by William Treger
On Saturday of last week, Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, celebrated its 35th anniversary at the Margaret Schweinhaut Center in Silver Spring, where congregants enjoyed an evening of food, schmoozing, slide shows, speeches and a silent auction featuring everything from an evening of klezmer to Hebrew lessons.
Machar members celebrate Judaism's history, culture and values. Yet Machar, which means "tomorrow" and connotes looking forward, differs from other Jewish movements in that it is nontheistic and does not embrace the supernatural.
According to Machar Rabbi Binyamin Biber, just as within other religious traditions, Humanistic Judaism presents a space for congregants for "self-eventualization."
"We see all human beings as a part of a greater family of humanity that the Jewish people are a part of, rather than a people set apart," he says. "We get some people who question what they believe, but we get more people who have strong beliefs and find it great to find a philosophical home here."
In his speech at the celebration, Biber spoke about the opportunity he has had at Machar "to fulfill a childhood dream of mine to be a rabbi, which ... became seemingly impossible when at age 15 I became an atheist."
The humanistic movement and Machar enabled both him and others "to be ordained and serve as rabbis, not in spite of, but rather because of our embracing philosophical naturalism, skepticism, the natural and behavioral sciences, and, most importantly, a humanism that links the past, present and future of all the peoples of this world," he said in his speech.
For 3 1/2 decades, Biber said, Machar has "attracted many progressives who have engaged in advocacy, activism, organizing, and service, often setting a high bar that challenges us still to live up to it. Our social action endeavors shifted over time - from responses to current affairs - to carefully chosen issues around which we built long-term involvement and highly engaging campaigns. We have helped to pass living wage and inclusionary housing laws, as well as the DREAM and marriage equality laws that we'll be defending this fall.
"Unlike many congregations, we've also chosen to work actively for a two-state solution to foster a just peace between Israel and its neighbors. We've had our share of critics, but for a decade now, we've partnered with our allies in Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice & Peace, and its successor J Street, and often had the largest contingent of any congregation at the national conferences and lobby days of these groups. Finally, we've helped to push the Society for Humanistic Judaism toward civic activism on these and other issues, including our important work with the Secular Coalition for America, which sponsored the very successful lobby day and Rally for Reason here this spring."
Machar has also worked with its young adult members over the years to build an active chavurah that holds monthly events and gives people in their 20s and 30s a way to connect with one another and the congregation.
Chavurah member Betsy Kolmus also spoke at the 35th anniversary celebration. Kolmus says she is "more whole spiritually because Machar has given me the opportunity to celebrate my values on culturally appropriate occasions in a manner that honors my ancestors and my family while allowing me to remain intellectually honest."
"From deepening our understanding of our origins through humanist Torah study or an examination of the history of our movement, to examining modern issues 'Jewishly' and humanistically, to providing time and exposure to viewpoints which are different from, disagree with, or even criticize our own, Machar offers facts and perspectives that can't be found anywhere else to people who care whether the things they believe are true," she says.
"It is a privilege to be part of a congregation that truly walks its talk on tikkun olam [repairing the world]."