In this welcoming Jewish community, God is not on the guest list

For Tu B’Shevat, one of Judaism’s more obscure holidays, I spent last Friday evening at a seder run by one of its more obscure denominations, secular Humanistic Judaism.

Kol Hadash (“New Voice”) is one of just 27 affiliates of the Society for Humanistic Judaism listed on the national organization’s website. The 25-year-old group meets monthly for Shabbat in an L-shaped multipurpose room/dance studio in a community center in Albany, just north of Berkeley. On hand for the Tu B’Shevat seder were about 40 people — an impressive turnout, given that Kol Hadash has 40 member families, according to co-founder Joyce Lewbin. The crowd was largely 60-plus; there were no children, and only one person (other than me) who could have been construed as a young adult.

When I arrived, all were happily greeting each other and catching up. This community is tight, and they all seem to know each other. A warmly ad-hoc feeling pervaded. The welcoming atmosphere was repeatedly cited to me as a main draw, though the various tenets of rational, scientifically minded, nontheistic Jewish Humanism also came up a lot in my conversations with members. I’ve never been to a congregation where such a high percentage of the regulars are locked in what seems to be a perpetual discussion of the ideology of their movement. Or maybe they just put that on for me, the neophyte. Either way, the ideology of Humanistic Judaism is rigidly, proudly expressed in the ritual life of Kol Hadash.

Learning about birds at the Kol Hadash Tu B’Shevat seder (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

First up, there was the member-led, exceedingly brief Shabbat service (two photocopied pages), with responsive readings and one fascinating moment of radically reimagined liturgy: The Shabbat candles were lit not with the traditional blessing, but with this blessing-like trio of lines: Baruch ha-or ba-olam. Baruch ha-or b’adam. Baruch ha-or b’Shabbat. (The all-in-one service-and-seder handout poetically translates this as: “Radiant is the light of the world. Radiant is the light within each person. Radiant is the light of Shabbat.”)

The service also included a few, peppy, clap-along songs like “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” and “Shabbat Shalom — Hey!”

One unique point of interest was the lighting of memorial candles, something I’ve never seen before as part of a service. Everything stopped while about a dozen people lit candles and spoke for a moment in memory of their loved ones.

The seder followed the service. For most American Jews, this meal of wine, fruits and nuts invented by 16th-century mystics and loosely based on the Passover seder remains an unfamiliar museum piece of ritual Judaism, requiring exposition and, for most of us, awakening no childhood memories. This one, like a few I’ve attended before, felt more like an explanation of a Tu B’Shevat seder than the actual observance of one.

Various symbolic fruits and nuts are typically tied to particular parts of the seder, but the fruits and nuts at this seder were for snacking on, nothing more.

In place of a sermon or dvar Torah during the service, Kol Hadash always has a guest speaker. Other routine events include Sunday bagel brunches with guest speakers that include professors, civil rights movement activists and the like. Accordingly, last week’s seder was interrupted by a lengthy talk and PowerPoint presentation by Peter Ehrlich, whose lofty title is “Forester of the Presidio.” Inexplicably, the tree expert’s Tu B’Shevat-themed talk was almost entirely about birds, but also included repeated digressions about his personal distaste for “the non-native species people.” (Ehrlich, it turns out, is a proponent of keeping all of the region’s invasive eucalyptus groves intact.)

The evening’s proceedings engaged my mind — a Tu B’Shevat seder that begins with a reading on the pagan origins of the holiday as a time for worshipping the fertility goddess Asherah? Yes, please! — but my kishkes lay dormant, awaiting an uplifting spiritual moment.

Intellectually, I understand what draws people to Humanistic Judaism. As a science-minded modern Jew with a Reform background, the logic of it is strongly appealing: “Looking for a Jewish community that reflects what you actually believe?” reads a brochure about Kol Hadash. In my gut, however, I just don’t get it.

But if you’re like Basha, the lovely woman who shared with me a running commentary on the community throughout the service and seder, the point of Kol Hadash is straightforward: “We’re all about celebrating Jewish culture in a nontheistic way. That’s the whole shtick.”

The tension between messy traditions and modern thought would seem to be missing from a group so devoted to a vision of Judaism thoroughly bleached of its supernatural elements. Then again, after telling me “we’re all just so like-minded,” Basha started talking about what diverse denominational backgrounds the members come from, and how many of them are members of other congregations, too.

In other words, like so many in our Bay Area Jewish spiritual community, like me, some people at Kol Hadash simply can’t get the entire Jewish experience they need from just one community.

In the end, I did get one thing out of it: a great new word! Ignostic. In addition to atheists and agnostics, two Kol Hadash members told me it’s also a place for “ignostics,” people who believe that whether God is real or not is of no real consequence.

I didn’t know I was looking for this word, but it does describe my theological outlook pretty well. But as far as my appetite for religious communities goes, I still need a hearty niggun and some hefty liturgy to bite into.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to [email protected].

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky