Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1990 (vol. 18 no. 2 p32-38)
Last July I took my summer vacation in Latin America. I had spoken to people there who had come from South America to the first meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Detroit in 1986, and I told them that when I came to Uruguay and Argentina I would meet with them and offer whatever assistance I could in the development of our shared movement.
My trip to the Soviet Union in October was a function of the fact that there is every year a board meeting of both the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Israel, and I thought it might be convenient to stop off in Moscow on the way to Jerusalem. There were people in the Soviet Union who had indicated some interest in the ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism, and this visit would be an opportunity to talk to them.
Argentina has been going through a serious economic crisis for a long time. The person responsible for it is a man whose political party is now back in power. His name was Juan Peron. What Peron decided to do was to create a fascism based on an alliance between the military and the labor unions. The people who adored Peron were the workers. He responded by nationalizing everything, by producing a whole bevy of state-owned industries, which turned out to be enormously non-productive, and by bringing thousands and thousands of people from the countryside to work in factories, which ended up with few foreign markets. Ultimately, as imports began to exceed exports, a terrible inflation began.
The Peronist excesses and the terrible economy prompted the active intervention of the military. Since 1930 the military has been the most powerful political force. The normal political parties have not been able to function freely. Whether you were Jewish or not Jewish, you always lived with the thought of military intervention. The military intervention most vivid in the minds of people today is that which took place in 1976, when a Peronist regime was overthrown for the second time. But the military was humiliated in the Falklands War. Democracy returned in 1983; and, in 1989, free elections returned the Peronists to power in the midst of the worst financial crisis Argentina has ever known.
I arrived in Argentina in July, when the crisis was at its worst. In February you could get seventeen australes for a dollar; when I arrived it was close to eight hundred for a dollar. The inflation rate was 12,000 percent a year. No prices were posted in the stores. The price at 8:01 was different from the price at 8:02. Nobody wanted the local currency.
In the midst of this turmoil I arrived to talk about Secular Humanistic Judaism.
I arrived in a country where one of the great dreams of Jews is to leave. The middle class, the rockbed of the Jewish community, is being bankrupted. The President of the Argentinian Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Gregorio Klimovsky, is one of the most distinguished professors in the country, a professor of philosophy who teaches in two universities. He was on his way, when I met him, to receive an award from the International Psychoanalytic Association in Rome. He earns $150 a month.
The Jews of Argentina may at one time have numbered about 400,000, maybe 350,000, but there has been over the past twenty to thirty years a lot of emigration from Argentina.
The Jewish community came to Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a Jewish millionaire, was disturbed by the accusation that Jews did not work with their hands. (Obviously he didn’t.) So he convinced Polish and Russian Jews to go to Argentina to be farmers and gauchos. What happened in Argentina is what happened in Canada. The Jewish farmers in Canada lasted in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Alberta for only a short while, and they ultimately ended up in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto. They just didn’t want to be farmers. And in Argentina the overwhelming majority ended up in Buenos Aires and other large cities.
The community from the very beginning was overwhelmingly secular, one of the most secular Jewish communities in the world. They had virtually no rabbis and very few synagogues. Their Jewish life was to a large extent built around Yiddish and ultimately around Yiddish nationalism or Zionism.
The Jewish community has been transformed during the past twenty to twenty-five years by the presence of two new groups who exercise great control. One is the Conservative. About twenty years ago or more, an American rabbi named Marshall Meyer showed up in Buenos Aires, sent by the Jewish Theological Seminary. He organized a Conservative seminary and trained rabbis to serve the Jews of Latin America, Jews who were secular but who had no consistent secular Jewish philosophy, and were, therefore, very vulnerable to conversion.
Meyer provided leaders —young, attractive, intellectual, articulate leaders, and they went out and organized congregations all over Latin America, especially in Argentina. Today in Buenos Aires there are at least three Conservative congregations. Today one of the most successful Jewish enterprises in Argentina is the Conservative movement. It is growing there as well as in other parts of Latin America.
The other group is one that previously had absolutely no power. It is the Orthodox. Over the past fifteen to twenty years there have arrived in Argentina Orthodox missionaries — Lubavitchers and others — and they have moved into a community where by the second or third generation many of the people have assimilated and do not have a real sense of what it means to be Jewish. And these missionaries now pose as the authentic Jews. At the opening meeting of the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelites Argentinas (DAIA), the Argentinian national organization for all Jews, an Orthodox rabbi was invited to give an opening prayer. Fifteen or twenty years ago that would not have happened in Buenos Aires. All over the world aggressive Orthodoxy is moving in, and smug secularists who said it could never happen are discovering that the Orthodox are organizing schools, providing leaders, and taking over.
