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

The Jewish Humanist, September 1997, Vol. XXXIV, Number 2

Colloquium ‘97.  It will be an extraordinary event. Eleven Jewish historians of international fame are coming to the Birmingham Temple to spend the Simhat (sic) Torah weekend with us. They will speak, dialogue with each other and open our eyes to the realities of the Jewish experience. 

We Jews are an extraordinary people, with a saga that continues to fascinate even our enemies. But the story of our past has been in the hands of a religious establishment that chooses to hide or distort the truth to serve a messianic ideology. Unlike the story of most nations and civilizations Jewish history is presented as sacred history. Sacred history is no longer a tale of human striving and human ambition. It is the story of gods, supernatural miracles, divine interventions and holy missions. It is the revelation of divine reward and punishment and the rescue of chosen peoples. The normal standards of scientific inquiry are never applied. Faith and tradition are the final judges. And they are supported by centuries of propaganda. 

In such an intellectual environment the stories in the Torah , the Tanakh and the Talmud are assumed to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

The legitimacy of traditional Judaism rests on the presentation of Jewish history.  If this presentation is not true – and if ‘believers’ come to believe that it is not true, the foundations of traditional Judaism will crumble.   

A credible Humanistic Judaism in the end rests on the real experience of the Jewish people.  But its perception of that experience is quite different from that of tradition.  Fortunately, modern science, archaeology, textual criticism and naturalistic approach to the human experience have produced a radically different version of the Jewish saga.  Unfortunately, most of this information is locked up in scholarly journals where it never reaches the general public.  Because of this ‘seclusion’, even the most liberal congregations continue to present the ‘old’ version of the story. 

Colloquium ‘97 will be one of the first opportunities for the general public to come face to face with the new evidence and the new story.  For those who are not familiar with the ‘discoveries’ of the last century, encountering them can be mind-boggling.  The Jewish experience takes on a radically new human dimension.  Familiar tales are no longer credible.  Familiar interpretations are no longer viable.  We are liberated to embrace a new vision of Jewish evolution. 

Our eleven historians will explore at least nine areas of Jewish development where ‘mythology’ prevails. 

  1. The origins of the Jewish people: It may be the case that the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt and the presentation of the Torah at Sinai are invented tales.  The Israelites may have been a hill-country Canaanite people who did not emerge onto the Near Eastern stage until shortly before the time of King David. 
  1. The origins of the Bible:  If God did not write the Torah who did?  Was the author Moses? Or were the Torah and Bible put together some seven or eight hundred years after the death of Moses by writers and editors who projected their contemporary issues back into ‘ancient’ times? 
  1. The Greeks and the Jews: The common vision that the Maccabees stood against Greek culture and rescued Judaism from the insidious influence of Greek paganism may be a distortion of the truth.  The Greeks profoundly altered Jewish culture, provoking an internal debate that set the defenders of reason against the devotees of faith.  The Jewish world was divided into many religions and political parties.  The roots of a humanistic Judaism can be found here. 
  1. The origins of Orthodox Judaism:  The rabbinic establishment maintained and still maintains that Orthodoxy is a reflection of a continuous tradition that can be traced back to Moses.  All other versions of Judaism are newer and, therefore, less authentic.  But it may be the case that ‘traditional’ Judaism is less traditional than it pretends to be.  The historical vision of the Talmud may not accurately reflect what really happened. 
  1. The experience of the medieval Jew:  The connection of the Jews to money, commerce and the beginnings of capitalism is often an ‘embarrassing’ subject for many contemporary Jews.  They are more comfortable viewing the Middle Ages as a time when Jews were the primary victims of religious persecution.  A large slice of the Jewish experience and of Jewish creativity may be ignored in the process. 
  1. The legacy of Hasidism:  In modern times the culture and spirituality of the Hasidic movements have been romanticized.  They are often equated with the new spiritual search of the contemporary Western world.  What is often neglected is the assaultive politics and the cruel superstitions of Hasidic daily life, which have nothing to do with either human dignity or spiritual serenity. 
  1. The significance of the Enlightenment:  In the contemporary world it has become fashionable to blame the revolutions of science and reason for the decline of Jewish identity and for destructive assimilation. Modern secular culture becomes the enemy of Jewish fulfillment. But this critique misses the positive transformation of the life of the Jew through personal freedom, female liberation, secular education and the openness of a democratic society.  
  1. The origins of modern anti-Semitism:  The terrible Holocaust has riveted Jewish attention on the phenomenon of Jew hatred.  Most commentators find its beginning in the hostility of the Christian world.  Others see the beginnings in the unique economic role which Jews assumed in the Western world.  But the truth may be different from either speculation. 
  1. The significance of Zionism:  There is no doubt that the establishment of the state of Israel is the most important Jewish achievement of the twentieth century.  The founders of the state imagined that Zionism would provide for a liberal and secular future for Jewish nationalism.  But recent developments can easily lead us to a different assessment. 

Jewish history is no fixed story which ‘tradition’ presents to us for study.  It is in the process of being re-created (sic) and re-conceived.  If you want to experience the ‘cutting edge’ of this debate do not miss Colloquium ‘97. 

