Rick Gold is the Organizer for the Gainesville Humanistic Judaism Community (Gainesville, Florida) & a Board Member for the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
Here we talk about his background, work, and a community of humanistic Judaism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Mr. Gold, when it comes to early life, what were some pivotal experiences for you?
Rick Gold: I grew up in a Jewish family. My mother was religious in a Congregation growing up. She was an atheist. She did not believe. My brother and I, who were about the same age, felt that if you were going to a religious school there, and if you weren’t an atheist by 8-years-old, then something was wrong.
Not that we liked being nonbelievers, it wasn’t important. Over the years, going to religious services never did anything for me, I went into the foreign service and travelled around the world and linked up with Jews wherever I lived, particularly in Morocco and Egypt. I would speak to the rabbis and tell them, “Prayer does not do anything for me.”
So, rabbis couldn’t answer that question very well. I was very interested in my Jewish heritage as a means of social justice. I helped organize a U.S. network of organizations that were using a Jewish heritage for progressive political action. That was in 1980. The group was called New Jewish Agenda.
I was organizing the Washington, D.C. chapter at the time. When I would go to demonstrations, I would see representatives of Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Jewish. It was just starting around that time. It struck my interest. Subsequently, I went overseas on and off for 19 years.
When I came back to Washington with my kids, who I wanted to bring them up in a relatively secular Jewish environment, I found Machar, one of the two humanist Jewish congregations in Washington, D.C. I really enjoyed them. I felt that they represented my values and principles. It was a match.
I was active in Machar from 1999 until 2014. I ended up being on the Machar board and then the President. I have been on the board for the Society for Humanistic Judaism for 8 or 9 years or so. I left Washington for Gainesville, Florida about 5 years ago. It took a while. But I began to organize a humanistic Judaism community in Gainesville.
Jacobsen: What activities are done in the Humanistic Judaism Community of Gainesville, Florida?
Gold: We are 2 years old. I started by giving a presentation at the Humanist Society of Gainesville. About 40 people have attended our meetings. Normally, 10 to 15 people show up at a meeting. The first year was going over the basic principles of humanistic Judaism. We would have meetings to discuss that.
Then we would celebrate some holidays like Hanukkah and Passover. But I would deal with issues that I think were interesting, e.g., the role of Jews in anti-racism organizing, particularly within the Communist Party within the U.S. We had a program on secular Jews and secularism in Israel.
It was another interesting thing. Then we had some discussions of Jewish authors like Philip Roth. So, that was the first year. Second year, we celebrated high holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from a non-theistic perspective. This year, we have been doing some programs that are focusing on anti-Semitism, separation of church and state, non-theistic approach to death, dying, and bereavement.
We celebrate other holidays. This Friday, I am leading the first humanistic Shabbat at the University of Florida Hillel. We are getting ready to participate in the Gainesville Pride Parade for the second time. There are a lot of things. We are happy with how far it has come. It is hard to maintain attendance. Maybe 70 or 80 people are on our Meetup group.
Maybe, 80 are interested in us through Facebook.
Jacobsen: What are the demographics?
Gold: This is Florida. There are a lot of retirees. I am in a city, which is a university town. We have the University of Florida, which is a large and prestigious university in Florida. I cannot remember. Let’s say, there are about 50,000 students there. Then, there are retirees. People who work here, who are associated with the university.
Its health services are very big. That’s what we have to draw from here. The Jewish community is small. There are 6,000 Jewish students on campus. There are a number of humanist groups around here, e.g., the Unitarian Universalists, the Sunday Assembly. I am a member of the Humanist Society of Gainesville.
I have attended humanist groups based at the University of Florida, e.g., Gator Freethought, Humanists on Campus, and Secular Student Alliance.
Jacobsen: If you take into account some of the important parts of the community, including discussions on political topics, what have been some of the events? What has been important to the community? What have been rising or diminishing concerns?
Gold: We haven’t done that much outside of the meetings. Like I said, we try to march in the Pride Parade for the second year. We postponed our meeting on the separation of church and state a day or two after the Tree of Life Synagogue was shot up. Instead, we used that meeting to share our concerns and to comfort each other.
When we first started, there was a planned visit of a neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer to Gainesville. He came and the Jewish community was saying, “Stay home, don’t go out.” A lot of people associated with my group did protest his visit. There were like 500 police protecting supporters who came with him.
It reflects where we are coming from here. Gainesville is a very progressive political city in a very racist, conservative geographic area. So, the city, itself, is very welcoming to immigrants. That’s an interest in my group. We’re not aiming to be a partisan political group. However, clearly, everyone is on the Left.
One time, we had a meeting, where someone came and said, “I am a Trump supporter.” The rest of the people in the meeting got up and left. I could not facilitate and get people to talk.
Jacobsen: The concerns are overlapping. One is strongman-ism around the world. Another is white nationalism. Then, of course, there is standard religious fundamentalism on the rise, too. What are the central concerns around a group of peoples who have been, historically, discriminated against, like the Jewish peoples?
Gold: Yes, it is not obvious to everyone. We try to focus on Jewish history. So, everyone understands the overall environment is much different from that of our parents and grandparents in the opportunities for Jews to do what they want in society. The attack in Pittsburgh was a wake-up call.
