In some ways, Sherwin Wine’s life experience demonstrated the need for and importance of his philosophy of life and Judaism. In A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism, a celebratory volume published for Wine’s semi-retirement in 2003, two short biographies were written. This one, by his long-time collaborator, organizer and implementer Marilyn Rowens, sets the context for his life and work.
Biography – Marilyn Rowens from Life of Courage
Each of us tastes the bitter loneliness of the human condition. To be an individual is to stand apart and sense the separation that makes every person unique. In a soul where instinct has yielded to the challenge of free choice, decision is personal. Neither the tyranny of the species nor the oppression of society can dictate our will without our moment of consent. Birds and flowers conform to their race and offer no resistance. But human beings are plagued by the unpredictable freedom of our conscious mind. Each of us is distinct and different, defined by the path of our behavior. Within the limits of our possibility we can become what we will to become. Within the boundaries of our talents we can achieve what we choose to achieve. The open possibility of our future is a frightening excitement. We can withdraw in fear and seek to hide from its reality; or we can boldly assume its challenge and bravely confront destiny with the courage of free individuals. -Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism
When Rabbi Sherwin Wine spoke those words during a Birmingham Temple service in 1976, he was already on a historic journey toward creating a new worldwide religion. Meditation Services was in its third printing in 1976 and the building of the Birmingham Temple, completed five years earlier in Farmington Hills, Michigan, was home to more than 400 families.
A people-centered Judaism—a Judaism that embraced Jewish culture, that was a beautiful marriage between Jewish historical literature and modern Jewish thinkers of the Enlightenment—had become a bold adventure for the young rabbi who had been born, in 1928, into a world of tradition in a vibrant Jewish neighborhood in Detroit.
Humanistic Judaism was created by Rabbi Sherwin Wine at the Birmingham Temple, and from that foundation, from that special place, grew and blossomed an awe-inspiring approach to Jewish life that embraced the reality of the human condition and valued and loved the umbilical connection to the Jewish people. In the forty years from 1963—when Rabbi Wine and several families established a new kind of Judaism in Detroit—to 2003, Secular Humanistic Judaism has become a worldwide movement.
A CHILDHOOD IN JEWISH DETROIT
What was it like for a young boy growing up in the late 1930s in the Detroit neighborhood near Clairmount and 12th Streets? That intersection represented the heart of Yiddish language and culture: the Jewish bakery, the Jewish butcher shop, the delicatessen, and other small-business storefronts were the centers for conversation. Customers and visitors could listen to political arguments, hear stories from the “old country,” and learn about socialism, communism, and Zionism, while at the same time absorbing how to become fully Americanized and assimilated into a secular urban world. One summer during that period, Sherwin spent a week at a fresh-air camp sponsored by the Jewish Community Center. His counselors would remember a handsome young boy with thick black hair and bright dark eyes, always curious, reading in his cabin. Already at nine he had memorized all the European monarchs and knew the population of every major city in the United States. At home he listened to the radio. He heard Hitler’s speeches; his hero was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Without question, Jewish culture, political history, and American society were major influences on his emerging worldview.
Sherwin was growing up in a world of Jewish religious orientation, but he was also surrounded by many other philosophical influences. Radical Reform Judaism, brought to the United States by German immigrants, was going through a transition. The Ethical Culture movement was burgeoning. The Eastern European neighbors who argued on the street corners came from backgrounds of socialism and Yiddish nationalism, and they took full advantage of the freedom of expression in America. World-famous rabbi and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan was constructing Reconstructionism and progressive American educator John Dewey was becoming the priest of public education, while the young Sherwin Wine sat in the synagogue.
Walking hand in hand with their father, Sherwin and his sister Lorraine went to Shaarey Zedek, a conservative congregation on Chicago Boulevard, every Saturday. Sitting in shul, Sherwin listened to the words of the Torah, sang the songs of his people, and internalized Judaism. He was mesmerized by the new young assistant rabbi, Morris Adler. With his tremendous oratorical presence, Rabbi Adler had the power and charisma to reach the heart of a young Jewish boy. But the questions emanating from that boy’s mind could not be contained. Why? Why? William Wine, Sherwin’s father, answered, Freg nit—don’t ask.
