Here We Are: A Process of Self-Awareness

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1989, Issues Facing The Movement, page 3

Twenty-six years ago in 1963, eight families and I organized the Birmingham Temple. During the next year or two, what evolved out of our very intense, passionate discussions was an ideology that gave purpose to the organization we had established, and we gave a name to it. We called it Humanistic Judaism. 

Although we certainly didn’t use the word movement, in some respects at that time there was a kind of movement. That is, we were moving. We were out there trying to share the message. People were contacting us. We had a sense that we had something important to say and that we had a responsibility to share it with others who would find it meaningful. So, although we were only a tiny organization trying to grow, we had a sense that we were moving; and it was a kind of beginning, if you will, of a movement. 

We have been on the move in a variety of places for a long, long time. I have a lot of memories of the evolution of the movement. The rabbis’ meeting with Dan Friedman in 1967 in Detroit, and the beginning of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, when six rabbis from the Reform movement signed a humanistic statement. In 1969, when Congregation Beth Or very courageously determined that it was a humanistic congregation. The meeting in 1970 in Detroit, the first meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. It was in that year also that the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) was formed. The meeting in 1981 at Kibbutz Shefayim in Israel. We had taken a group over to see whether, with the help of (M.K. Shulamit  Aloni, we could contact leading Israelis in the humanistic and secular tradition. The meeting in 1982 – Gerry Revzin, Executive Director of the CSJO, was there – when secularists who had not spoken to each other for eighty-six years finally met face-to-face. They had been divided by issues and conflicts they couldn’t even remember; they didn’t remember why they were mad at each other. We came together, and out of that came the Leadership Conference of Secular Humanistic Jews. The meeting in 1983 when Miriam Jerris, Executive Director of the Society, and I went to Israel, where Zev Katz, together with Yehuda Bauer, was instrumental in organizing the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The meeting in 1985 in Jerusalem, when The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism was established, and a year later in 1986 in Detroit, when the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was established, and a year later when the North American section of the Federation held its first meeting in New Jersey. That marvelous meeting in 1988 in Brussels – a warm celebration of our movement – when, as a movement, we expressed our ideas on Who is a Jew

So we’ve been moving for a long time. We’re in the process now of what I call self-awareness. Sometimes you behave and you act and you do, and all of a sudden you stop and say, semicolon “So, where am I – what am I doing?” 

 Along the way we discovered that what we were doing was important. We had an important message. We were helping people. We were providing an opportunity for effective identity for a lot of people. It became clear that young people with children wanted to join a group in which if somebody asked their children what they were, they could respond with a label that somebody knew about. That was possible only if there was some kind of visibility. 

Along the way, of course, in this movement, we ran across a lot of problems. There was the problem of parochialism – the people who said, “I’ve got my friends here in this town. We got together and had a marvellous discussion. We liked the food. We enjoyed their company. Why do you hok me a tchynik?” 

To take a group of secular humans and turn them into an organization is a great feat. Because each one of us is autonomous. Each one of us is in charge of his or her life. Each one of us has his or her mind. Each one of us has his or her ideas. Not only that – many of us have memories of having belonged to oppressive organizations that sought to hit us over the head, and so we don’t like organizations. 

Then we have had the problem of negativism. It was hard to feel ourselves to be a movement because we were always telling people what we did not believe. We second; the movement is more than a series of organizations. The organizational chart is very important, but if you think that’s the movement, it’s like thinking that the skeleton is the person. The movement is the collection of people who experience a sense of solidarity through this shared message and shared need, who are drawn together by passions and by commitments to do something. In the process, they may create organizations, but the organization isn’t the movement. The movement needs the organization, but the movement is bigger and broader than that. It is the sum total of all of the people and their passions.  

It is important to remember that we are bigger than we seem. I mentioned that we were a movement to somebody in Detroit who is not a secular humanist. He said, “A movement! You, a movement? Chutzpah! This is colossal chutzpah – calling yourself a movement. One thousand – now, that’s a movement. The conservatives – five hundred thousand, that’s a movement. What are you talking about, a movement?”  