October 23-26.  A unique and wonderful opportunity. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews now proclaimed by the orthodox authorities-and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people-we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, November 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 4

My Trip to South America, Part II 

Humanistic Judaism is now part of the South American Jewish scene.  Two small national organizations exist-one in Argentina and one in Uruguay. Both of them sent representatives to the first meeting of the International Federation in Detroit. 

Although the Argentine and Uruguayan associations did not appear until 1986, a secular approach to Jewish identity has deep roots in Latin America. The first immigration to Argentina in the early part of the twentieth century included many radical idealists who had rebelled against orthodox dictation and who sought to transform Jewish life by returning to the land and creating secular Jewish communes. The children of these pioneers ultimately ended up in Buenos Aires and the other big cities of Argentina.  For many of these radicals their Jewishness was expressed in a passionate commitment to Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class. 

In Uruguay the very nature of the country encouraged secularism.  Little Uruguay was the first Latin American country to establish a radical separation of church and state.  Strongly influenced by European liberal ideals, the ruling elite of Uruguay developed one of the most secular countries in the world.  Only in Uruguay could an avowed atheist become the president of the nation.  Today almost half the population declares itself to be “non-believers”.  Even Scandinavia and Holland can hardly match that percentage. 

In such an environment the Jewish milieu mirrored the Gentile precedent.  Reinforced by some of the same radicals who made their way to Argentina, the Montevideo community initially featured a Jewishness that was more cultural than religious. 

Ultimately Jewish organizational identity in both Argentina and Uruguay was chiefly expressed in institutions other than synagogues.  Jewish schools (both part-time and full-time), Jewish community centers Yiddishist cultural associations and Zionist societies became the foundatons of Jewish communal life.  Jews were secular without being fully aware that secularism or humanism were alternatives to the old religious ideology. 

Ever since the 1950’s important changes have occurred in both communities.  The continuous political and economic turmoil-especially in Argentina-stimulated emigration to either Israel or North America.  (Argentina’s Jewish population declined from 400,000 to 300,000; Uruguay’s from 50,000 to 30,000).  The attempt by the American Conservative movement to establish a sister movement in Latin America proved very successful.  A Conservative seminary was created in Buenos Aires; and its graduates have become religious pioneers in a secular world.  The success of the Conservatives is due to their ability to mix Zionism and bourgeois respectability in a nice delicate balance-and, above all, to the quality of their trained leaders.  Disorganized secularism could not compete against such competence. 

Also the emergence of the ultra-Orthodox missionaries and zealots has made an important impact.  Posing as the defenders of Jewish identity in a world of assimilation, they have invaded Jewish communal structures, demanding subsidies and offering their services for Jewish education.  Many secularists are bewildered about how to confront such passionate determination. 

Today the Jewish communities of Argentina and Uruguay remain different from those in North America in very distinct ways.  Although many Jewish families go back through four generations of local residence, most Jews are of more recent vintage-post World War I and World War II.  Being newer they are less assimilated than their American counterparts. 

Religious organizations, while stronger than they were before, are still weaker than their secular counterparts-schools, clubs and centers.  And the intensity of Zionism is far stronger than its American counterpart.  In the states, Zionism is primarily a financial commitment.  In Buenos Aires and Uruguay it is a cultural, linguistic and aliya commitment.  In fact, many of the educational institutions receive financial support from the Jewish Agency in Israel. 

The new secular humanistic Jewish associations that have emerged are a reflection of this nationalistic commitment.  In the face of growing Orthodoxy and Conservatism, many secularists now want to develop a much more self-aware ideology, with the ceremonial and communal supports that make it real.  Their humanistic Judaism is cosmopolitan, but it is also very Zionistic-with many of its members speaking Hebrew.  Some remnants of anti-Zionist Yiddishist socialist nationalism survive.  But they are dying out. 

Stimulated by their awareness of the establishment of Humanist (sic) Judaism in North America and Israel local leaders organized communities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires three years ago.  The leadership in Argentina consisted of academicians like Gregorio Klimovsky, Yiddishists like Gregorio Lerner and Eliyahu Toker, and Zionists like Paul Warshawsky and Daniel Colodenco.  The leadership in Uruguay featured two devoted and talented men-psychoanalyst Leopoldo Mueller and the journalist Egon Friedler. 

Both associations are in early stages of development.  And, like all other Jews, they are contending with the recurring political and economic woes that plague the area. But there is a strong determination to reach out to the largely secularized Jewish communities to mobilize more people. 

Right now their strategy for survival and growth include four priorities: 

1.The publication of a semi-annual or quarterly journal called Judaismo Laico, which can be used to diffuse humanistic Jewish ideas through Latin America. 

2. The development of ceremonial materials in Spanish and Hebrew to provide for personal and communal celebrations of holidays and life-cycle events in a secular way. 

3. Recruiting one or two qualified people who can be trained as madrikhim (teacher leaders) by the International Institute in Jerusalem to serve the education, counseling and ceremonial needs of the members of the associations. 

4. Organizing a Latin American regional association-including the two communities of Argentina and Uruguay-which could reach out to sympathetic people in other Latin American countries. Initially the journal would serve as its major vehicle for outreach. 

The future of Humanistic Judaism in Latin America will depend on many factors, some unpredictable. But if the enthusiasm of its founders is significant, its survival and growth are off to a good start.  

The Rabbi Writes

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 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

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 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 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.