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Layman’s Terms

A non-Jew who loves Philip Roth, making challah, and visiting High Holiday services wants to be a Jew, minus the religion

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Reading books like Franny and Zooey as a child in California made Jews seem an exotic minority. In New York, they seem like any old hegemony.

At a dinner party several years ago I was seated next to a good friend who was a professor of Judaic studies. At some point I turned to him and asked, “Is it possible to convert to secular Judaism?”

My friend knew that, for me, this question was not entirely theoretical. He paused for a moment and said, “No. You have to convert the usual way and then have a fight with your rabbi.” He explained that I would be welcomed at shul—“particularly if you are willing to make a contribution to the building fund”—and could participate in many aspects of Jewish life, but to become a secular Jew you must first be a Jew.


Like most people, I grew up in the religion of my parents, which for me meant almost no religion at all. Neither of them were believers. I was baptized, but the only services I attended were at a Unitarian church my mother joined during my teenage years. I remember singing secularized Christmas carols copied on the church mimeograph machine.

In my youth, religion didn’t make an impression, but science did. My elementary-school days were spent in Park Forest, Ill., a Levittown-like planned community south of Chicago, where I often sat in front of our black-and-white set to watch Dr. Posin’s Universe, a public television science program hosted by a charming DePaul University physics professor. I loved visiting Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and when the family cat brought home a dead sparrow, I horrified my parents by dissecting the still-warm creature on my desk blotter. I read about the undersea adventures of Jacques Cousteau in National Geographic, and despite living over a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, I dreamed of being an underwater explorer just like him.

Nor did anything in my later years come along to pull me toward religion. College in the late 1960s and early ’70s coincided with a period of great social experimentation. Some of my friends joined the Church of Scientology; others became immersed in transcendental meditation. I got a mantra and started to meditate, and I went to an introductory Dianetics meeting. But in the end, none of it stuck. There were no holes in my life that religion might possibly fill, and nobody taught me to appreciate the ritual and emotion of religious life. As an English major in college, I was sometimes at a loss when novels and poems made references to biblical characters, but this seemed like a minor problem.

When I became a permanent member of the academic world, I began to meet more Jews and to learn bits and pieces of Jewish history and culture. I kept discovering artistic and scholarly heroes who turned out to be Jewish. I loved Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, and long after I left the suburbs, I learned what I had been too young to know at the time—that Park Forest was founded and led by a group of Jews making their mark in post-World War II America. But the real education was still to come, after I entered into a relationship with a Jewish woman.

As luck would have it, most of the women I have loved were of a different religion—which is to say they endorsed a religion of some sort. For 20 years, I was married to a Christian who occasionally took our kids to an Episcopal church. I never hid my lack of faith from anyone, but in solidarity with the rest of the family, I sometimes came along to services. Because Protestant Christianity was the default culture of my upbringing, the rituals were familiar to me. I loved singing the hymns, and when the sermons touched on social issues, I often found them quite interesting. The God-talk and prayer were lost on me, but I was moved by the hopefulness and generosity of spirit.

Several years after my marriage ended, I fell in love with a woman who was a deeply religious Conservative Jew, and suddenly the door swung wide open. I soon found myself attending religious services again, but with two important differences. First, the world inside the synagogue was shockingly alien to me. I was embarrassed to discover how little I knew of the religion and its practices. Second, in this case, I was a willing student. I never learned Hebrew or had any interest in converting, but I did my best with transliteration, took the rabbi’s class on Pirkei Avot, and learned to bake challah. I attended Seders, ate in sukkahs, and acquired the secret language of heksher symbols. It was a big Jewish universe, and I felt very fortunate to have such a wonderful guide.

For a time I thought I had solved the problem. I would become a secular Jew by marriage—or, in my case, by unmarried romantic relationship. I knew several friends who had married into the Jewish community. I never asked them about their reasons for not converting, but I watched these people assimilate quite happily. They enrolled the kids in Hebrew school and participated in services as a family. I seemed to have achieved a similar transition and was very happy.

