Shavuot and the Book of Ruth

This past Saturday evening my congregation once again participated in the JCC’s all night learning evening, the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Shavuot became a holiday for learning, originally Torah study and more recently Jewish learning of all kinds, because early rabbis claimed that Shavuot was when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. Some believe it was given by God. Others believe it was given to Moses by God. Some believe it was divinely written. Some believe it was divinely inspired. We believe it was written by people for human needs. I take none of it literally, but I do find the stories in it to be instructive on the concerns of the day. 

The Book of Ruth is traditionally read at Shavuot, because it mentions the harvest and this holiday’s earliest roots, before stories of the giving of Torah, are agricultural. We plant at Passover and we harvest at Shavuot. 

If you have never read the Book of Ruth, it’s worth a look! It is really great storytelling about love between women, a sexual ruse, the practice of Levirate marriage and the chalitzah shoe ritual (google it!), and more. The best parts of the Book of Ruth are what they show us about intermarriage and conversion.

The story centres around Ruth who has married a Judean. Note, there is no mention of how this intermarriage was a problem. It seems from this text that intermarriage is fine (the Torah and the Talmud both contain conflicting messages about intermarriage, signalling that our forebears struggled with this issue over time. Some things never change). For intermarried folks, the Book of Ruth is a nice affirmation that marriages like ours were/are traditional in their way. 

Ruth’s husband dies and Naomi tells her to return to her people because she doesn’t have the means to take care of her. But Ruth famously says “wherever you go, I’ll go. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” Boom. Conversion. No lengthy learning program. No ritual. Just a decision to be Jewish and a commitment to be part of the people.

That’s how Secular Humanistic Jews see conversion too. If you are a Jew by Choice, you are welcome to take on a program of learning and a ritual to mark your becoming of a Jew, but you don’t have to. You can simply decide that you identify with the history, fate, and culture of the Jewish people. 

For us, the Book of Ruth resonates on issues of conversion and intermarriage. As I said, it is also a great read! If you haven’t read it, no need to wait for next year’s Shavuot. Here it is!   Enjoy! 

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A Time to Dance


If you come to my congregation’s High Holiday services, you know that bit of Ecclesiastes: A time to be born, a time to die...

One of the rarely thought about lines from that passage is “a time to dance.” I have been thinking about dancing a lot lately. I go to a dance class many Wednesday mornings. It’s a real mix of abilities, ages, body types, genders, and more. I love seeing this group each week, strutting their stuff to fun music. The goal is not to become talented or put on a show. The goal is to be in the moment, be in our bodies, and have fun.

I read recently that dancing is one of the best forms of exercise because it really forges a mind/body connection; our brains have to concentrate on the steps. It also tends to be easier on the joints than other activities. Most of all, it’s fun and when we do what is fun for us we stick with it.

Of course, dancing is more than fitness. It’s about culture — most cultures have a form of dance that is traditional, often done in groups. Jewish peoples may do Israeli dance, or Eastern European dances set to Klezmer music, or dances more local to Sepharad, incorporating Spanish style. Sometimes at Oraynu events we do folk dancing. It is a beautiful community-building activity. Dancing is, at heart, an expression of joy.

The most common place I get to dance is at weddings. It is a mitzvah (good deed) to dance at a wedding, for it is a way of publicly celebrating the couple, and showing one’s support. It is also a way to increase joy and, at a wedding — as in life generally — the more joy we can spread around the better we make ourselves and others feel.

This past weekend my kids were away with their dad and so I took the opportunity to go dancing with some friends. It was such a nice feeling of release and joy. I want that for all of you!

Here’s my challenge: can you find a place to go dancing in the next month? A folk dance class, a studio, a gym, a wedding, something else? Even and especially those with mobility challenges deserve to find a place that makes dancing accessible for them. Email me if you need ideas. And here’s a rabbi secret of mine: when I’m working from home I often pop on a dancing video to break up the time sitting. I recommend the Fitness Marshall — very silly and fun. Don’t worry about getting the steps right, just move.

Here’s to increasing joy, fitness, movement, and connecting with culture! A time to dance!

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The Fitness Marshall is on YouTube. It’s my break while writing blogs and books :) 

The Wandering Jews

In the story of Exodus, after the Israelites fled Egypt they wandered in the desert for 40 years. I don’t understand this story to be true or literal but, imagine for a moment that it is, it’d be pretty hard to take that long to get from Egypt to Israel. I mean, they’re really not that far apart. The wandering is the point. The people had to figure out how to be a people. Had they arrived in the Promised Land quickly after escaping slavery, they wouldn’t have appreciated it and known how to be a functioning society within it.

You’ll often hear people say things like “it’s not the destination but the journey that counts.” That’s not usually how I live. I’m prone to rushing to get places. I have a tendency to be focused on the next thing and not the thing I’m currently experiencing. I am often pretty destination-focused.

