1987 CSJO Conference Keynote by Gerry Revzin
Good morning, goot shabbes, bonjour! I want to thank the International conference committee for giving me the honor of being one of the keynote speakers at our conference this morning. The famous quote from Hillel:
If I am not for myself, Who will be for me? If I am only for myself Who and what am I? Being only for myself Who and what am I? If not now, when?
presents some very provocative questions - who, what, when - for which we must seek some answers.
Our conference theme, JEWISH IDENTITY AMD COMMITMENT, IF NOT MOW, WHEN? provides us with an opportunity to examine and explore avenues by which we can answer some of these questions.
There are many definitions in the dictionary for the word "identity" but I have selected the one to which I think all of us in CSJO can relate and that is "identity is the relation established by psychological identification and participation in a collective action." That is what CSJO is all about. A collective action for the continuance of secular Jewish life in North America and in the world.
The second part of our theme, the word COMMITMENT, also has a number of definitions, but the one that seems most appropriate is an "agreement or pledge to do something in the future." That is precisely, why we gather each year; to renew our pledge to continue to do something in the present, to guarantee that we will have a future.
We are witnessing in North America, and throughout the world, for that matter, a great resurgence of religious fundamentalism, which threatens all people, Jew and non-Jew, by its reactionary doctrine which seeks to outlaw secularism on the one hand and to label it a religion on the other. In this devious way, books can be removed from schools and libraries in the name of separation of church and state. When the go ahead is given by a court of law in the United States to remove books like the Wizard of Oz , the Diary of Anne Frank and numerous other literary works, our children and grandchildren are threatened with a sterile type of education which breeds robots instead of thinking people.
No less hostile or threatening are fanatically religious Jewish groups, here and everywhere, who try to decree how we should live our lives, without any concern for individual liberties and freedom. In 1986 when I was in California, Carole Slucki of Sholem Community Organization gave me a printed flyer which had been handed to her as she came out of a shop near her home.
The flyer was issued by Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad in Los Angeles and is addressed TO THE JEWISH WOMAN. It is called A THOUBHT FOR THE WEEK and was adapted from the works of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Shlita. It was issued at the time of Purim, 1986. It reads: "These days join the festivals of Purim and Pesach. It is an appropriate time for some reflection on the important historical role Jewish women played in these festivals and on the lessons we may learn from their contribution. Because of the time-consuming duties of housekeeping, bringing up children, etc., that are women's primary responsibilities, the Torah frees her from the obligation of performing many of the Mitzvos. However, she is required to participate in the special Mitzvos connected with the festivals of Purim and Pesach, such as HEARING the reading of the Megillah and reading the Haggada. Our Sages explain that these Mitzvos are given to women because of their share in bringing about the great deliverances commemorated by Purim and Pesach."
It then goes on to tell about Esther and Mordechai, with which we are all familiar. Further, the flyer says and I quote: "As for Passover, our Sages emphasize in the Midrash that it was the Jewish women who kept up the courage and spirits of the men in those most trying times of Egyptian bondage. Moreover, they raised the GENERATION worthy of receiving the Torah at Sinai and who later entered the Promised Land, the everlasting inheritance of our people."
It further states: "The part played by Jewish women on these two occasions was somewhat different. In the case of Passover, the women’s influence was concentrated in the home and family, displaying all the true feminine Jewish virtues of modesty, piety, and faith. In the case of Purim, Esther showed that where Divine Providence places a Jewish woman in a position of social prominence and influence, she uses it wholly for the benefit of her people and is ready to sacrifice her very life for them."
Just in case that is not enough, then comes the clarion call; "JEWISH WOMEN, MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS! FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF YOUR MOTHERS OF OLD AND KEEP ALIVE THE GREAT TRADITION OF RESPONSIBILITY, ETC. ETC. ETC." As a woman, and a mother, I am truly offended by these implications, that my place is in the home, rearing children, cooking, relying on the men to tell me how and when I can participate in celebration of the holidays. I find it too reminiscent of the Hitler philosophy, Kinder, Kuche, Kirche - children, home, church.
These reactionary doctrines pose very real threats to the very survival of our secular Jewish life. The continued existence, growth and well-being of each and every school, club, organization and the CSJO itself, must be a high priority on everyone's agenda, That's why we are here this weekend.
