The Birmingham Temple’s First Quarter-Century

Humanistic Judaism in the Next Generation – Autumn 1988

We are twenty-five years old.

This year — 1988 — is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebra­tion time.

Our temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning, we chose to publicly embrace an ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning, we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congrega­tions do not have to confront.

The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient subur­ban temple, nor that we were socially chic, nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.

In other congregations, the initial trau­mas have to do with finding a place for ser­vices, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and com­mitment. We had those problems too. But they were always less important than trans­lating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity?

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Tem­ple. And the answer that emerged still defines the reason for our existence.

We succeeded because we said certain things that had never clearly been said before in the North American Jewish community.

We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply be­cause they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incred­ible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection.

We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish state­ments were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ances­tors were no more authoritative than con­temporaries simply because they were an­cestors. The test of truth was not antiquity; it was reasonableness. The test of morality was not prophetic utterances; it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not the Bible and the Tal­mud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.

We said that there was no need to sepa­rate the secular and the religious. Congrega­tions, Shabbat meetings, and holiday cele­brations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitsvas and confirma­tions were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was, in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non- theistic, not nonreligious.

We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging and soli­darity is more likely to exist in a community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance.

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The greatest gift that we can give our chil­dren is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together, healthy religion begins.

We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consis­tency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right.

All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence.

The Birmingham Temple Will Be 30 Years Old

TJH January 1993, vol. XXIX, no. 6.

The Birmingham Temple will be 30 years old. 

 In August 1963 eight families and I took the plunge and organized a new temple in suburban Detroit. At the time we were unaware that, within one year, we would be espousing a new outlook on Jewish identity called Humanistic Judaism and that we would become the center of a growing religious controversy. 

Our beginnings were quite humble. There were services and the cafetorium of Eagle School. There was the office in the living room of Sue and Harry Velick. There were the late night meetings in the back room of Howard Johnson’s. There were the heated discussions in overcrowded family rooms which lasted until midnight. Even our first name, the Birmingham Temple Society, seemed transitional. (Where was the ubiquitous Beth or Bnai something or other?) 

 We tried hard to be normal.But we failed because the demands of personal integrity pushed us along a path we had not planned to follow. We were simply tired of old religious games. We were no longer prepared to say what we no longer believed. The struggle for honesty made us bolder day by day. We searched for a world that would do justice to the way we felt about life and being Jewish. Rational seemed too cold and limiting. Naturalistic seemed to abstract and philosophic. Secular sounded too negative and anti-religious. Humanistic won the day because it was “warm” and spoke to our hearts.  

The second year brought public attention to what we were doing.  Crowds of curious Jews filled the meeting hall of the Birmingham Masonic Temple to find out whether the rumors were true. Was it true that Sherwin Wine had announced that he was an atheist and that God have been abruptly fired?  On some Fridays there was standing room only. Even my mother had a hard time finding a seat. 

 One day in December 1964 the Detroit Free Press published a front-page article by Hiley Ward, its religion editor, which revealed that an ignostic rabbi I was leading an ignostic temple in the Detroit area.  The Jewish establishment was appalled. The Gentile world was puzzled. Even Time Magazine was intrigued enough to write about this “new” religion. 

By January 1965 people all over North America knew about us. Many of them wrote us letters. Some of them were filled with Jewish or Christian curses. Others were warm letters of support and congratulations. A few asked us how we could replicate ourselves in Chicago, Denver or Los Angeles? The glare of public scrutiny lasted for about two years. The attention and hostility was both exciting and exhausting. Some members left. But fresh troops always arrived to strengthen our community and to help us grow. 

 Along the way we discovered that we had begun a new movement, a movement with only one congregation. Yeah we were undaunted. We had confidence in our message and in our community. Missionaries found their way to Westport and Chicago. By 1970 we had established the Society for Humanistic Judaism. 

The first year gave us external enemies that reinforced our solidarity and loyalty. We would never give our opponents the satisfaction of expiring. We were determined to survive and succeed. We wrote services. We invented curricula. We sang and danced. We built a Temple home, horizontal enough to be humanistic and contemporary enough to be a symbol of what we believed in. 