Until the relationship ended.

Suddenly, I was back on the outside of my adoptive Jewish community, but I was not the same person. The relationship was no longer my ticket to secular Judaism, but it educated me in ways I will always appreciate. I now have a much greater understanding of Jewish religious life, culture, and politics, and I still participate in ways that are quite meaningful for me. I attend services at the High Holy Days; I have people over for Shabbat supper; and I feel a special sense of connection with Jewish friends and acquaintances. I am not a Jew, or even a secular Jew, but I have spent enough time in this world to know its customs and enjoy some of its many benefits.

In Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant recounts a famous episode of Louis Brandeis’ life:

A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved.”

Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. “I’m sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”

The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation.

Brandeis was right: Conversion is only possible when moving from one religion to another or from a state of non-belief to belief. If, like Brandeis, you happen to be born into the religion you love, you cannot enjoy the additional privilege of deliberately choosing the religion you love.

For me, there is a parallel but opposite roadblock. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that 80 percent of Jews in Israel were secular. The percentage is undoubtedly much lower in the United States, but here, too, secular Jewish life is common. I would love to be a member of that group, but it is not possible for me. Just as conversion to the Judaism of one’s birth is impossible; so too is conversion from some other faith—or none—to secular Judaism. Becoming Jewish is a serious business. You cannot simply declare yourself a Jew. As a result, the person who is born Jewish is granted the choice of being a religious or a secular Jew. Though it might never have occurred to him to be anything but a religious person, this was a choice that Brandeis retained. But for the secular person who is not born Jewish, Jewish secularism is another kind of impossible conversion. The path to secular Judaism must go through belief, and if belief in the Jewish religion is impossible, then Jewish secularism is unattainable.

While this may be frustrating for a small group of secular non-Jews who, like me, are attracted to Jewish life—people who might be said to have a Jewish heart but not a Jewish soul—I think, in the end, there is something fitting about it. There is a Jewish culture, but it is a culture that grows out of a people with a common faith. The synagogue door is open. You may come in and sit with the congregation. But without adopting the religion, the person who is not born Jewish cannot call him or herself a Jew.

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sharon says:

Try a Reconstructionist synagogue.

Great piece. Well-written, well-thought. This gets to a much larger question: can there be a Jewishness divorced completely from religion? How does religion inform Jewish identity? And if you’re not “Jewish” but attracted to aspects of Jewishness, can you consider yourself a Jew? I believe that people are Jewish or not simply by self-determination, i.e. you can be born to Jewish parents but not feel Jewish, and you can be born to non-Jewish parents but determine yourself to be a Jew (whether or not you convert). It’s easy, though, to think that Jewishness is a special case in this regard because, for example, if you are born to white parents, can you consider yourself black? And what does that mean? Is Jewishness a religion, ethnicity, culture, civilization…?

One quarrel I have with the article – I don’t think the claim about proportions of secular vs. religious Jews in America should be made without some evidence. Also, what does it mean to be a secular Jew?

Eric T. says:

Thist article is somewhat disturbing to me. First, I would ask this person what does he mean by ” secular Judaism”? if he means Jews who are nonreligious or atheist, but are Jews because of their birth,that would be most of the american & isreali Jewish population. But, not ”Judaism.” there is NO such thing as ”secular Judaism”! just Jews who do NOT practice their Judaism. However, I would reccomend that this person check into a branch of Jews&their idea of Judaism called ”humanistic Judaism”founded by the late Sherwin T.Wine
they even have a whacky version of conversion. somehow I feel this man would find a home with this group.

There is, in fact, a way to become a Secular Humanistic Jew. As Eric T. suggests, the Society for Humanistic Judaism offers the opportunity for those who desire to become Humanistic Jews to “adopt” Judaism. We believe that a Jew is someone who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture,
civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people. I am happy to work with those who would like to formalize that identification and adopt and be adopted by Humanistic Judaism.

