The Jewish Advocate: Adherents of Humanism putting down local roots; In sign of movement’s local growth, Boston to host biennial conference

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NEWTON – Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Newton, known as Kahal B’raira, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Its name means “Community of Choice,” which also happens to sum up the core philosophy of Humanistic Judaism, which adherents describe as “nontheistic” Judaism. In the absence of a supernatural authority commanding people how to be Jewish, Humanistic Jews rely on the choices of human beings and focus on pursuing the ethical choices in their lives.

Kahal B’raira does not yet have a rabbi, although recently the congregation took its first steps at professionalizing its operation by creating three part-time positions. And while its administrator, Sunday School principal, and youth director are surely working hard, a glimpse around the room at the dozens of volunteers at the congregation’s open house last Sunday proved that the communal spirit in which the group was founded runs strong.

“They’re one of our oldest affiliates,” said Rabbi Miriam Jerris, Community Development Coordinator for the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the national organization linking Humanistic Jewish congregations, communities and havurot in the United States. “KB came out of the ’60s and relies very strongly on volunteerism and consensus decision making. They have a huge spirit.” 

Over in Cambridge, the outlines of another Humanist movement are also becoming clear. “Humanism used to be accused of being ‘religion without God,'” said Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, “But gradually more religious leaders saw how powerful the idea is that the only way to build a better world is to build it together.”

In less than a month, Epstein will be ordained as a rabbi by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Mich. He is part of a new generation of leaders, made up of both rabbis and trained lay leaders called madrichim (Hebrew for “leaders”) aiming to advance the movement.

Humanistic Judaism at Harvard does not yet have a home either, but Epstein is working on it. He envisions opening a Humanist House at Harvard in which a new Humanistic Jewish congregation would share space with humanistic institutions of other cultural backgrounds.

“Within the Jewish community, the presence of a rabbi helps to increase awareness of the community,” said Bonnie Cousens, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. “Professionals – simply by virtue of the fact that this is their profession – are more engaged in working for the community. They have a different ability to devote the time to building the community.”

Jackie Liederman is one such volunteer, coordinating KB’s annual retreat. She founded the congregation 13 years ago when she and her husband went looking for a spiritual place where they would both be comfortable. He grew up in the Reform movement, but she was a nonobservant Jew. “It was practically an intermarriage,” she joked.

The message of self-reliance appealed to her, as did the diversity of the congregation’s members. “The community is made up of extremely intelligent, very liberal people with a lot of character, history and achievement,” she said.

Stan Eichner came to KB from an Orthodox background. “I connected to the culture, history and tradition,” he said. “But here, as I read the liturgy, I didn’t have to reinterpret it in my head.”

In some ways, KB resembles a synagogue, serving about 100 families, with a newsletter outlining services for the Sabbath and holidays as well as executive committee meetings, youth group events and yahrzeit notices. The congregation associates with other Jewish community institutions, such as Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and is a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

There are, however, a few aspect of the congregation that seem out of the ordinary. On Sundays when the children gather for Sunday school, the adults gather for a “Sunday Service” featuring a guest speaker and discussion as well as some elements of ritual and song. And because the congregation does not have its own building, a large portion of its newsletter is a grid explaining where each event of the year takes place, with locations ranging from the Solomon Schechter School in Newton to a church in Arlington to members’ homes throughout eastern Massachusetts.

In Cambridge, Epstein is looking forward to expanding on what is incorporated into the services of Humanistic Judaism. This summer, he traveled to Israel on a scholarship from the Harvard Center for Judaic Studies to research Israeli pop music as secular liturgy.

“One of the biggest challenges to our movement up to this point,” he said, “is the need to develop more liturgy that would capture people’s imagination and uplift their spirits.” He sees elements of this in the music of the secular, socialist Zionists who first settled Israel and in more recent Israeli pop songs.

KB has its own big plans, including hosting the movement’s biennial conference and annual youth conclave in April 2006, at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge. Jarris cited several reasons for bringing the events to Massachusetts.

“Their youth group is one of the most active, one of the strongest,” she said. “Additionally, we’re working very hard to develop our young adult community – 18- to 25-year-olds – so we thought Boston was an ideal place to draw on that demographic.”

Epstein acknowledged that Humanistic Judaism is likely to remain a minority within the broader Jewish community. “But the ideas of humanism are so powerful on both emotional and intellectual levels that we should be a strong and influential minority,” he said, “so people are aware of us even if they don’t subscribe to what we believe.”

Gladys Maged, the administrator at KB, hears this message clearly. “When people know a group as ‘nontheistic,’ they think you’re not spiritual or don’t have faith,” she said. “To have faith is believing in something you can’t scientifically prove. We have faith in the ability of humans.”


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