An American Hiloniut

By Rabbi James Greene

Over the last two years, the JCC I work at piloted a free program to provide Shabbat and holiday experiences for Jewish families. It has blossomed into an idea that was much larger than we initially imagined and now serves more than 100 people at each gathering. For most of our community members, this is their Jewish observance, and the JCC is their Jewish community. This got me thinking about the role of the JCC in creating Jewish holiday and life-cycle moments. It also invited me to rethink my hesitance to stepping into the territory of traditional synagogues and explore the changing nature of Jewish community. I am now 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, or a Jewish-American values-centered practice.

The old ecosystem where organizations had defined roles and responsibilities is gone. In the current climate, Jews are running away from legacy institutions. The Pew Research data over the last decade shows the decline in affiliation rates, Federation donors, and membership of Jews in JCCs. These trends are accompanied by a dramatic increase in “Jews of no religion” or “Jews of no denomination.”[1] In many ways, this mimics some of what has played out in the State of Israel with the hiloni (usually translated as “secular,”) movement. And, I believe we can learn from some of the hiloni organizations in Israel that 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 halahah (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 struggle with this. In fact, one website called JewBelong, run by Archie Gottesman, even developed a word for it, naming the condition “JewBarassment.” While in Israel earlier this year, 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, not rebelling from Jewish tradition.

American Jews are also choosing to return, and not rebel, from Jewish life. Although they may not join synagogues or donate to Federations, Jews want to feel connection, 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 halahah 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 Jewish-American 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 come together for holidays to connect with the values and traditions of the Jewish year cycle. They will come together for life-cycle events, such as b’nai mitzvah rituals. 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 halahah. 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, halahah, and separation to be barriers they are unwilling to negotiate.

Although there is clear evidence that the American Jewish community and the Israeli community are growing further apart on ideological lines, the establishing of a true American Hiloniut could help build a new bridge between these two ever-disparate siblings. Israeli hiloni communities are building meaningful Jewish experiences through study of Jewish texts and traditions. Israel communities also exhibit a focus on 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 halahah. Instead, they have claimed Jewish values as the center point of a Jewish life.

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 halahah 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 is not bound to it.

An American Hiloniut can choose to set aside the theology and terminology challenges that have plagued progressive Jews over the last generation. We can put aside the challenges of halahah, the idea of being a “bad Jew,” the discomfort of our broken division of labor, and allow us to 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. Once Jews who are unwilling to be bound to halahah are empowered to be who they are and they discover this American Hiloniut, they thrive into something that inspires Jewish American communities.

This will undoubtedly cause disruption in the Jewish communal ecosystem. It was not our original intent for the JCC to establish a new model of Jewish community that would potentially compete with synagogues. As a former congregational rabbi, I have seen how synagogue life supports and nurtures 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. 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 that they are unwilling to participate in. We cannot go back to a time where Jews affiliated to synagogues or institutions out of a sense of obligation. The larger social and societal structures at play cannot be ignored. Instead, we must 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 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 the American Hiloniut.

Rabbi James Greene is the Assistant Executive Director of the Springfield JCC in Western MA. He is a board member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. This article initially appeared on Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, an initiative of Reconstructing Judaism. The piece was inspired by collaborative thought work with Sonia Wilk, the Youth and Family Program Director at the Springfield JCC.