Sherwin’s parents came to the United States from Poland. They came to the goldene medina, the country where the streets were paved with gold. They came to escape the tyranny of the Russian army and the onset of World War I. They came to a new land to live a life of freedom not unlike the many thou-sands of immigrants that peopled the Jewish neighborhoods in cities across the United States. Growing up, Sherwin fervently absorbed the many flavors of American life—political thought, religious belief, modern culture—he was exposed to in his neighborhood. Detroit, home of the auto factories, also held for Sherwin the wonder and enlightenment of the public school system, as well as the pain of antisemitism as epitomized by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A curious nine-year-old started his life’s journey early: even at that young age, Sherwin was a keen observer of his neighborhood, his city, his world.
Each of us is the total of his yesterdays. Layers of experience rise in bold succession to build the personal present out of past performance. While the trauma of life shakes our soul and makes it quiver with each repetition, the heavy hands of strong events mold our minds to their conviction. For we can never escape our memories nor elude the imprints of daily experience. The power of our nostalgia always compromises the purity of our desire and the freedom of our decision. – Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism
The American public school system was a gift to the first- and second-generation immigrant. The open doors of the public schools proclaimed, Come in to us and become an American. Sherwin Wine loved school. He learned civics, citizenship, and American history. He grew up with Jewish ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but he adopted with a passion Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. His Gentile spinster teachers became heroes to Sherwin, and they encouraged him to find intellectual challenges in debate, theater, and poetry. He was a brilliant student both at school and at home. At home he immersed himself in the written word: daily newspapers, library books, textbooks, and encyclopedias. The radio gave him current history. He was aware of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Churchill later became a role model in courage for him, at least in part because, through efforts to provide temporary refuge to Jewish children from Germany and Poland, England became one of the only countries helping the Jews. Even before his bar mitsva, Sherwin was advocating and debating the importance of the United States entering the war.
AN ACADEMIC QUEST
Sherwin’s ties to the Jewish people, his roots in that community, always informed his thinking. Although his parents were often silent on subjects he quizzed them about, they shared with him their experiences in the Polish shtetl and the worry of his grandfather that the “Jews would be wiped out.” He was fascinated by current events and by what preceded them, and it was only natural that in high school he excelled in history. Central High School, filled as it was in those years with second-generation Jewish immigrants, was a hotbed of ambition and intellectual striving. These children of immigrants were held to the expectation that they would succeed academically: they lived in the United States, the free world, and they had access to universities and career opportunities never even dreamed of by their parents. The adolescents in the old Jewish neighborhood who hung out at the Avalon Theater and Zukins Ice Cream Shop went on to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, and teachers.
Sherwin’s successful high school years were not without the pain of World War II. The death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was embedded in his memory. He was still very devoted to his religious connections, but even with his father’s continued admonishment, freg nit, he did ask, he did question, he did struggle with major philosophical issues, with ethical and moral choices, with who he was and who he wanted to be. It was later, at the University of Michigan, that he put a name to this questioning and discovered his great love for philosophy.
To live courageously is to live without guarantees, to make decisions without waiting for every fact, to take action without knowing all the consequences. Brave people do not need the illusions of absolute certainty. They will think before acting. But they will never think so much and so long that it is too late to act.
Courage is the refusal to wait for what will never come. It is the willingness to choose when it is time to choose. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration
Sherwin had excellent professors at the University of Michigan, and for a time he considered getting his doctorate in philosophy and staying in the academic world. But his interests went beyond philosophy; he had also discovered in himself a very strong quality of leadership, which he had exhibited in so many ways throughout his high school and college years: helping and advising friends, negotiating problems in the college dorm, discussing with sensitivity and insight people’s innermost problems. Sociology and psychology were favorite paths for many of his university peers who felt as he did a need to reach out to the world, to help make it better—the Jewish philosophy of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Sherwin’s early memories of Rabbi Morris Adler were never far from his consciousness. Adler’s charisma, power, and influence over a large congregation stirred Sherwin’s questioning mind. Could he also become a rabbi? He had already discovered that he was a humanist, that his connection to his ancestors was unyielding but cultural. He made a decision to attend Hebrew Union College, a seminary for Reform Judaism. Perhaps within the Reform movement he could blend his personal philosophy with a modern Judaism.
A RABBINIC PATH
Jewish history is four thousand years of Jewish experience. It is the sum total of all the pleasure and pain, triumphs and defeats, fulfilled dreams and disappointments which have entered into our memories through centuries of struggle and striving.
The Jewish experience is the experience of change. – Sherwin Wine, Celebration
The decision to attend Hebrew Union College came only after serious deliberation. How could he become a rabbi if he did not believe in God? He considered many careers, thinking perhaps law would be a wise choice. After his father’s death in 1948, he reaffirmed his deep connection to his Jewish roots. His loyalty to his father’s Judaism, his own love of history, and the memorable impact of Rabbi Morris Adler as a community leader and a role model led him to a career in the Jewish rabbinate.
