I was born in Buffalo, New York. I grew up in American Reform Judaism with two Jewish parents and we observed holidays such as Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We often lit candles at home on Friday nights. At age thirteen I had a bar mitzvah and at sixteen I was confirmed. But it’s probably fair to say that, from the beginning, I had some pretty unusual ideas about God.
A pivotal moment for me may have been when I chanted the Akeidah Yitzchok (The Binding of Isaac) from the Torah for the Rosh Hashanah holiday at age 13. I began to wonder what kind of a God would ask a man to sacrifice his son, and what kind of a man would do such a thing in service to that God. Another moment was during my sophomore year of college, when our lay leader at the University of Michigan described Yom Kippur as less a religious experience, and more a kind of “tribal reunion” for the Jewish community. During my visit to Yad Vashem in 2012, the Holocaust museum in Israel, I remember asking myself, “How could God let this happen?” and not arriving at any good answers. My discovery of Humanistic Judaism in 2015 was the last piece of the puzzle — I realized there was a whole community of Jewish freethinkers like me and I felt I was coming home.
In general, I think I’ve been very lucky—I haven’t faced any real pushback from anyone close to me and I try to extend that same respect in return. I never forgot all the ways I had benefited from being a member of the Jewish community. I had received scholarships, opportunities, and an invaluable cultural and historical education from the local Jewish community. For this I remained, and continue to remain, extremely grateful.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s room at the table for all kinds of Jews, and all kinds of people in the world, who may or may not believe in God. But wherever we fall in the spectrum of the various religious and philosophical traditions available to us today, I think we all have a responsibility to learn the right lessons from our respective traditions.
I believe that we have a responsibility to one another as fellow human beings. I believe that we have much more in common than we may want to think. I believe that we all have something positive to contribute. And I believe that we are all in this together. The Golden Rule is a good place to start. I also think that we should work to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. When I die I hope to live on in my work, and in the memories of the people who knew me.
In a way, there’s nothing I love more than talking with smart people with whom I disagree. I welcome spirited and civil debate with theists, as well as other atheists, and I think I always learn the most from people with whom I have a difference of opinion.
Ezra Donner is a Master’s student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, a Teacher at The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism and Board Member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He blogs at secularjew.wordpress.com