Archive for December, 2015

Leader’s Message – “Enough Is Enough!” – January 2016

December 16, 2015

We have all heard the expression “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I have been paying attention, and I am outraged. That emotion has almost paralyzed me as I gasp for breath in between every day’s new revelations of violence, hate and demagoguery.


Today, on the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, I am trying to imagine the world he described, because I, too, am a dreamer. A world with no heaven or hell, no countries and no religions, no possessions and no need for greed or hunger.


We know that humanity yearns for a world of peace, where we can live together as one, and we are trying our best to join together, but there are people standing in our way. We are dreamers who must take action now. Today and every day we must stand for peace by calling out those who preach hate and teach violence, by confronting those who sell death and pay politicians to deny us safe communities, by responding to those who stand on expensive soapboxes and try to brainwash decent people.


Enough is enough! I call upon the members of this ethical community and the people of this city, state, nation, country and world to make your voices heard. Yell from the highest mountaintops and skyscrapers; let your voices ring from the deepest valleys; call across rivers, oceans and boundaries to one another as together we the people stand for peace, for the end of violence and hatred, and for our joining hands in every way possible – and impossible.


Today I publicly decry the demagoguery of all political candidates who, by their words, demean our democracy and incite violence. The definition of a demagogue is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument,” (Oxford English Dictionary). We deserve far better from those who hope to serve us as President of the United States, speaking in our name to the people of the world. Not in my name will I allow anyone to wage war against peace, understanding and love. You shouldn’t allow it either.

December 8, 2015

Note: This statement, a clarion call to action, was posted to our website,, on 12/8/2015.

Postscript: I always carry a poem, “Choose to Bless the World,” by Rebecca Parker, in my purple plastic action folder. Last year I rearranged some of the lines so that it works as a call-and-response reading, and I have used it at demonstrations and vigils. I return to it, now that I have expressed my outrage, to remind me that we all have gifts – “the mind’s power, the strength of the hands, the reaches of the heart” – that “can be used to bless or curse the world.” There is much work ahead of us, and it cannot be done in anger. We need to discover our gifts and use them wisely. Our community strives to be a place where everyone feels safe, heard, and supported; a place where we learn about, and how to effectively address, the world’s problems. The language we must use is compassion, especially for those with whom we fundamentally disagree. That is perhaps our greatest ethical challenge. This month I’m starting a course called “Democracy Is a Verb” [see page 4] that I offer as a means to learn more about the political system in which we live and the ways in which we can participate to make sure that every voice is heard and every gift is appreciated.

Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors

December 16, 2015

I usually approach the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where I serve as clergy leader, from Central Park West and look across the street from the park at the words carved into stone on the corner of our meeting house: “Dedicated to the ever-increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right.”

Today “the right” is used to identify a socially conservative political stance, but in 1910, when these words were inscribed, it referred to ethics and a community determined to do the right thing in challenging times. Since founding the Society in 1876, members have sought ways to make the world a better place for everyone, beginning with improving living conditions in tenement housing and forming settlement houses that built affordable housing.

Nearly 140 years later, we still live in challenging times and continue our commitment to treating the homeless as our neighbors and working for affordable housing. Today, we have many partners in the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Affordable Housing. In addition to providing shelter for homeless women for over thirty years, the Society hosts events that gather advocates from across the city and state to work in concert for affordable housing.

The latest event, held on October 23, “Campaign 4 NY/NY Housing,” called upon Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to work together and with the more than 200 state and local organizations calling for 30,000 new units of supportive housing over the next ten years for our most vulnerable neighbors: the homeless, now about 60,000 people who sleep in city shelters or on city streets every night. This statistic includes over 14,000 families with nearly 24,000 children; and it has reached the highest levels since The Great Depression of the 1930s.