In 1951 Sherwin entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, leaving his familiar neighborhood in Detroit. By this time, the postwar building boom had begun. Families were moving farther from the core of the city. Folksinger Pete Seeger sang about “little boxes in the ticky tacky” suburbs. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote about the phenomenon of the American nuclear family, predicting that it would be short-lived. The nuclear family, made up of a husband, wife, and 2.5 children, peopled all these grassy new neighborhoods. Attending temple or synagogue was socially encouraged, and all the moms and daughters wore their white gloves and hats. The times were definitely traditional and conformist, but Sherwin was a devout humanist studying at a Reform seminary.
A JEWISH CHAPLAIN IN KOREA
Sherwin was at the seminary when another war, the Korean War, began. Hebrew Union encouraged its graduates to serve in the army as chaplains even after the war ended. Sherwin was inducted into the army six months after graduation. In January 1957, at the age of twenty-nine, Rabbi Wine became First Lieutenant Sherwin Wine. At that point, his world travels began, and they have never ceased.
If Jewish history has any message, it is the demand of human self-reliance. In an indifferent universe there is no help from des-tiny. Either we assume responsibility for our fate or no one will. A world without divine guarantees and divine justice is a little bit frightening. But it is also the source of human freedom and dignity. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration
When Sherwin joined the military, the Korean War had been over for several years, but numerous U.S. troops were still stationed there in the wake of the armistice. Young Jewish boys away from home welcomed the arrival of a chaplain from a background similar to their own. First Lieutenant Wine, himself new to a very different culture, became a popular Jewish chaplain.
Korea opened Sherwin’s mind and heart in so many ways. Serving as chaplain to the young Jewish soldiers reinforced his unique and changing approach to Judaism. Prayer and meditation were not high on the GIs’ list of needs. What they welcomed and appreciated in their young Jewish chap-lain was his ability to speak directly to their concerns, to listen to their voices, and to appreciate who they were as individuals. His meetings with them—he searched out many GIs in remote areas—were special times for sharing personal issues. He also set up lectures on topics of interest to them, providing intellectual stimulus and a time to share the comfort of their Jewish memories. Their Friday night services were more cultural than religious. Sherwin’s distinct leadership style and easy rapport with the troops reached out to the inner needs of these Jewish boys living in a strange land. He enjoyed representing Judaism and trying to make it relevant and meaningful to those soldiers overseas. He was able to provide the young soldiers with a connection to their deepest Jewish roots as well as helping them navigate the uncertainties of the human condition posed by the postwar world they were guarding. Most of all, he shared laughter with them. Sherwin’s exceptional sense of humor, expressed not by telling jokes or stories but by listening and laughing with the troops, gave those young men a sense of home and family.
Sherwin’s experience as a Jewish chaplain provided the seeds that would one day blossom into a humanistic rabbinate. For Sherwin, Korea was his initiation to the many worlds and cultures he had read about in books and to which he would travel continuously over the next forty years.
We will not run away from wisdom even though it comes from strange lands and strange people. Our bravery is our dignity. It feeds our strength. If old laws no longer fit, we will revise them. If old postures keep us from moving gracefully, we will find a new way to walk. A free world makes tradition only one of many options. There is more to life than imitation. Our ancestors created. So can we. -Sherwin Wine, High Holidays for Humanists
THE BIRTH OF THE BIRMINGHAM TEMPLE
When his time in the military ended, Rabbi Wine packed away his army uniform and returned to a position as assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El, located at Woodward and Gladstone in Detroit. He enjoyed the opportunity of sharing a large congregation and introducing interesting programs. His sermons, his sense of humor, and his storytelling for children captivated many young families. But the traditional liturgy became increasingly uncomfortable for him. After eighteen months, Sherwin resigned and took a pulpit in Windsor, Ontario, with a new congregation, also called Beth El, which held the promise of developing a more modern Judaism. The Windsor congregation grew under his tutelage. But then he received a call from former Beth El congregants in Detroit, a couple who were disenchanted with Beth El and wanted to meet with him to discuss creating a new suburban-Detroit temple.