Given that we are finally in a spring that took a long time to, well, spring, and that it’s good to get 10,000 steps a day, and that it’s hard to stay productive without breaks, I’ve been trying to go for more walks lately. Every May I do David Suzuki’s 30 x 30 challenge, getting outside for at least 30 minutes of every day for 30 days. The goal is to experience nature so that we’ll want to protect nature; to remind ourselves that are part of the eco-system. Many of my walks were to and from daycare/school for drop-off or pick-up, or to the store when we are out of bread. Places I had to get to anyway so I might as well walk. But some days, just recently, I started to just walk for the sake of walking. No destination in mind.

It really is different to wander around without a goal. It’s slower and more peaceful. One notices flowers and birdsong. One might even stop at a park bench to admire the sunset.

Jews are often called the wandering people because of our many histories of exile and placelessness. We are a dislocated people. Many Jews have often “wandered” from synagogue to synagogue, looking for an option that fits our values. In our community, we are lucky to be somewhat settled. Most of us are settled where we live, and are settled in a community that does fit with our personal ideologies and values. We have arrived, so to speak.

I propose for us a two-directional challenge: to be happy where we are and to wander aimlessly. There is room for both. Wherever you are, literally in this moment, what is there to appreciate? We all could benefit from a bit more mindful attention to where we are and what we’re doing. By the same token, give yourself permission to wander around without a destination. Enjoy the journey. See what there is to appreciate by moving from place to place without a goal in mind.

I have often said that until I found Secular Humanistic Judaism I was wandering and wondering what kind of Jew I’d be. Here’s the Jew I want to be: someone who is able to sit still, go for walks, be happy with where I am, continue my journey. And to do it in community with you.

Till next week,

Denise

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A couple of wild turkeys I spotted on a recent walk

Pro-choice

As you have no doubt heard, there have been serious limitations to abortion rights and access in several states south of the border. If you are like me, this fills you with rage and despair. Not only is this a clear expression of sexism and limiting choices, freedom, and the well-being and health for and of women, but it is also a serious sign of the blurring between church and state. After all, the main push for anti-abortion, anti-choice legislation is the religious right.

I care very much about ending sexism. I care very much about the separation between church and state. These are my values as a person who is informed and guided by the ethics of Humanistic Judaism. In our secular, cultural expression of Judaism, we make justice central, and we take seriously the idea that religion and tradition get a vote but never a veto over what we decide to be our ethics, morals, and values.

Many Jewish groups and organizations have statements supporting pro-choice policies. It is a bit of a no-brainer that our branch of Judaism, always concerned with gender justice from the beginning, has one. Here is the statement from the Society for Humanistic Judaism: http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/choice/. Interestingly, I saw similar statements issued from many Jewish groups, even from the orthodox world. For example, the one from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance includes this: “JOFA’s position has consistently been that women and couples should consult their physicians and personal halakhic advisers in making decisions about abortion and reproductive health care without the involvement of the government. We support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body.”

Of special note to Jews is the way that lawmakers and other anti-choice pundits and protestors liken abortion to the Holocaust. This is a serious appropriation of a history that harmed Jews, Queer folks, the Roma people, and many others. To use this history to limit the rights of women (who comprise at least half of world Jewry), is greatly offensive.

If you are interested in learning more about Judaism and abortion, this is a useful article: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/abortion-in-jewish-thought/. Most of the Jewish world is in favour of pro-choice governmental policies, because we prize life above all else and, in this case, the life of the woman carrying the fetus is seen as the greater life to protect. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that we know there is no way to stop abortion, only to stop legal and safe abortion, and that without access to legal and safe abortion many women will be harmed and killed.

I know we Canadians can sometimes feel immune from the effects of American politics, but we are very close neighbours indeed. Just as the Trump presidency has emboldened white supremacists, we see the same uptick in hate in Canada. Now that there is a push to overturn legal abortion in the US, we see Canadian politicians beginning to attend and hold rallies to do the same here. We need to be vigilant and make sure all politicians from all parties know that we will not stand for a rollback of rights for women.

As a Humanist, as Jew, as a feminist, and as a concerned citizen, I’m going to be out there being loud on this issue. I hope you’ll join me.

Till next week,

Denise

Religion and Sex

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Society for Humanistic Judaism took place just ten days ago. Many of us gathered at a large event at the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit to celebrate our Jewish movement and the awesome communities we’ve created, social justice work we’ve done, and our continued push to separate “church” (religion) and state.

Rabbi Jeff Falick (Birmingham Temple) and I co-led a session on the Association of Humanistic Rabbis statement on Sexual Ethics, available at this link. The reason the AHR felt we needed this statement is that religious leaders from all faiths have always regulated sexuality, often in dangerous and harmful ways. From horrible homophobia, to hidden pedophilia, to encouraging marital relations where women have no power, religious influences in the bedroom have been forces for oppression. As rabbis, we know we have the power to influence and lead, and so we wanted to use our voices to promote sexual ethics, not the kind that come from the bible or rabbis living centuries ago, but the kind that come from our contemporary understandings.