Like I said, we are politically active and recognize that coming from a secular perspective is important to show that you are willing to act for a better society. You don’t need God to do that. There are a lot of people in Jewish history who give us an example of making a better world.
Jews coming out of a Jewish tradition, but not, necessarily, a perspective in which the Bible is a divine document.
Jacobsen: How does the community view the Bible in more benign moments of commentary and in more highly negative forms of commentary?
Gold: We have atheists. We have people more comfortable in being part of a regular congregation. I cannot stomach saying words that I do not believe in, where I ‘believe’ in a God who is a king and a decision-maker. So, I try to not push too hard from an atheist perspective.
However, people feel comfortable in our community. We are a group that brings together atheists, agnostics, secular humanists; and those who question the Jewish establishment. You can fall anywhere among those. You’re welcome. So far, nobody has felt that this isn’t really a place for them.
Jacobsen: Outside of the players of extremism against the Jewish community, the humanistic Jewish community, who are lesser acknowledged problem groups and actors in society now, in Florida now?
Gold: Gainesville has the notoriety of being a place where a Christian pastor said that he would publicly burn the Quran. That created a tremendous backlash. The faith communities organized against it. I took part in candlelight marches dealing with immigration. There are faith communities on the left.
So, they don’t see eye-to-eye with the faith communities on the right or the far-right. There are a lot of churches and religious groups in Gainesville. There are some small groups of different religions. But I am impressed that the community is big enough to have a Sunday Assembly.
In terms of objectionable groups, there are quite conservative political organizers in and around the Gainesville area. As I said, in general, it is very liberal. The city council is very liberal. The county surrounding is very liberal. In general, it feels like a comfortable place for Humanistic Jews to live.
Jacobsen: In my opinion, Trump-ism and strongman-ism won’t last forever, but the citizens will be impacted directly through involvement or indirectly. How could the community in Gainesville or in the country move past this rather pitiable moment in American history?
Gold: I am a specialist in Democracy and Governance, particularly in terms of the analysis of US democracy assistance overseas. I look at this from a higher-level perspective than who will win the next presidency. I do think the U.S. political systems are quite stable, but they only work when there is goodwill.
Right now, there is no goodwill to provide greater support for the democratic institutions that we have here. But I think that you’re right. Trump-ism will pass. Unfortunately, we have done so much damage to so many different aspects of U.S. government policy and weakened the legislative and judiciary and the media.
It is going to have an impact for decades, unfortunately, in some areas. But I am hopeful that the Republicans will get rid of him and try to develop their own identity rather than accepting whatever he does. Personally, I am left-liberal. I am not a super supporter of the Democratic Party. But most of the time, I feel comfortable with the way they are going.
Jacobsen: When you’re looking at younger generations, there is the question of passing the baton. There is always the question of growing, peaking, declining, and dying.
How do you do this in Gainesville to a next generation living in a different milieu, especially living in a world of new technology, cosmopolitanism, and the Internet?
Gold: It is more general than that. Apparently, almost any Jewish organization in Gainesville has an extremely difficult time attracting students. Like I said, most of the students are secular, frankly. But they don’t want to go off-campus. There are two major organizations on campus. One is Hillel. One is Chabad. Hillel is Reform-ish. Chabad is Orthodox. But Chabad has better food and more alcohol, so students prefer to go there.
I have been trying to build relationships with Hillel. This Friday, I am leading a service on humanistic Shabbat service there. I am hopeful that there will be some students who are attracted to it. We had two students come to our meetings over the last two years. So, that says something.
I have advertised in student newspapers, in many different ways. Normally, I advertise on MeetUp and Facebook and through the Jewish Council e-newsletter. Also, I have advertised on newspaper websites or event websites. There is an article in Gainesville’s progressive newspaper. I made some announcements on the web site of Humanists on Campus.
I have had difficulty in advertising to the Jewish groups on campus. In terms of media, I do not think media is the problem. It is not the culture of students to go off-campus. I am hoping to use Hillel and build a nucleus from there.
Jacobsen: Any recommended speakers, writers, or other organizations?
Gold: We have an Israeli professor who gave a lecture on Yiddish. We have a law professor who is an ordained rabbi. He gave a lecture comparing the liturgy of Humanistic Judaism with traditional Judaism.
That is the beginning of my effort to reach out to speakers. I’ve generally been leading it myself. I’m hopeful that there’ll be some people step up and become leaders with me. At this point, I have not seen it, yet.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Gold: I am not sure who your audience is, but I think that what I’ve been able to show you is that it is possible to organize a community, a non-theistic community that is based on Jewish culture, ethics, and heritage. That attracts some people.
It is a long, hard struggle. I think that people shouldn’t shy away from doing it. I have some skills that allow me to cover a lot of different subjects. I am a little versatile. I have been helping nurture another group in St. Petersburg, which is about 2.5 hours away.
We’re learning from each other. One group in Tampa/St. Petersburg could not sustain their efforts and stopped meeting. Then another group started up again. Even then, they are having their issues. But they see the worth in doing it. I am happy about that.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time, Rick.
Gold: Wonderful to talk to you, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free 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 Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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