by Julie Gamberg
Adrienne is a secular Jewish community member who wants to talk about God — or god. She grew up in an observant Jewish home, which she left for a wild youth, during which she thought very little about her Jewish identity, and even less about the supernatural. She eventually settled down with a non-religious man who was raised Episcopalian, and they found a happy fit for themselves and their children in a secular Jewish community where they could learn about Jewish culture and take moral guidance from humanism and history. Her husband is a longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and he still struggles with the concept of a “higher power.” In Adrienne’s yoga practice, the focus is on merging individual consciousness with “God-consciousness.” She admits she is not entirely comfortable with that phrasing, but still finds the “spiritual” component of her yoga community deeply resonant.
David is a neurobiologist and a happy atheist. He left his conservative Hebrew school the day after his bar mitsve and never looked back. His grown children attended monthly classes at a secular Jewish school, and he still attends annual High Holiday observances and participates in the occasional social action project. Yet, after losing his parents to long battles with terminal illnesses, David has been yearning for meatier discussion around life’s fundamental philosophical questions. He also found himself missing, for the first time, his old synagogue (or at least the idea of it!) He longed for the warmth and togetherness of that former community. As an atheist and devout secularist, he knew he wanted to stay in his secular Jewish community, but he felt that something was happening “over there” of which he also wanted to be a part.
What transpires in synagogues or “spiritual communities” that secular Jews, in all of their diversity, want to experience more of in their own communities? Certainly not dogma, organized religion, or a shared belief in the same brand of “higher power.” Yet members of the Sholem Community in Los Angeles, for whom I work, tell me that while they are gaining a great deal from being in our secular Jewish organization, they are also losing a formalized sense of community — and they long for what we are missing.
Why should they have to? Secular Jewish communities could do much more to meet the needs of our members. Key to this is remembering that that we are not primarily gathering to fight the dominance of religious culture (although many of us find that culture offensive and dangerous), nor are are not gathering to deepen our “secularism,” i.e., our worldliness (we’re already in pretty good shape on that account). We are gathering because we’re interested in Jewishness, and we want to explore that interest in community.
This last year, I began surveying our members, along with my friends, and trolling the Internet, to see what secular Jews miss when they leave traditional synagogues and spiritual communities, or what they were hoping for when they join us. I found six primary categories.
I. Introspection Alongside Others
Many agreed that there is something unique and imperative about taking time to reflect on one’s own life, values, and choices, in the company of others who are engaged in the same reflection. Some of those I surveyed were interested in mindfulness meditation practices, others in group silence to simply reflect upon the past week, month, or year, and others in readings and provocative quotes, and in pondering questions about making choices and decisions. Writing about regular participation in a spiritual community, one person described it as “a place where I go once a week and think about my life. I think about the choices I’ve made, and whether I’m proud of those choices, and whether I’m proud of the person I’m becoming.” One member of Sholem described such introspection not as reflection upon actions already taken but as thoughtfulness about upcoming decisions: “a chance to go deeper with contemplation before moving into action.”
II. Lifecycle Acknowledgement and Support
Nearly everyone I spoke with valued acknowledging milestones and lifecycle events, and wanted to be in a community where they knew they would receive support in difficult times. This was paired with concern about time commitments and busyness, and the impact of those constraints on a member’s ability to respond to other members in a timely fashion or a meaningful way. Members and friends reported that social support networks that are facilitated by a community structure are both more reliable and more effective. This issue came up again and again as being a primary factor in non-synagogue attendees yearning for a “synagogue culture.” As one member put it, “I want a community that is with me in all of the big passages of my life.”
III. Joy, Celebration and Gratitude
Many members appreciated secular Jewish communities’ unique ability to rely on music, art, humor, and other cultural expression besides liturgy to inspire celebratory, joyful, and gratitude-filled rituals. Some felt, however, that secular Jewish communities sometimes focus too much on celebrating what we are not while neglecting the ritualized celebration of what we are, our accomplishments and victories. People felt that traditional synagogues, and even more so other spiritual communities, trump secular Jewish communities here because they are able to ritualize joyful expression and maintain rituals of celebration and gratitude by weaving them into gatherings and events. This is something that secular Jewish communities could do well — simply by paying attention. The planning of ritual observances of all types, including weekly gatherings or classes, can represent the full palate of experience: the salty, the bitter, the sour, the umami (savory) — and also, perhaps especially, the sweet.
IV. Morality and Values
One friend spoke of her need to “get my ‘moral compass’ calibrated,” while some community members spoke of the importance of continually assessing and growing in their moral development, through community readers, talks, and discussion. Although the category of “Introspection Alongside Others” describes reflection on the totality of one’s life — from the mundane to the meta, and including the very personal — it is a close cousin to “Morality and Values,” which emphasizes ethical considerations. One person yoked them together by speaking about “shared community examples of trying to be your best self; of weighing moral choices and trying to make the best ones together.” Others spoke of the importance of continually growing in their moral development, through community readings and discussion.
This is a category that secular communities are poised to fulfill beautifully. In her essay, “The Morality of Atheism,” Pam Lloyd writes that because atheists “grapple with moral dilemmas on their own, the hard way, they often achieve a higher level of moral development than those who accept morality ready-made and struggle-free from God. It is the struggle, the internal wrestling with moral issues, the questioning . . .” Although many secular Jews do not identify as atheists, the lesson nevertheless applies. Because secular Jewish communities are able to lead discussions about morality and values from a position devoid of absolutes, we can provide discourse rich with complexity and ambiguity.
V. Social Justice and Social Action
This, too, is something most of our communities do well — but so do many synagogues and spiritual communities. When pressed on the subject, most of my informants reported that what mattered to them about doing social action work in a community setting was the opportunity for introspection and moral growth to be channeled into action within the same community where the reflection occurred. This gradual process of contemplating communally what it means to live the right kind of life, to be a good person, to “do the right thing,” coupled with contemplation of broader social and political values — What does it mean to make the world a better place? How do we do that? — leads people to move those discussions out into the world together as meaningful social justice work, which is then also a form of fellowship.
In many of our secular Jewish communities, members are already involved in social justice work. However, just as our personal and moral development continually grow and refine, so do our concepts about social justice and social action. Many I spoke with long to be in a community where these issues are weighed and discussed on a regular basis, and where action springs from, or at least is accompanied by, contemplation and deliberation.
VI. Philosophical and Existential Discussion
Members and others spoke about the need to think and talk about “life’s more enduring mysteries.” Folks wanted a community where they could gain and share insight into human nature and the meaning of existence, and where they might contemplate fundamental questions from the philosophical realm. For some, this means directly exploring spiritual matters, while for others it means grappling with questions of both classic and modern philosophical discourse.
Again, this is something secular Jewish communities should be able to do very well. Our members are looking for a place free of dogma where they can discuss these weightier issues. This is one need that many of our members explicitly know will not be well met in a synagogue (although some feel it is met in other spiritual communities). When we strip away religion and dogma, these existential and philosophical conversations become much more interesting. However, we have to be having them! — and at many secular Jewish communities, we’re not.
If secular Jewish communities endeavor to meet these categorized needs, our organizations will not only engender stronger connection and support from current membership, but will also become more relevant and attractive to unaffiliated/non-religious Jews. This would contribute to affirmative Jewish identification and expand our movement and its impact.
Julie Gamberg is the executive director of the Sholem Community and principal of its school. She has taught at the K-12 and college levels, and directed programs at non-profits for fifteen years. Her book of poems, The Museum of Natural History, won the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize.