Interview with Cantor Dr. Jonathan Friedmann – Adat Chaverim – Community Leader & Education Director, Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Los Angeles

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Cantor Dr. Jonathan Friedmann is the Community Leader of Adat Chaverim – Community Leader and the Education Director of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Los Angeles. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family life growing up, e.g., geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Cantor Dr. Jonathan Friedmann: I grew up in Southern California in the early 1980s in what was, at least in those days, a “normative” Reform Jewish household. My siblings and I attended supplementary religious school and the family went to services a few times a year, but the subject of theology was never discussed at home. It simply wasn’t interesting to us. We learned to read Hebrew and became relatively fluent in the conventional prayers, but never thought twice about the meaning of those prayers, which we treated as historical relics that connected us to a less enlightened past. Like many liberal Jews, our Jewish identity was almost entirely ethnic or cultural, and synagogue was just one part—and not necessarily a central part—of that identity. Although my parents were passively or functionally atheist, we were connected to the Reform synagogue because it was one of the few places where our Jewishness could be openly expressed. God, or the absence of God, had nothing to do with it.

Jacobsen: How were these family factors influential in the development of education and within the wider community of early life?

Friedmann: I remember attending Jewish sleepaway camp when I was in high school and encountering, for the first time, a Jew who professed a strong and unshakable belief in God. I was dumbfounded. In my limited experience, only Christians held such beliefs.

Jacobsen: How does Humanistic Judaism differ from other Judaisms?

Friedmann: The primary difference between Humanistic Jewish practice and other forms of liberal Judaism is that, for us, it’s vital that our ceremonial language reflect our actual beliefs and worldview. First and foremost, this means that our services are non-theistic, focusing instead on Jewish and universal teachings that resonate with the core principles of humanism: human dignity, agency, responsibility, and potential. This approach necessitates not only throwing out most of the age-old prayers, but also creating or compiling songs, meditations, and affirmations to take their place. As such, Humanistic Jews are able to experience Jewish holidays and life cycle events in a way that’s authentic and personally meaningful to them.

Jacobsen: What is the interpretation and meaning of community in a non-theistic Judaism with an emphasis on humanism?

Friedmann: Human beings are social animals and Judaism is, historically, a highly communitarian system. As much as an individual Jew might want to differentiate him or herself from the Jewish people, three very strong forces tend to push us together: antisemitism, the human need for community, and the affirmation that comes from sharing experiences with like-minded people. Humanistic Jews are doubly outsiders, first because, as Jews, we’re a minority group, and second because we’re not at home in conventional Jewish religious environments.

Jacobsen: How does Adat Chaverim – Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Los Angeles provide a space for the safe and healthy practise of Humanistic Judaism compared to other areas of California or, indeed, of the United States with the recent waves of political and social strife in the country?

Friedmann: The Los Angeles area is predominantly liberal; we live in a “blue bubble.” Our community is overwhelmingly on the progressive or even radical end of the political spectrum, even on issues that often divide liberal Jewish communities—such as Israel and intermarriage. Our differences of opinion tend to be ones of degree rather than kind. Largely because of this, we’ve maintained an atmosphere of genuine openness and support. We speak openly about troubling events, giving particular attention to how these developments impact us as Jews and how we can put our Jewish/Humanistic values to use in affecting positive change.

Jacobsen: What are some community activities and popular events of the community at Adat Chaverim – Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Los Angeles? 

Friedmann: Our most popular activities include our weekly adult education sessions, which I lead, and our many field trips to places of Jewish cultural interest in the Los Angeles, of which there are many.

Jacobsen: How do you lead encourage, support, and initiate members of the Adam Chaverim congregation? 

Friedmann: Los Angeles is home to the second-largest Jewish population in the U.S. (after New York). Yet, Humanistic Judaism remains a little-known option. Most of our members have either grown tired of “going through the motions” in larger denominations or have no prior synagogue affiliation. They typically discover us through Internet searches using some combination of “Jewish,” “atheist,” and “Los Angeles.” I’m the first point of contact at our congregation; I answer their calls or emails directly. More often than not, when they attend their first educational or ceremonial gathering, there’s an immediate feeling of finding a home.

Jacobsen: In the practical living of ethical action, what do reaching out to those in healing the planet, having a rational outlook, working with other Jewish peoples, charity, and human rights look like – through Adat Chaverim?

Friedmann: Because of its emphasis on science and reason, Humanistic Judaism can be overly intellectual in orientation. Our community is most energized when we’re engaged in rich discussions of literature, philosophy, history, archaeology, pop culture, and so on. However, we realize that words are often just words; there’s a world out there that needs healing. To that end, we’ve organized members for marches, collaborated with immigrant rights groups, volunteered with food and resource programs, worked with environmental organizations to plant trees and clean beaches, among other things. Also, last year I was invited to the first gathering of the So Cal Secular Leadership Summit, which brings together all sorts of secular, humanist, and atheist groups in the region with the goal of uniting our efforts toward social justice and secular advocacy.

Jacobsen: Any recommended speakers or writers? How can people become involved with or support the efforts of Adat Chaverim – Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Los Angeles? 

Friedmann: One of the leading scholars of secularism, Dr. Phil Zuckerman, is a professor at Pitzer College on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Phil has spoken at a few of our events and is in touch with the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The best way to get involved with Adat Chaverim is to visit our website (https://www.humanisticjudaismla.org/), contact us by email (info@humanisticjudaismla.org), and attend one of our gatherings. Visitors usually know within a few minutes whether our community is right for them.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jonathan.

Friedmann: My pleasure.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists, American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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