 Are middle years were years of consolidation. We settled down to “normalcy”, fully aware that we had weathered ideological storm. We had not achieved respectability. But we were no longer pariahs. Our energies could now move from defensive strategies to more creative pursuits. We had so many more children to educate. We had so many more adults to inspire. 

 The ‘80’s arrived with new opportunities for outreach. An historic trip to Israel in 1981,  to a conference at the seaside kibbutz of Shefayim, led to the formation of the Israel Association of Secular Humanistic Judaism. In five years representatives from eight nations assembled at the Birmingham Temple to form a coalition and to make an international federation of Jewish humanists possible.  

 And, now, in our thirtieth year, the major program to guarantee the future of our temple and our movement has been initiated. Three students have enrolled in our new rabbinic program. If we will have Humanistic rabbis, we will have a Humanistic Jewish future. 

 I was 35 when the Temple began. I am now 65. What has taken place in the intervening years has convinced me that we play an important role in the Jewish world. We have refined a message that the Jewish needs to hear and that an increasing number of Jews are now prepared to receive. 

 We have taken a secular, humanistic and cultural Judaism and turned it into a living community with traditions of its own and bonds of friendship to make it strong. Ideas have turned into the flesh and blood of human connection. 

 There are many things that we have not done that we need to do. But there are many things that we have done that are uniquely significant. 

 We have every reason to celebrate.  

We Are Twenty-Five Years Old

TJH Jan. 1998, vol XXV, no 6.

We are twenty-five years old. 

 This year – 1968 –  is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebration time. 

 Our Temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning we chose to publicly  Embrace and ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congregations do not have to confront. 

 The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient suburban temple –  nor that we were socially chic –  nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.  

 In other congregations the initial traumas have to do with finding a place for services, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and commitment. We had these problems too. But they were always less important than translating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity? 

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Temple. And the answer that emerged –  even twenty-five years later –  later still defines the reason for our existence. 

 We succeeded because we said certain things that had never really been said before very clearly in the North American Jewish community. 

 We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply because they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incredible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection. 

 We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish statements were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ancestors were no more authoritative than contemporary simply because they were ancestors. The test of Truth was not antiquity;  it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not in the Bible and the Talmud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.  

We said that there was no need to separate the secular and the religious. Congregations, Shabbat meetings and holiday celebrations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitzvahs and confirmations were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non-theistic, not non-religious. 

 We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging in solidarity is more likely to exist in community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance. 

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what indeed we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The hypocrisy of well-intentioned parents was unnecessary. The greatest gift that we can give our children is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together than healthy religion begins. 

 We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consistency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right. 

 All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence. 

Sherwin Wine 

The Rabbi Writes: Shula is Coming

The Jewish Humanist, November 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 4

Shula is coming. 

Shula is the famous Shulamit Aloni, the fiery Shulamit Aloni, who transformed the politics of Israel. Founder of the Ratz party, she was the first champion of individual freedom and women’s rights in the Knesset arena. Her courageous voice rallied thousands of Israelis to push for separation of religion and government and to demand the civil liberties that we as Americans take for granted. 

When the Labor government under Yitshak Rabin took power in Israel four years ago, she was appointed Minister of Education. Her predecessors for fifteen years had been the tools of Ultra- Orthodox Rabbis and the “yeshiva” lobby, funneling millions of shekels into the hands of religious fanatics. Her attempt to reverse the process was met with fierce opposition. Her bold articulation of a secular vision for Israel was labeled ” blasphemous”. In the end, Rabin was forced by panicky Laborites to shift her to the less controversial Ministry of culture. Even members of her own party turned on her for her “indiscretions” island sought to find more timid leadership. But the nature of Shula is to speak honestly and never to be intimidated. 

With the arrival of Netanyahu, Shula became part of the opposition.  She understands that there are two urgent causes for those who are concerned about the survival of Israel.  The first is the development of a strong secular humanistic movement in Israel, which will offer effective resistance to Orthodox demands and which will provide a positive Jewish alternative.  Shula was instrumental in helping to launch Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel after her 1979 visit to the Birmingham Temple.  The second is the defense of the peace process which Rabin and Peres initiated and which Netanyahu is in the process of destroying. 

The threat to the security and survival of Israel provided by the intransigence of Netanyahu is enormous. Bibi talks peace but he is unwilling to make any concessions which will make peace between Jew and Arab possible. This inflexibility flows both from personal conviction and political necessity. He is totally dependent on the votes of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset to guarantee the viability of his government. 

The consequences of his intransigence are frightening. Credibility and authority of the government will collapse. Chaos among the Palestinians will ensue. Some Palestinians will renew the Intifada. Many Palestinians will turn to the fundamentalist Hamas as an alternative leadership. The moderate Arab regimes of Mubarak in Egypt and Hussein in Jordan, which committed their prestige to the peace process, will be in danger. The Israeli army, prodded by the insecurities of Orthodox settlers, will engage in a campaign of repression which will alienate American and world opinion. Israel will be isolated, surrounded by fierce and fanatic enemies, fighting a war that cannot be won. The conflict will stimulate fear and chauvinism in the Israeli public and make them prone to increasing Orthodox control. The vision of a free secular democratic Jewish state will die. 

The peace process was intended to initiate a different scenario. The Israelis would evacuate Gaza and the West Bank, including Hebron. A Palestinian state would emerge next to the Jewish state. Peace would strengthen Mubarak and Hussein in Egypt and Jordan, who would offer their support to guarantee that Arafat behaved and that the fundamentalist were restrained. The reality of Peace would persuade other Arab and Muslim states to abandon their hostility and to enter into a friendly relationship with Israel. The intransigent government of Gadhafi in Libya, Bashir in the Sudan (sic) and Assad in Syria would be isolated. In time the Arab and Muslim worlds would open up to Israeli know how and technological skills. Israel would function as a high-tech Hong Kong or Singapore in a Middle Eastern Muslim sea. The secular forces in the Arab world would be encouraged by these transformations to resist their fundamentalist enemies. Israel would be smaller but safer, a partner in projects of economic cooperation. Hate and distrust would continue. But they would be controlled by the growing possibility of mutual respect and mutual dependence.  

The dream of this second scenario cannot be allowed to die.  Israelis who supported the peace process and who suffered the cruel disappointment of losing the May election need to know that there are thousands of Jews in the Diaspora who support their cause and who are prepared to act on behalf of the vision of Rabin and Peres.  Many of these Jews are in America the nation that has the power and vested interest to pressure the Israeli government to change its course. 

On Monday evening November 18 at 8:30PM Shula will be in the Birmingham Temple to speak to us about Israel and peace.  This meeting will be a Rally for Peace.  All members of the Birmingham Temple-all members of the Jewish community-all concerned citizens who believe that the peace process must not be allowed to die and that Netanyahu must be persuaded to reverse his course of self-destruction are urged to attend. 

We must join Shula in offering resistance to this act of national suicide.  Those in power, in both Israel and the United States must hear our voice.  Silence and resignation are ethically unacceptable. 

Rabin died because he would not surrender to the demands of inflexible nationalism.  Today his assassin, Yigal Amir, is being honored by Orthodox fan clubs who celebrate his act of “patriotism”.  If we are appalled by this indecency, if we do not believe that these demonstrators speak on behalf of most of the Jewish people.  If we are passionate about the long-run survival of the Jewish people, then we will make it our business to attend the rally on November 18 to hear Shula and to offer our support to the struggle for peace. 

The Rabbi Writes – Book Fair 1997

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1997, Vol. XXXIII, Number 10

Andre Aciman.  Norman Cantor.  Sonya Friedman. 

Three good reasons for coming to the first Birmingham Temple Book Fair.  They will be speaking.   

A new special weekend experience is on the Temple and community calendar.  A spring book fair will debut in the very same place where our quite wonderful autumn art show takes place. 

Why a book fair? 

Why not?  Celebrating Jewish literature and humanistic literature is a natural for Humanistic Jews, especially in the spring when we honor all forms of creativity. Our book fair will have a unique edge.  It will feature new books on Jewish themes.  But it will also display books on ethical, social and philosophic (sic) issues that make our Jewish connection more open and more connected to the outside world.  In the broader sense, health (ˆsicˆ) happiness and social justice are also Jewish themes  We want a Jewish book fair that speaks to the world. 

The Temple Book Fair will coincide with the climax of the Humanist Forum, three Mondays in May devoted to the discussion of important personal and ethical issues confronting our present society.  On May 5, John O’Hair, the courageous prosecuting attorney of Wayne County, will openly discuss his support for assisted suicide.  On May 12, Irving Bluestone, a former vice-president of the UAW, and Robert Hunter, a conservative Reagan appointee to the National Labor Relations Board, will debate the future of the labor movement.  On May 19 the Book Fair will present Sony Friedman, nationally famous psychologist and television commentator, who will discuss the impact of stress on health. 

One of our Book Fair speakers has been made possible by generous grants from generous patrons.  The Sonya Friedman talk will be the first Esther and Harol Luria Lecture.  Esther Luria died recently.  Both Harol and she devoted a large part of their time and energy to the promotion of holistic health. 

You will find many wonderful things when you come to the Fair. 

You will find books on Jewish history that will introduce you to the discoveries of archaeology and scientific criticism.  Jewish history is more fascinating and more intriguing when the fictions of the past are corrected by the research of the present.   

You will find the books on Jewish culture that will take you beyond the narrow confines of Ashekznazic culture to the beautiful creations of the Sephardic and Oriental Jewish world.  There will be Yiddish writers.  But there will also be Ladino poets. 

You will find books for children – books which celebrate Jewish identity – books which embody humanistic Jewish values.  All of them will make superb gifts for the Jewish holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. 

You will find books on secular humanism.  Most of the great thinkers and philosophers in the last two centuries were secular humanists.  Many of their important writings will be there for you to buy and enjoy. 

You will find books on important ethical and social issues.  From aobrtion and assisted suicide to environmental protection and the fight against the Religious Right, famous writers and writers who deserve to be famous will intrigue you with new information and new ways to confront the enemies of liberty. 

All of this intellectual and emotional feast of books will be the setting for a spectacular array of prominent writers with provocative books. 

Norman Cantor will speak.  His new anthology, with commentary of the best Jewish writers and thinkers has some wonderful surprises.  A leading historian of the medieval experience, he launched his career as a Jewish historian with the provocative The Sacred Chain.  His most recent book The American Century is an exciting new way of looking at the incredible victory of American culture.  As we know from Colloquium ‘95 there is never a dull moment with Norman Cantor. 

Andre Aciman will speak.  His memoir Out of Egypt about the Jewish experience in Alexandria, the city of his youth continues to win prizes and praise throughout the world.  No better and more intimate introduction into the upper-crust society of the Near East has been written.  Aciman will continue to explore the question which obsesses him.  Does Jewish identity always imply some level of alienation and separation from the world around?  Is to be a Jew always to be in exile? 

Sonya Friedman will speak.  Author of many books on feminism and a rational approach to living, Friedman continues to inspire audiences with the freshness of her ideas and the charisma of her personality.  She is very much concerned with the destructive effects of stress in our modern society and with the most effective ways to make life less stressful. 

Three other writers will speak.  Barry Rudner, well known composer of books for Jewish children – Audrey Kron, member of the Birmingham Temple and nationally recognized counselor to the chronically ill and yours truly, Sherwin Wine. 

Do four things right now: 

  1. Mark your calendar.  The Book Fair begins Friday evening, May 16, and continues through Monday evening, May 19. 
  1. Save your money to buy books. 
  1. Begin to draft your gift list for Jewish holidays and special celebrations of family and friends. 
  1. Start thinking – with great anticipation – of the first Birmingham Temple Book Fair. 

The Rabbi Writes – Construction of The Center for Humanistic Judaism

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1992, Vol. XXVIII, Number 6

A wonderful thing has happened on the way to our thirtieth Temple anniversary. A member of our congregation has offered $250,000 for the construction of an educational Center for Humanistic Judaism in Michigan. This Center would be an extension of our present Temple building. And this gift would be contingent on our raising matching funds. 