Jews in 1963 were moving north of Detroit. Young couples had settled in Oak Park, Huntington Woods, Franklin, Farmington Hills, and Birmingham. When Harry and Suzanne Velick and seven other couples met with Rabbi Wine in 1963, not even Sherwin realized what the future held for them. Eight couples and a rabbi decided to create a new Reform temple. Sherwin met with the core group on Sunday nights, planning the beginning. New people were attracted to the idea, and their numbers grew. On Sunday, September 15, 1963 (Sunday instead of Friday because Sherwin was still committed to the temple in Windsor), a first service was held, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
It was not until a few months later that the real process of change began. A temple was created, a board of directors was established, and the Ritual Committee, chaired by Rabbi Wine, began to explore what these new members really believed. Meetings were held on Sunday nights throughout the metropolitan Detroit community. More and more people became aware of Rabbi Wine and this new temple. Space was rented in the Birmingham Masonic Temple. Sherwin owned a small Torah that was carried back and forth. And during this initial growth period, the discussions of philosophy, Judaism, and the meaning of God continued after each meeting and after each service until the early hours of the morning.
Was God the ideal in mankind? Was God the angry God of the prophets? Was God the salvation God of the rabbis? Was God the limited God of John Dewey and Mordecai Kaplan? Was God just another name for nature?
Judaism must be affirmed as a cultural and aesthetic framework in which a variety of philosophic outlooks are possible. Both mystic theism and empirical humanism should feel equally at home. Jewish custom and ceremony are an adjustable poetry, capable of embracing a wide spectrum of human values and experiences. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration
The congregation named itself the Birmingham Temple because the group often met in Birmingham and some members lived there. Rabbi Wine and the Ritual Committee established that the Birmingham Temple believed in Humanistic Judaism, a Judaism that was people-centered rather than God-centered; a Judaism that affirmed that moral and ethical problems were solved from within each individual, not with the assistance of a supernatural force; a Judaism that believed in the strength of ordinary Jewish people to survive a history of persecution.
A line was drawn in the sand between Reform and Humanistic Judaism. The new Humanistic Jewish community wanted to write their own meditations, using words they did not have to reinterpret, words that reflected what they believed. It was an act of courage for Rabbi Wine and the members of his new congregation to make the decision to exclude God-language from their liturgy.
THE GROWTH OF HUMANISTIC JUDAISM
People give meaning to the universe. If we call to the stars and say “tell us the purpose of life,” the stars are silent. If we caress the earth and ask, “what shall we do,” the earth gives no reply. If we pursue the wind and plead, “let us know the path we must follow,” the wind has no answer…. People give meaning to the universe. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration
Almost immediately, the Jewish com-munity was up in arms. On January 29, 1965, Time magazine wrote about the “atheist rabbi.” Letters of criticism came in from the local community. Letters of support arrived too, not only from the United States but also from around the world. For the most part, however, the local response was one of ostracism. Reform Rabbi Leon Fram wanted Sherwin excommunicated. Some of the Birmingham Temple members left because of hostility from their friends and family, but many others stayed. Sherwin Wine’s response was one of defiance.
He was and is a man of strong opinions, and this kind of confrontation energized him. He was determined to grow his community in spite of local Jewish condemnation. Like a locomotive, he forged forward. Some people on the tracks jumped off, but those who became passengers remained for the journey of a lifetime. Sherwin’s keen sense of humor was an effective tool not only for him personally, but also for the congregation to use in dealing with disapproval from others.
Jewish humor is the legacy of the Jewish experience. It did not arise from the Bible or the Talmud. It did not come down from priests, prophets and rabbis. It did not emerge from famous texts and famous writers. Jewish humor is the response of ordinary Jewish people to the extraordinary horrors of Jewish history. In the face of an uncaring and unjust world, we Jews learned to laugh rather than to surrender and die. – Sherwin Wine, Celebration
The Birmingham Temple expanded successfully over the next several years. Enrollment in the Sunday school grew to more than 175 children. Sherwin left Beth El in Windsor, and Birmingham Temple services were held on Friday nights. The first edition of Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism was compiled and published.
In spite of the qualms expressed by tradition-minded Jews, the religious climate in the Detroit metropolitan area was ripe for change. Who were the young people joining the temple? They were second- and third-generation Jews who had benefited from the opportunities of a university education and choice of profession. They were children during World War II and young adults in the 1960s, a time when all authority was questioned. A time of mobility, with people moving from city to city. A time of student rebellion, riots, assassinations. A time to protest the Vietnam War. A time to march for civil rights.
These young parents wanted a new Judaism for their children. They wanted honesty and the values they had absorbed in the secular urban environment in which they lived. They wanted a community of like-minded people who would be their friends and extended family. And so the temple grew to more than 400 families, and the loyal supporters helped to create materials, committees, and the new philosophy of Humanistic Judaism.