How did this happen? Research compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless from data collected by the city Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration shows that the primary cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing, triggered by eviction and job loss, severely overcrowded and hazardous housing conditions, domestic violence, and serious mental health disorders. This social “perfect storm” has put a strain on the resources of private and public organizations throughout the city, especially in Manhattan, which holds nearly 60 percent of our unsheltered homeless.

How do we address this community reality? Mayor de Blasio, whose administration recently announced a plan to create 15,000 supportive housing units over fifteen years at a cost of $3 billion, will face pushback from neighborhood leaders who oppose the siting of those units. But, it is absolutely essential. Negotiations with Governor Cuomo over a new “New York/New York” deal, the much-anticipated fourth city-state supportive housing plan, are at an impasse. Local advocates, including we clergy in theInterfaith Assembly, are frustrated with the de Blasio-Cuomo feud and have written to both politicians imploring them to stop playing politics and start acting like the leaders we elected them to be. This is an ethical issue that demands immediate and non-egotistical action.

In the meantime, how can we be the good neighbors that so many of us want to be? NYPD Commissioner Bratton has urged New Yorkers not to give money to homeless people living on the streets, and Mayor de Blasio has said that the best way to help is to donate to nonprofit organizations serving homeless people. I agree, we should donate to shelters and organizations, and I hope that more people will volunteer at shelters, including ours. But I see no harm in making a direct and personal donation to individuals. Offering money can be awkward, but offering a piece of fruit, a wrapped sandwich, or a coupon to a restaurant is appreciated. We can also provide information about local sites that offer meals and hot showers. Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing offers a helpful resource that can be referenced, printed, or circulated by email or on social media.

The most important way of helping is to see others as people worthy of dignity and respect. Bear in mind that many people who live in shelters are employed, but their income isn’t enough to cover housing; they are not lazy and useless.

When I leave the Society for Ethical Culture’s meeting house, I always stop to read at least one passage from the “sacred” text mounted on the north wall of our lobby: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a document that set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected, and was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, in the wake of World War II.

Today I read very closely Article 25(1): “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

No doubt some New Yorkers have become numb to seeing homeless people on our streets. Homelessness in our city has nearly doubled in the last decade, and “compassion fatigue” can occur, especially if we feel there is nothing we can do to make a difference. But when we acknowledge our common humanity, encounter people with an open heart and gentle words, educate ourselves about the resources available in our communities, and resolve to act, we can make a real difference in the lives of our neighbors.Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors

Leader’s Message – “2016 Parliament of the World’s Religions” – December 2015

December 16, 2015

“10,000 People, 80 Nations, 50 Faiths”


Like Brigadoon, a mysterious Scottish village which appears for only one day every hundred years in the musical by the same name, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago for the first time in 1893, wasn’t convened again until 1993, again in Chicago. That first formal gathering drew representatives from Eastern and Western spiritual traditions and is recognized as the birth of interreligious dialogue worldwide. Although a decision was made at the second Parliament to convene every five years, the next one took place in 1999 in Cape Town; the following parliaments met in Barcelona in 2004, Melbourne in 2009, and Salt Lake City from October 15 to 19 this year. At the closing plenary meeting, we heard the happy news that we will now meet every two years.


At the first Parliament, nineteen women, spoke; among them were Ethical Culture “lecturers” Jane Addams and Anna Garlin Spencer. Other women wrote papers, but weren’t allowed by their faiths to publicly present them, so men took their places on stage. At this year’s Parliament, whose theme was “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity – Working Together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability,” it was clear that throughout the world and in most of the world’s religions, more women are taking leadership roles. I felt proud to represent Ethical Culture, as I did at the 2009 Parliament, and delighted that my daughter (and NYSEC member) Emily Newman joined me. We were both inspired by the remarkable women we met and heard, including Karen Armstrong, Jane Goodall, and indigenous spiritual grandmothers who shared their traditional wisdom with us.


