Some might find it counterintuitive for a Jewish denomination to select as executive director a man who, by his own admission, hadn’t attended High Holiday services for over 25 years. (He has since broken the dry streak.)
But the way Paul Golin sees it, that’s exactly why the Society for Humanistic Judaism hired him for the job.
“What I bring to the table is the perspective of an outsider. I am the target population. I’m intermarried, I don’t really consider myself affiliated, I’m not a believer, and I challenge the congregational model,” Golin tells The Times of Israel via telephone from his office in New York City after his August hiring.
“The board of SHJ made a bold move — you could even say took a gamble on me — because I’m not an insider. But my outsider status could be helpful because I’m the one we’re trying to reach. We’re looking to attract people who don’t necessarily want to spend all their time thinking about Judaism,” he says.
Who they are trying to attract is clear. Who they currently are, however, is more hazy. Part of the challenge in hammering down an exact number of adherents to Humanistic Judaism is precisely their tendency not to affiliate with mainstream Judaism.
“People who identify as humanist might align ideologically, but won’t necessarily put themselves on the list,” says the movement’s head rabbi, Miriam Jerris.
‘We’re looking to attract people who don’t necessarily want to spend all their time thinking about Judaism’
The first Humanist synagogue was founded in 1963 by Reform-ordained rabbi Sherwin Wine, in Birmingham, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. In 1969, he founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism, a secular denomination focused on Jewish history and culture.
Membership can be calculated to be 10,000-strong in North America, and 40,000 globally. But according to Jerris, a recent online poll asking Jews to list their denomination had as many as 40,000 clicking “Secular Humanist” in North America alone.
There are 27 congregations in the US and Canada — though many of them don’t own buildings and “synagogue” is not the preferred term — but, as reflected in the poll numbers, more similar-minded groups may convene without officially “joining the fold.”
As befits a non-theistic denomination, congregations have a large degree of autonomy over when and why they meet, as well as the liturgy. Shabbat gatherings typically take place on Friday night, and the major holidays are also usually celebrated.
But while there is no official siddur (prayer book), attendees can expect to find songs, poetry, philosophical readings, even a sermon — but not what one would exactly call “prayer.” At least, not to a higher being.
Numbers are important to Golin, but his reason for wanting to fill seats might not be what you’d expect from a typical board member.
“There’s a benefit in feeling this connection to Jewish life, Jewish history, other Jewish people,” he says. “To being part of a Jewish community, above and beyond being Jewish with your friends and family. And so I think we should come at it from this angle instead of, frankly, what are the benefits to our congregation…
“What is the change we’re trying to make in the world?” asks Golin.
That is, in a nutshell, the purpose of Secular Humanist Judaism — a stream whose necessity could be called into question by those accustomed to theistic worship. Despite not feeling compelled to convene by a power on high, Secular Humanism recognizes the primal human need for culture, community and identity, and seeks to bring together any and all who want to participate.
‘There’s a benefit in feeling this connection to Jewish life, Jewish history, other Jewish people’
In addition to Shabbat and holiday services, communities gather to celebrate “life cycle” milestones such as births, deaths, weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies and other significant events in a Jewish context. Because the focus is solely on the human element of these occasions, ceremonies can be, but don’t necessarily have to be, conducted by a rabbi or ordained leader.
In an era where disengagement and straying from the flock are old news to Jewish factions across the board, Golin challenges the traditional Jewish outreach model, eschewing the enticement of disinterested people back within rigid boundaries in favor of setting a more fluid definition of Judaism.
With nearly 20 years’ experience working as a Jewish community professional — first at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and then as associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) — he’s well placed to make that call.
“I’m not one of those people who feels like there’s a crisis because the Jewish population is higher than ever but they’re not behaving Jewishly enough,” says Golin.
‘You’re always going to have somebody to your right saying to you, “You’re not Jewish enough”‘
“If these trends continue and we go from 6.5 to 7.5 million Jews in the US in the next 20 years, people will still be complaining, ‘Yeah, but what kind of Jews are they?’ And I hate that argument, because you’re always going to have somebody to your right saying to you, ‘You’re not Jewish enough.’ And I refuse to do that,” he says.
Instead, Golin believes that self-identification in any form should be encouraged and nurtured.
“If someone says, ‘I’m happy to be Jewish because I love the history of our great Jewish American comedians,’ and that’s as far as they go with it, then that’s great,” he says. “And I see my role as saying, ‘That’s awesome. Did you know there’s a Jewish film festival coming up, and there’s a film about Jewish comedians. Would you like to come to that?’”
The point is, he says, to foster “Jewish engagement,” to assess where people are now and help them “take on just one more thing.”
Despite his unorthodox approach, Golin was raised with a much more conservative background — literally.
“I grew up in Staten Island, New York, in a traditional Conservative synagogue — it was not egalitarian, women were not counted in the minyan or invited to read from the Torah,” he says.
“I had a pretty miserable Hebrew school experience, and that’s kind of standard for American Jews,” he continues, with a hint of a smile in his voice.
Even then, says Golin, “I felt excluded, in ways, because I grew up — this was the late 70s, early 80s — and it felt like every week the sermon was railing against intermarriage, because at that time intermarriage was on the rise and was scary to the Jewish community, and you know, I was only 11 or 12 but I already knew that narrative didn’t work for me.”
‘I had a pretty miserable Hebrew school experience, and that’s kind of standard for American Jews’
“I was being raised with this American ideal that everybody is an individual, not based on their race or religion. And that was being reinforced to me at home at the same time that I was hearing from my parents, ‘only marry Jewish.’” he says. “And that to me was hypocritical, and it’s still hypocritical to me.”
Golin says that though he “didn’t have a hall of fame dating career to begin with,” he dated both Jewish and non-Jewish girls without a specific end-game in mind before meeting his wife, who is Japanese. The couple have two children, aged four and one, whom they are raising to be aware of both of their shared identities.
“My personal view is that intermarriage is a benefit to humanity,” says Golin. “People get to experience the ‘other’ in an extremely intimate way and recognize the commonality that all people have. So hopefully, it will decrease racism and misunderstanding.”
Appropriately, he also curates the Facebook page, “Jewpanese: Where Jewish and Japanese Converge.”
With an eye towards tomorrow and beyond, Golin is sensitive to concerns about preserving Jewish continuity. But, he says, intermarriage isn’t the problem — rather, the issue is meaning.
The executive director has written extensively on the subject of Jewish identity, especially as it pertains to the medium-term future and how Judaism will adapt to the “singularity” — when computer intelligence surpasses humans’ — that futurist Ray Kurzweil puts at 30 years from now.
Golin envisions a world with a la carte religious and cultural experiences, where people can “opt-in” for as long as they want — much like someone of any religion can duck into a yoga class today and be out within an hour.
‘What do we bring with us from our history and heritage and culture that’s still going to be relevant in that future?’
The trick, he says, is staying competitive.
“What do we bring with us from our history and heritage and culture that’s still going to be relevant in that future? I think there’s a lot that will still be relevant,” he says. “I’m not interested in some gray, bland future where everybody is exactly the same. And I don’t see that happening at all because if anything, there are more choices today than ever before, and the competition for what people do with their time is fiercer than ever.”
Golin is optimistic that Jewish culture is going to continue to be around for the long haul.
“I think the good parts of Judaism can compete with anything else out there,” he says. “We just have to position it that way.”