Humanistic Judaism reimagines what it means to be Jewish and human, believing that Judaism must adjust to the needs and beliefs of each generation.
A worldwide Jewish movement started right in Metro Detroit about 60 years ago.
The Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit was founded as the Birmingham Temple in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine (1928-2007) and eight families seeking to establish a new temple in suburban Detroit. Under Rabbi Wine’s vision and leadership, members began to explore new ways to express their Judaism that were more consistent with their beliefs. Their conversations, debates and organizational efforts gave birth to a new understanding of Jewish identity informed by a universal Humanistic value system. They called it Humanistic Judaism and it launched a worldwide movement.
Humanistic Judaism is a modern fusion of Jewish cultural identity with an adherence to the principles of Secular Humanism, which embraces human reason, ethics, social justice and philosophical naturalism as the basis of morality and decision making.
Humanistic Judaism reimagines what it means to be Jewish and human, believing that Judaism must adjust to the needs and beliefs of each generation. As secular Jews who don’t believe in the God of Jewish tradition, they celebrate Jewish identity and Jewish heritage while placing their focus on human needs and universalist values.
Secular Humanistic Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick, who was appointed to lead CHJ in July 2013, says Rabbi Wine was a man who had a radical idea of what Judaism should be, “one that is interestingly embraced unofficially by more and more people.”
“Rabbi Wine and the congregation he founded here began to experiment with different ways to ‘do ritual’, different ways to ‘do Jewish’ that put the focus on human beings rather than on upward and outward prayer,” Falick said. “He became the founder of a small but incredibly dedicated movement. And we never aspired to be big. We only aspire to be committed, and we still are. We have a few dozen congregations around the country, along with a movement in Israel that’s actually quite active and gets a lot of press attention.”
Today, CHJ continues to celebrate Jewish culture and tradition with Shabbat and holiday services, Jewish education for all ages, life cycle ceremonies and engagement with Israel and the Jewish world. The temple offers a warm, inclusive community of people who are committed to exploring Humanistic values in all areas.
Originally a member of the Reform movement, Falick became involved in Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2009 after a lifetime of searching and questioning. Falick describes CHJ’s services as different from other places.
“They’re shorter, they’re in English, but we do sing Hebrew songs. Sometimes we adjust the words to famous songs,” he said.
CHJ consists of 180 membership units/households and offers a voluntary, pay-what-you-can dues structure.
CHJ’s youth education — the Spinoza Program — is named for a famous Jewish philosopher and skeptic, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. While providing an array of Jewish music, customs, holidays, stories, Hebrew and history, the Spinoza Program encourages its children to engage in independent thinking and decide for themselves what being Jewish means to them. The program is tuition-free, fully included with membership.
“To name something after Spinoza is to communicate to our parents and children that nothing is beyond questioning,” Falick said. “We want them to embrace their Jewish tradition, but we don’t want them to walk away with the idea that these rituals are more important than the lessons behind them.”
CHJ’s B’Mitzvah program is unique. Rather than learning a passage of Torah by heart, students choose their own topic and incorporate a relevant Hebrew passage all in the context of a modern Shabbat celebration. Students work closely with the rabbi to develop a presentation about their topic while simultaneously highlighting their own personal interests and beliefs.
CHJ’s adult programming and education includes social and leisure time activities, discussion groups about film and television, classes that explore Judaism and other topics with the rabbi and other scholars, and cultural offerings throughout the year.
Prioritizing inclusion and social justice work is fundamental to the congregation. Over the years, CHJ has been actively involved in working on anti-racism, environmental justice, gender equity, gun reform, immigrant rights, LGBTQ+ equality, reproductive rights, voting access, separation of church and state, and more.
“I think we have a place for people who want to say what they mean and mean what they say, and we provide a Jewish experience that does that,” said CHJ board president Ned Greenberg.
“We have a message that’s very compelling in today’s world for people who really want to promote the dignity and freedom of every human being.”
To learn more about the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit, visit www.chj-detroit.org.
Watch “Ask the Rabbi” with Rabbi Jeffrey Falick