That kind of leader: How does he do it? How does he create a fresh take on a complex issue every single month and deliver it with insight and eloquence? I believe I’ve solved the mystery. He draws from a deep trove of reading, has relentless intellectual curiosity, and is devoted to reflection. I know that Joe spends a lot of time crafting his message. It works; he makes it stick. Having some sense of how he has gifted us with original platforms for decades begs the question, “Why?” And here we leave the realm of the head and speak of Joe’s heart. He cares. He’s devoted himself to ethics and the Society for so long and in such depth that he refuses to let us down. He wants only to inform, and by illuminating, to lift us up.
While Joe’s talks, his presence at hearings and demonstrations, and his media articles are public, he has built and nurtured the Society in ways that are invisible to many members. He has made hospital visits, comforted the grieving, called the sick, and been witness to major life events. I’ve sat with him on meetings of the Platform Committee, the Social Action Committee, Adult Ed, Being White, and many, many others. Joe offers to call, write, teach, whatever is necessary to support the group. Joe’s outsized contributions to the work of these committees cannot be overstated.
Creating an intentional community like ours means weaving all the threads together into a vibrant tapestry. This takes a very special type of leadership. Joe Chuman is that kind of leader.
We wish him a retirement as filled with joy as the love he brought to us.
The best and fiercest: Joe Chuman changed my life for the better. After he led the vigils on Cedar Lane in the aftermath of the devastating tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Joe approached me to see if I would be willing to lead a new, local grassroots organization in opposition to gun violence. I can still feel where he gently twisted my wrist. The new group held an organizational rally in Ridgewood. That was the beginning of The Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, which we later turned into the Bergen chapter of the Brady Campaign. It still hosts a memorial every December to honor the gun-violence victims in Sandy Hook and across the country. Joe’s speeches at those events were among the best and fiercest I’ve heard him give in my 35 years at Bergen Ethical.
We won’t know until he’s gone: I have a long list of what our Society has in Joe as our leader, including his powerful intelligence and insight, a connection with us forged over more than four decades, and his willingness to walk the walk of social justice and individual human dignity, among many other traits. Still, we won’t truly know all we had in Joe as our leader until he is no longer in that role.
Our great good fortune is that we have been able to take for granted all that Joe brings to the job, for he is the only Ethical Culture leader most of us current members have ever had. I can’t measure precisely the extent that Joe’s leadership has influenced my feelings of deep connection to our Society, but I know it’s substantial and I will always be grateful.
A hero to many of us: Joe’s leadership at the Ethical Culture Society has made this a second home for my family and me; a place to grow and flourish. It brings me joy to think about all his platform talks, memorial speeches, his welcoming manner at parties, board retreats, and Community Weekends.
Years ago, I met someone completely unrelated to our Society. For some reason, I mentioned Joe. The gentleman said something like this: “Oh, you know Joe Chuman? He’s a hero to many of us. Without him, the success against the death penalty in NJ might not have happened.”
Fortunately for all of us, that social justice success did not mean his efforts were over. His foundational work for the NJ Sanctuary Coalition still inspires me to support the Ethical Society, and thereby support him and the other “frontliners.” My volunteer work here, backroom as it usually is, has been the most rewarding of my life.
I’m sure Joe doesn’t know how tall he has stood for me. I hope he has a happy retirement, and that he continues to be a mentor and friend.
An inspiration: Joe has been an inspiration to all and an important leader in the larger community. His messages have been informative, compassionate, and complete with a larger world view. Joe is always aware of the individuals in the congregation and his personal greetings are appreciated.
We wish him well—and remember, “There is life after retirement.” Good luck; good health.
Lenore and David Levy
Tending the members
Philosophy and Good deeds
Admiration and love
Hiking the outdoors
Biking across the US
Traveler of the world
There was Joe! It was December 2006 when my mom died, a very snowy, icy winter. We had been members for about five years and very much involved in the day-to-day grind of little kids, work, and caring for parents. I didn’t know Joe that much because I was teaching in the Sunday School, so not really attending platforms. We had a church service funeral for my mom in Scranton before the burial. I got up to speak about my mom and scanned the congregation. There was Joe! This was completely unexpected. I knew that Joe knew about my mom’s death, but never expected anyone from Teaneck to drive two hours in ice and snow to Scranton and then two hours back.
After the service, I approached Joe, thanking him for being there and commenting how unexpected it was to see him. He simply said that he felt it was important to “be present” at these difficult times. I immediately felt the presence of my community. There’s the family you are born to and then there’s the family you choose. I have chosen my Ethical family. Joe’s presence there, at my mother’s funeral, allowed me to feel the love and support of both of my families.
The best funerals! I came to the Bergen Ethical Society in 1973 when the society was in a temporary building due to renovations. Prior to that I had been a member of the New York Society since 1964. I have known Joe a lot of years. During that time we have shared ups and downs, woes and joys.
