Elise Saltzberg is a fourth-generation Secular Jew with a capital S.
“A secular Jew with a small s is often translated to mean unaffiliated and uninvolved,” explained Saltzberg, 56, of Pikesville, a founding member of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, a Secular Humanistic congregation founded by Rabbi Judith Seid about 15 years ago.
“Growing up, I went to a secular Jewish Sunday school. We learned Jewish history, culture and celebrated some Jewish holidays (not God-centered ones) like Purim, Sukkot and Passover. I learned to speak Yiddish. It wasn’t ‘Jewish light.’ It was a different model,” said Saltzberg, who was raised in New Jersey.
In her 2001 book, “God-Optional Judaism,” Rabbi Seid, who now lives in Northern California, wrote that precursors to Secular Humanism existed as early as the mid-1500s,although Jews didn’t began to self-identify as Secularists until the mid-1800s.
According to Rabbi Seid, “Secularism was based on the idea that there was a distinct Jewish national spirit that had been created over the centuries of Jewish experience and that this national spirit, or ‘peoplehood,’ rather than religious dogma was what defined being Jewish.”
Saltzberg acknowledged that many Jews have trouble accepting a Judaism that doesn’t contain a fundamental belief in God. Her husband, Dr. David Saltzberg, was one.
“David was from a very different background. He was raised Orthodox, although not by today’s standards. When we got married, I agreed to keep kosher, send my kids to day school and attend shul,” said Saltzberg, who noted that in addition to her membership in the BJCC, she and her family are also active members of Chevrei Tzedek.
“I have no regrets. I agreed to everything in the context of shalom bayit (peace at home), which is very important to me. My kids got a wonderful education, and the people I’ve met through school are my best friends in Baltimore,” she said.
Saltzberg attends services at Chevrei most Shabbatot but isn’t actively engaged in the service.
“Either I chat outside with friends or I read a Jewish book or magazine,” she said.
While some may find her admission baffling, a section of the 2008 Pew Forum study, Belonging Without Believing: Jews and Their Distinctive Patterns of Religiosity — and Secularity, showed that while 55 percent of self-identified Jews belong to congregations, only 41 percent believe in God or a universal spirit. In other words, almost half of affiliated Jews don’t believe in the religion their synagogues are teaching them or their children.
For many people, wrote Rabbi Seid, participating in services when they don’t believe in much of the content poses no conflict. These non-believers are in shul for the sense of community, history, poetry and music they find there. They are able to “ignore or redefine what is offensive to their true beliefs.”
Yet, Jews such as herself, she wrote, are “just constitutionally unable to say what we don’t believe. We understand that words have literal meanings and transcendent meanings, but we are not willing to ignore the literal meanings to achieve the transcendent.”
Bob Jacobson, BJCC co-president, came to that conclusion when he was 19, after spending his childhood in Cranston, R.I., where he was raised in an observant Conservative family.
“I went to Hebrew School, had my bar mitzvah, was confirmed and was pretty devout until [then],” he said. “Then it stopped making sense. One day in services, I realized I didn’t believe what I was reading. It was freeing but also alienating. Now what?”
Jacobson, 62, said he did “nothing” about his Jewish practice until 1982, when he got married.
“Neither my wife nor I were religious or affiliated with a synagogue, but I had a feeling of wanting to be married Jewishly,” he said.” So we got married at Beth Am Synagogue. Later, my wife got involved at Beit Tikvah. My son went to Sunday school there.
“I first read about BJCC in the Jewish Times. About six months later, I made it to a program and said, ‘This is for me; I feel comfortable here.’”
Saltzberg stressed that BJCC doesn’t have services.
“We have programs,” she said.
Many of the programs are held in members’ homes. Sometimes, as with this year’s High Holiday programs, they are held at larger venues.
A typical BJCC Rosh Hashanah program includes holiday-themed readings, poetry and songs. Apples and honey are served, members take stock of the previous year and participate in a modified tashlich (symbolic casting-away-of-sins) activity,” Jacobson said.
On Yom Kippur, the congregation listens to a recording of Kol Nidre.
“One year, we listened to Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Another year, I played it on clarinet. Last year, we listened to Johnny Mathis,” said Jacobson.
BJCC members participate in an abbreviated version of the Al Khet (confession of sins), but in addition, they acknowledge the positive contributions they have made throughout the year. As in congregations elsewhere, Yom Kippur observance at BJCC includes the blowing of a shofar.
Fasting, said Saltzberg, is not part of BJCC’s tradition. However, the group’s Yom Kippur program is the only event at which food is not served.
In addition to holiday celebrations, the congregation offers a Friday night Shabbat program and a variety of Jewish educational programs. Every year, BJCC honors a Secular Humanistic Jewish role model. This coming year’s honoree is the late author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.
The congregation doesn’t have traditional b’nai mitzvot services, but does have a structure for b’nai mitzvot-style experiences. Usually, said Jacobson, the b’nai mitzvah candidate is given a Torah portion to study, but he or she is not expected to read it in Hebrew or to chant. Students are also required to complete a research project and presentation and participate in a community service project.
Community service is an important part of the congregation’s mission. Tzedakah is collected each year, and a recipient organization is chosen at the BJCC’s annual meeting. This year’s recipient was Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Last year, the recipient was Jewish Recovery Houses.
Today, the congregation includes about 20 households and is affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, one of two umbrella organizations for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The group has no rabbi.
Rabbi Seid began rabbinical studies and became the first person ordained by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews during the time she led BJCC. Jacobson recalled that the rabbi was rejected by the Baltimore Board of Rabbis when she applied for membership about 10 years ago.
“We’re probably off the radar for most of the Jewish community,” said Jacobson. “To the extent we’re known, there’s probably a lack of understanding. I’ve literally had people ask, ‘Is this a Messianic thing?’ Many in the mainstream Jewish community don’t seem to grasp that you can be actively Jewish and a Secular Humanist. They ignore the fact that a huge segment of the Israeli population practices Judaism this way, as did most of the early Zionist leaders, among them David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.”
As for Jacobson, Secular Humanistic Judaism is a way he can practice Judaism and express his Jewish identity without conflict.
“A big principle of Secular Humanistic Judaism is integrity — we say and do what we believe in and conversely don’t say or don’t do what we don’t believe in,” he said.
Join BJCC For The High Holidays
Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah will offer free services for Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. at Prologue Inc., 3 Milford Road and for Yom Kippur on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. at Summit Chase Clubhouse, 2405 Green Summit Road. To make a reservation, call 410-493-2473 by Aug. 30 or visitbaltimoresecularjews.org.