Gratitude after the fire

A few months ago, a friend of mine awoke in the night to the smell of smoke. She yelled for her partner and together they got their three children, one still a small baby, out of the house. As they looked back, they saw smoke all around. The fire fighters said they thought they made it out with about thirty seconds to spare. They were in bare feet, underwear, and too little clothing for the cold night. They lost everything they owned.

As I heard about this, the story touched my own terror. It made me think of how I would feel if I lost everything I owned. The fire had spread from the neighbouring house. How would I feel about the person who started it? Would I be angry? Filled with anguish and despair? Overcome with the challenge of rebuilding and finding a place to live in the meanwhile? Grief over all the mementos lost?

I don’t think any of us can know how we’d feel in this situation, but I know how my friend and her family have reacted: a beautiful, deep, overwhelming sense of gratitude. The mother/grandmother of the family puts it this way: “I breathe in and breathe out fall on your knees gratitude that everyone is ok.”

I reached out to the woman, this mother of three who is suddenly without a home, and all she has to offer is gratitude that her kids are safe, gratitude to her friends, family, and community who have come together to quickly raise clothing, funds, and other necessities to get them through this time. All I get from these people who have a right to be bitter is gratitude and more gratitude.

I’m really touched and inspired by this family of strong and courageous women. They would be forgiven for being grouchy, angry, bitter, resentful, jealous, spiteful, and hardened by this. They would be justified. But they are choosing to focus on the positive that comes out of bad situations. What a gift that is to themselves and those kids, who will learn about grit and resilience from this. They will never forget this time.

Many of us might be walking around feeling grumpy, angry, bitter, and we might feel justified in that. We might have real reasons to feel that way. However, for many of us, whatever it is that we are dealing with also likely has a positive side. The more we can focus on that, the more we can grow in our positivity and resilience, the better the outcome for ourselves and the people around us.

I say this with our community in mind because I know a lot of people who are Humanists struggle with gratitude. We may think, “to whom, exactly, am I supposed to be grateful?” People who believe in the supernatural force often called God have someone to thank, and someone they can believe made any good things happen, or has a plan for when bad things happen. This isn’t my belief, but I really do try to practice gratitude daily. I am not grateful to God. I am grateful to the world, to my family and community, to my children, to myself, for the beauty and joy that I find all around me.

There is lots in my life that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful or joyous. I spend a lot of time commuting. I really hate sitting for long periods of time and I really dislike driving, and yet I spend about ten to fifteen hours a week exactly this way. Sometimes on my commute I’m dealing with weather, or aggressive drivers, or construction, none of which is wonderful. When I find myself in this situation or other unpleasant ones — someone being hurtful, an unexpected and expensive home repair, all of the things that fill our lives and can make us angry or unhappy, I try to ask myself: “what is awesome about this?”

I don’t like driving but I get to listen to audiobooks and podcasts that stimulate me. Someone says something that hurts my feelings. What is awesome about that? They are letting me know something about myself that I can confront and perhaps help me grow. They are letting me know something about them that can heighten my empathy (mean people are usually just angry or fearful themselves), or can help me know who in my life is truly trustworthy and good for me. Something in my home breaks? I’m lucky to have a home, and people in it who I love so much, and these instances are small inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.

The more I practice this intentional form of gratitude, the more I am able to let go of the feelings of negativity more quickly and more fully. Frankly, it’s a better way to go through life. I am working on my own resilience. I can be too cynical, too grouchy, too judgmental. That isn’t great for the people around me, and it isn’t great for me. I want to be a force of light and positivity for others, and the best way to be that is to feel lightness and positivity within.

Humanistic Jews have the wisdom of both Judaism and Humanism to draw from, and there is lots in both about becoming the best version of oneself. I see it as a Jewish responsibility to take care of myself and to take care of others. In the Hebrew bible and Talmud we are told to honour our parents, love the stranger, and respect our bodies and health.                                                                                                        In Humanism, we are told that the cosmos is chaos, and so whatever good there is on earth is ours to create and enjoy. We believe life is limited to our time here, thus it is short, so we might as well find a way to see the good in it.

I am not asking you to keep a gratitude journal, take up meditation, or stop and ask yourself “what is awesome about this?” every time something goes awry. However, I’ve tried all of these things out and believe that some kind of practice of gratitude, which will help foster an overall attitude of gratitude, is a good thing to do. Gratitude helps us experience joy more fully, and helps us minimize the damage of fear and pain. Gratitude can strengthen relationships (think of the impact of someone pointing out all they appreciate about you! We tend to focus on only the things we wish we could change). Gratitude can make us healthier, happier, more giving, more gracious. If you’re a Humanist who has felt excluded from a practice of gratitude because you don’t believe in anyone pulling all the strings, recognize that the puller of strings is you, and you deserve to feel proud and grateful for all the good you create.

I’m grateful to you for reading this. Please like, comment, or share to let me know how this resonates with you. What are you most grateful for? 


18 summers

This past weekend I was booked to officiate a wedding. The day before I got an urgent call asking if I could come a few hours earlier to the hospital because the bride’s father is in cancer care and, unexpectedly, is now too sick to attend the wedding. I had just been away at a Rabbis Without Borders retreat, and was excited to spend the day with my kids. It was one of those moments when I had to explain to my kids, in the words of my colleague Rabbi Eva, that although they were more important to me than my clients, this time the clients were more urgent.

Also this past week, I had reserved a little island of time for myself on a Sunday night, feeling desperate for a break, when I got a call to meet with a family planning a funeral. Their mother had a scheduled physical-assisted death and they needed to plan the funeral quickly, even though she was still alive.

These moments represented two instances when I made the choice to sacrifice my own time for rest and rejuvenation because what was being asked of me was more important. I’m sharing the story with you with the details of my own desire for a break not because I wish to be the centre of this story — I’m not the centre; two people with cancer and their families are the centre — but because I wish to highlight that sometimes serving others requires sacrifice. I was tired. I was wanting time with my kids. But I showed up for these people anyway because, in my view, that’s what Humanists do: we show up for people in need.

