2008 Commitment Dinner testimonials

2008 Commitment Dinner testimonials

These testimonials by members Esther, Sarah & Scott, Edith, Peter and Ellen are offered in the order in which they were delivered at the 2008 Commitment Dinner of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County in Teanck, NJ, on December 1, 2007.

Esther ~ This Humanist Life

Yet I was also apprehensive. Having never given a testimonial about anything before, I thought it prudent to undertake some basic background research to get some pointers on what constitutes a good testimonial.

I typed “How to Write a Testimonial Speech” into Google. It yielded 296,000 hits – disappointing by Google standards but certainly adequate for my purposes. I settled in and began clicking away.
I quickly discover that one can purchase and download pre-written speeches on the internet on a surprisingly broad range of topics including the benefits of drinking water, the perils of global warming and on how to prepare the perfect of cup of coffee. There was even a testimonial extolling the virtues of Freedom of Speech – available for a reasonable $30.

I clicked among the listings on one site hoping that I could save time and effort by purchasing a canned yet tasteful, clever yet mildly profane testimonial prepared by a seasoned professional.

Each testimonial had a brief description to help consumers select the one that was right for their highly specific needs. Here’s an example:

Bar / Bat Mitzvah Testimonial 3:

“This Bar / Bat Mitzvah speech is touching with a bit of tasteful humor. It is written to be delivered by the boy’s / girl’s father / mother. Themes contained in the speech include: Coming of Age, responsibility, Messy Bedroom, thanks to family members and friends for attending, thanks to the mother / wife or father / husband for the hard work in preparing for the event, time flying by, etc.”

Luckily for all of you, I couldn’t find a canned speech on the Benefits of Being a Member of the Ethical Culture Society.

So instead of faking it here’s what this rank amateur is going do: I’ll start by talking about where I came from, then I’ll move onto how I got here and I’ll conclude with why this is home.

WHERE I CAME FROM

It took me thirty-eight years to figure out that I was a humanist. In retrospect, I was never anything other than a humanist. I just didn’t have a name for what I was.

I am the product of a mixed marriage. My mother was born in Leipzig to an upper middle class Jewish family. My father came from a poor Jewish family that had immigrated from Bobriusk. If my urbane maternal grandparents were mildly uneasy about their daughter marrying a shtetl Jew, my paternal grandparents were deeply suspicious about their German-speaking daughter-in-law. They didn’t know that it was even possible to be German AND Jewish at the same time.

In spite of their different backgrounds, what my parents shared was a skepticism about organized religion and a dedication to social justice. Growing up in the sixties and seventies with lefty parents, I was shuttled between peace marches, civil rights demonstrations and folk music concerts. The only spiritual activity that I recall from my childhood was in 1967 when my father attempted to levitate the Pentagon.

When my family first joined a reform synagogue in the late 1970s, I was confronted for the first time with a fundamental truth about mainstream organized religion: that morality and ethics were usually framed in terms of one’s relationship to a supreme being.

I had grown up blissfully unaware of the primacy of God to most people. Oddly, I was fully cognizant of the primacy of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but God’s significance to other people had somehow failed to penetrate my consciousness.

At the core of my cognitive dissonance, was the presumption of mainstream faiths that without guidance from God, people lacked the inherent moral intelligence to discern right from wrong.

I had been brought up to believe that people should engage in acts of kindness, generosity and social justice because they were self-evidently the right things to do, not because we were told to do them or we would be punished it we didn’t.

In my moral universe, God was fundamentally beside the point.

And so, while conventional religion has always been interesting to me from a historical perspective and undeniably the inspiration behind some beautiful art and music, the core of it was fundamentally irrelevant to who I was and what I believed to be important.

HOW I GOT HERE

When I moved back to Teaneck, I had the fortune to move next door to a family who were long time pillars of the Bergen Ethical Culture Society. Several years later they inspired a family three doors down join Ethical Culture. It was two these two families that I was first introduced to the Ethical Culture.

Of course it was only after I became a parent that I started thinking of joining any type of congregation. My husband’s relationship with faith was far more complicated than mine. Formerly a lapsed Catholic, then a lapsed Ethical Culturist, he now refers to himself as simply a Lapsist, (although he’s somewhat lapsed even from that.)

We had always deferred discussion about whether to select a faith for our children and, when we had two girls, we breathed a sigh of relief that we’d dodged the bullet of having to confront the circumcision question.

I joined in 2001 when my kids were toddlers. My relationship with this organization and with all of you has been growing ever since.