The separation of church/state is particularly important in schools. Part of my work is in sexual health education, and I understand that devastating effects of religious interference in this crucial education. Abstinence-only, or fear-based sex-ed, has led to high rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and terrible attitudes and shame about sex. Worse yet, they allow for homophobia and heterosexism to go unchecked, and encourage or at least do not actively discourage unhealthy sexual attitudes and relationships.

Those in Ontario know that we have been waging a fight for good sexual health education, with religious groups in the way of what we know to be best for student outcomes in terms of health, fostering consensual and healthy relationships, and positive identity and inclusion for LGBTQ folks. These are literally matters of life or death.

One of the things that drives me completely bananas about the folks (often espousing religious values) who are opposed to sex ed being taught in schools, is that they are also often anti-choice (they call themselves “pro-life” but they know people die from unsafe back alley abortions and don’t much care). There is *so* much data to show that when students have good sex ed in school, rates of abortion go down. When abstinence-only education is offered, rates of abortion go up. So, if you want abortion to be rare, you should be the first to demand good sexual health education. It’s the same religious groups who are against abortion that are against sex ed. It makes no sense.

Last week I was in a room full of teachers, and we were talking about everything from the pill to pornography, chlamydia to consent. This is not only part of my work as a teacher, I see it as part of my work as a rabbi. We need our spiritual communities to take a stand and demand good, healthy, evidence-based education.

So, read the statement. Seek out and support religious clergy and institutions that are strongly pro-choice and always, meaningfully, on the side of humanity, dignity, and women’s rights.

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Some “hands on” learning for my Teacher Candidates.

Love and Death

This past weekend folks from all over North America gathered at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s 50th anniversary summit. The SHJ is the movement organization for Secular Humanistic Jews and communities.

It was a dynamic and powerful weekend, with speakers and programs talking about how we do Judaism meaningfully, advocate for the separation of church and state effectively, add joy and beauty to people’s lives authentically, and much more.

The folks who were there got an immersive experience in what Secular Jewish communities can provide: deep and meaningful connection with culture and community. We sang, ate, laughed, and learned together. But then, sadly, we also had to grieve together.

On Saturday evening, just as we were preparing for a beautiful Havdalah service and getting ready to welcome a Jew by choice, a beloved member of SecularSynagogue.com, into the people and our Humanistic Jewish community, we heard about the shooting in California.

It was such a sad reminder that the love and joy we were experiencing could be the target of hate. Even as people are wanting to join our community, others are wanting to destroy it.

There is a lot you can read about the shooting, including the victims and the attacker. One detail that resonates with me as a spiritual leader is that the rabbi, shot in the hand, stayed after the shooter left and finished his sermon, not wanting to leave without offering his community some solace.

It is difficult to find the words. We are struck by the pointless suffering and waste of human life. We are struck by the depth of hate. We are struck by the needlessness of gun violence. We are struck by our own fear and vulnerability. It is hard to find solace and comfort and hope.

In our movement, we often sing  a song called Ayfo Oree - where is my light. It includes the words “Where is my light? Where is my strength? Where is my hope? In me... and in you.”

These are the only words of solace I can offer you. There is no magic solution to the problems and hate we face. All there is is the light, strength and hope we find in ourselves and in each other.

Now more than ever, communities of love and support need to come together. There is real power in that. I felt it this weekend and I often feel it at Oraynu, my community in Toronto, and I feel it online at SecularSynagogue.com. We need each other.

As I have offered before, if you are needing someone to talk to in the aftermath of this shooting, even if I don’t know you yet, please send me an email or give me a call. I am here for you.

Take care of yourselves. Remember that while it’s healthy to grieve and to feel anger, fear, and loss, it is also healthy to make space for light, joy, love, and laughter. This is the human experience and we are in it together.

Sending love and light this week and always,

Rabbi Denise

Dr. Carolyn Kay and I at a vigil in Peterborough, Ontario after the PIttsburgh Synagogue shooting

Dr. Carolyn Kay and I at a vigil in Peterborough, Ontario after the PIttsburgh Synagogue shooting

You are what you eat

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During Passover many Jews avoid certain foods, most notably bread and anything that is leavened. We do this to remind ourselves of the Israelites who, the story goes, fled Egypt so fast their bread didn't have time to rise. Matzah, the resulting cracker-like bread, is the "bread of affiction." But Passover is a joyful holiday, unlike Yom Kippur when many Jews "afflict their souls" by fasting, Passover is not about deprivation. We avoid certain foods because in doing so we internalize the meaning of the holiday, literally and figuratively taking the story in.

Passover is all about freedom. This past weekend we marked not only the start of Passover, with the ritual and goings-on of the seder, but also Earth Day, with the rituals of park clean ups and letter writing campaigns. The two holidays work really nicely together: both happen in and are meant to mark springtime, both are about making the world better, both involve an element of resistance.

Just as the Israelites should not have had to fight so hard for Pharoah to let them go, we should not have to fight so hard for climate justice. But we do. Our current Pharoahs are political and business leaders who are not doing enough to reverse climate change. This should not be a partisan issue; we have but one world (no Planet B!) and it is ours to protect.