Joe retiring….my first thought: Who will do my funeral? What a strange thought to greet someone’s upcoming retirement! I called Joe up. I have called Joe many times over the years to consult about many things about Ethical Culture and not. Joe always answers promptly and fully, sometimes more fully than expected but always a thoughtful response.
Joe gives the best platforms! No qualification to that…he just does. He spends lots of time on them and they are well worth the time. Whatever subject he attacks, you get the best.
Welcoming new members. Interesting that he has become a gardener and spends so much time among his flowers. There was a time when he had trouble telling a rose from a tulip as he welcomed new members…no mind, they were warmly welcomed.
Strangely, in all these years I have never attended a wedding that Joe performed, but Joe gives the best funerals.
When my father died I was unsure of what to do. My Dad was Jewish but did not really practice Judaism. Passover was the only celebrated holiday. I knew that Dad had recently started going to a synagogue on the anniversary of his parents’ deaths and lit candles. But I had to force him to send me to Sunday School in sixth grade, when I wanted to dance with boys. That was how New Rochelle was organized—to dance with boys, you do that at whatever religious group you belong to. We belonged to none. This was important, and so I attended a reformed synagogue Sunday School to enable the dancing with boys.
My father married three times. The first two marriages were with Jewish women, but the third was with a Greek Orthodox woman. It seemed that my Dad had no very strong religious feelings. In today’s world I would ask. I had never even asked my Dad if he believed in God. Back to my Dad’s funeral: I decided to call the reformed temple in the town where he had lived for many years, Westport, Connecticut, and was promptly told by the rabbi that he would only perform a funeral for a member.
I called Joe, who had never met my father. He not only would do it but spent time with my sister and me and all the grandchildren and spouses and came up to Connecticut to perform a ceremony that had my father’s old friends calling me afterward to say that they had not intended to speak but had to when others told their stories. The head of the local UJA called to comment. My father was a character and Joe had no objection to his casket being covered in the many hats he had collected. The funeral was something none of us will forget—it captured the essence of my Dad.
Joe gives the best funerals! Now I admit I have an edge on the rest of you. I am a joint member in Bergen and New York and live in Manhattan. Joe is still a part-time leader in New York and I hope to continue to hear him until he performs my funeral.
Outstanding leader and even better human being: Joe Chuman is not just an intelligent man. He is kind, compassionate, and empathetic. His oratory skills are exemplary, and I enjoyed his thought process in constructing arguments and telling stories. Being a newer member, I got to experience Joe as a leader only in his final years at the Society. If he brought that kind of energy and enthusiasm “back in the day,” all I can say is, “Wow!”
Thank you, Joe, for shining a light on key issues and for your always thoughtful delivery. Also, I will always remember your kindness and openheartedness toward me. Thank you Joe, and I hope to see you again soon. Three cheers for an outstanding leader and an even better human being.
A much-needed voice: Thank you, Joe, for all your many years of caring leadership and for being such an important, responsible, and much-needed voice in the community at large.
So grateful to him: Joe has been an important part of the life of the Strickholm family during all of his 46 years with the Ethical Society. He has given inspirational and informative addresses at Sunday platform meetings, counseled us during difficult times, presided over memorial services for son, Douglas, in 2002 and Harry in 2013, and married our daughter, Sally, in 1982. We are so grateful to him for his loving association with our family and wish him happiness and health in his retirement.
Early memories: The year was 1970. Because it is a fun memory of our young Joe, it seems like only yesterday. Paul Weston, our Ethical leader, gained an assistant, leader-in training Joe Chuman.
He was young, very pleasant, fit in well, and he and members quickly became friends. The society had a weekend away at Hudson Guild Farm, and I remember the fun my daughters had with Joe playing brisk Ping Pong games for some hours during the day. Then activities would break for a meal and everyone sat down to enjoy a nice group meal together. Everyone had a satisfying, fun weekend away.
There were also some memorable Ethical platforms. Once, Joe and Paul gave a Friends-style meeting. Members sat in a circle and we struggled for consensus on some given topic as Friends might have. There was another meditation-style platform and again the group sat in a circle quietly passing stones from one to another and meditating. While I can’t recall the details of the programs, I remember the members enjoying them and feeling a spirit of community. And everyone felt satisfied with Paul, Joe, and the Society.
Mary Ann Claxton
Consistent presence and steady hand: All the best on your retirement as our Ethical leader. Your consistent presence and steady hand in all aspects of the Society will be greatly missed. I certainly understand wanting to have more time to enjoy your lovely garden and pursue many more activities. You deserve it! If you ever decide to travel away from home, I will be happy to care for your cats. Be well.
A great source of consolation, wisdom, and comfort: Bob and I met Joe around about 1970, when we first joined. I think Joe was leader-in-training. In a very short time we developed a great liking for him and saw that he had great intellect, a huge capacity for empathy, and fabulous oratorical skills.
