Archive for the ‘Leader’s Messages’ Category

Leader’s Message – “April Is National Poetry Month” – April 2019

March 21, 2019

My favorite month is here again – April, when, thanks to the Academy of American Poets, which founded National Poetry Month in 1996, we celebrate poets and poetry. I love poetry, as anyone who knows me knows. I begin and end almost every Sunday platform address I deliver with a poem, and a bag of poems hangs from my office door with an invitation to reach in and take out a handful. Poem in Your Pocket Day is on April 18, so be sure to stop by. On this day, the Academy suggests that you select a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others at schools, libraries, parks, workplaces, street corners, and on social media using the hashtag #pocketpoem. I learned about this practice from my children’s elementary school and remember them gleefully telling me, “You can even stop Principal Heaney in the hall and ask him to read you a poem!”


Here are some ideas from the Academy of how you can get involved:

  • Start a “poems for pockets” giveaway in your school, workplace, or apartment building
  • Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems
  • Post pocket-sized poems in public places
  • Memorize a poem
  • Add a poem to your email footer
  • Post lines from your favorite poem on the social media of your choice
  • Send a poem to a friend


For some people, poetry is challenging, which is to say they just don’t like it or understand it, especially if it doesn’t rhyme. There is a fear of poetry that poet Jane Cooper suggests is “Because it demands full consciousness; it asks us to feel and it asks us to respond. Through poetry we are brought face to face with our world and we plunge deeply into ourselves, to a place where we sense, [as poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote] ‘the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and. . . understand. . . in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.’”


In his essay, “How to Read a Poem,” Edward Hirsch writes “Reading poetry well is part attitude and part technique. Curiosity is a useful attitude, especially when it’s free of preconceived ideas about what poetry is or should be. Effective technique directs your curiosity into asking questions, drawing you into a conversation with the poem.” First, we look at the title, which may give us an image or association; then the shape of the poem, how long the lines are and how they are grouped. When we finally read the poem, word by word, Hirsch suggests we do so aloud. “Listen to your voice, to the sounds the words make.” Reading aloud can be uncomfortable because of the misconception that we should understand a poem after we first read it.


In his poem, “January Morning,” William Carlos Williams wrote a verse addressed to his wife:

All this—
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
but you got to try hard—

He speaks to the poet’s dependence upon his reader to enter the conversation and make a connection.

It is that connection that I find “spiritual.” Recently I met with a student at Columbia University where I serve as Humanist Religious Life Adviser. We were discussing different experiences of spirituality, and I heard myself telling him that, as much as I love walks in the park and listening to music, it is poetry that goes beyond the mundane for me, making it a transcendent experience.


Give it a try this month. Stop by my office and take home a handful of poems.




Leader’s Message – “ERA Now!” – March 2019

March 21, 2019

Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.


We women have been working for a long time to ratify this amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and we are running out of patience. Gaining suffrage in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment did not guarantee us equal rights. Nor did the 14th Amendment, although it has sometimes been used for that purpose. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reminded us of its inadequacy. We comprise the majority of the citizenry and still do not enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.


Alice Paul, a women’s rights activist with three law degrees, wrote the original amendment in 1923. It was introduced that year and reintroduced at every congressional session for half a century. She rewrote it in 1943 (per the above text) using the language of the 19th Amendment. This version passed the Senate and House of Representatives by the required two-thirds majority on March 22, 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification. When the extended deadline of June 30, 1982 expired, only 35 of the necessary 38 states had ratified the amendment.


The text of the traditional ERA bill in the House of Representatives was changed in 2014 to specifically name women in the first section and to add “and the several States” in the second section to affirm enforcement by both federal and state levels of government. In the current session of Congress, bills have been introduced to override any deadline and affirm ratification when 38 states have ratified. These are related to a non-traditional route called the “three-state strategy,” advanced since 1994.


Based on this strategy, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA in March 2017, and Illinois the 37th state in May 2018. One more state is needed. Only one.


Why do we need the ERA? Because without it in the U.S. Constitution, statutes and case law advancing women’s rights are vulnerable to being ignored, weakened or reversed. Congress, the Administration, and the Supreme Court can all permit sex discrimination, and they have. Without the ERA, the words engraved above the entrance to the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law,” ring hollow.