Of course, there is still much work to be done, and that is why we approved a “Declaration for the Dignity and Human Rights of Women,” intended to elicit the commitment and action of the world’s religious leaders, adherents and institutions to improving the quality of life experienced by women and girls everywhere. It states the problem: “The struggle for the dignity and equal rights of women is the global human and civil rights struggle of our time. War and violence, economic disparity and impoverishment, environmental damage and its devastating consequences fall disproportionately upon women and girls who also suffer the most prevalent injustices in our world today.” And it calls for “Commitments of Conscience” that include calls to “alleviate the unwarranted deprivation and suffering of women and girls,. . . challenge and change harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and violence against women and girls, . . . and “partner with faith and interfaith organizations working to advance women’s well-being and rights.”


Other declarations addressed climate change; income inequality and the widening wealth gap; hate speech, violence and war; and standing with indigenous peoples. Myriad events were held throughout the weekend – lectures, discussions, exhibits, concerts, films – far too many to take in, even with our strategy of attending different sessions and reporting back at meals. The plenary sessions were live-streamed, and videos are available among the resources on the website at


We also encountered humanist friends: NYSEC member Deborah Schlein, AEU  Ethical Education Director Dale McGowan,  American Humanist Association members Mel Lipman and Bob Hannah, Secular Student Alliance member Lori Fazzino, Humanist Institute alumna Vanessa Gomez Brake, and Paula Rochelle and Ben Wade from the Ethical Culture Society of Silicon Valley. We were among the many humanists and nontheists who found common ground with people of more traditional faiths, learning to live with difference and promoting a new era of cooperation for the common good of the world. As one of the grandmothers said, “We are all teachers for one another.”




Leader’s Message – “Another Barrage of Bullets” – November 2015

December 16, 2015


“. . . our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America. . . [W]e are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses. . . We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”

President Barak Obama, October 1, 2015, in response to the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon


I feel anger; I am not numb. As a child of the 60’s, I want to picket the National Rifle Association’s offices, scale the ramparts to wave a banner emblazoned with “No More Guns!” and take to the streets to march alongside the majority of Americans, including the majority of responsible gun owners, who desperately want common sense gun safety laws.


Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn’t enacted any major gun regulations. In the 1990s, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its research into gun-related deaths as a public health issue, conservatives added language to the appropriations bill reading: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The principal author of that language, Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey, recently conceded that he has “regrets” over the policy that came to be known as the Dickey Amendment and believes the policy that bears his name should be fixed, if not scrapped altogether. Nonetheless, Republicans remain opposed to research related to gun deaths and public health, as well as any kind of sensible gun control laws, including a federal law requiring background checks on would-be gun buyers and a national registry of guns.


Why? Follow the money.


Having long ago departed from its original purpose as an organization for gun sports enthusiasts and hunters, the NRA is now a front for gun companies, receiving from them close to $100 million to market fear, generously donate to politicians willing to push their agenda, and run smear campaigns against those who do not.


The Umpqua Community College incident was the 264th mass shooting (defined as involving at least four people shot) in the U.S. this year. But this and other massacres account for a small fraction of gun deaths each year; most occur between people who know each other – family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. The United Nations has compiled data indicating that the United States has four times as many gun-related homicides per capita as do Turkey and Switzerland, which are tied for third place. Our gun murder rate is about 20 times the average for all other countries studied.


What we can do? The American Ethical Union belongs to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ( Its guiding principle is simple: “We believe that all Americans have a right to live in communities free from gun violence.” Its strategy involves 1) an aggressive approach with political advocacy, broadcasting via social media campaigns and hard-hitting TV, radio and print ads, a simple message: “The era of no accountability is over. If you do the NRA’s bidding and put our loved ones in the line of fire, we will educate your constituents about your record.”

2) building personal relationships with legislators and challenging them to become dedicated, long-term advocates for sensible gun laws; and  3) talking about the issue in terms of democratic values and using the term “insurrectionism” to describe the NRA’s treasonous interpretation of the Second Amendment.


As President Obama said in his speech, “We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings.  Friends of ours, allies of ours — Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours.  So we know there are ways to prevent it.”


It is a political choice that we must make, and we must make it now.


Leader’s Message – “Global Humanism” – October 2015

December 16, 2015

On August 26, 1952, the inaugural congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was held in Amsterdam. The founding members, including the American Ethical Union (AEU), declared that “Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world’s great thinkers and creative artists and gave rise to science itself.” The first fundamental of modern Humanism in the founding document reads:


Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.


We are part of that history. Today IHEU comprises over a hundred Humanist, Ethical Culture, rationalist, secular, freethought organizations in more than 40 countries. On Sunday, October 25, representatives of the IHEU present a platform bringing us up to date on its global members and activities. This summer I became acquainted with a member organization in Uganda: Kasese United Humanist Association (


For several years, I have read with horror stories coming out of Uganda about waves of American missionaries who have turned “The Pearl of Africa” into a test case for right-wing, anti-gay Christian backlash. An article and video entitled “Gospel of Intolerance” by filmmaker Roger Ross Williams in The New York Times (1/22/13) reveals how money donated by American evangelicals helps to finance a violent anti-gay movement in Uganda. Another, full length, documentary, “Call Me Kuchu,”  is a heart-wrenching and inspiring look into the lives of Ugandan gays and lesbians, called kuchus, whose lives are at risk every day.


But before you throw up your hands in despair, know this: There are Humanists in Uganda and they run a school, Kasese Humanist Primary School. I learned about the school when someone emailed me at Columbia University requesting books on humanism. As (bad) luck would have it, he was a fraud who tried to convince me to send him laptop computers and digital cameras. However, by comparing his post office box and phone numbers to those of the real humanist school, I connected with Bwambale M. Robert, School Project Director, and have am now sponsoring one of his students. Her name is Kichonjo Joan; she is a 12-year old orphan who lives with a guardian and is in fifth grade. On September 7, she will start the third term of Uganda’s academic year. I look forward to hearing from her.


If you, too, would like to support humanist education in Uganda and learn more about humanist organizations around the world, visit the website cited above and And be sure to attend the platform on Sunday, October 25!





Leader’s Message -“The Encampment for Citizenship: Tougaloo College, Jackson, MS” – September 2015

December 16, 2015

“Oh, freedom, freedom. Freedom come and it won’t be long.” Mr. Hollis Watkins, founder of the Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, taught participants at The Encampment Intergenerational Weekend this song. He also shared his activist history with us. Hollis (as he asked us to call him) was born in 1941 in Lincoln County, MS. He became a member and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961 and a county organizer for “Freedom Summer” in 1964. Hollis also saw the inside of jail cells.


We learned from him and other social justice activists, as well as from the twenty 16- and 17-year olds from across the country, who were concluding three weeks of progressive leadership training at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS. Encampment alumni and friends gathered from Friday to Sunday (7/17-19) to celebrate the third summer session since the Encampment was “resurrected” in 2009 at a reunion hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture. What a joy it was for me to participate!


The Encampment was founded in 1946 by Leader Algernon D. Black and Alice (“Nanny”) Pollitzer, a prominent civic leader, as an opportunity for “young adults of many religious, racial, social and national backgrounds” to learn “the principles and techniques of citizenship… through lived experience.” While Black was inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), he thought those programs lacked diversity and an emphasis on the meaning of democracy. He believed that young people could be a positive force in their communities if they developed critical thinking skills, youth activism, leadership qualities, and the courage to break free from stereotypes.


Eleanor Roosevelt, long-time chair of The Encampment board of sponsors, often hosted students for discussions, workshops and barbeques at her Hyde Park estate. When the program was attacked by McCarthyite forces in the early 1950s, she defended it vigorously. “The reason I think these Encampments are so important,” she wrote, “is that they are attended by citizens of different races and groups. They prepare people for thinking in terms of all people and not in terms of a selected few. Not only we in the U.S., but people all over the world, need young people trained to be good citizens with an ability to think with an open mind.”