For the past twenty years we have dreamed of building our own school. Ever since the first part of the present Temple was completed in 1971, it was clear that our home was incomplete. We needed a family room for social events, and we needed classrooms for our children and adults. Ten years ago we celebrated the construction of our family room. The addition gave us the opportunity to expand our activities and serve many of the social and cultural needs we never were able to serve before. It is hard to imagine how we would cope with our present Temple schedule without this extension. From the mundane requirement of kitchen, storage and offices to the more romantic celebrations of weddings and holidays, the “new room” has made an enormous difference. 

An educational wing would have the same impact on the congregation. It would rescue us from the high rentals and reluctant hospitality of the public schools. It would give our children and our Sunday School parents an appropriate setting for a Humanistic Jewish education experience. It would provide the possibility of nursery school, through which young children and their parents could be recruited for Temple membership. It would offer an adequate space and intimate ambience for the teaching of our midweek programs and for the activities of our high school and youth group. In an age of life after retirement, it would provide a wonderful environment to run adult education classes during the day and in the evening. Above all it could serve as an educational and cultural center for an expanding presence of Humanistic Judaism in our community.  

The Center for Humanistic Judaism would also be more than the educational wing of the Temple.  It would be the home of the national office of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which represents our special outreach to the Jews of North America.  It would also be the home to the growing educational programs of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism which now trains future leaders for our movement through intensive weekend seminars.  The Center would function to enrich our fruitful connection to Humanistic Jews in other communities and in other places. 

The benefits of such a Center are clear.  But how we would raise the matching funds and maintain the building may not be so clear.  Especially in a time of economic recession and Temple deficits and especially when we are concerned with the arrangements for my successor. 

‘We cannot afford to refuse an offer so generous that it may never be repeated again in Temple history.  But we cannot afford to impose burdens that will be unsustainable and counterproductive.  The initial proposal of the Temple Board to the membership is simply to approve the idea of such a Center and to authorize the Executive Committee to go ahead with the task of coming up with a workable plan. It is very clear that such a plan would have to include the following “ingredients”: 

There would be no general assessment on the membership.  All matching funds would be solicited from voluntary donors. 

Donations and support would be solicited from friends and supporters of Humanistic Judaism throughout North America. 

A separate maintenance fund would have to be established for the Center.  The principal would have to be sufficiently large so that the interest on the principal would cover the costs of maintenance. 

I believe that a workable plan can be devised.  I believe that this proposed Center, if constructed, will make an enormous positive difference for the future of the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism.  I believe that the Center will consolidate the gains we have already made and will help us attract and sustain the kind of rabbinic leadership we need for the future. 

We are being challenged to enter a new exciting chapter of our history.  We cannot refuse the challenge. 

The Rabbi Writes – The First Meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1986, Vol. XXIII, Number 10

The 1986 – 1987 season is on its way. 

Here is a preview of a very important coming attraction that you should mark on your calendar right away. 

On the weekend of October 24-26, the first meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews will be held at the Birmingham Temple. This conference will be historic. For the first time in the experience of the Jewish people, humanistic Jews from all over the world will come together to unite their efforts in (sic) behalf of their shared ideology. 

The participants will include our very own Society for Humanistic Judaism, the North American Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the European Society for Secular Judaism, the Leadership Conference of Secular Humanistic Jews, and representatives from secular Jewish communities in Latin America. 

The members of these organizations have their roots in different parts of the secular Jewish experience. Some of the nationalist Yiddishist movements of Eastern Europe. Some have arisen out of Zionist ideology and its affirmation that Jewish identity is essentially an ethnic identity. Some have emerged from the kibbutz movement with its seventy-year-old tradition of secular certainty. Some have developed out of the utopian political movements that dominated so much of Jewish life in the early part of the twentieth century. Some, like us, found their origin in the Birmingham Temple experiment, an attempt to turn a secular approach into a philosophic and religious alternative in Jewish life. 

