Humanistic Judaism: East Bay congregation for atheist, secular Jews has been slow to catch on

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, a leader in the Humanistic Judaism movement, is looking forward to traveling from her home in Detroit to the Bay Area next month to lead a Rosh Hashanah gathering at Kol Hadash in Albany.

She knows, however, that while many other Bay Area congregations will be overflowing with worshippers during the High Holy Days, it won’t be standing-room-only at her service.

“There are more people who believe what we believe,” she said, “than put their money down and join us.”

What most Humanistic Jews believe is that there is no God, but that there is great value in coming together as a community to preserve and celebrate Jewish culture and identity. In their philosophy, people are responsible for living ethically and morally in order to serve human needs, independent of supernatural authority.

Kol Hadash member Harold Lecar leads a Shabbat program last month. photo/alana shindler

Humanistic Judaism is a movement that has attracted atheist and secular Jews for generations since the Enlightenment, but which only became formalized with the founding of the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine.

Wine died in a taxi accident in Morocco three years ago, after which Jerris became the society’s rabbi and also the president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis. There are about 50 congregations and communities in North America affiliated with SHJ (or the associated Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations), plus some affiliates in Israel and South America.

Congregations in North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan and other states are composed of a significant number of young families — and many offer vibrant children’s education programs and a HuJews youth group, said Jerris.

But in the Bay Area, where members tend to be mostly of retirement age, Humanistic Judaism has been somewhat slow to catch on.

There are 60 dues-paying household members in the SHJ-affiliated Kol Hadash (where most events are held at a community center in Albany) and 20 in the CSJO-affiliated Tri-Valley Cultural Jews (which holds events in Pleasanton and Livermore). Kol Hadash has been around for 23 years, Tri-Valley for five years.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris

It is not altogether clear why Humanistic Judaism hasn’t taken root the Bay Area, a part of the country known for its high rate of secularism and non-affiliation. It could be because the movement has not aggressively marketed itself, or because recruiting for Kol Hadash is “like herding cats,” said Alana Shindler, the congregation’s ritual committee chair.

“Secular Jews tend not to be joiners of Jewish organizations by nature,” she said. “And in the Bay Area, there is so much going on Jewishly. There’s Renewal Judaism and a lot of other alternative choices. Unlike in a smaller community, here you can be Jewish and not belong to a congregation.”

Rabbi Judith Seid, who leads Tri-Valley Cultural Jews, concurs. “These are people who have made lives already without a Jewish community, and there’s not a lot of room in their lives for it,” she said.

Adding to the challenge: “People don’t know we’re here and people don’t know that they are looking for us,” she said.

Still, many that have found Humanistic Judaism have latched onto it, such as  Joyce Lewbin.

“I can’t do the kind of things that I don’t believe in,” said the long-term Kol Hadash board member “I wouldn’t want to go to a synagogue and sit there and keep quiet while others prayed. Being a Humanistic Jew and belonging to Kol Hadash, I can be true to myself and not adopt something that is not part of me.”

Although some Humanistic Jews have been secular all their lives, many have come to the movement later in life, after having grown up in Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox homes.

They are attracted by and appreciate Humanistic Judaism’s retention of Jewish traditions such as Shabbat, holiday and lifecycle observances. However, they are motivated by culture, not theology, to keep them.

“We come together not to praise God, but to open our hearts,” Shindler said.

Jewish ritual remains but with altered liturgy. Translated, the Sh’ma becomes, “Hear, O Israel: our people are one, humanity is one,” and the Kiddush for Shabbat becomes, “Beautiful is the peace in the world, beautiful is the fruit of the vine, beautiful is the peace of Shabbat.”

B’nai mitzvah often give a speech on a Jewish hero they have researched and identify with, instead of having an aliyah to the Torah or chanting the Haftorah.

In fact, Torah reading is not central to the activity of many Humanistic Judaism congregations. The movement has no set liturgy or standard prayer book, with rabbis and lay service leaders preparing their own materials, or relying on the SHJ online resource center.

In her talk at Kol Hadash, Jerris said her topic will be “Speaking Jewish: The Inspirational Voice of Humanistic Judaism.”

“It’s about how we see liturgy, define it and what is inspiring to us,” she said. “It’s about why and how we say and sing the things we do.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.