How right she was! And what an ideal setting Tougaloo College was for this summer’s Encampment. It was founded in 1869, and a plaque designates it as a site on the Mississippi Freedom Trail. “The courage of Tougaloo College students, faculty and staff fueled the Jackson Civil Rights Movement,” it reads. “In demonstrations and sit-ins, they suffered insults, beatings and jailings. A private institution, Tugaloo was not governed by racist state policies but did risk the revocation of its charter as it became a safe haven for activists fighting for dignity, equality, and justice.”


Every adult was assigned a student buddy, and mine was Savannah Holloway, an African-American teen from San Francisco. She told me that she had “found her voice” and planned on using it when she returned home. On Sunday, she and all of her fellow “Encampers” shared with us the projects they planned to start; we adults offered them our support and resources. Networking is important in social justice work, and now we are all connected to one another, passing wisdom down to the next generation and learning from the young new ways to communicate.


For more information, and to make a donation, visit








Leader’s Message – “Our Ethical Family” – Summer 2015

December 16, 2015

Every day when I enter our Meeting House, I’m welcomed by our staff. It’s not a perfunctory greeting; it’s a hearty and warm exchange. Often it’s about the weather or what’s happening in the building, but it’s also personal because we are family. Years of working together will do that to people. And when we depart at the end of the day, we express our appreciation and wish one another safe trips home because we know that journeys can be precarious, and we care.


Too often our staff is invisible to visitors and even members. They are the stage hands behind the performance that is the NY Society. When things go wrong, we hear complaints; when they go right, too often there is silence. So this is a love letter to NYSEC’s staff, several of whom I have known since I arrived here as an intern in 2001.


I came from the Brooklyn Society where members do almost everything, even the heavy lifting, so I rolled up my sleeves and went to work setting up chairs for a meeting when David told me he would do it for me. Well, I couldn’t just stand there watching him, so I helped him and we talked. We still talk. His father lives not too far from mine in western NY State and we both like to bake. We tease each other about who makes the better banana nut bread, and now Maggie has entered that competition.


Yolanta keeps everyone’s plants alive and designs beautiful floral arrangements from Sunday’s flowers and large green fronds. Leonardo’s children visit me in my office, reminding me of all the times I helped my father in his repair shop. Yalitza loves a party and finds occasions for us to celebrate, pulling even the quietest among us into the action.


Deborah Foster is the quietest among us, and she has served NYSEC the longest (almost 26 years). At the end of June, she is leaving her position as administrative assistant. Our declining membership (fewer than 200 members) necessitated a restructuring of support staff and a reduction in force. The tasks she performed so well will be done by existing staff, and no replacement will be hired. No one could ever replace Deborah, and we wish her well.


Besides Selma Friedman, who for many years has copyedited the newsletter, few members knew, or even saw, Deborah. She sat at a computer screen both at the office and in her home in Delaware. I appreciated her willingness to learn new skills as the job and technology changed. She approached every challenge with grace and determination, displaying patience when others were frustrated, calm when they were anxious. Her constancy was a gift that we will long treasure. We will miss her infectious giggle, delicious cookies, and the coolest collection of sneakers any long distance commuter ever owned.



I could go on extolling the virtues and charms of our staff, but I invite you to find out for yourselves. Below is a list in alphabetical order of NYSEC’s support and maintenance staff. Each has an important job and a remarkable story. They are dedicated to the members of this community, something they prove every day.


Jacob Adorno

Julius Bedminster

Anwar Bramble

Andrew Castang

Conroy Davidson

Maggie Determann

Beth Everett

Deborah Foster

Yolanta Kosmaczewska

Yalitza Garcia-Krawczyk

Mark Henry

David McCants

Angel Melendez

Darrell Morrison

Marie Orraca

Juan Villanueva


Executive Director Robert Liebeskind and Facilities Manager Leonardo Gibson join me in expressing our heartfelt gratitude to these wonderful people.