We dont talk about God, we talk about Jewish celebration

Rabbi Miriam Jerris is used to skeptics who characterize her faith as two slices of bread without the filling.

A national leader in the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Jerris maintains that her philosophy is loaded with substance and spirituality — just no deity.

The Michigan-based rabbi gets spiritual lifts from Jewish celebrations, culture, music, literature and simply "being in community" with other adherents of the 40-year-old movement that declines to acknowledge the existence or nonexistence of God.

"We don't talk about God," said Jerris, 53, who serves as the community development head for the 10,000-member movement headquartered in suburban Detroit.

"We talk about Jewish celebration, Jewish music. On Shabbat, we light candles, we break bread."

Jerris will come to the Bay Area on Friday, Feb. 28 to join in a weekend of Jewish celebrations at the Albany-based Kol Hadash, the Northern California Community for Humanistic Judaism.

Her visit is one of about 10 field trips she makes annually to some of the movement's 35 communities in the United States and Canada.

A leader in the society for 27 years, the Canadian-reared Jerris was ordained two years ago in the society's 10-year-old seminary in Farmington Hills, Mich.

"I decided what I always wanted to be was a rabbi," said Jerris, who grew up attending a Reform congregation headed by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who went on to found the Humanistic movement in 1963.

Wine will retire in May from his Michigan congregation but will continue making community visits and serving as an educator, according to Jerris.

When Jerris is making her local visit, she will conduct a Shabbat service and speak on intermarriage. She'll discuss personal spirituality at a Saturday, March 1 brunch. And on Sunday, March 2, she'll participate in a program of family-oriented music, story-telling and craft events.

One of her goals is to teach participants some Hebrew blessings with a nontheistic theme.

Founded 16 years ago, the local congregation has a membership of 111 families and recently hired its first rabbi. Kai Eckstein, a native of Germany, will join Kol Hadash as a halftime rabbi in April.

Started as an "in-home thing," the congregation has been "growing pretty steadily," said Marcia Grossman, an El Cerrito resident who serves as the congregation's president.

Jerris believes that the appeal "is this strong need to be part of a Jewish community. What we typically attract are people philosophically humanist but [who] feel very attached to their Jewish culture."

Humanistic Jews follow the Jewish calendar, celebrate b'nai mitzvah and other lifecycle events. They sing Jewish songs and often write their own liturgy.

Shabbat, "for us, is time for study, time to connect to Jewish identity, time to be in Jewish community," Jerris said.

"There's a huge, huge place for creativity."

While observances "are typically not worship," she said they are "a very celebratory thing.

"We celebrate connection to Jewish people and whatever historical connections there are to that holiday."

Jerris says Humanistic Judaism is attracting a variety of Jews, non-Jews and intermarried families. The philosophy offers "community, with the cultural bent to it."

It's an approach that appears to fill a need, she emphasizes. "You'll hear time and time again: Until I found Humanistic Judaism, I wasn't involved in the Jewish community."