Paul Golin, executive director of Society for Humanistic Judaism, with his wife Yurika Mizuno Golin and their son
Paul Golin, executive director of Society for Humanistic Judaism, with his wife Yurika Mizuno Golin and their son

East Bay talks will shine a light on Judaism, minus God

If the idea of a godless Judaism baffles, intrigues or irritates you, then two upcoming events about Humanistic Judaism might present good opportunities to learn about this denomination that excludes God’s name but still celebrates Shabbat and Jewish holidays and embraces Jewish history and culture.

The talks are being presented by Kol Hadash, the Northern California Community for Humanistic Judaism, which holds most of its events and gatherings in Albany.

Both events will feature Paul Golin, the New York-based executive director of Society for Humanistic Judaism, which has 28 communities in North America. Golin has visited many of them in his first two years on the job, but this will be his first visit to the Bay Area.

“Humanistic Judaism sees the value in continuing holidays and rituals, those that provide meaning,” Golin told J. “We still find meaning in the High Holidays, reassessing your life each year, but it does not require you to say a bunch of stuff to a God you don’t believe in. It’s about human life right here.”

Golin will be part of a four-person panel on Aug. 25 titled “Religion, Humanism and Community.” Jim Barnett (Bay Area Humanists), Mashariki Lawson-Cook (Black Humanists and Non-Believers of Sacramento) and Rabbi Judith Seid (Tri-Valley Cultural Jews, a secular congregation in Pleasanton) will join Golin in answering questions such as: “What, if any, practices, rituals and forms of community can be adapted from religion and applied in secular spaces?”

Kol Hadash president Alana Shindler, who booked the panelists, is pleased, she said, that two of them are from non-Jewish communities, in part because sometimes Humanistic Jews have “concerns” about their own movement. Also, she added, “We are interested in growing, and we can certainly learn from other humanist communities as they can learn from us.”

Golin, who told J. that Humanistic Judaism incorporates the “good parts of religion while throwing out the parts that we can’t abide by,” did not attend High Holiday services for 25 years after his bar mitzvah, mainly because he didn’t see the meaning in it without a belief in God. And he doesn’t think he’s alone.

“If you look at affiliation rates in the Northwest,” he said, “so few people are walking through the doors of temples.”

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

Why? Golin contends it’s because so many Jews do not believe in God, and even if a rabbi says it’s OK to have different levels of belief, they still ask themselves, “Then why do anything?”

The second event will be an Aug. 26 discussion between Golin and Dawn Kepler, a columnist for J. and the founding director of Building Jewish Bridges, an interfaith outreach organization. The topic of the event, which is co-sponsored by Building Jewish Bridges and hosted by the JCC of the East Bay, will be intermarriage.

Humanistic Judaism fully supports interfaith marriages, though it terms them “intercultural marriages” because “faith” is just one part of Judaism.

“Religion is just a piece of [Jewish] culture, so when you remove religion from it, intermarriage is not a negative at all, because being multicultural is a positive value,” said Golin, whose wife is Japanese.

He said his children visit Japan once a year and are close to their Japanese grandparents, and that they also participate frequently in Jewish culture by celebrating holidays and visiting their Jewish grandparents.

“If I married a Jewish woman, I know my kids wouldn’t be involved in any more Jewish activity than what they already do,” Golin said.

Being a tiny denomination, Humanistic Jews are welcoming to newcomers, and on Aug. 24, Kol Hadash will hold an “adoption” ceremony — the movement’s term for what others might call a conversion. A 2005 statement from the Association of Humanistic Rabbis said they “welcome all individuals into the Jewish people who desire to link their lives with the experience of the Jewish nation/family, to identify with its historic memories and to participate in its culture and future.”

“I hope it will grow,” Shindler said of Humanistic Judaism. “Even though we’ve been around a long time [since 1963], I think we’re the best kept secret of the Jewish world. A lot of Jews don’t have supernatural beliefs but feel connected to the Jewish people. We are the perfect home for them.”

“Religion, Humanism and Community” panel discussion, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 25 at Albany Senior Center, 849 Masonic Ave. Free; optional box lunch for $15 prepaid. “The Humanist Intermarriage Narrative You Never Hear,” 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 26 at JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Free. or (510) 982-1455

Hannah Jannol
Hannah Jannol

Hannah Jannol is J.'s summer 2018 intern.