Shiurim have a weekly theme that is also connected to other events during the week, like siyurim (tours) and guest speakers. The theme for this week is "My Jewish Community." Examining the North American Jewish community today shapes some of the core questions for Shiurim: how did the Jewish community come to look the way it does today? What choices were people faced with? What different answers did they give? How does this effect my choice to be Jewish?
Below is an excerpt from this week's reading.
April Rosenblum, "Offers We Couldn't Refuse: When Secular Judaism was Normal," discussing changes in secular Jewish identity in the post WWII period.
In the early 1900s, Kaplan observed the massive flight from religious observance and knew that
atheists, even if they wanted to, could not force themselves to believe in God. He responded by
teaching his followers that in Jewish tradition, Jews need not believe in God in order to practice religious Judaism. Kaplan advised synagogue leaders “to make the synagogue more attractive by adding to the house of worship and the [religion-oriented] school a variety of non-religious activities that might serve the entire surrounding Jewish community.” For the synagogue to become desirable for the entire Jewish community – that is, including all the non-religious Jews – the synagogue must make itself more relevant by expanding into the secular sphere. Indeed, some leaders thought such a center might be the nucleus for a new type of Jewish community. Its focus would not be religion but something we may call “Jewishness,” which would be the common element in a variety of activities – religious, political, cultural, intellectual, philanthropic, all of them legitimately Jewish.
In my view, the new centers, and the great number of synagogues who came to be influenced
by the advice to integrate secular activities, became the grounds of a sort of unstated consensus among Jews in the new communities. Religious institutions would let the vast number of non-religious Jews come for what they really wanted: secular social activities among their ethnic peers. In return, those Jews would come to a few given religious observances per year out of a sense of loyalty to one’s “roots” and out of a sense that this was what one did as a member of the community – as well as for the enjoyment of seeing everyone one hadn’t seen throughout the year.
The Jewish center indeed became central as the Jewish communities of the new neighborhoods
developed. But, housed at synagogues, and located in communities where Jews were most easily
understood by non-Jews as a separate religious group, the centers soon lost the connotation of a place where secular Jewishness would be equally as legitimate as any other Jewish identity.
Rabbi Abrahaham Joshua Heschel, "Existence and Celebration, excerpt from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity."
There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary: “surveys” and “survival.” Our
community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams. When surveys become an obsession, a sacred cow that eats up vast energies, they may yield confirmation of little more than what we know in advance. It is in such a spirit that undertaking surveys is an evasion of creative action, a splendid illusion. Preoccupation with the notion of survival is the result of utilitarian philosophy according to which Judaism is a means to an end, a device or contrivance to preserve the Jewish people. The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival of a particular people but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.