New School for Jewish Studies Sunday school students celebrating Sukkot at a member’s home.Photo courtesy of NCJC.

Besides its racial and socioeconomic diversity, Evanston is characterized by religious diversity, with many churches, several synagogues and other religious institutions.

But many individuals and families, despite being raised religiously, choose not to affiliate and instead seek a secular community.

Recognizing this phenomenon among Evanston’s Jews several decades ago, a handful of parents – some of them transplants from traditional Jewish communities in Hyde Park and Rogers Park – started a secular Jewish school. The school’s non-traditional curriculum developed over time, always with a secular emphasis. Classes met weekly at most, as Jewish education was not central for the participating families.

The parent-led New School for Jewish Studies (NSJS) now offers children ages 7 to 13 an education in Jewish history and culture. The program does not include instruction in religion or the Hebrew language. NSJS meets on most Sundays during the school year at Roycemore School in Evanston.

Recently the group expanded its focus, renaming itself the Northside Community of Jewish Culture. NCJC continues to offer the New School program for members’ children but also aims to provide Jewish adults with a secular alternative to synagogue membership, with a focus on cultural heritage rather than religious tradition.

“Growing up in Saginaw [Michigan],” said NCJC member Monica Sageman, “I was part of a Jewish community that felt like an extension of our family. Our synagogue embraced all – it served Jewish families with different backgrounds and from neighboring towns like Bay City and Midland. I had a bat mitzvah there, but the religious stuff was the structure that the more important things hung on. It was very much a social and cultural experience.

“Now, I don’t seek a Jewish life for spiritual reasons,” Ms. Sageman said. “The cultural community is much more what resonates for me. I don’t think of myself as a very spiritual person, but I strongly identify with Jewish history and culture. I want to pass that on to my kids.”

Like most of NCJC’s members, Ms. Sageman is in a culturally mixed marriage. Her husband, though not Jewish, supports her desire to raise their children with Jewish traditions. Their two children, now 16 and 13, attended the New School.

Historically, some members have also celebrated non-Jewish holidays. But within the group, Jewish holidays such as Passover and Hanukkah are the focus of celebration.

“Our kids are in the NCJC Sunday school because it offers a workable solution to the challenges of having a family with different traditions,” said Howard Wine, whose wife is not Jewish. “I wouldn’t say we ‘celebrate’ Christmas or Easter, though we do recognize them in a special way. But we wanted our kids to identify with Judaism and NCJC meets our philosophical approach.”

“[Getting the kids to school] takes adult encouragement,” Ms. Sageman said. “It wasn’t easy to get [our kids] up and out the door on Sunday mornings. But they had a great time with the other kids, and they’ve gotten a good foundation in Jewish history.”

Starting in the fall of 2012, the group plans to offer a kindergarten-level program as well.

Since 2011, NCJC has been a member group of the national Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (www.csjo.org). CSJO’s mission statement describes its commitment to “cultural Jewishness in philosophy, celebration of Jewish holidays, life cycle events, and ethical values.” It has 23 affiliate organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

NCJC will host a talk by CSJO’s executive director, Rifke Feinstein, on April 15. Ms. Feinstein will speak and answer questions on the topic of Jewish secularism. (See Community Corner, p. 18)

“We have members from lots of different backgrounds who don’t think of their Judaism in a religious way,” Ms. Feinstein said. “We connect with those who are looking for a way to be culturally Jewish, looking for a way to connect with Jewishness through history, culture, and ethical values.”

“My hope,” Ms. Sageman added, “is that NCJC will grow beyond being a Sunday school.  I’d like it to become a lifelong community.”