An American ‘Hiloniut’: Contemporary Jewish Secularism

How can we serve Jews interested in Jewish values and customs who are unwilling to enter a synagogue?

I walked into the auditorium at the Jewish Community Center, and the space had been transformed. In just the course of an hour or two, the space was altered from a cafatorium (our nickname for a multipurpose space) into a heimish and loving community meal and Shabbat space. Name tags were on a table in the entryway. Craft projects were set up and waiting. Challah dough was out, ready to be shaped and baked in time for dinner. The kitchen smelled of chicken. It was time to celebrate Shabbat! During the next 30 minutes, 124 people from 32 different families arrived. Mostly, these families were not synagogue members. For them, this was their Jewish observance, and the JCC is their Jewish community.

This free program series, which was funded through a small grant from a local foundation, blossomed into an idea that was much larger than we initially imagined. It led me on a journey to think about the role of the JCC in creating Jewish holiday and life-cycle moments. It invited me to rethink my hesitation about stepping onto the territory of traditional synagogues and exploring the changing nature of Jewish community. Now, after those initial experiences, I am more committed than ever to creating a no-barrier Jewish space that meets people at their point of availability and invites them into a new model of Jewish community. This community model is an American Hiloniut (Secularism), an American Jewish values-centered practice.

We might remember a time in American Jewish life where the organizational ecosystem had more defined roles and responsibilities. Federations raised money that was distributed to community agencies. JCCs provided social and recreational programming. Synagogues provided for the religious and spiritual needs of the Jewish community. But that time has passed. Federations are now programmatic leaders. Synagogues offer many types of social and recreational programs. JCCs are beginning to look at meeting the spiritual needs of their members for whom they are the sole source of Jewish engagement. New organizations that don’t fit into these defined roles are forming every year, and most institutions now conduct their own fundraising campaigns.

In the current climate, Jews are running away from legacy institutions. Many of us have read the Pew Research data over the last decade and looked at the sharp decline in affiliation rates, Federation donors and membership of Jews in JCCs. This is accompanied by a dramatic increase in “Jews of no religion” or “Jews of no denomination.” In many ways, this mimics what has played out in the State of Israel with the hiloni (translated as “secular,” although I would argue that is inaccurate) population. And I believe we can learn from some of the responses of hiloni organizations in Israel whose members are reclaiming Jewish identity, tradition and values as their own, while working to build a Jewish community that exists in relationship to Jewish values, not halakhah (Jewish law).

Many American progressive Jews hold on to shame or baggage around their observance level. They think of Jewish identity as a qualitative experience: How Jewish am I? Am I a bad Jew? Many Jewish leaders and thinkers are struggling with this. In fact, one fantastic website called JewBelong, run by Archie Gottesman, even developed a word for it, naming the condition “JewBarassment.” While in Israel earlier this year participating in a fellowship with the Mandel Institute, I visited Bina, a hiloni organization based in Tel Aviv. I was listening to a panel discussion there and heard a staff member reframe the notion of JewBarassment entirely. She argued that unlike earlier generations, hiloni’im in this generation are returning to, not rebelling against, Jewish tradition.

American Jews are also choosing to return to, and not rebel against, Jewish life. Although they may not join synagogues or donate to Federations, Jews in this generation want to feel connection and seek spiritual engagement, and are willing to explore Jewish life that does not make them feel bad about their “level of observance.” Where traditional synagogues exist in a framework of halakhah and are inextricably linked to it as their baseline, I believe that we can provide a different entry point that is linked to Jewish values and tradition alone. The next decade may well see the establishment of newly created American Jewish values-centered communities—an American Hiloniut. The JCC is poised to be a home for these new communities of spiritual seekers as they look to engage with Jewish life, customs and values without the baggage of Jewish law and synagogues.

In this vision of American hiloni communities, Jews and people who are on Jewish journeys will gather in both familiar and new ways. They will celebrate Shabbat with songs, food, rituals and prayers more broadly defined. These communities will also come together for holidays to connect with the values and traditions of the Jewish-year cycle. They will also come together for life-cycle events, such as b’nai mitzvah rituals, where traditional synagogues continue to feel a sense of ownership and entitlement. In each of these moments, the Jews who gather will be engaged in meaningful Jewish experiences and rituals that are deeply connected to Jewish values, but will not be responding to a relationship with halakhah. It may look similar to some of the work that traditional synagogues are engaged in, but it will be nuanced differently to speak to a generation of Jews who find the baggage of restrictions, halakhah and separation to be barriers they are unwilling to negotiate.