The flip side is that I really believe we need healthy and appropriate boundaries, including time that we protect and reserve for those closest to us. As you know, I have young kids, and I recently saw an online photo saying “we only get eighteen summers with our kids.” It really hit home! Summer is the time when many of us spend time away with family — at a cottage, in the place where we grew up, etc. It is a time when many of us have fewer work obligations and so we do get a chance to recharge. I want that for you this summer. I want you to figure out who and what are most important to you and make sure you devote them some time.

How do we strike the right balance between protecting time for ourselves and our priorities, and ensuring we are there for those who need us? Many of you are caring for others, be they aging parents, children, and members of your community. How will you recharge so you can best serve them, while still ensuring their needs are met? That’s really my question of summer. I plan to ruminate on that as the lead-up to the High Holidays when we ask ourselves who we wish to be in the coming year. I want to be someone who serves others. I want to be someone who is attentive and present with my family. I want to be someone who has boundaries that are porous enough to make exceptions for emergencies but solid enough that they are meaningful. Are you with me? What are you going to focus on this summer?


Migrants at the US Border - What We Can Do From Here

I imagine most of you are like me and have been losing sleep over the stories and images of children being separated from parents at the US / Mexico border. Many Jews I know, some Holocaust survivors, have likened this situation to the Holocaust. Parents have been told their children are going to “showers” and the children don’t return. People are separated quickly, roughly, without any chance to say goodbye. Children are being kept in jail-like conditions. It is horrific. I know there is new information that families may be jailed together. This is still unacceptable and doesn't address the thousand of kids already separated.

As Jews we understand the plight of refugees who feel unsafe staying where they are and are also unsafe where they end up. We recall and consider the Canadian history of “None is too many” as a stain on our country. And yet this exact sentiment is being used to justify these torturous acts and conditions.

There are people mobilizing, including interfaith groups. I consider us part of the interfaith movement, even without faith, and want our community to be a force for good in this situation and in the world.

I’m asking you to consider our Jewish teachings of “tikkun olam” - repairing the world - and use your voice to help repair these families, who are right now undergoing terrible trauma.

Here are some things we can all do:

1) Write your MP and Prime Minister Trudeau, asking them to use diplomatic channels to end this disaster. I know we are in a trade war of sorts. I know Trudeau has said he isn’t going to “play politics” on this issue. We have to show him he’s wrong — we’re not playing and this is the time to act and speak out as we wish other countries had done when it was Jews in cages

2) Sign this petition by Amnesty for Canada to end the Safe Third Country Agreement. This is something I engaged my MP on last year as well. This agreement says migrants must apply for status in the first “safe” country they reach. The US is no longer safe. Here’s the petition:

3) If you can, support one of the many organizations working to fix this situation. I have recently donated to RAICES and the ACLU. This article has a link to these and other organizations:

4) Engage any friends or family you have in the US, especially if they vote Republican or live in a place with Republican representation, to work to stop this through their own Congressperson or Senator

5) I’ll be at the rally in Toronto on June 30th at 10:00 am at the US consulate. I hope to see you there. I know of an event link only in Facebook for now:

6) We have problems here at home too with family separation, particularly for Indigenous communities. Our history of residential schools and the 60s scoop continue to impact many families. There continue to be children separated without good cause by child services. And we have some migrant family separation at our border as well. We need to continue to speak out in support of Indigenous and refugee rights, as individuals and as a community. 

One final note: you likely heard that Jeff Sessions used the bible to justify these horrific policies and actions. This is exactly why we must defend both the separation of church and state — for the bible is not the rulebook for government policy, and also why we must engage with our religious heritage and tradition to be able to say that for every line justifying this behaviour is another that condemns it. Sessions used: “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” I give you: “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

I am so proud to be part of this community and I know you’ll stand with me as we work to end this. Wishing you all peace and love.

Rabbi Denise

Ubuntu and Humanistic Judaism

This upcoming weekend, I’m thrilled to be officiating a Bar Mitzvah of one of our Oraynu students. This Bar Mitzvah and his brother (who also graduated from Oraynu) are both bright, creative, humourous young men. Their parents really exemplify Humanistic Jewish ideals: they are caring, they are committed to community and to bettering the world, they believe in equality, they are loving and giving parents, and they are kind, decent, warm people.

All Bat and Bar Mitzvah are special. This one is particularly wonderful for me because this student chose to focus his research on the Stephen Lewis Foundation and, in particular, the Grannies Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) program in South Africa. These grannies take care of their grandchildren, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS. Stephen Lewis is the Humanistic Jewish hero, but the grannies, as the Bar Mitzvah boy says, are the true heroes for all they do.

This family traveled to South Africa to meet some of the GAPA families. There, they learned of the concept “Ubuntu,” which means “a person is a person through other people,” also sometimes quoted as “I am because you are.” I came across this concept frequently when doing my PhD research on South African literature. What I did not consider at the time is how nicely the concept works with Jewish wisdom.

Hillel, the Jewish sage, is frequently quoted as having said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only or myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” In the Bar Mitzvah, we are discussing how this Jewish idea pairs beautifully with South African “Ubuntu.”

What we call “Jewish values” are not uniquely Jewish, but they are rooted in Jewish wisdom. What we can “Humanist values” are values that take seriously the worth of each human being and their right to thrive. It’s sometimes a nice reminder that cultures different from our own share some of our same beliefs. It’s a nice reminder that we are all in this together. I love that Humanistic Judaism allows us to take from Jewish and global cultures and find the values, ethics, and teachings that lend meaning and inspiration to our contemporary realities.

