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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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

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

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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Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now.

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages.

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical).

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting.

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now.

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages.

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical).

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting.

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

Playing well with others

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can build bridges with people and communities even where there are disagreements. It has been very sad to see what has happened with the women’s march. When it happened in early 2017 it was such a coming together around women and many different communities who were saddened by the election of someone who has been openly sexist, racist, and homophobic. The occasion was saddening but the event filled many of us with such hope.

Sadly this year the women’s march leadership has come under fire around issues of antisemitism. Linda Sarsour has long been seen as unfriendly to Jews because of her pro-Palestinian activism. However, Sarsour also did major fundraising for Jews after the Pittsburgh shooting and has condemned antisemitism many times. Tamika Mallory, another of the leaders, has attended events with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. It’s her participation that has really made many Jews feel unwelcome at the march. More Jewish voices have been added to the leadership, but it seems the damage is done. Many Jews won’t march this year, which I think is too bad.

We all need to determine what our red lines are. There may be people with whom we can’t stand in solidarity. However, sometimes we isolate ourselves to our own detriment. The values behind the women’s march are greater equity and safety for all. That should be a goal dear to us as those who suffer from antisemitism. More and more I’m understanding that we need broader coalitions in order to increase safety and representation of minority groups.

I also recently attended a meeting of Jewish leaders interesting in approaches to ending antisemitism and we spoke of similar dynamics. We need to partner with other marginalized groups and offer our support when they are the targets of hate. We do this because it is the right thing to do if we are serious about promoting justice in the world. We also do this because there many be times we ask others to stand with us.

Too many times Jews/Jewish groups don’t work with Muslim or Arab people or groups because of issues around Israel/Palestine. Rather than figuring out how to find common ground, we focus on our differences. This means we all lose out because we can’t count on each other for mutual support.

The community I serve in Toronto, Oraynu Congregation, is in a wonderful position to engage with other groups. We have spent the last few years investigating our relationships with others. We had a full weekend program on Jews in the Muslim world, via Dean/Rabbi Adam Chalom’s IISHJ presentation a year and a half ago. We have spent two years focusing on Indigenous issues. We have talked about Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. In each instance, we have come up against some attitudes we may continue to harbor which are based on stereotypes. In each instance, we likely realize we have more in common with other marginalized groups. And in many cases we *are* those groups. There are Jewish Arabs. There are Black Jews. There are Jewish/Indigenous folks. It isn’t an “us/them” situation at all.

More importantly, as we see a rise in the expression of white supremacist hate, we know we are better off sticking together with other folks who feel similarly threatened.

My hope is that all of us, those in Jewish communities or not, remember to try to find common ground. Seek to understand the motivations of the people with whom you disagree. Understand that things will be complex and messy but, even so, we are much stronger together.  

The people I serve are, above all, a group of people who care about doing good in the world. I know I can count on you — and that’s what continues to fill me with hope.

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Nothing is promised

I teach at a university, and specifically, I teach people becoming teachers. I have been in that role since 2012 and have had many fantastic candidates come through my classes. There is one that I can say is one of the best of the best. I watched him teach last year and thought, “this guy is better than most of the career teachers I’ve seen.” The school he was placed at tried to figure out how to hire him even though he still had a year left to finish his degree. And this person is not only a gifted teacher, he is a fabulous actor, a wonderful friend, a terrific student, a genuinely good-hearted person. I’m sure he saves puppies and sews booties for new babies on the side. Ok, maybe not that. But he is a truly terrific person through and through.

This past week he came to me and told me he has cancer. He is an otherwise healthy, twenty-eight year old. He doesn’t smoke, barely drinks, stays active, and takes good care of himself. Cancer.

I don’t need to tell you that this kind of thing happens without rhyme or reason and simply isn’t fair.

I don’t need to tell you that in the absence of believing in some higher power with some master plan, we have to boldly and bravely look at the chaos of the universe and accept our place in it.

And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, for we’ve all heard many times, that stories like this are a reminder to be grateful for what we have, and it’s our job to remember that nothing in life is promised to us. We are lucky if we are healthy. We are lucky if we get to live out our lives until old age.

