Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture
The Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture (RYSEC) is located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, just up the street from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The building is situated on a low hill and the lot has plenty of trees and well-kept gardens with colorful banners and a peace pole in the front. Inside the building wood floors and paneled walls in the meeting area add warmth and coziness.
RYSEC is a middle-sized Society with about 60 adult members. Their Leader, James White, is a strong social justice advocate who has been active in many campaigns from local to international. A good-sized number of RYSEC’s members and Sunday school children are from Latino cultures and are bi-lingual. RYSEC has a Sunday school that meets at the same time as their Sunday morning platform meeting.
Each Sunday meeting begins with all the adults, Sunday school participants and teachers in the main meeting room. After a greeting there is an opportunity for individuals to go to the podium to speak about an important event in their lives, take a flower from a bunch and place it in vase on the lectern. The Sunday school children participate, also, in lighting a candle at the podium before leaving for Sunday school class.
Music is a substantial part of the program at RYSEC and includes community singing as well as solo piano offerings. On the day I visited the pianist, Chris Piro, accompanied the community songs and played a lovely improvisation on a contemporary song during one of the reflective moments.
The adults stayed in the main meeting room for the rest of the meeting which included more musical selections, a platform address, an opportunity for people in the congregation to share thoughts prompted by the address, a passing of the collection baskets, and announcements.
Immediately following the meeting was hospitality in the form of bagels, fruit, pastries coffee, tea and juice is provided by members and served in an area adjoining the meeting room.
RYSEC has many opportunities for community involvement including work with The Riverdale Mental Health Clinic, Blythdale Children’s Hospital, the Riverdale Intergroup Relations Committee, the Interfaith Food and Hunger Project, The Riverdale Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, the Paraprofessional Training Institute and the Yonkers Fair Housing Committee. The Bronx Arts Ensemble was formed with the support of the Society; and, the Greater New York Blood Program conducts a yearly drive at the Meeting House.
A Bit of History
The Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture was formed in 1948. Eighteen years later, in 1966, the current meeting house was constructed. The meeting house was enlarged in 1995 to accommodate a growing membership and Children’s Sunday Assembly.
New York Society for Ethical Culture
The New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC) was founded in 1876 and was the first Ethical Society. The Society’s home on Central Park West in Manhattan near Lincoln Center is a stately landmark building that adjoins the Ethical Culture School. As one of the largest Ethical Societies, NYSEC offers a large number of events and activities and has a staff that includes three Ethical Culture Leaders, an executive director, a music director, a communications manager, and a special events coordinator.
NYSEC’s Sunday meetings are on the more formal end of the spectrum of Ethical Societies and feature professional musicians, a printed program and frequent platform addresses by NYSEC Leaders. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and, as is typical of Ethical Societies, the attire of those in attendance ranges from casual to dressy with an overall sense that people dress to be comfortable. Some time ago the Society began using Ceremonial Hall (on the 4th floor) for meetings. This space seats up to 150 (compared to over 800 for the Concert Hall, where Sundays meetings were held previously) and lends itself to a more intimate and communal experience than one might have experienced in the larger, more formal hall. On the day of my visit about 100 people were in attendance and the room felt full but not overfull.
The Sunday meeting began with a greeting from Anne Klaeysen, one of the Leaders for the Society, and included community songs led by the NYSEC chorus, more music (provided, on the day I visited by Carrie and Michael Kline—folk musicians from West Virginia who are also very engaged in developing oral history of rural Appalachian life. You can find out more about them at www.folktalk.org), announcements about upcoming events, and a special collection for a local charity. A member of the Society was identified who was available to meet with newcomers directly following the meeting. Lunch was offered for a modest fee in the cafeteria located on the fifth floor.
An Active Place
NYSEC offers a good number and variety of activities, learning opportunities and projects throughout the week (you can view their calendar at http://www.nysec.org/calendar-date_nysec) and, in addition to its own offerings, is host to many public events, often in partnership with organizations such as The Nation Institute, Demos, Amnesty International and the ACLU.
A Bit of History
The New York Society for Ethical Culture was the first Ethical Society and was founded by Dr. Felix Adler in 1876. The Society initiated two major projects in 1877. First was the establishment of the District Nursing Service, a precursor of the Visiting Nurse Service. The second project was the founding of the first free kindergarten in the United States. In 1880 the Workingman's School was chartered and in 1895 the School was reorganized, becoming The Ethical Culture School. An upper school, The Fieldston School, was added in 1928.
In 1910, the Society, which had been meeting in Carnegie Hall, erected the current meeting house next to the Ethical Culture School which had broken ground in 1902. The building was designed by noted architect Robert D. Kohn (who later served as the Society’s president).