I just wonder: why do you want to be a “secular” Jew? In other words: what is the difference between secular Jew and secular non-Jew?
Saying that I want to warn you against widespread misconception (including among many Jews) that a rabbi or some kind of “court” can convert a non-Jew to a Jew. People are arguing: who is a Jew, is that a religion, ethnicity, culture, everything above…? But the answer is very simple. According to the Jewish religion the Jew is a person who was chosen by G-d. (for what purpose is a different story). Therefore no human can convert a non-Jew to a Jew. Which means: you can become a Jew without any formal “conversion” (particularly in reform congregation, which is just a profanation). However, by going through the process of conversion you will have much higher probability.

I don’t understand why you don’t think you can convert, or why you think you want to be completely secular. You say that attending High Holy Day services is meaningful you. That is not a secular activity. High Holy Day services are religious. You also seem to have enjoyed studying Pirke Avot. Studying Jewish texts is also a religious act. It sounds to me you are more religious than you think you are.

ChanaBatya says:

It seems that you enjoy some of the practices and rituals of Judaism and that some of your wish to be secular comes from not being fully conversant with Jewish ritual, synagogue worship and the Hebrew language. These can all be learned. Except for the Haredi, all of us are somewhat “secular,” and none of us can possible observe all the laws anyway (animal sacrifice comes to mind here). How about studying and then deciding? As Rabbi Hillel said when asked to explain the entire Torah while the questioner was on one foot, “What is hateful to you do not do to any one. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.” “Go and Study” is the great Jewish mantra. I hope that through study you will learn what parts of Judaism and Jewish practice would feel meaningful. Another point: Judaism endorses action without belief or understanding, meaning that even if we don’t fully comprehend the meaning for a law (kashrut, for example) we do it to carry out God’s wishes for us. Understanding comes later, if ever, but it is enough to Do what is commanded and to live in a community that Does along with you. Judaism is a religion of action, of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and fulfilling God’s destiny for us as a light unto the nations. Judaism and the Jewish people would welcome you, no matter what level of observance you would have. So go and study and learn…you may find yourself not so “secular” and entirely Jewish after all. In any case, we all argue with ourselves, our rabbis and each other. It’s a sign of great love.

Dick Mulliken says:

I sympathize! A gentile of rural origins, I owe most of who I am to Jews. Through happenstance I attended a Jewish summer camp as a boy. The world opened up! Here were kids my own age who actually enjoyed culture. Above all, there was talk, talk talk. You couldn’t find that in small town New England. In college and in my later life I lived in a world surrounded by Jews. I will be forever grateful for the openness and willingness to include me – the outsider. Of course one becomes enamored of the trappings, the knishes and so on, but what really matters is the Yiddishe Kupf; the passion for ideas and debate. Only later, when I began to read Talmud did I realize that the debate had been going on for a long, long time.
Today I am proud of my two Jewish sons, one secular, the other religious. While I am comfortable in my Protestant faith, I look to Judaism and Jews to keep me alive. Two compliments that meant the world to me: my psychoanalyst once said I was an “honorary Jew”, and my broker once after my divorce, gave me advice on where I could meet nice Jewish women,(doing a doubletake when he remembered I wasn’t Jewish).
On being a secular Jew, I think the Ethical Culture society is still an important institution. Otherwise, as my analyst said, “Every good Jewish family should produce one Rabbi and one revolutionary per generation.”

Henry Hollander says:

A very interesting article from a perspective that we hear from to infrequently. But that is what I need to add.
The author refers to an old article from the Washington Post and reports that 80 percent of Israeli Jews are secular. Aside from the fact that this number is probably not accurate even within the parameters that the Post’s demographic source used back in 2004 (or earlier), the idea that Hiloni can be translated into English as secular that secular does not equate to an American idea of secular. More recent and sophisticated demographic study of Israel’s Hiloni finds that they are not secular in the sense of “secular humanist” for the most part. Because of the Orthodox dominance of Jewish practice and education in Israel non-Orthodox Israeli Jews are all “Hiloni.” So, Hiloni essentially includes the range of Jewish practice from Conservadox to apikorus. Not sure if this would be good or bad news to the author.