One of the reasons that the Orthodox are successful is that they bring in dedicated full-time leaders who are committed to their movement. The movement that has the organization and personnel ultimately wins. It is true of the Conservative movement and it is also true of the Orthodox. And when old-time secularists ask how this could happen in Argentina, my answer is that we did not do our homework.
The secular Jews who came to Argentina at the beginning of the century had a religion called socialism, which ultimately died. Then they were left with a spiritual vacuum. Secular simply meant that you did not go to shul and you did not pray.
During Peron’s era, the state schools, which had educated Jewish children, began to deteriorate. Now 65 to 70 percent of the Jewish children in Argentina go to day schools. Some of them are run by the Orthodox, some by the Conservatives, but the overwhelming majority are run by the nisht ahin, nisht aher group. They are in some way vaguely secular, but they will not say so. They allow Orthodox rabbis to come in sometimes to talk and to perform ceremonies. They will not commit themselves to secularism. The ideology of the schools is basically Zionism, with a strong emphasis on teaching the Hebrew language. I was very impressed by the quality of education. Often the schools recruit people from Israel to assist.
The major institutions for Argentinian Jews are a combination of a Jewish community center and a country club. The two largest organizations in Buenos Aires are Club Hebraica and Club Ha-Koach. Each has a large community center in the center of town near Corrientes Avenue, the old Jewish neighborhood. In their centers are libraries, classrooms, Hebrew classes, Yiddish classes, history classes, recreational facilities, the whole spectrum of social and cultural activities. Out in the suburbs they have rowing clubs. Hebraica has close to fifteen thousand members and Ha-koach has an equal number. Their ideology is a negative secularism: If you don’t want to have a bar mitsva in a shul, you can have it at the center. The people in this environment are very vulnerable to the propaganda of the Conservative and Orthodox missionaries because they have never developed a self-aware, clear, positive, Secular Humanistic Jewish philosophy.
Our fledgling group, the Argentinian Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, has been in existence for three years. Its organizers are a group of intellectuals who came out of two camps that never talked to each other before. One camp was Bundist and Communist and Yiddishist and anti-Zionist; the other camp was zealously Zionist. Now there as been an intermarriage.
The marriage is not an easy one. But they are persisting. They have established classes for adult education. They have put out a magazine, Judaismo Laico, which is very reputable. They have recruited some of the top Jewish writers and intellectuals in Argentina to write for the magazine. They hope to turn this magazine into a Latin American publication to inform Jews in other parts of Latin America of the existence of Secular Humanistic Judaism.
The problem they confront is twofold. The tremendous economic crisis prevents people from concentrating on organizing. They are trying to stay alive. Also, many young people are thinking about leaving the country. Argentina is one of the few countries left in the world where a high percentage of Jewish young people who decide to leave go to Israel, because the day school system is highly Zionistic and many of the students are Hebrew-speaking.
I see great opportunity for us because there exists in Argentina this enormous nisht ahin, nisht aher group, which, if there were leaders who would come and teach and organize, certainly might be responsive to a Secular Humanistic message.
Uruguay is a wonderful place for secularists despite a decade of military rule. Uruguay and Holland are the two countries in the world where virtually 50 percent of the population declare themselves to be non-believers. Although Uruguay is in Catholic Latin America, it has a very strong public, secular tradition. The former president publicly admitted that he is an atheist, and there are not many countries in the world where the president has made that statement.
There are now in Uruguay some thirty thousand Jews. At one time there were fifty thousand. In Montevideo we have an extremely enthusiastic Secular Humanist Jewish group. One of their leaders is Leopoldo Mueller, a psychoanalyst, who writes Freudian interpretations of the Bible for the local Jewish press. Another is Egon Friedler, one of the leading journalists in Uruguay. They utilized my visit to educate the Uruguayan Jewish leaders and community that there was a movement called Secular Humanistic Judaism that existed beyond this small group in Montevideo.
Our group meets often as a community. They celebrate holidays. They are interested in establishing some kind of youth education. They are planning to celebrate life cycle functions. There are many enthusiastic people and quite a few young members. I was impressed by their warmth and commitment.
I have been to the Soviet Union four times: in 1970, in 1974, in 1986, and again this past year. My purpose this time was to look for Jews who might be interested in Secular Humanistic Judaism.
