Jewish Secularists Unite
07/25/03
Staff Writer
The non-religious Jew, the secular, the humanist, the cultural Jew: in a city rich with synagogues and tradition-oriented classes, where are they to turn? There will soon be a new haven for such folks, whose ranks, according to recent studies, are swelling. Those in the region who describe themselves as "just Jewish" or "secular" or "having no religion" have nearly doubled in the last decade, from 13 to 25 percent, according to the recent New York population study. Nationally, nearly half of all Jews (49 percent, according to 2001's American Jewish Identity Survey, conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York) say they are either "secular" or "somewhat secular." Since Jewish leadership hasn't been taking the needs of this population seriously, according to Myrna Baron, a new player is emerging. This fall a new Center for Cultural Judaism will open, headed by Baron, who has long been a lay leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. The effort is being underwritten primarily by London-based philanthropist Felix Posen, long the biggest funder of Jewish secular humanist efforts in the U.S. Baron is planning weekly classes on Jewish cultural and secular topics at the new center's Garment Center office, and is establishing a library. New York is rich with cultural offerings for non-religious, non-traditional Jews, she acknowledges. But it isn't typical of the rest of the country, and the Cultural Judaism Center's goal is to make a national impact. It is entertaining grant proposals for college and university programs that will teach about the impact of secular Judaism. Each will be for up to $50,000 a year, renewable for up to three years. More information is available at: www.culturaljudaism.org. And this week the center is mailing to 30,000 people working in Jewish life a copy of 2001's American Jewish Identity Survey, showing that almost half of Jews identify as secular. Federation and community center leaders will receive it, as will rabbis, Jewish studies departments and Jewish early childhood educators. "We want to raise awareness of the need to develop programs and services for this huge population of cultural, non-religious Jews," says Baron. "We want to engage them in Jewish life on their terms, and obviously that hasn't happened yet because half the Jewish population remains unaffiliated. And there's a significant overlap between the population which is unaffiliated and that which identifies as secular."

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