Then, in 1973, we moved to Tehran, Iran, for Bob’s job. A few years after that, we got stuck in the 1979 Iranian revolution. We later found out how Joe had been trying through the American Embassy and other sources to find us. What an amazing man!
Once we returned and settled back in New Jersey, we became active once again at the Society. Sunday morning platforms by Joe were the highlight of the month. And through social gatherings, we came to find out how outstanding a human being he is. Indeed, how lucky we have all been through all these years to have him as our leader and guide. Now that my dear Bob has gone and angst has gripped me, Joe has been a great source of consolation, wisdom, and comfort. So even though he is retiring, I am glad he plans to continue to be present at the Society.
Thank you, Joe, for all you have done for me, for my family, and for the many people whose lives you’ve touched.
You helped make me who I am: Joe came to our society when I was 13 years old and well underway in my Sunday School experience. I even remember meeting him for the first time. I thought he seemed pretty young to be our new leader, which I also thought was pretty cool! Joe has participated in many of my life’s milestones, both happy and sad. He was there for my Sunday School graduation, he performed Vinni’s and my wedding, and presided over both of my parents’ memorial services. Despite my sporadic Ethical attendance, he has always made me feel welcome when I return. I am very grounded in my Ethical upbringing in the Bergen Society and Joe has been a big part of that. He stood at my side during these milestones and I would like to take this opportunity to say THANKS, JOE! You have helped make me who I am today and I thank you from the bottom of my heart! I wish you nothing but happiness and fun in your retirement.
Now I get to tell him: The things that we worry about can seem strange to other people, even to those persons who know us well. I have been an atheist since I was 12 years old, and since that time I believed that when we die, there’s no second act, no heaven or hell, no reincarnation, no consciousness, not even an awareness of our death—just nothing. Forever.
This had always upset me, and I suppose that it does so to most people, which is one of the reasons, maybe the main reason, why humans invented religion, because it gives us solace to think death is not an end, but in some sense a beginning (and by the way, I got the phrase that “death is not an end but a beginning” from a Catholic funeral Mass that I attended once).
A few years ago, Joe gave a platform address in which he actually talked about this issue, not, as I recall, as the main topic, but somewhat tangentially off the main theme. I don’t remember what that main theme was, but I’ve never forgotten his words that the time after we die is like the time before we were born. We didn’t know what we were missing before we were born and we won’t know after we die, which is to say that we had no experience of our “non-existence” before we were born, nor will we after we die. I found this concept to be extremely satisfying, so much so that I felt that I’d at last gotten an answer to this question that had caused my existential upset. I tried to talk to Joe after the platform about all this but for whatever reason, I couldn’t. Maybe he had to leave right away, maybe his time was monopolized by others, I don’t remember, but I never had the chance to tell him how much his words meant to me, until now.
The heartbeat of the Society: I don’t remember a time not knowing Joe. He was an intern studying to become a leader and was a guest teacher in my Sunday School class the first time I remember meeting him. He asked the class to draw a picture of what they thought God might look like–I remember drawing a picture of a giant cloud with eyes peering out of it. A classmate returned the blank paper to him, and others had different creative pictures. One thing that stands out is that he was genuinely interested in what each of us had to say about the picture. He had/has a way of making everyone who speaks to him feel that what they have to say is important to him. He proposed thought-provoking questions, things I still think about today. I remember when he became the leader of the Society, which was an integral part of our family’s life. Naturally a close relationship began between our family and Joe, and his wife, Linda.
Judy and Laura were married by a previous Ethical Culture leader, but Rhoda and I were married by Joe (I thought he did such a good job he got to do it twice for me!). He also married Laura’s daughter.
Our parents enjoyed countless committee meetings with Joe, as well as many, many social gatherings. He was ever present for happy occasions and for those moments that you are never prepared for. He welcomed our children in beautiful naming ceremonies and was also the one who spoke at both Jack’s and Janice’s memorial services, held at the Society.
He was a wonderful counselor, and I spoke with him on numerous occasions. I know that our father did, as well, and always held him in high regard. They had a strong mutual respect for one another.
Joe has been the “heartbeat” of the Bergen Ethical Society through so many transitions; it’s hard to imagine it without him at the helm. Joe is an amazing human being who possesses a wealth of knowledge, a strong sense of social justice, and a huge heart. It’s not possible to list all of the positive qualities that could be attributed to Joe, but all who have known him are richer for it.
Having Joe as the leader of the Bergen Ethical Society fulfilled a dream for both parties, and it was a perfect match. I think he touched as many lives as he has been touched by. The passion that he has shown will remain a part of the Society always.
Judy Deutsch, Laura Criscione, Rhoda Ondov, Adrienne Buchowski (The Rubenstein Girls)
An inspiration to our family: Joe has been the leader at the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County for as long as I have known that building on Larch Avenue in my hometown. Hearing and seeing Joe has always made the inspiration of Ethical Culture come to life for our family. Joe and Ethical Culture have always been one and the same for me.
