Why secular humanistic Judaism?

Traditionally Judaism is defined as a set of theistic beliefs: belief in the existence of a supreme being who rules and regulates the universe, our planet and humanity.

But it would be a mistake to argue that Judaism equals the religious beliefs of Jews. First, because Jewish beliefs were and are different, even mutually contradictory; and second, because religion was and is just one aspect of Jewish existence. Today for many Jews it is not even that. Judaism, then, is everything that the Jewish people in their very long history have produced.

The close identification of religion with peoplehood began to wane with the rise of secularized nationalism during the Age of Enlightenment. Consciously or not, Jews increasingly ceased to observe their religious traditions and customs, and ceased to believe in a God who was concerned about whether they ate their salami with cheese.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, more and more Jews, particularly those living in western European countries who were urban, and were impacted by both the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason, began to alter their self-definition of what it meant to be Jewish. They equated Judaism not with religion, but with a culture, a way of life. The advent of socialism and then of Zionism added to the number of secular Jews.

Secular Jews come in different shapes and forms: nonreligious Zionists, nonreligious Yiddishists and those who don’t identify with either but are acculturated to the host society where they are quite at home with their culture yet also feel their Jewishness quite strongly and wish to identify with Jewish matters and causes. Secular Jews seek an interpretation of Jewish civilization that accords with their own preferences and beliefs.

Secular can be defined most simply as “nonreligious.” If you believe that the idea of a God is irrelevant to your life – either because you do not believe in a God, or because you think that even if a God exists, he (or she) is not the kind of being that controls the universe and your own life – then you are a secularist.

A humanist can be defined as someone who believes in the centrality, inviolability and the sacredness of human life and human integrity. There can be religious humanism because people who believe in a godhead may still see human life as inviolable and may view human integrity as a supreme value. However, if human life and human integrity are the central values, they must be independent of a God; otherwise it is God who is the central thing, not the human personality. The logic of humanism is not religious.

For secularists, then, humanism means that we believe there is no God out there to take the responsibility for our lives off our shoulders. The moral values propounded by the Jewish religion are not the result of divine intervention in human affairs, but were conceived and pronounced by humans much like ourselves. Our attitude toward ourselves and the world around us is one in which the human being is the center of our endeavors, in the sense that it is we ourselves who are responsible for our actions and welfare, for the welfare of others and, indeed, to whatever extent possible, for the welfare of the planet.

Secular humanistic Jews view Judaism as the evolving culture and civilization of a world people. It allows many interpretations of the Jewish experience. What unites Jews is an active identification with the history and fate of the Jewish people.

Compiled from the writings of Yehuda Bauer as they appear in the introduction of Judaism in a Secular Age (Milan Press 1995)

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for secular Jewish humanists

Even if you never studied Jewish history, you cannot escape it if you celebrate Jewish holidays. Many Jewish traditions that have survived today in our historic memory originated as religious rituals. A cornerstone of Humanistic Judaism is to keep Jewish culture alive and vital. In doing so, we observe the Jewish holidays in a meaningful, but non-theistic fashion.

You are invited to join with us in the observance of the Jewish “High Holidays.”

Rosh Hashanah

This year we are delighted to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the able assistance of Rhea B. Seagull, a member of the Humanistic Jewish Havurah, who will lead our Rosh Hashanah celebration. Ms. Seagull is a Secular Humanistic Leader, certified by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Our celebration will impart the history and modern significance of Rosh Hashanah and will provide a meaningful launch for the 10 days of reflection, renewal of purpose and new beginnings that follow this holiday.

The noon ceremony takes place Monday, October 3 at Vi at Bentley Village, 850 Retreat Drive, Naples (west side of US 41, south of Bonita Beach Road and north of Old 41 Road), and will be followed by lunch. The cost is $25. A check payable to HJH and mailed to S. Barth, 3613 Woodlake Drive, Bonita Springs, FL 34134, will secure your reservation. Please include your name, phone number and email address with your payment. Reservations must be received by September 29.

Yom Kippur

On Wednesday, October 12 at 5:30 p.m. the Havurah will gather to commemorate Yom Kippur with a Nizkor memorial ceremony followed by break-the-fast. Historically, Yom Kippur is a time of awe and reverence, a Day of Repentance, when human beings seek divine forgiveness for sin. Yom Kippur has a different significance for Humanistic Jews. It climaxes the self-examination begun on Rosh Hashanah. Humanistic Jews make Yom Kippur a time of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others.

The traditional Yizkor (memorial) prayer begins Yizkor Elohim nishmat (“May God remember the soul of...”). Nizkor (“Let us remember...”) is a more meaningful concept for Humanistic Jews. A Nizkor service affirms that human beings preserve the memory of the dead.

This event will also be held at Vi at Bentley Village. The cost is $32. Reservations for the meal, payable by check to HJH, should be mailed to Maraline Rane, 6955 Carlisle Court D-219, Naples, FL 34109. Include your name, phone number and email address with your payment. Reservations must be received by October 7. Please note the different mailing address for this reservation.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur go together. Next to Shabbat, they became the most important holidays of the Hebrew calendar. For secular humanists the High Holidays are a necessary time to reflect on the relationship of the universe to human need and human desire. Evolution has equipped us with a set of wants to which the rest of nature is generally indifferent. Only through the use of human intelligence can we tame our environment, making it less terrifying and more conducive to human happiness. Exploding stars and galactic circuits may be beyond our control. But cancer and floods are natural enemies that we may someday conquer.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur open our Jewish year with the most important message of Jewish history. Human dignity is not the gift of destiny. It is human achievement, requiring courage and human self-reliance. If we seek to reconcile ourselves with anybody, we reconcile ourselves with the men and women who share our struggle and who offer us the only realistic support we can expect. 

