What does a Secular Humanistic rabbi do?

On every rabbinic ordination certificate are the words “to teach” and “to judge.”  That’s the core of what rabbis in every movement do.

First, we teach.  But before we teach, we have to learn.  Secular Humanistic rabbis learn Jewish history and language, about holidays and life cycles, about Jewish texts and about pastoral care.  We teach adults and children in formal settings and as part of our holiday and life cycle observances.

But we also teach by example.  We uphold Secular Humanistic Jewish values by visiting the sick, by exhibiting kindness and patience and humor, by speaking out against racism and violations of human rights.  We hope that when you see us embodying these values, you’ll also be inspired to act.

This kind of teaching is what all rabbis of all movements do.  But Secular Humanistic rabbis also teach about the diversity of the Jewish people.  We help you to find your place in the Jewish world by showing you that what you believe and what you are interested in exist in the Jewish universe and that your way of being Jewish is just fine, not less, not other, but perfectly legitimate.  We teach you that you belong.

The second job of the rabbi, to judge, is different.  Religious rabbis judge both ritual and ethical questions, from whether your chicken is kosher to whether someone has cheated at business.  Secular Humanistic rabbis – along with some rabbis of other liberal denominations – help you to judge.  When you come to us with an ethical dilemma, we know how to ask the questions that allow you to explore your own feelings and ideas about how to act.  We are not the authorities on the answers you should come to – we are the guides to help you find your own path to answers.

Although “smikah” – rabbinic ordination – gives the authority and responsibility to teach and judge, modern rabbis, particularly Secular Humanistic rabbis, have the responsibility of creating and supporting community.  Our primary connection to our Jewishness is not a relationship with a god, it’s a relationship with our community.  It’s really hard to be Jewish alone – our job is to make sure you are not alone, that you have a welcoming and supporting Jewish community that accepts and enjoys you and your family just as you are.

Making Time and Marking Time

by Jesse Pino, TVCJ Board Member

In these busy and trying times, it can feel like we are always ‘on’. With adults telecommuting and kids distance learning or homeschooling, the usual barriers between work and home are blurred. Work takes over spaces and times that should be reserved for family, and the kids can walk in during work meetings.

One solution to this conundrum is to clearly mark time – instead of separating in space, we separate in time. My family has recently found some comfort in observing the Jewish traditions of Shabbat and Havdalah to help us do this. The symbolism of these rituals resonates with us and gives us something to look forward to.

Shabbat marks the end of the working week. We light candles, bless the wine, and bread–All good Jewish celebrations feature fire, wine, and food! These remind us to carry a light within ourselves, to rest, and to honor the earth and the workers that provide our food. We also honor our children and remind them how they honor us. The weekend is the time to slow down and connect with family.

Havdalah marks the end of the Sabbath. We light a braided candle to signify how family, friends, and community burn brightly together while still maintaining their own identities. We pass around wine and spices that represent the fragrant beauty of all that is good and true in life and sustains us for the entire week. During Tri-Valley Cultural Jews regular community Havdalahs (which have gone online for the time being), we then share any special or notable events that have happened during the last week. These can be anything from our littlest members losing a tooth, to someone getting a job promotion. We then extinguish the candle in the wine, transferring its spark to our hearts to carry forward into the week. Community Havdalahs are then frequently followed by games (or movies and pizza, in less socially-distant times). Connecting in this way has helped me and my family stay sane and make stronger connections in the community. We hope to see you at a Havdalah sometime soon!

Watching my kids prepare for their B’rit Mitzvah

by Noah King

During the course of my family’s time in TVCJ, both of my children went through the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.  As they were getting started, I was excited in anticipation of watching each of them prepare for their “big day”.   In my mind, I was comparing the work they were about to undertake with the preparation I did at their age in a reform congregation.  For me, learning Hebrew, memorizing my Torah portion, and writing my speech were all means to an end;  stepping stones to help me achieve my goal of becoming a successful Bar Mitzvah when the day came.

     Very quickly it became apparent that the work my kids were doing was different.  The work WAS the goal in and of itself, with the “big day” simply being a culmination and sharing of all the growth they had both made while going through the entire process.  My daughter got in touch with distant Jewish relatives of ours in Brazil to learn about their culture, and she researched Jews in the history of the ballet.  My son prepared an authentic Jewish Hungarian meal, read a novel about the holocaust, and created an online informational map of the concentration camps the main character was sent to.  Both of them put in several hours of community service with a local food kitchen providing meals for those in need.  These are just a few examples of the many projects they invested their time in.  And that work wasn’t in preparation for what was to come…  the work itself molded who they were, and the adults they were growing to become.  The lessons learned by doing these projects guided their development.  When their “big days” finally came, the work was already done, and all that was left was the joyous occasion of sharing their experiences with friends and family.

     And this, I came to realize, was so much more fulfilling for them both.  Our more religious relatives who came to the ceremonies commented on how evident it was that the students in our Brit Mitzvah program were getting a much more meaningful experience than we had received in our own, more traditional, Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs.  My mother commented on her surprise over how “Jewish” the entire experience was.  As a parent, watching my children live and grow into adulthood, I was extremely grateful for the opportunities provided them by our program.  I would highly recommend it to other parents who are looking for a meaningful and valuable experience for their own children.

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur

by Scott Pepper

Growing up in a conversative Jewish household, I came to dread the High Holidays. Yom Kippur meant hour upon hour of services in impenetrable Hebrew standing in an uncomfortable suit, hunger gnawing all the while. Rosh Hashanah was only better in the sense that there was no fasting, but then stretched across two days rather than one. I had little care for the significance of the days, and even the fact that it usually meant missing a few days of school was little consolation when measured against the discomfort and boredom. In discussions with others who were raised in conservative or traditional Judaism, I learned that I was not alone in this opinion.

As an adult, I have a greater appreciation for the meaning behind these days, but little interest in subjecting myself or my own children to what I mostly remember as torment.

However, the High Holidays as celebrated by Tri-Valley Cultural Jews bear little resemblance to my prior experience. The focus is on the meaning of the days, but expressed in contemporary terms that are both more relatable to secular Jews of all ages and surprisingly enjoyable. The key rituals remain — the blowing of the shofar, Tashlich, the round challah — but they are framed in a modern and meaningful way.

So today, rather than dreading the High Holidays, I find myself looking forward to them, more fully able to appreciate their significance and the opportunity to celebrate with the TVCJ community.