What is Secular Jewish Education?

The word ‘secular’ is translated from the Yiddish word ‘veltlekh’ or ‘worldly’ in the sense of engagement in the world’s work rather than aloofness.

The Jewish secular movement can be linked to the outgrowth of cultural nationalism in Europe during the last century. Those concerned with Judaism as a people rather than just a religion, in Europe and North America, including various labour and fraternal organizations, founded secular Jewish schools (in Yiddish ‘shules’). The United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO), the parent institution of the MWS, is one such organization.

These shules endeavoured to give children a unique education to help them find fulfillment as Jews and as citizens of their respective countries. The curriculum of these folkshules emphasized Jewish history and holidays, the Yiddish language and literature, and Jewish folk creativity in dance, song, poetry and drama. In keeping with the above traditions, the Morris Winchevsky School (MWS) was founded in 1928, named in honour of the celebrated progressive Yiddish poet, Morris Winchevsky. Since that time, our Shule has provided a progressive secular Jewish education for thousands of young Jewish Canadians.

Today, our students explore the 5,000 years of Jewish civilization, history, tradition and culture through literature, folklore, music, drama, philosophy in secular terms based in humanist universalist values which respect our religious traditions within their historical context. We draw from all aspects of our culture — our Yiddishkayt — as exemplary lessons to provide guidance for the struggles to attain freedom and equality in the modern world.

The role of religion in Jewish life is dealt with in its historic framework. The interpretation of our heritage is rational and humanistic. The teaching of Jewish history emphasizes the struggles for freedom and equality in the past and relates those events to present-day struggles for civil rights and environmental justice.

We want our children to identify as Jews and to appreciate the legacy of our rich heritage. We want them to grow up imbued with those values and qualities which characterize the Jewish tradition and which are particularly pertinent today – a thirst for knowledge and truth, a dedication to the achievement of peace and freedom, an active concern for the needs and rights of all human beings, and commitment to respect and protect our natural environment. It is important that our children understand the background of oppression which resulted in the mass migration of Jews and other minorities throughout the world and throughout the ages. It is our intent that they should appreciate the brotherly/sisterly relationship amongst themselves and Jews around the world. We want our children to be familiar with the contribution of Jews to Canadian life and to prepare them to make their own contributions as responsible citizens, with a positive sense of their Jewish identity and an awareness of their Jewish roots.