Joseph Ben-David, since 1966 an activist and leader of the Humanist movement on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, passed away peacefully on October 7, 2020, at the age of 100. Over the course of a long career, he attracted large numbers of followers with his teachings on humanist psychology, philosophy, and spiritual identity. A highly motivated public speaker and educator, he helped his followers interact on a foundation of reason, mutual understanding, and self-actualization.
Ben-David's work spanned many decades as an independent thinker and social activist. Born in 1920 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he became a leader in the youth group of the Unitarian Church, speaking out against Nazism and promoting the inspirational teachings of his mentor, the church’s founder, Dr. Norbert Capek. After the Nazi invasion, he fled to Palestine where he organized the Society for Creative Culture to counteract religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural enmity and to promote dialogue among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze in Jerusalem. In 1948, serving as a hygiene officer of the Israeli army’s elite troops, he provided medicine and aid to the wounded and to the elderly and sick abandoned in destroyed villages.
After emigrating to the U.S. in 1954, Ben-David’s commitments included actively assisting Jewish theologian Martin Buber in promoting IHUD (UNION), his organization dedicated to Palestine/Israel reconciliation; and serving as President of the American Humanist Association’s NY Chapter from 1963 - 1972, overseeing its growth from 75 to 800 youth and adult members, while also seeking to help build the AHA into a thriving, democratic organization.
In 1973 Ben-David founded the independent Church of Humanism and its integral Humanist Foundation in the Humanist spirit of Unitarian minister Dr. Norbert Capek. As Senior Minister of the Church, and having taken a vow of poverty, he delivered countless lectures based on the writings of the most enlightened voices of our time, including Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Hannah Arendt, Fritz Perls and Germaine Greer.
The Church of Humanism elected the playwright and civil rights freedom activist Vaclav Havel as recipient of the Church’s Humanist of the Year 1979 award during Havel’s imprisonment under the Communist occupation. Havel later became president of the Czech Republic and met Ben-David in New York City.
During Ben-David’s 47 years as its Senior Minister, the Church of Humanism created a community that was guided by the principles of an honest search for truth, the struggle for justice and peace, and the fullest development of human potential in the individual and society. Ben-David’s humanism evolved into a non-supernatural understanding of God, in harmony with rational, emotive, intuitive, and scientifically plausible concepts. Recently published on the Church of Humanism’s website is Ben-David’s essay on Next Steps to Theological Realism – The Humanist Unitarian Meaning of God.
Ben-David is survived by his wife of 50 years, Alyson Tufts Ben-David, his son Daniel Ben-David, and five grandchildren.
For additional information, see:
The full chronological listing of Ben-David’s social justice activities dating back to 1937
The Winifred Latimer Norman Social Justice Award given Ben-David in 1997, and the comments by the presenter Douglas Rhodes.