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Leader’s Message – “Let’s Count Our Blessings (Yes, Blessings!)” – January 2019

January 11, 2019

One day a student asked me to give the class I was teaching a blessing. I was taken aback, stuck on that word: blessing. The class was called “Humanist Spirituality,” and we were in a classroom at Union Theological Seminary. My students were candidates in the Master of Divinity program, and we were discussing a passage in an excellent book by philosopher Robert C. Solomon entitled Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life.


I often teach classes on humanism to self-identified humanists; this was the first time my students were theists. I had suggested the course to the seminary because I suspected that I would find some “not-yet-unidentified as” humanists there. What I found were “humanistic theists” or people who had a transcendental, not a supernatural, sense of deity. Throughout the semester, we compared theology and philosophy, shared our own experiences, and sought a common language.


Some words are rejected as irrational by (or fraught with emotional weight for) humanists. Words like sacred and holy, spirituality and blessing can conjure up an otherworldliness that we eschew. Life in this natural world is enough. It holds enough wonder and awe without belief in an afterlife or the supernatural. But these words can also describe deeply human experiences, ones of connection to nature and other people. Solomon writes “that if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness. . . [and], like philosophy, involves those questions that have no ultimate answers, no matter how desperately our various doctrines and dogmas try to provide them.”


One day we were discussing a quotation from Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger: “I opened my heart to the benign indifference of the universe.” For me, this existentialist philosopher, who confronted the Absurd and also wrote, “I know of only one duty, and that is to love,” is a humanist “saint.” I find in his work a freedom and humor that comfort me. This was, however, not the case for one of my students whose theism was expressed in a purpose to the universe and a special place for humans.


And this brings me back to her request for a blessing. If the universe is indifferent, what does it mean to feel gratitude for one’s life? Is it a blessing to be alive? Should we count our blessings – and bless others?


I thought about the phrase I recited as a child in the confessional box at St. Anne’s Church: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It is a request to listen and accept the litany of sins to follow. I also remembered Irving Berlin’s song, “Count Your Blessings,” which he used in the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” He credited his doctor with suggesting that he try “counting his blessings” as a way to deal with his insomnia. The final lyrics are: “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep/ Just count your blessings instead of sheep/ And you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”


I decided to express gratitude to my students. They challenged me in ways that I hadn’t expected, and I had learned as much as I had taught. They trusted me and each other enough to share their personal experiences. They were a blessing. “OK,” she persisted, “but will you bless us?” Had I not been a blessing to them, too, I wondered? And then I really listened and understood. “I bless the journeys that you have undertaken to find purpose in your lives and to engage others with compassion.” It worked, to judge by the nods and smiles I received.


“Blessing” is variously defined as approval, encouragement, a thing conducive to happiness, and a grace said before a meal. To “bless” is to consecrate by religious rite, endow favor, or invoke a wish for good health. It seems to me that we would do well to both count our blessings and bless others. There is much work ahead of us this year to further our social justice mission. Let us also remember that we are blessed with a history of activism that inspires us, a meeting house that holds and supports us, and a community of members that strive to be their best ethical selves.


(By the way, next semester I’m teaching a class at Union on humanist ceremonies.)





Leader’s Message – “Undone by Women” – January 2018

December 20, 2017

“As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the human race.
No more the drudge and idle, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.”

These are lyrics from the union song, “Bread and Roses” They commemorate the strike begun on January 12, 1912 in Lawrence, MA, one of the most significant struggles in the history of the American working class. Although a new state law had reduced the work week in textile mills from 56 to 54 hours, the bosses sped up the looms and cut the average wage to $6 a week, putting workers on the edge of starvation.

In 1905, sixty years after its founding as a textile city, Lawrence became home to the American Woolen Company, the world’s biggest textile plant. Advanced technology enabled the owners to replace skilled workers with lower-paid Arab, Russian, and East European immigrants. By the time of the strike, workers from 25 different nations lived within a one-mile radius of the mill under deplorable conditions. It is estimated that over one-third of mill workers died before the age of 25 years, mostly from respiratory diseases, and nearly half of the children died before their sixth birthday. Women were subjected to sexual harassment and assault.

“Short pay! Short pay!” rang out when the wage cut was announced, and 23,000 workers left the mills to pour into the streets. The National guard was called out.

So, too, was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 21-year old organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who organized the strike. In contrast to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), comprised of white men who barred women and Black workers, the IWW, formed by socialists, emphasized unity and solidarity. Women led the Lawrence strike, and every union meeting was translated into 25 different languages. They sang, put on dances and debates, and invented the moving picket line. Flynn educated women and immigrants about the oppression they faced.

After police beat one pregnant woman so brutally that she had a miscarriage, the national and international outcry forced Congress to open an investigation, putting pressure on the bosses, and on March 14, strikers won some of their demands for pay raises and overtime pay. Sadly, this victory was short-lived. Nonetheless, at a time before they had suffrage, women persisted and prevailed. They would never forget.

