Book Review: "Just Pretend: A Book for Young Freethinkers"

By Joan Kurtz

If you are a member of CSJO, you might also consider yourself a "freethinker." According to Webster's Dictionary, a freethinker is "one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority, especially one who doubts or denies religious dogma." If there are young children in your family, trying to explain this idea to them could be challenging. It has now been made easier with a book entitled, "Just Pretend: A Book for Young Freethinkers" by Dan Barker. Mr. Barker used to be a Christian minister and is now an atheist and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Written expressly for children, this colorful paperback guides readers through ways to think for oneself, to challenge authority and question stories and myths they may have been told. Some of these myths include Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, unicorns and, of course, God. They are all "just pretend." Because of this, I would not recommend this book to very young children who may not be ready yet to stop believing in any of these tales.

While Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus are mentioned, the primary focus is on questioning Christian beliefs. It stresses reasoning and using one's mind as the way to understand these tales and stories are not real. Some examples used are Jonah living in the belly of a whale, the Nile River turning to blood and Joshua making the sun stand still. "Do you think these things really happened?" Questioning the existence of God, being a good person without belief, Heaven, Hell, pain and suffering are also included as the author guides the reader to thinking what is true and what is just pretend.

"No one can tell you what to think. Not your teachers, not your parents, not your minister, priest or rabbi. … Not this book. … You are the boss of your own mind. Your thoughts are free." This book provides an honest discussion of religion from a freethought perspective.

There Is No CSJO Future Without CSJO Youth

By Jordan Shuster

They say that "children are our future" and as contrived as the saying may be, I can't deny its truth. I joined CSJO as a 14-year-old with no idea what I was getting myself into — all I knew was that I was finally old enough to go to the conference that my cool older sibling went to every year, where rumor had it there were unlimited snacks and no curfew. Of course, once I got to my first CSJO conference — held that year in Cleveland, Ohio — I found out it was so much more than that. I made friends from all over North America, participated in some very interesting workshops about every aspect of Jewishness, and even became close with some of the adults who regularly attend CSJO conferences, which I certainly was not expecting. And of course, I ate tons of food and stayed up to watch the sunrise. Suffice to say, I was hooked.

So here I am nearly a decade later, having been to nine consecutive conferences. I was elected by my fellow youth to be the teen conference coordinator for two straight conferences and after that, the young adult conference coordinator for another year. From there I transitioned to become a youth representative to the board and, finally, to CSJO's executive committee. All this is to say that not only was I hooked, but I knew I had to give back. I wanted to dedicate my time and efforts to ensuring that the CSJO I knew and loved continued to thrive for secular Jewish kids like me — some of whom were already attending the conferences and some who had yet to discover us.

Lately my efforts have been pointing towards youth outreach. I want to connect with teens and young adults who are already a part of our community, but who may not even realize it. For the most part, this means students at our affiliate organizations' schools, who are members of CSJO through their membership in their local community. My goal is to connect these teens and young adults across North America so that they not only have a great time at the conference together but have a network of friendship during the rest of the year.

To kick off this initiative, I recently had the privilege of visiting the Sholem Community in sunny Los Angeles, which was a nice change from snowy Philadelphia. I met with the students of Sholem's Vov and Hey classes and explained to them what CSJO is and what the conference looks like. I was thrilled to see their immediate excitement! I had no idea beforehand what sort of reaction I would face from these teens, but their response to my presentation was so far beyond what I could have hoped. And it probably didn't hurt that I brought candy and promised 50% off registration for any of them who went, as we always offer to first-time youth conference attendees.

I'm feeling incredibly hopeful about the future of CSJO's youth. We are excited and connecting with each other. As I continue to reach out to our affiliates' schools across North America, I look forward to bringing with me the excitement I saw at Sholem and being able to report back to the teens I met with good news from across the country. This year's conference — to be held in Cleveland, Ohio, just like my very first conference — is shaping up to be the very best yet!

The 2019 CSJO Conference will be held from Friday, May 24th to Monday, May 27th at Ursuline College in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. If you are interested in learning more about the youth of CSJO, the CSJO youth conference, or anything else, please feel free to contact me at

One Pitt Panther's Reaction to the Pittsburgh Shooting

By Madeline Burns

On October 27th, I was awoken by an automated phone call. "There's an active shooter in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of the city. Find shelter." Fear flooded in. While I was safe in my bed in Philadelphia on that Saturday, I had no idea where my friends were, if they had gone to temple that morning, or if there were other shooters. I sat that entire morning with my eyes bouncing between the news on the TV and my phone, waiting for messages. Group texts came in — my friends marking themselves safe. Some shared that they were huddled in a basement in a different synagogue, or at Hillel that morning, or still in bed. I breathed again knowing my friends, the family that I had chosen, were safe. But then this profound sadness set in. I'd been around the Tree of Life Synagogue many times. Squirrel Hill is a predominantly Jewish section of Pittsburgh and right next to the Pitt and Carnegie Mellon campuses. I'd go food shopping there. I went there last year to buy supplies for the first Seder I'd ever hosted. I'd introduced my non-Jewish friends to kugel and matzah ball soup there. I felt safe there. In that same place, my friends were huddling in a basement, hiding from an armed man intent upon killing them. Images from past genocides came to mind, from the Spanish Inquisition to Russian Pogroms to the Holocaust. Up until that day, I'd thought of those things as history. Sure, someone might paint a swastika on another person's door, but they wouldn't lynch them on the street, right? Surely in 2018 we'd moved on. And yet, here I was, waiting for the names of the deceased to be published from this horrific attack. I remember wondering how many thousands of people had been in my position before, their sense of safety and security shattered, waiting for the names of the dead. Nearly all the optimism I had was gone — this was Trump's America, and those who hated us felt free to stand up and declare it for the world to see.

Later that day, though, I realized that wasn't the moral of this story. In less than six hours, a group called Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue raised over $25,000 for the victims to help cover medical bills, funeral arrangements, child care, and whatever else these families needed. As of the writing of this blog post, that amount has grown to over $238,000. People showed up in droves to sit shiva for the victims. Messages of support came from around the world, sharing in our mourning and offering prayers, strength, and shoulders to cry on. Churches brought kosher food to opened homes, and doctors and coroners were careful to be as respectful of religious laws for Jewish burials as possible. While various individual players have worn the Star of David on shoes, hats, or gloves, the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first U.S. professional team to put the star on its jersey, along with the line "Stronger than Hate," a gesture that would be similarly reflected by all the Pittsburgh sports teams.

On a more personal level, people who I hadn't spoken to in years reached out to me to see if I was safe, to see if I needed anything, to offer ears that would listen and arms that would hug. Through all this, I had a moment akin to the Grinch when he realizes that Christmas doesn't come from a store — maybe it means just a little bit more. Mr. Rogers, a famous Pittsburgher himself, once recalled the advice his mother gave him after the Kennedy assassination: "Look for the helpers." Seeing the way my city and my community around the world came together is what I am choosing to remember from that day and the days that followed.