Humanistic Judaism gets new home for services, study

Founded in the Bay Area a decade ago on the principle that God should be left out of Judaism, a group of secular Jews has opened its first center of operations.

The Northern California chapter of the Society for Humanistic Judaism now calls home a building at 412 Monte Vista Ave. in Oakland.

It subleases the space — an office and a time-share of meeting rooms — from Jewish Community Services of Oakland and Piedmont.

First organized in Detroit 35 years ago, the Humanistic group has its followers celebrate most Jewish holidays, observe Shabbat and read the Torah.

The group's members send their children to Sunday school and some even believe in God, said chapter president Jutta Organek.

But, she explains, "God is a personal choice. We first of all believe that every human is responsible for their own actions and fate."

So, why observe any kind of Judaism?

"We believe in the history of the Torah. It is our history, though it is not divinely written," Organek says.

"It shows that our ancestors believed in God. It was probably necessary of the times, but we interpret it in our own way."

About 70 members and their spiritual leader, Susan Averbach, celebrated the new center with wine, food and Israeli folkdancing at a recent housewarming party. A banner was stretched across the wall depicting the movement's symbol, a "humanorah," which by all appearances looks like a standard menorah and is used to observe Chanukah.

In addition to hosting Sunday school and monthly Shabbat services, the center also will house Torah study sessions, men's and women's group meetings, public forums on ballot initiatives and public education issues that affect the wider community.

Chapter founder Roy Calder says the center is long overdue, especially for a group that has outgrown living room gatherings. In fact, with 110 member households, it's become the third largest congregation in a movement of 9,000 followers in about 20 American cities and a dozen cities abroad.

Humanistic observance, Calder explains, allows families to feel close to their culture even though they may not feel comfortable in a synagogue.

Services and other celebrations are spiritually oriented, with followers exalting the human spirit rather than a diety, Averbach explained.

Many members come from religious families, or from families heavily influenced by Yiddishkeit. All, for a variety of reasons, have since drifted to the secular camp. About 20 percent are war refugees and camp survivors who have lost faith in a God, Calder said.

"We are providing another means of Jewish identity."

Calder commends the organized Jewish community, such as area federations and the Jewish Community Relations Council, for maintaining relations with the Humanistic Jews.

"We're becoming a part of mainstream Judaism," he said, though in the beginning, "we were considered a bunch of oddballs."

Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the S.F.-based JCRC, confirmed the Humanistic Jews' membership, granted about six years ago.

"There was no question about their [qualification]," Kahn said. "We don't impose an ideological test," and they aim "to preserve and strengthen the status of the organized Jewish community."

Whether or not Humanistic Judaism truly becomes "mainstream," as have the Reform and Conservative movements, is yet to be seen. But one thing is certain – the group's beliefs may represent those of many American Jews.

Calder claims that Humanistic Judaism best describes the tenets of some 80 percent of Bay Area Jews who are unaffiliated.

His thoughts aren't unique. Jewish thinker and author Alan Dershowitz in his latest book, "The Vanishing American Jew," speculates that Humanistic Judaism may actually save some Jews from total assimilation as younger generations increasingly turn their backs on religion.

In his book, Dershowitz cites reports that Israeli secularists are increasingly taking on extensive Jewish learning.

"Are such nontheistic Jews authentic Jews?" he writes. "Of course they are. In a diverse Jewish world that has always changed and adapted to new realities, there has to be room for those who wish to explore Judaism from a human-centered perspective.

"There must be room in Jewish life for the skeptic and the disbeliever just as there is room for all manner of Jews in the Jewish nation of Israel."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.