FreeMind says:

ERM, ‘black’ and ‘white’ are races, not ethnic groups, so a better analogy would be for example whether an Irish-American can consider himself to be an Italian-American

Interesting article but I just want to point out that Gene in the comment above is completely wrong.

A Jew is not someone ‘chosen by God’, though the Jewish people are God’s chosen people.

You can become a Jew via conversion and the laws governing that have a long history dating at least as far back as the biblical book of Ruth and fleshed out in the talmud like all of Jewish law. Also, like much of Jewish law, it has evolved over time and you can find multiple variations of the process today – though the core remains immersion in the mikvah and circumcision for males and some degree of study.

sorry. there are just some things white people can’t have. how does that feel, for a change?

mark epstein says:

It sounds to me that you are a Jew. You empathize, you have the faith both in yourself and in your community; you ingest the Spirituality and understand and identify with our history and perform the rituals.

It sounds like the only reason you might be hesitant to convert, is that you will have to accept the existance of G-D in its literal form. But to be a Jew is to be someone who asks the questions but receives no answers. Jews through the centuries have been asking questions on the ultimate questions of existence and G-D from Spinoza down to the present. But if we had the ultimate perfect and definitive answer there would be no Rabinical scholars, philosophers or Jewish sects. 90 percent of Jews today do not have the answers but we have the faith in our selves, our community, our history, our spirituality. We self identify. It sounds as if you are the same. That would make you a Jew. The what, where and if of G-D is something to figure out within the parameters of your Judiasm.

An ultra orthodox non-zionist rabbi may not agree that you are a Jew or that you could convert but conversely I may not think that the ultra orthodox non-zionist rabbi is a Jew in my world view. Who is to say who is correct? That them and not I.

We need a few good men and women too. Some come over and join our team, since it sounds like you have already done so.

Ultimately it is not the Jews who determine who is a Jew, it is the people outside the community. When a Man comes knocking at your door at two in the morning with torch in hand, and states to you: “Jew, you are to come with us–you are moving”. It is that Man who determines that you are a Jew, and what you do at that point determines what type of Jew you are.

Hershl says:

Well, the rabbi who told you that you couldn’t convert to secular Judaism was either ignorant or too small minded to really answer your question.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism is probably a good place for you to start. Talk with their rabbis. You will receive a more welcoming and appropriate answer than the fool with whom you spoke gave you.

shavit says:

“You cannot simply declare yourself a Jew.”

why not? (no, really. to whom must you prove an identity for it to be valid?)

Christopher Orev says:

Thank you for the thoughtful piece.

When I initially felt compelled to convert, I told myself and others that I’d always “felt Jewish,” even quietly identified as Jewish. I decided that I would convert, when ready, via the Secular Humanistic stream. Curiously, even though I identified as an outspoken atheist at the time, the type who abhors irrational beliefs, I embraced the mystical concept of the gilgul neshamot, the cycling of Jewish souls throughout generations, because it provided me a way to point at my family tree and claim the legacy of my paternal great grandfather, a Jew.

Yet, as I studied and learned, through books, practice, friends, and the wonderful woman I’m now engaged to, my desire for a “secular conversion” gradually morphed into something more traditional — an evolution guided as much by the irrational as the rational, a fact that, I think, was critical in my moving from a decidedly irreligious “non” (i.e., someone who refuses to identify with any religion) to a religious Jew.

Last year, several years after I first considered conversion, I emerged from mikvah as a Jew. I converted in the Conservative stream, but I identify simply as a Jew, however fractious our varied labels and practices can make things.

Things change. Maybe one day I’ll react against the rituals and practices that are so important to me now and identify as a “secular Jew” (of the sort the author describes). Maybe I won’t. It doesn’t much matter. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

Mark Epstein’s point (just above) rings true — “the people outside the community” determine who is a Jew — but I prefer the definition that asserts that a Jew is a person who is always thinking about what it means to be a Jew.