The idea of the Federation evolved over several years. It began with a meeting in Israel at Kibbutz Shefayim in October 1981. This meeting was initiated by the Society for Humanistic Judaism and involved a dialogue between leaders of the Society and sympathetic Israeli academicians, writers, political figures and idealogues. Out of this encounter came a manifest of unity and resolution to continue the dialogue. In July 1983, at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, when the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism was organized, further plans were developed for international cooperation. These plans culminated in the Jewish Jerusalem Conference of July, 1985, at the Hebrew University, where representatives from all over the secular Jews world established the institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, a school and research facility to serve as the intellectual center of our Jewish alternative. 

It was at this conference that the initial proposals for the Federation were actively discussed and the Detroit meeting scheduled. 

The evolution of the Federation idea included many people of prominence in the Jewish World – Yehuda Bauer, the director of the Center for Holocaust Studies and the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University; Haim Cohen, the former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court and active civil libertarian; and Albert Memmi, world famous French-Tunisian intellectual and writer whose books on Jewish identity are the most powerful evaluations of the Jewish condition in this century. Both Bauer and Memmi will be participating in the conference. 

The October conference and the emerging Federation have great significance for us. 

The Federation is the fulfillment of a dream that began with the Birmingham Temple and spread to other parts of the Jewish world, a dream that a secular approach to Jewish identity can be turned into an organized philosophic alternative in Jewish life. 

The Federation is an affirmation of the fact that Humanistic Judaism is not the bizarrely unique philosophy of a small temple in Farmington Hills. It is part of an important and universal movement in Jewish life, which has deep roots in Jewish life and which enjoys the support and membership of leading writers and intellectuals. 

The Federation will enable us to establish a permanent dialogue among secular and humanistic Jews throughout the Jewish world – a dialogue which will allow the creative efforts of local groups to be shared by communities everywhere. 

The Federation will make it possible for all of us to do together with none of us can do alone – the regular publication of educational and inspirational literature, the training of new leaders, the creation of a significant presence in the Jewish community and in the world at large. 

The Federation will serve as an important vehicle to mobilize resources and support for the new International Institute. The Institute is indispensable to the survival of an intellectually respectable and creative secular Judaism. It will become the focal shared project of the Federation. 

For the Birmingham Temple and for the Detroit Jewish community, the choice of Detroit as the site of the organizing conference is a distinct honor. It will be, as I said, an historic moment. 

I hope that you will choose to attend and participate in this conference. I hope also that you will be willing to help in the preparations for this meeting. 

Please call me at the temple and let me know that you are interested.  

The Rabbi Writes – Colloquium ’97

The Jewish Humanist, March 1997, Vol. XXXIII, Number 8 

A wonderful thing happened on the way to Colloquium ‘97. The Jewish Federation gave us twenty thousand dollars. 

Colloquium ‘97 is a continuation of the ‘tradition’ begun by Colloquium ‘95. That conference was a stunning intellectual and artistic event. Sponsored by The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, it brought together seventeen distinguished scholars, writers and artists from all over the Jewish World, to discuss the pressing issue of the ‘unaffiliatedJew’. Among them were demographer Egon Maywr, sociologist Bernard Reisman, philosopher Joel Feinberg, historians Norman Cantor and Yehuda Bauer, writers Anne Roiphe and Andre Aciman and Israel’s greatest living post (sic) Yehuda Amichai. Ushered in by Shoshana Cardin, a major leader in the American Jewish community, the colloquium featured three days of spirited and memorable dialogue. 

The colloquium was evidence that our movement was ‘real’ – and that it had the power to engage important Jewish thinkers in the discussion of important Jewish issues. The publicity and attention that surrounded the event raised the visibility of Secular Humanistic Judaism and reinforced our resolve to produce another significant colloquium around another significant question.  

The theme of Colloquium ‘97 is reclaiming Jewish History:  Separating fact from fiction. Eleven important Jewish historians have accepted our invitation to participate in the discussion. Each of them will present a paper on one of ten ‘problem’ areas of Jewish history – from the origins of the Jewish people and the Bible to the significance of the Enlightenment and Zionism. They include Steven Zipperstein and Aaron Rodrigue of Stanford University, Carol Meyers and Eric Meyers of Duke University, Norman Cantor of New York University, Derek Penzler of Indiana University, William Propp of the University of California / San Diego, Ada Rapaport – Albert of University College London, Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University and Yaakov Malkin of Tel Aviv University. From October 23 to October 26 they will collectively present a new perspective on the Jewish experience. This colloquium is not only a great event for our movement. Like the last colloquium, it is also an outstanding intellectual happening for the Detroit Jewish community. That is one of the reasons why the Federation has chosen to support it.  

