Secular Humanistic Jews Come to Explore Philadelphia This Week


This weekend, the International Institute for Secular and Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) hosts a three-day seminar in Philadelphia.

This weekend, the International Institute for Secular and Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) hosts a three-day seminar in Philadelphia.

Some 35 people, coming from New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Mo., and Raleigh, N.C., are expected to attend “Jewish, Secular and Humanistic American: A Learning Tour of Philadelphia,” beginning Oct. 28.

Why here? It’s because when it comes to American history, American Jews and the culture they share, the city known as the Cradle of Liberty is right at the top.

“When you think of America and you think of Jewish identity, Philadelphia is often overlooked,” explained Adam Chalom, dean of the IISHJ and rabbi at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation near Chicago. “When you think Jews, you go immediately to New York.

“When you think American, you go immediately to Washington, D.C. But right in between is this great city with a fascinating history that has a long and rich Jewish history.

“We’re trying to make the connection and open up the conversation [about] how we identify as Jews today. Philadelphia is emblematic of ways of being Jewish and how our identities intersect with each other.”

Secular or humanistic Jews eschew traditional talk of God and focus instead on what it means to be Jewish in terms of values, ethics and culture. They observe the holidays and other Jewish customs, but their Sabbath and High Holiday services, for instance, contain no mention of a supreme being.

More traditional denominations may question their approach, but their numbers are growing, according to Chalom.

“Based on the Pew [Research Center] study, one-quarter of American Jews define themselves as non-religious,” said Chalom, who grew up in a secular humanistic Jewish home around Detroit, got a degree in Jewish studies from Yale and was ordained in 2001. “Another one says 80 percent of them don’t keep kosher or light candles.

“So the new innovation of styles of American Judaism reflects the free market Jews have enjoyed. We’re open-minded to a diverse Jewish future. Others are more closed-minded.”

For the upcoming seminar, which is divided into three categories, Chalom hopes to find insight into what makes the local Jewish community tick.

Participants will begin by learning about the various branches of Judaism, opening with a tour of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City, followed by a visit to Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuous synagogue in the U.S., dating to the American Revolution. From there, it’s on to Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

On Oct. 29, the focus changes to Jews in America. They’ll start off with a walking tour of colonial Jewish Philadelphia, including sites of long gone homes and synagogues. Next, they’ll visit the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), where 350 years of Jews in North America will come to life.

That includes a section on Jewish diversity, where many secular humanistic items donated from the collection of Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City are on display.

The seminar concludes on Oct. 30 with a focus on American history and identity, with visits to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the President’s House, where both George Washington and John Adams lived before the nation’s capital was moved to Washington, D.C., in 1790.

“We want to explore what it means to live in a secular democracy,” said Chalom, who participated in the Interfaith Opportunity Summit at the NMAJH on Oct. 26. “A secular government not governed by the church was really revolutionary.

“The Constitution created context for a variety of American Jewish experiences we have today. They’re rooted in being Jewish and being American at the same time.”

Chalom’s hope is that through this learning tour not only will secular and humanistic Jews gain a better appreciation for their history, but they’ll also discover a more tolerant Jewish world.

“I like to use the bagel analogy,” Chalom said. “There used to be only a couple of basic flavors of bagels. Now you’ve got a bunch of them to choose from.

“Similarly, the more variety and flavors of Judaism you have, people will be more able to find something that tastes good to them.”; 215-832-0729


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