I arrived in the Soviet Union in the midst of a lot of turmoil. The Soviet Union, like Argentina, is suffering an economic crisis. Despite all the propaganda and the heroic poses, it remains an economically backward country. People will tell you there has been a tremendous change between what existed before the revolution and what exists now. That is not an appropriate comparison. The appropriate comparison is between what exists in the Soviet Union and what exists in other countries that were equally devastated by the war. Germany and Japan are perfect examples of countries that arose out of the ruins of devastation.
One of the museums I went to see was the Lenin Museum. One room in this museum is about the 1905 revolution. The 1905 revolution was sparked by the food lines. The photographs showed people standing in line for bread. The pictures looked like the lines I had seen outside the stores that very morning. There is nothing in the stores, and the lines seem to have grown longer. People talk a lot about the economic failure of perestroika.
The nationality problem also is producing pessimism. I met Jews who said they were not sure the Soviet Union would last even for twenty years because this problem is so intense that it may no longer be possible for the Soviet authorities to prevent the nationalities from seceding.
One of the things that glasnost has brought to the Soviet Union is what free speech brings. If you believe in free speech, you allow even the enemy to speak up. Now, not only do nice liberals like Sakharov have a chance to speak out, but also nasty anti-Semites. The Russian response to all this nationalism on the part of the people they have conquered is their own nationalism, and the argument goes like this: Russia was destroyed by the Jews —they invented communism, and once having invented communism and imposed it on us and it didn’t work, they’re fleeing like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
There was a rumor in June of an imminent pogrom, which panicked the Jewish community. A high percentage of the Jews now want to leave. Jews who, three years ago, would not have chosen to leave the Soviet Union, now, because of anti-Semitism and no faith in the future of the economy, want to leave. The question is whether in ten to twenty years there will be a significant Soviet Jewish community.
Demographers differ on the number of Jews in the Soviet Union. I was told by a Jewish demographer that realistically we are now talking about a million and a half Jews. He feels that within twenty to twenty-five years the Jewish population may sink to about five hundred thousand.
In 1986, the Gorbachev reforms really had not hit the Jewish community. This year everybody is talking politics, even out in the streets. You can stand in the middle of Kremlin Square and say Gorbachev is a jerk. When Russians meet foreigners, they want to talk politics day in and day out. In the spirit of the new freedom, a number of spontaneous Jewish organizations have developed. All over Moscow there are small groups. One has as its leader Yuri Sokol, a former colonel in the Soviet army. How does a group like Sokol’s get a place to meet? You cannot rent space unless you are licensed by the state. Where, then, do you meet? In your apartment, of course. In Sokol’s apartment there is a Holocaust museum in one room, a library in another room, and his office in the kitchen. When I was there, two Orthodox rabbis had come from Israel to missionize, and they brought with them a very sophisticated video in Russian. They spoke to the twenty-five young people gathered in the library, explaining that the only true way to be Jewish was the way they were going to show them on the video.
What is happening in the Soviet Union is a free-for-all. Soviet Jewish young people, almost all of them, have assimilated into Russian culture. Ignorant of what it means to be Jewish, but hating the regime and feeling anti-Semitism, they now want to affirm their Jewish identity and now encounter what they believe to be the authentic representatives of Jewishness, who come with sophisticated public relations material. When I landed in Moscow, five Lubavitchers got off my plane. Every Jewish organization in North America is sending its missionaries to the Soviet Union.
No sooner have Jews found freedom than there are internal fights in the Jewish community. One struggle is between those who are Orthodox and those who are not. The Orthodox already have a yeshiva, which is registered under the Soviet Academy of Science. Many Orthodox Jewish groups meet in apartments throughout Moscow. Those who are not Orthodox are less well organized. I was told that seven years ago there was an attempt to organize a Conservative synagogue, which failed. Today a subgroup of the Jewish Cultural Association is organizing itself as a Reform congregation. Those who are secular have no strong sense of what it means to be secular. Their ideology is somewhat vacuous, a kind of negative secularism.
