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  1999-04-16 Humanistic Jewish Congregation

San Diego

Humanistic Jewish


Leaving God behind: the 
Humanistic Jews of San Diego

San Diego Jewish-Press Heritage, April 16, 1999:

By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego, CA (special) -- The kabbalat Shabbat service begins with a candle lighting ceremony during which the cantor chants. But instead of in two candlesticks, the Shabbat candles are placed upon seven separate platforms -- a vertical menorah. And the song the cantor is singing is not a prayer, but an affirmation: 

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.
Welcome to San Diego's Humanistic Jewish Congregation, which believes in the power of humanity, but does not believe in God. The leader, or madrikha, is Toby Dorfman who, like most of her congregants, is a refugee from religious Judaism. 

In her personal odyssey from a girl raised in an Orthodox Jewish home to a woman helping to shape a secular Jewish movement, Dorfman says she left God behind but firmly held onto her ethnic and cultural identity as a Jew. 

At her Orthodox shul in Waterbury, Conn., Dorfman remembers "sitting upstairs and watching my father davening downstairs with my brother and wanting to go down there. 

"Why couldn't I go down there? He was!" she remembered thinking at the time. 

"My father wore the full tallit which he wrapped himself in, and he 

Cantor Deborah Davis 
lights menorah used by
San Diego Humanistic
Jewish Congregation
always told me that as long as he had that on, he would be protected. And I believed him."

Real disillusionment came when "they translated Hebrew into English and I discovered that I was saying 'thank you God for not making me a woman.' They were sending me to a secular school to learn what was going on in the world, and then I am reading this stuff. 'Thank you for the rain ... I am going to have an afterlife,' and I said, 'I am not believing any of this.' So I decided to find out more about the history and began to read Bible stories from a non-traditional viewpoint. And as I read more and more, I realized I enjoyed being Jewish non-traditionally, and I couldn't handle being Jewish traditionally." 

After she was married, she turned from Orthodox Judaism to Conservative Judaism, and after her daughter was born, she turned to Reform Judaism. "I wanted my daughter to be exposed to Jewish children," Dorfman explained. "The only way at that time was to belong to a temple. Otherwise, we wouldn't have peer groups for our children." 

Deborah Davis, cantor of the Humanistic Jewish congregation and a founder and star in the popular 2nd Avenue Klezmer Ensemble, smiled with recognition as she listened to Dorfman describe the dilemma of a secular mother having no place other than a religious institution to teach her child about her Jewish roots. 

"Both of my kids went to Beth Israel Day School," said Davis, who herself had lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where her atheistic parents nevertheless sent her to a religious cheder. "Especially coming here (to San Diego) where you couldn't just absorb Yiddishkeit (as one can in Brooklyn). You had to seek it out. Both my children went to Beth Israel Day School, and I was very happy that I sent them." 

The agent of change in San Diego was Alex Levin, a social welfare worker turned retail store owner, who subsequently retired to San Diego with his wife Shirley to battle his esophogeal cancer in temperate weather. Levin, according to his widow, was an inveterate reader, never failing to go to bed with books to read and classical music for his lullabyes. 

"Alex was a humanist," Levin said. "He belonged to the American Humanist Association years and years ago. And when he found out there was a humanistic Jewish organization headquartered near Detroit (in Farmington Hills), he joined as a member at large. Then in 1984, Henrietta Winkler, who was the editor of the Humanistic Jewish organization's newsletter, visited San Diego and thanks to the organization's mailing list, decided to look up Alex. 

"She wrote up a news story about her visit with these nice people--with a lady who knew nothing about Humanistic Judaism (namely Shirley herself) and a gentleman who was incredibly well-informed. From that story, people started calling my house saying 'we would like to meet your husband,' and so I arranged to have eight people come over for a Sunday -- the 4th of March, 1984. Just before that, I received a phone call from a lady who said she was the executive director of the national group, Miriam Jerris. And she said that Rabbi (Sherwin) Wine, the founder of our group, was planning a trip to Los Angeles where he was speaking in the morning, on Sunday, March 4, and he would like to come down to San Diego. I said 'This is incredible. He should come; we are having tea.'" 

As it turned out, the "tea" was rescheduled from the afternoon to the evening to permit Wine sufficient time to take a train from Los Angeles. "Then I got another call from Miriam Jerris saying 'would you mind if we let some other people know that rabbi is coming because there are some other members in the San Diego area? Could they come over and be with you?' I said 'fine, but I live in a two-bedroom apartment; this is not a massive hall.' and she said, 'Oh I don't think there will be more than maybe 12 people.' And, of course, I said yes, and 32 people arrived." 

That evening's conversation was lively and searching, Levin recalled. Someone posed to Rabbi Wine the question of what he would do if after dying he suddenly went to heaven and met God.
"I'd say I'm sorry," Levin quoted Wine as replying. "It's the truth," she added. "He was sitting in my blue recliner." 

