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Atheistic Denomination Struggles To Fill Void Left by Founder’s Death

When hundreds of practitioners of Humanistic Judaism convene in Michigan this weekend, the absence of their movement’s founder, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, is sure to be deeply felt.

For nearly a half-century, Wine was the leader and public face of Humanistic Judaism, a tiny, mostly American movement that celebrates Judaism as a culture, while eschewing a belief in God. A community builder known for his prolific output as a writer and speaker, Wine was immersed in the planning for this weekend’s symposium, the subject of which is Jewish-Muslim relations, when he was killed in an automobile accident last July at the age of 79. Now, 44 years after the rabbi began tending to his flock of Jewish nonbelievers, the movement he left behind is experiencing something of a sudden-onset adolescence, as a new generation of leaders struggles unsteadily with its reins. Indeed, Wine’s name remains listed on the upcoming program as a facilitator — a reminder of the void his supporters are now rushing in to fill, both spiritually and practically.

“Sherwin’s only been dead for three months, and everything [for the colloquium] was in his head,” said Rabbi Miriam Jerris, 58, community development coordinator for the movement’s American umbrella group, the Society for Humanistic Judaism. In the past few months, Jerris said, there has been “a lot of reorganizing and people taking on certain responsibilities that we have not taken on in the past, but which we are all trained to do.”

Wine began his career as a Reform rabbi with a pulpit in Windsor, Ontario, but found himself facing an existential crisis at the dawn of the 1960s, brought on, he later explained, by the realization that he “wasn’t comfortable talking to a God [he] didn’t know existed.”

Wine began to pass the torch during his lifetime. In 1985, he founded the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the leadership-training body of the movement. In 1999, the movement ordained its first rabbi, Tamara Kolton, with seven others having since followed her. But while Kolton, 37, took over leadership of the movement’s flagship congregation, the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, from Wine in 2003, the founding rabbi remained the driving force behind other movement programs. After his retirement from the pulpit, he continued to serve as dean of the international institute, which is now under the leadership of Rabbi Adam Chalom, 32, who grew up in the Birmingham Temple and was ordained in 2001.

Despite the sudden change in leadership, supporters like Jerris say they are confident that Humanistic Judaism — referred to by some as Judaism’s “fifth” stream — will both survive and thrive. At the Birmingham Temple, the initial eight-family congregation now numbers 400 families. There are now more than 30 humanistic congregations and 10,000 adherents across the United States, with new groups currently forming in Boston, Naples, Fla. and northern California. According to humanistic practices, the congregations hold holiday and regular Friday night “celebrations,” with the traditional liturgy altered to remove references to God, and with an emphasis on themes — like “love” or “courage” — that are drawn from a variety of sources, in addition to the weekly Torah portion.

Ultimately, the movement’s greatest challenges may prove, ironically, to be born of its own ideological success. In the decades since its founding, the Jewish mainstream has itself grown more pluralistic and flexible; for example, the new official Reform prayer book, “Mishkan T’filah,” itself draws from a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish sources, presenting them as companions to the traditional Jewish liturgy.

Humanistic Judaism “was born at a time when belief in God may have been more central and more controversial within Jewish society, and even American society,” said Steven M. Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Now, we live in a time when, for Jews at least, God is less controversial, so people don’t have to choose up sides as firmly as they did in the past. Probably, most Jews in America affirm a nominal belief in God, but God doesn’t play a major role in their thinking about what it means to be a Jew or even a good person.”

At the same time, even as a new generation assumes leadership — seven ceremonial leaders from North America and Israel will be officially ordained at this weekend’s colloquium — the movement’s liberal zeitgeist has introduced the possibility that its new leaders may not devote their time solely to promoting a Jewishly specific humanism. One of the movement’s most promising young leaders, Rabbi Greg Epstein, 30, has devoted himself to serving as a secular, ecumenical, humanistic chaplain at Harvard University, where students sometimes call him “reverend” and where he performs lifecycle events rooted in a array of cultural traditions.

“Humanistic Judaism is so valuable to me because it affirms me when I’m with it, and when I’m not,” Epstein said. “It doesn’t make any judgment about me because one week I may want to be in a Jewish community and another week, I may want to be in a culturally diverse community. It affirms that that is part of who I am as an American, as a free person.”


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