Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations 2017 Annual Conference


June 9–11, University of Illinois at Chicago


Jews In Music 1: James Porter and Aaron Cohen, both journalists, show how the lives of Jewish businessmen and African-American musicians collided to bring a new form of music to America. In this sometimes fraught relationship, two peoples operated together outside the American mainstream. (Photo: Phil and Leonard Chess at Chess Records headquarters in Chicago.)

Cheat You Fair: Phil Ranstrom, a filmmaker, screens his documentary on Maxwell Street, Chicago’s “other” main street, home to many famous (and infamous) Jewish kibbitzers and fools and sometimes known as Jewtown or Hymietown.

Creating a Secular Jewish Home: Elisa Lapine, a psychologist, and Amy Kudlov, an educator, offer tips to families. What does it mean to create a secular Jewish home? How do you do it? What values and goals do you want to pass on to your children? Elisa and Amy will talk about defining Jewish time, celebrating Jewish holidays at home, expressing our secular Jewishness through food, books, music, travel, humor and tzedakah, and finding a community.

Social Action: Aaron Podolner, an educator, leads a discussion: What does it mean to be guided by tikkun olam? How can a small community make a big difference? What is Jewish about social action, and what is social action, anyway? What social action project interests you?

Origin of Jewish Progressive Ideals: Barry Dancis, a retired bioinformatics software engineer and developer of secular Jewish curricula for Sunday schools, looks at the complicated basis of principles we like to think are uniquely ours. Their actual origins are often more complicated: initially adopted from non-Jewish contemporaries and then modified to be more encompassing and enlightened. This workshop will explore the origins of a few example ideals.

School Work: Gail Fisher, who has served for seven years on the Sunday School Committee of the Secular Jewish Community & School, and SJCS teachers lead a discussion about best practices for secular Jewish curriculum and teaching. Bring your own curriculum map, teaching resources and logistical tactics to share with others. And take part in the first-ever “Lesson Plan Slam,” a round of two-minute TED-style talks about successful lessons.

Jews In Music 2: David Jordan, a University of Illinois at Chicago distinguished professor of French history (emeritus), author of five books, and a passionate chamber music player (viola), traces the history of Jews in all kinds of musical genres, from classical to Broadway and beyond.

LGBTQ+ Community and Judaism: Ev Berger-Wolf and Ayla Ellenbogen, youth members of the Secular Jewish Community & School, on the intersectionality of oppression and how tikkun olam is especially relevant in this time of hardship. These two young adults look at how the Jewish and LGBT experiences have crossed paths in the past and in people’s everyday lives. The discussion will also include tips on supporting Jewish and/or LGBT people around you.

Building a Secular Community: Elisa Lapine, Gail Fisher and Cara Shapiro, founders and coordinators of the Secular Jewish Community & School, show how a community can start, grow and thrive without the trappings (and financial heft) of congregational Judaism. Hear a nuts-and-bolts story of how one group started with a simple Passover gathering and adapted over 13 years.

Celluloid Jew: Susan Messer, author of the novel Grand River and Joy, and Jim Poznak, lawyer and film enthusiast, share works of Argentine secular Jewish director Damián Szifron, whose feature Wild Tales (2014) earned international acclaim and became the highest-grossing film in Argentine history.

Prominent and Noteworthy American Jewish Women: Bennett Muraskin, author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories and contributor to the adult education program of the Jewish Cultural School and Society in West Orange, New Jersey, on the achievements of American Jewish women, living and dead, in fields as varied as government, education, entertainment, industry, labor, science and literature. Emphasis will be given to secular progressive Jewish women.

Jews and Social Work: Laura Rubenstein, a social worker, looks at Jewish involvement in that field. What makes a Jew become a social worker? When did Jews become so prominent in social work? How about Jews as clients? Laura will show macro and micro trends using movie clips.

Woke Up This Morning (With the Blues on My Mind): Joe Goldberg — guitarist, bassist, pianist, former National Guitar Workshop instructor, and contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (on the topic of “cool jazz”) — will help us define “The Blues.” He will examine the genre’s history and unique musical structure. And he will theorize about why this traditionally African-American art form attracted so many Jewish musicians.

The Jewish Resistance: Adam Beardsley, a long-time member of the Jewish Children’s Folkshul in Philadelphia who now lives in Washington D.C., is a progressive Jewish political activist. For decades, Jews have helped lead protest and civil-disobedience movements. Now many are resisting the current U.S. administration and standing up for civil rights and liberties. This workshop will focus on Jewish resistance methods, past and present.

BONUS WALK: Roosevelt University historian Steve Balkin’s walking tour of Maxwell Street, the cradle of Chicago blues and one-time home to Jewish politicians, merchants and gangsters. Organized by SJCS, this session begins Sunday at 1 p.m. after the conference’s official close. We’ll see the open-air market, meet new (and old) residents of this still-vibrant area, take in some more blues, and immerse ourselves in the ongoing immigrant experiment that is America.