An historical irony is that our constitution, based upon the confederacy formed among the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) nations of what is now New York State and the Canadian province of Quebec, excluded women, who were the leaders of these Indigenous people. This exclusion was highlighted in the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY on July 19 and 20, 1848. Earlier that summer Lucretia Mott had witnessed women involved in decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized its governmental structure. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage specifically described the rights accorded Haudenosaunee women as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired.


According to a recent poll commissioned by the ERA Coalition, 94 percent of Americans support equal rights for women, with support among young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans as high as 99 percent. Alas, 80 percent mistakenly believe that the Constitution already guarantees us equal rights.


We, women and men, must support passage of the ERA. We can do that by targeting the states that have not yet ratified it. Only one more is needed. Visit the National Organization for Women website at to learn more and take action.


Leader’s Message – “Transformation, Not Reform: Learning from Black History” – February 2019

March 21, 2019

Last month I saw “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a film directed by Barry Jenkins based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Published in 1974 and set during that time in New York City, it felt contemporary. A young Black man is framed by a white police officer for a crime he didn’t commit, spends time in jail while his family tries unsuccessfully to mount a defense, and finally accepts a plea bargain that commits him to years in prison. This 45-year old story is still today’s reality: an estimated 98 percent of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains; an unknown percentage of the incarcerated are innocent.


My companions were two dear friends: Lisa, the mother of my son’s elementary school friend, and Victoria, my daughter’s high school friend. We had all decided that we wanted to see the film, but not alone; we would be there for each other. I wept but my friends, having grown up Black in Boston and Brooklyn, did not. “That’s our life every day. We can’t afford to get emotional. We have to stay strong.”


Victoria drove home, and I walked with Lisa to her front door where over twenty years ago her son was stopped after school and accused by a phalanx of police officers of having stolen a car. “This was before I had given him ‘the talk’ that my brothers had at an earlier age,” she told me. “But I figured that he wouldn’t need it in this neighborhood.” (We both live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Lisa’s family home in Boston was firebombed twice, and she and her siblings were often brutally harassed.) It wasn’t until a tenant in their building, a white woman, identified her son and challenged the police that he was released and allowed to go inside.


As we consider criminal justice reform, in light of the passage of the Bipartisan Revised First Step (Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person) Act of 2018 (S.3649) in late December, we need to take a close look at our history. This law targets federal prisons — which incarcerate more than 180,000 individuals — and would allocate more funding to anti-recidivism programs, make certain offenders eligible for early release, reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug crimes and apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively. It also bans, under most circumstances, the shackling of pregnant inmates and mandates that individuals could not be incarcerated more than 500 miles away from their immediate families. Because most crimes are prosecuted locally, this law barely makes a dent in the country’s overall prison and jail population of almost 2.2 million, but it could help to set a standard. (By the way, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners.)


Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016) and one of the nation’s leading experts on the history of criminalization and mass incarceration, said in an interview: “Consistently, and across political and ideological lines, policymakers have been unwilling to disrupt the racial and class hierarchies that have defined the United States historically. The view of black poverty as the product of black cultural pathology—the guiding principle of domestic urban policy beginning in the 1960s—limited the War on Poverty’s possibilities. And throughout the 1970s, even when community-based law enforcement programs and alternatives to formal incarceration proved to not only be cost-effective, but to also respond to the problem of crime far more effectively than the dominant strategies policymakers embraced, officials cut these initiatives short or installed them in rural and suburban communities.”


The NAACP has documented the racial disparities in incarceration:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested,
    42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially
    waived to criminal court.
  • African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.


Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men (The New Press, 2018), wrote “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do. The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” He agrees with Hinton that short-term reforms haven’t brought about long-term change and concludes that “In order to halt this wretched cycle, we must not think of reform — we must think of transformation. The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew.”


The day after seeing the film, I read Baldwin’s novel. It is poignantly narrated by Tish who, in the opening pages, tells her boyfriend Fonny, who is in jail, that they are going to have a baby. “I’m glad,” she tells him. “Don’t you worry. I’m glad.” They are facing each other through a wall of glass and speaking through telephones. I was struck by her words in both the novel and the film: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”


In this month designated as Black History Month, let us work to make sure that history does not again repeat itself, to think of transformation, and to keep people from looking at someone they love through glass.

Leader’s Message – “Another Land Beyond Beliefs” – December 2018

January 11, 2019

Last month I packed my passport and warm clothes and traveled north, crossing the border into a kinder and gentler land. I met many people there who had traveled from near and far to form a community of many faiths and shared values. They warmed my heart, and it felt good, especially when I thought about the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th. During the first week of November, the city of Toronto hosted the seventh assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was the third one that I had attended. Ethical Culture leaders and members have participated in every parliament since the first one was convened in Chicago in 1893.


