Susan Ryan is on the Humanistic Jewish Role Model Committee and is the Secretary of the City Congregation in New York City. She and her family have been members of The City Congregation for over 25 years, and her son grew up with Humanistic Judaism. Susan has served on City Congregation’s board since 2009 and on the SHJ board since 2012.
The mission of the Society for Humanistic Judaism states:
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.
I honestly can’t believe I didn’t know about Humanistic Judaism when I was growing up. I am sure that if we’d known about it, my family would have absolutely found a Humanistic congregation to join, but it just didn’t exist in New York in the late 60s/early 70s. My brother and I came from a thoroughly secular family, but we attended a Conservative synagogue and Hebrew School, mostly because of the two choices available in our neighborhood at the time, this was the one that was closest to our house, whereas the Reform temple was a short drive away. But it really didn’t inform our everyday lives other than to convince us both that we had a complete lack of interest or belief in the traditional rituals and prayers. For me, though, it also forged a great connection and love for Judaism through more secular pursuits like the synagogue youth group I also attended and the Israeli dance classes that I took. Certainly, we were aware that we were Jewish – we celebrated Passover and Hanukkah and noted the High Holidays when they came around – but otherwise we did not spend significant amounts of time engaged in specifically Jewish activities in our everyday lives.
As I grew to adulthood, the more traditional rituals of Judaism held no particular appeal and so they fell by the wayside. But I was happy and proud to be Jewish – at least in cultural terms…and food. Definitely Jewish food! By the time I met my husband, a thoroughly lapsed Catholic, I was also convinced that I didn’t believe in any kind of deity, but also convinced that I loved being Jewish in all the other ways one could celebrate that culture.
We tried to find a community that would accept us, an interfaith couple, as we were – and ran into roadblocks everywhere. Churches wanted me to convert, even the most liberal denominations of Judaism that we could find wanted him to do the same, and the more traditional congregations were downright unwelcoming. It wasn’t until I saw something about Humanistic Judaism on a friend’s website that I even found out about it, and my immediate reaction to what I learned was “where has this been all my life?”
We made a few calls, and ended up at The City Congregation in New York. We went to our first Shabbat service highly skeptical, and walked out knowing that this was the place for us. We joined right away. And it’s here where this mission statement takes on its real meaning for me – I was inspired by what we found there, and I’d finally found a place where I could celebrate my Jewish identity authentically, in a manner that I was comfortable with, without compromising any part of me or checking my brain at the door. We are among friends and like-minded people who don’t need a supernatural authority to approve of the way we “do Jewish.” We just do it – through the power of people and the secular Jewish culture that we love. And this same community has been so welcoming to my husband – no one questioned him, no one asked why he was there, and he’s been a fully engaged and valued part of the congregation ever since.
We love that we can celebrate Jewish identity and culture in a way that we both find engaging and compatible with our beliefs. We raised our son at TCC, from baby naming through Bar Mitzvah and into adulthood, and he has a much more positive feeling about being Jewish than I did at his age – because he was brought up in this community where he also never had to compromise who he is or what he believes.
We’ve been members of The City Congregation for 27 years and counting. We’ve both been on committees, presented programs and participated in events. I’ve served on the Board for over 15 years – and I’m now the President. If I’d known this would be my life back when I was attending traditional Hebrew School, I never would have believed it. We know that we’ve found a home within Humanistic Judaism – and we will be forever grateful that it exists.