Happy Rosh Hashanah!

We are here! 5780! I hope you are feeling the themes of the holiday: rebirth and renewal. I hope you are also feeling a little bit of responsibility — to make your life better, to make the world better. This is just the beginning of the period known as the “Days of Awe.” I want you to think of them as the Days of Awesome! Say sorry. Forgive. Look inward — what can you let go of? Who do you want to be this year? Look outward — what can you do to contribute? How can you be a changemaker this year? 
 
Last week many folks from both Oraynu and SecularSynagogue.com came out to the march for climate justice! What an awe-inspiring day! We stood together with thousands and thousands of people around the world to demand a better world. 
 
It’s fitting for this time of year. We need a better world. Each new year is an opportunity to consider how we will make it so.
 
I am spending today in the forest, doing tashlich. Tashlich is the practice of casting away. People tend to think of it as throwing away your “sins,” and that’s fine. But I prefer to translate (and this is kosher) “sin” as “missing the mark.” Where did you miss the mark last year? Cast it away; let it go. And make sure this year we get a little closer to that mark. 
 
You can look up readings (I use Marge Piercy or Marcia Falk poems) and other things to say and do but the most important is to get outside (with friends/family if possible), take a walk, and talk the talk about what you want to let go of and bring forward into the new year. Then you throw your sticks and rocks and leaves (note: breadcrumbs are traditional but not so good ecologically). Watch them float away. Ahhh... Rebirth. Renewal. Responsibility. 
 
You got this. 
 
Can’t wait to be with you through this year as we take our intentions from today and the Days of Awesome and make them so. 
 
Have a happy, healthy, sweet, and beautiful year!
 
Till next week,
Denise

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Forgiveness: It’s Complicated

We are now in the final lead up to the High Holidays. Jews around the world are getting ready for difficult conversations with friends or family, preparing to apologize for wrong-doing and preparing to forgive others. Some Jews are participating in services called selichot — where prayers of repentance are recited. Selichot means forgiveness, although when people speaking Hebrew apologize they often say “slicha” which means something like “pardon me.” Asking for and granting forgiveness are good and healthy acts. We ask people to forgive us all the time... when we step on toes (literally or figuratively), when we cause pain (intentionally or unintentionally), when we do something wrong. We also forgive people all the time. Often when someone says “sorry” the reply is “it’s ok.” And sometimes it really is ok. 
 
But sometimes behaviour is really not ok, and that’s what I want to speak about today. 
 
I was asked recently how to approach the upcoming High Holiday period, with its focus on forgiveness, if someone does not speak to their family because it is unsafe to do so. For some people, their family is unsafe emotionally. For some, they are unsafe physically. Sometimes it’s both. If someone has decided that they simply cannot have contact with a family member or, with or without that contact they simply can’t forgive past wrongs/behaviour, they probably have a damn good reason (what I write here can apply to relationships that aren’t familial too — partners/ex-partners, friends, co-workers, etc).
 
We live in a culture that is obsessed with forgiveness. We get told that to hold a grudge only harms ourselves and not the person who did wrong. We get told that to forgive will make us feel good, or whole. We get told that life is too short to hold onto hurt. Those ideas may all be true in some circumstances but they can also put a whole lot of pressure on someone who has been hurt, abused, mistreated, or harmed. Sometimes it’s ok not to forgive. Sometimes it’s healthy. We are not responsible for the hurt others cause us. 
 
I do suggest finding ways to process past harm. Therapy, writing a letter to someone who has harmed you (whether you send it or not), self-care, working to undo painful/harmful messages we’ve internalized, all of that is useful. We don’t have to stay in the place of being hurt/harmed. But we also don’t have to include forgiveness in the package of how we prepare to move on. If someone has done something unforgivable, it’s not on you to forgive it. It’s on you to figure out how you want to move forward, with or without that person in your life. 
 
We sometimes hear stories about people who offered forgiveness in unimaginable circumstances. If that helped the person who was wronged, then the act of forgiveness is worth celebrating. Sometimes we really do need to forgive in order to move on. Equally, sometimes we need to let go of the pressure to forgive in order to move on. 
 
I don’t think this time of year is just for apology and forgiveness. It’s for figuring out what we need, who we want to be, and who we want with us on the journey. It’s a time for considering what we owe others in terms of apology/restitution, and what we owe ourselves in terms of healing from the past. I think of the High Holidays as a time to decide what we are letting go of from the past year(s), what we wish to carry forward, and what we wish to start doing/being. Forgiveness is one part of that package and process. So is self-love. Often the person we have to forgive the most is ourselves. So, if you are struggling with any sense of guilt over being unable to forgive someone, I suggest that be one of the things you let go of. Be kind to yourself, especially if others have not been. 
 