If, like me, you find this to be a significantly more meaningful way of approaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah than, say, you had when you grew up, you’re not alone. The facebook group Humanistic Jewish Discussion had a post about this recently. Check it out here if you’re interested:

While you’re at it, join that group to get updates. And “like” Oraynu’s page too:

Until next week,


For mothers




A belated Happy Mother’s Day to anyone who identifies as a mother! Mothering is a particular identity. It often (but certainly not always) involves pregnancy, labour, and birth, all life-changing and life-giving processes. It often involves a great deal of caretaking and caregiving. It often involves taking a lot of criticism, correction, and unsolicited advice from family, Facebook, and “friendly” strangers in the local coffee shop. It often involves long nights, thankless jobs, and a great deal of monotony. It also often involves getting to watch the people you love the most learn, grow, change, and laugh.

I love being a mom and I love my kids and family, including my own mom (who is an Oraynu member. Hi mom!) very much. I’m not sure I love Mother’s Day as a tradition. Its creator apparently felt the same way (see a Washington Post article on this, here). It is a commercialized “holiday” that, at best, involves long waits for brunch and, at worst, gives people licence to under-appreciate moms for the rest of the year. What I do love is spending Mother’s Day with my family. Our tradition is a hike, a farmer’s market, and cuddles. I have wondered how to mark Mother’s Day with my congregation Oraynu but, given my objections to the day, had not found a way yet, until this year.

Our staff came up with a perfect idea and it was truly a delight: we hosted a havdallah and High Tea in honour of Mother’s Day (men / dads were welcome too, although none attended!), and raised money to pay it forward with cupcakes for women in a shelter.

I was so excited to be able to drop these cupcakes off at the 50-bed Red Door Shelter in Toronto. Red Door has both a family-housing shelter and one, the one we donated the cupcakes to, for women fleeing abuse.

See photos above and below: Kim serving Ruth tea, our gorgeous spread, and me with the cupcakes for the shelter.

This year, perhaps we are more aware than in previous years, that many, many women experience violence in the forms of harassment, assault, and partner-abuse. If the #metoo movement taught us anything, it is that this behaviour is pervasive across all sections of society. The Jewish community hasn’t always been great at acknowledging that this is our problem too (#ustoo). This is starting to change, which is why I was so proud that Oraynu chose to gift the courageous and strong women who are moving to make their lives safer and better, with a Mother’s Day treat of their own.

So happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate. I hope it was meaningful for you. We all deserve a treat - that’s for sure! If you’re interested in learning more about Judaism and the #metoo movement, I’m presenting two sessions on the subject at this Saturday’s JCC learning program for Shavuot. The program runs all night (midnight cheesecake!) but my sessions are early. See above for information. Hope to see you!

Until next week,



Lessons from surf school


A couple of weeks ago I went on a quick, last minute trip to a small town in the Dominican Republic. My main goal: learn how to surf. I am someone who is not naturally athletic but have discovered the joy and fun of trying out new activities. Surfing has always scared me and I’m really of the belief that we miss out on a lot of life when we let our fear determine our actions. I packed a little bag and boarded a plane alone in search of adventure.

My first day, in need of groceries for the week, I had to figure out how to take a “bus” (they call them “guaguas” and they are really little vans that pile in as many people as possible and then barrel down the one road very fast). I was out a little after dark, wondering if that was safe for me by myself. I got myself back to my little guesthouse and said hello to some neighbours. And then I crashed for about nine hours. I was out of my comfort zone. Good. That’s what I came for.

My second day, I took my first ever surf lesson. It is not as hard as I thought to stand up on a surf board, but it is quite hard to *stay* up. I had a lot of thoughts flying through my head as I got knocked around by the waves. It seemed to me that surfing offered me a lot of life lessons, particularly as a Humanistic Jew. Because that’s who I am, I really believe in values like doing things for oneself, even while depending on others (we believe in our own power to transform; we believe in community to help get us there and to help make transformation meaningful to others). I believe in the power of nature/the natural world to inspire awe. I believe in making and meeting new challenges. Not all of us are going to learn how to surf, but all of us can learn a thing or two about what the experience teaches. Here are some specific lessons from surf school:

-Go with the flow! The waves come at you no matter what. There is no point in resisting them. Learn how to catch a wave and ride it.

-Listen to your surf instructor. He (mine was a he) knows what he’s talking about. Trust experts.

-Look up, look ahead. Sometimes when we’re nervous of falling we keep our heads down. We’ll go much further if we look to the horizon to see where we’re going.

-Don’t overthink things. Sometimes it’s better to just trust your gut and go.

-You’ll get knocked down and around. Get back up and try again.

-When you least expect it, challenge turns to fun.

-You don’t have to be great at everything. In fact, sometimes you get a lot more out of doing something you are not that great at.

-Sometimes a mantra/meditation/intention helps. Mine was: strength, balance, horizon. Not a bad mantra/meditation/intention for life.

-The ocean is powerful, beautiful, amazing, dangerous. The world is powerful, beautiful, amazing, dangerous. Who do you want to be in those waters?

Overall, I am no surf whiz. I will not abandon my life to buy a board and move to Bali. But I was able to ride some good waves to shore. I was scared; I did it anyway. What will you do that scares you?



Passover and the wilderness


I hope you had wonderful Passover seders and, for those who celebrate Easter, a terrific Easter as well. Passover is my favourite holiday of the year. I love the ritual, the storytelling, and the focus on children. I have young children and it has been beautiful to watch them begin to engage with some of the traditions that I remember as a child. In particular, this year my daughter sang the whole of the four questions in Hebrew. She took learning and practicing really seriously, and she really shone at the seder. She also was an expert negotiator when it came to returning the afikomen in exchange for a present. I can remember being her age and doing these same things. That sense of continuity is meaningful.

