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The Rabbi Writes – Construction of The Center for Humanistic Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rabbi Writes: Michigan Public Schools

The Jewish Humanist, February 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 7

The public school system in Michigan is in a crisis condition. The property tax for education has been dismissed. Public confidence is declining. The morale of teachers and students is at an all time low. Religious groups are clamoring for the replacement of state education with the voucher system. And a controversial referendum to provide alternative funding through a higher sales tax is imminent. 

The crisis stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of my childhood. In the first sixty years of this century the American state educational system was hailed as one of the finest examples of American democracy. Even free enterprise enthusiasts liked the public schools, even though it meant government control of education. While some proponents were fanatic Protestants who hated Catholics and the Catholic parochial school system most proponents were happy parents who believed that the state school system was delivering exactly what they wanted. 

The old public school system was very good at turning farmer children into urban labor and European immigrants into American citizens. It was also very good at producing a literate work force that could undertake unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. It was blessed with low paid spinster teachers, a young population eager for child education, a reverent relationship between parents and administrators, and low expectations. The social setting was one where two parent families and non-working mothers were the norm. Television was either non-existent or new and children read newspapers or wrote letters. 

The crisis in the public schools exists because the old social setting no longer exists. There are virtually no farmer children to turn into an urban work force. European children have been replaced by African, Asian and Hispanic children. Jobs for unskilled labor have vanished together with the easy affluence that little education at one time could bring you. Low-paid spinster teachers have yielded to self-esteeming professionals who want decent compensation and tenure at the same time. The population is aging, filled with old people who have no personal vested interest in funding child education. The relationship between administrators, teachers and parents is adversarial, aggravated by the emergence of aggressive teacher unions and indifferent politicians. Stable two parent families are shrinking into a minority-all of this change adding new burdens and responsibilities to an overburdened and non (sic) traumatized school system. The analytic skills that come from reading and writing have found a substitute in screen watching. And a more affluent bourgeois America has much higher expectations of its schools and its teachers. 

The consequence is a declining faith in the value of the public school system and an increasing unwillingness to find it. 

Something dramatic needs to be done. Either the public school system will be reformed and funded. Or it will yield to a chaotic system of private schools paid for by state vouchers. 

I am no friend of Governor Engler. But I applaud his willingness to confront the issue. The public school system will not be improved by defending the status quo and identifying all the enemies of public education who are members of his entourage. The complaints are legitimate. The crisis is real. 

I believe that right now, there is no alternative to public schools having the major responsibility for youth education. If we were starting from scratch, I might choose another alternative. But you do not tear down a system that basically works and replace it with an untested private system that will still rely on state money. 

So what do we need to do to reform the system effectively? We need to take bold action. Timid reforms will not work. 

We need to reform the school curriculum so that it trains students for the jobs of the future. Self-esteem does not flow from talking about it or praising one’s ethnic background. It comes from competence and employment. There is no substitute in today’s world for a basic knowledge of the language of science and technology. 

We need to find the teachers who can do this job, pay them adequately and rescue them from overcentralized (sic) and intrusive bureaucracies. Teachers should be rewarded for merit. The tenure system, which exists mainly in the public sector, ought to be discarded. 

We need to charter experimental schools, which are responsible to public authority-but which allow creative educators to test new procedures of education without having to conform to standard policies. 

We need to allow parental choice within a school district-and within the ability of a local school to accommodate demand. Schools that parents do not want should be closed or changed. 

We need to allow public schools the options of turning their operation over to private educational corporations. This experiment in Minnesota has proved quite successful. This transfer must only be made to entrepreneurs with a clear secular agenda. 

We need to establish performance standards for children in each area of learning. There is no substitute for testing. The fear that testing will produce uniformity and rote learning is out weighed (sic) by the disadvantage of chaotic expectations and school certificates that are a sham. 

We need to find funding for the system that provides equal support for the rich and the poor. The local property tax is no longer a feasible funding route. The income tax is a better route but will not be accepted by the general public. The sales tax is regressive-but there is a chance that it will be approved. Therefore, I support the referendum initiative. Hating Engler is not a sufficient reason to oppose. Helping children is more important. 