We are not responsible for the behaviour of others. We are responsible for ourselves. No one is owed your forgiveness. You owe yourself all the tools you can find to be well and happy this coming year. 

Till next week,
Denise

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People are hard to hate up close. Move in.

It was Brené Brown who said “people are hard to hate up close. Move in.” It comes from her book Braving the Wilderness which is all about being an outlier and having the courage to be who you are and stand for what you believe to be right. I think it’s required reading for secular/cultural Jews.
 
I sometimes feel I have to “brave the wilderness” out here as a rabbi who does things just a little differently than some other rabbis. I write this on an evening after officiating a same sex wedding. The father of one of the grooms said “so, you must be a special rabbi.” I don’t know whether he was referring to the fact that I am a woman, or that I was officiating a wedding between two men, or whether I was doing secular blessings instead of the traditional ones. What is clear is that I’m unlike all the other rabbis he has ever known. I’m proud to be “special” in any/all of those ways. But my reply to him was “we are all special in our own way but I’m just a regular rabbi.” We need to start normalizing rabbis who are women, officiate at same-sex weddings, and do secular blessings. We’re here and we’ve been here a long time. Let’s get over it, already. But for now, my colleagues and I are out here “braving the wilderness” of being seen as just a little different or, perhaps, “special.” 
 
My colleagues will also feel the familiarity of the feeling that we are not accepted by other Jews/rabbis/Jewish institutions because we are secular/cultural Jews, because we are pro-intermarriage, because we will always side with science/justice/goodness over religion when they conflict. I was recently rejected from the Toronto Board of Rabbis, for example, despite meeting their stated requirements and... get this... they won’t even tell me why! Sometimes being excluded is an icky feeling. I am something of a people-pleaser, so it’s hard for me to be an outlier. But what is there to do but to be myself and to stand up for what I believe in? Ultimately, their rejection of me is much more a comment on their own fears/insecurities than anything I’m doing. That’s always the truth about those who hate or are made nervous by others. It’s not about the “others” at all. 
 
I was recently interviewed about being a rabbi who performs intermarriages and is intermarried myself. I suggested that intermarriage is a lot like gay marriage. Many people are homophobic their whole lives but then get over it when their own kid comes out. Now that it’s much more common to know folks who are gay, more people are cool with it. Intermarriage is the same dynamic. People fear it will lead to doom and gloom, the end of Jewish practice in that family, the end of Judaism as we know it. But then their kids intermarry, or their cousin, or their best friend, and the sky does not fall. Many, many people have come around on the intermarriage question simply because they now know and love people who are intermarried.
 
Brené Brown reminds us that it’s easy to hate people in the abstract. It’s harder to hate the people we know, the people we actually love. The more we lead with love, the more we widen our own understanding and ability to accept others, the less others will feel like others, like outliers. So, if there is a group of people, or someone who pushes the envelope for you, someone who makes you nervous, ask yourself, is this a reflection of them or of you? Can you open or soften or seek to know their side a little more/better? Is there room for just a little more love? People are hard to hate up close. Move in. 

Till next week,
Denise

Global climate strike, Judaism, and YOU

I am feeling powerfully inspired by Greta Thunberg and the work she is doing around climate change. Her journey started with her skipping school every Friday to demand climate action from politicians. When she was challenged and told she should be in school, she would reply that school was meant to prepare her for a future that is now uncertain due to climate change. So if the grown ups aren’t going to do their jobs, why should she do hers?
 
She’s right.
 
You know who the grown ups are? Us. We are the grown ups. And we have to do something right now. The truth is that there is very little we as individuals can do to halt climate change (my goals are eliminating single-use plastics and moving to a plant-based diet — some of the best things we can do as individuals). The change needs to come from industry (and the governments that regulate industry), particularly around fossil fuels. But we as individuals can put pressure on those industries and governments. We can stand with Greta and say that we can’t continue on with business as usual.
 
Some folks have asked me why this is an issue for a rabbi to take on at all. Well, several reasons. Firstly, my Judaism is connected with my belief that we are here to make the world better. Judaism enhances my life/our lives and, in turn, we are empowered to bring more goodness to the world. These values are rooted in Jewish texts and teachings. It’s the whole “why” of Judaism, as far as I’m concerned. Secondly, the reason I affiliate myself with secular/cultural Judaism is that I am a believer in science and evidence. A lot of the climate change deniers are affiliated with the Christian Right. If one believes the world was created by a god in six days, six thousand years ago, then it’s not a surprise that they also believe that god can fix said world or that whatever happens to it is god’s will. But those beliefs are, well, wrong. Where religion comes up against our best science I’m going to choose science every time. That also is part of my Judaism. 
 
