The Jewish Humanist, March 1991, vo. XXV11, number 8.
Many people ask me about the future of Humanistic Judaism. What are the realistic prospects for our future? What do we need to do to spread the word, to recruit new people to our movement?
There are many things we need to strengthen our future. We need more literature. We need more publicity. We need more money to pay for both. But, above all, we need more professional leaders.
The heart of our movement are local communities and congregations. Without them there is no movement. Most communities begin with volunteers who have much enthusiasm but little expertise for serving the needs of their members. In time, volunteers get exhausted and, even if they are not exhausted, they are not trained to be ceremonialists, philosophic counselors and Jewish educators.
Communities without professional leaders “plateau”. They cannot grow because they cannot serve the holiday, life-cycle and identity needs of prospective joiners, especially the needs of families with young children. Their philosophy is attractive to many. But their ability to reach out to others is limited by the absence of skilled people who are both able and willing to do what needs to be done.
The first professional leaders of our movement have been rabbis. Both Daniel Friedman (Chicago) and I have served as the spiritual and philosophic leaders of the two largest and most important communities in our national association. Both of us have tried to pioneer the idea of a rabbi without God. Just as the Reform movement pioneered the concept of a rabbi who rejects the authority of orthodox law, so has our effort been an attempt to develop the legitimacy of a non-theistic and “secular” rabbinate.
The rabbinate is an important profession for Humanistic Judaism and needs to be cultivated. It provides both status and legitimacy for humanistic communities seeking a link with the past. The role of the rabbi as a philosophic leader and teacher corresponds very well to the traditional role of many rabbis.
One of our most important movement tasks is to recruit and train new rabbis for our communities, both established and emerging. Recruitment of already ordained rabbis is not easy. Both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements have taken a turn to the right. Their younger rabbinic graduates are often more conservative than the graduates of earlier decades. They are not interested in becoming radical “renegades” or mavericks. The number of potential “defectors” is close to zero.
Training our own rabbis is, therefore, an urgent task. For this reason a rabbinic program was recently established by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The program envisions a five year post-graduate course of study with a PhD in Judaic Studies from a secular university, courses on Humanistic Judaism with the faculty of the Institute and an appropriate internship with a movement community. Hopefully, bright young men and women, who would never have contemplated the rabbinate because they are humanistic, will find this opportunity an attractive option.
But rabbis are not enough to serve the leadership needs of our movement. There are small communities that cannot afford a rabbi. These are small communities that cannot afford a full-time leader. There are large communities that need assistants. There are needy communities that require professional leadership right away.
Out of this pressing circumstance a new Jewish profession has emerged. It is called leader in English. It is called madrikh (men) or madrikha (women) in Hebrew.
A madrikha is a professional community leader. She performs an important role somewhere between the work of the volunteer non-professional leader and the work of a rabbi. She is a ceremonialist who performs weddings and conducts funerals. She is an educator who can teach Humanistic Judaism to adults and children. She is a counselor who can offer appropriate ethical advice to people seeking her help. She is an administrator who can manage the affairs of a small community.
A madrikha undergoes a three-year training program. This program includes training seminars, academic study and field work. Before the International Institute was established candidates received their education at the Humanist Institute in New York. Now the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism has created a complete training program for madrikhim and madrikhot. They define professional standards, arrange for continuing education, and provide certification. There are presently eleven members of the Conference.
As you may have noticed, the programs and service of our own Birmingham Temple have been enormously enhanced by the talents and efforts of our resident madrikhot. Without the skills and dedication of Carolyn Borman, Miriam Jerris, Janis Levin-Gorelick, and Marilyn Rowens, much of the important work of the Temple would never be completed. For me, personally, they have been wonderful associates, who have assisted me in the carrying out of my own responsibilities.
Madrikhot have become a significant part of the landscape of Humanistic Judaism. They perform an indispensable service. And they deserve our tribute and recognition.
Please join me and the congregation on Friday evening, March 22 at 8:30 PM to celebrate their achievement and to hear their own reflections on the work they do.