2005 Voices of the past, Visions of the future by Jerry Bain

Ladies and Gentlemen, and co-keynote speakers: When Karen Knecht invited me to be on the panel this morning, she asked that I speak on the past, perhaps giving some history of the CSJO and how we got to where we are to-day. White haired people tend to get asked to give speeches about past history. I said yes, all the while knowing that harangues about the past, how wonderful the good old days were, if only we could re-capture some of the spirit, the enthusiasm of those days, blah, blah, blah, would be pretty boring stuff. Besides which, I thought I would rather spend the precious few minutes I have up here talking about things that I’m more interested in and that I think are much more pertinent to my view of the present and the future. Now I don’t want to give you the impression that my acceptance of Karen’s invitation was a deception. I will likely mention some things from the past—it’s hard not to.

In early March of this year, my family, my wife Sheila and my four children who were once part of the CSJO youth, my children’s mates and I, found ourselves in a rare situation, sitting in a Reform synagogue on a Saturday morning. The occasion was the Bat Mitzvah of my great niece. The synagogue was filled because that same morning a boy was also having his Bar Mitzvah. Friends and family of both children came to be part of and celebrate this great life event. The house was full.

Many thoughts passed through my mind that morning as I sat listening to and watching the proceedings. Of course, I do not and could not identify with the words of praise to the Jewish god, with the prayers – a culture which is not my culture. As an atheist I could not identify with the theistic elements of the service and the rituals. But as a Jew, I had other thoughts, positive thoughts about the elements of the proceedings with which I could identify. Here was a structural format for a community, a structure that has been around, more or less in the same form, for quite some time and a structure that appears to have staying power.

There was a repetitious, predictable program which was comfortable for most people in the crowd. There was music, and songs sung by an excellent cantor, music that most of the people there had heard since their childhood. It wasn’t my music, it was their music and they embraced it, and for many there it likely evoked nostalgiac memories just as many Yiddish songs evoke memories and sometimes tears, for me. There was also a sense that that synagogue, that congregation, that music, those rituals and future Bar and Bat Mitzvahs would continue for a long time to come. It had already been there for quite some years and showed no signs, at least outwardly, of an early demise despite the well-known trends among ethnic communities to fray at the edges, to ultimately become lost in the great pool of undifferentiated integration – the so-called melting pot.

I then thought of my own cultural Jewish experience and identity – growing up in a culturally rich Jewish institution that gave me so many things, Yiddish, music, history, poetry, a Jewish school, theatre group, dance group, choir, camp, a community, a sense of being, a sense of belonging. How lucky I was; how lucky I am.

I had no Torah, I had no Talmud, I had no ritual in the formalistic sense. But I did have a strong sense of my Jewishness, the Jews as an international people, of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, of the importance and power of peace. In those days, content and ideology were much more important than the form of the institution.

That warm and wonderful Jewish world which characterized my youth, my teens, my twenties, began to change in the 1950’s and 1960’s. There were many reasons for that change, perhaps leading among them the fact that ideology failed to turn into actuality, but this is a topic for another keynote address, for workshops, for historians and sociologists. The old institutions were slow to change, or could not change, resisted change, were stuck with an old content that didn’t speak to people for whom content could be diluted for the sake of community, and that’s when the secular Jewish world that we know to-day, came into existence. Don’t get me wrong. Secular Judaism did not begin in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was an ever-present, ever-evolving phenomenon in Jewish life for centuries, but in the 1960’s it took on new life, a new outlook, either divorcing itself completely from the old outlooks or changing those old outlooks to meet the desires and demands of the day which were less ideology driven and oriented more toward a sense of community. Yiddish was no longer paramount; social activism, although remaining important, was no longer the primary driving force behind secular Jewish expression. People whose roots were not in the secular Jewish experience but in the synagogue experience were also seeking new ways to express their Jewishness, to find meaning in their Jewish background, whatever that background was.

New independent secular Jewish organizations emerged, largely in the 1960’s. While organizational types of secular Jewish groups were being established throughout North America, a congregational type of secular Jewish association, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, was also born. The various independent non-congregational organizations, working in isolation, finally found one another, and in the early 1970’s several of these groups met in Detroit, hosted by the Jewish Parents’ Institute. Out of this meeting grew the CSJE, Congress of Secular Jewish Education, since that initial meeting focused on curriculum in our various Sunday schools. Within 3 or 4 years, after the 1974 conference in Toronto, the CSJE became the CSJO, which recognized the fact that many of our various organizations focused not only on the children, but on adult programming as well.