WHY THIS IS HOME

My response after attending my first platform was a shock of recognition. A movement that affirms the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to rationality – this wasn’t new to me –it wasn’t rocket science – it’s essential to who I am – to who I’ve always been.

Humanism is in fact so natural to me that to this day I find it difficult to explain it to people. It’s like instructing someone on how to walk or breathe.

Here I have found a place in which I am philosophically in sync. But there’s much more to this place than philosophy. The Ethical Culture Society provides opportunities to participate in incisive and trenchant discussions about issues that effect our lives, opportunities to take action on important causes, and to enjoy casual and formal meals together, to sing in front of a campfire while eating s’mores and to share late night games of Apples to Apples and Balderdash. In this place I have formed lasting bonds of friendship with people who engage in passionate discussions about the subtle distinction between a podium and a lectern; and even people who know the meaning of words like “gardyloo” and “borborygmus”.

[For those who are don’t: borborygmus is a rumbling noise produced by the movement of gas through the intestines and gardyloo is a Scottish expression that means “look out below!” that is derived from a Medieval French expression used when one was about to dump the contents of a chamberpot out of a second story window.]

***

Being a part of this community means having the opportunity to spend time with the very young and the not so very young, to share moral outrage, to act collectively on shared ethical principles, and sometimes to disagree with each other about how to exercise such principles, to celebrate important life passages, and regretfully to mourn passings.

This place has all the elements that make sense to me about organized religion without the elements that I find incomprehensible.

CONCLUSION

With the addition of my family and one other family, today there are four ethical culture families living in a row on my street. (With one lone observant Jewish family wedged in the middle.) The joke is that my block has the highest concentration of Ethical Culture families in the world. It’s a veritable homeland for members of the humanist diaspora.

And yet when you think about it, my block is really not as much of an oddity as might seem. Recent polling data suggests that, regardless of religious affiliation, approximately 10% of the U.S. population is inclined toward humanistic convictions. That’s 30.1 million humanists!

If you look at it that was, four humanists families on a street with about 40 houses is the rule rather than the exception.

The key difference for us is that the Ethical Culture Society allows us to be out of the closet about our humanism. The vast majority of people in the U.S. with humanist inclinations don’t have the fortune to have a place like the Bergen Ethical Culture Society where they can share their humanist inclinations and allow them to blossom and grow.

We’re very lucky in Bergen County.

Sarah & Scott

We joined the society when our daughter Lena was not quite a year old, and our son Miles was 3½. We were looking for a way to formalize our commitment to living a mindful life while not joining a theistic religion. We wanted our children to develop the capacity for compassion and critical thinking that emanated from a basic caring for others and our planet, without the fear and mythology that accompany the religions with which we were raised.

Scott was raised in a fairly secular Jewish family, but did complete the obligatory, go-through-motions, Bar Mitzvah. Upon completion of that ritual all connection to the family’s temple resumed its original state of disconnection. Sarah was raised in an observant Catholic family, who discussed life’s meaning and events through the lens of Christianity and Catholic teachings, leading them to left-leaning opinions and outspoken support for the underdog. Yet, she never understood how her elders could reconcile their social and political beliefs with the teachings of the Church. During college Scott became a student of Zen Buddhism and Sarah made peace with the fact that she could no longer be counted among Catholicism’s supporters.

When we moved to Teaneck we started meeting people whom we came to admire—based on the active community involvement these neighbors managed to maintain, even while raising smart and enlightened kids—and they often were in some way involved with the Ethical Culture Society! We suspected that some day we would end up there, too. We are so fortunate to have found this haven. A place to educate ourselves, challenge ourselves, nurture our family, have an opportunity to contribute to the community and the world at large, and find inspiration among the membership. We are inspired by those around us who work tirelessly to keep this group vibrant. We think the presence, vitality and contribution of this group give voice to important opinions and action effecting every generation. Showing up and availing ourselves of all that the Society has to offer but not contributing to its sustenance would be unethical! Being members isn’t just about the financial commitment, while that is crucial, it’s also about being officially counted in the census of people on this planet who consider themselves ‘humanists’. While we hope that in future years, as our kids get older, we will be able to devote more time to caring for the Society and all that it takes to keep it here, in the mean time, we humbly offer our membership as our I.O.U.

We’d especially like to thank all of those long-standing members for ‘keeping the lights on’ and waiting for our family to join. It’s hard to imagine that we ever could have found a place so perfectly suited to our beliefs and needs. We know how hard you have all worked over the years, raising your own families in the society and contributing to the betterment of humankind and the planet. We’ll do our best to keep the tradition alive.

