Secularism: Great for government, destructive to everything else

Most non-Orthodox Jews venerate secularism. Virtually every movement and organization advancing secularism in the United States has been founded or led by Jews, and Jews are disproportionately active in these movements.

The initials ACLU are loved and respected by most American Jews, primarily because the organization fights every public expression of religion. Secular Jews have spearheaded the movement to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”

But secularism is endangering us Jews, just as it is endangering our country and the countries of Western Europe, and it is dulling the souls of individual Americans and Europeans.

Secularism is great for government. But it is destructive to everything else.

Among many other things, it shatters meaning, marriage and even the desire to sustain a society through reproducing its members.

If there is no God, life is inherently devoid of meaning. DNA provides no ultimate meaning. Evolution tells us that all life is random. And, of course, nothing higher cares about us because there is nothing higher than us.

But because people who do not believe in God don’t want to go crazy, they make up meanings. Often these made-up meanings — work, family, self-sacrifice for the country and for freedom — are noble. On the other hand, too often the search for meaning leads to horrific ideals. Fascism and communism gave their adherents as much meaning as Judaism gives the believing Jew, and as Christianity gives the believing Christian. Likewise spreading and imposing sharia law and killing infidels gives many Islamists meaning.

Throughout American history, Judeo-Christian religions gave the vast majority of Americans meaning. As these religions have lost their hold, Americans have looked elsewhere for meaning. And many — including many Jews, members of the most secular group of all — have found meaning and purpose in substitute religions such as Marxism, socialism, feminism, environmentalism and myriad other movements, nearly all of them leftist. Leftism, which became the most dynamic religion in Europe with the breakdown of Christianity after World War I, has become the source of meaning in the United States, too.

Others find meaning in accomplishment. Hence the great contemporary emphasis on career. Even women, who throughout history have found primary meaning in marriage, family and children, now, for the first time, often seek meaning first and foremost in career. Many eventually regret having made that choice, but by the time they do, it can be too late to make a family.

Just this week, Erin Callan, one of the most successful businesswomen in the United States, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, wrote a column in The New York Times describing her great regret at having devoted her life to career. She forsook having children, paid considerably less attention to her husband than to her work and ended up a major financial and career success — but with no children and eventually no marriage.

A few years ago she realized what she had done: “I have spent several years now,” she wrote, “living a different version of my life, where I try to apply my energy to my new husband, Anthony, and the people whom I love and care about. But I can’t make up for lost time. Most important, although I now have stepchildren, I missed having a child of my own. I am 47 years old …”

Compare her life to that of Orthodox Jews, practicing Mormons, Evangelical Christians and religious Catholics. They all believe that marriage, having children and making a home are vital. 

In this regard, the very same week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this about Jews:

“Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children.”

Secular academics tell us that the reason Europeans and Americans are having so few children is that as people become affluent they choose not to have more than one or two children.

They are mostly wrong. The primary reason is secularism, not affluence. Affluent Orthodox, Jews, affluent Mormons, affluent Evangelicals and Catholics have many children. Secularism gives you no reason to perpetuate your nation, no reason to marry, and no reason to have children. Indeed, other than better government, it gives you nothing. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Boys to men

It was by far my hardest speaking gig ever.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah invited me many months ago, to speak to the synagogue men’s group at 7 p.m. on June 12. Of course I said yes — it was one of those gracious invitations with so much advance notice that the day seemed as far off as Saturn and as wide open.

What we couldn’t have guessed was the Los Angeles Lakers would be playing Game 3 of the NBA Championship that night.

The rabbi hosted the event in his backyard. I walked through the gate at 7. The guys were eating barbeque, drinking beers and Cokes, watching a big-screen TV set up on the patio. Fifty pairs of eyes shifted to me like I was the mom, they were 10 and it was time to go to bed.

Rabbi Vogel leaped up and flicked the TV off. He introduced me, and the guys were more than welcoming. I decided to speak about the election. I figured what could possibly compete in excitement with the Lakers vs. Celtics? Obama vs. McCain. By the end, we got into it pretty good. Phil Jackson had his strategy; I had mine.

What I decided not to tell the men’s group was my dark, dirty little secret: I couldn’t care less about the game.

Yep: Lakers, shmaykers. Pro sports bore me.

How’s that for coming out of the closet? I would rather watch a rerun of the “Mad Men” episode when Peggy finds out she’s pregnant than the last pass in the closest Super Bowl ever.

