Secular Humanists seek following in Tri-Valley area

Going on the assumption that “there’s always a need for another alternative in Jewish life,” Rabbi Judith Seid is putting together a group of Secular Humanist Jews in the Tri-Valley area.

And if the group’s inaugural event is any indication, there is a need. About 24 people attended a Rosh Hashanah potluck dinner. The group will gather next for a Sukkot brunch.

The only other Jewish Secular Humanist presence in the Bay Area is Congregation Kol Hadash, based in El Cerrito, so Seid, who recently moved with her husband to Pleasanton, is looking to start something there.

“We have a nice Reform congregation here and it’s very welcoming with a lot going on, but it’s not for everybody,” she said. “We’re going to appeal to some of the people who don’t want to belong to a religious organization but identify with Jewish culture.”

At the sukkot brunch, participants will decorate the outdoor hut and also practice the custom of “ushpizin,” during which guests talk about which historical figures they would like to invite into the sukkah.

The movement of Secular Humanist Jews is based on a theology that is devoid of any belief in a higher power, and, more specifically, God.

According to the movement’s Web site, “Secular Humanistic Jews understand Judaism as the human-centered history, culture, civilization, ethical values, and shared experience of the Jewish people. For us, the message of Jewish history is that we have the power and the responsibility to take control of our own lives.”

Seid grew up in the movement, and worked for the International Federation of Secular Humanist Jews at its headquarters outside of Detroit. When she moved to Baltimore, she established a community there.

Before the movement began ordaining its own rabbis, it had a leadership track in which people studied to become “leaders,” so they could perform weddings and other lifecycle events. Seid became a leader first, and then, a few years ago, a rabbi.

She is one of only six Humanist rabbis who have been ordained by the movement; there are about half dozen others who came from other movements.

Seid is also the author of “God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage and Community.”

She said she hopes to start small, with a chavurah. Then, depending on interest, she might turn that group into a full-fledged congregation.

“I don’t expect we’ll ever be huge, but I think there’s a lot of people we appeal to, people who are in dual cultural families, non-traditional family people, and then to some traditional people who don’t want their kids taught something they don’t believe.”

The first gathering not only yielded the 24 attendees but phone calls from many more who were interested but could not attend, which gives Seid hope that this could turn into a much larger community. “Clearly this is something that people were looking for,” she said.

Seid is also planning a November event at which she will give a history of Secular Humanist Judaism, though an exact date has not been set yet.

The Secular Humanistic Jews of the Tri-Valley Area will hold a potluck brunch 10 a.m. Sunday morning, Oct. 16 at Seid’s house in Pleasanton. Information: (925) 485-1049 or [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."