Jewish humanism

Last month’s column cited Corliss Lamont’s book, The Philosophy of Humanism. This book was used by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, while teaching a class I attended as a new congregant of Rabbi Wine’s Birmingham Temple.

This month I propose to explain Jewish Humanism in Rabbi Wine’s words written for the Introduction to his Guide to Humanistic Judaism, obtainable from the Society for Humanistic Judaism at www.shj.org, and received when one becomes a member of the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida.

“Are we Humanistic Jews or Jewish humanists? That question appeared very early in our development and remains persistent. We have two powerful connections – one Jewish and the other humanistic. Which is primary? Or are they both of equal significance?

People who join our movement have minds of their own. They do not easily fit into formulas that we may choose to create. Most people who join want to find a way to live their lives Jewishly with integrity. Others who enter our movement enjoy Jewish culture but the message of humanism is what motivates them to stay. Both groups are legitimate parts of our movement.

Frequently, people who are members of humanist groups will challenge me. They want to know why our communities have this parochial interest in Jewish culture when they should be promoting a universal humanism. They claim that our Jewish loyalty diminishes or is incompatible with humanism.

From the beginning we have been Humanistic Jews, rooted in the history and culture of the Jewish people. Our humanism has always been enhanced by our Jewish connection, because the message of Jewish experience is that we cannot rely on the kindness of the fates. Most of us are humanists because the memories of Jewish history are ‘in our bones.’ The rabbinic establishment told us that we are the Chosen People. But our memories tell us that we are the victims of a cruel destiny. If the Jewish people survived, it was only because of human self-reliance, courage and cooperation. Our survival is a tribute to people power.

We are part of the Jewish world. Even when other Jews do not share our philosophy of life, they share our culture – and we share the social fate to which all Jews are subjected when society is in turmoil. Judaism has evolved over many centuries and provides us with roots and with a distinctive place in human culture.

Most cultures and religions accommodated different philosophies of life. Christianity, even though it did not begin as a nation, has roots in the Greco-Roman world, which embraced and molded its teachings. In many ways it has its own culture, independent of any specific ideology. In modern times, the battle over the Enlightenment has splintered the church into many ideological factions. Like Judaism, it has become a culture with great ideological diversity.

The main divide in religion today is between the humanists, who explicitly embrace the Enlightenment, and the fundamentalists, who reject it. In the middle lie the overwhelming majority of adherents who linger in the limbo of confusion and ambivalence, paying lip service to old creeds they have ceased to believe in and feeling apprehensive about change. Humanistic Christians find it easier to talk to Humanistic Jews than to fundamentalist Christians. Humanistic Jews find it easier to talk to Humanistic Christians than to converse with Orthodox Jews.

Most humanists who choose [religious] affiliation will be Humanistic Jews or Humanistic Christians or Humanistic Buddhists. Some will choose groups with strong ideologies but shallow cultural roots. Jewish humanists may be comfortable there. But we have chosen to be Humanistic Jews.”

The meaning of Humanism

Humanism has meant many things: “It may be the reasonable balance of life that the early Humanists discovered in the Greeks; it may be merely the study of the humanities or polite letters; it may be the freedom from religiosity and the vivid interest in all sides of life of a Queen Elizabeth or a Benjamin Franklin; or it may be the responsiveness to all human passions of a Shakespeare or a Goethe; or it may be a philosophy of which man is the center and sanction.” (Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, New York: Macmillan, 1937, Vol. IV, p. 541)

The philosophy of Humanism represents a specific and forthright view of the universe, the nature of man, and the treatment of human problems. It is a many-faceted philosophy, congenial to the modern age, yet fully aware of the lessons of history. In his book The Philosophy of Humanism, (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., fifth edition, 1965, pp. 12-14) Corliss Lamont, a 20th century writer, teacher and Humanist philosopher, described ten central propositions in the Humanist philosophy.

First, “Humanism believes in a naturalistic attitude toward the universe that considers all forms of the supernatural as myth; and that regards Nature as the totality of being and as a constantly changing system of matter and energy which exists independently of any mind or consciousness.”

Second, “Humanism, drawing especially upon the laws and facts of science, believes that man is an evolutionary product of the Nature of which he is part; that his mind is indivisibly conjoined with the functioning of his brain; and that as an inseparable unity of body and personality he can have no conscious survival after death.”

Third, “Humanism, having its ultimate faith in man, believes that human beings possess the power or potentiality of solving their own problems, through reliance primarily upon reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision.”

Fourth, “Humanism. . .believes that human beings, while conditioned by the past, possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are within certain objective limits, the masters of their own destiny.”

Fifth, “Humanism believes in an ethics or morality that grounds all human values in this-earthly experiences and relationships and that holds as its highest goal the this-worldly happiness, freedom and progress – economic, cultural and ethical – of all humankind irrespective of nation, race or religion.”

Sixth, “Humanism believes that the individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community.”