Sherwin Wine’s sister Lorraine and her husband Ben were loyal supporters from the beginning. Ben and Lorraine Pivnick supported Rabbi Wine emotionally, financially, and even physically, by always being there. They would continue to remain an important part of the Birmingham Temple and the development of the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement.
The congregation, having been expelled from the Masonic Temple building, had to find a new place to meet, and for a time, the meeting site rotated among several different places: the Birmingham Unitarian Church, Eagle Elementary School, High Meadow School, Frost Junior High. Sherwin’s mother, Tillie Wine, referred to members as “gypsies,” and the idea of a “home of their own” became an important part of Sherwin’s vision. In September 1971, services were held in the new building at 28611 West 12 Mile Road, in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
Jewishness is more than a conventional nod to old belief; it is the push of the past and the irresistible attraction of romantic roots. Samson and Samuel, Joshua and Joab may be dim figures of vanished years; but they are also firm links to the chain of our personality. The biography of each of us is not confined to the brief events of our own life; it transcends our time and adds the feel of former years. Since tradition is part of our uniqueness it deserves our wise respect. If it plays the taskmaster and beats us with the whip of conformity, then we shall with justice resist its malice; but if it acts the teacher and guides us gently to wisdom, we shall embrace it with the tribute of consent. – Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism
During the early 1970s, a volunteer support group of women contributed tremendously to the rapid growth of the Birmingham Temple. This era was a transitional time in American history concerning the roles of women. The feminist movement was not yet widespread; Betty Freidan was not yet being read in every suburban kitchen. But the women members of the Birmingham Temple became Sunday school teachers, committee chairs, board members, and a dynamic source of creative energy for the development of Humanistic Judaism. Friendships were created, and the temple family grew.
Rabbi Wine’s lectures and constant encouragement provided the environment in which the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism flourished. Humanistic Judaism was not created in a vacuum. Jewish history is the history of change. The secularization of America, the influence of the Enlightenment, the impact of Zionism, the questioning of Jewish tradition after World War II and the Holocaust: all led to a need in the Jewish world for a Jewish identity that could blend with a personal philosophy of life. The early years of the temple had less to do with pulling away from God than with pulling together to form a community of “believers” in a humanistic and rational approach to life. The members were a generation of searchers. They had had the opportunity of education and living in a free society. They wanted their children to soar; they wanted to give them wings at a time when having wings meant flying away from tradition toward a universal world of wonder, science, and beauty. Rabbi Wine created meditations, poetry, and ritual to express congregants’ deepest human struggles and their attachment to the traditional Jewish world of their youth.
A NATIONAL—AND INTERNATIONAL—MOVEMENT
Rabbi Wine was called upon to lecture all across the country. Responses to his lectures and press coverage resulted in national interest and support. The next step for the ambitious rabbi was outreach to the general community. Coalitions were formed with other secular Jews, unaffiliated Jews who were not connected to organizations but were motivated to proclaim their Jewish identity with pride. A sense of solidarity with Israel increased for many Jews following the Yom Kippur War, creating a powerful urge to establish a stronger Jewish identity. In its initial years, the Society for Humanistic Judaism—created in 1969 to mobilize communities to celebrate Jewish identity and Jewish culture with a humanistic philosophy—began the serious work of outreach and community-building in other cities.
Sherwin also connected with other like-minded humanist organizations. It was the beginning of the real growth of coalitions of secular groups that had previously operated independently. A list of “alphabet soup” organizations, which have become Sherwin’s trademark, began to appear so rapidly that it was hard to define which meeting was being called to order. Rabbi Wine’s energy level could easily handle the multitude of meetings. His organizational skills were unparalleled. A first “Conference on Humanism” held at Oakland University in Michigan attracted stellar speakers and numerous participants. It was an exciting time for members of the temple and for so many unaffiliated humanists to come together and discuss and question: What is authentic in life, what is authentic in the human being? This first conference was not only the beginning of a strong philosophy of Humanistic Judaism, but also the nucleus for future connections with the larger world of humanism. Sherwin had the great talent of bringing people together. The list of organizations grew and grew:
- Birmingham Temple (BT)
- Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ)
- Association of Humanistic Rabbis (AHR)
- Center for New Thinking (CNT)
- Humanist Institute (HI)
- North American Committee for Humanism (NACH)
- International Association of Humanist Educators Counselors and
- TECHILA (formerly Israeli Society for Humanistic Judaism)
- Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews (LCSHJ)
- International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews (IFSHJ)
- International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ)
- Voice of Reason (VOR)
- Conference on Liberal Religion (CLR)
- Clergy and Citizens United (CCU)
All of the above organizations began with the very close supervision of Rabbi Wine; as they grew, they became more autonomous but never far from his influence. Simultaneously the Birmingham Temple expanded and became an established and accepted alternative in the Detroit Jewish community.