Many times after my mother, Amy, became a member decades ago, she would tell me there was a wonderful talk that Joe gave or was going to give. Ethical Culture and Joe inspired her greatly. She would save some newsletters and tapes of his talks, giving them to me with the sometimes silent hope that I would read or listen to them and find them as inspiring as she did. I did.
My personal experiences with Joe were important to me. In 1989 Joe officiated at my brother’s memorial service, bringing together the pieces of Len’s life after his tragic and untimely passing. When I had spoken with Joe about Len, Joe understood the mixed emotions of my story and was able to communicate them in just a few words at the service, which made the service real for me.
Years later, when I had an ethical dilemma, my mother suggested that I talk to Joe. Talking with Joe helped me tremendously to reconcile the situation.
Last year Joe officiated at my mother’s memorial service. His years of knowing Amy from her membership in the Society were important to the service. All who were part of it felt it was a beautiful remembrance and celebration of her life.
Today, along with my husband, Jonathan, and daughter, Rachel, we are proud to be Ethical Culture members, and to be in a chapter that has been fortunate enough to have the benefit of Joe’s leadership. His impact on the Society will always be part of us and our actions. We will greatly miss him and his leadership. As Joe prepares for his most well-deserved retirement, we join countless others to extend a heartfelt thank-you and wish him all the very best.
Carol Hausner Sucher
Intellectual curiosity and activist commitment: Thank you, Joe. In the over 20 years that we’ve known you, you have enriched our lives as, variously, caring leader, teacher, role model, political activist, intellectual sparrer, chef, lunch partner, and fellow member of various committees.
Before we even joined the Society, when we were getting to know it, you welcomed Dan to participate in the Social Action Committee. Your welcome was a good lure, because Dan’s participation in the Social Action Committee was one of the key inducements for our joining the Society.
We consistently find your platform addresses to be thought-provoking. But even more, we value your exemplary combination of intellectual curiosity and activist commitment, of which there are too many examples to cite. You have also been generous in your pastoral caring, as we learned well when each of our parents died.
We look forward to future interactions with you both as fellow congregants and friends, and as readers of your future written work. And, on a lighter note, we’re proud that we’re from the same borough as you.
Elaine Fondiller and Dan Rosenblum
Braininess and borscht: Joe is such a brainy guy, it’s a treat to see and hear him wax enthusiastic on his many favorite topics. To list a few: the Transcendentalists, the history of human rights, astronomy, cheese! I can’t follow into the weeds on such erudite subjects, but have enjoyed communing with him on one shared interest: food and its social dimensions. Once, while Joe was acting as auctioneer for the Skills Auction fundraiser, I heard him declaim rhapsodically about Simone Colbert’s offering that night: a pot of beef borscht, a pot of deliciousness he could not, as a conscientious vegetarian, bid on for himself. Since then I have had fun cooking up a quart of meat-free borscht for Joe on occasion, a happy exchange with this connoisseur.
Over the years, on more serious Society matters, I have experienced Joe’s compassion, judiciousness, and diligence. Recording a taste for borscht is a minor bliss in this lifelong view of his leadership, but one I am glad to celebrate.
Not your average Joe! We first came to Ethical Culture about 15 years ago when our daughter was 9 and we were looking for an alternative to Hebrew school, which just didn’t feel like a good fit for us. The first thing we all noticed was that Joe used “very big words,” as Lara put it. Sometimes we would listen to a platform and write down some of the words Joe used to look up later. Being a lover of crossword puzzles and other word games, I was impressed by Joe’s vocabulary and concluded right away that he was a very brainy guy. While I was more focused on the words, I think Perry appreciated that the platforms he presented were factual, analytical, and thoughtful, as opposed to more touchy-feely type of stuff that some other groups offer.
As we came to know Joe, he became more a part of our lives and officiated at the funerals of both my mother and father, getting the gist of their personalities and life accomplishments exactly right. Later on, when we started our music series, Ethical Brew, Joe was very supportive and came to almost every single show, without ever even asking what type of music would be presented. He was always gracious and complimentary about our series, never taking our efforts for granted.
We are grateful that Joe, although retiring from his leadership role, plans to remain an active part of our community and are happy to have this opportunity to express our appreciation for the gift of both Joe’s friendship and leadership these past years. When it comes to his dedication, service, and commitment to Ethical Culture, he is definitely not your average Joe!
So here’s to our sesquipedalian friend as we wish him much success and satisfaction with his future endeavors.
Beth and Perry Stein
Thank you, Joe: My admiration for Joe was only exceeded by my niece, Gail Weiss, who drove from Merrick, NY, the first Sunday of every month to hear Joe’s platform addresses. Thank you for all your generous gifts to our Society, Joe.