Seventh, “Humanism believes in the widest possible development of art and the awareness of beauty, including the appreciation of Nature’s loveliness and splendor, so that the aesthetic experience may become a pervasive reality in the life of a person.”

Eighth, “Humanism believes in a far-reaching social program that stands for the establishment throughout the world of democracy, peace, and a high standard of living on the foundations of a flourishing economic order, both national and international.”

Ninth, “Humanism believes in the complete social implementation of reason and scientific method; and thereby in the use of democratic procedures, including full freedom of expression and civil liberties, throughout all areas of economic, political and cultural life.”

Tenth, “Humanism, in accordance with the scientific method, believes in the unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions, including its own. Humanism is not a new dogma, but is a developing philosophy ever open to experimental testing, newly discovered facts and more rigorous reasoning.”

Imposing Lamont’s ten points upon our Jewish heritage and culture creates Humanistic Judaism.

Our topic in May: The Holocaust / Yom HaShoah

On Friday, May 6, the Humanistic Jewish Havurah hosts Ida Margolis, President of GenShoah SWFL, who will speak after our Shabbat dinner. GenShoah is open not only to children of Holocaust survivors (the Second Generation), but to all those who are interested in GenShoah’s mission: Preservation of the history and memories of the Holocaust, promotion of Holocaust education and human rights, connection of members of the Second Generation with one another, and support of the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida.

Our potluck Shabbat begins with appetizers at 5:00 p.m. at the Pelican Marsh Community Center, 1504 Pelican Marsh Blvd., Naples. A $10 per person charge enables us to cover the costs for this event. To attend, contact Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101 to determine what to bring for the dinner.

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (a date chosen by the Israeli government), is an important commemoration for Humanistic Jews.

This day commemorates the systematic murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II and the destruction of their culture, the most devastating assault ever experienced by the Jewish people. There have been many genocides in human history, but none as methodical and ruthless as the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Humanistic Jews dedicate their observance of Yom HaShoah to the murdered six million, lighting candles in their memory, and honoring the courage of all who suffered and resisted. Some secularists prefer to commemorate the Holocaust on April 19, the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the most dramatic examples of Jewish resistance. A band of several thousand Jews, unwilling to passively accept deportation and extermination, fought back for weeks in the face of certain death. Their martyrdom was an act of heroic defiance.

Not only does the Holocaust raise the issues of human evil and human responsibility, it also dramatized the question of divine justice. This Holocaust was not inevitable. It was the result of Hitler’s madness. Half of Ashkenazic Judaism was destroyed. The Yiddish-speaking ethnic Jewish nation in Poland and Eastern Europe disappeared. The tragedy was the greatest tragedy of Jewish history, a loss so great that the numbers of the victims defy comprehension. How could a good God allow six million innocent victims to die if he had the power to intervene?

The Holocaust is painful testimony to the difficulties that the theistic/rabbinic view of Jewish history presents. The concept that the Jewish people is a “Chosen People” giving witness to the existence and power of a just and loving God, is difficult to sustain in the face of the Holocaust.

On the contrary, the Holocaust serves as witness to the absence of a just and loving providence governing the affairs of humanity. There are physical laws of nature. But they are indifferent to the welfare of men and women. In the end, the only power available to resist human cruelty is human power. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not a manifestation of divine intervention. It was a sign of human determination to defend human dignity, even in the face of a merciless “destiny.”

Therefore, the Holocaust can be viewed as the ultimate testimony to the absence of a divine plan. Belief in a just God controlling a well-ordered world is impossible in the face of such implacable horror and brutality. The most appropriate response to the Holocaust is to intensify the quest for human dignity, which can provide meaning and order in a chaotic, uncaring universe.

Humanistic Jewish Havurah celebrates Carl Sagan and Passover

On Friday, April 1, the Humanistic Jewish Havurah celebrates Shabbat with a potluck dinner in the Pelican Marsh Community Room (1504 Pelican Marsh Blvd., Naples) starting at 5:30 p.m. After dinner, Carl Sagan’s New York Times bestseller, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, will be discussed.

Because of his adherence to humanist principles, Carl Sagan has been chosen as “Humanist of the Year” by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Early in this book, Sagan writes, “Scripture is said to be divinely inspired – a phrase with many meanings. But what if it’s simply made up by fallible humans? It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that may have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today.”

To attend, contact Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101, and find out what to bring to the dinner. A $10 per person charge enables us to cover the costs of this event.

On Saturday, April 23 at the Bonita Bay Club (26660 Club Drive, Bonita Springs), beginning promptly at 5:00 p.m., we invite you, your family and friends to attend our Seder. We celebrate by the reading our Humanist Haggadah followed by a traditional Passover menu.

Completing the reservation form, available on our website, www.hjhswfl.org, and mailing it with proper payment, will secure your seat at the Seder table. The cost is $67 per person. Contact Dena Sklaroff for further information.

Picking up on Sagan’s premise, the Exodus tale everyone believed and celebrated at traditional Seders is now seen differently. Archeological surveys failed to uncover any possibility that there had been Israelite slaves in Egypt who fled in mass and later invaded the land of Canaan (Israel). In fact, evidence strongly suggests that the Israelites were actually natives of that land. Today some believe the Torah’s story was created as an allegory about how Egypt had dominated and exploited the people of Canaan. Ultimately, regional upheavals led to great changes including Egypt’s withdrawal from Canaan and the emergence of the Israelite nation. We have growing confirmation that this occurred beginning in the thirteenth century B.C.E.