The theme of this parliament was both inspiring and daunting: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.” Hundreds of programs were compiled on an app that we could easily access on our cellphones but it was obvious that we would only be able to attend a sample of what was offered. My daughter Emily Newman and I both gave presentations – hers on “Get Ready for a More Inclusive Generation;” mine with colleague Vanessa Gomez Brake, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, on “Navigating Secular Identities on University Campuses” – and staffed a table in the exhibit hall sponsored by the American Humanist Association.


Throughout the week, people stopped by to visit and thank us. “We need you here. We’re humanists, too. We hold different beliefs but share your values.” It was clear that humanism offered “the promise of inclusion” in the parliament’s theme. We also connected with members of the Oasis Network, which, like Sunday Assembly, offers “a place for the non-religious to come together to celebrate the human experience.” Whenever and wherever the next parliament meets, we agreed that we must collaborate, together with the American Ethical Union and other religious humanist organizations, on expanding our presence and programming.


Attendance exceeded 10,000 people from 80 nations and more than 200 unique spiritual backgrounds. Presenters included students, clergy, interfaith leaders, scholars, Nobel Laureates, best-selling authors, and more. These were the six ambitious program tracks:

  • The Dignity of Women Across the World’s Wisdom Traditions
  • Countering War, Hate & Violence with Peace and Love
  • Climate Action: Care for Our Earth, Responsibility for Our Future
  • Indigenous Peoples: The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity & Healing Our Mother Earth
  • Next Generations: Interfaith Has No Age, Youth Voices for Change
  • Justice: Advancing Concrete Change Toward a Just, Peaceful, and Sustainable World

If it sounds overwhelming, it was, but a spirit of generosity prevailed. Everyone shared their faith traditions and stories, hopes and dreams for the future, and creativity in the form of art, film, music, and dance. And throughout the week, the Sikhs fed us, as they had at past parliaments. Langar is a free communal vegetarian meal that is part of every gurdwara or Sikh place of worship and education. Funded entirely by donations and served by volunteers, langar provides an estimated seven million meals a day around the world. People often said, “Let’s meet up at langar.” It was a daily opportunity for food and friendship.


When the Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1993, a century after the first historic gathering in Chicago, a document called “Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration)” was one of its most significant outcomes. During a two-year period, more than 200 theologians and scholars were consulted, and the declaration was signed by over a hundred religious and spiritual leaders. More commonly known as the Global Ethic, this declaration states that fundamental to all religious faiths are the requirement to treat all persons, without exception, humanely; the Golden Rule of reciprocity; and the demand for peace and justice. Since its ratification, it has inspired other documents such as the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and a Charter of Forgiveness.


As hectic as this week was, I found solace. Every morning I woke up to another onslaught of tragic news headlines and despaired. But I walked over to the conference center with anticipation, eager to learn and share. We created a temporary community of inclusion, love, and hope that changed us for the better and will live on in the work that we do. Until the next time we meet, the Parliament organization will keep us connected. For more information, visit




Leader’s Message – “Universal Children’s Day” – November 2018

January 11, 2019

In a New York immigration court, young children are representing themselves before judges hearing their cases. Last month 2-year old Fernanda Jacqueline Davila appeared before Judge Randa Zagzoug, who in one afternoon had seen over 30 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years. More children than ever are being held in government custody for longer than ever before. About 13,000 children who came to the United States on their own are being held for months in federally contracted shelters. Hundreds more who were separated from their families at the border are either in shelters or temporary foster care. They have all been stranded by the Trump administration’s determination to keep immigrants from crossing the southwest border of the United States.


“We rarely had children under the age of 6 until the last year or so,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “We started seeing them as a regular presence in our docket.” A new government policy has made it more difficult for relatives to claim their children from federal custody. Eleven-year-old Marilyn hoped to join her mother in Florida but because relatives are now required to undergo fingerprinting and background checks, it could take months before they are reunited.


Jess Morales Rocketto of Families Belong Together, a coalition of nearly 250 organizations that works “to permanently end family separation and incarceration, seek accountability for the harm that’s been done, and immediately reunite all families who remain torn apart,” highlighted the case of 5-year old Helen, an asylum seeker from Honduras who was detained at the border and persuaded to sign away her rights. “One of the things Helen’s story really showed us is that the Trump Administration never stopped separating children from their families. In fact, they’ve doubled down, but it’s even more insidious now, because they are doing it in the cover of night. We have learned we cannot take this Administration at their word.”


