BJCC in the News

News about The Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, The Towson Times, and The Baltimore Jewish Times. It is with thanks and appreciation to JT publisher Andrew Buerger that we are able to present some of the items about the Chavurah that have appeared in their publication.

The first article is an edited version of one that appeared as a cover story in the May 31, 2002 issue. Deleted from the original are profiles of two people who are not Chavurah members. See the entire article on their web site. Following the article are two Letters to the Editor that appeared on June 7, 2002. An older article profiling former Chavurah leader, Judith Seid, appeared in the September 18, 1998 issue, and does not appear in the JT archives.

Connective Issues by Deborah Walike

Jews who feel validated by their choices not to affiliate.
The waitress leaned across the countertop at a local eatery and rested her hand on the cloth that she'd been using to wipe it down. Looking around tentatively at her co-workers and customers, she lowered her voice.

"Look, I pray all the time. I get down on my knees and pray," she said solemnly. "It just doesn't have to be a Jewish prayer."

Through snippets of conversation between attending to her customers, the waitress mentioned that most of her friends and co-workers don't even suspect that she's Jewish. It seemed she wasn't comfortable with the idea herself. Little by little, the young woman implied that her Jewish identity was a painful topic.

And just a few hours later, right before she was slated to sit down with the Baltimore Jewish Times for an interview, the waitress called to cancel.

"I just can't talk about it," she said of her disassociation with the Jewish community, as well as Jewish ritual and practices. "It would be too hard. I'm sorry."

Across town, in a beautifully restored rowhouse, a 30-something lawyer enthusiastically discussed his fervent atheistic beliefs. Raised as a member of a local Reform congregation, he said he rejected all tenets of Judaism -- and all religion -- after reading the Bible.

He described himself as "really hostile to religion," and seemed to relish the ensuing discussion and analysis of his beliefs. Religion, he said, is a dangerous force. It was religion, he said, that compelled 19 men to hijack airplanes and fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Religion, he said, is the root of most of the world's troubles.
Yet regardless of all his vehement criticism of Judaism, he still identifies as a Jew. He would not, however, allow his identity to be published. He was afraid that his point of view would be offensive to readers, or that his beliefs could be misinterpreted and reflect negatively on himself and his family.

These are just two of the six people who were apprehensive about the idea of speaking publicly about their lack of affiliation with Judaism or the Jewish community. Still, they are part of a large portion of Jews in the world who also identify as atheists, secularists or cultural Jews.

Some feel alienated from all forms of the mainstream Jewish community, or have simply been unmoved by their religious heritage. Others maintain a belief in God or a "higher power," but have been "turned off" by the rituals, prayers or cultural and social trappings linked to Judaism and Jewish living.

While Jews of all stripes struggle with their own definition of what it means to be Jewish, these individuals are often referred to as "fringe" or "the unaffiliated." Some would even suggest they are not Jews at all.

" 'Just Jews' is what I call us," joked Sue Feder, a member of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, a Secular Humanist Jewish organization, about the difficulty that one has in defining these Jews in a word.

Gil Mann is author of the book with the cumbersome title "How To Get More Out Of Being Jewish Even If: A: You Are Not Sure If You Believe In God, B: You Think Going To Synagogue Is A Waste Of Time, C: You Think Keeping Kosher Is Stupid, D: You Hated Hebrew School, Or, E: All Of The Above!" (Leo & Sons Publishing, 1996). He said he prefers the term "the not-connected to Jewish life."

According to the 2000 American Religious Identification Survey, "there are about 5.3 million adults in the American Jewish population: 2.83 million adults are estimated to be adherents of Judaism; 1.08 million are estimated to be adherents of no religion; and 1.36 million are estimated to be adherents of a religion other than Judaism." Within these statistics, the study -- administered by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York over a 10-year period -- asserts that only "about 53 percent of adults who identify their religion as Jewish or Judaism report temple or synagogue membership."

In his book, Mr. Mann -- who contends that Judaism has room for all types of Jews -- asks the question, "What is the 'correct' level of Judaism?"

"I respond by saying that this is a personal decision everyone makes for him or herself," he said. "I would only suggest following Shakespeare's advice -- 'To thine own self be true.'"

The following four profiles are examples of those Jews who remain disconnected from mainstream and normative Judaism.

'Different Than Religion'

Fred L. Pincus always introduces himself to his race relations class at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as a "Jewish atheist."

Sitting in his Mount Washington home, Mr. Pincus is the epitome of someone who is comfortable in his own skin. Soft-spoken, with graying hair and a casual Bohemian style, Mr. Pincus recalled the time that a Korean immigrant student approached him after class. The student wanted to know if Jewish atheism was common. It seemed her Jewish boyfriend also said he was an atheist.

