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The Light In People

By Tal Abbady


Posted March 22 2004,

WEST BOCA · No god consecrates the wine or bread, and that keeps the faithful coming.

A nontheistic devotion to Jewish life and culture anchors members of the South Florida Center for Humanistic Judaism in their identity as Jews.

The 100-person congregation marked its 10th anniversary last month, reaffirming its small but steady inroad into a religious marketplace that has allowed disaffected Jews to seek tailored versions of their religion.

Founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in 1963 in Detroit, Humanistic Judaism omits any belief in God, or "Adonai," a name Jews have intoned in ritual prayer for thousands of years. Members, approximately 15,000 nationally and 40,000 worldwide, claim their allegiance is to their culture and historical roots, according to the movement's leaders. Followers espouse a belief in personal responsibility for oneself and others that manifests itself without "divine intercession."

"It's a search for the truth, for a common history that is not distorted by the concept of a magical being to whom you pray and who will solve all your problems," said Arlene Siegelwaks, a Boynton Beach resident who joined the congregation 10 years ago. "We have to look into ourselves and others and work with our fellow human beings."

Like others in the group, Siegelwaks, 73, who grew up as a Reform Jew, spent much of her adult life searching for a congregational home.

"I had difficulty attending services where things were said that I really could not believe in," said Siegelwaks, who is originally from New York.

After experimenting with several congregations, she found comfort in a group whose members write the litany. Unlike traditional Sabbath services that ritualize God's divine covenant with the people of Israel, the Shabbat wine Siegelwaks now drinks is dedicated to "our joy, to life," and emphasizes "the light in people" as one's sustaining connection to the world and humanity.

The South Florida community, organized by residents in southern Palm Beach County, has no permanent site. Congregants meet for Shabbat twice a month at the South County Civic Center and hold educational activities for adults and children in rented space at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.

"Sometimes, when we explain our philosophy to people who call, they are taken aback and ask, `How can this be?' But nowhere does it say that in order to be Jewish you have to believe in God," said B.J. Saul, who founded the South Florida Center for Humanistic Judaism after hearing Wine give a speech in Boca Raton in the early 1990s.

Saul, who calls herself an atheist, said the center celebrates the traditional holidays. It also sponsors a lecture series for adults and a day school where the emphasis is on passing on the history of Jewish civilization.

Scholars say Humanistic Judaism is a small thread in the evolution of modern Judaism away from theology and toward a focus on nationalism, community or New Age-style spirituality. But by taking God out of the picture, "the humanists have gone the farthest," said Frederick Greenspahn, professor of religion at Florida Atlantic University.

The fragmentation of Judaism can perhaps be traced back as early as the 19th century with the rise of Zionism.

"Feeling the Jewish religion often times is a burden," Greenspahn said of some Jews' need to turn away from the strict practices of Orthodox Judaism. "Part of what this speaks to is people wanting a more sentimental, feeling-oriented approach to religion that rejects organization and structure."

Reconstructionism, and to a degree, Humanistic Judaism, stem from a belief Judaism is as much an ethnicity as religion, Greenspahn said.

"It isn't a movement about disbelief. It's a movement about connection to Jewish identity," said Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the national Society for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Mich. "A lot of people do not identify with a personal God, but they do strongly identify with Jewish culture and heritage."

There are humanistic congregations in 17 states.

said Adele Kaserman of Delray Beach. "The idea of the one god is fine, as long as we recognize that that god is not interfering in our lives. That god's work was done a long time ago. It's up to us now."



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