And so, my fellow grown ups, I want to know what you are doing to ensure a future for our kids and grandkids. Here is a place to start. On September 27th there will be rallies and marches for climate justice all over. I’ll be at the one in Toronto, marching with Shoresh (check out Shoresh.ca for awesome Jewish environmentalist initiatives). I’d really love company. Please hit reply right now and tell me you’re coming with me. If you’re not in Toronto, I’d love to know where you’ll be marching? 
 
On September 27th let’s show the world that this is not business as usual.
 
Oh, and this is right before the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. Am I usually frantically busy at that time? I sure am. Am I making time for this? You bet. I can’t think of a better commitment at the time of year when we contemplate rebirth than doing my part to protect the planet. 
 
See you on the 27th!

Till next week,
Denise

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Hey there smarty pants! (Goal-setting and the Jewish new year)

Today is one of my favourite days of the year because... drumroll... it’s the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLL!!! This means that my kids have been declawed and sanitized and are returning to some structure after they became somewhat feral these last two months. It also means I’m meeting about 100 new students who I’ll help guide through their journey of becoming teacher. It means a return to a more regular rhythm after the baccanalian beat of summer. It means things tend to settle. I always loved the first day of school when I was growing up. A new year meant new possibilities. I always had this awareness that I’d be somehow different at the end of the year than at the start. It was exciting.
 
The Jewish new year is approaching and I also think it serves us to think that we can be somehow different at this time next year. New possibilities are afoot for all of us, even if we are returning to the same job or same situation as the year before. Each new year presents the chance to ask ourselves what we want to do and who we want to be. 
 
With my students, we speak about setting goals for the year. You have likely heard of “SMART goals” before. SMART is an acronym:
 
Specific
Measurable
Attainable
Relevant/Realistic/Risky
Time-bound
 
The idea is that we are going to be more successful if we target our goals to something specific (not “I want to be a better person” but, rather, “I will volunteer my time 3x a week); measurable (we’ll know if we are doing that once a week or not), attainable (something we can really do). 
 
The “R” is a funny one. Most people say “realistic” but I think that’s the same as “attainable.” Some say “relevant,” which makes sense — we want our goal to be something that will make a difference in our lives or in the world. No point setting goals about things we don’t care about. But I like “risky” for “R”. The idea that our goal will push us a little out of our comfort zone so we experience genuine growth. 
 
“T” means time-bound. We check in every now and then (I do it every three months) and see if we’re on track. We can then course-correct if necessary and not find ourselves where we were when we set goals again the following year.
 
Last week I spoke about environmental sustainability and happiness. All my goals this year relate to helping reduce climate change. I am moving towards an almost completely plant-based diet, trying to reduce consumption in many ways, committing to reducing my use of plastics overall and disposable cutlery, plates, and cups in particular, and wanting to travel/drive less. I have SMART goals in these categories. I believe in repairing the world and really want this year to be a year I make significant progress in this area.
 
What are your goals? Are they SMART? I’d love to hear about them!

Till next week,
Denise

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Sustainable Happiness

If you’ve been hanging around my email list, social media, or in SecularSynagogue.com, you’ve heard about the idea of Tikkun Olam - repairing the world. You may have heard me spiel (talk) about where this Jewish idea comes from but, if you haven’t, here is the rundown: In Kabbalah, the system of Jewish mysticism for which the Zohar is the central text, we have an explanation for the creation of the world. The question is how our material world can exist if god is everywhere. The kabbalistic answer is that god had to shrink/contract (the word is “tzimtzum” - more on that in a second). With this new space for the world, god tried to fit into these vessels but his light was so powerful that they shattered. Thus, our world is made up of tiny, fractured bits of god’s light. When we do good deeds, the thinking goes, we are reassembling the shards. Thus, our deeds help to repair the world that god intended.
 
Sounds pretty wacky for a bunch of cultural/secular Jews, no? So why do I/we speak about Tikkun Olam? Because the metaphor works to inspire action. I do not take this literally. I do not think that every time I bring soup to someone who is sick or participate in a beach clean-up I’m restoring the vessel of god’s light. I do think that these individual actions all add up to make a better world. In fact, it is because I’m a secular Jew I believe so strongly in the value of Tikkun Olam. We need to repair the world — ain’t no one else gonna do it for us. 
 