I love tennis, but as many men have reminded me over the years, that doesn’t count. In tennis, nobody checks anybody, no one loses his teeth and girls can beat you.

In general, I’m just not supermacho. And I’ve been wondering lately if that accounts for my deep involvement in Jewish life.

It turns out, see, that I am endangered: I am a non-Orthodox Jewish man engaged in Jewish life.

According to a new Brandeis University study, men are becoming less and less active in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations.

“American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue at almost every age,” begins the report, titled, “Matrilineal Ascent, Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life.”

Anecdotally, we all know boys and men in Jewish schools, camps, shuls and organizations. But the study, headed by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, used hundreds of interviews Fishman conducted for the American Jewish Committee and for two of her previous books, as well as data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study. What they found is that non-Orthodox Judaism has undergone a long process of feminization.

As Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries turn out more female rabbis and cantors, fewer boys than girls join non-Orthodox youth groups, attend religious schools or summer camps, and fewer men serve on synagogue or federation committees.

“Over the ages, men felt very involved in Judaism,” Fishman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It was their responsibility. This is gone today, except in the Orthodox world. We need to look at how we are raising our Jewish sons.”

Fishman believes the “Boy Crisis” is serious because as Jewish boys and men turn off to Judaism, they tend to marry non-Jewish spouses, and their children are less likely to be raised Jewish.

That women have entered Jewish life en masse is not just good, it’s great. But one theory is that in breaking down the gender barriers of Orthodoxy, the liberal movements have neglected something men need: Time with men.

Outside the liberal Jewish movements, Jewish men have the minyan, where 10 can gather for a shot of prayer and a glass of schnapps. “For all except the old and the rigid, the minyan is gone — an opportunity lost,” Rabbi Steven Leder wrote several years ago in — natch — Playboy. “But in the process men lost the opportunity to create something they need and have always lacked, times and places to talk and to be with each other.”

The advent of men’s groups is a direct response to this phenomenon. Leder pioneered one at Wilshire Boulevard Temple almost a decade ago; I’ve spoken to groups from Encino to Palos Verdes. They don’t just talk politics and watch (yawn) ball games; they also bring in relationship experts, talk over feelings, fatherhood — the big stuff. The idea, as Leder wrote, is “to create something the minyan could have provided if men were better at talking to each other.”

I like the men’s group concept, but I’m not certain it alone will reverse the trend. I have a different theory for the Boy Crisis: The problem isn’t that Jewish life treats men like women, it’s that it treats them like children.

At 13, we’re told we are men. From then on, as boys really do grow into men in the secular world, they get treated more and more like children in synagogue. Rabbis guide them through the service; they’re told the rules and expected to go along, and every life cycle from marriage to their kids’ bar or bat mitzvah is as deep a transaction as an allowance.

I once asked a world-famous doctor why he walked away from Judaism. “Because I couldn’t stand being infantilized,” he said. “I was 40; I was at the top of my field, and they talked to me like I’m an idiot.”

The weakness of Orthodoxy is that it doesn’t (yet) fully include women. Its strength is it pushes men to step up to the plate and become active in meaningful, mature ways in their spiritual life: not just as members of a minyan but as teachers of their own children, as Torah readers, as prayer leaders, as the Jewish leader in their own home.

That’s a long-term strategy for male Jewish involvement.

Though beers and barbeque aren’t a bad start.

Gap grows between Orthodox and others

The growing ideological gap between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox threatens the long-term unity of the Jewish people, several communal leaders said at a forum to address the matter.

At issue were the results of a survey conducted in November by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), which found widening differences between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox on a range of issues.

The Jan. 31 forum convened by the AJC and the Orthodox Union (OU) also included leaders of the Reform movement.

The AJCommittee’s 2007

Not your grandfather’s shtibl

As we walked back from shul on a recent Shabbat, my friend and neighbor David Myers asked me if I was “comfortable” with the service we had just attended.

He asked me that question, because I’d mentioned that I’m not used to a service where they don’t separate the men and the women. I have many non-Orthodox friends, and have occasionally visited their synagogues, but this was the first time I really got down and prayed with them.

So no, I was not too comfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings.

But I was fascinated.

While the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is clearly dominated by the Orthodox community, there is a whole other hood within the hood that is not Orthodox. And to be honest, I feel somewhat guilty that it’s taken me about 40 columns to finally get to them. I guess I was going where my comfort level was. Orthodox is what I was raised with, and it’s what I know. But when David invited me to an egalitarian minyan on Robertson Boulevard, I saw my chance.

