This is a guest post by Patty Becker, written during the SHJ@50 Anniversary Conference in April 2019. A longtime and beloved member of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, MI, Patty sadly died on August 11, 2020. May her memory be for a blessing.
“Today I am ashamed to be a Jew.” Those words, uttered by Rabbi Sherwin Wine on Erev Yom Kippur, 1982, brought me into this movement.
But first, some background. I was raised as a secular Jew, deeply exposed to Jewish/Yiddish culture in the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring in Detroit. I attended its shule for seven years, where I was taught in Yiddish. My parents were atheists. I wasn’t so sure when I was young, but after my father died of cancer at age 45, when I was 15, it was clear to me that no god could possibly have permitted that to happen. In high school, I became involved in a Zionist Youth movement – Hashomer Hatzair – not because I wanted to make aliyah to Israel, but simply because I needed something Jewish.
During freshman orientation week at the University of Michigan, I went to a Hillel mixer for incoming students. I quickly panicked and walked right out – it seemed to me to be just a big dating pool. My interests in social justice came to the fore instead, and I spent a lot of time with a Christian ministry where everyone knew I was Jewish, and where students were encouraged to engage with the real world. I moved on to Wisconsin for graduate school where I did become involved in Hillel, but the religious part of it never felt right. It’s funny though – one year on Yom Kippur, my roommate and I were making a break fast meal for our friends. I worked all day, but there was still an hour or so to go of the service after that. I slipped in and listened. The values expressed in the siddur resonated with me, but not the god language.
Eventually I returned to Detroit and began developing a career. I didn’t know what to do with my Jewishness. There was no place to be. When I was 31, my husband, Allan, and I connected and became engaged. He was raised Conservative; my mother jokingly called it a mixed marriage. His parents would have been very unhappy if we were not married by a rabbi.
So, we went to see Rabbi Wine. He helped us to design our own, unique, ceremony. This was in 1971.
Allan and I had met in Democratic Party politics, focused locally in our corner of Detroit, and continued that work throughout the 1970s. Our efforts, together with that of many others, elected a Congressman and many other good public officials. We also had a daughter, born in 1974. During that time, being Jewish was less important to us than working in politics. But by 1982, with our daughter entering third grade, we were at “push/shove” time. She needed an external Jewish education. We considered our options – we had a few – but ultimately chose Birmingham Temple. I was persuaded when I read the Sunday School curriculum, which seemed to be just what we wanted our daughter to be learning.
So, shortly after joining, we went to our first service – on that Erev Yom Kippur evening in 1982. It was the day of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Rabbi Wine stood before the packed congregation, said that he was putting aside his prepared talk, and uttered those words: “Today I am ashamed to be a Jew.” All I could think was that all over our Detroit Jewish community and far beyond, rabbis were apologizing for Israel. Our rabbi was telling the truth! I was hooked.
I like to say that, over the next ten years, Sherwin gave words to what I felt. I had always been a Humanistic Jew; I just didn’t know that my values could be labeled and categorized “Humanistic.” Being part of this movement for the past 37 years has enriched my life in more ways than I can count. I wish for today’s young people, all those “nones” of Jewish background, that they could experience the joy of bringing their humanistic values together with Jewish culture. Many of them would really like it.
Wonderful story! But I am so sorry to learn of the death of Patty this month!
Allan, my thoughts are with you and your family. You and Patty were a force together in many ways. May those good memories strengthen you. Thank you for the contributions you two made to the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism.