Very interesting point of view. As both Rabbi Mariam Jerris (of the Secular Humanistic Judaism)and Herschl indicated, you should start with the Society for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The findings of the American Jewish Identity Survey released by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (AJIS 2001). Among its key findings, this survey shows that nearly half of America’s adult Jews regard themselves as secular or somewhat secular. An untold number of American Jews who don’t believe that you can have a conversation with a personal god nontheless attend and support their local congregation. However as a member of a Secular Humanisitc Jewish Congregation you can participate at holiday and Shabbat celebrations with words you believe. “We” welcome you with open arms.

ralph melnick says:

Have you looked into Secular Humanistic Judaism as a way to go? Go to their website to find the nearest community or to see what they are about.

Ian Gottfried says:

Did Einstein quote Brandeis or vice versa? Another interesting take on joining the tribe. I’m sure Humanistic Judaism would welcome you…

Ian Gottfried says:

When asked, “Who is a Jew?” David Ben Gurion replied, “Anyone who declares himself a Jew.” תחשבו על כובד ההצהרה הזאת אחרי השואה Consider that statement in the context of the Holocaust. Life or death.

Had the writer been sitting next to me, a Humanistic rabbi, I would have given a very different answer than the one he got. I would have said, “It is absolutely possible to become Jewish as a secular Jew. If half of the American Jewish community identifies this way already, why should we require someone who identifies with secular ideals to profess a belief in God he or she doesn’t have? It would be hypocritical to pretend to a belief system in order to gain entrance into the community only to be able to deny that belief once one is inside. We want nothing to do with such a charade. Rather, we welcome individuals who want to join the Jewish people by identifying with our history, heritage, and hopes for the future.”

Furthermore, we believe that identification as a Jew is a statement of self-affirmation. In this regard, each of us born into a Jewish family still needs to embrace this identity in our own right. We are all making choices all the time about what it means and how to be Jewish on our own terms.

The real message of this piece is that it all depends on who you sit next to at a dinner party. I would encourage Mr. Vyse and others who share his affinity for secular Judaism to disabuse themselves of the notion that there isn’t a path into Judaism that fits their views. There is a well-trodden one and it is only a phone call or email away.

    You CAN Be an Atheist and Conv says:

    I am an atheist and am converting to Judiasm. This IS possible under Reconstructionism, Humanistic Judiasm (as the Humanistic Rabbi above is pointing out) or Jewish Renewal.

Doodie says:

Here’s a different way of thinking about it.

It’s clearly recognised that Jews can assimilate out of Judaism. Even if they don’t formally convert to another religion, they can be lost to the Jewish people.

If you have a religious perspective, then you can only convert into Judaism.
But if you adopt a secular approach to Judaism, then you can (by no means easily, but certainly effectively and with a lot of effort) assimilate into Judaism.

When your day and your home are full of Jewish books, newspapers, art, music, conversation, language (learn Yiddish or Hebrew – then make sure you find people with whom to speak it!), worries, joys, customs and rituals; then you will have assimilated – effectively converted – into the Jewish people.

Some people stop half way on the process of assimilating out. Perhaps you will find a comfort point half way assimilating in.

A bar-mitzvah is a process, not an event. Conversion is the same. Don’t worry about the mikvah and milah – focus on the process.

Mitn rekhtn fus.

