In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a group of American Jews did a peculiar thing: they took their 2,000-year-old monotheistic religion, and eliminated the theistic part. The Humanistic Judaism movement—officially founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in a suburb of Detroit—popped up in Jewish communities around the country, including Baristaville’s own Jewish Cultural School and Society.
Founded in 1958, the JCSS is, in the words of board member Tracey Kaufman Grossbach, “a congregation of Jews who share Jewish history, holidays and events together.” They also run a religious school for children in grades 1 through 8, leading up to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah year. They do services and celebrations on Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and other holy days. They do social events in Montclair, Maplewood, and other towns around Essex County.
They just don’t do the God thing.
“We’re teaching Judaism from a historical and cultural perspective, but without God in the liturgy,” says Grossbach. “We don’t read the Torah as a book written by God and given to the Jewish people, but as something part historic, part lessons of life, based on human ethics and human values that Jews and many other cultures embrace.”
If that seems like an unusual approach to the historically theistic Jewish religion, it is. But it’s not that far out of step with how many American Jews think about and practice their religion. As Grossbach points out, there is a strong “spiritual connection with Jewish history” at JCSS.
There’s also a strong educational program for kids and adults. The “pre-Aleph” classes (the classes are named for the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and Aleph is the first letter) for 1st and 2nd graders meet two Sundays a month to introduce topics of Jewish holidays, history and culture; and the 5-year weekly education program starts in 3rd grade and goes all the way up to the B’nai Mitzvah year, typically in 7th or 8th grade.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is also very different at JCSS. “Each child chooses a research topic, studies and writes a paper,” Grossbach explains. “The topics range from a look at the roles Jews played in the American civil war, a biography of Kenneth Cole, or a comparison of Torah portions as lessons learned from an intellectual or ethical standpoint. They’re also involved in a mitzvah project—a community service project, like working at a soup kitchen, the humane society or a battered women’s shelter. Then they have a graduation ceremony and present the projects, sing songs, have a candle lighting ceremony, etc. It’s a celebration of graduating from your formal Jewish education.”
JCSS is a co-operative congregation without a formal headquarters, so its events and educational programs take place at different spaces around Baristaville. And as more Jews in Montclair (the biggest source of JCSS members) and other nearby towns search for alternatives to traditional Jewish congregations—but don’t want to leave their Jewish history and culture behind—Grossbach says that the JCSS has a growing membership that works together to “keep us active and relevant.”
The JCSS is holding an Open House on Sunday, March 25 from 9:30 – 12 pm at the JCC MetroWest Early Child Center, 760 Northfield Avenue, West Orange, NJ.