As we discuss, deliberate and examine ways of advancing our cause of secular Jewishness, we draw upon our historical past and its relevance to our present and to our future. In the introduction to his book, "The Faith of Secular Jews," Saul Goodman writes: "The roots of Jewish secularism are to be found in the beginning of Jewish history, starting with the ancient kings of Israel and Judah, with the socio-ethical ideals of the Prophets, and continuing with the philosophical disputations of the creators of the Talmud, and with the Spanish, Dutch, German and East European cultural movements in Jewish history. We may refer to Philo, Maimonides, the Ibn Ezras, Elijah Levita, Uriel DeCosta, Solomon Maimon, and their followers, who even before the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) tried to bring Jewish culture and world culture closer to each other." So, if you thought all along, that secular Jewishness is a new baby, created about 100 years ago, you have another thought coming. It is my contention, that where there are Jews, there are unaffiliated Jews; and where there are unaffiliated Jews, WE must be there, to provide: a positive alternative for those who wish to identify as' Jews, 'but who are not comfortable in what I call "institutionalized religion." We must create an atmosphere which will give the unaffiliated Jew the opportunity to become an active participating person in the Jewish community. This is our responsibility and it is a commitment to which we must address ourselves this weekend.
As Executive Director of CSJO and as a life-long secular Jewish activist, I know that we have never reached the apex of our growth. The potential is tremendous, but the commitment must be there, for it is an arduous task to build our own organizations and in that way to guarantee the strength of CSJO.
In place of the term "burn out", I substitute the words "cop-out"", as it is much easier to let "the other person" do all the work. The hard thing to do is to get in there and cooperatively work for the good and welfare of your organization and yourself. Just as we can't let our children grow up without tender loving care and nurturing, so we cannot afford to let our organizations go by the wayside without our constant tender loving care and attention.
The "cult of the individual" has no place in any organization and certainly not in CSJO. The development of a strong leadership is a high priority on our agenda for growth. For without leadership, we reach a stalemate. Leadership must come from the ranks within our groups and its development comes from day-to -day activity in our own communities. None of us are born leaders - but all of us can become leaders. The more leaders within any one of our organizations, the less "burn-out" or "cop-out" we will encounter. One of our plenary sessions deals with this very important question and methods of helping to solve it.
As I visit cities throughout the U. S. and Canada, I encounter secular Jews of all ages, who are admittedly looking -for something, but who will not take the necessary responsibility of organizing a secular group to meet their needs. Instead, some of them opt for a religious entity (where everything is arranged for them and all they have to do is show up) or they do nothing at all and "sit it out." Either one of these acts is a case of "not being true to thine self" and constitutes an abandonment of one’s own secular Jewish feelings and, in a sense, an abdication of a responsibility for the continuation of the thread of secular Jewishness. Those of us, activists in secular Jewish life for lo these many years, are partially to blame. In some cities, where we once had strong secular Jewish schools, we abandoned the parents whose children had graduated from the school. We did not create a viable adult secular Jewish organization where these parents could express, and be comfortable with, their own secular Jewishness. In that sense, in effect, we wrote them out of our secular Jewish life. Let's hope that in the months and years ahead, we will not repeat this mistake, but we will be able to correct it in a positive way. My credo is that parents have needs to identify as Jews, just as we feel that our children have this need.
We in CSJO and in our affiliates, can provide the haimishkeit and atmosphere which can enrich and enhance the lives of our families. The beauty of CSJO, is that the autonomy of each of our groups in its own community, creates and develops a secular Jewish lifestyle which meets the particular needs of its own membership. No authoritarian figure hands down the rules (on what to do or what not to do.)
The common denominator which we all share is secular Jewishness. We have never defined the term "secular" for any of our groups. We have left that definition for each separate entity to develop for itself. This has resulted in a cosmic display of creativity, whether it is in school curricula, in holiday programs, graduation programs, secular bar/bat mitzvah programs, club meetings and other activities, such as the Sholem Aleichem Club Haggadah and Pushcarts and Dreamers, which we can all share. I also have with me a copy of "The Purim" mishegas prepared by Hershl Hartman of Sholem Educational Institute in Los Angeles, which you are welcome to read.
