The Challenge and Promise of Secular Jewish Education

This post was originally delivered at a 2011 conference at the National Museum of American Jewish History organized by the Jewish Children’s Folkshul to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Secular Jewish school. It later appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism (Autumn 2011/Winter 2012) and is reprinted with permission.


Oifen pripetshok brent a fierel
Un in shtub iz hays
Un der rebbe lerent klayne kinderlakh
Dem a-lef bays

Zayt she kinderlakh gedenk she tieere
Vos er lerent doh
Zogt she nokh amol un take nokh amol
Komets alef aw

“On the hearth, a small fire burns and the room is warm. And the rabbi teaches the little children the alef-bays. Listen, children, consider what you learn here. Say again, and then once again, kometz alef aw.

This song, written by Max Warshawsky in 1900, describes a traditional Jewish education: rote memorization of letters and vowels. In reality, the heder [school] was cold and poor, the students starving, the teacher brutal. There is a deep irony in the celebration of this song as an anthem of secular Yiddishkeit [Jewishness]; a rabbi drills children so they can pray in Hebrew! The same alphabet also writes Yiddish, but that was not the rabbi’s objective.

Oyfn Pripechik raises an important question for Jewish heirs of the secular revolution: what does being Jewish, teaching Jewish mean to us? What should our children know? This is a key question for any human community; who you are is reflected in what you teach your children. What should secular Jewish children be taught?

In 1910, a “heretical” proposal was presented to Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which had been running Sunday Schools in English with purely universalist socialist curricula:

Jewish children need to know Jewish history and Yiddish literature, just as Russian children need to know Russian history and Russian literature . . . . I would like for the Jewish worker’s children to grow up to be not just socialists, but Jewish socialists.

From that challenge sprang schools, magazines, summer camps, teacher training institutes, textbooks. In 1934, some twenty thousand Jewish children , 10 percent of American Jewish children receiving a Jewish education, were enrolled in secular Yiddish schools.[1]

Who were involved in these schools and camps? Largely first-generation immigrants, or the children of immigrants, living in densely Jewish urban areas. Yiddish was their mameloshn [mother tongue], a language they wanted their children to understand.  Most were working class or middle-class professionals: pharmacists, accountants, craftsmen, working in or owning small businesses. They were politically left – or left of left – calling anyone to their right “fascist.”

What drove their enthusiasm and commitment? Two horses: political idealism for “the cause,” be it socialism or communism or Zionism; and connection to Jewish culture, embodied in the love of Yiddish language and literature.  When they called themselves weltlikh, “secular,” they meant that there were no rabbis or religious rules. Some rejected religion as the “opiate of the masses,” but for many, theology was a private matter: their focus was on Yiddish culture, not personal beliefs.

What did these schools teach? The core curriculum consisted of Yiddish language and literature (though schools run by the Farband, or Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, also taught Hebrew), progressive politics, and Jewish history and culture.  In 1920 an authorized list of holidays celebrated in Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring schools included March 18 (commemorating labor’s struggle for freedom), May 1 (in honor of labor brotherhood and world peace), the Fourth of July, and a celebration of the Russian Revolution (marked in various schools on different dates to commemorate either the initial overthrow of the Tsar or the later Bolshevik takeover).[2] Among traditional Jewish holidays, Sukkot is missing; what does the urban proletariat know from harvest holidays? No High Holidays, no Shabbes/Shabbat – divine judgment and divine creation were not considered “secular-appropriate” or were left for purely private observance. Surviving Jewish holidays were understood anew: Passover as a freedom holiday; Hanukka as anti-assmiliation (even though secular Jews had more in common with Hellenists than with Maccabean religious fanatics); Purim as a children’s holiday, despite the harems and slaughter depicted in the Megillah [scroll of Esther].  The choice and interpretation of holidays exemplifies the basic issue: how to celebrate historical Jewish culture while being honest to what secular Jews believed, how they lived, who they were. In a word, they needed to be relevant to their audience and to speak to its experiences and values.

In our own day, although secular Jewish education is still vibrant and creative, its numbers are a shadow of that bygone era. Some alumni of the early secular Jewish schools are involved in Secular Humanistic Jewish communities; others have joined religious congregations, and still others are not involved in any Jewish community. Among the twenty thousand students who received a secular Jewish education in 1934, how many of their great-grandchildren are not part of organized Secular and Humanistic Judaism?

Why the decline? These are some of the many factors:[3]

  • Strong anticommunist sentiment after World War II, which stigmatized and persecuted even non-communist socialist schools and camps.
  • The decline of secular Yiddish-speaking immigration, first by law and then by Holocaust, which choked off the flow of native speakers necessary to maintain a linguistic community. Assimilation also did its work. Modern Israel and its renewed emphasis on Hebrew didn’t help Yiddish-focused secular shules.
  • American Jewish economic success, which made socialist politics less attractive; who wants a revolution when you own your home? The labor movement was successful: children of union members did not join unions because they moved up to white collar work and to suburbia, leaving neighborhood shules.
  • The intangible factor of growing American individualism. Jews now tend to define themselves personally, rather than collectively. Rather than asking what they can do for “the cause,” they ask how “the cause” benefits them personally.

