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.