Interview with Terry Waslow – Executive Director, Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Terry Waslow was raised in a secular Jewish home. She became an active participant in the Jewish secular community in the mid-1990s when she enrolled her children in the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. She began attending the annual CSJO conferences in 2000 and has attended regularly since. Terry was a board member of Folkshul and CSJO. She spent 4 years as the Chair of CSJO before becoming the Executive Director. Terry has her Master’s in Business Administration with a focus on nonprofits and her undergraduate degree is in Human Services/Counseling. She has worked for over 25 years with individuals and families impacted by physical, intellectual and/or economic challenges to build fully inclusive communities.”

Here we talk about the secular Jewish communities, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What have been the major milestones and developmental steps for the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations?  Conferences attended by people throughout the North American Continent. Ongoing connections to communities in France, Argentina. Publications of a number of books including a children’s book.

Terry Waslow: Two major milestones in the early years was expansion beyond supplementary children’s schools with the inclusion of adult community groups and developing a strong youth component in the ongoing administration of the organization. The name changed to Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations to be more reflective of this expansion. Since the initial meeting CSJO has organized annual weekend conferences attended by people throughout the North American continent. There is always a strong youth component in the conference planning and with presentations during the weekend.  CSJO has connections to communities in France and Argentina.  We have also published a number of books including a children’s book about an intercultural family and their celebrations.

Jacobsen: In professional tenure, what have been the proudest moments there for you?

Waslow:  Prior to my start as the Executive Director of CSJO I am most proud of my work with families and individuals to become strong advocates for themselves and their family members.  It is so gratifying to work with someone as they attain a sense of empowerment.  I was able to mentor a number of direct staff to work in a culturally competent manner to assist numbers of families and individuals become effective self-advocates.  Having the opportunity to hone my people skills has been a plus for my work with CSJO.  I am so pleased to be able to meet people and share the vision of the organization.  I am so motivated and I believe I have been able to bring some new energy and optimism to the group.

Jacobsen: Judaism and Jewishness comprise a number of different identities. What self-identity and group identity best encapsulates the view of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations about itself and themselves – group and individual members (bearing in mind individual differences)? 

Waslow: Jews are a mosaic of values and beliefs. For CSJO Jewishness focuses on the cultural and ethical precepts of the Jewish people, learning our history and building a just future for all.   For CSJO Jewishness and Judaism have a distinction. For us Judaism has a focus on the religious and ritual aspects of our people.  While we may want to understand the Jewish religious practices it is to gain knowledge of our people rather than to incorporate them into our lives. Individual members of our organization identify themselves in a number of ways including as humanists, atheists, agnostics, ignostics, and free thinkers to name a few.  As an organization we uphold each individual’s right to self-identity, but are clear that we are a secular, non-theistic organization.

Jacobsen: Any recommended speakers or writers? How can people become involved and support the world of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations? 

Waslow: We have a number of members that speak on a wide variety of relevant topics.  The easiest way to connect to someone for a speaking engagement would be to send an inquiry through our website csjo.org.  It would enable me to try to find the best fit in terms of location and topic.  We have members across North America that have expertise on such a wide variety of subjects, including history, music, the labour movement, Holocaust resistance, Yiddish and most anything else related to the Jewish people.  I would also recommend our website for books as well.  We have a variety of titles on subjects that include understanding secular Jewishness, how to celebrate holidays and rites of passage in a secular manner as well as a number of collections of folktales.  There are a number of ways to get involved and support CSJO.  Of course one can join as an individual member or if they are part of a secular Jewish group, encourage the group to affiliate or start a local affiliate.  Also, I encourage people to come to our annual conferences.  They are wonderful experiences filled with learning opportunities and friendship and fun.  This spring we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary so plan on joining us.  Information will be posted on our website as we get a little closer to the date. You can also sign up for our enews.  It is a brief update on our activities that comes out a few times a month.  Sign up is easy with a link on our homepage.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Waslow:  As we know, more and more people are describing themselves as not religious or as unaffiliated.  Among Jews there is a significant growing group that identifies themselves as cultural, not religious.  There is also a growing desire for a sense of community and a broader understanding of cultural heritage. CSJO is positioned to fill that void and welcomes all who wish to identify with the Jewish people.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Terry.

Waslow:  Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about something that is so important to me and that I am proud to represent. I truly appreciate this opportunity.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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