It is this exciting exchange, which singles us out as a creative movement which allows people an opportunity to utilize their own capabilities and to become active participants in developing a viable secular Jewish life in their community.
In your delegates packet, we have included two reprints: one of an interview which Genesis II magazine had with Max Rosenfeld of the Sholem Aleichem Club of Philadelphia, and an article by our chairperson, Jerry Bain on "Jewish Identity and Survival: A Challenge for Secular/Humanistic Jews," We urge you to read both of these publications. Max comes up with some very cogent answers to the questions put to him by the interviewer, dealing with secular Jewishness or Yiddishkeit, a clarity which can be very useful for all of us in our discussions this weekend.
As part of our business meeting, we will be discussing ways of building and strengthening CSJO, including a proposal for regional structures, so that we can have greater contact with each group between conferences. Even though we have talked about this in the past, a concrete proposal is being presented and we must give it serious consideration, if its implementation will result in growth.
On Sunday, through our various workshops, we will be dealing with subjects on many aspects of secular Jewish life, including Yiddish for Survival, I recalled Isaac Bashevis Singer's remarks at the dinner in Stockholm after he received the Nobel Prize for literature. Singer was asked, "Why do you write in Yiddish, a dying language?" Singer replied, "Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost. Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: "Is there any new Yiddish book to read?" For them, Yiddish will not be dead. Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day (although I haven't the slightest idea how this miracle can take place.) There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is; Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know really well. Yiddish is my mother tongue and a mother is never really dead." (unquote)
The entire schedule of workshops on Sunday will serve to underscore our activities in the next year. Every workshop leader has been carefully chosen to bring to this gathering their expertise and experiences in secular Jewish life so that we can go back to our cities better equipped for the work that lies ahead. Bringing the secular Jewish message across to the unaffiliated Jew requires a knowledge of our history, our culture, our tradition. It also requires some good p»r. work to publicize the fact that there is an alternative Jewish life style which can embody all of the historical ethical aspects of Jewishness.
In the Jerusalem Post issue of May 16, 1987, there was a long article with the heading SPINOZA'S CHILDREN, and in the very first paragraph, this was described as a "conference on secularism and pluralism". It said that the speakers and the audience came to ponder whether their faith could still compete with Orthodoxy and fundamentalism in the Israeli run up to the 21 century. The article is much too long to read to you at this time, however, I have it with me and it is available for anyone who wants to read it. This meeting had many learned Israeli scholars and others from outside of Israel, like the writer Saul Bellow, Questions like "Is a secular Jewish State possible?" and "Is there a secular Judaism?" The former editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, played the part of devil's advocate and asked a series of pointed questions like "What, is secular Judaism? We know what it's not - it's not holy, it's not observant But, what is it? And what are its norms of behaviour, private and public? What is a Jewish secularist?" According to this article, two true secularist believers seized the right of a brief reply; one dismissed the questions as rhetorical and the other, Ha'aretz owner Gershom Schocken, insisted that yes, there is such a thing as Jewish secularism and it has positive content,, For example, a secular Jew is responsible for himself,, As I read the article, it re-emphasized for me the fact that more than ever before, secular Jews must develop an out-reach program to make ourselves more visible in the Jewish community,, We must get our message across and get it across positively and clearly. This is definitely a major task we face in the months and years ahead. Mot insurmountable, but it must be aggressively initiated if we are to grow and become a viable force for secular Jewish survival.
Several years ago, Jerry Bain wrote the following: "All of 'Jewishness is fair game for the secular Jew. He/she can withdraw that which is sweet, rich, savory. There is a bottomless well of history and tradition. Let's drink from it."
George Santayana wrote: "We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that once it was all that was humanly possible. Let us not forget that we are the heirs to the most energetic, the most vibrant, the most creative tradition in North American Jewish life. Our roots are deep and the impact we make on the Jewish community depends ultimately on us.
The newly formed International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is a positive step in the right direction towards uniting all secular and humanistic Jews throughout the world.
As I began with Hi 11 el, so I conclude with Hillel's counsel: "Do not withdraw from the community,. In a bundle of reeds each reed stands alone, but as part of a bundle, there is unity and hope." We face a great challenge - together we can meet it successfully.