to Jewish culture, history and ethical values as the basis for their identity.
The number of secular Jews is growing faster that the number of secular Americans. 37 percent of Jews claim to have "no religion," according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, versus 20 percent in 1990. Among Americans in general, those figures were 8 percent in 1990, rising to 15 percent in 2008.
Younger Jews are more secular than their elders, according to the same study, and they are overwhelmingly the ones flocking to the new cultural expressions of Jewish identity: film festivals, music concerts, Yiddish classes. This all works to the advantage of the country's small but committed core of Jewish secularists. Their ranks aren't growing, but neither are they shrinking -- both the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and the Society for Humanistic Judaism boast about the same number of affiliated communities as they did a decade ago.
Seid-Green attended this fall's West Coast conference with her sister Ya'el, mother Debby Seid, grandmother Ethel Seid, and aunts Ruthy Seid and Rabbi Judith Seid, all of whom are secular Jewish activists.
"I don't think I was ever uninvolved," says Shoshana, who, like other young people at this conference, founded a secular Jewish organization on her college campus.
Grandma Ethel, like most first-generation secular Jews in this country, grew up with Labor Zionist parents, and went to Yiddish-speaking, socialist-oriented schools and summer camps. She brought up Judy, Ruthy and Debby as secular Jews, with a strong attachment to Jewish culture, history and ethical values, but no ritual or religion. She never held Seders, she recalls, "just a dinner on the first night."
As the years passed, the family grew less stridently opposed to Jewish rituals, at least those with a cultural or historical connection. Judith, one of 10 non-theistic rabbis ordained by the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, says when she got married, she and her husband bought a menorah. Her grandmother's response upon seeing it: "What's the matter; you getting religious?'"
"I grew up with a Judaism that was a family, ethical, historical thing," says Shoshana, who admits she finds religion strange, but isn't hostile toward it. "I didn't meet religious Jews until college, and by then I was comfortable with who I was."
Wendy Berenson Garcia sends her 11-year-old daughter to monthly classes run by the Secular Humanistic Jews of the Tri-Valley, in Pleasanton, Calif.
Berenson Garcia grew up in a secular household -- her mother, an avowed atheist, wrote a secular Passover Hagadda, which eliminated all reference to God. But she inherited a strong Jewish identity from that same mother, who fled Nazi Germany and bristles at the Christmas tree in Berenson Garcia's home.
If she hadn't married a Catholic, Berenson Garcia doubts she would have sent her daughter to the Tri-Valley Sunday school. "I want her to have a knowledge of the Jewish religion, so she knows what people are talking about," Berenson Garcia says. "If she ends up believing in God, that's fine. But I don't think she will, if she listens to her dad and me."
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