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Year-End Letter and Appeal

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

At the close of a year of confined existence, and with hope for reconnection and renewal sometime next year, I’m inspired to begin this year-in-review letter (if no time to read, but you’d like to donate to support our ongoing work as the world’s first university humanist chaplaincy, providing community and ethical support to an important and often-ignored nonreligious constituency, please click here!) by sharing a few words from Adelle Goldenberg, current Harvard College senior and co-President of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA). Below, Adelle reflects not on our collective yearning for the ability to safely leave lockdown, but on her personal journey from a world that was, in her young life, perhaps even more constricting. Still, the arc of her experience reminds me that our lives offer more…raw human possibility than we sometimes realize. …I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” This is how Jack Kerouac characterized the act of leaving in On the Road, and I have yet to find a description that resonates more with my experience of leaving home. For years, I had dedicated all of my energies towards leaving the Hasidic home – and inextricably, the Hasidic community – I was raised in. I had saved every bit of money I earned from babysitting; I hid away tubes of toothpaste for life after leaving; I tried to plan for any possible contingency which would result in me having to come back. For weeks prior to that sunny late-August morning, I had shipped out most of my belongings to Cambridge. I sent out one USPS box at a time, on Friday afternoons, when everyone was too busy preparing for the Sabbath to notice. On the day I planned to leave, I expected someone – or something – to stop me, but nothing occurred. I just walked out the door. The fact that the act of leaving was so physically easy seemed – and still seems – laughably absurd to me, because leaving was the most difficult thing I have ever done. Ms. Goldenberg, whom I have been privileged to know and support since soon after her arrival at Harvard in 2018, rose from a home in which she was expressly forbidden from attending college and where attaining almost any level of secular education was difficult at best. Her brothers never had the option of attending or graduating high school; her sisters, while allowed because of their gender to receive a basic secondary education, did not graduate. Surrounded since birth by young people who were denied the opportunity to build a life outside of religious fundamentalism, Adelle found a way. She found a way to learn and grow as a human being, to attend college – first at a public school in New York City, then as a transfer student to Harvard. She built a new life while working selflessly to provide what has, in some cases, been life-changing guidance and mentorship to countless young people from similar backgrounds: her excellent guidebook (College 101: a Guide to Higher Education for Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Yeshiva Graduates) was recently published online, with the ultimate aim of placing physical copies in the very same Brooklyn public libraries to which she once turned, on her own, for guidance about the unfamiliar secular world.  This semester, Adelle was formally recognized by Harvard University as one of its officially endorsed candidates for the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. The quotation above is from her application materials. While she did not ultimately receive one of those awards, her story reminds us there are many ways to define winning and achievement. As you can tell, I am so proud to know her and I am more than excited to see what unfolds as she pursues her passion for feminist philosophy, and for humanist life. Messages of congratulations or support for Adelle can be sent to I am equally thrilled to announce that Adelle’s HCHAA co-president over these past two academic years, Nkaziwoh Nchinda-Pungong, will be a Rhodes Scholar this coming year. It truly feels like just yesterday that I met with Nkazi on a late August afternoon in 2017, before his freshman year began. In preparation for that meeting I found an article from his hometown paper about his many successes as a high school valedictorian; speaking with him about it then, hearing the humble and earnestly uncertain way he described his hopes and plans for college, I remember wondering: here is someone who can do anything — but what will he choose to do with his time and energy? Obviously Nkazi chose extraordinarily well, and again, congratulations can be forwarded to him via  Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what should choose to do with my energy in this, my 17th year at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (now at Harvard and MIT). Our organization has evolved considerably: last year, we ended a wonderful decade-long experiment in providing a full-service congregation to local humanists, returning to a focus on our now 40+ year mission as a humanist chaplaincy.  As we have always been, we are a nonprofit organization serving and supporting the ethical and communal lives of humanists, atheists, agnostics, and nonreligious people affiliated with now two of the world’s leading educational institutions. For much of last year, I was on a paid 12-month research and writing sabbatical, and the organization was relatively inactive; I returned early to help Harvard and MIT communities cope with the Coronavirus crisis, but my work this year focused on responding to COVID-19 from a humanist perspective.  2021, then, will mark the first time in years in which we will turn to supporters such as you for funding to support our regular operations as the world’s first and still largest university-based humanist chaplaincy (as always, we receive no financial support from either Harvard or MIT!)…so I want to offer a sense of what we are up to and planning. During the pandemic, we’ve been busy with a wide variety of experimental and online activities, including being featured in a TED podcast, and writing for the Boston Globe, on transcending sectarianism by maintaining a humanistic faith in humanity over a difficult summer, and on how to stay human on campus as the pandemic dragged into the fall. A Boston Globe “Op-Talk” on whether we should have faith in America, where I talked with renowned Princeton scholar Eddie Glaude and Globe head opinion editor Bina Venkataraman, was another highlight. But there have also been many dozens of wonderful, quiet conversations with our humanist students and alumni: privately, in small groups, on text threads and Twitter, and even via their own podcasts and shows. There have been countless interfaith meetings with the many religious chaplains and student groups at Harvard and MIT, all of us trying, together, to construct a meaningful life in absurd times; also successful joint programs with the Secular Student Alliance and the American Humanist Association. In my personal time, I accepted an invitation to be national chair of Humanists for Biden-Harris; since the election I’ve been working to persuade the incoming administration to include humanists more fully than any White House in history.  For the coming semester, things are still uncertain as you would expect, but we are hoping and planning — with your support — to expand our ability to produce podcasts…an initial special released just before the election was helpful to me in coping with the anxiety, distance, grief and injustice of the pandemic and political season, and I would love to continue to help others in that way.  Given that we’re currently doing all of this and more with a ~$60,000 annual budget (this includes my half-time pay/benefits, along with limited administrative support and any/all of our programs, which we’d love to have the financial flexibility to expand) we’d be honored if you would keep us in mind as you make any charitable donations to close out 2020 and look forward to 2021.  DONATE ONLINE HERE or send a check to “The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and MIT” at 1953 Massachusetts Avenue, Unit 400405, Cambridge, MA 02140-9998 Sincerely,
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