HJ Role Models

HJ Role Models


The Society for Humanistic Judaism launched the Humanistic Jewish Role Model program in 2005 to create a sense of excitement about outstanding people who demonstrate the organization’s values and philosophy. It provides SHJ affiliates an annual fresh programming opportunity. Additionally, the earlier role models can be used in succeeding years for both adult and children’s programming.


2019-2020 Role Model: Amos Oz (1939-2018)

Amos Oz was born Amos Klausner May 4, 1939 in Jerusalem. Oz was a novelist, short-story writer and essayist, as well as a professor and a prominent peace advocate.


He was the only child of Fania (Mussman) and Yehuda Arieh Klausner, immigrants to Mandatory Palestine who had met while studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When he was 12, his mother committed suicide. At age 14, he became a Labor Zionist, left home and joined Kibbutz Hulda. He studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, earning a degree in Hebrew Literature. After completing his mandatory three year service In the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), he continued as an army reservist in a tank unit which fought in the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War, and in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. In 1960, he married Nily Zuckerman. They had three children together and continued to live on the Kibbutz until in 1966, the family moved to the Negev for his son’s health.


Amos Oz was best known as a writer. In addition, he taught Hebrew Literature at Ben Gurion University for more than a decade. Oz published 40 books, among them 14 novels, five collections of stories and novellas, two children’s books, and twelve books of articles and essays (as well as eight selections of essays that appeared in various languages), and about 450 articles and essays. His works have been translated into some 45 languages, more than any other Israeli writer. Oz is the recipient of a number of awards and prizes, including the 1986 Bialik Prize and the 1998 Israel Prize for Literature.


Brittanica.com articulated his great gift, “Oz’s symbolic, poetic novels reflect the splits and strains in Israeli culture. Locked in conflict are the traditions of intellect and the demands of the flesh, reality and fantasy, rural Zionism and the longing for European urbanity, and the values of the founding settlers and the perceptions of their skeptical offspring. Oz felt himself unable to share the optimistic outlook and ideological certainties of Israel’s founding generation, and his writings present an ironic view of life in Israel.”


Following the Six Day War, Oz joined the Israeli peace movement and was one of the first to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was outspoken against Israeli settlements on the west bank and supported the Oslo accords and direct talks with the PLO. He became well known for his political activism.


Amos Oz was not religious and considered himself a secular Jew. He did not attend synagogue nor did he have any use for worship. However, he understood Judaism profoundly. In describing Judaism Oz once said, “Judaism is not a package deal. It is a heritage. And a heritage is something that you can play with. You can decide which part of the heritage you allocate to your living room, and which part goes to the attic or the basement. This is the legitimate right of every heir.”


Oz is an ideal choice to be the Humanistic Jewish Role Model for 2019-2020. His deep connection to Judaism, albeit a secular one, his commitment to living his humanistic values, and his connection to the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement in Israel make him easily worthy of this honor.



Amos OzAmos OzAmos Oz



2018-2019 Role Model: Grace Paley (1922-2007)

Grace Paley, born in 1922, was an American short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist. Born in the Bronx, New York, Paley was the youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She grew up in a socialist, intellectual family that spoke three languages—Yiddish, Russian, and English. Typical of such families, Jewish identity was grounded in family and community relationships and socialist politics, rather than in synagogue life.


Paley taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and City College of The City University of New York, and was also the first official New York State Author. For her Collected Stories, Paley was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction; she was also a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction and the Rea Award for the Short Story.


Paley was known for pacifism and for political activism. She classified herself as a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist,” a label that stuck. Her pacifism led her to help found the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1961. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, Paley joined the War Resisters League. In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War, and in 1969 she came to national prominence as an activist when she accompanied a peace mission to Hanoi to negotiate the release of prisoners of war. Paley spent time in jail for her anti-war activities.