These surprising revelations about the entirely fictitious nature of the story are quite new. Previously, even those who rejected the supernatural parts of the story accepted its underlying narrative of Israelite bondage in Egypt. With the knowledge that the Exodus story is a complete invention, how can we possibly go on telling it? We might begin by examining the inner core of the narrative and putting our emphasis there.

The Exodus story reminds us that every human being desires to live freely and with dignity. Modern people understand that release from formal servitude in not the same as true freedom. In the traditional story, the Hebrews pass from one authoritarian situation into another. Moses is no less dictatorial than Pharaoh. Moses issues laws in the name of a divine authority and this neither provides for individual liberty nor allows public challenge. Conformity, humility and obedience are the virtues of the theocratic system.

Passover presents us with an opportunity to explore evolving ideas of freedom. What constitutes true freedom in our day? How can we balance it with responsibility? How might we work to bring liberty to the millions of people who do not enjoy the right to pursue their own paths to meaning and happiness?

These are some of the questions that are raised when the Exodus story is told.

“Immigration: Important Issues to Consider”

On Sunday, March 20 at 2:00 p.m. in the David G. Willens Community Room of the Jewish Federation of Collier County (2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Suite 2201, Naples), the Humanistic Jewish Havurah is pleased to present an informative forum on a major issue facing our economy, our public policy and our conscience, “Immigration: Important Issues to Consider.”

Our guest speakers will be Kristina O’Hern, Immigration Assistance Program Specialist for Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) in Immokalee, and her colleague, Grey Torrico, a community organizer and law student who is dedicated to addressing the issues of immigration and detention in Florida and nationally. This program will reveal information about a topic that is often mentioned in political discourse locally, nationally and internationally, but rarely reported on accurately and in depth by the news media. They will discuss the current climate around immigration and what you can do to support and defend immigrants living in Florida.

Immigrants are helping to grow the U.S. economy everywhere, but our inefficient visa system denies Florida the agricultural labor necessary to keep up with growing demand for produce, forcing a shift to imported fruits and vegetables. In order to build and expand our own economy, we need immigrants who fill labor shortages on America’s farms, who start businesses that employ U.S. workers, and who develop the cutting-edge products that make America the world’s preeminent innovation hub.

The share of foreign-born students in universities’ STEM graduate programs is much higher than the share of foreign-born people that make up our population and higher than the number of graduate STEM students who are citizens. Yet because of our immigration policies many of these foreign graduates face significant obstacles to settling in the US., even when they prove they can add real economic value.

While there is the issue of immigrants within our borders, there is also the refugee situation to consider.

Recently, the Society for Humanistic Judaism issued a resolution joining the majority of our Jewish community (as represented by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, National Council of Jewish Women, Union for Reformed Judaism, and Jewish Council for Public Affairs) in supporting the call for Congress to support the U.S. refugee resettlement program for the millions of Syrian refugees who have been forced to flee conflict in the Middle East.

“Recognizing the enormous humanitarian crisis unfolding, and our particular responsibility as Jews whose entire historical perspective includes our people wandering from shore to shore in search of refuge, we condemn efforts to suspend the program or explicitly exclude Muslims because of fears of terrorism. We believe the legitimate security concerns can be mitigated by the extensive vetting process refugees undergo before being admitted to the United States. We cannot let fear, however palpable, overcome our humanistic obligations to provide security to millions of innocent people who have been forced to start their lives again and who only wish to provide a future for themselves and their children.” (www.shj.org/resolutions)

Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines rational thinking with a deep connection to the Jewish people and Jewish culture. Humanistic Judaism integrates the celebration of Jewish identity with the belief that using human reason and human power is the best vehicle for improving the world. In order to make intelligent decisions and form knowledgeable opinions, Humanists obtain their knowledge by seeking to understand the facts and accepting the reality of a situation. In our search for truth about immigrants and refugees, we must open our minds to understanding the myriad facets of each situation. 

Humanistic Jewish Havurah hosts Rabbi-in-Residence

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida is looking forward to the visit of Rabbi Miriam Jerris, Society for Humanistic Judaism Rabbi, who will be visiting our area the weekend of February 19-21.


Rabbi Jerris will be participating in our Humanistic Jewish Shabbat celebration Friday evening at the Pelican Marsh Community Center. This is a potluck event. The charge, $10 per person, covers our expenses. To attend, contact Dean Sklaroff at 239.591.0101, as she coordinates what each participant should bring.

South Regional Lee County Public Library discussion

On Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., Rabbi Jerris will be at the South Regional Lee County Public Library (21100 Three Oaks Parkway, Estero) to explain and discuss Humanistic Judaism to anyone interested in learning more about our movement.

Are you uncomfortable in a traditional temple or synagogue? Do services seem somehow disconnected from your beliefs or how you live your life? Did you abandon the belief in a personal deity years ago? In spite of being pretty secular, do you find yourself drawn to things Jewish? Would you like to congregate with other Jews who feel the same about their Jewish identity? Many suffer from the disability of not feeling legitimately Jewish. Others do not even know that another option exists. Rabbi Jerris has been involved in Humanistic Judaism for more than 40 years and is adept at explaining the humanistic option that serves the needs of people who have these concerns.

