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Planting The Seed Of Deed Before Creed

EHSLI uses emphasis on personal responsibility and values to enact social change

With election season nigh upon us, participants on both sides of this country’s ongoing culture war are getting ready to heat up rhetoric on dual ends of the liberal/conservative spectrum. Tempers will flare, outrageous statements will be made and accusations will be hurled while words will continue to trump actions in the arena of social change. One of the few places where the converse will be true is at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island (EHSLI), a quasi-religious organization whose movement founder, Felix Adler, coined the mantra, “Deed Before Creed.” This mindset is driven by the idea that a person’s actions are more important than his or her belief system. And it’s the ideology that is the pulse of that anonymous building on Old Country Road that’s next to the Garden City water tower.

“One of Adler’s tenets was that in order for us to move forward a kind of sensible religion of ethics and action rather than a religion of superstition [was needed and] we had to change the culture,” explained Humanist Religious Director Calvin Dame. “His thing was that if we worked on treating one another in an ethical fashion in engaging the world to further the ethical goals, we will slowly become a more ethical culture.”

Keeping The Faith

Upon entering the Sunday school room housed in the sturdy structure located at 38 Old Country Rd., snippets of humanist beliefs jump out at you: the saying “Handle With Care” is at the bottom of a poster of two hands cradling a tiny bonsai tree; another board is based on, “solving problems with core values.” And while some might look at this as a kind of fortune cookie approach towards life, for Dame and Kids in Deed program director Alison Pratt it’s more about making the world a better place minus religious dogma.

“The way that people gather, the way that the community is formed and the ability to be in connection with one another in a caring fashion I think is one of the special things about ethical humanism and ethical culture. There is a commitment to build these things,” Dame pointed out. “Every Sunday morning, rain or shine, good program or not, people get together and when we’re done with the program, we drink coffee and catch up with one another. That specific thing I think really goes towards creating the kind of human community that vitalizes religion. Whatever the theology, it’s that connection between people that provides resources, encouragement and helps people to grow as human beings.”

“One time we were having this discussion about the Center for Inquiry, which is an atheist group that does a lot of political work for separation of church and state and that sort of thing,” Pratt added. “Calvin once said that he couldn’t imagine the Center for Inquiry having a caring committee. We do. We want to take care of our own and look outside of these walls to see where there’s need in the community and what can we do about it.”

Roots Of A Movement

When Felix Adler returned from Germany in 1874 after studying abroad at Heidelberg University, the son of a rabbi was invited to give a sermon at Temple Emanu-El, his father’s Manhattan synagogue. After sermonizing about Judaism being an all-embracing religion of morality and not mentioning God at all during his homily, any idea of his becoming the rabbinical heir apparent was quashed. Yet the seeds he planted of a religion minus the vestments of ritual, folklore and creed sprouted into a nontheistic movement that was often decried as atheism by detractors despite the fact that the Society took and continues to take no position on the existence of God. And while Adler and his followers dealt with being painted as immoral intellectuals, those deeds he preached about became the foundations of numerous social programs and socially conscious organizations.

“[Adler] started the Fieldston schools in New York that at the time were for the children of working-class people. Now of course, they are respectable schools,” Dame recounted. “He and his folks started the first home nursing program, which became the model for the Department of Health. He was a founding member of the NAACP, the Civil Liberties Union and those other kinds of organizations. He became one of those folks who became involved with those kinds of progressive movements.”


The action-speaks-louder-than-words approach continues to be at the core of the roughly 25 Ethical Culture societies across the United States. While Manhattan’s Ethical Culture Society is the center of the national movement, the EHSLI does its fair share of social action on the local level. Ethical Friends of Children gives clothing, baby items and baby furniture to parents in need at no cost via a clothing pantry staffed by volunteers. Kenya’s coeducational Sema Academy was founded and supported by EHSLI. One point of pride is the Weill Student Social Action Grant which provides seed money for teenagers to create their own social action projects. The four-year old program takes money left to the society by late member Joseph Weill and so far has gone to raise money for breast cancer awareness, to buy toys for a homeless shelter on the East End and two separate Habitat for Humanity projects.