The literature of our people is an encyclopedia of many ideas. Some of them sprang from Jewish minds. Some of them were borrowed from the neighbors of our ancestors and the loan forgotten. Our religious tradition has been a matter of give and take.… We are the products of universal wisdom. – Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism
Only part of Sherwin’s inexhaustible energy has gone into creating organizations and establishing communities. He is also a prolific writer. His articles appear monthly in the Birmingham Temple newsletter, The Jewish Humanist; quarterly in the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s journal, Humanistic Judaism; and twice a year in the International Federation Newsletter, Hofesh. He is the author of several books, including Celebration, Judaism Beyond God, Humanistic Judaism, and Staying Sane in a Crazy World. He lectures at least three or four times a week locally, he travels across the country to teach seminars several times a year, and he is the core faculty for training rabbis at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
Those who have heard him speak know that Sherwin has a unique lecture style. He is able to present and teach the most difficult subject, somehow making it easy for his audience to understand. He is able to synthesize information and explain ideas in a dramatic and powerful way. This talent has enabled him to stimulate people to cooperate with each other in visionary endeavors, and he empowers others to act on their own to create philosophical connections, com-munities, and organizations. And this is only his public persona. As a counselor and a friend, he has a special gift. He is able to touch people deeply; he knows which questions to ask and he is an intent listener. He can walk into a room and light it up. His incredible sense of humor generates laughter, but, more important, he possesses the ability to sweep away melancholy.
Sherwin Wine, however, is not a saint. He is often a taskmaster with an exceedingly rigid set of standards for himself and others. He has no patience with wishy-washy endless discussion. He is a man of action who is more than willing to make a decision first and consult later. For forty years, this style has served him well; this style has enabled his visions to become realities. He is a natural leader: to paraphrase the old commercial, When Sherwin speaks, people listen. His congenial arrogance is sometimes abrasive, but it is also a key ingredient in many of his relationships. His peers, his congregants, the couples he counsels and marries, the boards of organizations he has created all give consideration to his ideas and suggestions and decisions he may have already made.
Sherwin’s daily agenda and schedule would be tiring even if divided among three people. Sleep does not seem to be a priority. Weather permitting, Sherwin walks every morning; when he’s in New York, he walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. He lectures, attends meetings, and is a sought-after speaker for community groups, clubs, elder hostels, retreats, and college campuses. He may not be totally tireless—occasionally he is caught napping when someone else is the speaker or while sitting in a dark theater during an opera. But when he is speaking in front of an audience, listening intently to others’ problems, or helping to solve a critical situation, he is 100 percent involved: supportive, helpful, and inspiring. He believes that “people are their behavior,” and he is the prime example of that concept: he is an optimistic friend, a rational counselor, a stimulating and affective teacher, and a loyal shoulder to lean on. Living life well is his daily challenge.
We are the survivors of two billion years of vital evolution. We are not miniature gods. We are not manufactured puppets. We are not visitors from outer space. We are the proud culmination of an epic of struggle. The earth is our home. We know it intimately. Its plants and animals are our cousins. Like them we have tested the kindness and cruelty of nature. Our brutal setting has made us strong. We have many talents for survival. Our brains, our limbs and our senses cooperate to make us a hardy fighter for life. We are not the heirs of the passive and the resigned. We are the children of action. We are the offspring of the will to live. – Sherwin Wine, High Holidays for Humanists
Over a period of forty years, contacts, friendships, and outreach efforts contributed to the process of creating the movement for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Not long after the Society for Humanistic Judaism was established, three groups—representatives from the Humanistic Jewish congregations in Westport, Connecticut, and Deerfield, Illinois, as well as from the Birmingham Temple—held a first meeting at the Northland Inn in Michigan. The society now boasts more than thirty-nine communities in North America. In 1981 a meeting was held in Israel at Shefayim kibbutz. It was the beginning of cooperation between Israel and the society. The early years of the society with Sherwin directing traffic resulted in many more conferences, the creation of Humanistic Judaism, the quarterly journal published by the society, and strong emotional connections between each developing community.