In Judaism we speak of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and that has never been more needed, literally, than right now.

So, I encourage you to keep the meaning of Passover relevant and relay it into action. In this e-blast there are several petitions you can sign, if you wish. If not that, then find the version of tikkun olam that works for you.

One thing all of us can do is to think of what we consume and how we consume it. If you are concerned about climate change, one of the most impactful things you can do is to eat less meat. I have been a vegan/vegetarian/pescatarian at different times (currently I eat a little bit of fish when it's sustainable) for the last 25 years.

I don't believe in prosthelytizing about vegetarianism any more than I do about Judaism. Having said that, I know a lot of us are concerned about the planet and want to make a difference. You don't need to be fully vegetarian to make a difference by consuming consciously.

Here is some information and ideas you can try that bring together vegetarianism and Judaism: https://www.jewishveg.org/what-you-can-do

Remember, the point isn't affliction/suffering. I want you to truly and deeply enjoy whatever food you're eating, including matzah. We need to sustain ourselves as we sustain our world.

Have a beautiful end to your Passover and Earth week!

Why is this night different?

Passover is my very favourite holiday of the year. I really adore sitting down to a seder that is, each year, both familiar and new. I love the ritual and tradition, the storytelling aspect, the focus on children, and, of course, the food.

Jewish teachings indicate that we are to make the seder new each year. I challenge you to figure out how to do that around your seder table this year. Perhaps it’s a new addition to the seder plate (last week I spoke about Ruth’s mix for intermarried/intercultural folks). Perhaps it’s a new poem or reading. Perhaps you find a creative and fun way to tell the story of the Exodus (one year my family told it by enacting the scenes in a game of charades).

The point of making it new is not just to keep things interesting, although that’s a worthwhile goal in itself. The point is that we must see ourselves as though we were slaves in Egypt, moving from oppression to freedom. For that to happen, the seder must be experiential and evocative. If our traditions are stale, we will experience distance from the story.

Each seder we ask “why is this night different from all other nights?” We should also ask why this particular night, this particular seder, is unique or special.

One of the things that makes each seder unique is the people who share the table. Sometimes there will be a new person: a new guest, friend, partner, child, who is at the table for the first time. Sometimes it’s the same group of people but everyone is at a new stage of their lives: having gotten married or had a baby, having lost a partner or loved one, having retired, changed jobs, or experiencing some other new change. Each year we grow and evolve and so each year we ourselves are new at the seder table. Take the time to find out who and how everyone is this year. And take the time to find out why this night is special, different from all other seders and gatherings.

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Photo of a Seder plate one person made for the SecularSynagogue.com Seder. If you missed it, join the community now so you don’t miss all the other fantastic things we’re up to! 

Intermarried/intercultural mixing it up this Passover

Passover is my favourite holiday! One of the things I love about it is how we take tradition and make it our own. This is something many secular/cultural Jews do all the time, for we give tradition a vote but not a veto in all of our Jewish practices. But at Passover this is what all Jews are meant to do: stick to traditional ritual and storytelling, but do it in a new way each year.

Do you use a contemporary Haggadah?

Do you tell the story of the Exodus in creative ways?

Do you put an orange on your Seder plate for gender and LGBTQ equality? (If so, you may want to check out the real story behind it: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/an-orange-on-the-seder-plate/)

There is a brand new tradition I’ll be incorporating this year. It comes from JewBelong, a website dedicated to eliminating “JewBarrassment,” the feeling we sometimes get in Jewish spaces when we don’t know what’s going on. This is for Jews and also for those who join Jewish families via Intermarriage, or others who end up with us at holidays and celebrations.

JewBelong’s Haggadah encourages adding “Ruth’s Mix” to the Seder plate. The biblical Ruth married into our people, and her mix on the plate is to show that all are welcome at the Seder table, particularly non-Jews in intercultural families. The mix is a blend of almonds, raisins, and chocolate, all delicious separately, but even better together. As folks eat the mix they consider that bringing cultures and peoples together heightens our joy.

If you want to check out their Haggadah with the section about Ruth’s mix, it’s here: http://www.jewbelong.com/holidays/passover/

Here’s to mixing it up and welcoming all at our Seder tables!!

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Passover prep


As soon as the beginning of April hits, I often realize that I have not prepared for Passover the way I had meant to. Every year I imagine I will create my own Haggadah (in my case, kid-friendly), clean my whole house in the manner of Marie Kondo, get to the end of my work to-do list, and then fall into the perfect seder-mode, as though some kind of Passover queen.

None of those things happen, usually.

Last year I did successfully create a kid-friendly Haggadah, using a blend of Oraynu’s fabulous Haggadah Roots and Branches (we sell those! You can get a set for your own table!),  and the resources on Haggadot.com. This website has assembled sources on all aspects of the Haggadah so you can easily create your own. Yes, most sources are theistic/traditional, but you can edit as you wish. It’s work, but I like that we have a family Haggadah made just for us.

