Can You Raise a Child Without God?

By Ken Burk


My wife and I are raising our daughter, Shannon, in a Humanistic Jewish congregation in suburban Chicago, Kol Hadash. The path to Kol Hadash was not straightforward and we definitely had more than a bit of luck that helped us make this decision.

Growing up, I was very fortunate that my parents were members of the Humanistic Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit. This was no small accomplishment. My father came from a devout Lutheran upbringing. My mother was raised Unitarian. This was during the early 1970s and the religious landscape of questioning and exploration was certainly different than it is today. While my parents were uncomfortable with an establishment dictating what to believe and didn’t feel able to place their faith in an unsubstantial god, they relished participation in community.

Fortuitously for them, they moved to a suburb of Detroit with a substantial Jewish presence. Down the block lived a family that introduced them to a community that didn’t tell them what to believe and encouraged people to rely on the very tangible strength of their own abilities as well as mankind. Several factors led my parents to convert to Judaism. The greatest factor was Sherwin Wine, rabbi of the Birmingham Temple, and his Friday night services. His frank, intellectual analysis of philosophy and history touched a chord in my parents. Another major factor was the people they met, with whom they shared many common interests. I cannot remember a time when my parents were not part of the temple’s Vivace program, a musical concert series with no religious affiliation, and they are still very involved to this day.

Despite my parent’s active involvement in the temple community, I had little personal connection to Humanistic Judaism or to my contemporaries in the temple. For approximately a decade, I would say I had no connection to Humanistic Judaism. My own experience was definitely not engaging beyond my Bar Mitzvah year–in fact it wasn’t particularly engaging before that. I think this is an area where positive changes have been made because the education program which had consisted of a K-5 Sunday school has now expanded to K-12.

In her own way, my wife grew up in a similarly convoluted “religious” household. Her mother stopped practicing Judaism before she married my father-in-law. My non-Jewish father-in-law can’t stand organized religion and they raised my wife in a secular household in Park Ridge, Ill. Her extended family, however, still included a combination of Christian and Jewish cultures, although she had only limited exposure to both.

When we married, our wedding ceremony included a rabbinical student recently ordained from the Birmingham Temple and my wife’s uncle, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Fortunately, both resided in Michigan and we were able to discuss the details of the ceremony on trips from our home near Chicago. My wife wanted the ceremony to have a familial focus and I wanted one that would have Jewish customs with a secular bent. I was very glad that my wife supported having Rabbi Adam Chalom, the rabbinical student from the Birmingham Temple. During his tenure as an assistant rabbi before Rabbi Wine retired, I was fortunate to attend High Holidays services where he showcased his intellectual acumen and sardonic wit.

We lived a DINK (dual-income, no kids) style for several years. Joining any congregation was way down on the list of things to do. I think my wife was a little more concerned with finding some religious community because she wanted to explore the Unitarian Church. We just never really got around to it, which was more than fine with me.

Then we had a string of good fortune. My wife became pregnant, and soon after that we discovered that a relatively new Humanistic congregation in suburban Chicago had hired Rabbi Chalom. I was very excited and my wife became a little more interested in learning the ins and outs of Humanistic Judaism. We attended many Friday night services, really enjoyed the discussions and decided to join.

When we attended Rabbi Chalom’s induction ceremony, we had one of our first opportunities to talk with other members of the congregation at length. Rather than simply attending services and making polite conversation on a Friday night, we sat down and had dinner with Kol Hadash members. Although the night honored Rabbi Chalom, it was also a very special night for us because so many people spent time welcoming us into the community and genuinely got to know us. After such a warm reception into our new community, we had the feeling that we would be members for a long time.

Despite the draws of the temple community, my wife still had some personal issues. Her brother had converted to Catholicism several years ago. Many of our family events are driven by the Christian holiday calendar and my wife began to have a minor identity crisis. She enjoyed connections to Christian events, such as the baptisms of her nephews, Easter dinner at her brother’s house, Christmas dinner at our house. Despite her own mother’s Jewish upbringing, my attempts to celebrate Jewish calendar events before joining Kol Hadash were largely ignored. We had very little Jewish culture in our lives, and religious culture was something my wife yearned to have. Fortunately, as part of the initiatives the rabbi took as the new leader of the congregation, he planned an adult B’Nai Mitzvah class with a curriculum focusing on Jewish history. He had outlined the curriculum to us during a personal meeting as we discussed our new membership. This wonderful class not only offered a way for my wife to learn about her own Jewish heritage and culture that she had had little opportunity to explore previously, but also enabled her to bond with other temple members. It’s not surprising that she ends up spending an extra hour after the class each week in a free form discussion with her classmates.

One of the biggest challenges I foresee in raising our nearly 2-year-old daughter Shannon in a Humanistic temple is that Humanism doesn’t have the mythology and simple answers that allow children to bond to it. It lacks the simple black and white, good and evil. Our tradition does not have mythical perfect heroes or the melodrama of fatalistic character flaws. The heroes of humanism–the pioneers, the challengers and the torch bearers, like Rabbi Wine (who founded the Secular Humanistic movement) or Richard Dawkins, the non-apologetic atheist, scientist and humanist–are real people with real flaws and fascinating stories. But it will be many years before Shannon has the attention span to follow this kind of story or be ready to embrace the greatness of a hero despite the fact that the hero is a real person with real flaws. In my own upbringing, I attended Sunday school and Hebrew school, but never really learned about the people of Humanistic Judaism or Humanism in general. We had Rabbi Wine, the imposing leader, walking the halls of the Sunday school, but no one celebrated the amazing struggles he went through to create Humanistic Judaism. As a child, I could shake hands with this man, but I didn’t learn much of his history until I was in my late 20s!

Raising Shannon in a Humanistic temple will involve more than just taking her to services and Sunday school. She will need to be challenged intellectually so that she gets a charge from Humanistic Judaism. I consider myself fortunate that I’ve had a second chance at it, not just as a belief system, but as a community, and I know that our daughter may not be so fortunate. Therefore I will have to be sure that she gets drawn into the community–preferably those members of the community who are near her own age and have similar interests–so that she has someplace comfortable and meaningful for her life-cycle events without needing to be as lucky as her parents.


About Ken Burk

Ken Burk and his family live in Arlington Heights, Ill., a suburb of Chicago where he writes computer software. They are members of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.