Building secular communities requires a social connection: An interview with Rabbi Adam Chalom


adam-memeBrittany Shoots-Reinhard recently interviewed Humanistic Rabbi Adam Chalom about his long experience with humanist service and community-building in anticipation of the Humanism at Work conference in July. Rabbi  Chalom will be speaking on the community-building panel at the conference.

Rabbi Adam Chalom has quite a bit of experience with community building and humanism at work. He grew up in a Humanistic Jewish community (The Birmingham Temple) in suburban Detroit and was encouraged by his community’s leader and mentor, Rabbi Sherwin Wine (founder of Humanistic Judaism, 2003 American Humanist Association “Humanist of the Year”) to become a Humanistic rabbi. Rabbi Chalom studied philosophy, history, and Judaic studies at Yale University, volunteering and interning at the Birmingham Temple before following Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s advice by completing the Rabbinic Program at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. As a rabbinic intern at the Birmingham Temple, he initiated service projects with Habitat for Humanity and public programs on “The Future of Gay Rights” (before the present/future was so bright, as it is now). His current community, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago, is a member of Beyond Belief Network and has a very active service calendar. He is looking forward to his upcoming sabbatical break, which will be not only a chance to rest and recuperate, but also to explore writing a couple of books: one a more in-depth philosophy of Humanistic Judaism, and another about life lessons from helping families through the process of death, loss, and memorials.

One of the challenges of being a service leader is bouncing back from challenges and failures, and learning from them. Rabbi Chalom explains how setting objectives and experimenting with small and large events has worked for his community:

Any complex and dynamic initiative is going to have its share of challenges and failures. When we first started our Community Service committee at Kol Hadash, there were some concerns that the group would become too political and thus divisive, which is why the first thing the committee did was to define its objectives in terms of basic human needs: food, clothing, shelter, human dignity (e.g., toiletries for Hurricane Katrina refugees) – there are many non-controversial basic human needs that can be addressed in a way that builds community rather than divides it on partisan lines, and we will not run out of that work any time soon (unfortunately). We’ve also had great success running different scale projects – some volunteer opportunities are only open to a limited number, while our regular High Holiday Fall food collection generates hundreds of grocery bags of donations in a no-pressure appeal – bags with wish lists are pre-distributed on chairs in the audience, and those who choose to participate drop them off full later in the week.

How do you inspire your congregation to be charitable? 

In addition to providing regular opportunities for community service, often tied to holiday celebrations, our congregation’s core philosophy emphasizes human responsibility both for oneself and for one’s community. After all, if we don’t believe that a cosmic personality is intervening in the world, then WE have to be the ones to heal the sick, reward the righteous, and ensure that the human moral agenda is realized, even if only partially. And because of our message, we tend to attract people who see the value of human action rather than simply expressing the desire that something be improved. We’ve also tried to maintain an ongoing relationship with one or two charitable organizations (e.g., A Safe Place), both to build a relationship organizationally and for our membership to become familiar with one group whose activities we support – we’re not spending our time continually explaining who the new charity is we’re supporting this quarter.

 What do you do to give people in your congregation a sense of community? What can other communities learn from you about making meaningful secular communities? 

This will be the subject of our session at Humanism at Work, and I’m very interested to hear what other secular communities have tried. Our most successful community-building initiatives have included social opportunities (NOT around philosophy or hearing a lecture), where our like-minded people can get to know each other as individuals – progressive dinners, where they meet in member homes in groups of 8-10 over dinner, with a joint appetizer session to start and joint dessert to conclude; or book clubs, movie clubs, even a ‘winers club’ (wine tasting, not complaining!) create the social connections that aren’t always achieved through intellectual activity. Certainly, shared community service experience for those who have volunteered has met that need for those who show up at volunteer events, even though that is a minority of the community membership.

A few years ago, we started podcasting selected talks of mine both as outreach to new people and as a way for members who could not attend a particular program to still feel part of the conversation. This has also helped people feel connected even when they cannot attend a program.