"This poor woman, the only two Jews she's met are me and him," said Mr. Pincus with a laugh. "And I said, 'No, it's not so common.'"

Mr. Pincus, who has been an associate professor of sociology at UMBC since 1968, was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to working-class, communist parents. Calling himself a "genuine Red Diaper Baby," Mr. Pincus said he is a third-generation secular Jew.

The family, which moved to Los Angeles when Mr. Pincus was 5, specifically planted itself in diverse inner-city neighborhoods, which Mr. Pincus said were usually established Jewish communities in transition.

"I never did believe in God. It wasn't that I did once and stopped. In my family, in my family's tradition, they're just not religious," said Mr. Pincus, 59. "I'm not sure if they did the 'Religion is the opiate of the people,' but it just wasn't part of our lives."

Mr. Pincus said he always identified more strongly as a left-wing, political activist than as a Jew. His wife, Natalie Sokoloff, had a more traditional Jewish background but still adheres to a secular Jewish life.

In their household, they've had Christmas trees -- once decorated with political buttons -- they have lit menorahs at Chanukah, and they have attended "Liberation Seders," which are creative, secular celebrations.

The family once joined a synagogue for a short time when their son, Josh, now 19, decided he wanted to become a bar mitzvah. After Mr. Pincus researched possible secular ceremonies, Josh announced he wanted to have a "real bar mitzvah" when some more observant relatives suggested that his rite of passage would be a "phony bar mitzvah."
"So we joined Beit Tikvah," said Mr. Pincus, referring to a Reconstructionist congregation in Roland Park. "I wouldn't say it was upsetting, but it was jarring. I did it for my son. He wanted a bar mitzvah, and I did what I could to give him a bar mitzvah."

Mr. Pincus said that at the time, he attempted to immerse himself in some Jewish study, just to see "if maybe I missed something."

"I'd start out and I'd get the prayer book and I'd try to follow the things, and it was all kinds of this religious stuff that was not meaningful to me," he said. "In these prayer books, there are prayers to God and I don't believe in God. And I figured, I'll do what I need to do to get my son bar mitzvahed and then I'm gone."

Recently, Mr. Pincus joined the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah. He said he really enjoys the Secular Humanist group, noting its members' diversity within the secular realm, and the Jewish education. Mr. Pincus feels his involvement has made him more aware of the importance of Jewish continuity, but he still finds issues of prejudice and poverty far more pressing.

"I didn't see any particular aspect of Judaism that drew me to it in a religious way," said Mr. Pincus. "I suppose I saw my parents' activism as partly drawing from their Judaism, but that's really different than religion. I guess I was raised that way, and there was nothing that drew me away from it or toward more traditional Judaism."

Jewish, Big Apple Style

The first thing that one notices about Sue Feder's Towson home -- after recovering from the sight of the overwhelming Beatles paraphernalia collection -- is her laugh. Her conversation, tinged with a New York accent, is littered with jokes delivered with the timing of a polished comedian.

A 50-year-old insurance claims adjuster, Ms. Feder lights up while describing her passion for the Fab Four and embellishing the details of her wedding -- officiated by the Ethical Culture Society -- that was held in New York's Strawberry Fields in Central Park on the date of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's wedding anniversary.

"And those," Ms. Feder said, pointing to dried flowers and a card encased in glass, "are the flowers that Yoko sent."
It is a classic New York tale befitting Ms. Feder, who was born in Brooklyn's East New York and at the age of 9 moved to the projects in the Queens community of Rockaway. There was no Jewish tradition in the home, save her mother's Passover lunches of farmer cheese on matzoh.

"That's one of the things when you grew up in New York in the '50s, you were kind of a little bit Jewish even if you weren't," Ms. Feder said. "That had as much to do with my concept of Judaism as anything else -- that everyone around me was Jewish."

And in the high-rise apartments, at the age of 12, Ms. Feder said an older boy named Steven Kaplan posed a question to the building's kids.

"He said, 'Did God create man, or did man create God?' " Ms. Feder recalled. "It was pretty heavy, and it was really the first time that I stopped to think about that. And then I never stopped thinking about it. It was not too long afterward that I decided I didn't believe in God."

Though she kept her new beliefs hidden from her family, Ms. Feder said her lifestyle did not change. She was in New York and therefore everything about her life was innately Jewish.

Until the day that she received a call from the St. Louis managing office of the insurance company where she worked. They had a claim that they specifically wanted handled by Ms. Feder. She learned the substantial monetary claim involved a Satmar Chasidic Jew whose tallit and tefillin had been stolen from his car.