Mark Strunin says:

There’s a difference between being a Jew and living a life infused with the thoughts, ideas, experiences, conundrums and hopes that spring from Judaism itself and the Jewish experience. I frankly welcome into the Jewish community anyone who declares him/herself a Jew because that is a statement about one’s status, not about one’s activities, values or convictions. Rabbinic Judaism with its foundation in the beliefs and practices of the ancient Hebrews has given us an undeniable emphasis on action and deed – basically saying belief what you want within a range called ” Jewish”, but it is the deed that’s counts, especially those that have a basis in an imperative ( a command, a mitzvah) derived from the encounter of the Hebrews with their divinity. Although the term is used and understood in everyday conversation, I really don’t think there’s a “secular” Judaism. All Judaism is derived from a spiritual prism through which the world is encountered. R. Mordechai Kaplan taught us that Judaism js the “evolving religious civilization” of the Hebrew/Jews. Into that civilization, all are welcomed, whether by birth or by choice. An d once inside the civilization, each need to learn what it means to be a citizen of that community.

@ Harry Hollander

I don’t know where the WP found its numbers. Only 42% of Jewish Israelis over 20 self-identify as secular (hiloni) and this number decreases each year.
Reform and Conservative Jews together are less than 1%.
The rest is made of traditionalists, religious and haredim.

In fact many “hilonim” are not really secular. The real number of secular people in Israel is closer to 20%.

Israeli Jews are anyway much much more religious than American Jews.

I second the suggestion to look into Humanistic Judaism. I also would mention the Workmen’s Circle as a resource with a secular Jewish outlook.

John Smith says:


Alan Hoffman says:

I question the ability, academics and knowledge of an author to write about Judaism in any official and authorative way (beyond their own personal experience or non-experience). Without any training, study or inculcation in the depth and breadth of Judaism, anyone is ill prepared to say anything beyond a personal view.

One example: 80% of Israelis are secular. There is too much actual data and discussion on this topic to even give credance to the statistic. In Israel, “orthodoxy” is defined as “chareidi” and “dati” – pious and religious communities, unlike in the US or Europe. Those 2 communities actually measure about 35%, and constitute an acknolwledged 45% of all children below 3rd grade. In addition to that 35%, are an estimated 30-50% considered “traditional”, who happen to indicated (by standard Israeli humor) that the synagogues they do not go to very often are always Orthodox. In American terms, this group of Israelis is way more observant in terms of holidays, kosher, beliefs than American Conservative Jews. The hard core “chiloni” or secular Jews represent possibly 20-25% of the Israeli public. The author should acquait himself with the plurality of Jews, who live in Israel, as the largest concentration of Jews in the world – 42% of the world Jewish population, already eclipsing the 38% who live in the US.

pinchas langer says:

Is the Jewish Soul born of a common religion or of a common cultural ,social, and spiritual experience?As a Religious , observant Jew I would think that it is born from the common religious experience. However while reading your article it appeared to me that you may be far more Jewish than many of the secular Jews you encountered in various Jewish social settings. Don’t you fit into the Reconstructionist definition of Jew?

My secular wife converted via a conservadox beit din. Her rabbi told her she could choose to place her faith in the Torah and G-d, or she could place her faith in the Jewish people. Both are equally valid.

Suzy Lenkowsky says:

I was born Jewish.That being said, I could sit in a church, sing hymns and put up a Christmas tree but it wouldn’t make me a Christian.
Personally, I’m more inclined to give people a lot of leeway in finding their spiritual path and I think Judaism has always made it too hard to become a Jew, especially in this day and age.
I love Judaism.One of the reasons is Judaism doesn’t ask you to check your brains at the door.I’ve been asked questions about Judaism by people who knew very little about it and the response has ranged from “Wow, that’s interesting.” to “That makes so much sense to me.”
We need to be more accepting of who is a Jew. Someone may not be as observant as some Jews would want but let them grow and see what happens.
There was an Orthodox rabbi who referred to Jews ” who were observant and those not yet observant” lovingly leaving the door open.That’s MY kind of attitude.

Hans L says:

As to the broader question of who is a Jew, one only has to read the comments on this article to realize that it depends on whom you ask. In general, some pious Jews do not consider “less” religious Jews Jewish enough to be full Jews, and some religious Jews do not consider non-religious Jews to be Jews at all, and some Jews consider everyone who declares themselves Jewish to be Jews. The question isn’t even answered by state sovereignty. All citizens of Israel are Israelis, but not all are Jews.

