Modernity is deeply associated with secularization: the rejection of the supernatural and of religious institutions as well as the construction of identities based on the natural world. Jews have often been at the forefront of these secular movements and, despite the persistence of religious traditions, are perhaps the most secularized of modern peoples. Side by side with European secularization, a distinct tradition of Jewish secularism and secular Jewish culture arose in Europe, spreading later to the Americas and the Middle East. Thinkers from Baruch Spinoza to Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, M.Y. Berdichevsky and Hayim Nahman Bialik (to name but a few) charted out alternatives to traditional Judaism. Some of these alternatives were highly individual, while others were collective. Some focused on metaphysical or psychological questions, while others were concerned with politics or culture, not least the various forms of Zionism. To understand modern Jewish identity therefore requires understanding all of these secular alternatives, since they posited the possibility of being Jewish without adherence to traditional religious laws and beliefs.
The Posen Foundation's program for the Study of Secular Jewish History and Cultures is designed to support the development of courses on the varieties of Jewish secularism for students in North America and Israel. It is estimated that at least half of American Jews consider themselves secular, even if this secularism means different things to different people. The percentage of secular Jews is even higher in Israel. These Jews are heirs to the tradition of secular Jewish culture reaching back more than two centuries. The courses supported by the program are intended to inform students about this tradition that may be largely unknown to them, but the courses are not aimed only at secular Jewish students: they are aimed at the student body as a whole, Jewish and non-Jewish, who may find this secular tradition of interest and importance in understanding pressing contemporary issues.
The program funds the development and implementation of one or more "core courses" in the history of secular Jewish thought and/or culture. These courses in Jewish thought, history, sociology, anthropology, or other related disciplines--or ideally an interdisciplinary course--examine the process of Jewish secularization over the past three centuries or focus specifically and explicitly on the secular traditions within modernity. The courses must be broadly conceived, and not limited to one national experience. While examples of such courses are on this website, the program does not dictate a single template for these courses. On the contrary, the program is interested in fostering creativity in the teaching of this subject, and successful applications must demonstrate such original thinking.
In addition to the core course or courses, the program funds peripheral--or more specialized--courses on subjects related to the core courses. The peripheral courses need to examine explicitly themes of secularism and secularization, not just cover secular topics, and applicants should demonstrate an ability to integrate these courses over time and make them permanent. The funds may also be used for guest lecturers or faculty seminars on subjects related to the grant. Finally, while the grants may be used to hire a lecturer or post-doc to teach some of the courses, the foundation requires that academic programs commit some of their own faculty resources to implement the grant (the grant may be used to "buy-out" such faculty time).
Since 2000, when the project started with one university in Israel, the foundation has worked with 40 colleges and universities in the United States, Israel, Canada, and Europe, involving over 100 academics and some 1500 students.
Beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year, Hampshire College has been awarded a grant from the Posen Foundation's Center for Cultural Judaism for the development of courses and programs in the study of secular Jewish history and cultures.
Courses in Jewish Studies at Hampshire vary from semester to semester, but are generally offered through the Schools of Critical Social Inquiry (CSI) and Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies (HACU). Courses are listed online via The Hub, Hampshire's online registration system.