Levin said whereas before she had given the humanistic mail to her husband without ever feeling curious enough to look at it, at the meeting she found herself thinking, 'Gee, this is what Alex has been so interested in? This is wild. This is terrific. I think maybe I have been one and didn't know it." 

Levin, 78, said three occurences during her life time persuaded her that belief in God was misplaced. There was the Holocaust, which she viewed from afar--not having any relatives in Europe, but feeling, nevertheless, if God existed, He could not have permitted the murder of Six Million. On a more personal level, she said she remembered a college friend who "won a contest in playwriting and got a job with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, went out to the coast, was being very successful, and was walking down the street and somebody in a car had a heart attack and came up over the sidewalk and killed him. He was 27. This was my first loss. I went to his funeral. He was Jewish. There was a young rabbi there who tried to explain why my friend Jerry had died, and he said 'God needed him' and I got furious. 'What the hell would He need him for? I need him!' He was my dear friend." Years later, she told that story to a man who was teaching her Hebrew, and he replied, "If you tell anyone I will deny it, but I have always believed that 'God' was a typographnical error. They meant to write 'good,' and they left out an 'o.' ... 

"I felt bad because I didn't have this faith," Levin said. "I had an Irish babysitter, who had nine miscarriages and she was a widow andshe couldn't wait to die already because she knew that he and those nine babies were waiting for her. 

"These things were very influential, and then meeting the rabbi, and finally hearing my husband talk about it. I thought, 'for crying out loud, this is it!'"

One of the couples who attended the meeting with Wine --Martha and Dick Witz--suggested that the group build on its momentum by conducting a secular Passover seder in their backyard." And so a San Diego group- originally called "The Society for Humanistic Judaism" -- was born. Alex Levin led regular study sessions using Wine's first book Judaism Beyond God, as the text. 

"Alex had esophogeal speech and he refused to use anything that would amplify it," Levin said. "He learned to write very rapidly. .." At meetings, "Alex and I would be on the stage. He would have something prepared and I would speak it, and then when they asked the questions, he'd answer and I would repeat. That is why I like to say I was his Charlie McCarthy (a ventriloquist's puppet). He was the secretary, the treasurer, he put out the newsletter." 

Dorfman was one of the people drawn the earliest to the group, sensing here among people for whom God's existence either was in doubt or irrelevant that she and others no longer would feel intellectually isolated. 

"All of us wanted to share certain moments of Jewish identity, to come together for the High Holidays especially," Dorfman said. "And if you went to a traditional synagogue, you were saying words that you would choke on. You literally could not say the words that were in the siddur and so you were drawn to the Yiddishkeit sounds, the cantor's songs, the flavor of being together as Jews. 

"But," she added, "you didn't want to leave integrity outside the door in order to walk inside the synagogue, and that is where the aloneness came; that is where the isolation came. But when you found that there were others and that we could get together--even if it was in the back yard or someone's patio--then we could share a High Holiday or a Passsover seder and say words that kept us Jewish, but also maintain that integrity. We felt at home." 

 * * * 

Within four years of the group's founding, it had chosen Barbara Brandt to serve as its first madrikha. Like Dorfman, who succeeded to the leadership after Brandt moved to the Seattle area, the madrikha took classes in Farmington Hills, Mich., where the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Jews today is located. This secular yeshiva stands behind the Birmingham Temple, where the Reform Movement-trained Rabbi Wine had developed the principals of Humanistic Judaism.

Davis had been a music student at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD)  when a friend, Sally Dean, invited her to sing with the choir during High Holiday services for the Society for Humanistic Judaism. "I didn't know what it was at the time" but she accepted "the gig" and was assigned some solos including the Avinu Malkenu -- which the humanists enjoyed for its melody, but not for it's meaning: "Our Father, Our King." 

After Dean moved on, Davis received an invitation from Brandt to lead the singing at a subsequent Rosh Hashanah service. "I thought if I were going to lead the service, I needed to know what I was doing. I started to find out about the philosophy and I thought--at last! Eureka--I can be a Jew without feeling like a hypocrite. ...I was at home right away." 

At the same point in her life, Davis met Yale Strom, a klezmer musician and film maker who had a band called Zmiros. "I learned a couple of pieces and we did some gigs together and I thought, 'I love this music. Why don't I do this music? I am singing (opera) in Italian and French and German all the time -- why don't I sing in Yiddish and Hebrew? So I started taking Yiddish lessons and I would say that the band and the cantorial thing developed simultaneously. I kept learning more and more about Jewish music, realizing that was the way I wanted to express my Judaism, through the music. I can do both now, and it is great." 

After Alex Levin died, the San Diego group renamed itself as the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Alex Levin chapter. Later, to reflect its growing congregational format, it became the San Diego Humanistic Jewish Congregation. 