Her fictional characters were rooted in modern Jewish life. They were not religious, but they were Jewish, struggling with the issues of the day. When she lived in New York, her life-style and her Jewish identity were one and the same. But, later in life, after moving to Vermont, she became more connected to religious Judaism. “‘I often go [to services] on the High Holy Days,” Paley said. “In New York, I didn’t, but here the towns are very church-centered — the church is like the community center, and I’m not in it. If I didn’t have the Jewish community, I’d be lonesome.”


Paley was chosen as the SHJ 2018-2019 Humanistic Jewish Role Model because her values were expressed in action. She did not look to a higher power to solve the issues and problems of the day. Her behavior reflected her secular belief system. She was Jewish through and through and when she moved to Vermont, away from New York City where you could express your connection to being Jewish in the streets, she sought out Jewish community where she could find it, rather than abandoning her identity.


Grace Paley

2017-2018 Role Model: Gene Wilder (1922-2016)

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to a Jewish Immigrant father and a mother born in Chicago. His mother died when he was 14 and he had one sister. He graduated from Washington High School in Milwaukee and studied Communication and Theatre Arts in college, graduating from the University of Iowa. Married four times, famously to Gilda Radner for five years before she died of cancer, and finally to Karen Boyer from 1991 to his death in August 2016, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was best known for his roles in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryBlazing Saddles, Frisco Kid, The Producers and Young Frankenstein. 


Wilder was raised Jewish. In Stars of David, a book published in 2005, and written by Abigail Pogrebin he stated, “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.” He often described himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist.” His lack of religious beliefs aside, he was unapologetically proud and grateful about being Jewish and said he carried his Jewish identity with pride.



Gene Wilder



2016-2017 Role Model: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist renown for her work in the use of X-ray diffraction and the significant role one of her photographs played in the discovery of the structure of DNA. She also invented carbon fiber technology. Franklin was born in 1920, the second of five children, in London England, to a well to do Jewish family. Her family took in and saved two Jewish children during World War II. Her exceptional intelligence was noted early in her life. She ultimately achieved a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cambridge. Franklin felt the full force of both anti-Semitism and sexism when she worked at King’s College. She learned that she was to serve as the research assistant to a male colleague, when, in fact, the research was a result of her own genius and hard work. The major controversy in her professional life occurred when her colleague at King’s College shared her research, without her knowledge with scientists Watson and Crick at Cambridge University who went on to earn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of DNA’s double helix. Playright Anna Ziegler, in her play about Franklin called “Photograph 51” characterized her as staunchly secular, with a strong sense of wonder. Tragically, she died at the age of 38 of ovarian cancer.



2015-2016 Role Model: Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Carl Sagan was a brilliant, award-winning scientist whose unique place in history was as a translator of hard science to the language of the heart.  In books, innumerable articles, television and film, his work inspired wonder, and the possibility that we could know our immense, mysterious and ever-expanding universe through reason and science. In his groundbreaking Cosmos series on television during the 80’s and subsequent book and film Contact, Sagan spread a humanistic worldview to ordinary people all over the world—a view where neither religion nor nationality could separate people from nature, one another, or the universe at large.  Sagan, a cultural Jew at home, was in his public life a proud and eloquent citizen of Planet Earth. 

 Carl Sagan

2014-2015 Role Model: Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Nora Ephron was known for her caustic wit, biting sarcasm, brutal honesty, and her innovative sense of humor as a reporter, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter. Her credits include countless essays, plays, the iconic films When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail, and her autobiographical book, Heartburn, which was turned into a movie. Her family were secularists and incidental Jews. She bristled at being pegged a “Jewish director,” just as she cringed at being described as a “woman director”: “It seems like a narrow way of looking at what I do.” She was neither an observant or strongly self-identified Jew. “You can never have too much butter—that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it,” she quipped in an NPR interview about her 2009 movie Julie & Julia. In 1994, she received the Women in Film Crystal Award. After her death from leukemia in 2012, the Tribeca Film Festival established the Nora Ephron Prize, which awards $25,000 to a female writer or director “with a distinctive voice who embodies [her] spirit and vision.”