In 1982 Sherwin called a meeting of other Jewish secular organizations as well as the Society for Humanistic Judaism: the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Polizion, Workmen’s Circle, the Labor Zionists of America, and Americans for Progressive Israel. That was the beginning of the Leader ship Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews, which marked the first time that so many separate secular groups sat together in one room to proclaim solidarity and to cooperate to create a publication of secular humanistic writing.
In 1985, at a meeting in Jerusalem at the American Colony Hotel, representatives from North America, Israel, and Latin America established the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. It had become apparent that in order for Secular Humanistic Judaism to have a future and be able to maintain members in a democratic and secular world, leaders would have to be trained. The institute became the educational arm of what was then the beginning of an international movement.
In 1986 representatives from eleven countries came together at the Birmingham Temple, and the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was born. More than 350 people—local, national and international— gathered for the federation’s first leadership training seminar and conference. Speakers from France, Latin America, Israel, and North America, whose backgrounds were flavored by the Enlightenment, postwar secularism, Zion-ism, and the Holocaust, spoke from the heart about a shared philosophy: a Judaism of the twentieth century that embraced the culture, history, roots, and essence of the Jewish people; a Judaism that did not rely on a belief in the supernatural but on reason and the responsibility of human beings to create for themselves and others a life of good deeds and a better world.
The Jewish experience is the experience of change.
The power of people is the power of change. Circumstances never stay the same. Culture never stays the same. Judaism was created by Jewish people. It was molded by the Jewish experience. It was flavored by Jewish sadness and Jewish joy.
Holidays are responses to human events. Ceremonies are celebrations of human development. Music and literature are the expressions of human needs. Life is an evolution, a continuous flow of transformation. And so is culture. When circumstances change, people change. When people change, their laws and customs change. – Sherwin Wine, Celebration
Sherwin Wine is a man of social action. All of the organizations Rabbi Wine created had a focus and purpose. In addition to maintaining coalitions with the humanist world and the secular Jewish cultural world, he also encouraged confrontation in response to injustice and fundamentalist irrationality. A firm believer in separation of church and state, civil rights, individual rights, and personal freedom, Sherwin developed such social action organizations as the Voice of Reason, the Conference on Liberal Religion, and later, Clergy and Citizens United. His ability to recruit outstanding allies and specialists in their fields enabled these organizations to make an impact in the community. His motivation to fix the world had its roots in the traditional Jewish influence of tikkun olam.
The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were full of the excitement of the growth of Secular Humanistic Judaism. North American conferences were held, and meetings of the International Federation took place in Brussels, Chicago, Israel, Moscow, Paris, and New York, where, in the fall of 2000, a permanent office of the federation was established.
A PASSION FOR TRAVEL
Rabbi Wine has devoted his life not only to making Humanistic Judaism a viable alternative in the Jewish world, but also to lecturing, teaching, and enriching others. All of the federation conferences have included a lecture series and a personal tour with him through each city. His incredible historical knowledge, his love of travel, and his need to learn about other cultures and people has provided him with yet another trademark: The Sherwin Wine Trip. A yearly fundraiser for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism—open to the general public—the Sherwin Wine Trip is the equivalent of a traveling history class and a participatory documentary.
Does Sherwin ever stop? This question has been asked many times by all those who work with him and love him. His energy is endless, his enthusiasm is genuine, and he always makes time to listen to his congregants, his friends, and his critics. But one month of the year belongs to him. Each summer Sherwin and his life partner of twenty-five years, Richard McMains, travel together. The trips have been logged from Turkey to Timbuktu, from India to Japan, from Egypt to Siberia. Sherwin and Richard have traveled the world together. Since his first taste of the wonders of travel during his military service in Korea, Rabbi Wine has absorbed the politics, the culture, the architecture, the history, the pain and struggle, and the heartbeat of people all over the world.
Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter—birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more “eternal” than the seasons. Their continual repetition is an ultimate “security.” – Sherwin Wine, Humanistic Judaism
THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR SECULAR HUMANISTIC JUDAISM
The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, established in 1985, became the important educational arm of the movement. The need for communities to have leaders—the key to ensuring a future for Secular Humanistic Judaism—was the motivation for the development of the Leadership Program, designed to train those leaders. New Humanistic communities needed specialists in ceremony and holiday celebration in order to grow.
Established secular groups wanted to make sure that they had educators, spokespersons, and trained leaders to keep secular Jewishness alive. Dedicated volunteers in the institute representing the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations worked diligently and created the Leadership Program, which became the most successful pro-gram of the institute. Rabbi Wine was the organizing force and energy that propelled the institute into the twenty-first century.
