Today, religion must concern itself with the end, the purpose and the future of life…Religion must turn to a greater, more important question: What shall we do with this world? What is the outcome to be? We must do what we can to affect the outcome of life.
– Felix Adler
THE BERGEN ETHICAL CULTURE SOCIETY
Founded in 1952-53, the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County is a dynamic community providing weekly ethical enrichment and discussions, ethical education for children, a thriving social action calendar, and multiple workshop activities on topics that include learning Spanish, meditation, anti-racism, career development, and personal growth. The community offers coming-of-age programs for youth, hands-on environmental activities, and a large number of public events. There is something here for every member of your family.
Ethical Culture asserts that community building is a profound spiritual practice. While the congregation employs a professionally trained clergy member, called “leader,” essentially the community is lay-led. There is a Board of Directors and a number of committees, each focusing on one aspect of the life of the Society. This provides an opportunity for each member to play a role in keeping the community active and relevant. Each member makes a financial pledge, but there is no minimum amount, removing any financial constraints to membership. Simply give what you can.
We offer Sunday morning services each week in which speakers from within and outside the community provide ethical insights and raise awareness of ethical issues. Several of the Gatherings are lay-led, and the leader speaks one to two times each month. In addition, there is an early service for families and friends. This interactive gathering creates a rich learning environment for children and adults to explore ethical issues suitable for all ages. There are celebrations and opportunities to take action.
Visitors are always welcome to our events. You can find out about upcoming events through this website. If you add your name to our mailing list, you’ll also get a weekly newsletter, Focus, which provides information about upcoming events and activities. If you’d like to consider membership, please contact Leader Curt Collier at [email protected] or Administrative Director David Bland at [email protected]. They will arrange for someone from our Membership Committee to contact you directly. You may also call our Society’s office at (201) 836-5187.
We’d love to have you and your family join us!
WHAT IS ETHICAL CULTURE?
Inaugurated in 1876, The Society for Ethical Culture was founded by Felix Adler, who at the time was a 26-year-old former rabbinic student. Felix’s father, Rabbi Samuel Adler, was a progressive Jewish thinker who went on to found one of the largest Reform congregations in New York (Temple Emmanuel).
Felix Adler was sent to Germany as a young man to prepare for the rabbinate. However, during his studies Adler was introduced to the ideas of Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and other figures of the Enlightenment. He was also introduced to other world religions, and had the opportunity to compare his Judaism with them. Eventually, Adler returned to the US and gave his one and only address before a Jewish congregation. Afterward, he was questioned why his sermon didn’t contain references to God or to the Jewish people specifically. Adler painted a new vision of a religion that focused on the central importance of religion, leaving how that belief got expressed up to the individual.
“Believe or disbelieve as you want, we shall at all times honor every honest conviction, but be one with us where there is nothing to divide; in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed. This is that common ground where we may clasp hands as brothers and sisters united in humanity’s common cause.”
from the founding address, May 15, 1876
Adler’s central idea was that affirming the worth and dignity of others was the essential path from which ethical ideals arose, not delivered from on high through some revelation. Acting for the good of others was more important than a belief in a God or any other practice that put ritual over relationships. Our way of life places this ethical principal above all other convictions.
DEEDS BEFORE CREEDS
America in the 1860’s was a difficult place. Thousands were enslaved and treated brutally. Native Americans were forced off their land and made to walk hundreds of miles to live in camps. Immigrants flooded into cramped, dark tenements and other unsanitary places, where many perished from treatable illnesses. Children were often forced to work in factories or mines without the opportunity for education. Outdated social customs kept women from careers and higher education. Adler wondered why, if most religions preached benevolence, that American culture was so heartless. He noted that worship of gods appeared more important than treating others ethically, and in fact, most religions of his day preached that humans were broken and fallible, and incapable of creating a just world.
Adler didn’t agree. He turned religion upside down, stating that acting to elicit the best in others was the only way that the “divine” could be experienced. Ethics was not to be found in some creed, but in an action.
Immediately Adler rallied his congregation to rebuild American culture. His Society for Ethical Culture called for a new religious mandate: to build a civilization that elicited our best selves, not our worst. Ethical Culturists set about to build schools and created job-training centers. They built new, sanitary tenements and created retreats in the country to provide individuals with access to fresh air and nature. They trained nurses to provide healthcare to the poor of New York and built a hospital for children. Adler formed a child study association that eventually pushed for the abolition of child labor in America, and founded free kindergartens. They worked to provide legal aid to all, and co-founded institutions to protect and educate formerly enslaved Americans. Despite its small size, Ethical Culture set America on a progressive path forward, influencing dozens of organizations and improving the lives of millions. Our central belief, act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in ourselves, has motivated our membership to spread these ideas nationwide, impacting American society and its governance.
ABOUT ETHICAL SOCIETIES
The purpose of an Ethical Society is to create a place where we can continue the work of building a better culture. To further that work, we gather on Sundays to learn new ethical insights and to delve into the issues of our day. We come together to plan ethical actions, allowing each member to engage in the action of their choosing. Along the way, we celebrate life, educate our children in ethical practices, perform marriages for those finding deep connections, learn to be better people, organize against injustice, bury our own beloved members, and sing, play, dance and eat!
Being a member of an Ethical Society means you join with this collective effort. Being an Ethical Culturist means you have chosen to take up the centuries-old effort to better the human condition, leaving old prejudices behind and creating more inclusive places. It means you believe that each of us has the capacity to show more love, more caring, and each possesses a wisdom about the human condition that can be shared. As Leader Algernon Black stated, “Ethical Culture … is a call to be human, not to be perfect.”