Culturally Jewish: Proud of heritage, but not religious
Studying communityFeeling 'Jew-ish'

Culturally Jewish: Proud of heritage, but not religious

While more Jewish Pittsburghers identify as 'Jewish by religion' than the national average, thousands here still identify primarily as ethnic Jews

Mavra Stark, Lori Levin, Susan Forrest, members of the  Pittsburgh Secular Jewish Community. (Photo provided by Susan Forrest.)
Mavra Stark, Lori Levin, Susan Forrest, members of the Pittsburgh Secular Jewish Community. (Photo provided by Susan Forrest.)

There is a lot about Judaism that appeals to Lewis Braham.

But the God thing, not so much.

Braham, 49, admires Judaism’s commitment to activism, its encouragement of intellectual curiosity and its emphasis on the importance of community.

Although he belongs to a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, he attends services infrequently. He has trouble believing in a “just and loving deity” when there is suffering in the world, he said.

Braham, a financial writer who moved to Pittsburgh from New York in 2009, considers himself to be a “cultural Jew” rather than a “Jew by religion,” and is among about 4,300 other Jewish adults in Pittsburgh who describe themselves that way, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University.

There seems to be no conclusive definition of exactly what a “cultural Jew” is, according to Matthew Boxer, one of the researchers who conducted the Pittsburgh study. But it is a way by which some people who continue to identify as Jewish, though not connecting with many of the religious precepts, self-define.

Eighty-two percent of Jewish adults in Pittsburgh (about 35,100 individuals) identify as Jewish by religion, which is a higher proportion than that of the overall Jewish population in the United States as reported by the Pew Research Center (about 78%). The remaining 18% of Jewish adults here instead identify as “Jews of no religion” or “Jews of multiple religions.” A little more than half of these individuals identify as having no religion, but nonetheless still consider themselves Jewish for “ethnic or cultural reasons.”

Braham was raised as culturally Jewish, he said, and has always identified that way.

“My family was fairly atheistic,” Braham said. “Both of my parents were fairly old when I was born, and I think that generation coming out of World War II, a lot of Jews were atheistic given what happened.”

Although his family “wanted to be American, wanted to assimilate” they nonetheless “still felt very strongly Jewish.”

That Judaism, common among Jews in mid-20th century New York, was marked by a “a long tradition of liberalism,” Braham said. “It was very Jewish and not particularly religious. There was no question in any of our minds that we were Jewish, even though we weren’t particularly religious. And that goes for my parents and actually even my grandparents.”

For Braham, it is incongruous to believe in a “just and loving God” when there is suffering in the world, particularly in a post-Holocaust age.

“There is the problem of theodicy, of ‘why would God allow this to happen?’ And I actually think that from a Jewish perspective, believing in a just, loving God is very problematic. If a person had the power to stop something terrible from happening, and they just let it happen, what would you say about someone like that? So what do you say about a deity that allows some of these things to happen?”

Still, Braham acknowledged that the fact that he contemplates these philosophical questions is actually part of his Jewish identity.

“How can you not feel Jewish thinking about these issues?” he said.

Despite his doubts about God, Braham occasionally attends synagogue services.

“These things are complicated,” he said. “For instance, I think just because I have problems with religion in general doesn’t mean I don’t see any value in it. There is a value to the community. There is a value to standing with other people and supporting them in their times of need. That is one of my frustrations. I don’t feel there is much of an alternative to religion to find that kind of supportive community.”

Synagogue membership does not necessarily preclude a person from identifying as a cultural Jew rather than as Jewish by religion, according to Boxer.

“As the Pew Research Center showed in their 2013 national study, although the vast majority of synagogue members are JBR (Jewish by religion), there are some who are JNR (Jews of no religion) or JMR (Jews of multiple religions); it’s the same in Pittsburgh,” Boxer wrote in an email.

Jewish identity and practice “are complex,” Boxer explained, so the Brandeis researchers took “people at their word” when they said on the survey that they consider themselves to be Jewish for ethnic or cultural reasons but not as a matter of religion, whether or not they belong to a congregation.

“I feel very strongly Jewish, even though I don’t feel religious,” Braham stressed, noting that he has even fasted on Yom Kippur and used that day to reflect on his actions of the past year and contemplate self-improvement.

“There are meaningful lessons to be learned from that, even if you have trouble believing in God,” he said.

Braham also pointed to Jewish humor “as a vital cultural touchstone for me — from early vaudeville, to Lenny Bruce to Mel Brooks, Phillip Roth, Woody Allen, Larry David, Jon Stewart. All very distinctly Jewish and not particularly religious.”

Feeling Jew-ish
Alison Karabin, 45, also belongs to a local Reform congregation, although she does not “feel much of a connection to it.”

