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Ask Terry 1 – The Heart and Mind of a Secular Jewish Life


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/03/12

Terry Waslow, M.B.A. Executive Director is the Executive Director (former Board Chair) of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and a Board Member of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Terry’s Master’s degree in Business Administration is focused on Nonprofits, while her undergraduate degree is in Human Services/Counseling.  She has worked for over 25 years with individuals and families impacted by physical, intellectual and/or economic challenges to build fully inclusive communities.

Here we talk about the heart and mind of secular Judaism, and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As the Executive Director of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and even before, you work with individuals and families of the secular Jewish community. So, you know it. You know the people, intimately. What is the heart of secular Judaism?

Terry Waslow: I like to think of it as the heart of Jewishness, distinguishing it from the religious rituals and theistic doctrine of Judaism. At the heart is our identity as a people with a culture and history that binds us as a family. Jews have lived in just about every country in the world and have adapted to and adopted elements of the local culture. Yet Jews have always identified as a unique people separate from the main culture that surrounds them wherever they reside. It is incorporating a global and particular view simultaneously: identifying as a separate community within a country and yet assimilating aspects of the locale. You find this in every aspect that defines a culture, from food, language, music and other aspects of everyday life. As an example, all Jews celebrate the holiday known as Passover. We may say the name differently based on the Jewish language that is the tradition of our particular family; pesach (Hebrew), peysekh (Yiddish), pesah (Ladino), and we may have different foods on our seder table. However, we will all eat matzo and we will all celebrate freedom. This is our Jewish family as both universal and unique.

The other major part of the heart of Jewishness is our strong commitment to Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Secular Jews have historically and continue to be extremely active in progressive social movements. Some identify Jewishly, such as the many groups working on issues regarding hunger, environmental issues, refugee resettlement and any number of other social justice issues. You also find a large proportion of Jews belonging to secular progressive organizations. In the recent past Jews were at the forefront of the labour movement, helping to create safe working conditions, weekends and child labour standards. Tikkun Olam is what keeps us involved and working to constantly improve conditions not just for Jews but for the world. Here we have the particular working for global betterment.

We have a concept, l’dor v’dor, literally from generation to generation. It is our responsibility to pass on our Jewish traditions to each succeeding generation. As secular Jews, we take this responsibility very seriously as we have created schools and community groups and family traditions that teach the essence of secular Jewishness.

Jacobsen: What is the mind of secular Judaism?

Waslow: Judaism focuses on books and laws and the constant questioning and studying to increase our knowledge. This comes from a religious tradition. As secular Jews, we also see our Jewishness tied to lifelong learning. We have secular supplementary Jewish schools for our children and adult study groups. We prize education and delving into the laws and traditions to better understand the relevance for our lives today.

Clearly, as secular Jews, we do not understand our traditions and history as the word and works of god. However, we do see the value in understanding what these words are and what the teachings can tell us about our history and how to live our lives. I’ll use the holiday of pesach again as an example. Secular Jews definitely do not believe that Moses parted the sea or god smote the first born Egyptians. However, we celebrate freedom and we understand the idea that no one is free unless everyone is free. We honour the traditions of understanding the suffering of slavery and acknowledge the cost to the slave holder during the righteous fight for freedom. The Seder, the traditional holiday meal honours the idea of questioning and spells out the various types of learners. Even as this holiday reaches to the depths of our hearts we are challenged to expand our knowledge and enhance our mind as we repeat these traditions year after year, generation to generation.

Most important is that we realize that the heart and mind work together. Our love of our culture and heritage goes hand in hand with our learning about our history and traditions. I mentioned Tikkun Olam earlier and it is just one example of how concepts and learning (the mind) can be meaningless without the care and actions (the heart) that contribute to the well-being of all people. The concept of repairing the world is empty if we do not struggle to ensure the rights of all living beings. Our survival depends on it.

Jacobsen: How do these, the heart and the mind of secular Judaism, define the ordinary lives of followers of secular Jews within the remit of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations?

Waslow: There is no question that for those of us engaged in the activities of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations our identity is infused with our connection to our Jewish heritage. Our members function outside the traditional religious framework and develop schools and study groups and traditions that lead us towards understanding our people’s past and enriching our present Jewish lives. Our philosophy as an organization is to stress the cultural, historical and ethical aspects of our Jewishness in an effort to create an identity that is relevant to contemporary life that is committed to justice, peace and community responsibility. Through educational, cultural, and social activities we strive to instill in our members an ever-deepening sense of Jewish identity and pride in being Jewish.

Gerry Revzin, the first Executive Director of CSJO said it very well; “The pluralistic nature of our movement gives us a unique opportunity for creativity. We come together from all walks of life with a single purpose, to spread our message of secular humanistic Jewish life to those unaffiliated Jews who cannot accept the philosophy of the established Jewish community, but who don’t know what we offer. Herein lies our greatest challenge: the creation and development of new groups, schools, clubs in all parts of the United States and Canada and the world, where children and adults can explore the meaning and joys of their Jewish peoplehood, their ethnic identity; where Jewish interests and human concerns do not conflict; where thoughtful, even critical approaches to Jewish issues are welcomed; where holidays and traditions are observed with understanding, with creativity – out of choice, not obligation.”

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Terry.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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