I’ve been thinking about the concept of “repairing the world” lately because we are in the middle of a climate emergency. I am terrified and horrified by images of the Amazon burning and the ice sheet in Greenland melting. I am scared. We need to fix the world — literally — and we have no time to waste.
 
Last year at the High Holidays I spoke about research from positive psychology on happiness. Researchers suggest that happiness isn’t about feeling joy and elation all the time, but rather is about living a life of purpose and meaning. Secular Humanistic Judaism is designed to bring meaning to our lives. It can also bring purpose: let the Jewish ethics and values around repairing the world and doing good inspire you to become a better environmental steward. 
 
I’ve been reading a lot this year about “sustainable happiness,” which draws on positive psychology and notes that our happiest times tend to be in relationship and in nature. We think we need stuff to make us happy but, actually, the more stuff we have and the more money we make (after a certain amount needed to sustain us), tends to make us less happy overall. The idea is that the less we have the more we can enjoy it. 
 
I started thinking of the idea of “tzimtzum” — contracting to make space — that god does in the kabbalah narrative. I think we are in a period where we need to tzimtzum. We need to take up less space, less of a carbon footprint, have less, travel less, spend less, and consume less. This might seem like deprivation but in my life I’m finding I actually feel much better if I keep things a little simpler. My house was too crowded with stuff and now that I buy less I’m happier with my home. My diet was full of garbage and now that I focus on eating less, more plant-based, more nourishing foods, I feel better. My schedule was full to the point of ridiculousness, and now I try to do less and I feel more calm. Less really is more, most of the time.
 
There is no doubt that the North American lifestyle is not sustainable. Turns out, it’s not really making us happy anyway. To be sustainably happy is to lead lives of meaning and purpose. To have less, and to be and do more. These are my goals this coming year. Join me!

Photo credit David Morris Photography

Photo credit David Morris Photography

The coming month can be elul-sive

Oh, summer. I have been spending time at beaches, hikes, festivals, concerts, playgrounds, splash pads, cottages, and beyond. Our summers are so very short and I really try to make the most of mine. Do you have goals yet to be achieved on your summer bucket list? There’s still time to squeeze in that play in the park or that baseball game or that walk to the good ice cream place. Do it!

Of course, as a rabbi and a teacher and a mother, September looms. I know most of the world considers January the start of the new year, but for me it is September. As school starts up and the weather cools off and the days get shorter, I start settling into a routine and get out my good old goal setting pages. Every year I reflect on the year that past and set goals for the future. Does this sound like the work of Rosh Hashanah? It is! But the party/process really starts the month before — in the Jewish month of Elul.

Elul is the final month of the Jewish year. It is meant to be a time for study and reflection, so that we are ready for the Days of Awe... the Jewish High Holidays that prime us for a year of spiritual satisfaction.

Elul doesn’t start until just over a week from now, but I want you to start thinking about September/Elul (they match up almost exactly this time) as your period of getting primed. Maybe look up the weekly Torah portion and read around it. Maybe take a class on Jewish history — there are many online options, including those that are free of charge. Perhaps you’d like to get yourself primed in a different way and do some volunteer work. Or clean up your local park or beach. Or send a letter to a friend with whom you’ve been out of touch. We don’t have to save our apologizing, making amends, and good-deed-doing until the High Holidays hit.

The goal of Elul is to get your head and heart right for the High Holidays. What will you do so that you can feel empowered, enlightened, and enlivened when I see you at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

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It’s a really really good month to have a good month


I was so lucky to be part of the last cohort of Rabbis Without Borders. Oraynu, my Toronto congregation, supported me in attending three retreats where I met rabbinic colleagues across all movements/denominations, learned about leadership, and got to educate others about the Humanistic Jewish approach. 

You may have seen on social media that I befriended a really cool Orthodox rabbi named Isaiah. For a while he and I were chevruta (study buddies). We come from pretty different Jewish worlds and yet forged a real friendship and connection, each learning from the other and delighting in the common ground that united us. 

Isaiah taught me a lot, but one of the most important things was a song to welcome the new month. It goes: “It’s a really really good month to have a good month, Chodesh tov, Have a good Month.” Repeat. Every month it gets in my head as the Jewish lunar calendar flips to a new month. I’m writing this on the first day of the new month (you see it a few days later), and so I want to share the song with you and wish you a really really good month: https://www.denisehandlarski.com/video

The song, like lots in Jewish text and culture, is deceptively simple. If it’s a really, really good month to have a good month, then it’s always a good time to have a good time. And, really, time is our most precious resource while we get to hang out on this wacky and wonderful planet. 

