Bar mitzvahs without God

His brother Ben's bar mitzvah "portion" was a report on their grandfather's escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.

When Mark Neuman celebrated his bar mitzvah seven years ago at thePeretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver, B.C., he didn'tread from Torah, wear a yarmulke or pronounce Hebrew blessings. He gavea 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 thatemphasize 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 Jewishcommunities are lay led and emphasize Yiddish rather than Hebrew. Butthe philosophy and beliefs of both groups are quite similar.

"I feel Jewish," says Mark, now 20 and a teacher at the Peretzschool. "To me that means upholding the culture. It's about thehistory, the Holocaust, the holidays, the language - all these are veryimportant to me. But I don't believe in the religious aspects."

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the secular congress istiny compared to larger synagogue movements. But it has demonstrated anability to attract and hold its next generation in a world where mostJewish organizations wrack their brains trying to figure out what youngpeople want. At a recent West Coast regional conference of SecularJewish communities, two, three, even four generations showed up infamily units, and the conference chairs themselves were two young womenwho had grown up in the movement.

"Our generation was all born into it," says Neuman, who came tothe conference with half a dozen other 20-something secular Jews fromVancouver.

Fine, but why do they stick around?

For 36-year-old JamieIreland of Castro Valley, Calif., who grew up in a Secular Jewishcommunity 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 werefilled with the secular Jews she'd known since childhood. "It's wheremy friends were," she says. "I feel this is where I belong."

Other longtime members of Secular Jewish communities say kidsstay involved because parents do. Instead of dropping off theirchildren for religious school, parents in most Secular Jewishcommunities come inside for their own adult classes, modeling theconcept of lifelong Jewish learning.

"It's very clear to us that our parents and grandparents arevery committed to this," says 22-year-old Shoshana Seid-Green of SanMateo, Calif., who co-chaired this year's West Coast RegionalConference with her 20-year-old sister Ya'el.

There is a conscious effort to bring the next generation intothe movement's leadership. Young people sit on the national board,teenage representatives elected by teenagers who attend nationalconferences join in, and at those gatherings, teenagers, parents andgrandparents lead and attend many of the same sessions.

"The young people are really involved; they are not just windowdressing," says the executive director of the secular congress, RifkeFeinstein.

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 BrandeisUniversity, has posited that as the Holocaust and Israel cease toresonate with young American Jews, they look to Jewish culture, historyand ethical values as the basis for their identity.

The number of secular Jews is growing faster that the number ofsecular Americans. 37 percent of Jews claim to have "no religion,"according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, versus20 percent in 1990. Among Americans in general, those figures were 8percent in 1990, rising to 15 percent in 2008.

Younger Jews are more secular than their elders, according tothe same study, and they are overwhelmingly the ones flocking to thenew cultural expressions of Jewish identity: film festivals, musicconcerts, Yiddish classes. This all works to the advantage of thecountry's small but committed core of Jewish secularists. Their ranksaren't growing, but neither are they shrinking -- both the Congress ofSecular Jewish Organizations and the Society for Humanistic Judaismboast about the same number of affiliated communities as they did adecade ago.

Seid-Green attended this fall's West Coast conference with hersister Ya'el, mother Debby Seid, grandmother Ethel Seid, and auntsRuthy Seid and Rabbi Judith Seid, all of whom are secular Jewishactivists.

"I don't think I was ever uninvolved," says Shoshana, who, likeother young people at this conference, founded a secular Jewishorganization on her college campus.

Grandma Ethel, like most first-generation secular Jews in thiscountry, grew up with Labor Zionist parents, and went toYiddish-speaking, socialist-oriented schools and summer camps. Shebrought up Judy, Ruthy and Debby as secular Jews, with a strongattachment to Jewish culture, history and ethical values, but no ritualor religion. She never held Seders, she recalls, "just a dinner on thefirst night."

As the years passed, the family grew less stridently opposed toJewish rituals, at least those with a cultural or historicalconnection. Judith, one of 10 non-theistic rabbis ordained by theInstitute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, says when she got married,she and her husband bought a menorah. Her grandmother's response uponseeing 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 religionstrange, but isn't hostile toward it. "I didn't meet religious Jewsuntil college, and by then I was comfortable with who I was."

Wendy Berenson Garcia sends her 11-year-old daughter to monthlyclasses run by the Secular Humanistic Jews of the Tri-Valley, inPleasanton, Calif.

Berenson Garcia grew up in a secular household -- her mother,an avowed atheist, wrote a secular Passover Hagadda, which eliminatedall reference to God. But she inherited a strong Jewish identity fromthat same mother, who fled Nazi Germany and bristles at the Christmastree in Berenson Garcia's home.

If she hadn't married a Catholic, Berenson Garcia doubts shewould have sent her daughter to the Tri-Valley Sunday school. "I wanther to have a knowledge of the Jewish religion, so she knows whatpeople are talking about," Berenson Garcia says. "If she ends upbelieving in God, that's fine. But I don't think she will, if shelistens to her dad and me."