The first thing that shook me up is the namethe Shtibl Minyan. Shtibl? Doesn’t that sound a little ultra-Orthodox, like something you might see in a shtetl?

Well, yes, but nothing about the Shtibl Minyan is too predictable. For one thing, everyone chips in on everything. And I mean everythingthey take turns leading the prayers, reading from the Torah, making commentaries on the Torah portion of the week and, of course, setting up and cleaning up after the Kiddush.

That’s why they call it egalitarian. There are no presidents, no rabbis and no chazzans. Everyone’s equal. It’s sort of a structured free-for-all. If a decision needs to be made, it must be by consensus. You wonder how they still talk to each other.

When I visited, there were maybe 25 or 30 people in a nondescript, medium-sized conference room, which they rent from the Workmen’s Circle. There are long tables facing each other, a perfect setting for, say, a city council meeting in a tiny Midwestern town. But you quickly realize that you are in a shul, a serious shul. No one talks, everyone prays.

And which melodies do they use when they pray? A Chasidic rabbi’s, of course: the late Shlomo Carlebach, the master of the joyful niggun. On the Shtibl’s Web site, they claim to bring the energy of Simchat Torah to their Shabbat services. That’s easier said than done, but these are clearly happy people who like being where they are.

I’ve been to many Chasidic minyans, and when the simcha hits a fever pitch, we usually clap our hands or bang on the tables. At the Shtibl minyan, they do something I hadn’t seen: they stamp their feet. Not in a loud way, but almost gently, to the rhythm of the prayer and the occasional circular dances that sprinkle the service.

In fact, everything about the Shtibl mynian has a certain gentleness. The dress is earthy casual, the facial expressions reverential but still laid back. If a liberal, musically inclined kibbutz had a minyan, this might be it.

There was one moment in the history of the shul, however, when gentleness took a back seat. This was about seven years ago, during the Democratic Convention in downtown Los Angeles. Arieh Cohen, a pony-tailed Talmud professor with the look of a beatnik hipster, decided to gather a little group of friends for a political demonstration. This show of passion so galvanized the group that it led to the creation of the Shtibl Minyan, which also became a home base for social activism.

This is not a shul that is Jew-centric. The membersa mix of progressive intellectualstake their tikkun olam very seriously. They interpret the Jewish mission broadly to care for the downtrodden of all races and religions. Their Judaism has the most meaning when it is taken out into the real world, like when they link up with groups such as American Jewish World Service, which fights worldwide poverty, and an anti-slavery group called iAbolish, which bills itself as the “world’s first e-abolish movement.”

While I admire these causes, I confess that in the past few years my priorities have shifted. I’ve become more Jew-centric. The Jews are my people, and since we are so tiny and have so few friends around the world, I don’t mind saying that they are my main agenda. When I asked Arieh if he felt a certain obligation to put his Jewish brethren first, he quoted Torah sources that speak to the importance of tikkun olam, and then he brought up a notion I had never heard beforewhat he calls “permeable boundaries.”

Permeable boundaries are Arieh’s way of reconciling the dual obligations of the Jewish faith. When it comes to helping God’s children, we don’t set boundaries that can’t be crossed. It’s a constant back and forth between helping our fellow Jews and helping our fellow humans, and it’s up to us to find the right balance. Personally, my balance skews toward other Jews, but I love knowing that there are Jews like Arieh who might have a different balance.

So when David asked me if my egalitarian experience had made me uncomfortable, it turned out to be a trick question. Because while the correct answer was yes, the more important answer was that it didn’t really matter.

What mattereda lot more than my comfortwas that I met Jews who love their Judaism, and who showed me different ways of expressing that love.

It’s true that there’s a lot to be said for the comfort of the familiar, but there’s also a lot to be said for those butterflies you feel when you discover the unfamiliar.

Especially when that unfamiliar happens to be family.

For more information, visit

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

‘I Do’ in Israel Without Rabbinate OK

The bride circled the groom under the chuppah. The groom stomped a wine glass at the end of the ceremony and was greeted with shouts of “mazel tov.”

Despite these traditional touches, this wedding was not performed by an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore not registered by the Chief Rabbinate, which has sole authority over Jewish marriage in Israel.

Rather, it was officiated by a Conservative rabbi who has no legal standing there. That didn’t deter Shlomit Arbel-Zemer, a 31-year-old pastry chef, and Barak Zemer, a 29-year-old university student, from opting for a non-Orthodox wedding.

