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,


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,


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,


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

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. 


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.


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