The decision of the Federation to help fund this meeting of scholars is significant for many reasons. 

It is the first major gift of the Federation to the work of Humanistic Judaism in this community. It is recognition of the fact that what we do benefits not only our congregation but also the Jewish community as a whole. 

It is an affirmation of the importance of pluralism in the Jewish community. In modern America diversity is the name of the Jewish reality. As Jews choosing Judaism, we are all committed to the value of Jewish identity, to the preservation and development of Jewish culture and to the survival of the Jewish people. But we share this commitment in the context of lively disagreement. There are many Jewish philosophies of life. There are many different Jewish life styles. There are many ways to interpret the Jewish experience and to celebrate Jewish identity. Pluralism means that the community accepts this diversity and grants respect and legitimacy to every Jewish choice.  Cooperation arises out of both shared commitments and a sympathetic understanding of difference.  

This gift is a resolution of whatever discomfort some of our members had with previous responses of the Federation to requests from the Birmingham Temple. It is clear from the generosity of the grant, that the Federation acknowledges our congregation and our movement as a significant part of the Jewish Community. 

I urge all of our members to respond to this decision with their full financial support for the work of the Federation. I think a milestone has been passed in our history. 

I also urge you to reserve October 23-26 on your busy calendars for the excitement of Colloquium ‘97.  

The Rabbi Writes – The Birmingham Temple 20th Anniversary

The Jewish Humanist, January 1983, Vol. XX, Number 6

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

In July of 1963, the idea of the Birmingham Temple was born. In September we held our first meeting. In November we were chartered. 

Some said that we would never last. But we lasted. And we grew stronger. And we helped to create sister congregations in other communities. 

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

We discovered that we did not have to be imprisoned by the past. If neither Orthodoxy nor Conservatism nor Reform fit our beliefs, we did not have to adjust to what was unacceptable. We did not have to succumb to cynical resignation. We could pioneer an alternative that had never been tried before and make it work. 

We learned that maintaining our integrity helped us deal with hostility. The intimidation techniques of our enemies were less effective so long as we were defending what we really believed. Compromise would have undermined our self-esteem and made us vulnerable to attack. Beyond our integrity, boldness was our greatest asset. 

We discovered that we could be truly creative. Since there was no readily available working tradition for humanistic Judaism we had to make our own. We redid the holidays. We wrote new services. We transformed the Bar and Bat Mitsvah (sic) ceremony. We invented a new form of Jewish education. Our commitments forced us to do what we never planned to do. They made us see our own talents. 

We learn that we were able to serve people who had never been adequately served before by institutional life. Most of our first members were peripheral Jews who found their Jewish involvements uncomfortable and compromising. They never imagined that it was possible for them to feel at the center of Jewish commitment. But the Temple gave them a philosophic home where they never had to feel like strangers. 

We discovered that we were saying out loud what many people already believed. The Temple made no converts. It simply became a public voice for people who never had one before. The liberation of humanistic Jews is not their awakening to secular truth. It is a willingness to go public.  

We learned that we enjoyed pioneering. Starting something new was even more fun than inheriting something old. It enabled us to focus on our own present needs and not the needs of ancestors who had died a long time ago. We felt unique and useful. The pleasure of being our own person made up for any residual guilt that gave us anxiety. 

We discovered that we were continually changing. Some of our enemies claimed that we would end up as rigid and dogmatic as the people we opposed. But, very early, we experienced the frustration of trying things that didn’t work. We learned to try, to test and to choose. Our members were too good humored to let any procedure become sacred. Some of our first songs have been justifiably forgotten. And some of our best celebrations are very new. 

We learned that we could transmit our philosophy to the next generation. Many skeptics wondered whether children in a conventional religious world could embrace the humanistic alternative. But we saw our children grow up to enjoy the humanistic answers and to become articulate spokespeople for the Temple point of view. We developed a sense of continuity. 