Let us remember these children on November 20th when we observe Universal Children’s Day. This marks the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989. The Convention sets out a number of children’s rights including the right to life, to health, to education and to play, as well as the right to family life, to be protected from violence, to not be discriminated against, and to have their views heard.


According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), which promotes the principles and provisions of the Convention, it reflects a new vision of the child. “Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. . .  Previously seen as negotiable, the child’s needs have become legally binding rights. No longer the passive recipient of benefits, the child has become the subject or holder of rights.” (Visit for more information.)

Although this is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, the United States still has not ratified it. Indeed, ours is the only nation that hasn’t. The treaty has never even been sent to the Senate for consent and approval. What is our excuse?


According to Sarah Mehta, ACLU Human Rights Researcher, “While there is no good reason for the United States not to ratify the CRC, there are several reasons why we urgently need it. Ratifying the convention is not just about saving face in the international community — it will require us to confront some hard truths about the exceptionally bad way we treat children in the United States and to work to bring our laws and practices in line with human rights.”


I couldn’t agree more, and this year I plan to celebrate Universal Children’s Day by petitioning our government to ratify the Convention on Children’s Rights. You can, too, by visiting the Campaign for US Ratification at This volunteer-driven network of academics, attorneys, child and human rights advocates, educators, members of religious and faith-based communities, physicians, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students, and other concerned citizens believes that children and youth are our most important resource in an increasingly interconnected global community. Even if the current Senate is unlikely to act, our letters, emails, petitions, and personal visits will keep this issue and our support before them.


Leader’s Message – “LGBT History Month” – October 2018

September 13, 2018

We all know that June is Gay Pride Month but did you know that October is Gay History Month? In order to coincide with National Coming Out Day on October 11th, this month was designated and first celebrated in 1994 as an annual observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history. Rodney Wilson, a Missouri high school teacher, had gathered together other teachers and community leaders to form the first coordinating committee, choosing October not only because of Coming Out Day but also because public schools are then in session, and they felt it important to include this history in their curriculum.


Early supporters and members of the first coordinating committee included: Kevin Jennings of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Kevin Boyer of the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives in Chicago; Paul Varnell, writer for the Windy City Times; Torey Wilson, Chicago area teacher; Johnda Boyce, women’s studies major at Columbus State, and Jessea Greenman of UC-Berkeley. In addition to support from gay and lesbian organizations, the inaugural month was recognized with official proclamations by Governors William Weld of Massachusetts and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Mayors Thomas Menino of Boston and Wellington Webb of Denver.


By the second annual celebration in October 1995, LGBT History Month had received mainstream coverage in Newsweek magazine. Nonetheless, there was some controversy, especially when Wilson and the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the National Education Association (NEA) pressed for and received an endorsement of LGBT History Month. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America bought full-page ads in newspapers condemning the NEA and warning parents: “It [LGBT History Month] may be celebrated at your school before the month is over. Please call now. This must be stopped.”


They succeeded. At the 1996 Representative Assembly, NEA delegates voted to remove specific mention of all history months from their resolutions, even long-established Black History Month and Women’s History Month.


Over the next 10 years, LGBT History Month continued to grow, with hundreds of colleges and universities, community libraries, and some high schools commemorating a month that provides role models, makes a civil rights statement, and builds community. Since 2006, Equality Forum (, a national and international LGBT civil rights organization with an educational focus, has provided content, promotion, and resources for LGBT History Month. Each day in October on its website, it highlights an “Icon” with a video, biography, bibliography, images, and other downloadable educational resources including special features for students.


I met one of this year’s Icons, Gavin Grimm, at the American Humanist Association Conference in May. Born female, he spoke poignantly of his struggle with sexual identity from an early age, his diagnosis of severe gender dysphoria and subsequent medical treatment, as well as the insults and threats he endured when he tried to use the boys’ bathroom. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit on Gavin’s behalf, arguing that the school’s policy violated Title IX laws prohibiting sex discrimination. In 2018 the U.S. District Court ruled that his school violated the rights of transgender students by excluding them from the bathroom matching their gender identity.


