Tall order for Ethical Culture's new leader


How can a local branch of one of the smallest humanist movements in the country grow?

That is the question facing Jone Johnson Lewis since she became leader of the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture (RYSEC) in March.

She acknowledged the challenge of dealing with declining interest in the society during an interview in her office at the group’s 4450 Fieldston Road building.

“RYSEC, it’s not a secret, has shrunk in membership considerably in the last 20 years. A lot of that was that an older membership didn’t necessarily draw younger people in,” Ms. Lewis said. “We’re here to help people of all ages understand that this is here.”

She said RYSEC currently has “about 35” members, down from a height of 100 during the group’s heyday. Some members consider Ethical Culture a religion, but the U.S. Census has not asked Americans about their faith for years. The American Ethical Union, an umbrella group for ethical societies throughout the country, said there were 1,861 total members as of the end of last year.

Ms. Lewis, who has led Ethical Culture chapters around the country since 1991, hopes that Sunday classes for children, secular celebrations for the community and workshops about hot topics from the headlines will resonate in Riverdale and Yonkers.

Since October, RYSEC has offered free Sunday classes to youngsters that impart the group’s values, which center around every individual’s intrinsic worth and trying to elicit the best in others and oneself.

“They’re focusing on the same thing [adults are] focusing on upstairs, but on a different level,” Ms. Lewis said of the children.

On Sunday, RYSEC and other groups hosted a workshop about police accountability. Ms. Lewis said next year will bring forums about lying in personal life, climate justice and white privilege.

“Many of our older members were very active in the civil rights movement,” said the leader, 64. “The reality is that those of us who lived through that have to update our understanding of race. It’s not enough to rest on our laurels.”

Ms. Lewis said while she was a child during the height of the civil rights movement, it left a lifelong impact on her thinking. She also described herself as a strong feminist, participating in rallies for equal treatment for women while working as an IT professional in Chicago, where she grew up, in the 1970s. Today, she is the women’s history expert for About.com.

She plans to call on a skill set she honed before leaving the business world to assist her work with RYSEC.

“I am lucky that I was a computer nerd early,” said Ms. Lewis, who previously ran training departments at AEon Group and Zurich Insurance Group before pursuing a master’s degree in divinity. “Even at my age, I’m adept at social media.”

She said after years of working for Fortune 500 companies, she realized, “A central motivation is making a difference in the world and making this a better world for the future.”

Ms. Lewis, who had a Unitarian Universalist upbringing, earned a master’s from Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago. She went on to become the leader of Ethical Society chapters in Chicago, Northern Virginia and then Brooklyn, where she is still the interim part-time head.

Last month, Ms. Lewis moved to Waldo Avenue. She said she treasures Riverdale’s mix of city and outdoor life, but noted there is room for growth in the community.

“There’s two sides to the coin,” she said. “One is the sense of Riverdale being a gated community and kind of isolated from and almost self-isolated from the rest of the Bronx and the real challenges in the Bronx.

“There’s a perception [from] other people in the Bronx that Riverdale is even more isolated than it is. I think it is a more diverse community than most people know,” she added.

Ms. Lewis said RYSEC could play a constructive role by providing a place for people to talk about such issues. She is not ready to change the group’s name to be more inclusive of the rest of the borough, though.

“There’s a lot of people in the Bronx who share our values, who share our various range of skepticisms about some traditional beliefs and who need a place to be together and to work together,” she said. “More than the name, I would want [RYSEC] to become… conscious Riverdale is where we are and therefore there is a responsibility that comes with that and that our vision can extend beyond Riverdale into the rest of the Bronx.”