“Two kids from Jericho High School that were friends did a bowl-a-thon and gave the money to Habitat for Humanity. That was neat because one of the requirements of Habitat is that if you want volunteer for them, you have to pony up $100. So they raised $1400 to sponsor workers,” Pratt proudly said. “I’m really proud of this little program because it spreads the word. We’re not telling [students] what project to do or what they should or shouldn’t do. If you can give us a good project and make it look like you can pull it off, then we’ll support you. It’s as simple as that.”

The development of an ethics-driven worldview is a crucial facet of what EHSLI does. Kids In Deed provides ethical education and community service projects for children ages 5 to 13. Those transitioning into their teen years are able to join the Youth of Ethical Societies (YES), which provides opportunities for adolescents to develop their thinking on a variety of social issues.

“What we’re trying to communicate is to teach the kids about critical thinking and ethics as well as putting that into action and doing some community service,’ explained Pratt.

Two annual events that have been running for around five years also have significant ties to the EHSLI’s young congregants. Darwin’s Day is on February 12 and is the birthday of the controversial scientist. On this day, a speaker with a background in science will deliver a lecture aimed at both adults and children. Lunch is served and science-themed games and projects for the children are also staged. Last year, Pratt had buried a number of organic and inorganic materials in the ground weeks prior to Darwin Day and then had the children dig them up in order to observe the difference between items that were biodegradable and those that weren’t. According to the Floral Park native, she believes it’s the only Darwin Day celebration for children in the country.

“We’re stressing science with the children. I’ve had religious people scoff at me for having a science day for children particularly about Darwin,” she recalled. “But we think it’s important. We think it is part of critical thinking. It’s part of our stewardship of the earth—to know what’s happening with global warming. Are we going to give up our plastic bottles to help the Earth? That’s an ethical question.”

The other event is the Teen Arts, Music and Poetry Festival that’s held in the spring. Middle and high school students are invited to share their love of the arts in a non-competitive exhibition of art, poetry, dance and a variety of musical genres. For Pratt, it’s something that reaffirms her faith in humanity, albeit in a small way.

“It’s such a neat thing because you have kids, who first of all, are not necessarily superstars. This is not a competition, so they’re not competing for a prize. They’re coming to share their love of what they do,” she explained. “So some of them are really nervous and they get their courage up and do what they have to and they’re so proud of it. But what is really neat is that these kids don’t know each other and they come in and perform [and there’s] this energy in the room of all these kids supporting all these other kids.”

Spreading The Word

According to Pratt, the Ethical Humanist Society is the smallest recognized organized religion by the government for tax purposes. As such, most ethical societies’ membership hovers in the hundreds, with the St. Louis, Washington D.C. and Manhattan chapters claiming roughly 300-plus congregants. EHSLI is the fifth largest with between 100 and 105 people making up the Garden City branch. Whereas in prior years open houses were held on Wednesdays, last year was the first time EHSLI operated one on Sunday when its weekly meetings or platforms are held. Platforms meet at 11 a.m. and during that time, music is heard, poetry is read and a moment of silent reflection for gratitude is observed to remember people who’ve enriched others’ lives. A speaker will then speak about current or enduring ethical issues and when it ends around noon, coffee is served and congregants can reconnect with each other or welcome new attendees. It comes off more like a college lecture and less like a religious service.

This Sunday, attendees can expect to hear a description of the program, what is done in the Sunday school, past history, current projects and the overall values of the EHSLI. In addition members of the teen group, board President Don Morgenstern and Dame will speak.

The religious director’s hopes for this Sunday’s upcoming open house are modest. “If you’re looking for a religious community where your intellect is honored and be challenged to grow as a person and there’ll be opportunities for you to serve in various fashions and hope to make a difference in the world, we invite you to get to know us,” Dame said. “There’s a health and vitality that for some people that come through the door, feel is the right kind of community that they’d like to be part of. And those are the kind of people that we’re looking for.”

The Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island will be holding an open house on Sunday, August 26 at its headquarters located in Garden City on 38 Old Country Rd. For more information, please visit or call 516-741-7304.