There is also a sense of change that is meaningful. Each year we tell the story of the exodus, but each year we do it differently. There is a tension between tradition and change that all Jews, but particularly Humanistic Jews, wrestle with. When I grew up, we told the story as though it were literal. Now we tell it as myth. When I was a child, we spoke about the “four sons” uncritically, including the “wicked” and the “simple” child. Today, we speak about how the metaphor of the “four children” tells us that we need all kinds of people in the world, and that sometimes what someone perceives as “wicked” is really someone who is critically-minded. And on our “night of questions,” we encourage questioning. We want to instil that sense of inquiry.

For adults, the seder reminds us to check in with ourselves. The meaning of Passover does not end at the seder. Rather, the seder is a call to ensure we are doing our utmost to enjoy the freedoms we have, fight for the freedoms still needed in the world for ourselves and others, and to ensure that our freedom does not impinge on that of others. How do we reach our own “promised land?” A better world...

The above quotation by Michael Walzer has been meaningful to me for years. This year just before Pesach I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, which is about having the courage to be an outlier, to speak one’s truth even when it is unpopular. The book reminds me of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, who spoke of leading “lives of courage.” Sometimes it is hard to foster change when the pull of tradition is there. Humanistic Jews give tradition a vote but not a veto. We do not practice traditions that conflict with our contemporary values. We value tradition, but we do not value it above everything else. Sometimes at our family seders, or at other times of the year, we need to brave that wilderness.

Walzer and Brown both speak of togetherness. In order to brave the wilderness we need to find “our people.” Sometimes this is our family. Sometimes it is chosen family — friends who feel like family. Sometimes it is community, something I truly value in my life as a person, a mother, a rabbi. Community matters. 

Passover is eight days of changing our usual habits to make space for thinking of what kind of freedom is possible in our lives and our world. I look forward to walking the wilderness with you.

Goals/resolution check-in

If you were reading my blog or receiving this email blast in January, I wrote a piece about New Year’s resolutions. I understand that the Jewish new year is Rosh Hashanah. I also understand that if you live in North America, you also experience January as a new year. In my own life, I actually find I mark three periods of transition in a year: September with Rosh Hashanah and the start of the school calendar, January as a new start (especially after the vacation time and slipping of good habits that December inevitably brings), and spring time as a time of rejuvenation and renewed energy. We are inching towards spring and a couple of months have gone by since the resolutions post, so I wanted to check in. How are you doing with your goals? If you didn’t set goals maybe now is a good time. They don’t have to be the usual ones: weight loss, finances, general organization and management. Maybe they are fun goals: try surfing, eat a whole cake, spend a day doing only things you wish to do. Or maybe they are more meaningful. I suggested a way of looking at the year in terms of monthly themes to focus on:

January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)


I love the way these Jewish values can lend meaning and structure to my life.

I am a real believer in goal setting. As a humanist, I feel strongly that if I want something to be different in my life, it is me who has to make it different. I don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. I believe in the efficacy of hard work with clarity about my own intentions.

One of my personal goals this year was to learn more about how to achieve goals (does this make me sound like I’m boring at parties?). I have been reading interesting books, learning about things I know nothing about (like sales, like building websites, like habit formation techniques). I decided 2018 would be a year of big goals for me, and to make them happen, I had to learn more about, well, how to make them happen.

If you do have goals that are meaningful to you, whether they are immediate or long-term, check in with yourself right now. Are you on track? If not, what could you be doing to get on track? How is your 2018 going? If you’re having a bad start to the year, what can you do to change it?

Many people I know have found 2018 to be a difficult year so far. There may be good reasons why that is so — from school shootings to serial killers, the news has been bleak. There are also, of course, personal challenges such as sickness and loss that some are dealing with. However, as we ushered out 2017 people were saying things like “good riddance to a terrible year!” Prior to that, 2016 was known as the “worst year ever” due to some very high profile deaths and an election result that was disappointing to say the least. Do you see the trend? 2016 was bad. 2017 was bad. 2018 is bad so far. If this reflects you and your thinking then I want something more for you. We can’t control the messiness of the world. But we can control the small corner of our own lives and our own small sphere of influence. What can you do to make this year a great one for you and for the people around you? Let’s stop wishing time away until an imagined future when things will be better. They will never be better! Or, more accurately, they will never be perfect. To a large extend the future is shaped by what we do today

Purim Jews and Passover Jews

We are now in the period between Purim and Passover. On Purim the tradition is to drink until one confuses Haman with Mordecai. We remember the peril of the Jews, and our oppressors. We say the name Haman and/as we blot it out with noise. We remember in order to forget. We get to go on living, but always with that noise in the background reminding us we are not quite safe. In the bible, we are told to remember the name Amalek, another would-be Jew-killer. What does this constant remembering do to us?

On Passover the sentiment is quite different. We recall the metaphorical journey out of Egypt. And the bible tells us to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. One act of remembering, the Purim-style act, is about our own self-protection. And one act, the Passover-style, is about using our experience to foster empathy over others.

You’ll hear people talk about “Purim Jews” and “Passover Jews” citing this difference. Does Jewish history make you more likely to feel insular, craving a Jewish community that will provide you with a sense of safety and the comfort that comes from being with those like oneself? Or are you a “Passover Jew,” using Jewish experience to foster connections with others who have been slaves, exiles, imperilled?

Of course, the dichotomy is false. The nice thing about these holidays being close to one another is that they remind us that it is natural and reasonable to be both interested in self-protection and also interested in the well-being of all humanity. Striking a balance here is important for obvious reasons. We should not be self-interested to the point of cruelty to others. We should not be so giving to others that we victimize ourselves. You know the Hillel quote (if not, look up “Hillel quote” and you’ll find it).

I was born in South Africa and when I was young I remember being so puzzled by Jewish South Africans who had been happy to be part of apartheid’s despicable treatment of Black people. Did they not know better after the persecution of their own people? I worry about these types of Jews, the “Purim Jews,” and what they do to us as a community. Not only do they perpetrate terrible crimes and injustices in the name of Judaism and Jewish survival, but they also lessen and weaken the Jewish experience by framing what it means to be Jewish in apocalyptic terms.