In some ironic way, Michigan has become a ‘pioneer’ for educational reform. We have to do something dramatic right away. 

The Voice of Reason

Humanistic Judaism, Spring, 1991

The Arkansas state legislature has passed a bill requiring science teachers to give as much time to the Genesis story of creation as a gift to the Darwinian story of evolution.

A California judge just recently declared the teachers and the California public schools must acknowledge the evolution is only a theory and not a fact.

Paul Laxalt, a conservative senator from Nevada, has co-sponsored a bill in Congress, which is called a Family Protection Act and what to remove the issues of abortion and teacher qualification from the jurisdiction of the higher courts.

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves of public library’s.

Mark Siljander, and Michigan Republican primary candidate actually backed by the Moral Majority, recently want to surprise victory against seemingly overwhelming odds.

A letter arrives to my office address to ‘you humanist bastard’.The anonymous author proclaims, ‘The Age of the Enlightenment is dead. The Age of Faith is reborn’.

Is the age of enlightenment really dying?

Well, if it were up to the Moral Majority and to its allies in the New Right, it’s certainly would be. The advocates of political Christian fundamentalism are determined to reverse the course of 200 years of American history and to turn our country into a Puritan version of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.

The ideas and the ideals of the Enlightenment are now under attack. The Age of Reason is now on the defensive. The belief in an orderly world governed by natural law, the valuing of reason is the best method for the discovery of truth, the ability to live with uncertainty and the tentativeness of judgments, the eagerness to welcome new ideas, and maximizing of individual freedom and personal options, the assumption that good citizenship as possible without denominational religion—all these affirmations of the enlightenment are now being assaulted by voices of reaction.

The voice of reason is being drowned out by the voice of Fanaticism.

Who is this voice of Fanaticism?

The list is long. There is…

The Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell

The Christian Voice of Jerry Jarmon

The Religious Roundtable of Ed McAteer

The Committee for the Survival of the Free Congress of Paul Weyrich

The Christian Crusade of Billy Joe Hargis

The Stop ERA of Phyllis Schlafly

The Conservatives Caucus of Howard Phillips

What do they want? They want. Period.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee of Tim Dolan

The Conservative Digestive Richard Viguerie

And the remnants of the John Birch Society

As well as many others.

To put prayers in the public school;

To insinuate Bible stories into public science classrooms;

To censor classic literature they deem morally offensive;

To undermine our judicial system a state secular education;

To use public money to support denominational religion;

To ban sex education;

To limit sexual freedom;

To defeat the ERA universe the hard-won gains of female liberation;

To ban abortions;

To revive political witch hunts in the name of anti-communism;

To secure a political power to make the changes they desire.

How are they going about getting what they want?

They have developed a simple message that everyone can understand. Unlike the complex answers of liberal intellectuals, their analysis of the causes of crime, poverty, and family decline can be reduced to a simple observation. Turning away from God and the Bible is responsible for moral decay. It, therefore, logically follows that, if we turn back to God in the Bible, all will be well.

They have infiltrated political parties. They are encouraging their members to become active Republicans and Democrats. They have already taken over the Republican Party in Alaska and are aiming for broader victories.

They pushed through members to go out and vote for the candidate they have chosen–or, in many cases, vote against the political figures they have targeted. Church of Idaho, McGovern of South Dakota, Bayh of Indiana and many others were victims of their effective campaign.

They have mastered the media. Ironically, the technology which the spirit assigned to sponsors of them better than it serves defenders of science. They understand the power of radio and television to indoctrinate the masses and to mobilize them for social action. Fundamentalist station channels are proliferating. Millions of dollars are pouring in weekly from enthusiastic audiences. The political fundamentalists have entered the home of every American with their electronic campaign.

Alliances with formally angry opponents. Hostility to the public school system, the advocacy to parochial education and hatred of abortion unite them with conservative Catholics. The salvation style of fundamentalist Christianity makes them appealing to native Blacks. The Bible approach to the importance of the state of Israel into the Begin government claim to the West Bank and Gaza gives them support in the Jewish community. They have cleverly decided to woo their old enemies.

