My First Secular Humanistic High Holidays
“Judaism Beyond God” Still Provides Spirituality and Meaning
When I became the executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, I explained to the NY Jewish Week some of the aspects that excited me about our movement. I also admitted in a piece for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) how despite being a Jewish communal professional for almost two decades, I am just like so many American Jews who feel challenged by the congregational model, and that I’d be going to High Holiday service for the first time in 25 years.
I thought speaking openly and honestly about my own journey might help open doors for others. A key aspect of my job is to serve as emissary to those not yet connected — and I’ve already heard from several enthusiastic folks who just learned of our movement through the JTA piece.
Now that I’ve experienced Secular Humanistic High Holiday services, I’m happy to report on what I saw and felt, and why it leaves me even more confident about our movement’s future. Here are my top three takeaways:
1. The Words
These were my first High Holiday services in which I did not have to “think around” the words I was reading by overlaying my own meaning onto traditional God-based liturgy. It was like a breath of fresh air. I’d already heard the phrase several times that Humanistic Jews “Say what we believe and believe what we say.” That certainly was my encounter with the liturgy and it was revelatory.
Moreover, it made me feel like our liturgy is broader and more inclusive than in the other Jewish denominations, which should allow for all kinds of people to find meaning within our services. Even if we were to invite friends and family members who are believers or still figuring out what they believe, I don’t see them finding anything objectionable in our words. Someone who feels attached to the traditional liturgy may anticipate a sense of loss but I think once they see the beauty in our poetry, many will also feel that positivity.
2. Music Matters
I live in the Jewish ancestral homeland — Brooklyn, NY — so I attended Erev Rosh Hashana at the Westchester Community for Humanistic Judaism, and Rosh Hashana and Kol Nidrei services at the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City. In both locations, the music moved me.
Different people resonate with different aspects of a service but, to me, singing together as a group is always the most powerful, even spiritual, part. I already knew some of the songs from growing up Jewish, either intact or with slight wording changes such as Naaseh Shalom; others were new to me.
There were a couple of songs in particular that I had not known previously but quickly recognized as movement anthems, like Ayfo Oree and There’s a Place (Yesh Makom). I could see the long-timers who were most moved by these pieces — kind of like when the whole bar stands up to sing La Marseillaise in “Casablanca.” I imagined myself years from now, with those same feelings. I imagined my children (currently 4-years-old and 10-months-old) learning these songs and forever being connected to our movement through them.
And then, with my new SHJ executive director hat on, I wondered about the thousands of people who did grow up with these songs, who are now in their teens, twenties, and thirties. I’m hearing how in some of our communities, members report second and even third generation involvement. Let’s make the necessary space for them to inherit the mantle, take on leadership roles, and ultimately provide their own directions for our cause.
I also thought about other newcomers like myself and what it feels like to not know something that it seems everyone else around us already knows. “Expectations of prior knowledge” is one of the barriers to Jewish life in all Jewish communal settings, and one that we can address to help newcomers feel more welcome, by explaining why these songs do have so much meaning to us.
Included in the music were some popular songs, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I’ve long wondered why services don’t include more popular tunes, so it was exciting to hear them. I wondered what other popular songs are included throughout our local communities. Could we make a playlist of songs from popular culture that speak to Secular Humanistic Jews? (I’m going to find a Bob Marley song we can include.)
3. Warmth of the Leadership
I was really impressed by the way Rabbi Peter Schweitzer at City Congregation and Rabbi Frank Tamburello in Westchester explained what was happening and the meaning behind many of the words or rituals, without feeling like they were “dumbing it down” for me. Both also had a lovely rapport with the congregation and an ease of presence that made otherwise large settings feel intimate.
Of course, I also had the benefit of meeting with both rabbis beforehand, individually. That’s a point I hope to express to all of our affiliated congregations, how important it is for newcomers to feel a personal connection with the leadership, not just in general but through a real one-to-one relationship. A few years back, a consulting firm called Measuring Success found that synagogues in which the rabbi met with congregants individually for even just an hour a year had higher membership retention rates.
Other aspects of the services that I loved included forgoing the forced reverence that I grew up with of standing and sitting every five minutes. There were also lovely moments of informality, like when a microphone was passed around as attendees at City Congregation’s Rosh Hashana service shared what they thought might be “the meaning of life.” It was both thought-provoking and connective, in that you got to hear from different people and it made the room of 250 feel much smaller.
As someone who always tries to see the world through the eyes of a newcomer, I did notice areas for potential improvement, yet overall my experience of Humanistic Judaism High Holiday services left me enthusiastic and excited for the coming year, even more than I could have predicted. While these were my first Secular Humanistic High Holiday services, they certainly won’t be my last.