Over a century later, women have gained the vote, but not equal rights, and sexual harassment is as prevalent now as it was in the textile mills of Lawrence. How we had wished it would be otherwise! The first time I saw the #MeToo meme was on my daughter’s Facebook timeline, and I immediately felt that I had failed her. I had been subjected to sexual harassment, but it was not supposed to happen to her.

The “Silence Breakers,” named Person of the Year 2017 by Time magazine, have succeeded where other women have failed, bringing down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and triggering an avalanche of sexual harassment accusations and consequent resignations. Of course, two Black women blazed the trail.

In 1991, Anita Hill became a national figure when she accused former boss and U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “I did what my conscience told me to do, and you can’t fail if you do that,” she said. And in 1997, long before hashtags, Tarana Burke, listening to a 13-year old girl tell her about being sexually abused, gave birth to the Me Too campaign. “It really bothered me, and it sat in my spirit for a long time,” she said. Ten years later, she founded Just Be Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to helping victims of sexual harassment and assault.

Salma Hayek, who began her acting career in Mexico, who suffered at the hands of Mr. Weinstein, wrote, “I am inspired by those who had the courage to speak out, especially in a society that elected a president who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than a dozen women and whom we have all heard make a statement about how a man in power can do anything he wants to women. Well, not anymore.”

Not anymore? Only if we organize as Black women in Alabama did last month to ensure the victory of Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black girls, over alleged pedophile and confirmed racist Roy Moore. Only if we stand together and march in the Women’s March 2018.

Millions of women across the country will reprise last year’s marches during the weekend of January 20-21. Here in New York City, the theme is “March Into Action,” and it will take place from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday, January 20, targeting a route along Central Park West with the rally beginning just north of Columbus Circle. I have registered a group from our Society to participate and will keep you apprised of details. For more information, visit

We cannot let this moment end until all of our goals for women’s empowerment are met. Remember: “The rising of the women means the rising of the human race.”

Leader’s Message – “Be a Muslim Ally!” – December 2017

December 20, 2017

One of the joys of my profession is engaging with clergy colleagues from other faith traditions in social justice and university campus settings. My pastoral counseling training also included students from different faiths, and it deepened my appreciation for how much we have in common. All of us serve communities of people striving to be their best selves and to nurture loving relationships. The principles of group dynamics apply everywhere, so we learned together, supported one another, and stay in touch.

Ethical societies include religious literacy in their curriculum for children. Growing up in the Brooklyn Society, my children had the opportunity to visit churches, synagogues, Hindu temples, and mosques. Their friends in public school grew up in all of these faith traditions. Learning about them made them better friends. How I wish everyone had this experience!

Last month I participated in a Muslim Ally Zone Training at New York University, where I serve in the Center for Global Spiritual Life as Humanist Chaplain. Two presenters addressed a full house comprised of students, faculty, administrators, residence advisors, and chaplains. We were all eager to learn more and distressed to hear that, even on a liberal campus in a multicultural city, Muslims face not only discrimination but also harassment and violence.

There is a negative stigma associated with the terms “Muslim” and “Islam.” Most Americans know very little, and misinformation is rampant. Indeed, 21% believe that ISIS is a proper depiction of Islam. As one presenter said, “We talk a lot about our faith, but people don’t listen. I choose not to wear a hijab, but my sisters do. No one forces them. It is a way in which they practice their faith and assert their rights as Americans. As individuals, we are all free to practice our faith in different ways.”

Here are some basic facts:
• There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world or 23% of the world’s population. They are racially diverse, live in 77 countries, and 62% live in the Asia-Pacific area.
• Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world. One in five Muslims is a convert.
• The first Muslims arrived in America as slaves in the 17th century and now number 3.3 million or 1% of U.S. population. Dearborn, MI has the largest number of Muslims in the country, and Queens has the largest number in NYC.
• One out of eight NYC public school students (12%) are Muslim, and in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx they number as many as 20%.
• Anti-Muslim violence remained significantly higher in 2015 than pre-9/11 levels, with American Muslims up to nine times more likely to suffer violent attacks.
• There has been a 197% increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups up from 2015. These organizations portray Muslims as fundamentally alien, irrational, intolerant and violent. The propaganda they disseminate about Islam is overtly hostile.

The other presenter relayed his experience of growing up on eastern Long Island where, on 9/11, he was a high school freshman and one of only ten minority students in a class of 600. “I have heard every terrible thing you can imagine about being Muslim,” he said. “I moved, but my parents still live there and are often told to ‘go back to where you came from.’ The sad thing is that we’re used to it and it doesn’t bother us anymore. I worry about my young children.” He reminded us that when Ted Cruz was a presidential candidate in 2016, he said, “I am a Christian first. I am an American second,” and asked whether it would be acceptable for any Muslim candidate to put her or his faith first.

What are we to do when hate crimes targeting Muslims are at an all-time high? Be an ally. Ask your friends, neighbors and colleagues how you can support them. If you are a bystander to harassment, engage the victim and offer a friendly presence. Accompanying this essay is a helpful list from WNYC’s “On the Media” program. Above all, educate yourself about Islam and visit a mosque. Ask questions and participate in social action in support of Muslims.

Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, offers these words: “Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. . . Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.”

Leader’s Message – “Requiem for a Nation” – November 2017

November 3, 2017

How many more tears can we shed? What more can be said that hasn’t already been said? Where is the magic incantation that can break this evil spell?

I have no answers, only questions, both rhetorical and existential.

Once upon a time, I believed that we could learn to listen to one another across great divides, that even if we couldn’t love those who hold different views and values, we could respect them and all agree that life, no matter whose, is precious and worth saving.

On Sunday mornings, we often sing Bob Dylan’s lyrics: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

But what if we know how to curtail gun violence and the majority of Americans want to enact restrictions on gun sales and ownership, but a powerful and well-financed minority prevails?

Last year I gave a platform address called “Gun-orrhea, America’s Most Life-Threatening Social Disease,” in which I cited the latest facts and figures, positions and strategies. On the day before I spoke, one person was killed and seven injured in a shooting in a Florida club; a 26-year old Wisconsin man, who was fired from a grocery store for harassing a 24-year old female co-worker, bought a gun legally and waited for her to leave work to shoot her in the stomach and head, saying “It was easy to kill her because she had ruined my life”; and an 11-year old boy in Tennessee was found guilty of murdering an 8-year old girl with his father’s 12-gauge shotgun because she wouldn’t bring her puppy outside. That was just an ordinary day in the United States of America. Since that day many more people have tragically died, some accidentally and others intentionally.

On the day I wrote this column, a California college student injured in the Las Vegas music festival mass shooting filed a lawsuit against the hotel owners, the concert promoter, and bump-stock manufacturers, claiming they were all liable, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a landmark decision affirming the government’s constitutional authority to strictly regulate gun shops.

Another part of that ordinary day was former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s promise to match every donation to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group he created. “US has a gun violence problem,” Bloomberg tweeted. “@Everytown & @MomsDemand are working to solve it. I’ll match every donation. Give now.” I’ve decided to take him up on this. How about you?

What else can we do instead of holding a requiem and solemnly chanting for the dead? In his recent column, “If Only Stephen Paddock Were a Muslim,” Thomas Friedman wrote, “So there is only one remedy: Get power. If you are as fed up as I am, then register someone to vote or run for office yourself or donate money to someone running to replace these cowardly legislators with a majority for common-sense gun laws. This is about raw power, not persuasion.”

Until that day, I’ll listen to our children. One glorious Sunday morning they invited us to the rooftop playground to meet Uliks Gryka, a Sufi mystic who had visited their class. While this dervish donned his robe and prepared to whirl, they chanted lines from Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”


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.

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 – “Founder’s Day” – May 2015

May 27, 2015

On May 15, 1876, a 25 year old teacher stood before a packed auditorium in Manhattan and founded a new religion. What was it about the religion into which he had been born and the synagogue he was trained to serve that moved him toward this decision? I’ve often wondered, and I think it was because his overwhelming need to experience life as being “all of a piece,” connected to all that he knew and loved, wasn’t realized in a religion that excluded others unless they converted to a specific creed. His radical notion was to place deed above creed.


“Believe or disbelieve as ye list – we shall at all times respect every honest conviction. But be one with us where there is nothing to divide – in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is that practical religion from which none dissents. . . . This is that common ground where we may all grasp hands as brothers, united in mankind’s common cause.” 


Felix Adler witnessed great human misery in Germany where he studied to become a rabbi and return home to take his father Samuel’s place on the pulpit of Temple Emmanuel. He walked the streets of Berlin and learned how the labor movement was addressing workers’ issues. He came to believe that religion must play a role beyond charity and reach out to people in need who weren’t adherents and weren’t required to convert to a belief to receive help. Surely we all belong to one human family, not separated, but enhanced by our differences.


Acting so as to elicit those unique and essential differences, and thereby contributing to the “ethical manifold” of humanity, became Adler’s ‘supreme rule.” Ethical engagement with others elicits the best in ourselves. We are fully realized as human beings in ethical relationships.


No need for a deity. No need for religion – unless you feel, as Adler did, that religion is worth saving, worth experiencing as a non-theistic and ethical transformation. He used words like “holy,” “sacred,” and “divine” to express “reverence” about this life that we all share, not in terms of worship and thanksgiving to a supernatural entity, but in recognition of the accident of life that brings us into communion with one another.


As we celebrate Founder’s Day, along with every Ethical Society and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools, let us remember what was revolutionary about Adler’s vision. He saw diversity as cause for celebration, not an insurmountable barrier. He chose to see that which others used to separate humanity as a means to connect human beings. Humanity’s purpose is only fulfilled when it embraces the wholeness of human experience.


A young man left his family to study abroad. He missed them and wrote home often. He knew they were counting on him to study hard and follow in his father’s footsteps. He learned his rabbinical lessons well and also learned that he was a member of a larger family, an infinite constellation of beings that shared the living world. He felt an ethical obligation to all of them. On Founder’s Day, we thank him for opening that vision up to us.