Secular Humanistic Judaism is a viable alternative to the existing theistic varieties that dominate the American scene. It may be your alternative and Saturday afternoon will be an opportunity to meet face to face with Rabbi Jerris to learn more. If you would like to attend, call 239.495.8484.

Community meeting

Then on Sunday at 2:00 p.m., the Havurah meets in the David G. Willens Community Room of the Jewish Federation of Collier County (2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Suite 2201, Naples). Rabbi Jerris will talk about “Living an Authentic Jewish Life.” What is the value of Jewish identity in a secular world? Can you be a part of the Jewish community and question some of the basic premises of Rabbinic Judaism? What if you question the notion of an omnipotent, omnipresent deity? Do you feel hypocritical saying the words at a traditional Shabbat or holiday service? Rabbi Jerris will explain how secular Humanistic Judaism provides a way to participate in Jewish communal celebration while “saying what we believe and believing what we say.” The rabbi will reflect on the reasons she feels that Humanistic Judaism enables her to be both a Jew and a Humanist simultaneously. Dena Sklaroff (denas27@aol.com or 239.591.0101) is accepting reservations for this event.

Most secular and humanistic Jews have never bothered to deal with the philosophic and historic foundations of their commitment. Judaism is no single religion or philosophy of life. It embraces a spectrum of alternatives that find significance and value in Jewish identity. A secular approach to Judaism is an important alternative among Jewish people throughout the world.

A basic tenet of Humanistic Judaism is that our power resides within each of us. No matter what we say we believe, it’s what we do that counts.

Jewish identity needs to find some way to express itself that does not violate other values that are equally important, or more important. It needs to promote personal integrity. It needs to present a realistic version of Jewish history and to incorporate it into Jewish celebration. 

January is a busy month for the Humanistic Jewish Havurah

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida begins the 2016 year on Sunday, January 10 with a first-run play by Gulfshore Playhouse at the Norris Center in downtown Naples. Informed Consent, by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, was inspired by a recent court case between a Native American Tribe and Arizona State University. The play takes us into the personal and national debate about science v. belief, and whether our DNA is our destiny.

We have purchased a block of tickets so the price is $57 for a seat in the center section. On this date, Gulfshore Playhouse provides a pre-performance discussion beginning at 2:15 p.m. Then, following the matinee, playgoers are invited to join Havurah members for dinner in a private room at Shula’s Steak House at the Hilton Naples on US 41. To secure your theater ticket, mail a check, payable to HJH, to Joan Weinstein, P.O. Box 110285, Naples, FL 34110. Payment must be received by January 6. For more information, contact Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101.

We have another exciting event on the January calendar. On Sunday, January 17, the Havurah will view a fascinating documentary, Another Road Home, by award-winning documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Danae Elon. The meeting begins at 2:00 p.m. in the David G. Willens Community Room at the Jewish Federation of Collier County office, 2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Suite 2201, Naples. A discussion will follow the screening, providing an opportunity for everyone to share their reactions to this most unusual and touching story.

Due to space limitations, reservations are required, so contact Dena Sklaroff to assure your seat.

Shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, Danae Elon’s parents, noted Israeli author Amos Elon, and former correspondent and literary agent Beth Elon, hired a Palestinian man named Musa, the father of eleven children, to take care of their six-month-old daughter on a daily basis. It was a job he would continue for the next twenty years until she was grown and he was able to save enough money to send all eight of his sons to America for education and career opportunities. The last time Danae saw Musa, in 1991, he proudly showed her the house he constructed in the Palestinian village of Battir. Then, against the mounting tensions of the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Intifada, the two families lost track of each other.

During that time, Danae began to realize how much of an influence Musa had on her life and sought to reconnect with him. Her quest led her from her home in New York to Patterson, New Jersey, then to Battir in the occupied territories, and back to her birthplace in Jerusalem. As they carefully break the silence, the encounters between Danae and Musa’s sons, and eventually Musa himself, bring to the surface an emotionally complex story that is ultimately heartwarming and optimistic.

To quote critic Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter, “Another Road Home is a work of powerful humanism that could unsettle entrenched points of view. Danae Elon strips away the dogma and charged emotions that enmesh most discussions of the Middle East. Musa, a compelling screen presence, a figure of supreme equanimity… emerges as an Old World patriarch in the noblest sense. Elon makes the complexities of the relationship as clear as the profound love. Bottom line: Deeply moving.”

This film received a Sundance grant and was praised as one of the most honest and sensitive films ever made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It premiered at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival and showcased in over 20 international film festivals. We encourage your attendance.

Chanukah: Its Humanist value

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah celebrates Chanukah Wednesday, December 9 with fun activities and a traditional holiday meal at Vasari Country Club. Reservations may be secured upon receipt of your payment in the amount of $45 per person made payable to HJH, and mailed to Joan Weinstein, P.O. Box 110285, Naples, FL 34108, prior to December 1. Consider bringing a gift of comfortable clothing to be distributed to seniors in need of assistance, or a monetary contribution to be donated to JFCS. For more information, contact Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101.

Any objective study of Chanukah reveals two things. First, the origin of this holiday predates the Maccabean revolution, stemming instead from a seasonal rite marking the winter solstice. Second, Chanukah was never a major event in the Jewish liturgical year. It became such an event only in response to the persuasive and pervasive aspects of the Christian solstice festival of Christmas.