I love that in Jewish practice we welcome the new month. It’s like a mini Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year). We get to check in, see how we are doing with our goals of who we want to be and what we want to do And, as the song reminds us, we can decide to have a good month. 

Yes, the world is rife with problems. Yes, lots of us have personal struggles. Yes, there is tragedy everywhere we look. But, there is also beauty. There are also people working on the problems. And we also have a voice and a choice to decide that every month, every day, we are going to be and do our best. It’s a really really good month to have a good month! 

This month my theme is social responsibility. I am choosing a few companies that I support and asking them to do a little better. The first is writing to some coffee places I frequent (looking at you, Starbucks), and asking them to make reusable ceramic mugs the default and charging a little bit for disposable ones. How often do you see people sitting in coffee shops drinking out of throw-away cups? Why?! One of my own personal goals is to never use disposable coffee cups. I lug a mug or I sit in the place and drink my drink. Sometimes I end up downing a double espresso really fast when on the run. That’s one less cup in landfill; one less bit of waxy paper/plastic in the world that will outlast me and all of us (no, those cups are not recyclable and no, most of the compostable ones never really get to compost). Want to join me? If you write to a coffee shop or another company of your choosing and ask them to do a little better, I’ll send you a virtual high five and a shout out on my social media page. 

It’s a really really good month to have a good month - and make the world a little better while we’re at it. 

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Laughter is the best medicine

Earlier this winter I was feeling particularly burnt out after a demanding semester of teaching and a full calendar. I went on a trip with two girlfriends. We chatted on the flight about what we were most looking forward to on the trip. And I said, “I don’t know when, I don’t know over what, but I know that at some point I’m going to laugh so hard I cry.” 

And that’s exactly what happened. Surrounding myself with some good friends, a great beach, and some mojitos was helpful for my rejuvenation. But what those things really did were to set the stage and conditions for what I really needed: a big old belly laugh. 

This summer, I can’t promise you one of those laughs that go on and on, force you to tear up, have you double over, make you lose your breath. But I want that for you. After a laugh like that, endorphins are flowing, everything seems more manageable, and we tap into deep joy. 

So, what do you need to do to set the conditions to make it more likely that you laugh? Who can you call for a coffee date? Can you invite a good group of fun people to your cottage (or, if you’re like me, snag an invite to someone else’s)? What movie or book might trigger a big laugh? 

In an interview with Comedian Jon Stewart I watched recently, he was asked why he thinks comedy is the right tool for political action. He replied that when we are laughing we are not afraid. So many of us are so concerned and, yes, afraid, of the state of things right now. Sometimes our best defence and resistance is to laugh.

So, laugh a lot this summer. We all only have so many summers in this world — we might as well make the most of them. 

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Children in Concentration Camps

This past week there was some tension in the Jewish community over whether it is appropriate to call U.S. detention centers housing migrants “concentration camps.” There were also horrific news articles about how children are being denied basics like toothbrushes, made to sleep on cold floors, and must represent themselves in court. We are talking about little children - the youngest of which is four months old.

I am ashamed that some in the Jewish community seem more outraged by the use of a term they feel belongs uniquely to the Jewish experience, than about innocent children being taken from their parents and tortured in these ways. 

What is a concentration camp? It is a small area in which innocent people are held without due process based on their ethnicity or country of origin. We have to use this term to describe what is happening because there has been too much complacency so far. Let’s start calling things what they are. Concentration camps. Torture. There are going to be round ups of migrants. The repetition of history is happening as we are watching. 

I serve many community members who are not in the U.S. But do we as Jews not hold countries besides Germany and Poland accountable for allowing the Holocaust to happen? Do we not wish there had been an international effort to stop it? We need to be that effort. “Never again” is right now. 

Here’s what I have done and I encourage you to join me:

- I wrote to my MP, to MP Freeland (who handles foreign affairs and diplomacy), and our Prime Minister asking them to use any possible diplomatic channels to ask for this to end. At the very least, these migrants — children! — deserve basic care and legal representation. 

- I have financially supported RAICES, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — all doing good work on the ground.

- I posted about this issue on my professional and personal social media, sounding the alarm and saying that as a Jew I am deeply concerned about where concentration camps and round ups are heading. I want everyone to act.

- I sent a message to my rabbinic colleagues in the Humanistic Jewish movement saying that after our summer meetings in Chicago (already booked), I will no longer travel to the United States. No more vacations or work travel there until this ends. It is time to vote with our dollars and our feet. I will not spend one more dollar in that country while children are being tortured. 

It feels like it is not enough but it is a start. Who’s with me? If you can’t do all of these things, what can you do? Let’s show the world that when Jews say “Never Again” we mean for all people. 

Denise

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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