Regulars attending the secular High Holiday observances sponsored by Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (WC/AR) look forward every year to Laurie Brown’s dramatic re-telling of “Jonah and the Whale” on Yom Kippur.
Brown, a communications skills speaker and trainer for Laurie Brown Communications, has voiced the parts of the narrator and God for at least 25 years. She’s well-suited, having started her career as a professional actor.
“I really do love the Jonah story,” Brown said. “It has an important message, and we have fun with it.”
Going to the WC/AR assemblies each year “is getting to be with chosen family,” said Brown, referring to the people “we used to see all the time when our kids were in shule.” She and her husband, graphic designer Eric Keller, started with Workmen’s Circle in 1989, when their son Daniel was 3 and needed a nursery school.
“I love that Workmen’s Circle stands for social justice,” she said. “They are a group of people who share my value system.”
Just like their co-religionists in the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and Reconstructionist movements, secular and Humanistic Jews are looking forward to welcoming 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 WC/AR, local secular or Humanistic Jewish organizations that will offer High Holiday services are Sholem Aleichem Institute in Commerce Township, Jewish Cultural Society in Ann Arbor and Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills.
Like Jews everywhere, these organizations have differences in their philosophies and the programming/services they offer.
Sholem Aleichem Institute
The High Holiday assemblies (not services) hosted by Sholem Aleichem Institute (SAI) of West Bloomfield fill a need for many unaffiliated, secular Jews.
SAI is a cultural organization interested in preserving Yiddish language and culture. After generations of moving ever westward from Detroit, the assemblies have been held since 2014 in Commerce Township.
Under the direction of the late SAI founder Moishe Haar, the organization began collecting songs and poems that characterize the Jewish people in its many struggles and successes.
“We will continue the combination of readings and music in English, Hebrew and Yiddish, underlining the cultural and spiritual significance of the new year to secular Jews,” said Margaret Winters, SAI co-president with Caleb Simon.
Community singing is encouraged during the programs, while soprano Shirley Benyas is the featured soloist among the chorus members. Davis Gloff again will provide piano accompaniment and vocals. Cellist David Peshlakai will contribute his music on Kol Nidre. Distinguished attorney Eugene Driker will deliver timely remarks.
The Sholem Aleichem service differs from those of Birmingham Temple and Workmen’s Circle in that the SAI machzor (the Yiddish word for its program book) includes references to God and spiritual psalms. Still, no prayers are offered.
The literary works read each year are meant to inspire faith in humanity and hopes for a more peaceful existence for everyone.
“We welcome people of all persuasions, though we are not political or religious,” Simon said.
Sholem Aleichem Institute
P.O. Box 251564
West Bloomfield, MI 48325
Sholem Aleichem Institute (SAI) will hold High Holiday assemblies at the Steinway Piano Gallery Recital Hall, 2700 E. West Maple Road in Commerce Township. The schedule this year is Rosh Hashanah, 10 a.m. Sept. 21; Kol Nidre, 8 p.m. Sept. 29; and Yom Kippur, 10 a.m. Sept. 30. Donations are encouraged.
Jewish Cultural Society
Julie Gales is the madrika (leader) at the Jewish Cultural Society (JCS), Ann Arbor’s Secular Humanistic congregation. She will lead observances during the High Holiday season.
Humanistic Judaism is human-centered and fundamentally stresses the ability of people to shape their own lives independent of a supernatural being.
“We believe that a Jew is one who, regardless of birth, identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people,” Gales said.
Humanistic Jews want to understand the beliefs and behavior of their ancestors without feeling compelled to agree with the beliefs of the past.
Traditional Jewish new year observances were reframed by JCS because, Gales said, “Secular Humanistic Jews believe in modifying traditions to make them more meaningful” to modern-day Jews.
Jewish New Year festivals provide a way for JCS “to come together as a community and to reflect on our actions or acts of omission and to support each other,” she said.
Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, “offers a time for Secular Humanistic Jews to pause in their daily lives and reflect on their behavior and renew their commitment to their best selves and highest values,” Gales said. “It provides a time for renewal, reflection and new beginnings.”
The blast of the shofar ushers in this time of reflection, bringing in music, readings and creative observance.
JCS’s most unique reinterpretation is tashlich, the High Holidays ritual in which religious Jews cast off their sins by throwing bread crumbs into a flowing body of water.
JCS members honor the tashlich tradition by gathering to throw 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.”
Jewish Cultural Society
Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor
2935 Birch Hollow Drive, Suite 1
Ann Arbor, MI 48108
Office: (734) 975-9872
JCS events for the High Holidays are open to all. Rosh Hashanah, 7 p.m. Sept. 21; tashlich with potluck, 10 a.m. Sept. 22; Kol Nidre, 7 p.m. Sept. 29, and Yom Kippur, 2 p.m. Sept. 30, followed at 6 pm. by a potluck break-fast meal at 6. Tashlich only will take place on Island Park (accessible from Island Drive in Ann Arbor). For non-members, the suggested donation for Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur is $100/family, $50/individual, $25/student. For individual observances: $50/family, $25/individual, $10/student.
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.”
“Secular Jews tend to be largely non-religious in their daily lives,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, current leader of Birmingham Temple. “Some of them possess a God-concept, while others do not.”
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.
The longest service will run less than two hours and “have no repetitive standing and sitting. We only stand in memory of the dead,” he said.
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,” he said.
28611 W. 12 Mile Road
Farmington Hills, MI 48334
Phone: (248) 477-1410
Birmingham Temple will offer evening, morning, family and memorial services throughout the 10-day High Holiday period. Tickets are not required.
Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (WC/AR)
Jewish progressive values are reflected in Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (WC/AR), a national membership organization headquartered in New York City.
“Secular Jews are a part of the fabric of Jewish life — its history and its continuity,” said Arlene Frank, local board chair. She and retired WC/AR Michigan Region director Ellen Bates-Brackett created the continuously revised holiday service guide that will be used again this year at the Mondry Building on the Taubman Jewish Community Campus in Oak Park.
Before it was closed, the Jimmy Prentis Morris branch of the Jewish Community Center is where WC/AR held its High Holiday gatherings for 10 years and maintained an office.
“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.
“We modify traditions today, as Jews have always done, to reflect our current needs and understanding.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent “a period of introspection,” Frank said. “They are 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.”
The organization’s observance of Rosh Hashanah began in 1990, with Yom Kippur added a year later. The services, especially appealing to baby boomers, include a strong call for social and economic justice. Passages are assigned to readers and communal singing is in Yiddish and English. Stephen Kukurugya provides piano accompaniment. 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.”
Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring will offer two High Holiday services at the David and Miriam Mondry Building, 15000 W. 10 Mile, Oak Park, on the Taubman Jewish Community Campus. Both with 10 a.m. starting times, the Rosh Hashanah service will be held on Sept. 21 and Yom Kippur on Sept. 30. Admission is by donation. Canned goods for a Yad Ezra food drive will be collected on Yom Kippur.