The new American hiloni community can learn a great deal from Israeli hilonim. Israeli hiloni communities are building meaningful Jewish experiences that are deeply rooted and incredibly relevant to the lives of secular Israelis. There is study of Jewish texts and traditions that help uncover values that center the community. And there is a rally towards social justice and equality that is compelling for a generation of Jews who want our communities to be places of justice, not self-righteousness. Most importantly, hilonim in Israel have broken away from the concept of halakhah as the foundational point of Jewish tradition. Instead, they have claimed Jewish values as the center point of a Jewish life, and they believe deeply that two journeys can take you to the same place, but that the journey itself remains relevant.

While the observance of Shabbat in hiloni and traditional synagogues may look similar, their different points of origin lead to drastically different experiences. While some may argue that liberal synagogues take up this values-centered Jewish space, I would argue that there are clear lines where halakhah still guides decision-making. This is true even when those synagogues veer from Jewish practices like kashrut and Shabbat observance. American Hiloniut is not a new branch of liberal Judaism in a traditional sense. It is a community centered on secular Jewish practice that is inspired by Jewish custom and tradition, but not bound to it. Just like our Israeli siblings who are uncomfortable in a synagogue setting, today many American Jews are unwilling or unable to step into a synagogue space.

An American Hiloniut can have this same kind of awakening. We can choose to set aside the challenges of theology and terminology that have plagued progressive Jews over the last generation. We can put aside the challenges of halakhah that have put getting past the idea of being a “bad Jew” squarely on the agenda of Jewish community. We can push past the discomfort of our broken division of labor and recognize that in the new Jewish community ecosystem, a values-centered Jewish community has a home and will be a place of gathering and comfort for many progressive Jews. Because once Jews who are unwilling to be bound to halakhah are empowered to be who they are and they discover this American Hiloniut, they thrive into something that inspires American Jewish communities. I see it each time we gather at the JCC for a Shabbat or holiday celebration. These kinds of gatherings will happen more and more as a new model for Jewish ritual life and Jewish communal observance takes hold.

This will undoubtedly cause disruption in the Jewish communal ecosystem. While I recognize that is difficult for some to accept, I would also like to share some pieces of learning from our journey piloting these values-centered community celebrations at our JCC.

It was not our original intent to establish a new model of Jewish community that would potentially compete with synagogues. As a former congregational rabbi, I have seen the power of synagogue life to support and nurture the soul. And I also meet people on a daily basis who, for one reason or another, are not willing to step through the doors of a synagogue. Often, it is about negative experiences and a fear of being a “bad Jew” or a deeply held belief that synagogues do not reflect their values of community. It is unrealistic to believe that the Jewish community could simply turn these people away from community or that we would presume to know better how these people should gather. We cannot demand that anyone join a synagogue to gain access to community or life-cycle events. It is an unethical demand that is not in keeping with Jewish values and simply will not stand up to a progressive ethic that rejects the notion of a gatekeeper to Jewish ritual.

I do believe that people find different kinds of communities helpful at different times in their lives. Just as some grow up in an Orthodox synagogue and then find comfort as adults in a more progressive synagogue, some Jews will make an entrance to Jewish community through an American hiloni community and eventually find comfort in a traditional synagogue. We should be open to these ebbs and flows of spiritual seekers. I have welcomed a handful of families to Shabbat or holiday celebrations at the JCC who are now synagogue members. I celebrate that transition just as much as when a family who is not yet connected to a Jewish community comes to the JCC for the first time. In our new ecosystem, we do not get to dictate where or how people engage. We just get to celebrate them and journey with them when they invite us to do so.

My grandfather was fond of saying that “a leader without any followers is just a person taking a walk.” Regardless of the consequences, we cannot demand that people fall in line with a system in which they are unwilling to participate. We cannot go back to a time where Jews reflexively supported institutions and affiliated out of a sense of obligation. The larger social and societal structures at play cannot be ignored. Instead, we should start from a place of understanding this new reality. In the marketplace of ideas, good ones will rise to the surface. They will happen in Federations, in traditional synagogues, in JCCs and in American hiloni communities. This breakdown of defined roles has been difficult for many, but I believe that it will make the community stronger and help us adapt to the changing nature of Jewish life. I look forward to expanding on the initial beginnings of this past year and to continuing the work of establishing a truly values-centered community that speaks to American Hiloniut.

This article is authored by Rabbi James Greene and was inspired by collaborative thought work with Sonia Wilk, the Youth and Family Program Director at the Springfield JCC.

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