A source of comfort: Going through my emails one day, I came across Joe’s letter announcing his plan to retire and found myself extremely upset. Given the self-isolation imposed by the Covid-19 virus, I had plenty of time to reflect on what I felt was an odd reaction. Joe is not leaving the Society; his role in it is simply changing, so my feelings of abandonment were baseless. While I have had no reluctance to approach Joe when family members died, or asked him to lead the memorial service when my husband died, would he still be available if I needed him in that capacity again? And I realized, of course he would still be there for me.
At a memorial, you hopefully have people speak who have known the deceased for a long while, people aware of the strengths and weaknesses as well as the foibles, silliness, and shortcomings of that unique person you lost, someone who can describe the person and make you laugh and cry when you recognize the essence of the person no longer here. Joe was eloquent and funny when he delivered a eulogy for Zach, and I want someone who knows me as well to speak when my time comes, someone whom my children could call on to speak about me and my life.
I wrote to Joe expressing my feelings and he, as usual, responded with kindness. He reassured me he would still provide help when he could, so I relaxed, if only a little. Once more I pondered life and love. Joe has been the one I, and many of my friends, have turned to in times of joy and sorrow. In his 46 years with the Society he has been a part of hundreds of families. I have lost a few friends and family members—he has lost too many to count. How does a person manage to maintain friendships and keep their emotions from overwhelming them in the face of so many losses over decades when I struggle to manage mine daily?
Joe has a gigantic heart—that has got to be a big part of the answer. I guess, like most religious leaders, he has learned to balance detachment and involvement with love, understanding, and intellect. He has been a source of comfort for me and many of us, and I, for one, do not take that lightly. I think of myself as self-sufficient and used to consider needing comfort from another person a weakness. This is not the case. When you are in any sort of need, it helps to have someone to talk with, rely on, seek comfort from, and borrow strength from until the crisis passes. Joe has done all that and more for me in my decades with the Society. I am proud to call him my friend.
His presence was very comforting: My very first memory of Joe is of him roaring up to our house in Maywood on his moyorcycle, a very young man! I know for sure because we moved to Teaneck in 1974…at that time Steve was president of the Bergen Ethical Society.
Over the years, I got to know and appreciate his intellect and his dedication to our Society and its members. After he married Linda, we parented Sunday School children together, David with Mark, Michael, and Eric; Nadine with Wendy and Elena.
When Nadine got married in October of 1996, Joe officiated at the wedding and he did a wonderful job. I believe there is s picture of that lovely day included here.
But I mostly apreciate his help when Steve had his last stroke. As soon as I called, he came to the hospital and sat with us and helped us figure out what to do next. His presence was very comforting to me!
I am sorry to see him go, but happy for him that he gets to have his next chapter. He deserves it!
One of the good people: ”Character matters. Being a good person matters.” Van Jones’ words reminded me of all the good people in my life. How they uplift me. How they help me get through the rough times. Joe Chuman has certainly been one of those people for me.
After being part of a UU congregation for some time, I found myself at a crossroads. They were leaning more toward theism. I was disconnected. My young son had needed a place to call home, too. Enter Joe.
I recalled a talk that he gave at the UU Society. I believe he was speaking about his experience as a driving force behind the Bergen Sanctuary Committee. And I remembered how he spoke with conviction, compassion, and heart. Here was a man who stood for justice. A man who gives his life for the cause(s) of humanity. A person who my son and I needed to know. So began our lives at the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.
Thank you, Joe, for changing our lives for the better. You are certainly one of the good people who has enriched our lives. For this, we thank you. Enjoy your retirement. It is well-deserved.
Silvia Acosta, Olias Bendian
You should feel very proud: Joe, what a wonderful legacy you have left! You have been an amazing leader for our Bergen Society. It is wonderful to see how the Society has changed from the small struggling Essex County Society I knew as a child, to the active vibrant Bergen County Society we now have. Under your superb leadership it has really been thriving and I think it will continue to do so. You should feel very proud of the accomplishments that have been made since you have been such a strong leader. Your platforms are always so interesting and it is clear how much time and preparation you put into them. Thank you! Thank you! I feel proud to be a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. You have set a wonderful example and will be a very hard act to follow. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement. I will keep in touch from the West Coast.
Fondly, Barbara Landberg
I cannot over-estimate the gratitude I feel: Joe Chuman enabled me to keep a sacred promise. As Joe and I sat together at an event, I started telling him how guilty I felt that, although a year and a half had gone by since my husband’s death, I had not yet followed through on the deathbed promise I’d made to finish his book, edit it, and see it to publication. For a long time, just handling the manuscript was too painful for me. When I attempted to read sections of it, the sound of my husband’s voice was just too loud and clear for me to endure. Then, after a period of time passed, I became filled with doubt as to whether I actually had the ability to perceive what had to be done, what needed smoothing out, what needed clarification, what word substitutions needed to be made, what structural elements needed to be changed. I procrastinated, procrastinated, procrastinated, feeling worse, and worse, and worse.