The rest does not happen and is not likely to happen, if I’m being honest. The best I’m going to do on the house cleaning front is making it passable in short spurts (I like the method of putting on fast music and setting a timer for seven minutes) and perhaps a controlled amount of decluttering. My work to-do list will continue to get ever-lengthier, not shorter. I’ll resemble more of a Passover working mom than queen. But all of that is just fine!

I really think that we tend to sweat the small stuff when it comes to Passover prep, and lose sight of the big picture. What is this holiday about? It’s about ending oppression, celebrating freedom, gathering with loved ones, and engaging with a story that has served as the cornerstone of Jewish culture and community. It really doesn’t matter if you haven’t prepared the perfect meal with 8 courses or cleaned each speck of chametz (bread items) or dust from your home.

For me, the big moment of joy last year was hearing my nephew and daughter sing “Ma Nishtana,” the Four Questions, in Hebrew. There is something so powerful about the intergenerational links that celebrating Passover creates. I remember seders from childhood and it’s amazing to see my kids experience their power now.

So, do your prep. Keep your eye on the important stuff. If your home is a little more cluttered or your to-do list a little too long, you can still have a wonderful holiday.

To help you along, I’ve created a Passover prep guide. Check it out here:

 https://www.secularsynagogue.com/free-download

Happy Passover prep, everyone!

 

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Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now.

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages.

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical).

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting.

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now.

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages.

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical).

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting.

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

Beyond Thoughts and Prayers

I write this on the day that news broke of a horrendous terrorist attack, murdering dozens of worshippers at two Christchurch Mosques. You know the story, and have all processed this in your way. That morning, on my way to an appointment, I saw a simple bouquet of flowers placed at the closed door of a Mosque. I was touched that someone had the thoughtfulness to create that simple, loving gesture of support.

It’s never going to be something I can comprehend; taking the lives of others because of fear and hate will never make sense to me. I’m sure you feel the same way. The senseless loss of life, and destruction of families and communities, is mind-boggling and heart-wrenching. We are reading and hearing, and will continue to read and hear, stories of these people. It’s important that we do that; these were real people with real lives and they deserved to be remembered as humans and not numbers in a climbing death-toll. But I want to use this space to talk about some of these issues in a broader frame. This isn’t to detract from the sadness and loss, it’s to help ensure these attacks stop so there needn’t be more sadness and loss.

I think the time is here for some brave conversations. It’s easy and uncontroversial to say that our thoughts are with the victims and their families. It’s harder to say what is true in our hearts but, as Secular Humanistic Jews, that’s our way of being: we say what we believe and we believe what we say. We know these attackers were fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiment. It is dangerous and it is widespread, both abroad and here at home.

I am deeply concerned about political leaders who fan the flames of white supremacy by scapegoating and targeting immigrants and refugees. I am also angry at our leaders who can’t find it in themselves to denounce white supremacists. None of us is responsible for what happened in Christchurch, but each of us is responsible for holding our leaders to account and letting them know that xenophobia and hate have no place here. I urge you to consider that voting for someone who speaks alongside known white supremacists sends the message that this, all of this, is ok. It’s so far from ok.

We already know that the dynamics that led to this attack on Mosques are the same dynamics that led to the attacks in a Pittsburgh synagogue last fall. For all the tension between Jews and Muslims, we face a very real common enemy now: the growing movements of white supremacists who enjoy proximity to people in power, who are emboldened by fake news and hate online, and who have access to weapons that should not exist. This is all my own opinion and, as always, you are welcome to disagree. But I’m beyond tears now; I’m angry. I think a lot of you feel the same way. We need to be loud that this can’t keep happening. We deserve a much kinder, loving world.

Writing, working, wishing while the world is on fire

Some of you may know that I take classes at a creative writing studio. I am not artistic in most ways: I can’t sing or play a musical instrument, I can’t paint or draw, I can’t sculpt or craft. But I do like to write. For a really long time I avoided creative writing because I was doing so much writing for work or school or necessity. The very last thing I wanted to do after spending all day working on my doctoral dissertation was sit down in front of yet another blank page.

Two years ago I decided to find my way back to writing creatively and it has been lovely. I’m not a great writer or anything but I love the dedicated and special time it gives me to sit quietly, to look inwardly, and to create something. Even if what I create is silly or not particularly evocative, it’s so nice to simply be engaged in creativity.

Currently I’m taking a class meant for people who work in helping professions or do social justice work. It’s called “writing while the world is on fire.” Whoa, right? The world is on fire? Sometimes it feels that way.

If, like me, you simply can’t face turning on/reading the news sometimes. If you are overwhelmed by big struggles like climate change, political divisiveness, poverty, and whatever else it is that keeps you up at night, it can feel really hard to enjoy the beautiful moments in every day life.

This writing class is about making time/space to find that enjoyment. It feels like the world is on fire and so it can be easy to give up and say “why bother?” To our work, our dreams, and/or our creative passions. But it is precisely because it feels like the world is on fire that the world needs us at our best. We can’t be at our best if we don’t make time to process the things that are hard, and to celebrate the things that are good.