So this message isn’t that. I do think it’s a good reminder to practice gratitude. But, for a moment, let’s just stick with the unfairness of it all. Because that’s where I’m stuck just right now and sometimes we have to just sit with it. I know that the “right” answer is to focus on the positive. But right now I want to focus on the pain of it. I am trying to really feel things lately, not simply reason or explain or distract myself away from them.

I am sad for him and his loved ones. I am sad for all those who suffer needlessly and senselessly. I am a little shaken by how unfair things really are. And I’m angry — why? Directed at whom? There’s no reason or purpose to it. Sometimes we just feel angry.

As Secular Humanistic Jews we tend to move towards the rational. Obviously I think this is a good thing. Lots of people have called our movement “Rational Judaism.” I’m a fan of using our brains, accepting science, figuring through problems, and evaluating our world through empirical data. I’m pro-reason. And (not but, and) sometimes it is reasonable to be unreasonable. Sometimes we just have to get through tough feelings and emotions, and sit with them, and accept that, sure, the world is made of chaos, and cancer doesn’t discriminate, and someone is going to get it so why not him... we can use our brains all we want but the feelings are still there and still matter.

I don’t call what we do and who we are “Rational Judaism” because, to me, being rational isn’t the point or purpose. I connect to Judaism to fulfill my spiritual and emotional needs. I have a university to foster the rational stuff. The rational has to do with how we access Judaism — we want it to be human-centred and earth-centred, based in a knowable reality. We don’t want our Judaism to conflict with what we know from science, archaeology, or other empirical data. So we work to create a Judaism that thrives without the supernatural. But we can’t stop at what we *don’t* believe. We have to move to what we do believe: Jewish culture adds meaning, depth, and beauty to our lives, community empowers us, our purpose is in doing good. The rationality isn’t the purpose. The emotional/spiritual is the purpose and we just don’t want the obstacles to rationality to get in the way.

This is my invitation to all of us to allow ourselves to hang out in the realm of the emotional a little bit more. Let’s give ourselves permission to really feel our feelings.

I won’t stay mad/sad at this situation forever. I know I will eventually move on to a place of acceptance and hope.

I have every confidence that this student of mine will be fine; he has good care and a good prognosis. I know for sure that my amazing colleagues are already doing all we can to make sure he is cared for and supported. There is lots of reason for hope. I understand that all of this will ultimately make me reflect with gratitude on my own health and the health of my loved ones. For now, though, I get to feel what I feel. It takes practice but it’s the only way to fully experience this crazy ride called being alive. And now, especially now, I want to really experience it.

Chrismakkuh and Chanukah

Lots of us are gearing up for the holiday season. Some families do Chanukah and some do something more like Chrismakkuh. What does your family do?

I've been thinking a lot about how families make the holidays their own. Part of what I appreciate about the holidays is the chance to create new traditions. At my husband Charlie's family Christmas dinner, they always make sure I have a lasagne. Why lasagne, you ask? No, it's not traditional for either Christmas or Chanukah. But I'm a vegetarian and even though there is plenty of food I can have, they wanted to make sure I have a main dish I can enjoy while they're all noshing on turkey.

I now associate Christmas with lasagne. Charlie, who isn't Jewish, associates December with Chanukah, something new to him.

We have negotiated all the things people negotiate: lights, tree, presents, how we blend or don't blend the holidays. Our way isn't your way, but everyone has to find what works.

Even in families where Chanukah is the only holiday being celebrated, you might come from different family traditions or ways of celebrating. Everyone has to negotiate how to make the holidays meaningful for them.

It's worthwhile to figure out how to make the holidays fit with your values.... how many gifts and for whom? Can tzedakah be part of the holiday giving? This year we made a list of people who help us, everything from garbage collectors to postal workers to hairdressers, and we're making cookies for them. It's a good time of year to spread some cheer.

For more on this, check out my Chrismakkuh guide: https://www.secularsynagogue.com/holidays/

However you are celebrating, I hope it will be with great joy.

Until next week,

Denise

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Let there be light!