The chronicles of our history over the last 30 years have yet to be written. It will be an interesting story filled with colourful personalities, moments of drama and tension, moments of exhilaration and moments of disappointment. The questions to consider, however, are fundamental to the future of organized secular Judaism. Are we stronger now than we were then? Have our numbers increased or decreased? What is the cement that keeps us together? Will we only flourish if we have strong social ideology and if so how do we keep that ideology clothed in our Jewish heritage? Is growth predicated more on recognizably Jewish events and celebrations conducted in a secular manner? What organizational structure will best carry us into the future? Is there more than one organizational structure to accomplish that task? How do we groom and prepare leadership for the tasks ahead? From what constituency or constituencies will our future members come? Can we compete in a meaningful way with the synagogue scenario I previously described, a scenario made up of at least some Jews who may in their hearts be secular but who don’t mind the religious trappings because those trappings are readily identified and accepted as being clearly Jewish? So many synagogue centred Jews are more interested in the form of their Jewishness rather than the content and are not concerned with the meaning of the words they utter when they recite a prayer or read from the Torah.

Jews who have been brought up in the secular “tradition” in the manner that I described for myself are relatively few in number and are becoming fewer. If they want to express their Jewishness at all they may seek out a secular Jewish organization, but with such a small constituency from which to draw, our organizations will remain small, without resources to provide a broad educational and cultural program always struggling to find people to do jobs and struggling for the financial resources to get those jobs done.

Many of us cringe at the idea of creating a secular “synagogue” or congregation format as our institutional form. To those of us from a socially conscious and secular Yiddish cultural background, the concept of a synagogue format implies religion, ritual, prayer, leadership usually by one person. Are we steeped in our own stereotypic views? Can we go beyond our prejudices in order to open the door to new possibilities? We may carry on for years to come as we are. Not all of us have white hair. There will likely always be individuals who will seek out the particularistic societal and cultural agenda that many of our CSJO constituent organizations provide, whether that be in the form of social consciousness around important issues, whether it be in a Yiddishist milieu, or whether it has a particular political slant; but if we want to attract larger numbers, if we want our children to be part of our movement, if we want to expand the knowledge base within the Jewish community in ways which embrace, we need larger numbers of members and to attract those larger numbers we need not only a creative, imaginative and meaningful content that strikes a responsive chord within the heart and psyche of prospective members, but we also need an organizational form with which people can identify and to which they would be attracted. We need content to make us relevant; we need a form that has market attractiveness.

The great American architect, R. Buckminster Fuller, said something that I don’t completely agree with but that I thought we could work with. He said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”. I say we can “work with” this idea despite the fact that I don’t completely agree with his advice, but I do agree with the sentiment. The “existing reality” for us is more or less clear: there are Jews who are rooted in religious tradition even though some may be atheists or doubters but who feel most comfortable in acting out their Jewishness in a religious environment; then there are active secular Jews; and finally, a third group, Jews who have demonstrated no interest in acting out their Jewishness at all. If we rely totally on the small population of currently committed secular Jews to build our institutions, we’ll remain small in numbers. If we are to grow we’ll have to build something attractive to non-religious Jews currently in the religious mode but whose psyche is really in the secular mode, and to Jews who have essentially integrated into society with a loss of or disinterest in their Jewishness. Going back to the Buckminster Fuller thesis about building a new model. In contradistinction to what Fuller states, I don’t believe it follows that the existing model becomes obsolete. For us it may be obsolete or irrelevant. There have, however, always been multiple Judaisms and as long as the Jewish people exist there likely always will be.

To summarize – the past has its interesting and instructive points, but it is to the present and the future that we must turn. If there were a thousand delegates to this conference, if each of our organizations had grown 5 or 10 or 20-fold in the last 30 years, if the number of organizations represented at this conference had increased 4 or 5-fold, then I would say whatever strategies we have in place are working. If this is not the case it doesn’t mean we give up the ship so near and dear to us, it means loosening our hold upon the past even more than we already have and opening ourselves up to avenues of potential growth with which we are currently either unfamiliar or regard with suspicion.