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Secular Humanists Take N.Y.

Secular Humanists Take N.Y.

Paul Golin is the new executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (, the congregational arm of the Humanistic Jewish movement in North America. He previously served as associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) and is co-author of “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren,” (Torah Aura Production, 2007). The interview was conducted via email.

Q.:Your organization has been headquartered for decades in suburban Detroit, outside of New York City’s media glare. Why are you opening an office in New York, and what sort of reception do you expect in a city that has the country’s largest Jewish population and a powerful Orthodox community?

A.: SHJ serves affiliated congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada, so we remain a North American organization, now with an executive director in New York and a main office in Michigan overseen by Rabbi Miriam Jerris, one of the movement’s rabbinic superstars.

That I’m a New Yorker is an accident of birth, but it’s home and my family is here. The added benefit that a New York presence provides for any Jewish organization is in networking and visibility. And while there are higher rates of Orthodox Jews here, there are huge numbers of unaffiliated, “just Jews,” “culturally Jewish” and non-believers for us to serve.

The reception I expect is genuinely New York: to be completely ignored — until we start making some noise. So we’ll make noise. I look forward to working closely with our Manhattan affiliate, The City Congregation, and the Westchester Community of Humanistic Judaism, whose rabbis are both also stars in our movement.

What’s your strongest selling point to prospective members?

Even for secular and cultural Jews, there is still a benefit to coming together as a community to celebrate lifecycle milestones and holidays, connect to our history and repair the world. Rituals can work to refocus, remind and empower. And grappling intellectually and emotionally with the biggest questions in life adds meaning, even if it doesn’t always provide answers.

All of our rabbis officiate at intermarriages, not just to accommodate but to genuinely celebrate the growing diversity of Jewish life. Our movement was founded by a gay man and has always been LGBTQ-friendly. And our definition of who is a Jew is the most embracing: for anyone who wants to be Jewish and finds resonance in our history and values.

The outreach methodology I’ve been demonstrating for years in my previous position includes going where the people are with our programs, offering meaning and value even before someone becomes a member, and clearly articulating how participation will benefit them. I believe these principles will help Secular Humanistic Judaism reach and engage many more Jewish households who otherwise might not participate Jewishly anywhere else.

Humanistic Judaism focuses on Jewish peoplehood — a Judaism without God. How do you answer people who ask, “How can you be Jewish without God?”

For me, being atheist was a feeling, not a decision. The choice was whether to say so publicly. I still believe in many things that spring from my Judaism, including the dignity of human rights, human responsibility, the personal value of cultural roots and the power of people to improve the world. There’ve been secular expressions of Jewish identity for generations before Humanistic Judaism, including Jewish socialists and Zionists.

The key innovation of this movement was to create a liturgy that allowed non-theistic Jews to say what they mean. Doing so engaged tens of thousands of Jews who were otherwise uncomfortable in other denominations. But the question today for all but the most observant Jew is: Why bother being part of an organized Jewish community at all? We as a movement need to articulate compelling answers.

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