Think about it: do young people feel drawn to be Jewish when it is framed as a responsibility and terrible obligation? Or do we excite people about being Jewish when it is framed more as a joyful and beautiful experience?

What in our own humanity gets reduced when we feel we cannot be generous to others because we are constantly in self-preservation mode? And what of those others? Are they not deserving of the care that we crave?

If you’re Canadian you likely know of the recent miscarriages of justice in the deaths of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine, two Indigenous youths who, in two separate stories, were killed. They were also failed utterly by our Canadian institutions, including the legal system. I haven’t spoken or written about this yet because I couldn’t do so without oscillating between tears and blinding rage. But I can’t stay silent about this. We need to change things in Canada to foster meaningful reconciliation. Our systems of education, the law, child protective services, aren’t working. The Jewish community has been painfully silent about these cases and, with some exceptions, Indigenous issues more broadly. I see it as a Jewish imperative to do something about this. We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are settlers on this land. We need to start loving our neighbours. I have written letters to my MP in support of legal reform and donated to funds to support Indigenous youth. It is not enough but it is something. If this issue doesn’t move you then focus your energy where you feel it is important. But if you are similarly outraged, I really encourage you to use your voice at this time. We can’t afford to be “Purim Jews” now, there is too much at stake.

Passover is on its way, with its themes of rebirth and resistance. Passover is my favourite Jewish holiday of the year. I love the ritual. I love the creativity with which people infuse their seders. I love matzah pizza. Mostly what I love is the metaphor of this Jewish story that has been the cornerstone of Jewish identity and experience for generations. We were in bondage, now we are free. With that freedom comes the obligation to help others achieve freedom


My last blog was about multitasking and mindfulness and this week I want to write about “unplugging.” Last year I spent 5 days at a resort with two girlfriends. It was hard to get wifi at the resort - there was just one area that had it and it was crowded and uncomfortable. I decided that I was spending 5 days free of my phone. I told my partner that if there was an emergency to call the resort directly and that I was offline. It took me a full day to lose the feeling that I was missing something by not carrying my phone around. Whenever there was a lull in activity (my friend had to get up to use the facilities after our third margarita, say), I found myself reaching for the phone to check messages as I usually do. But no phone was there! I was alone with my thoughts. Sometimes that can be scary, but sometimes it can be freeing. I was left to contemplate, to daydream, and to simply shut off my thinking mind. Life used to be like this all the time. When riding the bus, or finding oneself alone, it was common to just... be. But now we are used to constant distraction or tasks. And I’m not even getting to the part about always feeling like we have to be available and accountable to our jobs or our families — even on vacation.

I’m working on finding freedom from my phone and unplugging more often. I set a deadline for when the phone goes off at the end of the day. It no longer gets to sleep with me in my bedroom. It does not join me during meals or times when I’m with someone in person. My phone and I are consciously uncoupling (if you don’t know what this refers to you can easily look it up... on your phone?).

The Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, is a weekly reminder to unplug. It can be unplugging from work, from stress, from the demands we face during the week. And it can also be an invitation to be free from technology for a while. Most of the Jews I serve are not strict about following Jewish law concerning using electricity or driving on Shabbat. But have you ever tried it? It makes the imperative to rest impossible to avoid. It also makes us get outside and walk, talk to the people around us, connect. Unplug to connect — imagine that.

On the Shabbat of March 9-10, sundown to sundown, it is the Day of Unplugging. Reboot, a great organization, challenges all of us to commit to being free of our phones / computers for the full 24 hours. I am doing it and I hope you will join me! This is a photo of the yurt I’ll be in that day:





But you don’t have to be in a yurt in the middle of the woods to unplug. If you wish to join the Day of Unplugging, I encourage you to sign up with Reboot’s page and check out their resources like conversation starters with family about technology use:

They’ve also sent me some nifty “cellphone sleeping bags” to store your phone in for the day. The first ten of you to write me at rabbidenise@oraynu.organd tell me you’re Unplugging will get one in the mail!




Wishing you all a week of peace, rest and regeneration! 

Multitasking and mindfulness

Here’s a quick exercise: look around the room you’re in, wherever you are, and notice everything that is red. Study the red. Memorize the red. Now quickly without thinking close your eyes and recall everything that is yellow. I’ve both done that exercise and led students in doing it this week. It is eye opening what escapes our notice when we are focused on something else.


I have been thinking about issues of focus and lack of focus lately in my own life and work. Like many of you, I am someone with lots to keep me occupied, lots to focus on, in each day. I sometimes catch myself sending that “quick email” while one of my kids is asking for my attention. Or tempted to check that text while driving (I don’t do it). Or watching a television show I have chosen to watch, but finding my mind wandering and reflecting on the congregational program we just had or is coming up. And, like many of you, I think of myself as pretty good at multitasking. I juggle two big jobs (one as rabbi/officiant and one as professor at Trent University) and two little kids (they are four and two years old this April). I also am also a spouse, a friend, a doula, a Wen-Do Women’s Self-Defence instructor and board member, a creative writer, a researcher, and an avid health/workout nut as of late. I also have do to things like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, driving, caretaking, etc. Also I really like to keep up to date on certain Netflix shows. There is a lot going on and sometimes I need to multitask in order to fit it all in.

And yet lately I have been feeling the cost of all that juggling and multitasking. I’ve seen compelling research that when we think we are multitasking well, we often are not as effective at any of the tasks as we think we are and as we would be if we separated them. That is, we think we are seeing all the colours but we are really only seeing red. I have started to experiment with what will happen if I slow down and do one thing at a time. I’ve started chunking my time into blocks: parenting, Oraynu work, Trent work, side hustle projects, television unwinding, cooking and eating, tasks I tend to avoid, etc. To know how long a chunk is I sometimes use a timer, or I sometimes use my own sense of when something is completed or is good enough for now, or I sometimes use external factors like my kids getting home from daycare. What have I found? I’m generally more productive and a whole lot happier when I focus in on something and try to block out everything else. In short, I’m trying to see only red for a while, and then switching my focus to yellow so that I can eventually see the whole spectrum.

