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 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,


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:
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,


Sustainable Happiness

If you’ve been hanging around my email list, social media, or in, 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?

Apples and honey.JPG

What to do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?


Here we are! The Days of Awe, as they are known. I hope you are having a wonderful and meaningful Rosh Hashanah!

The Jewish New Year offers so many opportunities for reflection, growth, and betterment. I love the fresh-start-feeling I get at this time of year! Here are a few things you can do to set yourself up for a great year!

 Purge, clear, clean

Do you notice when you have a clean and clear space it makes for a clean and clear headspace? Take the time to do a little fall fix up of your home. This will also come in handy if you're having guests over!

Do you 10Q?

I love this website that sends you a question to answer each day of the High Holiday period and then sends you back your answers the following year! Check it out here.
Set some goals Set aside some time to write down some things you’re happy about from the last year, some things you’d like to change for this year, and some things that would make this the best time ever.

Make amends

Many Jews use this time of the year to ask for forgiveness. Write that letter/email or, better yet, make that phone call. Reach out and see if you can mend an old wound or reconnect with someone.
Get Outside!I always practice tashlich, casting away, on Rosh Hashanah. Visit a natural body of water and use something to symbolically cast away that which is no longer serving you. Note: the tradition is breadcrumbs but there are ecological concerns with that and so I've begun using sticks and leaves and pebbles I find near the river. Being in nature grounds us, connects us with the world, and is the perfect place to be inspired.

Focus on what matters

Did you get to spend Rosh Hashanah with family or friends? Did you taste the sweetness of apples with honey and/or pomegranates? Did you get to mark the holiday meaningfully? If so, you’re pretty lucky. Remind yourself to be grateful for all the good in your life.

Shana Tova!

Rabbi Denise