We are indeed a movement because our appeal is to an enormous number of people. 40% of the Jews in this country are unaffiliated. In many cases, they are alienated from existing Jewish institutions. And if you could sit them down and have a conversation with them, they would discover that although they have no label for what they are, they are most likely secular humanistic Jews.  

So we have large numbers out there, potential numbers, and our chutzpah is associated with the fact that we have some kind of responsibility to reach them. I believe that if you have something that you think is beneficial to other people, then you want to share it with them – not in some aggressive missionary fashion, but you certainly let people know you’ re around. You have a moral responsibility if somebody needs you.  

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The movement is more than a series of organizations… It is the sum of all the people and their passions.  

We’re a group that didn’t believe in God, and that’s how we got in the newspapers. Other groups were movements because they had something positive to say. We were the anti-movement. 

And there were all these internal arguments – the ones that divided fundus and Zionist, and the arguments that divided secularists and humanists, and the arguments that many people couldn’t remember but the residual emotional hostility survived. 

Then there was the problem of being on the periphery. There is a thing called self-esteem. Big reform temples have self-esteem. They know they deserve to exist. But our group had a kind of Jewish angst. Should we be? Do we have a right to be? Don’t we have a right to be? Should we open our mouths? 

So what we are in the process of doing is not simply saying, “ Shall we be or not be a movement?” What we are really doing is an act of self-awareness. We’re here. We’ve come this far. We’ve got a long history. Whether it’s the SHJ or the CSO or the is really experienced or the European Yiddish experience as – whatever it is, they’ve all been moving for a long time. Now, as an act of self-awareness, I’d like to share what I consider to be some very important affirmations – things to remember – as we go through the process. 

First: we have a message. If we didn’t have a message, it wouldn’t pay to organize. In various discussion groups, people were talking about the differences of opinions in their groups and the great fear that somebody would impose an opinion on somebody else. My general experience in humanist and secular groups is that it’s very difficult to impose your opinion on anybody else. People are always focusing on differences. Yet, the reality is that we are united by a pretty strong consensus: our message about Jewishness and Jewish culture and human beings that we give to the world and that defines our movement. 

Second: The movement is more than a series of organizations. The organizational chart is very important, but if you think that’s the movement, it’s like thinking that the skeleton is the person. The movement is a collection of people who experience a sense of solidarity through the shared message and shared need, we are drawn together by passions and by commitments to do something in the process they may create organizations, but the organization isn’t the movement. The movement needs the organization, but the movement is bigger and broader than that. It is the sum total of all of the people and their passions. It is important to remember that we are bigger than we seem. I mentioned that we were a movement to somebody in Detroit who is not a secular humanistic humanist. He said, “ Movement! You, a movement?! Chutzpah! This is colossal chutzpah – calling yourselves and movement. One hundred thousand – now, that’s a movement. The conservatives – Five hundred thousand – now, that’s a movement. What are you talking about, a movement?”  

We are indeed a movement because our appeal is to an enormous number of people. Forty percent of the Jews in this country are unaffiliated. In many cases they are alienated from existing Jewish institutions. And if you could sit them down and have a conversation with them they would discover that although they have no label for what they are, they are most likely secular humanistic Jews. 

So we have large numbers out there, potential numbers and our chutzpah is associated with the fact that we have some kind of responsibility to reach them. I believe that if you have something that you think is beneficial to other people, then you want to share it with them – not in some aggressive missionary fashion, but you certainly let people know you’re around. You have a moral responsibility if somebody needs you.  

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The movement is more than a series of organizations… It is the sum total of all the people and their passions.  

It is important to remember that we have a positive message. We have to be able to say very positively what it is that we believe. We are not an anti-God movement. We are a movement in favor of Jewish culture. We are a movement in favor of human autonomy. We are a movement in favor of the human spirit. We are a movement in favor of human creativity. That is what the word humanism is used. In addition to that, we need to have a personal message. The New Age mysticism is a real competitor, and I think it’s going to be a more significant one. I think by the 21st century there will be three significant modes: the humanistic mode, the New Age mode, and the fundamentalist mode. The establishment churches are going to continue to decline in the power of that New Age mysticism is the power of the personal message. We can talk about Jewish identity, but that’s never enough. You must have Jewish identity plus some kind of message to the individual about how he or she might lead his or her life to make it more creative, more fulfilling, happier, and so forth.  