Again with the generous help of Ben and Lorraine Pivnick, and with matching funds from the Birmingham Temple, an addition to the temple was built to house the Pivnick Center for Humanistic Judaism. The Pivnick Center became the headquarters of the institute, hosting seminars and meetings and housing administration offices and the Milan Library.
Certified leaders, also known as vegvayzer or madrikhim, were trained and graduated from the institute. They then went out to their communities to reinforce and rekindle the flames of Secular Humanistic Judaism.
In 1990 the Institute initiated a five-year rabbinic program. Classes were held weekly in the institute’s Milan Library. Rabbi Wine was the core faculty. Arrangements were made with the University of Michigan to engage guest faculty members from its Judaic Studies department, and the rabbinic program began to take concrete shape.
By October 2001, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism had ordained four rabbis. By virtue of the acknowledgement and recognition from the United Jewish Communities, three of the rabbis serve on the Detroit Metropolitan Council of Rabbis, and the fourth will be recognized in Washington, D.C.
THE FUTURE FOR RABBI WINE AND FOR HUMANISTIC JUDAISM
The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews met for its ninth biennial conference in September 2002. An enthusiastic assembly from Israel, France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, Latin America, England, Germany, and North America (plus greetings from Russia and Australia)—all interested in building communities—indicated a promising future for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
Sherwin Wine is not the Wizard of Oz. He does not stand behind the curtain and pull levers. He has worked industriously to promote and make available to Jews all over the world a Judaism rooted in personal strength; a people-centered Judaism; a Judaism that embraces Jewish history and literature, culture and ethics; a Judaism that speaks to the needs of a cyberspace world and at the same time loves and recognizes with devoted attachment the wisdom and tradition of ancestors.
In the twentieth century, the true meaning of Jewish identity has been dramatized. It is no pious call to faith and humility. It is no saccharine invitation to prayer and worship. It is a summons to all that modern humanism stands for. If a people will not assume responsibility for its “fate” and its “destiny,” no one else will. If human beings will not take charge of their own happiness, the indifferent forces of the universe may arrange for human suffering. Reason and dignity are not built into the structure of the world. They are difficult human achievements. – Sherwin Wine, Judaism Beyond God
In May 2003 Rabbi Wine was honored with the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association, an organization that has joined with him in so many of the challenges and accomplishments of the last forty years. His enthusiastic unwavering voice for Judaism and humanism is cause for public appreciation and celebration.
The achievements of Sherwin Wine, summarized in the alphabet soup of organizations he founded, rely on who he is as a man, and as a human being. Sherwin never stopped being a philosophy major. He is a student of ethical behavior, an avid reader who maintains a constant passion for knowledge. The Birmingham Temple library is filled wall to wall with the books he has read and reviewed. His broad and deep knowledge is extraordinary. His lectures include spontaneous map drawings to help him clarify his topics. Rabbi Wine is a great teacher, in large measure because he loves to teach.
In his role as a rabbi, Sherwin meets the needs of his congregants in a very special way. During a hospital call he is able to soothe the family, inspire the patient, and often create a secure moment of healing laughter. Families rely on him to help them with the torturous decision of continuing or ending life support. His empathic presence at a house of mourning validates the family’s pain while enabling loved ones to join in a celebration of life. And Sherwin has the ability to empower people, to help them accept responsibility and find motivation to do things they never dreamed they could do. His lectures on themes of biblical history or new scientific theories, politics or psychology, poetry or current social issues have an exceptional way of touching and uplifting his audience.
This does sound like a lot for one person to do, but that’s what Sherwin Wine does. Upon his retirement from the Birmingham Temple, he plans to add a few more things to his agenda. To begin with, he will be the full-time dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He will increase his involvement with the congregations and com-munities that make up the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He will travel to off-campus sites to teach institute seminars as well as choreographing the Sherwin Wine Trips. He will maintain his important role in the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews. He will continue his walking tours, his lectures, his traveling, his writing, his reading, and his outreach to other people. As long as there are still letters in the alphabet, they will certainly appear in the names of new organizations envisioned and directed by Rabbi Wine.
Happiness is no distant event which we strive to achieve, some future bliss we suffer to enjoy. It is the sensitive awareness of what is intrinsically valuable in the here and now. It is the special plea-sure of helping others, the beauty of friendship, the thrill of running, the excitement of learning, the exaltation in simple striving.
Happiness is not, in reality, the goal of life at all. It is the feeling of aliveness that pervades the pursuit of challenge. – Sherwin Wine, Sabbath Services