Edith

I truly believe that I’m standing before you tonight because of a friendship that began when I was only three years old. I wonder whether I would ever have known of the Ethical Culture Society had it not been for my lifelong friend, Rita, who was truly a giant in my life, and who died much too soon.

Rita’s family stood out in our modest, almost completely Jewish Bronx neighborhood, because they were Ethical Culturists. Rita had a governess (in all my life, I never knew another person who had one!), a maid, a chauffeur/gardener – which clearly made her different. But more importantly, she went to the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan, not the public school we all attended.

Her comfortable life notwithstanding, it was at Fieldston that her commitment to social activism and responsibility was nurtured. She grew up to be an incredible human being – an idealist, a defender of civil rights, an outspoken critic of injustice, and a passionate humanitarian. Algernon Black officiated at her wedding – I had never been to any religious ceremony that compared.

Growing up, I received no formal Jewish education. My occasional forays into Judasim always seemed to end in disappointment. The most traumatic event for me occurred on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. The president, in announcing the long-awaited invasion of France, asked that we go to our churches and synagogues to pray for the success of our troops, my beloved brother being one of them. In a surge of patriotism and even religious fervor, my best friend and I went to the synagogue – only to find the doors locked! A devastating experience! Where was religion when I needed it? Also, about this time, I read Joseph Lewis’ book, “The Bible Unmasked” which had a profound effect on me.

When we moved to New Jersey in 1957, we didn’t know a soul. Finding the Bergen Ethical Society was a gift. These were exciting times working on fair housing and the building of Camp Elliot. We had many happy years and made wonderful friends, but the chief attraction for me was that I fell in love with our brilliant leader, Howard Radest. When he left, and I had begun working full time, we became lapsed Ethical Culturists!

Then a funny thing happened as our children grew up. Our daughter, Jane, married an Islamic and Judaic scholar, and embraced Judaism even becoming president of her Conservadox (is there such a word?) temple in Ithaca, New York. Because of our grandchildren and the inevitable Bar/Bat Mitzvahs to come, I really, really, really tried to get “into” Judaism. For two years, Bob and I trekked religiously (may I say that?) every week to the JCC in Tenafly to take the Florence Melton course for Jewish education in the Diaspora. (Show graduation certificate.) I was inordinately proud of our grandchildren at their rites of passage, for as expected, they performed the entire services flawlessly and brilliantly. However, my reading of the English texts left me cold. I knew that Judaism was not for me.

The time had come for us to make our return to the Ethical Culture Society after many decades away. Yes, we were drawn to it, to the very special people so committed to the causes we believe in.

In the past two years, we have lost more than a dozen friends. The pull to Ethical Culture with its ideals, intellectual stimulation, social activism and its sense of community, was very real. But then too, I fell in love again – this time with Joe Chuman.

I thank you all for the warmth of your welcome. It’s good to be home again!

We joined the society when our daughter Lena was not quite a year old, and our son Miles was 3½. We were looking for a way to formalize our commitment to living a mindful life while not joining a theistic religion. We wanted our children to develop the capacity for compassion and critical thinking that emanated from a basic caring for others and our planet, without the fear and mythology that accompany the religions with which we were raised.

Scott was raised in a fairly secular Jewish family, but did complete the obligatory, go-through-motions, Bar Mitzvah. Upon completion of that ritual all connection to the family’s temple resumed its original state of disconnection. Sarah was raised in an observant Catholic family, who discussed life’s meaning and events through the lens of Christianity and Catholic teachings, leading them to left-leaning opinions and outspoken support for the underdog. Yet, she never understood how her elders could reconcile their social and political beliefs with the teachings of the Church. During college Scott became a student of Zen Buddhism and Sarah made peace with the fact that she could no longer be counted among Catholicism’s supporters.

When we moved to Teaneck we started meeting people whom we came to admire—based on the active community involvement these neighbors managed to maintain, even while raising smart and enlightened kids—and they often were in some way involved with the Ethical Culture Society! We suspected that some day we would end up there, too. We are so fortunate to have found this haven. A place to educate ourselves, challenge ourselves, nurture our family, have an opportunity to contribute to the community and the world at large, and find inspiration among the membership. We are inspired by those around us who work tirelessly to keep this group vibrant. We think the presence, vitality and contribution of this group give voice to important opinions and action effecting every generation. Showing up and availing ourselves of all that the Society has to offer but not contributing to its sustenance would be unethical! Being members isn’t just about the financial commitment, while that is crucial, it’s also about being officially counted in the census of people on this planet who consider themselves ‘humanists’. While we hope that in future years, as our kids get older, we will be able to devote more time to caring for the Society and all that it takes to keep it here, in the mean time, we humbly offer our membership as our I.O.U.