It is important to remember that labels do not describe reality. Some people live by labels, but I’ve learned, since I do a lot of intermarriages, that labels are very deceptive – that often two people of different labels believe the same thing, and two people of the same label believe totally different things. In several of the discussion groups, they were discussing, “What’s secular? What’s humanist? Why are they together? I am a humanist, but I’m not a secularist. Well, I’m a humanist and a secularist. I’m a humanist because I affirm the human being as the center and focus my attention on humanity. I’m a secularist because I am first this – worldly and not otherworldly.  

Then there’s this argument about “Are we a religion?” There are people inside Humanistic Judaism who view the philosophy as a religion. I have used the phrase secular religion. All I mean by that designation is that we are this worldly and that a religion is simply an organized philosophy of life. 

If we sit around arguing about these words and some kind of exclusive tone, then we are betraying the movement, because the movement is the shared consensus that we all have, and the labels become barriers to mutuality and solidarity when they should enable us to work more closely together.  

It’s important to remember that awareness comes from training. I think it would be nice to have a requirement in every group that a certain amount of time be taken by new members to sit down and talk about the movement – this thing that is yet evolving – so that people don’t just walk in and say, “Well, I like the people,” or “It’s a nice friendship circle,”  or rather that there’s an ideology. Somehow, as we become more self-aware, we have to share that self-awareness with other people.  

It’s important to remember that the movement means communities. The way we reach people most effectively is not simply through sending them literature. The way we reach people most effectively is by seeing the evolution of communities. We can see what happened here in Phoenix with our Valley of the Sun chapter, this community that, in a very short time, has developed bonds of connection and commitment and enthusiasm for their ideology.  

But communities don’t grow all by themselves. They need help and they need support. They need help for their schools and school curricula. They need help with their literature for adult education. They need help to get good trained leaders and teachers. And we have a responsibility, since we have a sense of solidarity, to help each other. Every group has some kind of an experience – some kind of expertise that can help others and can be shared. And that means we, as a movement, have to organize the literature and the teachers and leaders meetings. 

Our movement will have no credibility unless we have leaders who have adequate training and presence. In order for them to be trained, we need to school, and that school is the Institute that was founded in Israel in 1985, which has now established its programs in North America to train the teachers and leaders that we need.  

It’s important to remember that contacts bring friendship and solidarity. One of the nice things about this weekend for me is that I see people I look forward to seeing. There are people I’ve seen almost from the very beginning of history of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and although some of them some of them live a long distance from me, they are my contact with the movement. what we need to do as a movement is to arrange for more and more events where we can come together, whether on a regional level or on a national level or on an international level. what happens is that the movement turns into something not organizational. I would imagine that people will leave this weekend who have made friends out of strangers – people they never met before who come from other places – whom they have come to know in a very special way in a short period of time, and that contact will be important. Those contacts define the flush and blood and muscle of the movement. 

We need to remember that we are all part of the same movement. People talk about their organizations, and they refer to the movement as another organization out there, to which maybe they would have a relationship or maybe not. That’s not the movement. It isn’t his Institute. It’s my Institute. It isn’t His Society or Her Society. It’s My society. It’s My Society My Institute My Federation and not only is it the people out there trying to reach me with their demands, it’s me reaching them with my demands, and not only people out there reaching me with their sense of responsibility, but my reaching out to them with my sense of responsibility. 

Last, we have to remember that we have a right to succeed. There are many people who are cursed with self-destruction. They arrange their lives to destroy themselves by eternal arguments and protestation. Protestations over small issues and defenses of ego. We have a right to succeed. We have worked. This movement has been moving for close to one hundred years. One hundred years. We have a right to succeed because we represent an important element in the population – the Jewish population – and they need us. The sign of our success will be when each of us in our community, because we sense that we are part of the movement, will never consent to community events being conducted with representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform persuasion without speaking out and saying, “Wait a minute. There’s a fourth variety in this community, and we deserve recognition.” We are real. We are authentic. We believe in success. That’s what a movement is. 

The self-awareness will continue. We now have to figure how we can make our movement effective and how we can succeed in the way we deserve to succeed. Since I’m a congenital optimist, I think we will.