I hope this message feels like an invitation to make a little space for your own creativity, in whatever form it takes for you. What do you need to fill your cup; to recharge so you can keep writing, working, wishing for a better future, even when the world is on fire?

The Torah, the Ten Commandments and Us

This week’s Torah portion is such a juicy one and has so many great resonances. This is probably a familiar story: Moses ascends the mountain and while he’s gone, the people build a Golden Calf. Moses comes down with the Ten Commandments and is so angry that he smashes the tablets.

There are lots of interpretations for what the Golden Calf might symbolize. For many today, we see it as money or stuff — the true idolatry of our day is that we as a society worship things. The goldenness of the calf fits nicely with that drash/interpretation. The Golden Calf is, of course, symbolic of any form of idolatry for, as we see when we get the decalogue, the first commandment is all about having only one God.

Years ago when I studied in Israel as part of my rabbinic training, I attended a great class at the non-denominational Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. In the week of Ki Tissa, this biblical portion, the instructor posted a question I had never thought of: how did this group of Israelites wandering around the desert have the gold to make the calf? She suggested we look earlier in the Exodus narrative. Sure enough, just before the Israelites are leaving Egypt and about to cross the Red Sea, they ask their Egyptian neighbours for stuff to take on their journey

So, according to the story (and, yes, I believe this is a story, not history), the Egyptians helped the Israelites with items of value, including gold, and the Israelites used all that to build a golden calf instead of building a better life.

What’s the lesson? Well, firstly, we are told many times in the bible to “love the stranger, for you (we) were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It’s worth remembering that the Egyptian folks in the story weren’t uniformly bad — they tried to help us out, even after the plagues! And that the Israelites in the story weren’t uniformly good — they mess up too.

I loved thinking of the golden calf in these terms because it’s a reminder that we as humans have the potential to build amazing things, particularly when we share and cooperate, and yet so much of what we do with our resources amounts to nothing but garbage.

Whatever you have been given and are carrying with you, my hope is that you use it towards good. The golden calf provided false hope for a desperate people. Our job is to avoid succumbing to such false hope, to meet our own desperation or fear or despair or yearning with bravery and courage, and to build something more beautiful.

Finally, a fun activity to do with Sunday school kids is to come up with a new Ten Commandments - what are the ten rules everyone should live by? There are some in the original we might keep (like honouring your parents; that’s a good one). There are some we might discard. We might prefer to see new stuff in there, like protect the earth and its creatures, show respect and kindness, have dance parties regularly, or always say yes to cake. What are your ten?

Race and the Jewish Community

Last year, the Oraynu Congregation (where I serve as rabbi) hosted a series of sessions on social justice issues in the Jewish community. We’ve also been working together on Indigenous reconciliation and solidarity. One of the things I love about our community is our commitment to justice, even when it is hard.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that there have been a lot of discussions about racism within Jewish communities. I wrote about this in relation to the women’s march just last month. And here we are again. I also just returned from a Rabbis Without Borders retreat where our educational focus was racism and Judaism. I spent months going through resources and really expanded my own thinking. I want to share just a few of them with you:

--On recent news about the tweet by Ilhan Omar on AIPAC, a piece by Nylah Burton, a Jew of colour whose perspective I value: https://t.co/LGkoKyDNfJ?amp=1

--From Toronto’s own Tema Smith, on Jews and whiteness / passing:  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/jewish-and/on-passing-and-not-trying-to-pass/

--Be’chol Lashon, which provided training at Rabbis Without Borders, and has fantastic resources: http://bechollashon.org/

--Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility I strongly recommend. Check out some of her ideas here: https://youtu.be/DwIx3KQer54

--And last year when I had to cancel an Oraynu program on Jews and white privilege because of snow (must it always snow when we have a program on???) I did it via Facebook Live and you can watch it here: https://www.facebook.com/Oraynu/videos/1591282274287729/

Join me in learning about this important issue and let me know if you have any questions or want to discuss anything in these resources.

Until next week,

Denise

Love and conflict

Today we are celebrating Valentine’s Day. Coincidentally, this year our February 14th falls on the 9th of the Jewish month of Adar. Now, this pairing is perfect because Adar is meant to be a joyful, playful holiday. It’s the holiday of Purim and its mask-wearing merrymaking. It’s also a tricky month, a double month in a Jewish leap year (which this year is!), meaning at the end of Adar we start right back up at the beginning of Adar again. So it’s perfect that we should think of joy and celebration as the theme for the month of Valentine’s Day.

When I think of Valentine’s Day, I think of all kinds of iterations, whether or not one has a romantic partner. It could be a day to celebrate friendship (Galentine’s Day for some!), it could be a day to focus on self-love and how you honour yourself. It’s also a good day to consider the Jewish teaching to “love the stranger” and do good in the world.  Let’s think of love really broadly... we need to give and get it.