For productivity purposes, this is a good thing. But perhaps for purposes of perspective, the red/yellow exercise has a different set of meanings. We all go through life with a particular set of values and beliefs. For many of us connected to Oraynu, those encompass (but this is neither a prescriptive nor an exhaustive list): belief in the power of humans doing good, belief in community, connectedness to Jewish peoplehood, trust in rationality and science. Our beliefs, values, and experiences inform our perspective, our lens through which we view the world. Many of us know of phenomena like confirmation bias; we seek out articles or research that confirms that which we believe. Or the “bubble” we surround ourselves with; people who are like us and think like us. This only bolsters and strengthens our perspective. This is natural to a degree (we all do it). But the red/yellow exercise reminds us that as we view the world through one lens, we are not seeing certain things. That is, whatever it is we choose to focus on, we are missing something else.

Ironically, me focusing in on one task at a time has left me feeling freer and more open to see the world in new ways. I’ve used the tools of focus to broaden my focus. I’ve challenged myself this past month (new year and all) to read books from perspectives I usually don’t consider or follow. I’ve asked students of mine who I know disagree with my politics to be brave and debate with me and other students and model what respectful engagement and debate can look like. I’ve just tried to see more yellow around me. Maybe even some blue and orange every now and then.

So here’s a challenge for you: try to focus on one thing you tend to ignore or miss — whether it’s an idea, an experience, a feeling, even a person, and try to focus on them for a while this week. See if that makes you open up to something new. And in the weeks to come we’ll be talking more about focus. Using the messaging behind Shabbat, the day of rest, to unplug, be mindful, be grateful, and more.

Tu B’shevat, the new year of the trees

A few years ago, I was hosting a Tu B’shvat seder for Jewish youth in their 20s and 30s. The Idle No More movement had begun and was demanding better rights for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. I was thinking about what I know of traditional Indigenous knowledge, that nature is supreme, that the number four is special (there are four seasons, colours, directions, elements) and creates the medicine wheel, and that communities are formed around the land. All of these, including the number four, are central to the holiday of Tu B’shvat, the birthday of the trees. I decided to bring together Jewish and Indigenous teachings and create a Tu B’shvat seder that was intercultural and spoke of our associations with the land traditionally as Jews, and more contemporarily as Canadians.

The next year we broadened this seder, inviting an Indigenous teacher named Kim Wheatley to co-lead and to bring in songs and other elements (such as cedar tea, maple syrup) into the seder where we were tasting the traditional fruits and nuts of the holiday. We partnered with Ve’ahavta, an organization devoted to social justice. And we filled our little space at the Borochov Centre with 80 people!

Last year we held the event with yet more partners. We joined with the Miles Nadal JCC and Shoresh, the Jewish environmental agency. Over 100 people came. We also added an element of activism, signing a petition to clean up Grassy Narrows which has suffered the effects of mercury poisoning due to industry and has been ignored by governments.

This is my favourite event of the whole year. It is soulful, meaningful, and beautiful. The seder touches on every sense: we notice the colour of wine/grape juice, we smell, feel and taste the fruits, we hear beautiful music and Indigenous drumming. We are hosting this event once more and I really hope you’ll be there to experience it. The themes of social justice and caring for the earth, the intercultural connections, and the partnerships all coalesce to make this a program that exemplifies what Oraynu is all about. See you there!


Happy 2018 - it’s not too late to make resolutions!

We celebrated Rosh Hashanah back in September, but most of us also mark this time of year. Given that we have two “New Years” (more even, there are actually four in the Jewish calendar, the next being Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the trees), it’s useful to pause and reflect. Did you commit yourself to any goals at Rosh Hashanah that need attention now? How have the last few months been? And what are you seeking in the months ahead?

Some of you might be setting resolutions. Others might shrug the tradition off. There are other ways I’ve been exploring this year. Check out the work of who has a New Year’s workbook or, if that’s too much to take on, a little challenge to find one word that will be your anchor this year. Words she suggests might work for you are: presence, mindfulness, hope, peace, rest, joy, laughter, strength. Is there a word that you hope will be thematic for you in 2018?

You might be more interested in asking yourself some questions for reflection. These ones are useful:

As Humanists, asking hard questions about the world and about ourselves is part of our philosophy. As Jews, it might be interesting to consider whether our worldview, our goals/resolutions, and our way of being in the world is inflected and informed by Jewish values and experience.

Do you have any resolutions centred around Judaism for this year? Here are some ideas:

-Learn something new about Judaism (one way is to check out Rabbi Eva’s fabulous adult learning sessions)

-Research a historical period/place and how Jews lived. For example, what was life like for Jews living in the Ottoman Empire? Or Jews in China?

-Start a new Jewish practice: light Shabbat candles each week, start doing Havdallah on a monthly basis (there are Humanistic ways to do these rituals), celebrate a holiday you’ve never celebrated before with your family

-Attend a, or attend more often a, Jewish-themed film, speaker, book talk, etc

-Do some text study online or in a group. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, even Kabbalah…

Sometimes a year is too daunting to consider. Perhaps we can commit to one Jewish value/idea to inspire us and work on per month. Here’s an example (you can sub in your own Jewish values if you wish):

January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)

If you’d like to ask me about Jewish sources or insights into any of these concepts, please drop me a line! I’d love to chat.

The new year ahead is like freshly fallen snow (of which we’ve had plenty!): somehow pure, a little bit like a blank canvas, something inviting us to muck it up and make our tracks all through it. No one’s year will be perfect or pristine. But I hope all of us experience adventure and laughter, joy and peace, health and happiness.

Happy 2018! Let’s make this a great year, together.

#metoo - Thoughts from a Female Rabbi

This piece is the rabbi’s message from the October issue of the Shofar, newsletter of the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism.