"Well, we want you to handle it because you understand the language," the office told Ms. Feder. "And I said, 'I don't speak Yiddish or Hebrew,' and they went, 'No, you understand the language.' I went through the roof. It was the first time I encountered anything like that. I felt like I had been punched in my gut."

Ms. Feder said she'd always struggled with understanding her Jewish identity, when the religious aspect was meaningless to her. The experience helped galvanize her growing secular Jewish identity.

Moving to Baltimore, after marrying Larry Miller (who is not Jewish), was a culture shock, Ms. Feder said. It was the first time she had lived in a town where Jewish tradition was not generally understood. The couple considered living in Pikesville, but Ms. Feder feared that as a secular Jew, she would feel uncomfortable and isolated in the largely Jewish community.

And it was the events in New York on Sept. 11 and a sudden need to "connect" that brought Ms. Feder to the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.

"I just went to a meeting and I felt like I had come home," Ms. Feder said. "I think that the Holocaust and anti-Semitism are the two things by which most American Jews would define themselves. It's the sense of 'I'm the other.' One of the perceived problems with assimilation is that you're no longer defined as 'the other,' therefore how can you continue to be a Jew? I think it is possible to assimilate and still maintain that Jewish identity."

Engaging The Seekers

Attracting unaffiliated Jews to the Jewish community is a major concern and mandate for the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Matthew Freedman, the Associated's director of community planning and allocations, said that in general terms, Baltimore is a community with higher affiliation rates than most other Jewish communities in the United States.

"That affiliation," he said, "tends to be more formalized than in other communities, meaning synagogue membership or participation in the Associated campaign. But Baltimore is also a community that, like the rest of the nation, has large segments of its Jewish population not drawn to its communal institutions or to ritual, but who nonetheless feel comfortable with the idea of Jewish identity alone.

"Our challenge as a Jewish community for those people who say that being Jewish at least matters to them, but who also say that nothing the community offers reflects the way they want to live their Jewish lives, is to find ways to empower them and to help them find ways to fulfill personal Jewish meaning. On one hand, it's very important to recognize that there are significant numbers in the Jewish community who are seekers, who are looking for a way to engage, and they haven't found it in the existing forms and structures of the Jewish community. It is important not to minimize this group."

The Associated's 1999 Jewish Community Study of Greater Baltimore indicated that only about half of this community is affiliated with a congregation. The study also indicated that about one-third of Baltimore's Jewish community who identify themselves as Jewish are not affiliated with any formal communal Jewish institution or group.

"The statistics about Jews who belong to other religions are cited oftentimes and are used as a basis for arousing passions within the Jewish community," said Mr. Freedman. "But those are frequently not people who suddenly in middle age decided that Judaism was all wrong and found another religion. They did not grow up with Judaism. It's important not to get drawn into a numbers game. These are people who may be living full and meaningful lives without us." -- Phil Jacobs
* * * * *
Letters to the Editor
'Just Jews' - Revisited

Staff reporter Deborah Walike did a very nice job of pulling together our rather rambling conversation for last week's cover story, "Connective Issues." I do wish to point out that when I used the phrase "Just Jews" I did quite properly credit author Samuel Freedman with the remark.

(Well, to be more accurate, when asked what I would call Jews like myself, I said something along the lines of, "Someone, I think it was Freedman, called us 'Just Jews'.")

I wouldn't want anyone to think I was copping his phrase as my own original work!
Sue "J.J." Feder

Affiliated, And Connected

I found it ironic that two of the four people profiled in Deborah Walike's May 31 article, "Connective Issues: Jews Who Feel Validated by Their Choices Not to Affiliate," were members of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.
I am a member of the same group and feel that my participation in its activities is affiliation. While our group is "disconnected from mainstream and normative Judaism," to use Ms. Walike's description, it is certainly not disconnected from Jewish life.

We celebrate at least six holidays per year, meet twice a month to discuss Jewish topics, engage in social action, sponsor adult education and a Jewish book group. Personally, I am much more active in Jewish life via this group than I've been anytime since my confirmation in a Conservative shul 35 years ago.
Bob Jacobson

Secular, With A Capital 'S' by Alan H. Feiler
A veteran advocate of Secular Judaism hopes to establish a presence for the movement here.

Judith Seid was asked recently by an acquaintance why she ever, even as a teenager, resisted or deviated from her family's approach to religion. "What would I have rebelled against?" Ms. Seid, a third-generation adherent of the Secular Judaism movement, responded with a laugh.

