Has Humanism Solved Hebrew School 2.0?

Kids at Humanist Hub
Photos by Chris Johnson

Could a humanist learning program be the answer to questions and hesitations about your kids’ spiritual education? Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University thinks so. Epstein, who also appears on the A&E’s reality show, Married at First Sight, is creating a curriculum that will teach kids about being good, moral citizens of the world.

Greg Epstein“I see a lot of young interfaith couples struggling with how to raise their kids,” says Epstein, who is an ordained Humanist Rabbi. There are so many Jewish and interfaith families who want to teach their children the ethics and values of a good person, but a traditional, religious Hebrew school is not the place to do that for every family. “Often the partner who is not Jewish is perfectly fine teaching children about Jewish history, culture and identity. But one or both of the parents is really uncomfortable teaching religious values like prayer, heaven and the afterlife, or the Chosen People,” Epstein says. “This could be so relevant to interfaith families who may not feel comfortable teaching values from the exclusive point of view of one parent’s faith. It’s exciting to provide a service to non-religious and interfaith families.”

Epstein and his team at the Humanist Hub are working with some of Harvard’s top educators and psychologists to create resources that parents everywhere can use independently or to enhance the Sunday school program their kids attend. Tracy Elizabeth, an advanced doctoral candidate in Human Development and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, created a pedagogical framework that focuses on core values and skills, such as compassion, justice, conflict resolution and perspective taking, for children and youth to learn in a safe and secular environment.

“People are experiencing a need for moral and values education as non-religious parents,” says Epstein. “The idea is, people with a variety of beliefs can agree no religion has a monopoly on teaching things like environmentalism, global citizenship, or any number of the values we plan to cover.”

Classroom-based programs will initially be based in Cambridge but Epstein sees the potential to go national with children’s books, videos and curriculums. And though most of the Humanist Hub’s family and youth activities are still in the planning stage, Epstein says these programs are “potentially groundbreaking.”

Initially the project was called the “Learning Lab” but that felt too formal.  Epstein knows that today’s kids and parents are busy. They are not looking for another activity or commitment and he wants to emphasize that activities are play-based, non-competitive and flexible. While Epstein is still toying with what to title the project, he is thrilled that Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has agreed to lend his name. “Wilson represents so much of the values we are trying to cultivate,” says Epstein.

Epstein also stresses that one can embrace Jewish heritage and Humanistic values at the same time. What are humanistic values? The Society for Humanistic Judaism explains on their website, “Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that celebrates Jewish culture without supernatural underpinnings. Humanistic Jews value their Jewish identity and the aspects of Jewish culture that offer a genuine expression of their contemporary way of life.” The Humanist Hub has no problem with families with multiple affiliations and Epstein thinks that some synagogues might want to adopt the same open-mindedness. “This is the 21st century and that means people are going to be creating new rituals every day regardless of who likes it,” he says.

That kind of free-thinking is both personal and professional for Epstein. As a kid, he never identified with the religious aspect of Judaism but after graduating from college, with a degree in religion, he stumbled upon the notion that there are many ways to be Jewish. “At that point I got so excited to learn more about my heritage and family history that I ended up getting fluent in Hebrew, spending a year and a half living in Israel and even studying for two semesters in the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I know the Jewish community can have many more such success stories if it embraces the kind of open-minded, transparent, data-driven approach that is just essential to this century.”

To learn more about programs at the Humanist Hub visit their website at www.humanisthub.org.

Erin Haggerty

Erin Haggerty is a graduate of New York University’s Master’s in journalism program. She works as a freelancer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she lives with her husband who is a chef and her dog who is a French Mastiff.


Author: Erin Haggerty