Although Adar is a joyous, playful, happy month, the 9th of Adar brings in some seriousness. It is said that on this day the houses of Hillel and Shammai, often in disagreement, turned violent against each other. It is a fast day for some observant Jews and a day that reminds us to consider how we manage conflict. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, right? Ok, so what we think of for Valentine’s Day isn’t usually sorting out our conflict but, of course, doing so is necessary for a happy house. So, I have two suggestions for this 9th of Adar/Valentine’s Day:

1) arrange to resolve some issue or conflict in your life

2) make a date that is filled with joy

Sometimes we need a balance of both! Neither the date nor the conflict resolution need be with a partner. To do the work of conflict resolution, we do need to be in a trusting, loving setting. And the work is hard, so we should reward ourselves with something that brings us joy. The conflict can be at work and the date with a friend. The conflict can be with a family member and the date with yourself. Both can be with a partner/spouse, or neither. Up to you.

To help you along, here are some resources from the 9 Adar project which seeks to use Jewish wisdom and sources to help with healthy conflict resolution. There is a lot to explore so here are just a few links to get you started:

From the 9Adar organization, their complete web site, and their resource guide.

From the Jewish learning institution Pardes, some text study, here and here.

After all that hard work, reward yourself with a date (partner, friend, family member, solo, strangers, anyone). Here are some ideas beyond the usual dinner out:

- See an Oscar-nominated film to be able to be in the know during the awards

- Go skating

- Read a book of poetry in a cafe or pub by candlelight

- Make some art (there are many paint night places around to check out)

- Attend a concert/performance

- Play a board game

Wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day, a meaningful 9th of Adar, and a joyful month!

 

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Letting go and reclaiming

We’ve seen some interesting changes and evolutions in Jewish life. There are some things that, as Humanistic/secular/cultural Jews we’ve let go of (prayer services, tefillin/phylacteries, keeping kosher), while there are other things perhaps we’ve embraced (Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, matzo ball soup). I always find it interesting to look over time at what people thought was a must-have/do Jewishly, and what people thought was treyf. For example, early 20th century secular Jews, usually the Yiddish-speaking, labour-movement kind, would not typically celebrate holidays that had particular religious resonance. Yom Kippur was out. So were many other holy-days. As secularists, they had no interest. Most of us today do mark holidays like Yom Kippur, finding the human-centred or cultural meanings of the holiday and making them our own.

I’ve been thinking about reclamations as I prepare to visit the mikvah. A mikvah is the Jewish ritual bath, often done when people mark a life transition, such as conversion into Judaism, marriage, or before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the new year. The most common reason people use the mikvah is to satisfy the family/purity laws; women must use it after menstruation to cleanse. More on that in a moment.

This won’t be my first mikvah experience. Before I got married I did a riff on the bridal mikvah visit and created a beach-side ceremony for and with the women in my life. We all went into the lake together. Last year as I was researching birth traditions for my Jewish Doula work, I came across many different ways mikvah is used to prepare or heal from birth. I decided to visit a mikvah in Toronto because I found a Shomeret (often called a “mikvah lady”) who would let me do a secular version of blessings and let me create some other readings/ritual for my particular needs. I found the whole thing to be really lovely... I became a mikvah person.

This is surprising, not least of all to myself, because for many years I would have said that the tradition of the mikvah is completely rooted in sexist beliefs. Women are unclean? Puh-leaze. Many of you have likely heard me talking about visiting a mikvah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn when I was on a Lubavitch-led trip. I was about thirteen years old. They started talking to us about the need to purify yourself after bleeding, and the whole thing was sold as this wonderful way to connect with God. All I heard was a bunch of sexist garbage. I was so outta there (and shortly after that became involved with Secular Humanistic Judaism!).

Over time, however, I’ve changed my tune. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein in Toronto wrote about “reclaiming the waters” of the mikvah. I listened to an interesting panel of Orthodox feminist women at Limmud Toronto sharing their own stories of struggling with mikvah. And I read accounts of people who use mikvah to heal after loss or life changes (this is an aside, but if you watch the show Transparent, the rabbi Raquel goes to the mikvah after her miscarriage. I love that character and that scene made me choke up something fierce). I became convinced. And now there are exciting initiatives to open up the mikvah in new ways. In Toronto, there are guides who will take people of any and all genders, including transgendered folks. In Boston there is mayyim chayyim, a mikvah with a mission to make accessible and meaningful the mikvah ritual broadly. ImmerseNYC is similar, and I’ll be in New York next week so I decided to dip with them; see how it feels to keep working on reclaiming something that is part of my Jewish legacy, but also something I have struggled with.

ImmerseNYC sent me a guide to prepare for my immersion, and in it they ask: “What do you want to let go of?” What a question! I’m thinking about that as I write this. What do I want to let go of? What do I want to reclaim?