Joe listened to my story. Then he looked at me thoughtfully, and quietly said, “You know, Lucy, a deathbed promise is sacred.” (Of course, this led to a discourse about what “sacred” meant within the context of atheism. But that’s another story.) I think it might have been the very next day that I picked up the manuscript and started the process of identifying and hiring a developmental editor, a published professor of creative writing, who became my co-editor.
A year and a half afterwards, A-Theism: Believe it or Not by Richard Lettis, a true labor of love, was finally published. I’m certain Richard would have been pleased with the results. Later, selling copies of the book would become a fundraiser for the Ethical Culture Society. That would have pleased him as well.
I cannot over-estimate the gratitude I feel to Joe for urging me to attack the project head-on, for motivating me to start fulfilling this most sacred of promises.
You will certainly be missed: Your intellectually stimulating Sunday lectures will be missed. I always looked forward to hearing some new “food for thought” to think about. Thank you for the wonderful changes that occurred in the Society during your leadership. You will certainly be missed.
An amazing leader: Joe has been an amazing leader. His ability to combine his knowledge and insights about the world around us, as well as his caring and understanding for people is a special quality. I was touched when he called me when my mom had died and after I had surgery. He invited us and others to bring their kids/grandkids to his house so they could play in his backyard. I am glad that he will still be around. Thank you, Joe.
Proud to call you my leader: Joe Chuman has been an integral part of my and my family’s lives since Ron and I became members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County in the early 1980s. We had been considering EC for a while before we joined, and it was in large part Joe’s brilliant, passionate platform addresses and his commitment to social action that cemented our decision to join.
Since that time, Joe has officiated at our son’s naming, both our children’s rites of passages, and at our daughter’s wedding in Block Island! Joe has been there as our compassionate leader and friend to provide comfort during times of joy and sorrow in our lives. But, he has been so much more than that; Joe has also helped us as a family to never forget the values we hold close to our hearts, those Humanist values of treating all humans with dignity and respect; working to improve our world through social action AND to be rational thinkers. Joe’s platform addresses have inspired many Schwartz family dinner conversations! And how we treasure the memories of the annual July 4th congregational family camping trips that Joe organized!
Thank you, Joe, for your leadership and friendship. Your integrity, sincerity, compassion, and brilliance have raised the bar for all of us. I have been so very proud to call you my Ethical Culture leader and continue to be proud to call you my friend.
A joyful and spiritual engagement: Back in 2003, our son Jacob was about to start kindergarten and we were excited about this important step. However, we thought that it would be great if we could find a way to reinforce the moral and ethical values we thought were important as well as get him started on his educational journey. This came up in conversation with David’s mother, Dee. At that time, Dee and her “ladies” group of friends had been regularly attending lectures through the Institute of New Dimensions (IND), a group that provided educational lectures to the senior population in Bergen County. She told us that one of the lecturers, Joe Chuman, had been a wonderful speaker and that he was the leader of the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck. She suggested we look into the Ethical Culture Society to see if there was a program for children that could work for Jacob. A quick on-line search informed us that, yes indeed, there was a Sunday School and that indeed there was an Open House session for people interested in the Sunday School coming up soon. It is unlikely that we would have heard about this had Joe not been engaged with IND, so we can really credit him for introducing our family to Ethical Culture.
We decided to give Ethical Culture a try and brought both kids (even Devon, who was only 2) to Sunday School on the first Sunday in September, which was also a Sunday that Joe was speaking. While the topic of his talk that day is forgotten, the impression that Joe’s platform address made on us is not. We had come seeking resources primarily for our children, but realized with delight that their minds were not the only ones that would be broadened by our association with the Society and Joe. As we discovered that day, Joe’s platform addresses were always enlightening, thought-provoking, and well delivered. It is truly a gift to be able to take high-minded philosophical thought and explain it in ways that those not well-versed in philosophy (which we surely are not) can understand and appreciate. We came away from every one of Joe’s platforms feeling smarter, inspired, and sometimes moved to action.
Joe has always been the intellectual heart of the Society. However, his warmness and genuine concern for members has ensured that it is not a sterile and purely academic intellectualism, but a joyful and spiritual engagement in higher thinking.
Very impressive: I will always remember Joe Chuman as my first leader. He extended a warm welcome for a new member. And his last lecture will leave a lasting impression for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine at such a young age he had to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. And most of all he has the grace of accepting his loss and moving forward. A very impressive life experience. I wish him a healthy and happy retirement.
An incredibly wonderful run! Dear Joe, responding to your retirement from Bergen: What an incredibly wonderful run! You have led over years and years of solid development, and shown the Ethical movement what we can be and become at our best. You and the Society have played a central role of support for me and my family for decades, and you have mentored and inspired me in my deepest vocation as leader. I know you will continue your excellent works and look forward to consistent collaboration for years to come!
