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. 


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! 


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,



A couple of wild turkeys I spotted on a recent walk


As you have no doubt heard, there have been serious limitations to abortion rights and access in several states south of the border. If you are like me, this fills you with rage and despair. Not only is this a clear expression of sexism and limiting choices, freedom, and the well-being and health for and of women, but it is also a serious sign of the blurring between church and state. After all, the main push for anti-abortion, anti-choice legislation is the religious right.

I care very much about ending sexism. I care very much about the separation between church and state. These are my values as a person who is informed and guided by the ethics of Humanistic Judaism. In our secular, cultural expression of Judaism, we make justice central, and we take seriously the idea that religion and tradition get a vote but never a veto over what we decide to be our ethics, morals, and values.

Many Jewish groups and organizations have statements supporting pro-choice policies. It is a bit of a no-brainer that our branch of Judaism, always concerned with gender justice from the beginning, has one. Here is the statement from the Society for Humanistic Judaism: Interestingly, I saw similar statements issued from many Jewish groups, even from the orthodox world. For example, the one from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance includes this: “JOFA’s position has consistently been that women and couples should consult their physicians and personal halakhic advisers in making decisions about abortion and reproductive health care without the involvement of the government. We support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body.”

Of special note to Jews is the way that lawmakers and other anti-choice pundits and protestors liken abortion to the Holocaust. This is a serious appropriation of a history that harmed Jews, Queer folks, the Roma people, and many others. To use this history to limit the rights of women (who comprise at least half of world Jewry), is greatly offensive.

If you are interested in learning more about Judaism and abortion, this is a useful article: Most of the Jewish world is in favour of pro-choice governmental policies, because we prize life above all else and, in this case, the life of the woman carrying the fetus is seen as the greater life to protect. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that we know there is no way to stop abortion, only to stop legal and safe abortion, and that without access to legal and safe abortion many women will be harmed and killed.

I know we Canadians can sometimes feel immune from the effects of American politics, but we are very close neighbours indeed. Just as the Trump presidency has emboldened white supremacists, we see the same uptick in hate in Canada. Now that there is a push to overturn legal abortion in the US, we see Canadian politicians beginning to attend and hold rallies to do the same here. We need to be vigilant and make sure all politicians from all parties know that we will not stand for a rollback of rights for women.

As a Humanist, as Jew, as a feminist, and as a concerned citizen, I’m going to be out there being loud on this issue. I hope you’ll join me.

Till next week,


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.

Peak Tikkun Olam?!

Last week in the Canadian Jewish News there was a provocative little piece called "Have We Reached Peak Tikun Olam?" You can read the piece here: 

Here's what I wrote in response:

Csillag's article asks the right questions but comes up with the wrong answers. The piece is getting at a divide that is growing in Jewish communities and Jewish life; a divide that raises questions about the "what" and "why" of Judaism. In my congregation, we centre our services, programming, and activities around Tikun Olam. We are, in our identities and practices, the types of people Csillag is calling out: we have no interest in "mitzvah" as commandment, but are very motivated and concerned by and with "mitzvah" as good deed. For us, Jewish ethics, learning, text, practice, are all in the service of creating goodness in our lives and in the world. Yes, this perspective represents a shift in Judaism. Many Jews in the non-Orthodox world need a reason other than "because Judaism says so" to engage and practice. The choice is that we find this reason -- for many of us it is, indeed, Tikun Olam -- or we accept that these Jews will leave Judaism behind. I prefer the former, not only because it keeps Jews Jewish but, more importantly, because of the collective impact we can have when we do let our Judaism inspire us to Tikun Olam. Judaism has survived because it has evolved; our task is to find the Torah that is right for our day. That's what the "Tikun Olam Jews" are doing. We are not at peak Tikun Olam. In fact, we are just getting started.