“I’m just Gavin,” he said. “I have frustrations, stress, hopes, and dreams like millions of young people in America. And like everyone else, sometimes I have to use the restroom. It’s not political. It’s just life.”


In recognition of LGBT History Month, we are offering the three programs described in this newsletter. On Thursday, October 4, at 6 pm, Empowering Ethical Elders presents “Wisdom of LGBTQ Elders.” Ethics & the Theater’s selection for Friday, October 12 at 6:30 pm is “The Young Man from Atlanta.” Finally, our Sunday platform on October 28 at 11 am features Jared Fox, who will describe his journey from surviving a hate crime to creating change with LGBTQ youth. Join us for all of these programs and visit Equality Forum to learn more about this important history month.


Leader’s Message – “They Are All Our Children” – September 2018

August 2, 2018

This summer we watched as one group of children was trapped in, and subsequently rescued from, a flooded cave in Thailand while another group was separated from their parents at the southwest border of the United States and held hostage to a cruel immigration policy called “zero tolerance.” A New Yorker cartoon captured the contrast by depicting children in a detention cage in Texas watching the rescue in Thailand on television.


We all watched. From June 23 when twelve members of the Wild Boar soccer team, aged 11 to 16 years, and their coach became trapped in the Tham Luang caves by monsoon rains to July 2 when British divers found them on a rocky ledge to the death of a former Thai Navy Seal on July 6 from lack of oxygen to the successful conclusion of the complex international rescue effort on July 10, we virtually joined their parents, who maintained a constant vigil outside the caves praying for their safe return.


Hundreds of experts from around the world flew in to help. Divers described treacherous conditions in the four kilometer passage that took hours to traverse. “This is the hardest mission we’ve ever done. Every step of the extraction is risky,” said Narongsuk Keasub, a diver for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. He added, “I’m quite emotional as a father. Everybody has this feeling because we feel like it’s our children who are inside the cave.” Our children.


I try to imagine the desperation that drives parents to risk their and their children’s lives to escape from the violence in their home countries, only to be treated as criminals at the U.S. border and have their children ripped from their arms. What I cannot imagine is the trauma these children experience. But Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps could imagine it. He and the Office of Refugee Resettlement told the Trump administration last year that “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.” The administration’s response was that family separation was not a policy.


However, on April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy and directed federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute all adult migrants entering the country illegally. This policy change resulted in the separation of families because children cannot be held in a detention facility with their parents. Nonetheless, five days later, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified that there was no policy calling for such separation. Sessions later suggested that children were being “smuggled” and stated, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”


By May, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was defending the separation as “a necessary evil” and “a tough deterrent” in the administration’s effort to enforce U.S. border laws. Nielsen, however, still denied that Trump had ordered the separation as a deterrent. On June 15, her office revealed that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents from April 19 to May 31. Five days later, facing a national outcry, Trump signed an executive order, drafted by Nielsen, to keep migrant families together at the U.S.-Mexico border. On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, who described the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis as attempts “to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” ordered U.S. immigration authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days, children younger than 5 years within 14 days.


Again, the whole world watched. We watched as the deadlines were passed, court updates were filed, and congressional hearings were held. Judge Sabraw said that the government gave no “forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people, and that’s the fallout we’re seeing. There has to be an accounting.” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) said, “Someone, someone in this administration has to accept responsibility. We can have border security without bullying. We can be safe without treating toddlers like terrorists,” and called for Nielsen’s resignation.


The boys trapped in the Tham Luang caves are now home with their families. At the end of July, U.S. federal officials said in court that 1,012 migrant parents had been reunited with their children. Six hundred other eligible children had not yet been reunified, and no details were offered on 914 minors deemed “ineligible” for reunification.


Don’t we feel like these, too, are our children? I do, and thousands of people who feel the same way are coming to their rescue: attorneys with the ACLU and KIND (Kids In Need of Defense), social workers and psychologists, neighbors offering rides and home hospitality to migrant families, and advocacy groups that are drafting corrective legislation and taking to the streets in protest. From the little girls on my block whose lemonade stand raised money for the ACLU to the caravan of Grannies Respond traveling to McAllen, Texas, where they held rallies and vigils with a message of human decency, Americans are standing up for these children and together with their parents.


It is important that we find and nurture hope in these hard times. Children themselves inspire me. On August 10, we hosted a youth-led March for Our Lives rally featuring students from Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School who traveled by bus across the country to register young people to vote and educate them about elected officials who refuse to stand up to the NRA. On July 30, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the administration’s request to halt proceedings in a landmark lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) brought by young people who argue that government policies have exacerbated global climate change in violation of their constitutional rights and those of future generations.