Unlike normative Jewish practice and thought, Secular Judaism does not embrace or espouse the concepts of prayer, the messiah or belief in a divine creator. It operates, organizationally and philosophically, in conjunction with Rabbi Sherwin Wine's Humanistic Judaism movement.

"We don't believe there's a God who can be manipulated by prayer or who meddles in human affairs," said Ms. Seid, 49, who was ordained by the Michigan-based Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Judaism as a "senior leader" and can perform such pastoral duties as officiate at weddings, baby naming ceremonies, b'nai mitzvah and funerals.

Ms. Seid moved to Towson last month from Ann Arbor, Mich., with her husband, David Gates, and their youngest of three children, Micah, 14. She hopes to create this area's first Secular chavurah, or fellowship, and eventually form a congregation.

For the past 14 years, she led the Jewish Cultural Society, a congregation of 120 families and individuals that gathered in Ann Arbor's Jewish community center. "I'd like to duplicate what I had there -- Friday night observances, chavurot for different kinds of people, adult education, Sunday school, holiday observances, anything a congregation has," Ms. Seid said.

With the assistance of Machar, a Humanistic congregation in Washington, D.C., and the Michigan-based Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) she has already contacted several local Secular Jews about starting a group. She said she will also place advertisements in area periodicals to attract potential members.

"Judith is very energetic, and her energy is contagious and her knowledge is vast," said Rifke Feinstein, executive director of the 28-year-old CSJO. "She's so dynamic, and she'll bring [Secular Judaism] to all the people out there who are waiting for something like this but just never heard of it."

Secular Judaism, Ms. Seid said, stems from the Haskala, the Jewish enlightenment movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, and evolved out of the Eastern European socialist, Bundist, Workmen's Circle and Yiddishist schools of thought. She said there are 25 to 30 congregations, schools and groups affiliated with Secular Judaism across North America.

Ms. Feinstein estimates there are approximately 10,000 members of the Secular and Humanistic movements. Secular Judaism is egalitarian in nature, she said, and welcoming of gays and lesbians and intermarried families.

"Our definition of 'Who is a Jew?' is someone who identifies with the history, culture, people and fate of the Jewish people," Ms. Seid said. "Whoever says they are Jewish is Jewish in our eyes."

The movement's "observances," or services, tend to focus on the social action, historical and cultural aspects of Judaism and the Jewish people. The Torah is studied by Secular Jews as the central component of Jewish folklore and literature, said Ms. Seid, who earned a masters degree in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

Secular Jews come from all of Judaism's branches, she said, and some believe in a higher power. While Secular Judaism intentionally does not address the existence of a guiding universal deity, the movement respects Jewish belief systems that are God-centered, she said.

"We believe there needs to be a place for every Jew," said Ms. Seid, who is an atheist. "We're the place for people who don't want to do God-talk."

Judaism, she contended, is not a religion but "a shared historical consciousness. ... We believe that the world we're in is the only world to respond to, and we feel that people can affect each other and the world and history."
She said Secular Judaism differs from its 35-year-old Humanistic counterpart by being more politically and socially active and less Western-oriented, as well as non-Zionistic.

While calling Baltimore Jewry's attitude toward religion "conservative," Ms. Seid said she hopes to strike a chord among local unaffiliated Jews.

"A lot of American Jews are secularists looking for a home," she said. "I want to provide a way for them to celebrate holidays and Shabbos that lets them be Jewish and true to their own beliefs. I want to be available for Jews out there looking for our way to be Jewish."

The Towson Times published a similar profile in their September 16, 1998 issue. The following is an excerpt:

"You can't be Jewish alone," said Seid.... "Our whole culture is communal."

But for Seid, she isn't Jewish because she's religious.

"I can tell you what it's not," she said when asked what it means to be Jewish. "It's not a religion. Religion is what divides us. There are some Jews who believe in reincarnation. There are others who believe in a coming Messiah and afterlife. It's not a race. It's not really a shared history. It's a self definition."

The following week Judith stated in a Letter to the Editor:
Secular Humanistic Judaism is not a faith-based expression of Jewish life. We don't pray and we don't use any god-language. Our Jewish identity is cultural, historical and familial, rather than religious. We emphasize human relationships and community responsibilities and we practice a cultural Judaism that includes history, music, languages, literature, holidays, social action, and all the creativity of all the people who invented Jewish civilization.

The Baltimore Sun has published several articles.

"Secular Jews Find Cultural Comrades: The Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah offers a sense of community without religion" appeared on January 22, 1999. "Humanistic means we believe that people have the ability and responsibility to solve human problems," [Judith] 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." ... [Chavurah member Natalie Sokoloff said], "How could you be Jewish and secular? It didn't make any sense.... 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."