The native Pittsburgher describes herself as “Jew-ish, focusing on the -ish part,” she said. “I don’t feel much of a connection to the religious part of Judaism but I think there is a lot more to it.”

Karabin grew up “in a Conservative but not observant household,” she said, and had a strong Jewish education. She lived in Israel for five years following college, and even studied at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

Perhaps at least partially because of her immersion in Israeli society, where Jewish identity is not necessarily tied to synagogue affiliation, she finds that congregational life does not resonate with her.

Still, she wants her 8-year-old son to have “some religious education,” and for her, membership in a congregation is “a means to an end.”

“The things that I like about the synagogue are the social action and activist things that they do,” she said. “But in terms of prayer or synagogue attendance, that’s really not meaningful to me. I don’t keep kosher. I guess I do observe holidays, like lighting Chanukah candles, but I don’t go to services really at all.”

While there are philosophical aspects of Judaism that she appreciates, “keeping the 613 mitzvot, that’s not even on my radar,” said Karabin. “And I don’t want to disparage people who find that is very meaningful. It’s just not for me.”

Still, she is immersed in the Jewish community. A social worker employed by Jewish Residential Services, Karabin also participates in some activities run by Chabad of Squirrel Hill, is on the board of Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh and also volunteers for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and I volunteer with the Holocaust Center as a speaker and I do feel for some reason because of their experience, I can’t quite give up on Judaism all together because I think it’s amazing what they survived, and what Judaism survived,” she said. “I feel like at least in my family, I don’t want to be the one to end the Jewish line. I do feel it is important to be connected to the community but I don’t connect to it through religious observance.”

Although she celebrates some Jewish holidays, she does so “in a cultural way,” preparing traditional foods and reflecting on some of the themes of the day.

Despite foregoing religious observance, though, Karabin recognizes that “however things work out, my fate is tied in with the fate of the Jewish people whether I want to or not. So I can opt out of observance, but being Jewish halachically you can’t really opt out of.”

Valuing community
Squirrel Hill resident Aaron Schall, 36, identifies strongly as a Jew, but considers himself to be a “culturally Jewish” rather than a Jew by religion. He grew up in the South Hills attending a Conservative congregation.

“I’m definitely Jewish,” Schall said. “I had a bar mitzvah, but I never got into religion or really understood it.”

The data entry clerk does, however, enjoy being involved with certain Jewish activities, and would prefer to marry a Jewish woman, he said. He has attended events at Moishe House and with Shalom Pittsburgh, and has participated in Jewish social action initiatives. He enjoys celebrating the holidays with his family, including lighting Chanukah candles and attending Passover seders.

But he does not belong to a congregation and rarely goes to services. “I don’t want to give up Judaism,” Schall said. “I just never did religious stuff growing up except Sunday school, and I never understood Hebrew. But I would say it is important to be with other Jews, to at least connect. I am proud of being Jewish. I have a Star of David I wear.”

He appreciates the sense of belonging he feels when he is among other Jews, he said.

“The community — it seems more supportive, it’s more understanding of what you are going through,” Schall said. “It’s how I grew up. So, I try to find Jewish activities and meet more Jewish people and try to get involved in social activities.”

Jewish social and intellectual activities —sans a religious aspect — have been the focus of a group called the Pittsburgh Secular Jewish Community since 2012. The group, which is comprised of about two dozen Pittsburghers who identify as culturally Jewish, celebrates their heritage by meeting one day each month at Panera Bread on Centre Avenue for discussions and socializing. They also get together for Chanukah, Passover and Purim.

Identifying as “proudly Jewish,” Susan Forrest, a founder of the group, notes that when observing the holidays, the PSJC “celebrates the cultural parts,” and focuses on “the meaning of the holidays.”

For example, when celebrating Passover, the group discusses “the general theme of freedom, what does freedom look like in the current day, with a nod to the story, but not necessarily taking it as truth,” Forrest said. The group also marks the holiday “with the foods and songs that everybody knows and enjoys.”

Sometimes, the PSJC will meet for cultural events in the city, like JFilm, lectures, or plays with Jewish themes.

They do not worship or acknowledge God, though. Like Braham, members of the PSJC cannot accept a deity that allows suffering, particularly after the Shoah.

“Most of us feel that after the Holocaust how can anyone believe there is a God looking out for Jews?” Forrest said. “It’s just a hard pill to swallow.”

The sense of Jewish community, though, continues to be important to Forrest and the others in her group.

“We are there because we are all like-minded and we enjoy being Jewish with other people who are Jewish,” she said. “I know a lot of people go to synagogue, they might not be religious but they go just for that sense of community.”

For Forrest, association with other Jews through non-religious cultural activities is meaningful.

“It’s very fulfilling,” she said. “I feel very satisfied.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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