And in July I spent a weekend near Jackson, Mississippi with the Encampment for Citizenship, whose youth spent the month learning about and creating participatory democracy. They visited the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka Lynching Museum) in Montgomery, Alabama. They were guests of the Choctaw Nation and engaged in local community service. Then they planned an intergenerational weekend and shared with us adults what they had experienced. I am a mentor to my two buddies, Maryam and Bernice (see photo), who live in the NYC area, but they mentor me in hope.

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Leader’s Message – “Becoming a Humanist” – Summer 2018

July 2, 2018

Twenty years ago this summer, I spent a week at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC atop a peak of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the second Summer Lay Leadership training offered by the American Ethical Union, and I had heard good reports from friends who participated in 1996. Since my family had abandoned me—son traveling in Europe before entering high school, daughter working as a camp counselor, and husband attending tax law conferences—I felt it was an opportunity to also get away from home and deepen my experience of Ethical Culture. Little did I know that by the end of the week I would seriously consider becoming an Ethical Culture Leader.


There have been times in my life, and I imagine in yours as well, when a path seems to be revealed, and a choice must be made. It can be subtle or strong. I’ve used the metaphor of the universe tossing pebbles against my window to get my attention. Sometimes it takes a boulder to come crashing through the pane. It’s easy to ignore an invitation to try something new when old routines and doubts prevail. And yet there is something exciting about change, especially when it holds a promise of transformation: becoming more fully oneself.


Lay leadership training that summer, in a setting of wide natural vistas and among people whom I came to love, awakened in me a longing to grow. It was an expansive and inclusive feeling that gained clarity of thought and intention. It remained as I discussed the future with trusted family and friends when I descended from The Mountain. Essential to my personal growth and professional development was The Humanist Institute.


For three years, I was a student in the Humanist Studies Program Class X, co-mentored by Ethical Culture Leader Jone Johnson Lewis and Dr. Harvey Sarles, professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Their pedagogical methodology was informed by Greek philosopher Socrates and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Our reading lists were long and our seminar discussions intense. Humanism came alive for me and I embraced it. Here was a philosophy—and, for me, a religion—for life.


Humanism has been defined in many ways since the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, followed by Manifestoes II and III, in 1973 and 2003. Every practicing Humanist contributes to its meaning. My favorite definition is on the American Humanist Association’s website: “Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”


My study at The Humanist Institute was accepted as the equivalent of a Master of Divinity degree by Hebrew Union College, where I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral care. I was also certified by the American Ethical Union as an Ethical Culture Leader. When the Humanist Institute called me back to co-mentor Class XV with Dr. Anthony Pinn, professor of religion at Rice University, I seized another opportunity to grow over the course of three years of seminars. I was also asked to serve as co-Dean with the late Carol Wintermute and later with Rev. David Breeden, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.


At the beginning of 2018, The Humanist Institute joined with the American Humanist Association to establish the AHA Center for Education. It’s exciting to see the new opportunities this provides for all humanists. The Humanist Studies Program courses continue to run but students are no longer required to commit to three years of seminars. This provides a more flexible experience and exposure to more Humanist teachers and students. After completing the pre-requisite course, Course 101: The Humanist Lifestance, you are eligible to take any of the other courses or complete them all to become a Certified Humanist Professional.


This summer James Croft, Ethical Culture Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and I are looking forward to co-teaching the next Course 101 August 24-26 at the American Humanist Association (AHA) office in Washington, DC.  Over the weekend, we will address questions of personal meaning, worth, and significance in a naturalistic way through readings, films, and personal storytelling. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of humanism and how to apply Humanist values to their daily life is welcome to attend. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including become more fully yourself.


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Leader’s Message – “June Is Torture Awareness Month” – June 2018

May 12, 2018

When you read this, Gina Haspel may be leading the Central Intelligence Agency. I hope not, but the political odds were in her favor. As Acting CIA Director, with over thirty years’ experience, Trump’s nominee was eminently qualified, but her claim, during her Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in May to have a “strong moral compass” was in serious doubt when she refused to answer whether or not she thought the CIA’s torture program developed under President George W. Bush after 9/11 was immoral.


“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk — I stepped up,” Haspel said. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al Qaeda.”