“The Orthodox ceremony has some pretty things but it didn’t reflect our lives and beliefs,” said Arbel-Zemer, who, like her husband, is Jewish. “We had male and female witnesses on our ketubah. We wanted flexibility.”

So do many other Israeli couples, a small but growing number of whom are opting for non-Orthodox or secular weddings.

The vast majority of Israeli couples continue to choose to be married by rabbinate-approved rabbis, either because they want a traditional Jewish ceremony or feel an alternative wedding doesn’t meet muster. But the number of alternative weddings is definitely growing.

Last year approximately 1,000 “alternative” marriages were performed in Israel, compared to just a few hundred the year before. These included ceremonies performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis as well as secular ceremonies officiated by ordinary citizens.

At least 5,000 Jewish and non-Jewish couples traveled abroad last year for civil ceremonies — including some who’d had an alternative marriage in Israel — which Israel’s Ministry of the Interior recognized upon their return to Israel for the purposes of tax benefits, Social Security and so on.

Another 30,000 couples, all of them Jewish, were married through the rabbinate. Because the rabbinate only permits marriages between two Jews, alternative marriages are an attractive option for couples in which one or both partners claim to be Jewish but cannot prove their Jewishness; who are not Jewish but have no other religion, and therefore cannot marry in a church or mosque; or who were converted by the non-Orthodox streams in Israel, and therefore are not considered Jewish by the rabbinate.

In late March, however, those working for marriage reform earned a decisive victory, courtesy of Israel’s High Court.

The court voted to recognize a new category of conversions: overseas conversions officiated by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Israel has hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, and their inability to marry in Israel has fueled the alternative marriage “industry.” So, too, has disgruntlement with the rabbinate, which is renowned for being bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive.

Rabbi David Stav is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who heads Tzohar, an organization whose members — moderate young Orthodox rabbinate-approved rabbis — preside over secular weddings free of charge. Stav said that the rabbinate’s wedding policies need an overhaul.

Tzohar, which performs 2,500 secular weddings a year, is urging the rabbinate to limit the number of weddings a rabbi can perform on any given evening, on the grounds that some rabbis arrive late for the second ceremony.

“I don’t think there are so many rabbis who are asked to perform two or three weddings, but it happens,” Stav said. “They don’t come on time and the simcha is affected.”

Noting that some regional rabbis demand $1,000 or more to officiate under the chuppah, Stav would also like to see the rabbinate prohibit rabbis who work in a certain community from demanding a fee from couples from that community.

“They already receive a salary to perform religious services from the government,” Stav noted, “so it is therefore unfair to demand money from clients.”

To encourage couples to marry within the Orthodox framework, Tzohar has enlisted the free assistance of hundreds of learned Orthodox women who teach the family-purity class required by the rabbinate prior to marriage.

“Secular women often felt insulted by the way the [rabbinate] classes were run,” Stav said of the courses, which spell out when a woman may have sex with her husband and when she cannot, in accordance with menstrual bleeding.

“Our classes are free, private and intimate,” he said.

While Tzohar’s services assist many couples, they are of no use to the hundreds of thousands of citizens whom the rabbinate refuses to marry.

While several thousand travel abroad to marry, those wishing to have an Israel-based wedding can contact the Institute of Jewish Secular Rites.

Yiftach Shlomy, the institute’s director, said that it has facilitated marriages between gay and lesbian couples and divorcees wishing to marry Kohanim. Jewish law forbids marriage between divorced women and members of the priestly class. It has also performed marriages where one partner is a “mamzer,” the offspring of a married woman who has a child by a man who is not her husband.

The institute has also married many immigrants who have a blood connection to Judaism — often a Jewish father — but who are not halachically Jewish, as well as Jewish couples who for whatever reason do not want to deal with the rabbinate.

“We must change the definition of who is Jewish,” Shlomy insisted. “That is our mission.”

The Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, which perform a few hundred weddings a year, have different agendas. They consider themselves to be just as Jewish as the Orthodox and want the marriages they perform to be officially recognized by the government.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, said there is “a growing demand for our services. Our weddings are more dignified, they speak to the couple. We offer egalitarianism. The couple does not have to hide the fact that they have been living together and having relations. They don’t have to hide anything.”

Bandel said that his movement’s rabbis meet the couple several times prior to the chuppah. “There is always a personal contact. We discuss everything, such as the mikvah. We say it isn’t mandatory but stress that it can be a special experience.”

The Masorti movement, like the Reform movement, enables Jewish Israeli couples to have a personalized ketubah, a double-ring ceremony, female witnesses or a female rabbi — all things not permitted by the rabbinate.

