Key staples of the community may have never existed if it weren’t for the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture. Organizations like the Bronx Arts Ensemble, the men’s emergency overnight homeless shelter, and even Mosaic Mental Health.
But now the Ethical Culture movement has its own chance to celebrate — 70 years of creating programs and organizations supporting a mission of peace, moral service and justice.
For many, Ethical Culture is a way of life. Through its years as an established society, those ethics have spread throughout this and other communities through its many initiatives.
“It’s a place for the community to rely on and learn about what the right things to do in the world and the community are,” said Elizabeth Collier, the local society’s community outreach director. “For some people, it’s the ethics and social justice and putting social justice front and center. But for other people, it’s the social events they count on.”
The local Ethical Culture meetinghouse is located at 4450 Fieldston Road, just across the street from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The society works somewhat like a religion with Sunday meetings and a focus on moral wellness. However, where Ethical Culture diverges from religion is its concentration on the present, and what they can do for and in this life, whether a deity is involved or not.
Sometimes the society hosts panels or discussions dealing with ethical topics. There also are weekly meetings for discussions between members about more ways to encourage ethical living within their community and the world.
John Benfatti, who has been a part of the society for 27 years, considers Ethical Culture his religion.
“It’s an individual choice and a practice of humanism,” he said. “We don’t concern ourselves with what happens in the afterlife. We are on Earth to make the world a better place, and we do that by interacting with other people.”
The Riverdale-Yonkers society has directed its worldly concerns into various programs founded or supported by members like Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, the Riverdale Intergroup Relations Committee, the Interfaith Food and Hunger Project, The Riverdale Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and the Yonkers Fair Housing Committee.
Along with hosting a men’s shelter, the meetinghouse opens its doors to the Greater New York Blood Program every year, which collects blood donations for hospitals.
Even the local society had a lot of years to celebrate.
“It’s gone through many changes since I been a member,” Benfatti said. “We’ve gone through four or five different leaders. When I first joined, there were maybe about 120 members, and a lot of the members were elderly. As the years went by, they passed away. So currently we have a lot fewer.”
Benfatti misses the artistic side the society. When he first joined, there were art projects, exhibitions, and displayed photographs created by society members. Outside art associations also would use their space.
Benfatti is optimistic that such programs can return, especially as membership grows again. A younger crowd of people have started to show interest in the organization, he said, which gives him hope.
A recent anniversary celebration showed appreciation for how far Ethical Culture had come, but also used the event as a form of community outreach, re-introducing the movement — and the society — to the public.
“As a community, we need to work together to help the society to grow,” Benfatti said. “And I hope people are inspired to help it grow.”