2013-2014 Role Model: Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Maurice Sendak, a well-known writer and illustrator of children’s books, is an attractive multi-generational choice for a role model. Sendak’s work is ostensibly for children, but it also touches on issues and feelings faced by adults. His Jewish identity forms the context of his story telling. Sendak’s most well-known children’s book is Where the Wild Things Are, for which he received the Caldicott Medal. He preserved the memory of his deceased relatives, using their pictures as the basis of his illustrations for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories. He also collaborated with playwright, Tony Kushner, illustrating Hans Krasa’s Brundibar, a children’s opera about a brother and sister who fight a bully named Brundibar. Sendak was an atheist and stated in a September 2011 interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air that he didn’t believe in God.

2012-2013 Role Model: Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

Feynman (pronounced “Fineman”) was an American physicist known for his theoretical work in quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics. A professor at the California Institute of Technology, he pioneered in the field of quantum computing and introduced the concept of nanotechnology. A 1965 Nobel Prize winner in Physics for work on quantum electrodynamics, he has been called one of the ten greatest physicists of all time. He authored several popular books, including Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? Born to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, Feynman was a self-proclaimed atheist with an irreverent sense of humor. He wrote that at age 13 he “stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way ‘the chosen people.’”


2011-2012 Role Model: Ernestine Rose (1810-1892)

The nineteenth-century activist Ernestine Rose was an ardent abolitionist, a spokesperson for women’s rights long before Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton appeared on the scene, a socialist in a capitalist country, and an atheist at a time when many Americans turned to their Bibles for guidance. Ernestine Rose was one of our more intriguing Humanistic Jewish Role Models. Many of our members learned of her for the first time through this project, and they felt the excitement of discovering a Jewish woman who demonstrated the philosophy and values of Humanistic Judaism long before Humanistic Judaism existed.


2010-2011 Role Model: Jonas Salk (1914-1995)

Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist, developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Salk was a cultural Jew whose Jewishness was a deeply important aspect of his life. He wrote: “Curiosity was very much a part of my early life: asking questions about unreasonableness. I tended to observe, and reflect and wonder. That sense of wonder, I think, is built into us.”


2009-2010 Role Model: Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher, laid the ground-work for the Enlightenment and for modern biblical criticism. Spinoza identified God with the totality of the universe and maintained that the Bible was not a revealed document but was written by human authors. He was excommunicated by Amsterdam Jewish authorities for his unorthodox beliefs.







2007-2008 Role Model: Sherwin Wine (1928-2007)

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine was the founder of Humanistic Judaism and a chief architect of the international movement known as Secular Humanistic Judaism. Wine combined the philosophy of Humanism, an attachment to Jewish culture, and congregational life to create a new, modern approach to Jewish identity. Welcoming and inclusive, Rabbi Wine championed the rights of all individuals to marry the person they loved regardless of their gender or their religious or cultural background. Wine officiated and co-officiated at weddings for couples from different religious backgrounds, invited non-Jewish individuals to become full members of his congregation and the Humanistic Jewish movement, and encouraged self-definition as the measure of membership in the Jewish people.


2006-2007 Role Model: Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

Betty Friedan was the author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), which sparked the feminist revolution. Friedan was the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which she founded. Earlier in life, she was active in Jewish circles; she attributed her “passion against injustice” to her “feelings of the injustice of antisemitism.”


2005-2006 Role Model: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud is known as the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud rejected religion as an illusion (“the opiate of the people”) but embraced Jewish peoplehood. Although Freud’s theories are controversial today, his formidable achievements in medicine and psychology and his wide-ranging impact on contemporary understandings of human nature are undeniable.


2004-2005 Role Model: Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Albert Einstein is often called the father of nuclear physics. Einstein believed that human power and responsibility are the foundations of morality, reality is limited to the natural universe, and supernatural intervention plays no part in its events. While rejecting a personal God, he was proud of his Jewish heritage, especially “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence.”