As my social media feed was flooded with #metoo messages, I was really struck by how this is a Jewish problem. For context, actor Alyssa Milano started a twitter/facebook post called “me too” and asked women who had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted to post “me too” as a way of highlighting the prevalence of violence against women and girls. It was very effective and effecting. A lot of women I know shared their stories and experiences, and it made me deeply sad to realize how every one of us has a story, has countless stories.

If you read Jewish media, you can see Jewish responses. Actor Mayim Bialik wrote a terrible op-ed in the New York Times that suggested that she didn’t experience this type of harassment and threat because she isn’t traditionally beautiful. Here’s the thing though: this type of abuse of power isn’t about beauty. It’s about power itself. And blaming it on how the woman looks, dresses, or behaves, continues to take the focus off of the perpetrators. And who are these perpetrators? They are the people in our own communities.

Here’s a recent “me too” story of mine: I was officiating a baby naming this past summer. I was standing in the kitchen of the home before the ceremony was set to begin, speaking with the mother of the baby. Her father, whose granddaughter was about to be celebrated and named ceremonially, said this to me: “You’re the rabbi? I was about to make a pass at you!”. What were my choices in this moment? There were a lot of things I wanted to say to him. And if I had been in a different situation, I would have. But I didn’t want to embarrass his daughter and I didn’t want to create tension at the simcha. So I let it go. But guess what? I can’t let it go. It’s part of my experience now as a rabbi, as a woman, as a human. I have to wear it. I have no doubt that he has forgotten this moment and has visited this type of “joke” on woman after woman both before and since.

I’m sure right now you’re thinking something like: “this isn’t really such a big deal. Who cares? Men of that generation grew up thinking this sort of thing was ok.” Notice how we are completely conditioned to find a way to either make the woman in a harassment situation responsible (“stop being so sensitive”) or to excuse the harassment (“boys will be boys”). Guess who is getting off the hook? The harasser. And because that’s the way the discourse works, more serious forms of harassment are equally excused. Women don’t talk about these experiences because they are so often minimized, dismissed, explained away or, worst of all, we are told we did something to “invite” it and/or are overreacting. The whole culture around harassment makes it safe for harassers to keep harassing and unsafe for women to object. So we really shouldn’t be surprised when such silence surrounds other forms of harassment and assault. The dynamic is set up to protect the perpetrators and blame the victims.

What’s the function of that “joke”? It is about him putting me in my place. I have no doubt that my male colleagues in our movement and across the Jewish world have never or rarely had anyone say anything similar. And if they have it still isn’t equivalent. As a woman, I have had so many such jokes, comment, thinly-vieled threats thrown my way that it has become commonplace. What is this “joke” really about? It is about questioning my authority. Mostly, I believe, it is about this man intimating that he has the right to make a joke at my expense. And my job, if I want to go along to get along, to not create a scene, to not be the “type of woman/feminist” who just “can’t take a joke,” is to laugh. I gave a little chuckle. I chuckled at my own expense.
What is the cost to all this? There is a cost to me. There is a cost to his daughter who was standing there (the one I didn’t want to embarrass but was embarrassed by her father all the same). There is a cost to the baby girl who was named that day. All women and girls lose when, in the subtle and countless ways we are made to participate in our own marginalization and oppression, we undermine our very humanity.

I’m sure if you ask most people about this man they would tell you that he is a “nice guy.” That’s what struck me about all the “me too” posts I saw. Most perpetrators of these moments of harassment, assault, and abuse would never acknowledge, may not even realize, the harm they are causing. We have all of these “nice guys” out there visiting terrible pain on the women they often love and, certainly, the many women and girls for whom they harbor contempt. And, yes, I’m singling out men. I know sometimes the perpetrator is a woman. But if we do not acknowledge that this is an expected and encouraged aspect of masculinity, that the vast majority of perpetrators are men, we aren’t going to get at the root of this problem.

Harvey Weinstein, whose fall from grace began this particular cultural moment, is Jewish. Notice that we so often celebrate the Jews who are successful and note with pride that they share our culture. We don’t do that with people whose reputations are not so good; who are infamous as opposed to famous. I am not for a moment suggesting that Weinstein’s predatory impulses stem from his Jewish background. But I am saying that we need to check in about our attitude to this type of behaviour when it is happening by people we know or people who are “one of our own.”
Years ago I was facilitating a women’s self-defence class and a Jewish woman raised her hand and said that there is no problem of violence against women in the Jewish community. It is a myth I have heard repeated many times, even among Oraynuniks. I want to be clear: violence against women and girls is happening in every community. If you think it isn’t happening in yours, it means no one is talking about it. And if no one is talking about it, that means that the perpetrators are not being held to account, women and girls are not being taught to resist, and the culture itself is permitting and promoting the predatory behaviour. I worry that Jewish culture, especially because of external threats, has made it hard for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward. In tight-knit communities, you just don’t name and out one of your own. And in traditional communities where/when women had little power, there was no point to making a disclosure as one’s own life would certainly only get worse.
Many people knew of Weinstein’s actions and said nothing. I have sympathy for the victims who said nothing to avoid tanking their careers. I don’t think the burden falls on the victims of sexual harassment and assault to stop it. I think it’s all the bystanders, those who knew and had power and protected him, that deserve some scrutiny here. There are times that some of us have known someone who crossed the line. Did we say something, even if it was awkward or difficult? Can we speak out, even when it outs someone we like or love?

There are stories of sexual assault from our earliest Jewish sources. The biblical Sarah is forced into the harems of Pharoah and Avimelech, and Abraham does not object (but God does). Similarly the biblical Dina is raped (some cool revisionings of the text ascribe her more agency though), and so is Tamar. Vashti and Esther in the story of Purim are seen as feminist heroes but are objectified terribly. And so it goes.
Why are these stories important? For women readers of Jewish texts, they can serve as a sort of “me too;” a reminder that these stories have been part of the lives of women forever. They also remind us that Jewish culture is no different from other cultures. These problems are our own. And it is within our own communities that we must combat them.

