A Secular Jewish Alternative
I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.
In Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children's Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.
The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.
I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.
For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.
Originally posted by Wendy Armon for Interfaith Family at
Segev is a truly a gifted teacher. I'm so grateful that Ruby's first year at Folkshul was in a classroom full of such creativity, collaboration and unique inquiry.
For our daughters, Folkshul was the place where they experienced learning as dialogue, as conversation, and as questioning. At Folkshul, they learned that young people are respected for their ideas. They experienced knowledge not as something pre-fabricated but as something in-the-making, and that they have a hand in making.
When I became a mother, it was deeply important to me that my children grow up with a Jewish identity, but not to have to give up complexity or identity in order to gain that insider status. I am so grateful that both of my children do know themselves to be Jewish, and to be part of a Jewish community that manages at the same time to be inclusive -- that doesn't define who we are by clipping other people and perspectives out.
We could always trust that they were in good hands, and they knew it, too.
So I will end with a secularization of a central Jewish prayer, the shehekainu, in appreciation and awe.
Recognizing the creative energies of the universe, we affirm our gratitude for their bringing us into being, and sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment.
We are proud Folkshul parents and love that our two boys are receiving an excellent Jewish education in an environment that is enjoyable, welcoming and rewarding. Our sons look forward to attending Folkshul each and every week and have made friends that we are sure will last far beyond their Bar Mitzvahs. One of the things that makes Folkshul great is the fact that is is so much more than just a children’s school. Folkshul is truly a place where people from many different backgrounds can come together and express their own, unique Jewish identity. From volunteer opportunities helping to feed the hungry, to having a nosh and kibitzing with friends, there’s a lot for parents to do at Folkshul as well. When you join Folkshul, you become a part of a very special community of mensches that is passionate about what they do and knows how to have fun while doing it.
My name is Sue Woolf and my daughter has been at Folkshul since 1st grade and this past December she became a Bat Mitzvah. The time spent at Folkshul has not just been about dropping Lauren and picking her up. My husband and I always stay while Lauren is in class and early on we became involved in a variety of events. Over the years, while my child was being educated, I have also received benefits. I have made phenomenal friends and found truly wonderful people who enhance my life. Several years ago I became the chair of the food committee. What an awesome job, I get to live a Jewish mother’s dream, I get to feed people! The work that goes into this job is minimal and the rewards are great. Chairing the food committee, working on Souper Sunday and the various other activities I have worked on has allowed me to get to know people, has taught Lauren about reaching out to others and doing the right thing and I would not trade the experiences I have had.
Since Marian and I joined Folkshul this year, we've had one good experience after another: finding many people with similar values, good hearts, and interesting minds (with views both like and different from our own). People to talk with, share with, learn from, and enjoy. Nice folks! New friends! Volunteering for a committee can bring the satisfaction of working together to meet a need or solve a problem. This can be a rewarding and even energizing experience, especially in our 21st century culture in which autonomy all too often means isolation, and do it (all) yourself.
I have been involved with Folkshul for 12 years now and my children have grown up in Folkshul. They started as kindergartners, had b'nai mitzvah in 7th grade, graduated in 9th grade and are now assistants. They have a strong Jewish identity and knowledge of Jewish culture while maintaining their secular beliefs. The b'nai mitzvah program in particular is one of the highlights. Both my children worked with mentors on a year-long project and did a polished presentation for their family, friends, classmates and the Folkshul community. Both learned a lot about Judaism, Jewish identity and how to write and present a significant scholarly work. I am now mentoring a bat mitzvah and am learning along with her as I did with my own children. Being involved in Folkshul is a family affair and I'm very glad it's been a part of my life.