That fight employed brutal torture techniques, including waterboarding detainees, dousing them with ice water, forcing them to stay awake for as long as a week, and subjecting some to medically unnecessary rectal feeding. The program was ended in 2007 and its techniques prohibited by President Barack Obama in 2009. A report issued in 2014 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzing internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects concluded that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” and that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”


“Having served in that tumultuous time,” Haspel said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”


When asked if she would stand up to Trump, who apparently believes that torture works, should he order her to resume that program, she replied, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” adding, “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at C.I.A.” We can only hope that this is true; the evidence isn’t convincing.


June was declared Torture Awareness Month by human rights and faith organizations because on June 26, 1987, the nations of the world took a major step against the immoral practice of torture by establishing the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The United Nations later declared June 26th the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.


Why, one wonders, in spite of overwhelming evidence that torture is ineffective in eliciting reliably truthful information, does it persist? In February 2016, forty-two retired generals and admirals wrote in a letter to presidential candidates, “Torture violates our core values as a nation. Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture of any kind.”


Former prisoner of the Vietnam War and the chair of the Armed Services Committee John McCain was brutally tortured for more than five years but refused early release unless other captives were also freed. In a statement he made last month, he said that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” urging his colleagues to vote against her. “As I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”


In response, White House aide Kelly Sadler joked, “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Tragically, this is the kind of callous remark we have come to expect from an administration whose chief once said, in declaring that McCain was not a war hero, that he preferred “people who weren’t captured,”


The 2014 statement on National Security, Intelligence, and Interrogation Professionals defined torture as “a manifestation of atavistic impulses to denigrate, subjugate, and dehumanize individuals perceived to pose a threat to indivuals’ or society’s safety. It is primitive, unreasoned, and an affirmation of anger.” There is no place for such immorality in our world.


To learn more about Torture Awareness Month and to join the effort to end the torture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, visit the National Religious Campaign Against Torture at

Leader’s Message – “Mother By Choice Day” – May 2018

April 18, 2018

Leader’s Message – May 2018
Mother by Choice Day

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for all mothers.” After seven years of campaigning for Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, beloved daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, had finally succeeded. Tragically, rapid commercialization despoiled what she had hoped would be an intimate holiday “to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known – your mother – as a son or a daughter.” Jarvis dedicated the rest of her life and her considerable inheritance to organizing boycotts, threatening lawsuits, and even attacking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities. She died penniless in 1948 at the age of 84 in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium. Jarvis, who never bore children herself, took great pains to acquire and defend her role as “Mother of Mother’s Day.”

Last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual Mother’s Day spending survey, Americans spent over $23 billion paying attention to their mothers. Seventy-seven percent of them sent a greeting card, making Mother’s Day the third most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas and Valentine’s Day. About 69% gave their mothers flowers, and 36% jewelry. The National Restaurant Association reports that Mother’s Day is the most popular holiday of the entire year to dine out, with nearly half of all Americans dining out. Does this mean that commercialization has won out over intimacy?

In recent years, Americans have also recognized the origin of Mother’s Day as International Peace Day. That history began in the 1850s when Jarvis’s mother, West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis, convened Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality. These clubs also tended wounded soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. In the postwar years, to unite former foes, they organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics, where, in 1870, Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace, was widely read.

On Mother’s Day at the New York Society, we often quote this proclamation, which begins with these words:

“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. . .

‘Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’”

This year I call upon women who choose to be mothers to be tender toward women who choose not to be. It is high time that we respected all reproductive choices.

I chose to give birth to two children. My brother also has two children. Our two siblings have none: cats, but no human children. It’s no big deal. But apparently for many people it is.

“Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men” is the title of a scholarly article written by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo. Her study, which appeared in the publication Sex Roles, cited 30 years of research that has consistently found that “non-breeders” (as opposed to the infertile) are disliked. For her, then, the question wasn’t whether society hates people who don’t want children, but why it hates them so much. “Having children is obviously a more typical decision, so perhaps people are rightfully surprised when they meet a married adult who, with their partner, has chosen to not have children,” she explained. “That they are also outraged by child-free people is what’s novel about this work.”

My friends who choose not to have children face backlash of an extraordinarily personal nature. People who are outraged that women who seek abortions are subjected to such behavior, often don’t think twice of extolling the joys of parenthood to couples who choose to enjoy their own companionship without adding to the world’s population. I propose renaming this complicated holiday “Mother by Choice Day.” Let us choose to care for one another with all our hearts.