Eran Dvir, a 29-year-old graphic designer, and his wife, Orly Wolkowiski-Dvir, 31, a photographer, decided to have a Masorti wedding last October because “we felt it provided more equality to the bride and groom,” Dvir said. “It also allowed for more personal freedom during the ceremony, making it more meaningful.”

For this couple, “freedom” meant that Wolkowiski-Dvir was able to present her husband with a necklace while under the chuppah. She was also able to read from the Song of Songs, something most rabbinate rabbis do not permit.

When Dvir broke the glass at the end of the ceremony, he did so not only to recall the destruction of Jerusalem.

“We met in Jerusalem and by breaking the glass we were saying we will never forget the love that began in Jerusalem,” he said. “That and the hope that, despite all the conflict in this city, our dream for peace will not be shattered.”

Michele Chabin, a veteran journalist, has lived in Jerusalem for 17 years.

Strains in the Relationship

The reluctance of the popular comedian and others to lend theirtalents to the event reflect the growing strains between largesegments of the American Jewish community and Israel, centered on thelegitimacy and treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

Last week, the widening chasm became the focus of a small meetingbetween four Jewish VIPs and an Israeli diplomat, called originallyto discuss local plans to mark Israel’s 50th anniversary.

The meeting at the Hillcrest Country Club was held the same daythat a large group of Conservative and Reform men and women, prayingtogether at the Western Wall plaza on Tisha B’Av, were heckled byOrthodox youths and then evicted by police.

In short order, the meeting’s scheduled focus shifted asparticipants pointed to growing anger among American Jews about theconversion bill pending in the Knesset and previous attacks andperceived discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The conversion bill would put into law the current practice ofdenying recognition to conversions performed in Israel by Reform andConservative rabbis. The measure is seen by many American Jews as anattack on the legitimacy of their branches of Judaism.

Following the meeting, Yoram Ben Ze’ev, Israel’s consul general inLos Angeles, filed what he considered a routine report on thediscussion to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. He alsoindicated that the strong feelings expressed at the meeting weresymptomatic of a shifting relationship between Israel and AmericanJewry.

Somewhat to his surprise, Ben Ze’ev’s dispatch was released by theForeign Ministry to the Israeli media, and the story, with someembellishments, was widely reported in the press and on radio andtelevision.

Based on descriptions of the participants by Jerusalem sources andconfirmed locally, the meeting with the consul general was attendedby four of the most influential Jews in Los Angeles.

They were Lew Wasserman, chairman emeritus of Universal Studiosand still one of Hollywood’s heaviest power hitters; Bram Goldsmith,chairman and CEO of City National Corp. and a former JewishFederation Council president; Herbert Gelfand, the Federation’scurrent president; and John Fishel, the Federation’s executive vicepresident.

The outspoken Goldsmith said he expressed his feelings that theconversion bill and the incidents at the Western Wall were “an insultto every Jew,” with an already noticeable impact on contributions bylarge givers to the United Jewish Fund.

Goldsmith acknowledged that he himself was thinking of reducinghis pledge.

Along similar lines, one of the meeting’s participants cited thereluctance by Crystal, and three other Hollywood stars, to appear atthe 50th-anniversary celebration.

The Jewish Journal sought additional clarification, but Crystal isaway on location, Wasserman declined to comment, and Gelfand is inIsrael.

Ben Ze’ev said in a later interview that he was surprised but notaltogether displeased by the Foreign Ministry’s public release of hisreport.

“The Israeli media, preoccupied with more pressing matters, haspaid little attention to these issues so far, so some good may comeof it,” he said.

Ben Ze’ev noted that the Hillcrest meeting was by no means anisolated incident and that he had encountered much more heatedemotions in every city he has visited in the eight Western statesunder his jurisdiction.

“The matter goes beyond the current controversy,” he said. “Ithink both Israel and world Jewry are on a genuine quest for a newidentity. We need to redefine ourselves and find a broad commondenominator to hold all Jews together.”

The Federation’s Fishel said that while there exists a certainalienation from Israel among some Los Angeles Jews, part of this wasdue to misunderstandings of the actual situation in Israel.

The gala celebration of Israel’s independence is slated for April15 at the Shrine Auditorium and will be the highlight of the year’sanniversary events in Los Angeles. Fishel said that negotiations wereunder way to have the event telecast by a major American network.

Co-chairs of the celebration are Bram and Elaine Goldsmith andLionel and Terry Bell.