A host of luminaries have been visitors to the Society including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Al Gore, Paul Krugman, Cornell West, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison, Amy Goodman, and many others.
Over the past twenty years, the Society has worked on issues such as the repeal of the death penalty with New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws with the Correctional Association and Drop the Rock and partnering with The Innocence Project to raise money for DNA Testing of wrongfully accused prisoners.
The New York Society for Ethical Culture is located at 2 West 64th Street, New York, NY 10023. Sunday meetings begin at 11:15 AM.
Ethical Culture Society of Westchester
My first visit on September 9th to an Ethical Society in my new role as executive director was to a familiar place—my home Society, the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester, which is located on the northeast corner of White Plains, New York about 20 miles north of New York City. That particular day was the first Sunday meeting of the “regular season” for the Society. (As with many other Ethical Societies, ECSW meets all year round and has a somewhat less formal summer program from July through August.)
ECSW is a middle-sized Society with about 80 adult members and approximately 15 children in the Sunday school. Each Sunday meeting begins with all the adults and the Sunday school participants and teachers in the main meeting room. For Opening Day there was a strong turnout of members, friends and newcomers and as the weather was also sunny and warm the meeting hall was lively and cheerful.
ECSW is also in the middle in terms of its level of formality – dress is eclectic but mostly casual, timeliness is more of an aspiration than a consistent reality, and most people refer to each other by first name. The Society has a chorus which, beginning this year, leads the congregational song at the beginning of the meeting and will also perform choral pieces at festivals and for special occasions. For Opening Sunday they led the community in singing a Bill Staines song, “Crossing the Water.” Other musical selections were provided via recorded music.
Children leave the main hall after about 15 minutes to go with their teachers to the classrooms. The Sunday school currently has three classes of similar aged children. The Sunday school is staffed by parents and by two teenaged Sunday school graduates.
The adults stayed in the main meeting room for the rest of the meeting which included more musical selections, an address by me, an opportunity for people in the congregation to share thoughts prompted by the address, a passing of the collection baskets, and announcements.
On a typical Sunday hospitality in the form of bagels, fruit, pastries coffee, tea and juice is provided by members and served in the meeting room directly following the meeting. The first Sunday meeting of September, however, is different as all are invited to attend a barbecue on the side lawn featuring hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers and a variety of salads, side dishes and desserts provided by members.
A Bit of History
The Society was founded in the early 1920s in New Rochelle, New York by a group of parents who had children in the Sunday school at the New York Society in New York City and wanted a place closer to home for their children that could also provide ethical education to other children in the community. In 1964 the Society built the current meeting house in White Plains.
The Society was very involved in supported school and community integration, was an Encampment for Citizenship site, hosted one of the first public meetings on the topic of legalizing abortion, was the home of the first and the tenth Humanist Weekend, and was a shelter for the homeless.
Recent highlights include an Environmental Fair that featuring Colin Beavan (aka “No Impact Man”), annual concerts for children, a “pop-up playground” event, collaborative public events on education reform, impact of violence on returning soldiers, and work with a local coalition on reforming police practices.
In addition to Sunday meetings, regular activities include a book group, small group “Community Circles,” adult education classes, men’s and women’s nights at local restaurants, and tai chi classes. There are also ethical action events, social events and festivals at various times of the year.
The Ethical Culture Society of Westchester is located at 7 Saxon Wood Road, White Plains, NY 10605. Sunday meetings begin at 10:30 AM.
Upcoming visits to Ethical Societies
In my new role as Executive Director for the AEU I will be focusing attention, especially in this first year, upon what it takes for member Societies and affiliates to flourish and grow. Toward that end I'll be visiting member Societies over the next twelve months and on these visits to get a deeper understanding of the successes and challenges each Society is encountering.
Here is what is on the calendar so far for Society visits:
9/9/12 Ethical Culture Society of Westchester, White Plains, NY
9/30/12 New York Society for Ethical Culture, New York, NY
10/14/12 Philadelphia Ethical Humanist Society, Philadelphia, PA
10/28/12 Riverdale Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, Bronx, NY
11/11/12 Northern Virginia Ethical Society, Vienna, VA
11/18/12 Baltimore Society Ethical Culture, Baltimore, MD
12/9/12 Ethical Culture Society of Essex County, Maplewood, NJ
1/20/13 Ethical Society of St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
1/27/13 Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, Teaneck, NJ
2/24/13 Brooklyn Ethical Society, Brooklyn, NY
3/17/13 Ethical Society of Asheville, Asheville, NC
3/24/13 Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, Garden City, NY