Chanukah has been bolstered and buttressed in an attempt to keep Jews from the temptations of the Christmas celebrations, but no holiday can long survive simply as a countermeasure to assimilation. If a holiday is to command respect and observance, it must articulate meaningful values and offer one a forum for an authentic encounter with one’s history and reality.

Chanukah does both.

There are three levels to the understanding and the celebration of Chanukah; as a festival of nature, as a reminder of our shared history, and as an affirmation of universal human values.

The pre-Israelite peoples who marked the winter solstice did so out of fear that the sun, which was at its farthest point from the earth, would not return and that the earth would not yield her bounty. Such a celebration speaks of a people living at the mercy of a wanton nature and the supposed supernatural powers that rule her.

Today we find ourselves in a far more sophisticated relationship with both the planet and the universe. We have uncovered the laws of nature using our human ingenuity, also a natural phenomenon. For us, then, Chanukah cannot simply be a solstice holiday. Yet it can be a recognition of the marvels of the natural universe and our place in it.

The second level of Chanukah is that of historical remembrance and the retelling of the Chanukah story. Our identity as Jews cannot rest solely on present circumstances. Our roots are deep and thousands of years old. If we are to retain and transmit a sense of Jewish identity, we must recall and retell the tales of our people. By sharing the exciting saga of the Jewish revolt against the Hellenizers, we remind ourselves and each other of the importance of heroes and the grandeur of the Jewish spirit.

Naturalism and storytelling, however, are not enough to ensure the survival of Chanukah among modern Jews. This festival also articulates relevant values.

The story of the Maccabees is a story of human courage, integrity and hope. The success of their revolution is rooted in the people’s desire for religious, political and economic freedom; their desire to choose their future for themselves. This they accomplished not by pious pleas or tearful entreaties but by decisive action, expert planning and sheer guts.

The modern Jew must also take the future into his or her own hands. We must choose for ourselves how we shall live and we must act on that choice courageously without loss of integrity or hope.

Chanukah is a valuable holiday which affirms the wonder of nature, celebrates the courage of authentic heroes, and articulates important principles. 

Join our Humanistic Jewish community

November is membership renewal time for the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida. Dues of $85 per person include membership in our national organization, the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Visit www.hjhswfl.org for a membership form and mailing instructions, or call Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101 for more information.

While a growing number of Jews no longer feel the necessity to join a temple or synagogue, most of our membership, coming from dispersed families, have found that the family feeling and family support they could no longer find in their personal settings or in a large and formal congregation, is now provided by membership in the Havurah.

In these times, the old extended family has become a mere memory, so folks are searching for substitutes. Our monthly Shabbat gatherings become the family dinners, our Humanistic Jewish Seder becomes the family Seder. Our monthly Sunday afternoon meetings offer high quality opportunities for adult education and discourse on Jewish topics as well as topics of interest to secular Jewish humanists.

Until and when we attract young families with children, our activities concentrate on adult programing, lectures, dialogue, holiday celebrations, and even theater and other cultural activities. Humanistic Judaism also provides lifecycle events including marriage ceremonies and funerals/memorial services. Everyone enjoys a setting for these shared experiences with like-minded people, a benefit that comes with membership and participation in the Humanistic Jewish Havurah.

Involvement can make a significant difference in the life of a Humanistic Jewish Havurah member. We attempt to sustain our members in a supportive, caring environment. We enable our members to affirm their Jewish identity – their connection to the Jewish people, past, present and future. Most importantly, membership in our Havurah affords the opportunity to cultivate warm, personal relationships with compatible folks.

Finally, the growth and development of the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida enriches the life of the wider Jewish community. We have reached out and attracted many unaffiliated, uncommitted and unconnected Jews, promoting pluralism and Jewish survival.

So, if you believe in the power of human effort and in taking personal responsibility for actions as an individual and a members of society; believe that Jewish culture and history are the creations of the Jewish people, rather than of divine origin; believe in the natural origin of events and experiences, rather than the supernatural; believe in biological evolution; believe that the Bible and other ancient Jewish books are worth reading and studying because they give us insight into our history and the way our ancestors thought; believe in scientific inquiry and a commitment to reason; believe each person should follow paths of dignity, self-esteem, and responsibility to the present, to enhance life on earth rather than prepare for an afterlife; believe in respecting the beliefs and opinions of all though we may disagree; believe in forging meaningful community traditions based on current conditions and needs rather than simply adopting wholesale those rituals and traditions forged in the past; and believe it is important for Humanistic Jews to participate in the activities of the Jewish community, and that acceptance of the right of all peoples to believe as they wish is both Jewish and empowering, then you need to join the Humanistic Jewish Havurah and add fulfillment and happiness to your life.


Chanukah will be celebrated on Wednesday, December 9 with a traditional holiday meal at Vasari Country Club in Bonita Springs, along with other fun activities. Reservations may be secured upon receipt of your payment in the amount of $40 per person, made payable to “HJH,” and mailed to Joan Weinstein, P.O. Box 110285, Naples, FL 34108, prior to December 1. Consider bringing a gift of comfortable clothing, or a monetary contribution, to be donated to JFCS of Southwest Florida for distribution to seniors in need of our assistance.

Humanistic Jewish Havurah announces its upcoming events

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida has planned a very stimulating season. Although the majority of our members are year-round residents, most of our activities take place during season.

Our new website was completed this summer. Visit www.hjhswfl.org to fully acquaint yourself with our organization and our upcoming events. The user-friendly website includes a membership application and instructions for submitting your dues.