We’d especially like to thank all of those long-standing members for ‘keeping the lights on’ and waiting for our family to join. It’s hard to imagine that we ever could have found a place so perfectly suited to our beliefs and needs. We know how hard you have all worked over the years, raising your own families in the society and contributing to the betterment of humankind and the planet. We’ll do our best to keep the tradition alive.

Peter

COMMITMENT IN A TIME OF INDIFFERENCE

At first I felt complimented when I was asked to speak to our membership at this year’s Ethical Culture Commitment Dinner. Then I was a little uneasy.

Partly, I was anxious because I was asked to provide some notes for my talk. I often speak extemporaneously and I didn’t know where I’d find the time to fully write down my thoughts. But I realize now the need to do so provided me with some encouragement to think more deeply about what I want to say and hopefully added some clarity.

I’ve addressed Society meetings numerous times before as President, or committee chair, or member of the finance committee, or spokesman for some planned initiative. But the last couple of years, you might say I’ve played a bit more limited role… Sure, I’m active with committee work, I attend many Platforms, and I enjoy volunteering for and sampling the range of activities and events the Society hosts.

But I’ve been less able to spend the kind of time working on Ethical Culture projects that I had previously… my professional life has taken up more of my time recently, Tracey’s been working full time, and with one son in college and the other settling into adult life in Boston, we’re often taking weekends on the road to visit them.

So, I am flattered that the Finance committee felt I might have something of value to say to you. But, as I thought about it, I worried that if I’m less actively engaged with the day to day operation of the Society, what can I say that will motivate you to increase your own commitments? What can I tell you about the Society that will inspire you?

Then I started to worry even more… perhaps I’m making excuses for myself. Am I actually feeling a little less dedicated to the Society myself? Is that why it’s occasionally more gratifying on a Sunday morning to catch up on my office work than it is to make it to a Platform? Am I beginning to take the Society a little bit for granted?

Maybe it’s easy for many of us to take the Society for granted because, from a slightly less involved perspective, things seem to be going quite smoothly right now. We do need to remind ourselves occasionally of how hard people work to make Ethical accomplish so much with so little. So, I’d like to take a few moments this evening to do that.

I’m not a Committee Chair or Officer right now. But perhaps that allows me to better speak for the membership to express our gratitude to each and every member of the Program Council and the Board who labor so diligently on our behalf. I don’t have time to describe all the committees and programs. And at the risk of omitting so many who should be mentioned, I do want to highlight just a few individuals.

First, we should all take a moment to consider how much Joe Chuman does for our Society. His selfless devotion to our individual members, our organization, and our larger community not only benefits us, but it personifies our notion of what Ethical Culture is.

Next, I would like to especially thank Ken Karp and Teresa Forsman, who as members of the finance committee help manage our finances and worked to put together this elegant event tonight. And of course, every year Azar Gordon toils behind the scenes and makes it look effortless.

Another example. For those of us whose kids are now Sunday School alumni, we might only see our new Sunday School Director, Allison Cooke, on the first Sunday of the month when she shepherds our students into the Platform to share some time with us. But with the help of a dedicated corps of teachers and the Religious Education committee, she’s accomplishing a tremendous amount for these kids on a shoestring budget.

I also want to point out our fantastic website EthicalFocus.org. Terri Karp makes it so much more than merely an attractive brochure for our organization – it is a living reflection of our vibrant community that speaks for us to the world. And she manages that between her tasks as Treasurer that keep our accounting in order.

And, perhaps most impressive is Bob Gordon. He not only shoulders the burdens of being Society President, but he and Azar tend our aging building with care, taste, and tenacious energy. We owe him such a debt. And we need to listen carefully and respond as he tells us in the coming months what pressing building concerns will soon need attending to.

Thinking about these people, I realize, is the antidote to even the slightest weariness or apathy. They make me realize that the true significance of Ethical Culture goes far beyond what I’m able to do or don’t have time to do. The value of Ethical Culture to me after all, is in what all of you, all of us, do together.

So, I’m not here asking you to help me accomplish some project or support some plan. Yes, we need your time. Yes, we need your money. But as important as each hour and each dollar may be, what’s more important is that we give together.

Because in the end, our Society’s meaning is in the community of people who sustain each other. And I am amazed by the vigor of our small, somewhat peripheral organization and its fierce commitment to justice and human dignity.

Please join me in renewing our commitment to this community and the work it does.