With Dorfman attending four days of classes every month in Michigan for ordination as a Humanist madrikha, she would come back to the congregation brimming with lectures and study material to share with the local members. "What really was great was that the San Diego group was very supportive. I would learn a subject-- let's say something about the Talmud-- and I would come back and at that Friday service, I would go ahead and tell them. So they shared what I was learning and it also reaffirmed it in my mind. It also caused me to have to focus it and put it down clearly in my mind. Four days worth of material had to be presented in less than an hour. For the first few years, that is how I would do it." 

At first, the congregation did not have candle lighting but eventually it was incorporated. Today a typical service is preceded by a pianist playing Jewish music; formally begins with the candlelighting; then is followed by Jewish and secular songs which may bear on the evening's topic. Dorfman's lecture -- she does not call it a sermon -- is followed by a question-and-answer session, closing songs, and then an oneg Shabbat. "We are Jews," said Dorfman. "We have to eat." 

A "humanorah" is a symbol on both the madrikha's lectern and the cantor's lectern -- as well as in art works hung around the congregation's rented meeting hall at 7084 Miramar Road in the Mira Mesa area. The congregation is seeking new rented quarters. 

The humanorah is a menorah in which the centerpiece of the candelabra is a human figure. There are other symbols adapted from religious Judaism. For example, during bar/ bat mitzvah ceremonies, Dorfman wears a tallit, but not a yarmulke . The tallit does not have four fringes with the various knots designed to remind its wearer of the 613 commandments. Instead it has just one fringe, representing what Dorfman calls "the Eleventh Commandment" -- the injunction of Hillel to refrain from doing to others that which is hateful to you. 

And why doesn't Dorfman wear a yarmulke?

"The meaning of a yarmulke comes historically from the Romans," she replied. "Slaves wore head covers. It indicated you were slaves. Free men did not wear head coverings. The Jews took it over because then you are a servant of God. And that concept of covering your head to be a servant of God has come down through the millenium. I am not a servant of God. God is a myth. Therefore I do not wear a yarmulke."

Just before Passover, the Humanistic Jewish Congregation proudly accepted a Torah of its very own from an annonymous benefactor. While obviously secular Jews do not consider the words on the scroll to be of Divine origin, the Torah will be read by girls and boys during their bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies. "It will teach them the pride in being connected to an identity of so many achievements, both for our own world People and for humanity as a whole since it represents a literary masterpiece that has reached over one billion people, of most religions, cultures and languages," Dorfman said. 

"It was especially apropos to accept this gift at Passover," she added. "Look what's happening in the Exodus story. The desert crossing is abruptly halted and we get a series of laws that are to be effective immediately. They are laws that concern the equality of all humans, rich and poor, master and servant, citizen and foreigner. 

"Even before the Hebrews have their own country, they are directed to treat the stranger among them as they would themselves; even before they own property, they are directed to respect boundary lines; even before they have a vineyard, they are directed to leave the fallen fruit for the poor; even before they have any servants, these people who were slaves just days before are directed to pay their servants' wages by nightfall. 

"These are some of the positive laws in this remarkable Book," Dorfman summarized. "The proeccupation with the rights of others cannot be overestimated. The eternal characteristic of the Jew is the concern with justice and equality, this conviction that he or she can make a a word, our humanism." 

Dorfman chose a mantle for the Torah with the Hebrew word for "light." 

Asked why ritual is important to a Humanist congregation, she replied: "When we light candles on Friday evening Shabbat, first of all we are totally connected to the rest of the Jewish world. The same time we are lighting candles, Jews all over the world are lighting candles. That World People connection, that international connection, is very important to us." 

Humanistic Judaism is controversial to leaders of other Jewish movements. When one Humanistic Jewish congregation applied for acceptance in the Reform movement, it was turned down. 
Locally, in San Diego County, the madrikha of the Humanistic Jewish Congregation is not eligible for the San Diego Rabbinical Association, nor was an invitation extended to the congregation to join the newly formed Synagogue Council. 

Some consider a belief in God as an integral part of Judaism--a contention that Dorfman and her congregants reject. Whereas "Jews for Jesus" or "Messianic Jews" have left Judaism for another religion -- Christianity - Dorfman said humanistic Jews remain a part of the Jewish people. 

"One of the criteria for us in defining who is a Jew is that you must also be involved in the future of the Jewish people," she said. "If you are a Messianic Jew, the future of the Jewish people as Jews no longer exists. Eventually it will be taken over by Christianity. Their future for the Jewish people is no Jews." 

Dorfman pointed to the front of her congregation's hall to the Israeli flag. 

"We have the Israeli flag; we proudly display it," she said. "We don't do prayers, but we do our blessings in Hebrew. These things are important to us. The flag and the Hebrew are the beginning of our people. We don't believe in the traditional history that we all have been taught, but there is a history there...and it is important for us to stay connected to that history."