Now, consider the case where you were born to a non-Jewish mother, but adopted by Jews, raised Jewish and never converted. Are you Jewish? It depends on who you ask! By Shlomo, you are Jewish, but by Rayzel, you are not.

When at 14 in Sweden I learned about the Holocaust, I identified with the Jewish people. But later, when I left the Swedish church (Protestant), I thought I could not become Jewish, since I, like so many still, believed that to be a Jew, you had to believe in God. Then, in 1994 in my new homeland, USA, I learned about Humanistic Judaism, and later, about secular Jewishness (in the form of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations). Both movements accepted me as a Jew, because I said I was a Jew and embraced Jewish culture. Can I become an Israeli citizen by claiming to be a Jew? Not a chance! Do Haredim consider me Jewish? No way! Did I ever consider converting religiously to become a Jew, and then secularize myself? What a sell-out that would have been!

May be it is not Judaism per se that attracts you but a highly educated socio-economic class of American Jews? Had you been around uneducated working class Jews -which may not exist in the US- you may feel differently about the religion.
I say this as a product of such an environment.

mark klampert says:

Go to a reform congregation,you might be surprised.Try Shir Shalom in Woodstock Vermont.

Just remember this: your Rabbi friend may have told you no with regards to conversion because… of the story of Ruth and Naomi. In some Jewish circles, you may get three no’s before you get a yes. Try again. and again. and again! But sounds like Reform or Humanistic might be a good fit for you.

Leor Blumenthal says:

Mr. Vyse you can not convert for two simple reasons: you want to join our people for the wrong reasons, and you want to gain the benefits (in this case becoming part of Secular Jewish culture in America) without accepting the obligations and responsibilities that your Secular Jewish friends accepted at Mt. Sinai.

My advice to you is to continue living your life as you already have been. Keeping eating bagels and lox, and challah, order a few cantorial cds, and keep watching “Seinfeld”. There is another option; you could affirmitavely commit to observing the Seven Noahide commandments. Belief in Hashem is not one of the Noahide Commandments (just refraining from Avodah Zarah) so you can stay secular while earning Olam HaBah, unlike your secular Jewish friends.

I respectfully but completely disagree with Mr. Blumenthal’s statement. According to Secular Humanistic Judaism, you would be most welcome. None of us accepted ANY obligations at Mt. Sinai – we weren’t born yet! Mr. Vyse, if you feel you would like to join our people in the secular modality – by all means! Welcome to the tribe!

My blog post on a similar topic:

Secular Humanistic “Judaism” is made up of gentiles pretending to be Jewish. It’s a joke. Real Jew don’t take them seriously.

I am not Jewish and for over 25 years have been a member of The Sholem Community Organization in Los Angeles ( I have read your piece and all the comments so far. I am really encouraged by how positive and embracing of your search for the right spot for you so many of them are. Or maybe I’m just used to reading and hearing negative comments from people who haven’t looked at The Secular Movement and are defensive and dismissive of anything that they personally think is “not Jewish”. Look at our website, link in to the greater secular community from it, and find where you belong. By the way, I have never converted – but plenty of folks in our community have come from more traditional backgrounds and have been on pathways much as the one on which you find yourself. Congratulations on living an examined life.

As a vegvayzer/Leader in The Sholem Community (, I might add to Katherine James’ comment that her two sons became bar mitsve in the ceremony devised by our Community, in which they explored the meanings of their dual cultural heritages. Both later had intercultural wedding ceremonies that included Jewish cultural concepts and symbols. Conversion would have meant denial or rejection of part of their heritages to accept something implicitly “superior.”

Secular Jewishness rejects any and every concept of “chosenness,” whether by a deity, history, genetics or any other rationale.

Claire says:

Insightful and brilliant, and I completely identify. Having been immersed in Jewish life and culture, I was often asked whether or when I would convert. I couldn’t even consider it because I am not a person of faith, and I believe it would be completely disrespectful to go through the process with no intention of practicing religiously in some way.

