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High Holiday Traditions
Secular and Humanistic Jews keep some familiar themes, but follow their own drumbeats.
Andrea Liberman is pleased that the frequently moving Sholem Aleichem Institute (SAI) is holding its High Holiday assemblies this year at the Steinway Piano Gallery Recital Hall in Commerce Township. The location is closer to home and, as always, will give her “an opportunity to be with people I love.”
SAI is where this self-described “kind of an agnostic” prefers to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“If I come, it’s more social than anything else,” said Liberman, who looks forward to lunching with friends following the Rosh Hashanah service.
Although she “always fasts on Yom Kippur,” the Jewish traditions of the High Holidays are more attractive to her “than the religious part.”
Like their co-religionists in the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and Reconstructionist movements, secular and Humanistic Jews also welcome the Jewish New Year. The non-observant won’t be found worshiping for hours in shul or making entreaties to God. Instead, groups serving this segment have created meaningful ways to identify as proud members of the Jewish people.
In addition to SAI, secular Jewish organizations that will offer holiday services include Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (WC/AR) at the Oak Park Jewish Community Center; Jewish Parents Institute (JPI) at the West Bloomfield JCC; Jewish Cultural Society (JCS) at the JCC of Greater Ann Arbor; and the Humanistic Jews of Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills.
Like Jews everywhere, these organizations have differences in their philosophies and the programming/services they offer.
The Society for Humanistic Judaism is the Farmington Hills-based congregational arm of the movement founded in 1969 by Birmingham Temple’s late Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine.
As its website states: “Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that celebrates Jewish culture without supernatural underpinnings. Humanistic Jews value their Jewish identity and the aspects of Jewish culture that offer a genuine expression of their contemporary way of life. We believe in the human capacity to create a better world.”
Birmingham Temple will hold evening, morning, family and memorial services throughout the 10-day High Holiday period.
Wine created the first models for Jewish celebrations patterned on religious customs that were devoid of theistic content, Falick explained.
These services are “consistent with our nontheistic, Humanistic philosophy,” he said. Instead of worship and praise, “they emphasize the responsibilities that we human beings bear, individually and collectively, as the sole caretakers of the Earth and each other.”
As at other synagogues, Birmingham Temple will “sound the shofar and sing familiar tunes. We reflect on the year that has passed and consider our goals for the New Year,” said Falick, who will deliver a presentation.
According to the rabbi, today’s American Jews continue to go to synagogues in large numbers at the High Holidays because they “view it as an opportunity to very publicly connect with their Jewish identity and heritage. It’s a wonderful time to join together in community and to affirm their sense of belonging.”
Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring
The WC/AR’s services for Rosh Hashanah began in 1990, and Yom Kippur came a year later. Services have been held at the Oak Park JCC for about 10 years, and previously were at the Southfield Civic Center, Oak Park Community Center and other venues.
“Secular Jews are a part of the fabric of Jewish life — its history and its continuity,” said Arlene Frank, WC/AR board member and former president. She and retired WC/AR Michigan Region director Ellen Bates-Brackett created the service guide, later revised by Frank and board member Susan Warrow.
“Jewish heritage is made up of both religious and non-religious components and, as secular Jews, we continue to draw inspiration from the past, including oral and written traditions, Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino languages, literature, culture, politics, history, philosophy, morals and ethics,” Frank said. “And we modify traditions today, as Jews have always done, to reflect our current needs and understanding.”
For WC/AR, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are “a period of introspection, an opportunity to gather in community to reflect on the year past, and to give meaning and sustenance to the concept of the beginning of a new year,” Frank said.
The services, especially appealing to baby boomers, include a strong call for social and economic justice. Passages are assigned to readers and singing is in Yiddish and English. Vocalist Daniella HarPaz Mechnikov performs several solos, including her signature Kol Nidre.
While she is not herself secular, Mechnikov said, “It’s a very welcoming and non-exclusionary service. It doesn’t say ‘you must believe or deny’ anything. Some secular services are more like that — stating a theological position. I find the WC/AR service so easy because it celebrates Jewish history and tradition, even traditions that were rooted in faith at the time. It is a respectful service.”
Sholem Aleichem Institute
Alva Dworkin, SAI past president, said her organization “differs from Birmingham Temple and Workmen’s Circle in that we are not afraid to include a reference to God and spiritual psalms in our machzor.”
“We don’t pray,” Dworkin said, “but we do include literary works that inspire faith in humanity and hopes for a more peaceful existence for all peoples.”
Under the direction of the late SAI founder Moishe Haar, “we assembled songs and poems that characterize our people in its many struggles and successes. These are in Yiddish, Hebrew and English,” she said.
The SAI service presents a stage full of readers, such as Wayne State University Provost Dr. Margaret Winter and her husband, Professor Geoffrey Nathan, and soprano Shirley Benyas as featured soloist among the chorus. Distinguished attorney Eugene Driker often delivers a sermon.
“We have no political agenda and welcome people of all persuasions — political and religious,” Dworkin said.
Jewish Parents Institute
“Though Yom Kippur has traditionally been thought of as a time when Jews are focused on God, secular Jews take the opportunity to look at human action,” said Marilyn Wolfe, director of the Jewish Parents Institute, which offers a Sunday school and programing for families.
“Yom Kippur means not ‘Day of Atonement,’ but ‘Day of Cleansing,’” she said. “We retrace our steps and allow our essentially good human nature to surface again … The great beauty of humanity is that we have the ability and freedom to renew ourselves and make a fresh start. It is in this discovery that the meaning and significance of Yom Kippur lie.”
Member families conduct services at JPI, which has offered Rosh Hashanah for more than 50 years and Yom Kippur since the 1980s. Students participate as readers, singers in the choir and sometimes play musical instruments.
The one-hour services “have always been free of charge, and the community at large is invited to attend,” Wolfe said.
Jewish Cultural Society
Julie Gales is the madrika (leader) at the Ann Arbor-based Jewish Cultural Society. She grew up and formerly worked at JPI, which did not originally observe Yom Kippur. There was a sense then “that such traditionally religious holidays could not be separated from a belief in God or the judgment about one’s past deeds by a supernatural power —which we didn’t believe in.”
JPI and JCS eventually developed Jewish New Year festivals “to come together as a community and to reflect on our actions or acts of omission and to support each other,” Gales said. Traditional Jewish new year observances were reframed “because Secular Humanistic Jews believe in modifying traditions to make them more meaningful” to modern-day Jews.
The most unique reinterpretation is tashlich, a High Holidays ritual in which religious Jews cast off their sins by throwing bread crumbs into a flowing body of water.
Gathered at Island Park, JCS members honor the tashlich tradition by throwing flower petals into the Huron River.
“As we do so, community members have a chance to reflect on their individual and communal actions and deeds over the year, to cast off behaviors that they are not proud of and to vow to be better people in the year to come,” Gales said.
“Watching the kaleidoscope of color flow down the river is a peaceful and soothing way to transition into the New Year,” she said. “It provides a beautiful, yet concrete expression of our hope for the future.”
By Esther Allweiss Ingber, Contributing Writer