You embodied that dignity: I just wanted briefly to add my deep gratitude for your mentorship and friendship. I appreciated your role as my advisor in Leadership Training for the training modules on Felix Adler and on our Movement’s transition from idealism to Humanism. You offered me, in your example, a model of academic depth and precision towards which I aspired. You set the bar high for me, and encouraged me with realistic clarity and astute critique. My training set me on a path inspired by, but not taken by, Adler—a path that led toward what I sometimes call “pragmatic idealism.”
After certification, when I struggled to create quality platforms, it was your treasure of writings that I raided most, with appropriate attribution, of course! When I was installed at the Philadelphia Society, you graciously agreed to deliver the keynote. In that talk I appreciated your advice to cultivate thick skin and retain a sense of humor. Joe, while I may have struggled to develop thick skin, I have been able to keep the smiles and laughter alive.
But most of all, I valued how you explained to me that, as an Ethical Culture leader, “our manifest selves—our utterances, our gestures, aspirations, and actions—are but…symbols” and that we should pay most attention to that precious inner core that some call “dignity.” It meant a lot to me because, in my eyes, you embodied that dignity. Again, thank you for your guidance, support, and friendship, and I look forward to more collaboration in our Ethical Culture work.
A trusted friend: We first met in 1976 when the Ethical Culture Society was celebrating its 100th anniversary. Over these many years, Barbara and my humanistic values have been magnified and expanded. We are fortunate to have cultivated so many cherished and long-lasting friendships within the EC Community. Our children, Eric and Audrey, have proudly graduated from the Sunday school.
Our family has shared with you a number of notable events, e.g.
- Audrey graduating from Sunday school with you as her mentor.
- Officiating at Audrey and Nate’s wedding ceremony.
- Providing compassionate support as Audrey and Nate’s 7-year-old daughter, Shannon, courageously fought an incurable brain tumor.
- Officiating at Eric and his wife Kristin’s naming ceremony for their son, Everett James.
- Offering support and friendship during Barbara’s seven-year struggle with Alzheimer’s.
- Giving a heartwarming and beautiful eulogy at Barbara’s Memorial Service during COVID.
You have been both a leader and a trusted friend. Your intelligence, integrity, and dedication rooted with a strong ethical character are values we try to emulate. I appreciate us getting together, on my patio, at breakfast and other occasions. I look forward to having many more engaging conversations.
During these past 46 years at the Bergen Society, you have created a vibrant, welcoming, and thriving Humanistic community. We are forever thankful for your wisdom in setting an example for enhancing our lives.
We wish you much happiness and good health. You will be greatly missed.
Jim, Eric and Audrey, the Griffin Family
A compassionate voice: Mine is a small contribution, as I’ve known Joe for just a small portion of his fruitful career. It is a pleasure to have been able to know Joe in his stride. In that time, I’ve heard him provide uplifting perspective in community forums and platform addresses, speak passionately at protests and demonstrations, and he has been a comforting voice for me and my family during times of challenge or loss. Throughout, he has shown how much he cares—not just for humanity, but also for the people who depend upon him.
I have always appreciated that while he takes on the mantle of “leader” of this Ethical community, he never depends upon the prerogative of office as the basis of his moral authority. Rather, he has been an accessible friend, a caring teacher, a tireless volunteer, a thoughtful listener, a compassionate voice. This is really what has created the trust and confidence upon which, for me, his leadership rested.
In the many ways that he has led by example, these characteristics are reflected in the Ethical Culture Society he has sustained and served over time, and for many more years than I have known him. Just as his leadership has nurtured these qualities in the members of the Ethical Culture Society, so he has helped me to think more carefully about the big questions; to inspire me to get more active in community; and to find and serve, in the ways I’m able, a higher purpose. Many thanks, Joe, for ensuring the continued benefits of the community that I and so many others call our home.
A lifetime of service: While we have not been members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County for that long, Joe Chuman has been an integral part of our experience as members.
We have enjoyed listening to his thought-producing Sunday platform addresses. Joe has always been welcoming, friendly, and supportive—making us feel like part of the family, ministering (for lack of a better word) to us during times of uncertainty and loss.
While we will miss his presence (at least for the short term) at ECS, we wish him well in his retirement.
Thank you for what you have done for us and for the Society. Congratulations on a lifetime of service!
Rob Eigenbrod and Christina Grant
He’s never let us down: Joe has enriched our Society and each member effortlessly and perpetually. I’ve watched him all the time. Presiding over the platforms. Giving reports at countless board and committee meetings. Giving heartfelt memorials. Schmoozing with members, guests, family members. The ultimate auctioneer at the Skills Auction. A husband. A father. A friend. Our leader.