Thank you, I enjoyed the article. Can I ask, as an interested party from Ireland, and an atheist, originally from a Catholic background, and a strong supporter of human and civil-rights for the Palestinian people, and noting your reference to the Rabbi saying those memorable words “Today I am ashamed to be a Jew” ….has that shame been built on? For good, for justice for those people it has been long dented. Because I have become increasingly frustrated with the American Jewish people, who are intelligent, educated, and have a strong grounding in fighting for justice for others, WHY have more of them not joined together and raised their voices against what is being done, in their name, whether they are orthodox, reform, humanist…. The outside world considers you ALL JEWS, and as these crimes that are happening with increasing brutality, more land being taken by creeping annexation, more homes lost, to make Palestinians refugees for the second or third time in their own land. The answer lies with Jews in America… The enablers of these crimes are American backers like Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, etc, etc…. And each and every Jew who supports Netanyahu’s policies in Palestine /Israel, AIPAC, all the Zionist organisations……the Jews who do not support Zionism and all it entails, are the ones who need to speak up, to withdraw funding from these Zionist centric, settler colonialist enterprises that are ethnically cleansing Palestinians and will soon have confined them to Bantustans, just as horrific as the Bantustans that black South Africans were subjected to during South Africa’s Apartheid regime.
I would genuinely appreciate your thoughts on this, or anybody who can help me build a dialogue, across the ocean, to get a conversation going about this. I have been to the West Bank as a Human Rights Defender, an “International” as we’re called, because I needed to be more than a “keyboard warrior,” a protestor at marches, demonstrations, and though I thought I had a good idea how things would be there, believe me, the reality, on the ground, was far, far worse that even I expected. I first went in 2017, again in 2019 and was supposed to go again this autumn, but because of COVID, that’s been postponed, naturally. Sorry for this long comment!
With kind regards,
Hi Amanda, I approved your comment to be posted here even though I find it containing borderline anti-Semitic undertones, so I hope you are genuine in your desire to learn. There are two disturbing errors in your post. First is that, despite reading a piece that suggests there is a diversity of opinions and approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among American Jewry, you still express frustration “with the American Jewish people,” as if we are all monolithic in opinion and behavior and therefore all complicit in what you identify as crimes. There is a long, terrible history of people blaming “you ALL JEWS” with perceived crimes.
Much worse is the suggestion that “The enablers of these crimes are American backers like Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, etc.” If you are a genuine student of the conflict, you would already understand that the millions of dollars the few right-wing Jewish mega-donors give to any causes pale in comparison to the literally billions of dollars in military and other aide transferred by the US Government to Israel annually. A handful of powerful Jews sitting around a star-chamber is not driving that decades-long policy, regardless of what you might read on the dark web or wherever.
Jews voted against Trump in 2016 by 70% – if we’re only driven by support for right-wing Israel policy, how do you explain that? American Jews regularly poll in support of a two-state solution and most do not support a policy of annexation. Any suggestion that Trump’s Israeli policy is driven by a handful of major Jewish donors was dispelled a couple of weeks ago when he told an Evangelical audience that he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem for them. Trump’s base is white Evangelical Christians, and it is they who have been driving the bus on Israel policy as much if not more than anybody. Have you also left comments on their website?! Here you go, this group is bigger than AIPAC: https://www.cufi.org/
Anti-Semites can find major Jewish donors on any side of an issue; the right-wing Zionists point to George Soros’s support of liberal causes including the New Israel Fund — which works for Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation — as evidence that “the Jews are behind it.” Try looking at the actual numbers. Jews comprise only 2.5% of all Americans and maybe 4% of the voting electorate. Evangelicals are something like 36% and wield significant power (they are the bulk of the Republican base). Evangelicals are not solely responsible for US government policy either, but certainly they wield more power on this and many other issues.
I’ve been to Dublin, it is a lovely town. When I took a bus-tour of nearby castles, the guide told me something amazing, that even though there are like 6 million Irish in Ireland (similar to the number of Jews in Israel), there are 40 million or more Americans of Irish descent. Could you imagine if I went up to one of my second- or third-generation Irish-American friends and demanded they account for all the shitty things the Irish government has ever done?! Just because I know you’re Irish tells me nothing about where you stand on politics or who you do or do not “enable.” You don’t know me just because I’m Jewish. Making presumptions about where I stand on politics based on my cultural or religious identity is bigotry, plain and simple.
I hope you’re able to eventually see the nuance and complexity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in the Jewish communal approach to it, thanks.