Because Jewish culture has a few events a year that draw or appeal to almost everyone (the fall “High Holidays” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the spring holiday Passover), we have regular opportunities to create community in large numbers, facilitated by shared experiences of singing together, thinking together, and schmoozing (chatting) before and after the events.

We are doing our best to stay in touch in a variety of media, from weekly emails to monthly newsletters to daily Facebook posts and tweets. And we’ve also focused on creating community among our Sunday School population (about 1/3 of our member families) with social and cultural events focused on Jewish food, Jewish music, community service opportunities like the Week of Action, and class-led Shabbat celebrations.

The most important lesson is to realize that a vibrant secular community has to provide a variety of programs and opportunities to connect people, not just those that appeal to the initial organizers. And that singing together and eating together are just as important to create secular community as sharing our thoughts with each other.

What do you think secular communities are getting wrong or that they could improve on? 

As implied in the previous answer, I think we can focus too much on the intellectual at the expense of the social and inspirational (and my own community is guilty of this as well). What is the proportion of academic lectures to music-focused or art-focused programs or primarily social opportunities? 

I also think we can be too narrow in our focus, demanding that any organization worthy of the title ‘secular’ or ‘humanist’ has to also agree with 99 other principles of political or social action that may not be as uniform within the potential secular community as some may assume. Or we define ourselves in opposition to religion and religious traditions – one of the reasons I sometimes call myself ‘post-atheist.’ While the ‘angry at religion’ demographic is important, there are also those who were raised secularly who don’t share that animus, or those who evolved gently out of religious tradition and who still see some value in considering some of the human wisdom expressed through them (I really enjoyed Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, which explores this theme). Ideally we can appeal to all three groups to grow our organized movement and thus strengthen both our voice for self-advocacy and our ability to do good in the world.

Why do we need secular communities? Or are they unnecessary? 

I would never impose them on anyone, of course, since there are some secular people who don’t feel the personal need to join a group. In fact, one of our organizational challenges is that we appeal to individualists who like to think for themselves! And if they do show up to a group, they risk sounding like this hilarious clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. At the same time, the fellowship of like-minded people who don’t think alike (one of our unofficial slogans) is invaluable to support your own perspective as well as to feel like you’re not alone. The emotional support of such people through life’s challenges and joys is also invaluable. As one of my members said after I officiated at her father’s funeral (paraphrasing), ‘I have no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have this.’ It may be a tautology, but secular communities are absolutely necessary to those who need them – they meet very deep-seated human needs that historically religions met, and what kind of humanists would we be to deny, reject, or ignore basic human needs like community and friendship?

Do you have any advice for people who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

Being a Humanistic rabbi is an amazingly inspiring experience. You get paid to do what you would pay to do, you can study and learn what inspires you and then teach that to willing learners, you get to experience the highs and lows of the human condition, and you get to meet and circulate with interesting and intellectually active people. There are challenges, of course, like any job, but where else do you get to mesh who you are, what you believe, how you live, your personal values, AND your professional life? It’s the chance of a lifetime. 

To become a Humanistic Rabbi, I studied at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in their four-year program. The IISHJ Rabbinic Program includes:

  • Seminars on Jewish history and culture; practical professional skills like leadership, communications, counseling and life cycle officiation; and courses in historic and contemporary humanist philosophy
  • An accredited master’s degree in Judaic Studies from an outside college or university (mine was the University of Michigan)
  • A year’s internship with a Humanistic Jewish community, which includes practical experience with youth and adult education, public presentations, ceremonial leadership, and community management
  • A Rabbinic Thesis – mine became the IISHJ adult education curriculum “An Introduction to Secular Humanistic Judaism.”

 Any last thoughts about creating secular community?

The importance of special events like the “Humanism at Work” conference! I’ve participated in many retreats and conferences for secular Jewish and general humanist activities since I was in 8th grade, and I have always been inspired by the fellowship and motivation produced by spending quality time with “my kind of people.” I’m looking forward to another great experience!

Meet Rabbi Chalom and learn more about secular service and community-building at the Humanism at Work conference in Chicago, July 18-20. We’ll see you there!