I know that at Oraynu we have female leadership and a long history of standing up for equity and gender justice. And yet I hate to think we might submit to a “you’ve come a long way, baby” attitude around gender justice. There is more work to do. Here are some questions to discuss with your partner/family/community of friends and neighbours to get ideas going about how to work towards a world where my daughter, and the little girl from that baby naming, don’t all have their own “me too” stories:

Do you talk to your children (if applicable) about consent? Do you make sure no one can hug or kiss them without permission? Do you honour their “no” and their bodily autonomy every time?

Who does the bulk of the housework and childcare (if applicable) in your home? Even if you think it’s equal, check in. Sometimes people are surprised by all the invisible work that gets done.

Who is responsible for creating family gatherings, special events, remembering birthdays, etc?

Who leads the organization of the household: coordinating appointments, knowing what events are coming up, keeping everything on track?

Who takes care of other people’s emotional lives? Is everyone receiving equal care?

Does anyone feel overburdened or overlooked?

If someone has or does experience(d) harassment or assault, is there space to discuss it? Are they taken seriously? Are they heard and believed?

Does everyone agree that things are fully equal?

It is my belief that all families and communities can work to create a better balance, to foster a truer equity. As Jews, Humanists, and citizens, this is our job. And, as all of those “me too” posts tell us, the time has surely come.

Jewish Mother's Day

Jewish Mother's Day11:31 AM — Denise Handlarski

I'll bet you didn't know there was a Jewish Mother's Day! I only found out this past year myself. The day is in honour of the biblical matriarch Rachel who dies in childbirth and who cries for the children of her people living in exile. 

Some people take the biblical narrative literally. Some see the stories of our matriarchs as narrative figures who prefigure a kind of feminine and feminist strength. Either way, how nice that feminist Jews around the world mark this day as a day to commemorate, honour, and celebrate Jewish mothers.

I'm so grateful to be part of a Jewish doula group called Imeinu (our mothers) who will get together today by teleconference and/or in person to discuss birth, babies, and the beauty of motherhood. I have so often seen how lines of sisterhood are drawn around issues of motherhood, and I find it moving and inspiring.

For more on the significance of today, this is a blog by Wendy Na'amah Klein, coordinator of the Imeinu doula collective, all about it.

Attitude of Gratitude

It's the season for all kinds of giving thanks. I am ambivalent about the holiday of Thanksgiving because of its colonial history, but I love the idea of setting aside time to be grateful. If you're like me, this is something you have to work at. I can be naturally critical; I have high expectations of myself and sometimes therefore have (too) high expectations of others. I generally have a positive, happy, hopeful outlook but I can get a little mired in blame, grudges, and negativity. So I actively cultivate a practice of gratitude. I know that sounds a little "woo" for some people, but there is good science to show that a positive outlook, gratitude, and shifts to attitude make a big difference in overall health and happiness.  

So what does this look like for me?

I notice. Every single day I take time to think about the people I love most and how precious and beautiful they are. My partner makes fun of me for commenting every single day how beautiful our kids are. But I really do want to notice this every single day. They are beautiful in every way -- so intelligent, creative, inquisitive, adventurous, happy, and fun. So much beauty in my life comes from them and I don't want the drudgery of parenting and housework to cloud my ability to see that.

I meditate. Not as often as I should but I know that this practice helps me work on my overall mindfulness and presence and I think both are essential for quality work and relationships.

I say thank you. I try to really be focused and present when I say thank you whether it is to a colleague, a family member, or my barista. I make eye contact. I smile. I wish them well. I am really intentional about how I say thank you both for the person I'm thanking's benefit and for my own. I want to feel the thanks I'm giving so I remember I'm lucky to be receiving something.

I consciously shift my attitude. I am a sleep-deprived person with two big jobs and two little kids. It's pretty easy for me to get grumpy. I'm working on noticing when I'm grumpy and trying to change my state (through breathing, exercise, noticing what's awesome about the moment I'm in, etc.)

What does all this have to do with anything?

Jewishly, this is the time of year to have an attitude of gratitude. We've come through the High Holidays, full of reflection, goal setting, atonement, recommitting to one's values. Now is the festival of Sukkot -- a harvest festival where one is meant to put up a "hut" and invite guests. Why the guests? The history of the "ushpizin" is interesting in itself but here's a modern take: if you could have anyone in your sukkah, fictional or real, living or dead, who would it be? Why? Ideally, there are things we would want to learn about and from that person.  

Guess what? Every person around us has the potential to be someone we can learn about and from; eveyrone around us might change our lives in small ways (letting us move ahead in the grocery line, offering a smile on a crowded subway car, buying a coffee if we're short on change), or big ways (becoming someone important in our lives, helping us profoundly, giving unimaginably). And we have the power to affect others too.

If you know me, you know I'm a believer in stories. I love literature. I love hearing about people and their paths. Recently in my job as a professor, I got to take my students into our traditional tipi (I'm lucky enough to teach somewhere with a strong Indigenous program and focus), and I asked students to share a story from their culture. We started with Indigenous Canadian stories about the power of stories themselves. And then people shared stories from all corners of the world.

We spoke about how many cultures have a harvest festival at this time of year, and often story sharing is part of those festivals. From Indigenous Canada, to the mid-autumn festival of Vietnam, to my own Jewish culture, there is a time and place to come together, trade narratives, and listen and learn. Of course, this is about more than the stories themselves. This is about how families and communities bond and grow.

I'm so grateful for the wonderful people in my life, who allow me to be part of their unfolding story. At this time of year, a time to celebrate abundance, and humanity - from guests, to strangers, to those closest to us, it's nice to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. We all have challenges and sometimes things are hard. They are made easier when we focus on what we're thankful for.