— Peter Kelley

Ellen

Though I have been a member of The Bergen Society since the 1970’s and Commitment Dinners have been going for a long time this is the first time that I have attended.

Why? I always felt that I was committed and that I did not need a dinner to let people know.

Why now? I am afraid that Bob Gordon got to me when he said that the focus of this year’s dinner would be the American Ethical Union (AEU). I am also committed to the American Ethical Union and like to take every opportunity to make people aware of the opportunities the wider community holds.

I got “hooked on” Ethical Culture way back in 1964 when my husband Richard (the non-joiner) introduced me to the New York Society. I came from a Jewish socialist home with no real religion until I forced my parents to send me to a reformed temple Sunday school when I was about twelve. The reason being that dancing school and boys took place around Sunday school settings in New Rochelle, New York where I grew up. I completed the entire Sunday school and even went post graduate and then promptly stopped believing. Richard was brought up as a Plymouth Brethren but also had stopped believing somewhere along the way. I took the introductory course at the New York Society for those thinking of membership and then, following an interview with Algernon Black, joined. The following year we were married at The New York Society by Ies Spetter. We eventually moved to New Jersey and had two children who attended the NY Sunday School until in the 70’s the NY Sunday school diminished in size and we made the switch to Bergen.

A good switch and a happy fit of community and friends. I remember the warm welcome of Rita and Marty Goldenberg and Lily and Peter Jacobsohn when we first came. Our daughter graduated from the Sunday school and though our son went away to school before graduation he and Lew Morris maintained a special relationship (Lew was his teacher in Sunday school). As time went by I became more involved and served on committees and the Board. We attended the AEU Assembly at least twice during those years with the children and I started to become aware of the wider movement and the fun of interchange with others across the country. The kids enjoyed the YES group at the Assembly.

I did not know much about the AEU. I knew that Steve Jacobs had been a past President and Lew Morris served on the board . When Lew died I filled the remainder of his term on the board and by then I had become hooked on the AEU and within the year became the President.

During the time I was President – four years- I relied upon a group of Bergen Members to bounce ideas off of as we made drastic changes in the structure of the AEU from a large board which was comprised of people sent from various Societies in an effort at regionalism to a small elected board. One excellent thing that was started before I came on board was the AEU lay leadership summer school which has continued to flourish. Now there is a second session for those who have attended and their families. Recently a President’s Council has started to function and this is a great improvement. As the AEU changes and strengthens it does so not without problems. Money has always been tight and there are many things needed to run the programs Religious Education workshop and membership workshops and the Assembly (now yearly) as well as the newsletter (one of my pet projects which I continue to work on) and many other things. The new Executive director, Katherine Archibald, has been a great help in the direction since her fundraising skills have increased the donations beyond anything we have seen in recent times. The other piece is people to work on the many committees and the board of the AEU. You are all members of the AEU by virtue of your membership in the Bergen Society and I do hope that some of you will be enticed to work for the AEU:

It connects you to others from around the country who are like minded

It is our voice for taking stands on national issues

It provides religious education and membership workshops and lay leadership summer school

Through the newsletter it keeps you aware of what is happening in the movement and current thought.

Recently and proudly it sponsors programs like A Brief History of Disbelief

I have personally learned to work with others to reach consensus when I never believed it could happen.

Having moved from New Jersey to Connecticut I am now a member of two societies – New York and Bergen and still feel very much a part of the American Ethical Union. Somehow the Bergen Society though still feels like home to me . When my Dad died some eight years ago it was to Bergen and Joe Chuman that I turned. And what a good choice that was. Though I am not here often I do keep up with the news and try to get to Warwick each year with Richard (lately my daughter and son-in-law and granddaughters have joined us) as well as have people to our home for a Skills Auction offering.

I have also kept contact with the AEU by continuing to serve on committees and working on Dialogue.

I have also found that being an Ethical Culturist allows me to be part of the larger Humanist community. I have joined the Connecticut Humanist Association and spoken to that group about Ethical Culture, I have been serving for some time on The Humanist Institute Board. I am a member of The American Humanist Association and have attended at least one conference of the International Ethical and Humanist Association. I am so happy to see Humanists being outspoken whether or not I agree with them all the time. I guess that I am a little wowed by celebrities such as Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, Joyce Carol Oates and Kurt Vonnegut… just to name a few…. put us in good company. Ethical Culture is my religion, Bergen and New York my Societies, The American Ethical Union my larger community … and then we are part of the larger Humanist world … I surely owe Bergen and Ethical Culture a great debt of gratitude for many wonderful years. Yes, I happily join in this Commitment Dinner honoring the American Ethical Union and The Bergen Society.

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