A Humanist Hanukkah


For HumanistNetworkNews.org
Dec. 9, 2009.)

(Editor's Note: This column was originally published in the Humanist Network News on Jan. 9, 2008. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Dec. 11.)

A gathering in Ithaca, N.Y., paused before their holiday celebration to briefly remember the death of one of their members and to announce his upcoming memorial service.

"He didn't need myths," said participant Deirdre Silverman in a firm voice.

She was speaking about Ben Nichols, a former councilman and three term mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., a liberal college town in upstate New York, who had passed away the month before at age 87. Nichols was a Democratic Socialist, humanist and a former professor of electrical engineering at Cornell University.

Nichols had also been a member of Kol Haverim, the "Finger Lakes Community for Humanistic Judaism."

I was attending their Hanukkah celebration, held on a chilly yet clear night in downtown Ithaca.

The group, which prefers to call itself a "community" rather than the more traditional "congregation," has no building of its own. Services take place in a space rented from a local senior center.

Members hope to own their own building one day, as they are fast running out of room.

I had chosen to make the four-hour car ride to Ithaca because of a strong personal desire to find out what the practice of Judaism without God would look like. I wondered how do you hold a service without the "baruchas" (blessings) which praise a deity?

I also went because I was looking to see if Judaism still held any meaning for me.

Having spent eight disaffected years as an attendee of a Conservative Jewish educational program, only to quit before the big pay off of the bat mitzvah party and it's attendant lucre, my relationship with the religion of my birth was fraught with conflict, not the comfort that is touted as one of the benefits of organized religion.

I grew up to be an existentialist, and a loosely identified humanist/atheist. Yet, at the same time, like many of my Jewish-born contemporaries, I strongly identified both culturally and ethnically as a Jew.

I discovered the humanistic Jewish movement in my new position as editor of the Humanist Network News, and it immediately interested me.

Humanistic Judaism offers a non-theistic approach to Jewish identity and culture. Kol Haverim is a member congregation of the Society of Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), an organization founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. (Wine was killed in an automobile accident in July of 2007.)

The SHJ describes Hanukkah as a "tribute to human power and courage."

The brightly lit room is filled to capacity with children, parents and a sprinkling of older adults. Ironically, the meeting place is decorated with icicles and green and red tinsel in celebration of the Christmas season.

A gentle-voiced young woman, the community's music instructor, plays guitar and leads sing alongs of Hanukkah songs. A few are familiar, but several I've never heard before, such as "Ner Li" (My Candle), which was written by Wine.

Sharon Kaplan, who organized the ceremony, said that their service is a mixture of original content and SHJ's suggestions for a Hanukkah service.

The service had an improvisational quality as the group spontaneously debated which direction to light the candles,  right to left or left to right, to get the maximum visual effect for the members present.

(Traditionally, Hanukkah candles are placed in the candle holder or menorah from the right and kindled from the left.)

The eight day holiday is marked off by the candles one lights. But at Kol Haverim, even though it was only the fifth night of the holiday, all eight candles were lit.

I was asked if I wanted to light the eighth candle by Kaplan. Somewhat self-consciously, I did. The text I read aloud said the eighth candle stands for peace and justice. Who can't get behind that?

This was feeling quite different from my youthful experiences of going to synagogue. For one thing, the adults were casually dressed, not concerned about displaying their new finery, and there seemed to be attention being paid to the ceremony, not gossiping about which members were missing that day.

The children were of all races. It felt warm, friendly and accessible.

The Hanukkah candles represent freedom, remembrance and dedication. Kol Haverim's particular secular spin emphasized dedication to an idea or keeping a promise to oneself. The candles "communicate light, warmth, strength, vitality, triumph and vision."

"Hanukkah" is a Hebrew word which means "dedication." It refers to the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem by Judah Maccabee and his followers in 161 B.C.E., following a military victory over the Greeks, whose king sought to impose Greek culture and religion upon the Syrian empire, which included Judea.

Following their recapture of Jerusalem, the victorious Jews rededicated the temple in Jerusalem and declared an annual celebration of Jewish independence.

The so-called "miracle" of Hanukkah was added hundreds of years later by rabbis, who said that a single flask of oil was kept burning in the temple for eight days.

Kol Haverim's membership is currently 40 households and growing. Sunday school, with 36 children spread out over four grade levels, is a crowded affair.

Teresa Galloway runs the Sunday school, which meets bi-weekly. "Our community is very kid-heavy, says Galloway." We have a strong Sunday school."

But what if a kid believes in God or thinks he does?

"The classroom has to feel comfortable for kids of differing beliefs," said Galloway. "Some kids believe, some don't. We try and teach them humanism, which includes critical thinking. But there's freedom of belief as well as non-belief."

Joyce Frank, vice-chair and liaison to SHJ, said the Sunday school is very important to her.

She looked for a change when her then five-year-old daughter came home from Sunday school one day, saying "God will take care of it," regarding a problem she was having.

This bothered Frank, who felt that she was being taught to cast off her free will and put her fate in the hands of the supernatural at that Sunday school. So, she joined Kol Haverim a little more than a year ago.

Both traditional and fluid, Kol Haverim is just a tiny snapshot of the world-wide Humanistic Jewish movement.

Antal Spector-Zabusky, now 17, was the first member to have a bar mitzvah there. He started attending Kol Haverim with his mother and his younger brother at age 10 or 11. He says he feels a part of this community and the larger Jewish community.

"My bar mitzvah means more to me now than it did when I was 13,"said Spector-Zabusky. "It comes down to being connected to Jewish tradition."

Antal went on to explain how preparing for his ceremony consisted of selecting a Jewish "hero," researching that person's life and achievements, and then presenting his research orally to the community as part of his actual bar mitzvah.

Antal picked Albert Einstein.

I marveled at the young man's maturity and thoughtfulness.

At twelve or thirteen, I don't think that I ever spent five minutes pondering my connection to the traditions of my people or thought seriously about what Hebrew school was teaching me. I was too caught up in resisting  having to be there.

To be perfectly honest, I am still ambivalent about whether I would become a member of a humanistic Jewish congregation or not. I am not by nature a joiner, and as for ritual, I can usually take it or leave it.

But, it is clear that thoughtful communities such as this one offer a meaningful connection to Jewish culture, history and tradition that can engage secular Jews, both young and old. And maybe keep fewer kids from hating Hebrew school.

(Ruth N. Geller is the editor of the Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the American Humanist Association.)