On Yom Kippur, secular Jews honor one another, not the One

Members of the secular Jewish organization Shir Shalom (from left) Minna Duchovnay, Laura Cohn, Larry Angert, and Glen Loev.
Members of the secular Jewish organization Shir Shalom (from left) Minna Duchovnay, Laura Cohn, Larry Angert, and Glen Loev. (DAVID O'REILLY / Staff)
Posted: September 24, 2012

Yom Kippur, which arrives Tuesday evening, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar: a time when Jews are said to be "closest to God and the quintessence of their own souls," and ask the Almighty for forgiveness and another year of life.

For some, though, the great "Who Am" - the divine being who called to Moses from the burning bush, and resides at the heart of Jewish belief and practice - is problematic.

"We don't believe in God," explained Glen Loev, 56, of Bryn Mawr.

Raised a Conservative Jew, the retired dentist no longer considers himself religious. Yet he will gather with dozens of like-minded Jews this week to mark Yom Kippur by sounding the ram's horn, lighting candles, memorializing the dead, and atoning for misdeeds of the last year.

They will recite in Hebrew the traditional Ashamnu prayer - "We have gone astray, we have offended, we have done wrong. . ." - that will be uttered Tuesday evening in synagogues around the world.

"But it's not a 'service,' " said Larry Angert, 61, a technical writer from Bala Cynwyd. "Who are we serving?"

He and Loev are members of Shir Shalom, a Philadelphia-area congregation of secular, or "humanistic," Jews who embrace the rituals of Judaism, but stripped of what they call "the supernatural."

Shir Shalom - meaning "Song of Peace" - calls its Yom Kippur event an "observance." It annually draws as many as 200 people, although the congregation's membership is just 20 households.

Jacques Berlinerblau, professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, estimates that 50,000 Jews nationwide - less than 1 percent of the Jewish population - identify "denominationally" as secular, and have organized into small groups such as Shir Shalom.

Informally, the number could be far higher, he said. In the 2001 "American Jewish Identity Survey," about 44 percent described themselves as secular or "somewhat secular." Berlinerblau said a more recent study suggested the number could be 64 percent.

"The term 'secular Jew' might seem a contradiction," he said. But "secular" does not mean "atheist."

"Within the secular Jewish movement you will find some who say God does not exist, and others who say that after the Holocaust, he is no longer worthy of worship," Berlinerblau said.

Still others conceive of God as creator of the world, but uninvolved in its workings.

Shir Shalom's Kol Nidre program will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Germantown Friends Meeting House. On Wednesday, the congregation will join the Kehilla for Secular Jews of Greater Philadelphia in sponsoring a longer service, beginning at 3:45 p.m. at the meeting house.

Formed 15 years ago, Shir Shalom is the smallest of the six secular Jewish organizations that make up the  Kehilla  , or community.

Angert, a Shir Shalom cofounder, traces its origin to the Secular Humanist Judaism (SHJ) movement founded in the 1963 by Rabbi Sherman Wine in suburban Detroit.

"When they [SHJ] heard from enough people" in the Philadelphia area interested in forming a community, Angert said, they helped get Shir Shalom started.

Angert grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Oxford Circle, and became a Philadelphia police officer in 1972.

He saw "such debased, impoverished, brutal people" in eight years on the force "that I just started thinking, 'If there's a God in the traditional sense, he's asleep or dead or left town.' "

Yet, as he gave up his belief in God, he could not give up on Judaism. "Even if you don't believe in it intellectually, it had been ingrained since my youth," he said. "The prayers. The rituals. The melodies. You miss the hell out of it."

Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin, who teaches at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, said many Jews harbor doubts. "That's why many of the prayerbooks that denominations now use," she said, "try to pose a more accessible notion of God."

Shir Shalom members gather monthly in each other's homes for shabbat, and mark modified Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover events.

There are no tickets or fees required for the Yom Kippur observances, but attendees are asked to make a donation.

At their High Holiday services, "we try to include themes and elements of the normative observances," explained Angert, "but we translate them and remove anything supernatural. So the pieces are there, but stated very differently."

Instead of speaking the words "Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One," which make up the great prayer of Judaism, congregants will say, "Hear, Oh Israel and the Entire World, we are one."

Gone, too, are the words "Blessed is the Lord our God," replaced with "Blessed is the light of peace."

They will unfurl no Torah scroll. There will be no rabbi or cantor. Members lead the songs and "recitations," which will include "Who By Fire," a poem by the secular Jewish poet Leonard Cohen.

They are emphatic, however, that nothing is inappropriate about the observance.

"We're not tied to tradition, but we recognize we're Jews. We want to identify as Jews," said Minna Duchovnay, 72.

Having grown up Orthodox in Boston, Duchovnay said she began to question her religious beliefs at age 14. "I started asking why God would allow all those Jews to die in Europe," she said, or allow the creation of atomic bombs.

Duchovnay, who studied voice, began singing at churches as a teen. "Exposed to all these religions, I began to think of myself as a citizen of the world," she said.

Instead of living to earn a place in an afterlife, she tries to "make this world as good I can. . . . It's very central to our being humanist."

For Laura Cohn, 49, "this is my spirituality."

A Bala Cynwyd artist and importer of Balinese arts and crafts, she grew up in a secular Jewish home, "so it resonates with my core."

Although Shir Shalom advertises its High Holiday observances in local Jewish publications, those seeking a traditional God-centered service rarely "stumble into" theirs, said Angert.

However, "the flow would be familiar to someone familiar with a Conservative observance.

"It's just that instead of asking God for forgiveness," he said, "you forgive yourself and forgive one another."

Contact David O'Reilly at 610-313-8111 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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