May 21, 2016
In this paper, I’m going to explore how I define myself as a Humanistic Jew, and how being raised and living my life as a Humanistic Jew has presented me with challenges, opportunities, and rewards.
In my elementary school in Brooklyn, I was the only Jewish kid in my grade. I felt like an outsider. Most of the kids in my school were Protestant and Catholic. There was one Muslim girl. In third grade, a girl named Emi, who is half-Jewish, enrolled in the school.
I still continued to feel like an outsider, because other than Emi, no one understood what I was talking about when I discussed being Jewish. For instance, Hanukah was the only Jewish holiday that the other kids knew anything at all about. They thought it was “Jewish Christmas.” I tried to explain that Hanukah pertained to the oppression and survival of the Jewish people, but no one seemed to understand.
The kids also expected me to be able to explain the meanings of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Purim, and how they were celebrated. I was very little, and barely understood what the holidays were, myself. I really didn’t understand why other kids didn’t know what the Jewish holidays were, since I understood the basic ideas of Christmas and Easter. I struggled to explain the little I knew, and I’m sure I didn’t do a great job. That didn’t make me feel very good.
The kids back then used to ask me “what kind of Jew” I was. I was very honest. I said I didn’t believe in God. They asked me why I didn’t believe in God. I explained, “I believe in human values. You don’t need a God. You don’t need to ask someone in the sky for help. How can one supernatural being help people all over the planet, anyway? We need to help ourselves.” The kids told me I was “going to Hell.” I wasn’t scared, because I didn’t believe in Hell, but I was very, very hurt.
When I started middle school in Manhattan, half of my grade was Jewish. There were 60 plus kids in my grade, so all of a sudden I was around a lot of other Jews! That was amazing to me, and I expected to feel more at home and less awkward. But the Jewish kids were even less accepting of my brand of Judaism than the non-Jewish kids in Brooklyn had been. They felt that believing in God is one of the main points of being Jewish, and that if I didn’t, then I wasn’t really Jewish. One girl said, “Isn’t the very essence of being Jewish believing in God?” I was really taken aback. No one had ever asked me that before.
I described my humanistic values to them (the same values I discuss in my Family Values paper), such as the importance of education, compassion, and courage. I told them that these values, plus my deep connection to Jewish history, art, and culture, which I was learning about in City Congregation’s KidSchool and from my parents, are what make me Jewish. I told them that I believe that, “If you identify as a Jew, you are Jewish.”
I also told the other kids that I thought it was fine that they believed in God and I didn’t, and that I hoped they could be as tolerant of me as I was of them. But they insisted I wasn’t “technically” a Jew. I tried not to let them bother me, since by then I had one friend who was a secular Jew, and a few others who, while being religious, were also tolerant and open-minded. I understood by then that Humanistic Jews do not represent the majority of Jews, and that I’m going to have to learn to be comfortable with this as I grow up.
I decided to send out a questionnaire to explore how some of the Humanistic Jews I know handle the sorts of issues that I’ve been confronting since I was a little girl.
The first question I asked was, “Were you brought up as a secular Jew?”
Jakob Shonbrun-Siege, who’s been attending KidSchool since he was very little, replied, “ It’s been interesting. I like fitting in somewhere as part of a group. But sometimes it’s hard to explain our ‘reform-ness’ to my more traditional peers who don’t understand our secularism.”
Susan Ryan, a very active member of our congregation, said, “My family belonged to a Conservative shul when I was a child, but my parents were never religious, and although my brother and I attended Hebrew School, I can’t recall my parents ever going to synagogue themselves. The only time I recall seeing my father in shul was at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Although it was not ‘official,’ I’ve been a secular Jew all my life. I’m pretty sure if my family had known about Humanistic Judaism back then, we’d have tried to find a community to join, but there was no such thing at that time.”
The second question I asked was, “What does being a secular Jew mean to you?”
Twenty-two-year old Ben Sternhell, a college senior at CityTech, said, “I’m secular the way I’m a liberal Democrat. It just seems obvious to me that there is no God. It’s the way I see the world. It fits with all my core values. I’m Jewish because that’s my culture, my inheritance. It’s part of who I am. If I weren’t Jewish, I would still be secular; if I weren’t secular, I would still be Jewish.”
Alma Kastan, a very close friend of mine, said, “To me, it means celebrating Jewish holidays, mostly. Passover is my favorite holiday. It brings up Jewish values for me, such as spending time with my whole family. I also love finding the Afikoman.”
The third question I asked was, “Has anyone told you that you’re ‘not really Jewish,’ or a bad Jew,’ because you don’t believe in God?”
