For years, Cheltenham resident Larry Angert attended services practically every Shabbat, and found joy in the music and rituals, even as he struggled with the theological content of the liturgy.
The 57-year-old grew up in the Conservative movement, tutored Bar Mitzvah students and sent his daughter to Jewish day school. But, roughly 13 years ago, Angert said he came to the realization that he no longer believed in God; the change, he noted, wasn't brought about by a major life event, but was the culmination of a long process of evaluating his own faith.
Shortly afterwards, he left his synagogue and severed his near- lifelong ties with the Conservative movement.
"I would go to shul and I would feel worse coming out than going in," admitted Angert, a technical writer. "If you take away that whole root foundation, the rest just falls apart, and I just couldn't subscribe to it anymore. But ethnically, culturally, I'm Jewish to my core."
Remaining unaffiliated was not an option for Angert, who began searching for a congregation or organization that "felt intellectually honest."
Eventually, he'd heard that a Doylestown couple, Myrna and Garett Kohn, were planning to start a Secular Humanist congregation. Angert showed up at a meeting at their home and became a charter member of Shir Shalom (Society for Humanistic Judaism).
Congregation or 'Chavurah'?
This year the congregation -- really more of a chavurah, since the group has never exceeded more than about 30 families -- is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Shir Shalom is marking the occasion next month with a potluck dinner in Center City.
The congregation holds Shabbat services once a month in a different member's home. Angert explained that their liturgy celebrates the history and tradition of Shabbat, rather than Shabbat itself.
The group's members come from a wide range of backgrounds, and, like any congregation, the experience means different things to different members, and fulfills multiple spiritual and social needs. The congregation's mission statement calls for the creation of "an evolving, non-theistic liturgy in our celebration of life-cycle events and Jewish festivals."
In fact, the group has created its own High Holiday liturgy.
Ron Donagi, a 52-year-old, Israeli-born professor living in Wynnewood, described the holidays as an exercise "in self-examination and mutual forgiveness, without any relationship to a deity. I think of it as a change of imagery, rather than a change of themes."
Laura Kohn, 45, is also a charter member. (Her parents, Myrna and Garett, started the congregation but have since moved from the region.) Unlike most other members, Kohn grew up in a Secular Humanist synagogue in suburban Chicago and considers it perfectly natural to attend a High Holiday service or a Bat Mitzvah ceremony that doesn't mention God.
"It's not about taking the word God out and making it non-theistic," explained Kohn, an artist who lives in Bala Cynwyd. "It's about humanism. We are responsible for making our own path. My heart and soul are uplifted when I'm in the midst of a service."
Certainly, the idea of creating a secular Jewish identity -- and basing Jewishness on history, culture and ethnicity -- is not new and is well-chronicled in modern Jewish history. Secular groups, such as the Sholom Aleichem Club and the Jewish Children's Folkshul, have existed in Philadelphia for decades.
More recent is the notion of using the congregational model, and adapting Jewish ritual and observances to fit a secular outlook. The Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded in the 1960s in Michigan by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, has a membership of more than 30 congregations.
A number of Humanist congregations in cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and suburban Detroit have grown into large institutions boasting hundreds of members. Many larger congregations employ rabbis ordained by the movement and support their own Hebrew school.
Shir Shalom members readily acknowledge that the national group has tried to steer them in this direction, but they've been reticent -- and, admittedly, perhaps unable -- to grow.
Decided Against Hebrew School
One reason is that, early on, members decided against forming a Hebrew school, since the Jewish Children's Folkshul has long run a secular supplementary Hebrew school, one that emphasizes many of the same principles that underpin Shir Shalom's approach, so there was no need to try to replicate it. While they've been spared the costs of running a Hebrew school, in turn, they've also failed to attract families with young children.
Two years ago, Shir Shalom members were instrumental in helping to form the Kehillah for Secular Jews in the Delaware Valley. It consists of six organizations, including the Folkshul and the Sholom Aleichem Club.
"You can't possibly imagine what it's like to get representatives from all these groups together. It's been a monumental achievement," said Angert.
Now, the groups jointly hold major events, such as a Yom Kippur service and Passover seders. Angert said it's possible that various secular Jewish organizations may one day share membership and costs.
Angert acknowledged that, with the success of the Kehillah and the lack of a new generation at Shir Shalom, it is unclear how long the congregation can continue to thrive as an independent entity. But, for now, he's happy that he's found his intellectual and spiritual home, and will work to keep it going.
"What we focus on is not worship or praise, but relating to each other," he said. "We don't ask for forgiveness, we work on absolving ourselves. But it is inward-focused and peer-focused, rather than upward- and outward-focused."