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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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

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!

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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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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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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Dialogue Across Difference

Isn't it funny the assumptions we make about each other? At Oraynu's Holocaust Education Week event, historian Max Wallace spoke about how lots of historians have ignored or discounted records from the Orthodox Jewish community. Max said working with these records and the people whose tireless work to end the Holocaust gave him a lot of respect for the orthodox, even though he himself is "the most secular Jew you'll ever meet."

I would say as well at more religious Jews sometimes make assumptions about us and how we do things. Yesterday I spoke in a sociology class at York University. This class looks at contemporary Jewish life and I was there to discuss Secular Humanistic Judaism. Some of the orthodox Jewish students said they had never heard of us and what we do. They said that even though we disagree about many things, they're glad we exist to keep Jews connected to Judaism. It's big of them to say so.

This week I started a conversation on Facebook with Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, an orthodox rabbi who is also a Jew of color,a man, a millenial, and a person living in New York. There are differences in our identities and approaches. There is also so much common ground! Our first conversation was on race and the Jewish community (it's up on the Rabbi Denise Handlarski facebook page if you want to check it out). Our goal is to show that talking to each other is the best way to dispel myths and assumptions. And that we can care about others, even when there are substantial differences in points of view.

We all certainly tend to hang out in a "bubble" - and social media algorithms ensure that often what we see confirms and reinforces things we have seen and thought before. It's hard to leave that bubble! But the bubble is bad for us, limits us. If we can listen and truly hear people who come from different places and perspectives, we will go a long way in creating a more gentle and peaceful world. One conversation at a time.

 

 

Isaiah and I having our conversation. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:   https://www.facebook.com/secularsynagogue/videos/3116799218564230/

Isaiah and I having our conversation. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:  https://www.facebook.com/secularsynagogue/videos/3116799218564230/

Ghosts, Goblins and Gemara

It’s almost Halloween, a very important holiday in my house. Fun fact: Charlie and I got engaged on Halloween (and then watched the only scary movie we could find as we were post-cable but pre-Netflix - it was House of Wax starring Paris Hilton. I can’t say I recommend it).

I have always loved the energy and excitement of Halloween. I love how, when you think about it, it’s weird that all these kids dress up, go to homes of people they don’t know, accept candy from those people, stay up late (all no-nos all other times). It’s a holiday for rule-breakers and outliers. It’s perfect for secular Jews who, generally speaking, are up for a little rule-breaking and a little partying.

The other thing that’s neat about Halloween is that it’s a holiday that emerges from other holidays: The Celtic festival of Samhain was incorporated into the Catholic All Saints Day and its All Hallows Eve. There are resonances with Mexico’s Day of the Dead. While this has nothing to do with Judaism, it is similar to how our own holidays evolve over time. Take Chanukah, borrowing from other festivals of light, a historical holiday, then the rabbinic overlaying of a narrative about “miracles,” and the ways the holiday has been shaped by other winter festivals, particularly Christmas. It’s not a process unique to Judaism, but it is a pretty foundational practice in Judaism, to reinterpret things to make them relevant for the day.

The Gemara is the Talmudic rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, which is the oral commentary/law coming from Torah. It’s text on text on text. Like Halloween, new meanings are layered on to create a compendium, confluence, convergence, of ideas and practices.

Halloween is ghosts and goblins meet Gemara; how we make it work for us now, where and who we are. So, while Halloween is not a specifically Jewish holiday, we can enjoy it through a Jewish lens. Make whatever traditions you have (even if that’s watching a terrible Paris Hilton movie), your own.

Until next week,

Denise

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