Oren Schweitzer, our Rabbi’s son and a 9th grader, said, “People have said that I’m not really Jewish because I don’t believe in God, to which I reply that Judaism isn’t just religion, but it is culture and the way one gets brought up and how one lives their life and although I may not believe in God, I am still Jewish and I connect with Judaism.”
Janice Eidus, my Bat Mitzvah mentor, said, “I’m a writer, and I once gave a lecture at a Jewish organization in Pennsylvania. I spoke about being both a humanist and a Jew. After my talk, a very angry man came over to me and said that there was no such thing as a ‘cultural Jew.’ I told him that he was looking at one.”
The fourth question I asked was, “In what ways do you feel connected to Jews who do believe in God, and in what ways do you feel different from them?”
Ilana Gruebel, my sister’s Bat Mitzvah mentor, said, “I feel different from them mainly when I attend traditional services conducted in Hebrew, which I assume most congregants don’t understand, and the repeated references to God. I feel connected to them because of the holidays and cultural traditions that we share and the songs where I often know the melodies and words from my youth.”
The fifth question I asked was, “Have you ever been picked on for something other than being a secular Jew? Have you seen other people – kids or adults – being picked on for something other than being a secular Jew? If yes, how did you handle the situation?”
Mia Shonbrun-Siege, a Park Slope neighbor, said, “I’ve been picked on a few times for my height and body size, which doesn’t feel good.”
Oren Schweitzer said, “Not too often because I’m fortunate to grow up in an accepting community.”
My final question was, “Can you offer advice to secular Jews who may have to deal with people who are not nice to them about being a secular Jew?”
Ben Sternhell responded, “It depends on who the mean people are. Are they Jewish themselves? Believers from some other religion? Just standard anti-Semites who don’t like any variety of Jews? And then—are they people you care about, or random strangers? If they’re people I care about, they shouldn’t be attacking me for my beliefs. In that case, I’d try to explain what I think—but I’m not really interested in a big argument. It can be fun to discuss/argue these issues, but if the other person really is being ‘not nice’ about our disagreement, then I probably wouldn’t bother. If they’re anti-Semites, I’d just walk away. If they’re believing Jews who dislike that I’m secular, I’d engage to a point. But I realize that neither of us will change our positions. My advice would be, don’t even bother discussing this with people you don’t care about. If you do care, make your best case for what you believe—in my opinion, our case is very strong! But don’t let anyone insult you. It helps to know that secular Judaism has a long history and that many important thinkers share our views.”
I was very stimulated by the thoughtful, generous answers to my questionnaire. They helped me to realize that I’m not alone in having to deal with sometimes feeling “different” from others as a Humanistic Jew. I then turned to the words of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the late founder of Humanistic Judaism, whose beliefs about believing in what is real, as opposed to what is “supernatural” and unable to be proven, were often controversial. I figured that he would have good advice for me about how to stay strong in my beliefs as a Humanistic Jew in a world that may not always welcome such beliefs.
Rabbi Wine said, “Realistic living is the courage to acknowledge the truth, even when it is painful. It is the courage to strive for happiness, even when it is unlikely. It is the courage to make necessary decisions, even when there is uncertainty. It is the courage to improve the world, even in the face of overwhelming defeat. It is especially the courage to take both the blame and the credit, even when they are embarrassing. Realistic living is the courage to stay sane in a crazy world. The sun requires no courage to rise in the morning, to shine in the day, to die in the evening. But we, living, breathing, passionate people, we do.”
I’ve learned a great deal through writing this paper. Among other things, I’ve explored my feelings more deeply about being a Humanistic Jew. And, I’ve learned how others feel and think about their own experiences.
One thing that I’ve learned – and made peace with – is that I seem to be the kind of person who gets picked on a lot. I always have been, since I was little, and I may always be. I’ve been picked on for being a Humanistic Jew, and for having a limited diet. I’ve also been picked on because I speak up about what I feel, which makes some people uncomfortable. The more deeply I explore my feelings about this, and the more I listen to others, I realize that I have to live my life as I choose to live it, whether everyone approves or not.
I would offer this advice to others, as well: Live your life as you wish to. And that may include having a set of beliefs that’s unusual in your school or neighborhood, such as being a Humanistic Jew. Remember that you need not take to heart the opinions of those who aren’t tolerant and open-minded. As a humanist and a Jew, I try to see the good in everyone, and hope that others will do the same.
I will end with a beautiful poem written by Rabbi Wine that sums up my “Guide To Growing Up As A Humanistic Jew”:
“Where is my light? My light is in me.
“Where is my hope? My hope is in me.
“Where is my strength? My strength is in me – and in you.”