We are now in the Jewish month of Kislev. This month we celebrate Chanukah and join cultures around the world whose festivals are made to increase light at this dark time of year. As I write this (a few days before you’re reading it), it is Diwali, and because I live in a South Asian neighbourhood there have been sparklers, fireworks, special sweets and celebrations in the streets. It has been a powerful antidote to the endless grey skies and the early darkness.

Chanukah is a bit early this year, and so our own festival of light will be all wrapped up before that other winter holiday which gets quite a bit of attention at this time of year. It’s a chance to let the light continue to shine - from Diwali to Chanukah, to winter solstice, to Christmas to Kwanzaa (Dec 26-31). Many festivals of light and joy at the time of year we need them most.

The Jewish contribution, Chanukah, is ours to uphold, but we can imagine ourselves in a chain of people(s) everywhere, increasing light. I love that image.

Chanukah is a bit of a shapeshifting holiday — its traditions have evolved over time and the places where Jews have lived. This year’s iteration for us will be inspiring and challenging — feelings the holiday naturally provokes. I hope you’ll be with us.

Wherever you are at this month, I hope you find lots of light and love to brighten the short, dark days.

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I Heart Hashem and Humanism

I was recently at a retreat for Rabbis Without Borders. This is a program that offers rabbis selected for their innovative work. We get training, opportunity for study, and the chance to form collegial relationships with rabbis across the Jewish spectrum. I knew I would be the only Humanistic rabbi there. I approached the first retreat last spring with a little bit of trepidation. Sometimes people, especially rabbis, in other movements, are not very friendly to us. I can take it — Humanistic Jews are built tough. But, still, four days of it (and these days run from 7:30 am - 9:30 pm) could be a little wearing.

The rabbis, however, were overwhelmingly kind. And curious! The truth is, they know a lot of their own community members are more like us than like “them” in some ways. There are so many people who don’t find prayer meaningful. So many Jews who would call themselves atheist/agnostic/cultural/secular/spiritual but not religious. They want to learn from me how we do what we do. I’m proud to represent us.

I also learn so much from them. There is so much creativity and innovation out there. I hope you’ll come to upcoming programs where I get to showcase some of what I’m learning and put it into action.

One thing that has been especially touching, is that I have formed a bond with an Orthodox rabbi named Isaiah. He is a really interesting guy — he grew up in the Chasidic community as a Jew of colour. He is a fantastic musician (you can check out his band Zayah online). He runs programs for Jews and for rabbis to try build bridges in the Jewish world.  What he sings, and teaches, is very theistic in nature, of course, but he is often driving at the same overall messages as I am. It’s all about kindness, tzedakah, joy, meaning, beauty.

I was voluntold to lead a service at this past retreat. The idea is to showcase how one’s movement does it, or highlight one’s particular style. At the spring retreat many rabbis said they’d love to see Secular Humanistic Judaism in action. So I agreed to lead a morning service this time around.

Something you may or may not know about me is that I am not a good singer. I see this as a strength; you should always feel comfortable singing if I’m around because you’ll never be the most tone deaf person in the room! However, when leading a service, I need back up. I asked Isaiah to help me by playing guitar and singing. The songs were Hine Ma Tov and the Humanistic version of Refuah Sheleimah, the song we sing to wish others healing.

Isaiah didn’t plan to subvert my message or anything. As I mentioned, the days at the retreat are long. And so he rolled out of bed and put on a shirt without much thought. The shirt said: “I (heart image) Hashem”. So there we were, co-leading the service, a Humanist and a Hashem-worshipper. The service itself was completely secular.

Afterwards, some people asked me if I was offended. I said, “of course I’m not offended!! I’m delighted!” Imagine a world in which we all helped one another live out our beliefs and values, even and especially when they contradict our own, in the spirit of cooperation and caring. I think Isaiah did something wonderful: he showed others what it looks like to be a helper, a friend, and a mentsch.

As we move into the colder winter months, and we begin to hunker down and hibernate, remember Isaiah and I, up there on a bimah, singing (one of us badly) together, delivering a message of hope and healing. Who can you reach or reach out to in the same spirit?

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