The Risk of Shining a Light on Jewish Spaces

By Samara Cogan

A good friend of mine who works for a television network asked me a very thoughtful question the other day. We were talking about a segment she wanted to produce that would document the story of a Jewish art gallery in Philadelphia. But she had a valid concern: Would highlighting a place where Jewish people work and gather do more harm than good?

After all of the recent anti-Semitic graffiti and property destruction in the area, and the rise of white nationalism and Neo-Nazism around the country, she was afraid that she would be putting a vulnerable community even more at risk. I recommended that she ask the gallery owner if they had any concerns about publicity. If they had worries about safety, they would let her know what they were willing to share, if anything.

I ended up going with her to the gallery to ask, and they were thrilled at the idea of being featured in a televised segment! She was right to worry, but all she had to do was ask and respect their wishes. She plans on filming at the gallery later this year.

In times such as these, it takes a lot of courage to embrace and publicly proclaim a part of your identity that is currently under attack. Nothing is gained without some amount of risk, and for one Jewish art gallery, the risk is worth it. 

Jewish Wedding Traditions for a Secular Ceremony

By Samara Cogan

I am very lucky to be the maid of honor in my former college roommate's upcoming wedding this year. I was there through it all: the sparkly bridal fashion shows, the eardrum-popping band/DJ combos at wedding expo events, and the meetings with the florist to select the perfect shade of purple anemone for the bouquets. It was a crash course in event planning, logistics, and budgeting that I wasn't quite prepared for. But it also opened my eyes to how customizable modern weddings can be.

My friend and her fiancé decided to skip some of the more Christian, God-centric traditions for their ceremony and incorporated elements that were more meaningful for them and still reflected their values. It got me thinking: If I were planning a secular Jewish wedding ceremony for myself and a partner, what would I include? What could I do without? And most importantly, what would my family let me get away with? 


This wedding canopy is symbolic of the new home that the couple will occupy together. Many couples decorate their chuppah with flowers and vines and draped fabric. Some chuppahs are designed to be freestanding, while others are held up by four people for the duration of the ceremony. My favorite chuppah was the rainbow flag chuppah my friends had at their seaside Maine wedding this past May.

Would I include it? Yes! I love the symbolic meaning and the way it creates a peaceful oasis for the couple. I also like that the chuppah can so easily be personalized for the couple standing beneath it.

Would my family insist on it? Yes. It would be hard to imagine my relatives not remarking on the lack of chuppah. The words "barren" and "joyless space" would be used frequently, I'm sure. 

Breaking of the Glass

There has been much debate about the true symbolic meaning behind the traditional breaking of the glass at Jewish wedding ceremonies. One theory is that the breaking of the glass symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Another is that it symbolizes the fragility of relationships.

Would I include it? No. For one thing, it's a waste of perfectly good dishware. But another thing that bothers me is that the tradition is associated with the destruction of the Temple, and that the happiness of the newly married couple must be diminished because our people are still mourning the loss of the Temple. I understand that for some, that symbolism is moving, but for me, it seems excessively dreary for such a happy occasion. 

Would my family insist on it? Yes, which is a bummer, but the breaking of the glass is one of the most recognizable aspects of a Jewish wedding ceremony. Its exclusion would be very noticeable. I could swap out the glass cup for a light bulb, which many people do because it makes a loud, very satisfying popping sound when smashed.


This marriage contract lays out the duties, responsibilities, and rights of each person entering into the union. Traditionally, the groom, the rabbi, and two male witnesses sign it and give it to the bride. A more contemporary ketubah would have the bride's signature, and witnesses of any gender could sign it.

Would I include it? Maybe. I would definitely want to make all of the appropriate legal arrangements, like a prenuptial agreement and a marriage license. So I suppose having a ketubah as well would really cover all the bases. I'm definitely not a fan of any tradition that segregates tasks and duties by gender, but the modern practice of allowing witnesses and partners of any gender sign the ketubah addresses that issue. 

Would my family insist on it? I don't know. This tradition seems more private than the chuppah or glass breaking. I think I would have more wiggle room with this one to decide on my own if I wanted to include it.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the wedding planning process knows that it's not as fun as it seems. If you are able to customize your ceremony to make it personal and meaningful, it can make the stress of planning it completely worthwhile. 

Post-Conference 2017

By Samara Cogan

Now that I've had time to recover from the whirlwind weekend in Chicago for the annual CSJO conference, I wanted to take some time to explain why I love CSJO conferences so much and why this year's was so wonderful! I'd like to thank everyone at the Secular Jewish Community and School of Oak Park, Ill., for their hard work in putting together this conference. I'd also like to thank the members of CSJO's Board of Directors who assisted in the planning process. 

I've been going to CSJO conferences for over a decade. In fact, I've been attending for so long that I passed through all of the age groups: teen, young adult, older young adult and finally fully fledged adult! The appeal of the conferences has always been the same for me: seeing old friends, making new ones, learning new things, eating good food and expressing my Jewish identity with a group of like-minded people. This last conference incorporated all of these elements.

Some highlights:

1. The Keynotes. Corky Siegel treated the audience to a keynote infused with the sounds of the blues, using both previously recorded music and live performances to punctuate his speech. It was an impressive musical display. The youth keynote speaker, Madi Burns, tapped into our current political climate by looking to the past. By examining the history of Jewish and African American solidarity, using the liberation of concentration camps in WWII and the Civil Rights movement as examples, she urged the audience to consider both how far these groups have come, and how far yet we still have to go.

2. The Food. Dinner at Manny's was certainly a night to remember. I was educated on the difference between egg creams and phosphates, had my fill of both Jewish and American specialties (my dinner of matzo ball soup and mac n' cheese would have made my mother cringe at the lack of vegetables; sorry mom!) and the night was capped off with the sounds of the Dave Specter Blues Trio. I also very much appreciated the variety of dishes provided by campus catering (I’m still having dreams about the grilled pineapple and cream dessert!).

3. The Workshops. As I have come to expect, every workshop I attended at this year's conference was lively and informative. Adam Beardsley's workshop on his work with the organization "If Not Now" broached a very controversial topic, but he handled the moments of tension with grace and led a very productive conversation. Members of the SJCS youth continued a proud and long standing tradition of presenting a workshop that covered LGBT+ topics, which was very well attended by both youth and adult participants. Elisa Lapine's workshop chronicled the beginnings of the Secular Jewish Community and School in Oak Park. It was absolutely fascinating to hear about the "creation myth" of a flourishing community. 

All in all, this year's conference encompassed everything I love about CSJO: learning, music, community, Jewishness and so much more. I hope to see all of you at the conference next year!