Last month’s commemoration of Yom Kippur, a time of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, concluded with an opulent break-the-fast meal appropriate to the holiday. The experience of observing this traditional holiday in a meaningful fashion offered a unique opportunity for like-minded Southwest Floridians.

Chanukah will be celebrated on Tuesday, December 8 with a traditional holiday meal at Vasari Country Club. Details will be posted on our website and in in the November issue of this publication. Much as the Maccabees seized control of their own lives, Humanistic Jews take their future into their own hands. We celebrate Chanukah as a reminder that human beings can use their abilities to enhance their quality of life.

Later that month, at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, December 20, Robert Levy, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Cato Institute, will speak on “God, Politics & Constitution - A Libertarian Point of View.” Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association, and the primacy of individual judgment. Does a humanistic philosophy overlap with this definition?

Humanists share some ideals with libertarians, like support for same-sex marriage and separation of Church and State, but we may differ on their other political ideas such as foreign policy, the libertarian interpretation of the Second Amendment clause with respect to the rights of individuals to bear arms, and the libertarian position on abolishing our public welfare system. This will be a very thought-provoking program. Because Robert Levy is such an articulate, erudite and entertaining speaker, this will be a most interesting meeting.

The Havurah purchased a block of tickets for the matinee performance of Informed Consent at Gulfshore Playhouse on Sunday, January 10, thus seating will be available below the box office price. The play addresses the ethics of genetics. A theater discussion prior to the play will be an added attraction.

Another provocative program is planned for the afternoon of Sunday, January 17. We have invited Hassan Shibly, Executive Director of the Florida Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Tampa, as our speaker. Shibly has appeared numerous times on both local and national media outlets, including NPR, Voice of America, The New York Times, The Toronto Star and The Buffalo News, for his work protecting civil liberties and promoting understanding of the Muslim faith. Hassan’s work has earned him the attention of various Islamaphobic publications, which criticize Hassan for “deceiving the American people” by “promoting a peaceful and tolerant image of Islam.”

The weekend of February 19-21 brings a visitor from our national organization, the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Rabbi Miriam Jerris will be involved in several activities during her visit, most notably her Sunday afternoon program titled “Living Authentically.”

Immigration is the topic at on Sunday afternoon, March 20. We are planning to discuss the impact of immigrants on the American economy.

Our Seder will be held at the Bonita Bay Club on Saturday, April 23, and in May the Havurah typically presents an award-winning film depicting a humanistic theme.

These programs reflect topics pertinent to Humanistic Judaism. We invite the community to participate. Please mark your calendars now, so as not to miss our outstanding programs.

The significance of Yom Kippur for Humanistic Jews

Please come to Bentley Village, now known as Vi, to participate in a Humanistic Jewish commemoration of Yom Kippur with members of the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida. The event begins at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 23, and will be followed by a tasty break-the-fast.

Reservations can be secured by mailing a check payable to “HJH” in the amount of $25 per person to Joan Weinstein, P.O. Box 110285, Naples, FL 34108. The deadline for making your reservation is September 19.

Jewish holidays have become the lifeblood of Jewish identity. They are regular events in the lives of most Jews. Even if you never study Jewish history, you cannot escape it if you celebrate Jewish holidays. The calendar of Jewish holidays presents a short and “repetitious” introduction to the Jewish past.

The rabbinic dates for established holidays are unavoidable. They are familiar annual milestones when Jews become most aware of their Jewish identity. Without a sense of community with other Jews, the holidays fall flat. Doing them at the same time, yet differently, fuses our history with our Jewish identity.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur open our Jewish year with the most important message of Jewish history. Human dignity is not the gift of destiny. It is a human achievement requiring courage and human self-reliance. If we seek to reconcile ourselves with anybody, we reconcile ourselves with the men and women who share our struggle and who offer us the only realistic support we can expect.

Humanistic Jews insist that their holidays give them integrity. The prayers and stories that turn the Jewish experience into a testimony to supernatural reliability have no place in our holiday celebration. To say one thing and to believe another is not an act of poetry. Humanistic Judaism has created a way to approach the Jewish holidays that is both pragmatic and meaningful.

The High Holidays are a time when humanistic Jews place great emphasis on self- reflection and self-judgment, acknowledging human power to re-evaluate one’s own life and to change it for the better. That is why Jewish holidays have no intrinsic divine connection for humanistic Jews.

Following is a sample reading from a humanistic Jewish Yom Kippur service:

Let us ask ourselves hard questions.

For this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste
In the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life
Or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home
Or was the affectionate word left unsaid?
Was there a real companionship with our children
Or was there a living together and a growing apart?
Were we a help to our mates
Or did we take them for granted?
How was it with our friends:
Were we there when they needed us or not?
The kind deed: Did we perform it or postpone it?
The unnecessary gibe: Did we say it or hold it in?
Did we live by false values?
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves?
Were we sensitive to the rights and feelings
Of those who worked with us?
Did we acquire only possessions
Or did we acquire new insights as well?
Did we fear what the crowd would say
And keep quiet when we should have spoken?
Did we mind only our own business
Or did we feel the heartbreak of others?
Did we live right,
And if not,
Then have we learned and will we change?

Yom Kippur climaxes the self-examination begun on Rosh Hashanah. Humanistic Jews make Yom Kippur a time of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others.


The Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida is a home for those who identify as Jews primarily through culture, history and family. We provide a welcoming and enriching Jewish environment with no demands for religious doctrine.

We believe Judaism is the creation of the Jewish people and that all generations are responsible for carrying it forward and adding to it. We believe that only natural forces and beings are responsible for what happens in this world; that people have the ability and the responsibility to solve human problems through striving for equality, social justice and peace. And we believe in the equality and dignity of every human being and in the power of community.

Folks in the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida started out as strangers, acquaintances, friends, and now we’re family, not necessarily blood-related but common-cause-related. One of the reasons for this strong feeling is that we function within the framework of a havurah.

A havurah is a small, self-directed participatory community seeking social and spiritual kinship through study, socializing, mutual growth and celebration. It utilizes shared leadership and democratic, egalitarian decision-making. Our havurah expresses the humanist ideal of self-reliance in partnership with others.

The roots of today’s havurot stretch back to the monastic fellowships of the Essenes and the urban communities of the Pharisees in the first century B.C.E. Independent study groups, Kallot, flourished during the Babylonian diaspora. During the eighteenth century, independent brotherhoods, chavurot, developed in Europe and the United States. Little room (shtiebel) synagogues were transplanted from Eastern Europe to America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The modern havurah movement can be described as an alternative independent, anti-establishment, member-orientated movement that grew out of a need for a support system for unaffiliated Jews living in non-Jewish areas. The current havurah movement is twofold: 1) temple- or synagogue-based and 2) independent. Temple-synagogue based havurot function within a congregation to decentralize leadership, increase participation and develop social relationships. Independent havurot function without rabbinic leadership. They develop alternative rituals and seek to meet their own religious, intellectual and ethical needs in their own way.

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida follows the independent model. We meet twice a month, plan our own meetings and activities, and create humanistic Jewish holiday celebrations. There is conversation, dialogue and a mutual respect. Everyone has a share in planning and decision-making. Of course, every group has an active nucleus that assumes more responsibility than the rest, but every member has taken an active part to make our programs, holiday celebrations and activities successful events.

At Havurah meetings, there is a feeling of sharing, caring and mutual concern, an atmosphere of kinship as warm greetings are exchanged. Everyone knows everyone else and is interested in the welfare and well-being of the mishpocheh. When we celebrate our Jewish holidays, communal unity strengthens our cohesiveness. Each member experiences an emotional as well as intellectual involvement.

Our havurah is a milieu in which Humanistic Judaism can be practiced and in which the precepts of humanism can be carried out.

A future for Humanistic Judaism

A free and open society presents many dilemmas for Jews, but a free and open society breaks down barriers between ethnic and religious groups and mixes people, eliminating old identities and forging new ones. Above all, it creates the “autonomous” individual who refuses to be dictated to by any group. Most Jews will choose the free and open society. Moaning about Jewish survival will not change things.

According to the recent Pew survey, most Jews do not believe one has to be “religious” to be Jewish. The younger Jews identify as cultural, and their everyday behavior is strongly secular. The secularization process will continue and expand because it provides personal power, prosperity and options that traditional religious observance cannot create.

In the coming years the aggressive tactics of the ultra-Orthodox in both Israel and America will produce an unbridgeable dichotomy in Jewish community life. On one side will be the traditionalists, stressing continuance of the old order. On the other side will be the overwhelming majority of the Jews. This majority will, in turn, be divided between those who are ambivalent, embracing the modern world and complaining about it all the time, and those who accept it as the best of all possible available alternatives – a world of stress and change and positive excitement. This second group is the focus for the Humanistic Jewish movement.

The foundations for Humanistic Judaism have been established. To date, thirty communities and congregations serve the needs of Humanistic Jews and more communities are in the works. We have a growing body of literature to articulate the message. In North America there is the Society for Humanistic Judaism to serve the needs of the communities and to raise their visibility. There is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism to train rabbis and leaders. There is the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews to coordinate the work of our national organizations throughout the world. There is the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews and the Association of Humanistic Rabbis to provide a voice for the professional leaders of our movement.

There is recognition by the United Jewish Communities of our place in the Jewish world as a fifth denomination of Judaism. There is the legacy of important leaders and thinkers all over the world like Shulamit Aloni, Yehuda Bauer, Yaakov Malkin, Albert Memmi, Felix Posen, Dan Friedman and Sherwin Wine, who have provided inspiration. There are the creative voices of our present and future – Rabbi Adam Chalom, Rabbi Miriam Jerris, Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, Rabbi Eva Goldfinger and Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, to mention a few, who are currently active and who enrich our future.

There is the promise of future significant contributions from the students in our rabbinic and leadership training programs who have made strong commitments to Humanistic Judaism. There are dedicated lay people in the thriving communities throughout North America.

It is incumbent that Humanistic Judaism serve the Jewish needs of people who want to be Jewish in a fashion meaningful to current times and to treat all people with dignity to which they are entitled. Things will change so fast we cannot know what will happen in 10 or 20 years, but we can take the energy we devote to useless anxiety over Jewish survival and turn it into guiding Jews to live productive, ethical and culturally Jewish lives in a free society.

Above all, there is a large mass of unaffiliated cultural Jews out there who will choose to be Humanistic Jews when they discover that we can serve their needs.

Taken from writings of Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine in A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism (Milan Press 2003)