Looking forward, I see four key challenges for Secular and Humanistic Jewish education. There is no one right answer. We must respond to our changed reality with creativity and flexibility, as our predecessors did to the circumstances of their times.


1. Who are our people?

There are still blue-collar Jews; by no means is every Jewish family wealthy. However, those who most often find and join our schools and communities tend to be white collar – college-educated lawyers, doctors, teachers, businessmen and women. Even if their parents were union members, they are much less likely to be. Some were raised secular, or “just Jewish,” or even not knowing they were Jewish at all until later in life. Some are in or from intercultural families. Many were brought up in conventional religious Judaisms. Some are attracted by political issues; others seek to celebrate Jewish culture without prayer and faith. In short, we are not at all as uniform as we were 75 years ago, and that diversity brings new challenges. What unstated assumptions do we have to change? In our celebrations we should not say “we are Jews,” as many of our members are non-Jewish spouses! We can say “we are all part of the Jewish family” – by adoption, by birth or by marrying in.

We are also more diverse politically.  What if someone is personally and philosophically secular, wants a cultural Jewish identity for his or her family, but does not share a left-wing political agenda?  Such a thing is not impossible, given the social and financial profile of our membership. Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum. Objectivist/Libertarian thought is secular, even critical of religion, asserting that no one and no tradition can think for you or tell you what to think. Today’s Russian Jews are often secular but rarely progressive.

We object when fundamentalist churches declare that good Christians may vote only one way, or when Catholic bishops deny communion to pro-choice politicians. But are our schools and communities open to a range of opinions? Or are political values the bright dividing line? There are positives on both sides: a big tent versus a shared perspective on more issues. One possibility is to focus on noncontroversial community service – feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, meet basic human needs. Or we can try dialogue and debate rather than diatribe and dismissal when perspectives vary. The same approach can apply to issues concerning Israel and Zionism.

The key issue is relevance to our potential audience. That was true when socialist shules served union members and laborers.  How will we be relevant today in all of our diversity?


2. What should we teach?

Our core curriculum of Jewish history and holidays, Jewish culture and ceremonies continues to be important. We want our students to feel rooted in their Jewishness.

Secular shules met multiple afternoons a week and on weekends. When students learned Yiddish, they learned real language skills: writing, reading, speaking – much more than a few songs or phrases sung without comprehension or recited by rote.  People learn a foreign language best by immersion.  But many of our members are recovering from a Hebrew school trauma they refuse to inflict on their children. We must be realistic – we get Sunday mornings, maybe 25 a year, and often Jewish language instruction is omitted.  Understanding these realities, and fully valuing what we DO teach and celebrate, we also must realize that we risk creating Jewish illiterates – Jews who cannot read a Jewish language. If they hear Oyfn Pripechuk, they might think “Kometz Aleph huh?”

Even knowing just the letters, being literate in the most limited sense, opens the door to learning more. We want our students to not just feel secular, but also to feel Jewish! Remember that 1910 challenge: “not just socialists, but Jewish socialists.” If our students visit a friend’s synagogue, they should recognize those funny marks on the walls and in the books rather than saying, “It’s all Greek to me!”

Our goal is Jewish literacy, which includes knowing something about cultural elements we do not believe to be true, such as Jewish mythology or traditional liturgy.  We need to be able to get the jokes! You cannot fully appreciate The Jazz Singer without recognizing Kol Nidre or modern Jewish literature without knowing something of the tradition to which the authors respond. Knowing more is better than knowing less.


3. What do we mean by secular?

We generally do not mean secular in the Israeli sense of khiloni (“non-Orthodox, not following halakha), which would include Reform Judaism. In this sense, a Jewish community center or camp is a “secular space” not dedicated to one religious viewpoint, but this is not what we mean.

Does secular mean no religious structure: no rabbis or services? Are we a shule or a shul, a school or a synagogue? Secular Jewish pioneer Max Rosenfeld wrote, “secular Jews need community like religious Jews need congregation.” Secular Jewish education historically offered community – adult choruses, classes, neighborhood connections. But too often it failed to offer crucial pieces: life cycle celebrations, such as Bar Mitzvah; major Jewish holidays; pastoral support and professionally-trained leadership. Here is the key question: how many people stay involved in a middle school PTO once their kids are in high school? Our organizations tread water with every graduation. On the other hand, if you have a secular Jewish community that offers youth education and adult learning and Jewish holiday events and trained and experienced professional leadership – now you are walking and quacking like a synagogue, or at least a havurah. We need not be opposed to authority – we rely on authorities all the time.  Who among us would prefer lay-performed surgeries? One can be an authority without being authoritarian. We need to meet the very human needs religion meets, even if we do so with this-worldly answers.

