This is a guest post by Marlene Cohen, SHJ Board Secretary and Chair of the Youth Education Committee. SHJ starts each board meeting with a board member reflecting on SHJ’s mission. Marlene started the August 20 Board Meeting with the following reflection.
What is our mission statement? The Society for Humanistic Judaism inspires, organizes, and advocates for secular individuals and congregations to celebrate Jewish identity and culture independent of supernatural authority and aligned with the values of Humanistic Judaism.
Like many of you, I was already an adult when I found a community that could be the least-objectionable alternative for sticking my toes back into Judaism. My husband, raised Methodist in Nashville, and I, raised as a conservative Jew in northern Ohio, wanted our new son to have at least some connection to his 50% Jewish background. But we wanted to continue our cultures, not our guilt & fear-inducing traditions. And we achieved that intercultural comfort level for him – he likes bagel and lox AND biscuits and gravy for breakfast!
Secular humanistic community has become so much more for me in these 35 years of belonging. I have loved working with sincere, like-minded, engaged people who care about the needs of people beyond just their immediate circles and who are willing to grapple with ethical choices of how to live our lives. I learned what I DID believe, instead of just what I was avoiding. And I learned that I could act and speak out, not just read the paper and grouse.
But COVID showed me a powerful new meaning within our SHJ community. Think back to all the personal battles you heard about over COVID – to believe in the vaccination or not, to wear a mask or feel insulted by it – families and friends’ relationships severed over what could have been a positive community effort to hold back the illness and the dying!
Yet since spring 2020 I know of NO such tensions inside our SHJ communities (you can correct me in email if I’m wrong) around setting policy for the protection of our kids, adults and those they came into contact with. Have you ever known of a “religion” that bonded people so in turbulent times? Well, unless they were a cult drinking the same Kool-Aid.
Our mission says we get inspired and organized by our secular humanistic Jewish values, and that meant, when we lived through such uncertainty, that each household made its COVID decisions in roughly the same way. We read the facts, and kept up with the newer facts that contradicted the old facts (without seeing weakness in the scientists & policymakers for then changing their minds). We made decisions as best we could, for the benefit of our families and our communities, colleagues and neighbors too. When our Machar Washington DC group had to make decisions for the whole group, for example, food or no food at the public Hanukkah event, we discussed the facts at the time, respected each other’s perspectives, thought of likely scenarios to result, and made a group decision (NO food, even though that violates a Jewish value).
In our country’s current time of chaos and nonsense and reason, I now appreciate that it’s my religion that teaches me what seems like common sense, though it’s far from common these days. Our movement’s founder Rabbi Sherwin Wine wrote, “Can we have the courage to make decisions even when the consequences cannot be easily predicted?” Well we have to – and then accept the consequences. I now thank my religion for staying relevant – showing us how to have community strength, not personal divisions or personal attacks, even in scary times. And I don’t see how our path can later become one of clinging to an archaic past in a changing world, such as looking for a 1930s precedent for action, since our values tell us to change as new facts appear. And together, we do the best we can.