Actually you can convert to Secular Judaism- my family and I are in the process of adoption and are members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.  

I think a high percentage of American Jewry would also be considered secular… 80% sounds quite high, but I still think Israelis are more Jewishly knowledgeable than their American peers. Perhaps we Americans just feel more guilt for living in the Diaspora?

Thank you says:

Thanks so much for this; I’ve also wanted to convert to secular Judaism for my entire adult life, and also came to the conclusion that it was impossible, because one cannot convert to an ethnicity. Like you, I was looking for a way into the Jewish community, and thought there was none—conversion was hypocritical (I’m a staunch atheist—or rather ignostic, as Sherwin Wine says—and don’t converts sort of have to believe twice as much?) unless I did it for a partner, and even then I’d be dependent on the partner for this “excuse.” And like you, I viewed it as the opposite of Brandeis’ problem—I wanted to be able to choose *not* to practice the religion, while still having that other connection. (At the same time, I know how Brandeis feels as well; I’m a French academic-in-training, and I often am glad that I do not speak the language natively, because then I would not have had the privilege of learning and mastering it.)

I used to think that Humanistic Judaism was even less open to me—because if you remove the religious aspect, then it’s REALLY just for Jews by birth trying to find a way to connect to their heritage, right? What right does a non-Jew have to intrude? And with that, I decided that there was no way in. But then I began to have an inkling that I could not be more wrong about that—that those who felt an affinity for Jewish culture, even in a secular modality, might be welcome in Humanistic Judaism. And in that light, let me thank everyone in this thread who has confirmed that.

Well, technically, yes you can. It’s called humanistic Judaism. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has the process listed on their website. As secular Jew myself, I find it to be a much needed way to build the Jewish community.

Aren’t you glad you asked? Welcome to the world where everyone has an opinion, and every single one has a good a chance of being right as wrong.

It seems to me from reading your piece that you are interested in thinking like a Jew, and if I read you correctly, you’ve already started to blaze your own trail. Just keep reading, questioning, writing, showing up, sampling all the different flavors and and you will find your way home. If you can, remove “Judaism” out of the narrow confines of the category “religion”, and relax.

You may want to read the book “Jews and Words,” by Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Sulzberger-Oz. You might find something there. Good luck! And keep sending postcards along the way.

Phillip Cohen says:

Secular Jewish Ceremoniesfor cultural Jews, their partners and their familiesHomeAbout Rabbi SchweitzerBabynamingsBar/Bat MitzvahWeddingsJoining the Jewish PeopleFuneralsResourcesContact
Joining the Jewish People

excerpt from the statement by a woman at her conversion/adoption ceremony

…I often wished that I could do a cultural conversion to Judaism – to fully join and belong to the Jewish people just as much as someone doing a traditional religious conversion; but without making a religious commitment that I did not really mean…

…the best thing for me about finding the City Congregation was that finally, after all these years, I’d come upon what I’d been wanting for so long: a secular, humanistic Jewish community with its own tradition of conversion to Judaism in a way that I came to see would be very meaningful to me…..

…I am looking forward to now living life as a Jew, and experiencing how from today on, my new Jewish identity will shape who I am, what I do with this precious life, and who I become.

We welcome individuals who want to join the Jewish people by identifying with our history, heritage, and hopes for the future. We believe that identification as a Jew is a statement of self-affirmation. Some have chosen this path through their marriage to a Jewish partner, sometimes before the wedding but not infrequently, many years later. Others have made this statement on their own independent of any personal relationship. Whether one formally joins the Jewish people or not, the non-Jewish members of our families are fully welcome to participate as members of our communities.

For Humanistic Judaism, the term “conversion” is actually no longer considered appropriate to describe this transformation. “Conversion” describes a religious, even mystical act, brought on by the exchange of one set of beliefs for another and often accompanied by a transformative ritual. We prefer to characterize the event that welcome


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