This past Sunday, I was in the prosperous burbs of Detroit, a few miles anyway from the inner city boarded up neighborhoods with their ubiquitous gun shops. Spring is a new possibility this early May: a few tulips and hyacinths, a few budding trees, a cold wind yet with highs in the fifties. I was there for the twice annual “live” board meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, arguably the smallest of the Jewish denominations, founded 50 years ago by a charismatic young Reform rabbi, Sherwin Wine, who could no longer even do Midrash on Torah passages extolling a God he did not believe in.
He didn’t need to be a theist to be a rabbi, he discovered, nor did the members of his synagogue — the Birmingham Temple — need to either in order to be good Jews (or Jews at all). Being Jewish, he began to argue, is cultural and historical, no matter what an individual’s philosophy or theology. We are our experiences, first and foremost.
So I spent four days in the building where he had created and led this movement, Humanistic Judaism, before his tragic death in a taxi cab accident, being part of the board of one of the organizations formed to sustain and govern his brainchild. We talked about the issues that all boards do: budgets, fundraising, membership growth. And we also heard about the joys and struggles of the individual communities from larger ones in Michigan, Washington DC, Minnesota and Illinois — and smaller ones in places like Durham, North Carolina.
With admirable efficiency and consensus, we also passed resolutions upholding the right of conscience in saying the pledge of allegiance; opposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions; and denying a place on an important Jewish organizations’ Presidents’ Council to J Street, which takes positions that do not hew to the most conservative party line.
On this Sunday morning — while we conducted our business in the empty sanctuary — there were children in the building for their religious school: learning a bit of Hebrew, hearing about their forebears, talking about Jewish values, drinking juice, eating matzos. Adult services had of course been held on Friday evening, during which we were led in Hebrew songs written and adapted for a secular Jewish orientation; listened to readings about what Jewish identity is without God – how we are no longer the Chosen but the Choosing people: picking what aspects of Judaism and Jewishness still fit. We stood while the names of our dead were called out on the anniversary of their dying, and candles lit in their memory.
It is a service only somewhat familiar to me as I stumbled over words in a language I neither read nor speak in transliterated form with any grace at all. Singing unfamiliar songs, finding my way through only slightly remembered liturgy from previous experiences. Finding myself at times on the margins of this community as a Unitarian even as I have been on the margins of Unitarian Universalism being self-identified as a Jew, a Humanist Jew at that.
Trying to accept (in fact accepting) the status of a boundary crosser of long standing and all that this can give me in terms of challenge and compassion, and appreciative of the welcome I sense in this circle as I find my place.