Taking Care of Yourself

Every week Jews around the world mark Shabbat. Maybe you do that at Oraynu services, or with family dinners, or with simply taking time away from your email each week. To me, the practice of Shabbat is one of the wisest in our tradition. Humans have always needed dedicated time to rest, but perhaps never more so than today. We live in a world in which we are “connected” all the time by phone/email, meaning we are always at work, always supposed to be accessible and available, and always “on”. That’s just not sustainable, and there is a lot of research to suggest it is taking a toll on our collective mental health and well-being. Cue Shabbat.

I will admit I don’t take a full day off work every week, but I do set intentions and limits around rest. I also do a Shabbat dinner with my family each week. My heart is so full when my kids help me set up the Shabbat table, sing Shabbat Shalom, and attack a challah as though they have never eaten a meal in their lives. It is a really special time for us. Each Shabbat I try to think about some way to take care of myself; some way to really engage in the practice of recharging.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. If you’re interested, I recommend Yoga with Adriene on YouTube — a free yoga channel which I think does a nice job of blending the mind/body work of yoga. Each year she does a “30 days of yoga in January” series, which I have been doing (along with literally hundreds of thousands of others around the world).

Some days I’m so excited to hit my yoga mat and stretch out. Other days, it’s a real struggle to find the time and the energy. I am aware that sometimes “self-care” can feel like just another thing on the to-do list.

In one of the recent practices (it’s called “Joyful” if you want to check it out), Adriene speaks of the yogic principle of Sukah (not to be confused with a Sukkah, the huts we construct at the fall harvest festival of Sukkot). Sukah means ease. The idea isn’t that things are *easy* but, rather, when you find things challenging, when you are at your “edge,” to try to find ease and grace. Can you meet a challenge with ease? Relax in the posture of tension or difficulty? That’s the work of yoga. That, to me, is also the work of Shabbat.

Rest, true rest, isn’t easy. It’s not like the world stops around us. It’s not like our problems park themselves until Sunday when we’ve recharged enough to meet them. We have to do the hard work of finding the time and energy to take care of ourselves, even and especially when that time and energy are at their most elusive and depleted.

Sometimes people think “self-care” is about bubble baths and mani-pedis. I think self-care is about finding ease in times of tension. It’s about relaxing even when things are hard. It’s about taking time to rest in a world that doesn’t stop. And it’s about making sure that no matter what else is going on, I’m going to make sure I get to watch my kids attack a challah with gusto each week. How do you rest? How do you find ease in difficult moments?

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Playing well with others

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can build bridges with people and communities even where there are disagreements. It has been very sad to see what has happened with the women’s march. When it happened in early 2017 it was such a coming together around women and many different communities who were saddened by the election of someone who has been openly sexist, racist, and homophobic. The occasion was saddening but the event filled many of us with such hope.

Sadly this year the women’s march leadership has come under fire around issues of antisemitism. Linda Sarsour has long been seen as unfriendly to Jews because of her pro-Palestinian activism. However, Sarsour also did major fundraising for Jews after the Pittsburgh shooting and has condemned antisemitism many times. Tamika Mallory, another of the leaders, has attended events with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. It’s her participation that has really made many Jews feel unwelcome at the march. More Jewish voices have been added to the leadership, but it seems the damage is done. Many Jews won’t march this year, which I think is too bad.

We all need to determine what our red lines are. There may be people with whom we can’t stand in solidarity. However, sometimes we isolate ourselves to our own detriment. The values behind the women’s march are greater equity and safety for all. That should be a goal dear to us as those who suffer from antisemitism. More and more I’m understanding that we need broader coalitions in order to increase safety and representation of minority groups.

I also recently attended a meeting of Jewish leaders interesting in approaches to ending antisemitism and we spoke of similar dynamics. We need to partner with other marginalized groups and offer our support when they are the targets of hate. We do this because it is the right thing to do if we are serious about promoting justice in the world. We also do this because there many be times we ask others to stand with us.

Too many times Jews/Jewish groups don’t work with Muslim or Arab people or groups because of issues around Israel/Palestine. Rather than figuring out how to find common ground, we focus on our differences. This means we all lose out because we can’t count on each other for mutual support.

The community I serve in Toronto, Oraynu Congregation, is in a wonderful position to engage with other groups. We have spent the last few years investigating our relationships with others. We had a full weekend program on Jews in the Muslim world, via Dean/Rabbi Adam Chalom’s IISHJ presentation a year and a half ago. We have spent two years focusing on Indigenous issues. We have talked about Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. In each instance, we have come up against some attitudes we may continue to harbor which are based on stereotypes. In each instance, we likely realize we have more in common with other marginalized groups. And in many cases we *are* those groups. There are Jewish Arabs. There are Black Jews. There are Jewish/Indigenous folks. It isn’t an “us/them” situation at all.

More importantly, as we see a rise in the expression of white supremacist hate, we know we are better off sticking together with other folks who feel similarly threatened.

My hope is that all of us, those in Jewish communities or not, remember to try to find common ground. Seek to understand the motivations of the people with whom you disagree. Understand that things will be complex and messy but, even so, we are much stronger together.  

The people I serve are, above all, a group of people who care about doing good in the world. I know I can count on you — and that’s what continues to fill me with hope.

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