These are testimonials, on the value of our Ethical Culture Society as a community, by members Mary Matsui, Marc Bernstein and Azar Gordon. They were delivered at the Commitment Dinner, Dec. 2, 2006.
Thank you for asking me to give my personal reflections on the importance of Ethical Culture to me. It allowed me to take time and reflect more deeply about my reasons for belonging to the Ethical Culture Society.
Let me start with my relevant personal history.
Early in my life, before I went to college, I was anchored in the Catholic Church and it gave meaning and purpose to my life. It provided a set of standards for a moral and righteous life –including social action as practiced by the Berrigan brothers in the ‘60s (who are still active up to the present, actually).
But there were a number of reasons why I fell away from the church, and did not have an adequate replacement for many years.
When my daughter, Elena, got to be of middle school age, Wes and I began to look for a religious-type community that would reflect our current attitudes and beliefs about our relationship to the world and to our society. We didn’t know anything about the Ethical Culture Society even though we were living a block and a half away, but Elena pushed us in this direction, in part because her friends Evan, Eva and Deniz belonged.
We joined this community in 1995 and have enjoyed so many different aspects of membership and have been enriched by our participation in immeasurable ways.
Elena had many valuable experiences in her years here. This is a very important part of our ethical experience. This is also the part of our belonging that I feel most grateful for. The part of Elena’s experience that stands out in my mind is not the actual substance of her ethical classes but rather the people she got to know while she was here.
Three people come to mind as some of the most influential in her young life—Cynthia Becker, Joe Chuman and Marc Bernstein. They helped her mature, gain an understanding of other points of view; show her that a young person can benefit from the experience of an older generation. They helped her define and articulate her beliefs. What a wonderful opportunity she had as a result of her interaction with Joe—to co-author an article that has appeared in innumerable places—an article on the Case Against Charitable Choice. I give credit to those members and former members as well as the general Ethical Society experiences she had for some of her later success in life: getting into the college of her choice and to her current life as a confident, forward-looking young humanist.
For me, an important benefit of membership is a connection with people in our community. And by that I mean both geographic community, world community, and the community of like-minded people. We have no family on the East Coast, and in some respects, the Society has provided the kind of support and connections that are very family-like. I have been able to get to know people who are complex, inspiring, and like any family of course, even aggravating at times. This has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know people of several generations both farther along than I as well as those younger. Here again, there are people who are like immediate family to me, and I hope you know who you are. There are a number of Ethical members who I look up to as benchmarks to me: for social responsibility, moral behavior, and intellectual curiosity. I believe that in talking and working with them, I am a tiny bit better myself.
For at least six years, especially during the time we were teaching the Sunday school class, I felt very connected and integrated into this community. I’m sure that teaching in the OWL program was as educational for me as it was for the students—each one of them was amazement to me.
By working in some of committees, I could further get to know people who were an example to be emulated and also feel that I was, in a small way, giving back to the community. I was also able to participate in many activities that were great fun, like the community weekend, skills auction dinners, film studies, concerts; and that gave me a much appreciated connection with member-friends.
For the last couple of years I have been more involved with work-related activities and business travel and I haven’t been around much. But the comforting thing is that I still can maintain contact with those people to whom I have become most close with and I feel that the Society will be there when I can come back, soon, to more active participation. In that sense, it feels like family. And for me, it makes me feel better to know that by financially supporting the society, I support those causes in which I believe.
I again thank you for making me take this opportunity to reflect.
As many of you know, Marlane and I live in Garrison, New York, more than an hour from Teaneck. We currently belong to two other Ethical Culture Societies. Yet, we are re-joining Bergen. Why would we want to drive more than an hour to be part of this community?
First of all, we do not know any Society that takes Ethical Culture as seriously as it is taken here. The platforms at Bergen are subjects of discussion among the members; the adult education classes are well attended and always stress a connection to ethics. When the Society wanted to plan for its future several years ago, it held open meetings that involved perhaps half of the active members. This is how a group that takes itself seriously behaves. Ethical Culture is a democratic faith, and the Society’s open process honored that faith. Perhaps even more important than these facts are the enduring friendships among members, some lasting fifty years. It is not so elsewhere. In some Societies, members don’t socialize with one another outside the Meeting House; in others, people are so busy quibbling that no feeling of community exists at all.
The members of this Society, moreover, strike us as a particular breed of Ethical Culturists. They are thoughtful people who will not settle for easy answers. At last summer’s retreat at Warwick, Marlane and I found ourselves part of a spontaneous discussion about Blue Laws in Bergen County. We heard ten or twelve members sitting together in a circle examine this subject from every possible angle. When the dinner bell ended the discussion, we both asked the same question: Where else but at Bergen could such a stimulating, impromptu discussion take place?
This Society not only has bright, curious members, it also has members with good hearts who wish to live lives of kindness and generosity. After Peter Jacobson’s memorial in this room, a member of the Society turned to me and said, “Peter set an awfully high standard for conduct.” Here was one good man taking the measure of another good man’s life. This Society has many moral exemplars—I will not embarrass them by citing their names—men and women Marlane and I want to have near us, want to grow old with.
Many years ago, we moved from Westchester to Bergen to be close to this Society. Now that we have moved from Teaneck to be near our grandchildren, we feel we must return to the Society, even if we cannot participate as fully as we once did. The Bergen Society will always be our spiritual home, no matter where we live.
Our theme tonight is community, but before I talk about that I want to say this: Bob and I have been members a long time. We joined the Society when our children were very young. In fact, we joined because our children needed a title. All their friends went somewhere on Sundays and had a title. So we searched and found Ethical Culture. It seemed to be an environment that we felt comfortable to have our children grow up in. However, before long, they complained that their title was too difficult. Their friends couldn’t say Ethical Culturist. Wasn’t there an easier word?
The years went by, we became active members and made many friends.
Speaking for myself, I found it natural and comfortable joining the Society. In fact, when I reflect back to my childhood, my family and my upbringing in Teheran, it seems to me that my family values were indeed Ethical Culture values, albeit with a touch of religiousness. My grandmother’s motto was: “Act in such a way as to bring the goodness out of a person, and in this feel enriched and blessed.” So becoming a member of Ethical Culture was not a big step for me. I was an Ethical Culture person without knowing it.
However, when Deborah asked me to speak tonight, I declined at first because I felt it wasn’t necessary for me to talk about my Ethical Culture values. It was a private feeling. But then it was impressed upon me that our theme tonight was “community,” and what it means to me. So that is why I changed my mind and agreed to say a few words.
Belonging to this community means being among like-minded people regarding religious, political and social beliefs, and feeling free and comfortable to express my views, which are not necessarily those of many of my non-Ethical Culture friends and neighbors. It feels comfortable being among tolerant and broad-minded people.
There are many more reasons for feeling good about belonging to this community, which you all probably know. But there is for me, one more very important draw to THIS Ethical Society. There is a person for whom I have great admiration and respect, who, with his enormous intellect, dedication, humanity, and enormous talent has made this Society the vibrant organization that it is. I am talking about Dr. Joe Chuman.
So that is what Community means to me.