We discovered that it is sometimes hard to be a humanistic Jew. We were denied the ease of joining just a neighborhood congregation. Joining the Birmingham Temple meant continuous training. Our friends, neighbors and associates did not regard our affiliation with indifference. We had to defend, to explain, to justify. And, in the process, we had to work hard at understanding our philosophy. Members of other congregations could hide behind the respectability. We had to prove ourselves. 

We learned, above all, that shared values and ideas help to develop a community. We started out as strangers who came together for philosophical reasons. But our common commitments made it easier for us to become friends. Our first attachments were to ideas. But they deepened into connections with people. The history of our temple is a story of friendship and community. We have always wanted to be for (sic) more than a discussion society. We have striven to become a family of choice. 

We have discovered many things in twenty years. They are part of our unique tradition.  

The Rabbi Writes – The History of the Birmingham Temple

The Jewish Humanist, February 1988, Vol. XXV, Number 7

The history of the Birmingham Temple is the history of Humanistic Judaism. The two go together. Without the Birmingham Temple Humanistic Judaism would not have come into existence. Without Humanistic Judaism the temple would have no reason to exist. 

Our congregation did not emerge as a local convenience. It did not grow because it served the conventional needs of conventional religionists. From the very beginning it was the center of a new approach to Jewish identity, the home of a new philosophy in Jewish life. The men and women who joined the Temple family did not join perfunctorily. They joined with the strong awareness that they now belonged to a unique community of “believers” with a unique message to the Jewish Community. 

Out of the Birmingham Temple came new organizations. Although they were theoretically separate and distinct, in reality, they were not. Their agenda was the same as that of the Temple, the expression and promotion of Humanistic Judaism. 

Many Jews throughout North America were inspired by the example of our congregation. They proceeded to organize, in their own cities, communities just like ours. In one case a Reform temple turned humanistic. In another, former members of the Temple wanted a congregation similar to the one that found so meaningful. In still another, enthusiastic young people, who had read about us in the local press, recruited their equally enthusiastic friends to establish a Humanistic Jewish Community. 

The society for Humanistic Judaism is a child of the Birmingham Temple. Organized in 1969, it held its first meeting in Detroit in the spring of 1970, even before the Temple building was completed. The  establishment of the Society was a major achievement. It turned a philosophy into a movement. It gave national reality to what began as a local phenomenon. 

The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is also a child of the Birmingham Temple. Established in 1986, its delegates met for the first time in Farmington Hills in our Temple home. Secular Jews from ten countries and five continents, including South America and Australia, came together to issue their manifesto of belief and to proclaim their solidarity. The ideas that were discussed in the intimacy of private homes in Birmingham in 1963 were now the shared commitment of an international community. 

As we celebrate the anniversary of our congregation. It is very important to remember these connections. An enthusiastic nostalgia may encourage us to remember all the wonderful experiences that we, as a Temple family, shared during the past twenty-five years – all the intimate moments of fun, friendship and challenge that made our association with each other so worthwhile. But it may also, inadvertently, make us parochial, dwelling only on personal memories and local events. We may forget the larger context which gives us meaning and significance. 

The Society and the Federation are not separate from the Temple. They are, part (sic) and parcel of everything we are. When we celebrate our survival and achievement we also celebrate theirs. Our fates are intertwined. 

The future of the Birmingham Temple depends on our connection with our “children.” (sic) 

For our future we will need leaders and rabbis. The new Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which was established by the Federation in Jerusalem, will be the school where these leaders and rabbis will be trained. 

For our future we will need literature. Books and teaching materials which will explain the ideas and practice of Humanistic Judaism are indispensable to our survival and growth. They will be published by the Society and the Institute. 

For our future we will need allies. The congregations and communities, all over the world, who are part of our Federation, will give the support, depth and credibility we need. They will make it possible for our children to be Humanistic Jews outside the Detroit area. 

It is, therefore, appropriate that we celebrate these connections in this our anniversary year. In April we shall be host to the 18th annual conference of the Society. And this February 19 we shall welcome the distinguished president of the Federation – and the world leader of Humanistic Judaism – Yehuda Bauer. 

His presence will help us affirm the importance of our outreach.