Jewish education for the secular humanist at Or Emet

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Eva Cohen’s cultural and personal connection to Or Emet began when she was 10 years old, when she and her family became members of the small congregation for Humanistic Judaism. She was a student in its Jewish Cultural School (JCS) until she was in her early teens.

“The school at that time existed in a different format, it was smaller than it is now,” Cohen told the AJW. “Initially, we met at members’ homes, and then we shifted to meeting in other places and employing teachers. So I guess I was involved in it at a transitional period.”

Cohen grew up in St. Paul and graduated from Brown University, where she studied anthropology and visual arts. She returned to Or Emet after college and began teaching the older elementary students.

Now 25, Cohen is the incoming head of the Jewish Cultural School.

“The Humanistic Jewish approach is something that strongly resonates with me, thinking about being Jewish as a cultural thing, even a spiritual thing, but not necessarily spiritual in a way that’s God-based,” Cohen said. “Having been involved in the Jewish Cultural School and the congregation as a kid, I realized here was a place where I could connect with being Jewish in those ways. I became a part of a community that was really welcoming and supportive and cool — a community that helped me develop that particular sense of identity.”

Or Emet’s Jewish Cultural School celebrates Jewish traditions and holidays, such as enjoying hamantaschen at Purim. (Photo: Courtesy of Or Emet)

Cohen will continue to teach her class, but will take on the additional role of education coordinator.

“It’s a chance to use this opportunity to grow the school and reach out to people who we really may appeal to, but who don’t necessarily know about us or our programming,” Cohen said.

As a Humanistic congregation, Or Emet members think of their Jewishness as being part of a historical connection to the Jewish people, and not necessarily a spiritual relationship with a “God or a God-like figure,” according to Cohen. Similarly, the school’s approach is secular and its curriculum is focused on an exploration of Jewish cultural traditions and practices, including Hebrew and Yiddish, and Jewish food, music, art and history.

The school also places a strong emphasis on tikkun olam (repairing the world), inclusion and social justice.

“I think that’s true for a lot of other Jewish groups and congregations, but a big part of our philosophical approach is emphasizing this idea that Jewish people have played a historic role in really working to create change and make the world a better place,” Cohen said. “And that that is really an important role as Jewish people today.”

The Jewish Cultural School meets once a month during the school year, for an hour and a half on Sunday mornings at the Friends School of Minnesota in St. Paul. The 20 or so students are evenly divided among older and younger students, and are placed into one of three classes: the Littles (ages 3 to kindergarten), taught by Josh Kaplan; the Middles (first through third or fourth graders), taught by Renee Dorman; and the Juniors (fourth or fifth through eighth graders, including Bar and Bat Mitzva candidates), taught by Cohen.

Or Emet also offers a Bar/Bat Mitzva program, which is arranged and taught by long-time Or Emet madrikh Harold Londer.

There is also a small, informal group of teens, who take part in political action and social justice activities, such as volunteering at a phone bank for Minnesotans United for All Families. (Or Emet has voted as a congregation to oppose the proposed marriage amendment.) Cohen said the school welcomes interfaith, intercultural and LGBT families.

Last year, the Jewish Cultural School launched a more formalized, three-year curriculum that is based on Jewish history, putting the school more in line with Humanistic congregations around the country. The first year was focused on biblical and ancient history, the second year focuses on the fall of the Second Temple to the 1700s, and the third year will focus on the 19th century to the modern day.

The curriculum offers age-appropriate discussions for each class, which will be supplemented this year by Hebrew music and language activities led by Sarah Berman-Young, a school psychologist who taught the younger elementary class for two years.

Berman-Young, who is also a part of Or Emet’s music committee, will spend 15 minutes per session with each class teaching them basic Hebrew vocabulary and music that fits with that month’s lesson or holiday.

“My goal is to have [the students] have an appreciation of the use of Hebrew as part of tradition and being able to recognize some key words that they might hear, in relation to Jewish holidays or in relation to Jewish culture,” Berman-Young said. “[The school] is a good option for families who are looking for an introduction for their children to Jewish traditions and culture, but don’t necessarily want it to have a heavy religious message.”

For Lisa Gardner-Springer, the outgoing head of the Jewish Cultural School who will continue to volunteer with the school’s parent committee, she wants the students to understand their heritage and culture, and what it means to be Jewish from that perspective.

“I really want to make sure that they get and understand that you can be a good, honest, giving, kind person, and that you can do this in a way that doesn’t necessarily rely on theistic texts to do that,” Gardner-Springer said. “Taking inspiration from theistic texts, but to put it into place as kids that will care for the environment and care for other people.”

And Cohen shares that goal.

“We want them to feel a real sense of connection to their Jewish identity, for that to be something that they connect with and value, and that’s meaningful for them,” Cohen said. “That they develop an identity that’s not just Jewish, but humanistic — valuing rationality and critical thinking, valuing openness and respect, and believing in the importance of other people, the importance of yourself, and believing in the power of people to make this world a better place.”

For information on Or Emet and its Jewish Cultural School, e-mail Cohen at: school-1@oremet.org or visit: oremet.org.