For almost 50 years, the Society has been Joe’s universe. I can only hope that we’ve never let him down as he’s never let us down. We’ve all welcomed new members and said goodbye to old friends with Joe by our side. I’m probably taking Joe’s retirement harder than he is. While I can let go, I don’t want to. And I’m not alone with this sentiment. Joe will no doubt continue to expand his universe in places he never imagined with his time now. For that, I can celebrate.
The challenges that our Society and by extension, our democracy, has faced since 2016 would have been utterly unbearable (please excuse the alliteration) without Joe. He has been here to calm us, to offer rational analysis, and hope. We are going to have to do all this for ourselves now, if only for a little while. Joe has trained us well, and we should be able to do this, if not for ourselves, then for our dedication to keep the Society thriving.
Joe, honestly, your shoes will be near impossible to fill but I pledge myself to our new leader and to the Society as I know you would want me to.
Thank you. Just thank you.
Aimee Brett Kass
Joe was completely gracious: I cannot remember exactly when I first met Joe or maybe his reputation preceded him, but I do remember having the opportunity to interview Joe at the Queens Ethical Society, where I first became a member back in 1992. Joe was coming to the Society as the incarnation of Felix Adler and I was asked to interview “Adler” for the platform. I would do anything to have my notes or photos of that event but I do remember how much fun it was, and how he guided me more with his answers than I did him with my questions!
But over all these years it seems Joe has always been with me throughout my Ethical Culture journey, always present at Religious Education Retreats, the Lay Leadership Retreat at The Mountain my interview for Ethical Culture Officiant, and when we formed a Rockland Ethical Culture Society
for a period of time Joe was completely gracious about coming to do a platform. And as Festival Committee Chair, what a joy that Joe never missed a festival—how great it was for me to see him having such a good time and always closing the event so beautifully.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention my dear departed friend Susie Diamond-Peterson. Joe was the reason she wanted to become a member of the Society and we did so together at her request. She could not make it most Sundays, but while she was well she never missed the first Sunday of the month. Susie loved Joe.
Lastly, I feel fortunate that Joe was still leader and I a member during the Trump years. There was nothing more gratifying than at so many platforms seeing how many adjectives and with such passion Joe could deliver his Trump diatribes. It was quite satisfying, to say the least.
Thank you, Joe, for having been such a driving force in so many ways. You will be greatly missed!
He leaves big shoes to fill: Our first meeting with Joe was in September 2006, the first gathering after summer. We came to see if Ethical Culture could be something for us. Coming from The Netherlands (and raised Catholic), we were looking for a community without a specific religion but with a shared world view. We immediately felt welcome and at home; soon we became members. Our children, Esther and Robert, were a bit set off by the words “Sunday School,” and although they didn’t want to join, they also felt at ease with the other teenagers, and participated in several activities, especially the family weekends.
We were always very keen on going to platform on the first Sundays; hearing Joe speak about current topics in life or politics made us think, not only about the topics itself, but also comparing the U.S. situation with the Dutch situation. It was often food for discussion and it helped shape our opinion about ethics. It also confirmed to us that we didn’t need a religion or a church. We came to know Joe as a very eloquent speaker with a gift for words, and listening to his platform address sure helped improve our English vocabulary.
After moving back to The Netherlands, we kept in touch and were very happy to have several members as our guests, including Joe. It was great to see him again, and talk about each other’s ups and downs in life.
We have fond memories of the occasion of the renewing of our wedding vows in 2019. We were visiting during the time of our 35th anniversary. We asked Joe to officiate the ceremony, and he wanted to have a good preparation, so he invited us for breakfast in order to get to know more about us. We appreciated the speech that he gave as an introduction to the ceremony, mentioning that although we made our home in The Netherlands, our spiritual home was with Ethical Culture and the community. Knowing Joe, he managed to find the right words for how we felt and we are thankful for that. One of the expressions we learned in the U.S. is very suitable for Joe retiring: He leaves big shoes to fill.
Peter and Marinka Haring
We were right about Joe: If it weren’t for Ronald Reagan I might never have become a Society member. Reagan and Joe Chuman, of course. In the early ’80s I was living in Teaneck and working whenever I was able, as a classical singer, mostly in New York City. I was invited to come to sing one Sunday morning at the Society. I was a Teaneck native but had never been to the Ethical Society nor knew what to expect. I sang my selections and took a seat for the platform address. Joe took the podium and proceeded to take apart Reagan’s education policy from stem to stern. He was passionate, thoroughly knowledgeable, and riveting in his scorn. After his amazing address, the audience was invited to ask questions, which he dealt with deftly. I was hooked! By 1983, Ed and I had decided that the Society was where our growing family belonged. Joe was right about Reagan. We were right about Joe and our choice of the Ethical Culture Society.
An extended family: Dear Joe: Thanks for your decades of devotion to the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and the Movement generally. What seemed like a nice place to drop off our children for Sunday School morphed into a second home. Your inspirational Sunday talks drew us in for intellectual nurture, and soon opened the door to what became an extended family. Stay close during the next phase of your remarkable life.