When we say secular, we often mean philosophically secular — focused on this world and the human experience, celebrating the power of people for ethical choices and improving the world. We are not nonbelievers – we hold strong beliefs about how the world works, where we come from, why we should be and do good. My work in Secular Humanistic Judaism, philosophically secular with organized congregations, offers a positive philosophy of life. I am a Secular Humanistic Jew and not just a lower-case secular Jew because I believe, based on evidence and experience, in the power and the potential of people: Jewish people and humanity.


4. What will be our “engine” to motivate enthusiasm and commitment?

Yiddish will not be enough.  We will not meet multiple days a week, and while some have personal connections, for others the same nostalgia applies to Hebrew, and given our diverse audience those memories are very different from each other. Most of our students today have U.S.-born grandparents, and many of those know limited Yiddish, if any. Where does a secular Sephardi or Israeli or formerly Reform Jew go? To be relevant and meaningful, we have to be about more than Yiddish.

Neither are progressive politics enough on their own, though they can be one of the pistons driving particular communities. Progressive politics are not unique to us; there are many progressive Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Reform Jews, not to mention non-Jews, secular and religious.  Furthermore, Jewish sources such as the Torah and the Prophets can be used to justify negative values (e.g., slavery, oppression of women or homosexuality, etc.).

Here are three pistons we all need, whether our community calls itself Secular, cultural, or Humanistic:

  • Meaningful Jewish experiences relevant to and consistent with how our members live and true to our understanding of Jewish history and human reality. Fun and exuberant, profound and moving, dynamic and changing in every generation. Not based on guilt or nostalgia, but building on inspiration from the past to be Jewish today – with more joy and less oy.
  • Positive philosophy. We have to address the question: what does this mean to me? How does being a Secular Humanistic Jew make my life better, more meaningful, more beautiful, more ethical, more worthwhile? Not just for my children, but also for me, the adult who has chosen this community.  Jews are more secular than most cultural groups – less likely to believe in God, less likely to attend religious services. Seventy-five percent of Jews celebrate Hanukka and Passover, but only 15 percent keep kosher or light Shabbat candles. Our secular celebration of Jewish culture and human potential can speak to a large proportion of American and world Jewry, if we can live with a wider tent.
  • The strength of our personal and Jewish identity. We need to celebrate who we are. We are not only heirs to a one hundred-year tradition of Secular Jewish education; we are also heirs to a four hundred-year tradition of philosophical Enlightenment and three thousand years of a broader Jewish cultural tradition. We look very different from our Jewish evolutionary ancestors, but so does everyone who does not sacrifice animals at the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish world is not divided into “us” and “them”, secular versus religious. We are on the Jewish spectrum, and if the organized Jewish world celebrates pluralism, it must include us in the conversation. We will no longer be Elijah, an empty place at the table. Our commitment to be who we really are – cultural and secular and humanistic Jews – will motivate us and our children to see secular Jewish education not as history, or as middle school, but as a way of life for a lifetime community.

To draw inspiration from the future from another Yiddish song from our past, written by Hirsh Glick in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943.

Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho
s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot

Never say you are on the final road
though leaden skies may cover blue days.
The hour we’ve waited for is here
Our steps ring out the message –

mir zaynen doWE ARE HERE.


[1] Quotation and Figures cited in Fishman, “Yiddish Schools in America and the Problem of Secular Jewish Identity.”  In Z. Gitelman, ed. Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution (Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 71, 72. Statistics based on surveys by Workman’s Circle and the Jewish Education Association of New York City. Also discussed in depth in Fradle Pomerantz Friedenreich, Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960 (Holmes & Meier, 2010).

[2] Cited in Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 503-504.

[3] For more on this subject, see April Rosenblum, “Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity” (Jewish Currents, May-June 2009), as well as responses to her article in that issue and in the following issue (Jewish Currents, Autumn 2009).

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to The Challenge and Promise of Secular Jewish Education

  1. Cynthia says:

    My mother attended that type of socialist Jewish school, run by an organization called the United Jewish People’s Order.

    Up until 1956, it was a front for the Communist Part of Canada. As a result, members needed to be somewhat secretive. More powerful than external persecution, however, was the betrayal that many felt when the full extent of Stalin’s anti-semitism was revealed.

    Also, my parents grew up in a time and place where they largely lived within a Jewish bubble – they attended public schools that were almost exclusively Jewish. My mother realized that I was growing up in a different world, and that her kids wouldn’t simply be Jewish by osmosis. My parents ended up being co-founders of a Conservative synagogue, even though my mother has always been an atheist.

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