The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1983, Vol. XX, Number 6

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

In July of 1963, the idea of the Birmingham Temple was born. In September we held our first meeting. In November we were chartered. 

Some said that we would never last. But we lasted. And we grew stronger. And we helped to create sister congregations in other communities. 

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

We discovered that we did not have to be imprisoned by the past. If neither Orthodoxy nor Conservatism nor Reform fit our beliefs, we did not have to adjust to what was unacceptable. We did not have to succumb to cynical resignation. We could pioneer an alternative that had never been tried before and make it work. 

We learned that maintaining our integrity helped us deal with hostility. The intimidation techniques of our enemies were less effective so long as we were defending what we really believed. Compromise would have undermined our self-esteem and made us vulnerable to attack. Beyond our integrity, boldness was our greatest asset. 

We discovered that we could be truly creative. Since there was no readily available working tradition for humanistic Judaism we had to make our own. We redid the holidays. We wrote new services. We transformed the Bar and Bat Mitsvah (sic) ceremony. We invented a new form of Jewish education. Our commitments forced us to do what we never planned to do. They made us see our own talents. 

We learn that we were able to serve people who had never been adequately served before by institutional life. Most of our first members were peripheral Jews who found their Jewish involvements uncomfortable and compromising. They never imagined that it was possible for them to feel at the center of Jewish commitment. But the Temple gave them a philosophic home where they never had to feel like strangers. 

We discovered that we were saying out loud what many people already believed. The Temple made no converts. It simply became a public voice for people who never had one before. The liberation of humanistic Jews is not their awakening to secular truth. It is a willingness to go public.  

We learned that we enjoyed pioneering. Starting something new was even more fun than inheriting something old. It enabled us to focus on our own present needs and not the needs of ancestors who had died a long time ago. We felt unique and useful. The pleasure of being our own person made up for any residual guilt that gave us anxiety. 

We discovered that we were continually changing. Some of our enemies claimed that we would end up as rigid and dogmatic as the people we opposed. But, very early, we experienced the frustration of trying things that didn’t work. We learned to try, to test and to choose. Our members were too good humored to let any procedure become sacred. Some of our first songs have been justifiably forgotten. And some of our best celebrations are very new. 

We learned that we could transmit our philosophy to the next generation. Many skeptics wondered whether children in a conventional religious world could embrace the humanistic alternative. But we saw our children grow up to enjoy the humanistic answers and to become articulate spokespeople for the Temple point of view. We developed a sense of continuity. 

We discovered that it is sometimes hard to be a humanistic Jew. We were denied the ease of joining just a neighborhood congregation. Joining the Birmingham Temple meant continuous training. Our friends, neighbors and associates did not regard our affiliation with indifference. We had to defend, to explain, to justify. And, in the process, we had to work hard at understanding our philosophy. Members of other congregations could hide behind the respectability. We had to prove ourselves. 

We learned, above all, that shared values and ideas help to develop a community. We started out as strangers who came together for philosophical reasons. But our common commitments made it easier for us to become friends. Our first attachments were to ideas. But they deepened into connections with people. The history of our temple is a story of friendship and community. We have always wanted to be for (sic) more than a discussion society. We have striven to become a family of choice. 

We have discovered many things in twenty years. They are part of our unique tradition.