Adam Pardes, set to graduate from Abington Senior High School this month, recalled that he'd never felt a strong tie to the Reform synagogue he'd attended until he became a Bar Mitzvah. In fact, he said he'd never been entirely comfortable with theistic language or the concept of God.
Still, he wanted to continue the connection, so his parents searched around and discovered the 80-year-old-plus Jewish Children's Folkshul that meets at the Springside School in Philadelphia. With more than 100 students, it's one of largest secular Jewish schools in the country.
As it turned out, Pardes — as well as his parents, who had to drive him there — wound up embracing the Folkshul's vision of cultural Jewishness, its focus on Jewish history and the modern State of Israel, and its philosophy that human beings have the power to shape their destinies.
"When I have kids one day, I would definitely want them to identify as Jewish," said Pardes, adding that while he hoped they might embrace secular Judaism, the teen respects the religion enough that he'd be fine if they chose a more traditional route.
Pardes became so committed to secularism himself that he volunteered to be a youth representative to the national board of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations.
The 39-year-old, Ohio-based congress counts three area organizations among its 26 member groups: the Folkshul, the Sholom Aleichem Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Secular Jewish Organization. The last two have relatively small and aging memberships.
Roughly 115 people, including more than 20 teenagers and many more seniors, attended CSJO's annual conference, held Memorial Day weekend at Arcadia University in Glenside, which last played host in 2004.
Looking for New Definitions
Among the most discussed topics was just what it means to be a 21st-century secular Jew, now that the culture of Jewish immigrants has receded into the distant past. One session addressed the need to move beyond the image of Yiddish-speaking socialists, and come up with new definitions that would include children of interfaith and multicultural households.
"There is a sense, for a lot of us, that we seem to be treading water instead of increasing our numbers and doing a better job of serving our community," said Barry Dancis, a biologist who is active in several local secular Jewish organizations.
He added that maybe 300 or so people are involved in Philadelphia's secular Jewish life. The challenge for such groups remains how to convince the thousands of Jews who may consider themselves secular of the importance of affiliating.
About 900 families nationwide belong to organizations affiliated with the CSJO, a number that fluctuates as groups fold and others join up, said executive director Rifke Feinstein.
Though a string of best-sellers, such as Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, has sparked renewed interest in anti-religious thought and rhetoric, it hasn't translated into greater numbers for the CSJO, according to Feinstein, partly because most affiliates define themselves through a positive expression of cultural Judaism, rather than attacking the beliefs of other Jews.
"Nobody stands at the door with a pad and paper saying, 'Do you believe in God?' It's not important," she said.
Something that may have impeded growth over the years is the fact that the secular Jewish movement has split in two: There's the CSJO, with its roots in the Yiddish, political, socialist tradition; and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded by leaders who broke with Reform Judaism.
One long-running dispute is whether or not to emulate religious congregations. Humanistic Judaism has tended to follow this approach, with some groups having full-time secular rabbis, while CSJO groups have looked with disfavor upon bestowing that kind of authority.
Feinstein acknowledged that the two groups have clashed over their seemingly small differences, but efforts at working together have improved. Locally, CSJO-affiliated groups joined with the Philadelphia Workmen's Circle and Shir Shalom (the Society for Humanistic Judaism) to create the Kehillah for Secular Jews in the Delaware Valley.
Perhaps in a nod to how far things have come from the days when all things ritualistic were opposed, the CSJO invited Shir Shalom member Larry Angert, once active in the Conservative movement, to give a talk about formulating Humanistic liturgy.
"Even in a rational organization, many people have a need for some spirituality," he said, explaining that while he gets overwhelmed with emotion whenever he hears the Avenu Malkenu prayer, rationally, he rejects the prayer's central message.
Thus, he noted, if an individual doesn't believe the words, new liturgy should be created.
Feinstein lamented the fact that so many Jews view secular Jewishness — Judaism without God — as an oxymoron: "There are those who say you can't be Jewish and not believe in God. They are wrong. There was a people before there was a God."