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

#metoo is a Jewish issue

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t stomach watching or listening to the Kavanaugh hearings. We’ve been down this road too many times: powerful man has been able to outrun his aggressions against women; women who come forward are subject to scrutiny and badgering. It remains far too easy for people (often men) in power to harm people (often women) with less power and get away with it for too long. If you are uncomfortable reading these words, I’m going to invite you to consider why that is. Do you naturally go to a place of “#notallmen” or “innocent until proven guilty”? Of course not all men. Of course people are, legally speaking, innocent until proven guilty. But our tendency as individuals and as a society is to immediately consider the plight of the abuser, not the abused; the harasser, not the harassed. This needs to change.

Here’s another thought exercise. I run this one with high school students quite often:

If you hear someone tell a racist or sexist joke, you have a choice to make: laugh to go along with it, speak up and tell the person that you are offended, say nothing. Most people, frankly, say nothing. Why? Well, some people have had the experience of speaking up. If you say to the joke-teller “that kind of joke is offensive to me. It hurts people to perpetuate those stereotypes or use that language,” what will their response be? We know intuitively that the joke-teller will not say: “So sorry to have caused offense. I apologize. I will consider my own biases that led me to tell such a joke.” Of course that will not be the response. The response is that the person who spoke up gets called names: too sensitive, no sense of humour, a killjoy, and, the f-word, “feminist.”

Notice the dynamic: the joke-teller feels so entitled to tell the joke that someone who objects is in the wrong. And the accusations at the one who objects are hurled by the original joke-teller and, importantly, the bystanders/others all around.

It is not safe to speak out in our world. So much the more so if you are a woman (including and especially trans/non-binary women). Now not only are you subject to the “you’re too sensitive” stuff, but also the sexist stuff: “you were asking for it; you were flirting; a guy can’t say anything without getting accused these days” and a host of other words women and girls get called that I won’t name here.

We KNOW these are the dynamics. Yet we are often still, so powerfully conditioned to think in this way, on the side of the harasser/abuser. In this, the era of #metoo, we have an opportunity to make real change.

Here’s how Judaism is part of the problem and can be part of the solution: One doesn’t have to scratch very far under the surface of our texts and traditions to see that we, as a culture, have condoned violence against women. However, Jewish groups today are mobilizing to use the teachings of our tradition, ideas like “Shalom Bayit” - Peace in the Home, or “Tikkun Olam” - repairing the world, to advocate for the end to harassment, assault, and abuse. This is up to all of us. 

Today is Simchat Torah - the day Jews conclude and start anew the reading of the Torah cycle. We start with Genesis, first woman, the first relationship between a man and a woman, and lots more to do with the establishment of patriarchy. Our job is to read old texts with new perspectives and to use them, as well as contemporary articles and thinking, to help make the future fairer.