Another conflict in the community revolves around the issue of willingness to be licensed and controlled by the Soviet government. Since the government controls all significant plans for assembly and the distribution of paper for publication, refusing to deal with the government, because you hate communism, can have dire consequences. Yuri Sokol has received approval for his group from the Moscow Soviet. Already some Jews are saying that he is nothing more than an agent of the Russian government. A man named Gorodetsky, who is the head of the Igud Ha-Morim, the Union of Hebrew Teachers, is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who will have no truck at all with the Soviet government. The Jewish Cultural Association, led by Mikhail Chlenov, says, “We do not want the approval of the Moscow Soviet. However, we will seek licensing, because if we get licensing, at least we will have access to a meeting place and will be able to negotiate with the Soviet authorities.” Then there is Tankred Golenpol’sku who runs a newspaper that is obviously paid for by the Soviet government and appears on the newsstands. Many Jews in Moscow are saying he must be a Soviet agent, because where else could he get the money and the paper for publishing it?
I arrived in the midst of all this turmoil— the economic crisis, the crisis of pessimism, the crisis of anti-Semitism, and a divided Jewish community. Would these people be interested in Secular Humanistic Judaism? I had some names to contact.
I spent an exciting time with Mikhail Chlenov, who is basically a secular Jew. He is one of the old-time refuseniks who decided not to leave. He is one of Russia’s leading ethnographers; it was he who, in 1981, started the Jewish Ethnographic Society, which is intended to provide accurate information about the Jews of the Soviet Union. Now he has organized the Jewish Cultural Association.
He is interested in Secular Humanistic Judaism. But in the Soviet Union, atheism and secularism are identified with communism. Most of the Jews in the Soviet Union hate communism. Therefore,the word secular, instead of having a positive overtone, often has a negative overtone. In fact, although most of the Jews indeed are secular, convincing them that secularism is an authentic expression of Judaism and Jewish identity is difficult.
Chlenov does not think that recruitment is impossible, but he believes that it is more difficult than one would imagine.
Aaron Vergelis is editor of Sovietish Heimland, a Jewish publication that has been around for a long time. He was, most likely, an agent of the Soviet government, but he produces a very creditable Yiddish publication, which is now filled with the work of many young authors who have been finding their Jewish identity in their tongue. I met two of those who write for the magazine. Vergelis is not liked by most of the Jews of Moscow. They regard him as somewhat treasonous.
A possible spokesperson for our cause is Igor Krupnik, who works with Mikhail Chlenov as an ethnographer. A brilliant intellectual, he wants to establish an institute for the scientific study of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. He is interested in the ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Krupnik pointed out that we need a group of people to translate our literature into Russian and then circulate that literature to Russian Jewry to give them some idea of what a positive philosophy of Secular Humanistic Judaism is. I met some Soviet Jewish intellectuals who might translate and publish this literature. We also have in Israel a group of Russian emigres attached to the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, who may work with the people in the Soviet Union to produce this literature. With persistence and cautious optimism, we can reach out to Soviet Jews.
I went from Moscow to Jerusalem, and I arrived in time for a Sukkot seminar sponsored by the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Almost two hundred people attended: young people, old people, an interesting mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The topic was the Palestinian issue, and they had a series of very brilliant speakers. The high point of the seminar weekend for me was the opportunity to make them aware that they are part of a world movement. It is very important for people in Israel who are oppressed by the Orthodox to know that there are Secular Humanistic Jews elsewhere.
During the past year the Israel Association has taken a quantum jump. It acquired one part-time and one full-time staff person. It organized seminars throughout the country. It is sending lecturers into the army and the schools. It has received a lot of press attention. It is now organizing young people’s groups in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The organization is blossoming.
In October, at the third biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Chicago, I hope that there will be a significant delegation from Latin America —that we will have an opportunity to meet with them, to talk with them, to share ideas with them, and to provide them with new energy for their struggle as they bring their own energies to support us.
We hope, too, that one or more of the Russian Jewish intellectuals with whom I made contact will be able to come. It will be an opportunity to meet people who are exploring Secular Humanistic Judaism and who can become effective voices for transmitting our ideas to Soviet Jewry. Also coming to that meeting will be the leadership of the Israel Association and perhaps some of the young people.
The topic of the conference is “The Future of the Jewish People.” What is our image of the Jewish people in the future? How do we see it, whether we are Russian Jews, Israeli Jews, Latin American Jews, or North American Jews? One of the arguments I frequently encounter is: “I agree with your ideas, but I don’t think that my grandchildren, if they are secular, will still be Jewish.” We need to counter the argument of the Lubavitchers, who receive enormous amounts of money because they have created the image that they are the only guarantee for Jewish survival.
In Chicago in October, as at the previous international meetings in Brussels and Detroit, we will experience solidarity, a sense that we are part of a single movement. Our brothers and sisters outside North America need our help, and we need the inspiration of their struggle. Together we will create a vital and significant Secular Humanistic Judaism.