The Society of Humanistic Judaism celebrates 50 years with enlightening conference at the Birmingham Temple.
Fiftieth anniversaries are special occasions — usually upbeat moments to celebrate past achievements, reconnect with family, friends and colleagues, and to think about the future, often with good food, music and heartfelt speeches.
The Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrated its 50th anniversary with all these elements and more at “SHJ@50: Celebrating Culture, Advancing the Movement,” a conference held April 26-28 at the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills. (The temple’s founding members met for a time in Birmingham, which accounts for the temple’s name.)
The conference attracted 130 enthusiastic participants from 20 states, Canada and Israel to hear discussions about Humanistic Judaism’s history, evolution and outlook for the future.
The Movement’s Beginnings
Humanistic Judaism began in the Detroit area when eight suburban couples who were members of Temple Beth El began meeting to discuss a new and different sort of Jewish affiliation. They sought out Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who was leading a Reform temple in Windsor and had previously served as assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.
Together they developed a framework that retained a commitment to Jewish history, culture, holiday celebrations and other traditions but revised or eliminated elements focused on God as the source of morality and power in human life. Wine preferred to describe himself as an “ignostic”— someone who doesn’t know what God means and, therefore, can’t validate God’s existence.
—Time Magazine’s 1965 article “The Atheist Rabbi” brought this new stream of Judaism publicity, generating controversy and antagonism from some in the Jewish community here and elsewhere.
But its adherents then and now prefer to emphasize what Humanistic Judaism believes — not what it rejects. Their concept of Humanistic Judaism focuses on human beings as responsible for their own lives and for improving society, and on Judaism as the historic culture of the Jewish people.
Within a year, Wine and a small group of supporters developed a liturgy that removed references to God. They formed the Birmingham Temple, the first Humanistic Jewish congregation, which has no ark. A Torah, which members consider an important part of Jewish tradition written by human beings, is kept in the temple library.
“We are secular humanists who believe that the world operates separate from supernatural authority. We believe that man is responsible for the world and each other and we celebrate the human spirit,” explains Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Birmingham Temple.
“You don’t have to be an atheist, but we focus on human impact. Why lead with what we don’t believe?” says Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism based on the Farmington Hills campus.
Humanistic Jewish congregations offer bar and bat mitzvahs without Torah readings or the traditional Shabbat service. Instead, the young people develop an individualized service, often with a humanistic aspect, such as “twinning” the bar mitzvah with a child who died in the Holocaust, a social service project or research about a social activist.
The Society for Humanistic Judaism
An umbrella organization, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, was founded in 1969 (the reason for the recent 50th anniversary celebration) to connect the first congregations and others that soon followed. While some congregations are self-led, others have rabbis who were originally ordained by mainstream Jewish seminaries and later chose Humanistic Judaism.
Humanistic Jews are not the only group seeking to retain Jewish identity and some traditions but without the framework of belief in God and the Torah. Locally, the Labor Zionist Alliance, Sholem Aleichem and Jewish Parents Institute meet to commemorate Jewish holidays and provide Jewish education with a secular focus.
In 1990, a Humanistic rabbinic studies program was established. Candidates were required to have a master’s degree in Jewish studies and then complete a four-year program. A shorter course of study was offered to train officiants for life cycle and other ceremonies.
Rabbi Tamara Kolton, who attended the Birmingham Temple as a child, was the first Humanistic rabbi ordained. Since then, 15 individuals have been ordained and six people are enrolled in the Humanistic rabbinic program, currently including individuals from Reform, Conservative, Humanistic and Orthodox backgrounds, according to Rabbi Adam Chalom, dean of the International Institute for Humanistic Judaism for North America, based in Farmington Hills and Jerusalem.
Humanistic Jewish rabbis and officiants were among the first to marry interfaith couples, which was a divisive issue even for some Reform congregations at the time. Rabbi Miriam Jerris, Ph.D., the first executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, began officiating at weddings at the Birmingham Temple in 1985. The willingness of Humanistic Jewish clergy to marry interfaith couples, especially in the early years, “was a big draw. You don’t have to give up your identity,” she explained. Many of the interfaith couples married at the Birmingham Temple joined the congregation and raised their children there.
Rabbi David Nelson, rabbi emeritus at the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, remembers sharing wedding services with Wine. When a couple wanted a traditional Jewish wedding, but one person had a connection with Humanistic Judaism, Nelson would conduct the traditional ceremony and recite the Jewish blessings. Then Wine would speak to the couple about their marriage without references to God’s role.
“He was brilliant and a wonderful teacher although I don’t say he was right in some of his ideas. We had a wonderful dialogue during all of the years I was here,” Nelson says.
Rabbi Daniel Syme, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth El, remembers first hearing and being startled by Wine’s philosophy while attending a Reform Judaism conclave as a teenager. “It appeared that he had a staunch group of followers who had found a certain spiritual home,” he says.
Humanistic congregations were early supporters of inclusivity — welcoming members with diverse gender and sexual identities. There is a strong focus on social justice or social action. The Birmingham Temple has established itself as a sanctuary for immigrants and helps a family of Syrian refugees living in the Detroit area.
Along with the appeal of Humanistic Judaism concepts to some Jews, founder Wine’s brilliance and charisma were major factors in its growth. “He trained us,” Jerris says. After Wine’s death in a car crash in 2007, there was great concern about who would replace him. Chalom, one of the first ordained Humanistic rabbis, responded, “None of us and all of us.”
Wine’s teachings and publications continue to be a foundation for Humanistic Judaism and the book A Life of Courage — Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism, was given to conference attendees.
The Future of the Movement
Similar to other streams of Judaism, Humanistic Judaism has been challenged in recent years to attract and retain participants and members. According to Golin, about 2,500 families were part of the Humanistic Judaism movement in 2000, but that number is now about 1,900. However, new groups of Humanistic Jews continue to meet and organize in several states.
Most branches of Judaism as well as other religions in the U.S. are facing similar affiliation challenges due in part to changing ideas about religion and congregational affiliations, especially among younger people, according to the Pew Research Center. A panel of millennial Humanistic Jewish leaders at the conference reaffirmed the value and appeal of Humanistic Judaism for recognizing “human power and potential” and that there are “multiple ways of being Jewish.” They expressed a need for religious literacy — familiarity with Jewish traditions and symbols — and supported Humanistic Judaism’s affirmation of all families and couples, whether intermarried or gay, and its commitment to social issues.
According to a national Pew Center survey in 2013, six of 10 American Jews said that being Jewish was mainly a matter of culture or ancestry, compared to 15 percent who said it was mainly religion. Also, Jews are less likely to believe in God than other Americans. Two-thirds of the Jews surveyed said a person can be Jewish without believing in God.
Some aspects of Humanistic Judaism, once controversial, are more acceptable, even mainstream today. Humanistic Judaism continues to explore new forms of Jewish education and observance.
“Humanistic Judaism is bigger than a congregational denomination. The congregational model is not working for the next generation as much,” Falick says.
Rabbi Greg Epstein, Humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT, who gave the keynote address at the recent conference, expressed confidence about Humanistic Judaism’s future.
However, he stressed the need for education of teachers and mentors who can articulate what it means to be Jewish culturally and by heritage.
“We need to adopt a more flexible view — probably less congregational — more like a movement or cause. There is very little sense that the congregational model is answering people with ways to connect with one another,” he says.
At the conference, it was announced that a grant will be used for market research to explore better ways to explain and build awareness of Humanistic Judaism.
Also at the conference, Golin said, “Denominations that are growing have a clear mission. The mission of Humanistic Judaism is to improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. We need to open this up to everyone who might benefit from it with no barriers to participation.”