They have encountered very little organized opposition. The tendency of many liberals and moderates to regard them as funny fanatics who will ultimately fade away serves them well. The smugness of the academic and intellectual communities make it easy for them to succeed by default. Why are they here to begin with? Why is there a resurgence of political fundamentalism the national scale?

There are several important reasons.

They have always been around. But, they now have a new self-confidence. The decline of the North and the growing prosperity of the South has given them economic clout and greater self-esteem. After all, the heartland of fundamentalism is the South. And the South is no longer the depressed region which sponsored the ‘hillbilly’ mentality. Prosperity has created a new assertiveness and an eagerness to defend the ethnic religion.

The economic recession in most of America has frustrated millions of citizens. They are angry and troubled about their declining living standards and do not know how to deal with economic forces over which they seem to have no control. This is a good beginning for religious fervor and paranoia.

Spreading problems of crime and family decline terrified money people. Liberal clichés about personal freedom do not deal with the real question. Concern for personal safety and the welfare of children is a valid concern. The fundamentalists have a silly solution to the problem. But, at least, they’re trying to answer the question.

Most people understand how to use technology. But, do not understand the spirit of free inquiry which makes the development of technology possible. Or educational system has produced technologists. But, it has not developed the mentality of true science. We are not living in an age of science. We are still living in an age of superstition, where irrational people have access to technology.

So what can we do? How could we, as defenders of reason and free inquiry, respond to their provocation?

We can take the problem seriously. Given their determination, economic power and mass appeal, the forces of the New Right and their social agenda will not easily sleep it away.

We can organize. We can band together to become a public Voice of Reason to counter the propaganda and political activity of the political fundamentalists.

What would be the message of the voice of reason?

It would be positive. It will not allow the New Right to put us in the position of always being against. It would state very clearly that we are for three traditional American values–free inquiry —having good citizenship in a secular state—community peace and harmony—with the consequent need to avoid imposing controversial moral values on everybody.

It would be patriotic. It would not permit the opposition to claim Americanism. It would demonstrate that the founding fathers were disciples of the Enlightenment –not pious religionists. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin resisted the Moral Majority of their day to lay the foundations of a secular state.

It would be moral. It would not simply defend negative freedom and turn over all the ethical vocabulary to the moralists on the right. It will declare that teaching values is an important part of public education. After all, reliability, honesty, cooperation, sharing, and self-control are part of good citizenship. They are necessary, non-controversial discipline n in a secular state. While denominational religion can reinforce these values, they can also be derived from reason and common sense. In a land of competing religions, the shared reasonable approach is the only feasible way to teach social discipline and to preserve community peace.

It would be sensitive. It would acknowledge the worries that many poor and middle-income Americans have about crime, child pornography, and family decline. It would be concerned with pragmatic responses to these issues.

It would be non-partisan. Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, fear the Moral Majority and its attempts to take over the machinery of the political parties. The Voice of Reason would not identify with the liberal economic agenda. It would recognize that both economic liberals and economic conservatives are in favor of the secular state and free inquiry.

How was the Voice of Reason go about spreading this message?

It would establish a national organization.

It would secure the endorsement of prominent ‘stars’ in the natural and social sciences, as well as the backing of public figures.

It would produce materials for public distribution.

It would create media programs for radio and television.

It would hold public meetings and rallies to generate publicity and create a sense of group solidarity.

It would train citizens to be the effective voices of reason and to answer the distortion of the New Right.

It would issue position papers to evaluate proposed legislation.

It would monitor the behavior of Congress and state legislators and support targeted candidates, whether Republican or Democratic.

It would solicit money to make this campaign possible.

Right now, the Voice of Reason is more than a ‘would’. It is an ‘is’. Last December, a national organization called the Voice of Reason was established in Michigan and Illinois. Its founding committee came from both the Society for humanistic Judaism and from other concern groups.

The voice of reason is growing. It is reaching out to many other states. It needs your help and support.