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,
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

It’s a really really good month to have a good month


I was so lucky to be part of the last cohort of Rabbis Without Borders. Oraynu, my Toronto congregation, supported me in attending three retreats where I met rabbinic colleagues across all movements/denominations, learned about leadership, and got to educate others about the Humanistic Jewish approach. 

You may have seen on social media that I befriended a really cool Orthodox rabbi named Isaiah. For a while he and I were chevruta (study buddies). We come from pretty different Jewish worlds and yet forged a real friendship and connection, each learning from the other and delighting in the common ground that united us. 

Isaiah taught me a lot, but one of the most important things was a song to welcome the new month. It goes: “It’s a really really good month to have a good month, Chodesh tov, Have a good Month.” Repeat. Every month it gets in my head as the Jewish lunar calendar flips to a new month. I’m writing this on the first day of the new month (you see it a few days later), and so I want to share the song with you and wish you a really really good month: https://www.denisehandlarski.com/video

The song, like lots in Jewish text and culture, is deceptively simple. If it’s a really, really good month to have a good month, then it’s always a good time to have a good time. And, really, time is our most precious resource while we get to hang out on this wacky and wonderful planet. 

I love that in Jewish practice we welcome the new month. It’s like a mini Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year). We get to check in, see how we are doing with our goals of who we want to be and what we want to do And, as the song reminds us, we can decide to have a good month. 

Yes, the world is rife with problems. Yes, lots of us have personal struggles. Yes, there is tragedy everywhere we look. But, there is also beauty. There are also people working on the problems. And we also have a voice and a choice to decide that every month, every day, we are going to be and do our best. It’s a really really good month to have a good month! 

This month my theme is social responsibility. I am choosing a few companies that I support and asking them to do a little better. The first is writing to some coffee places I frequent (looking at you, Starbucks), and asking them to make reusable ceramic mugs the default and charging a little bit for disposable ones. How often do you see people sitting in coffee shops drinking out of throw-away cups? Why?! One of my own personal goals is to never use disposable coffee cups. I lug a mug or I sit in the place and drink my drink. Sometimes I end up downing a double espresso really fast when on the run. That’s one less cup in landfill; one less bit of waxy paper/plastic in the world that will outlast me and all of us (no, those cups are not recyclable and no, most of the compostable ones never really get to compost). Want to join me? If you write to a coffee shop or another company of your choosing and ask them to do a little better, I’ll send you a virtual high five and a shout out on my social media page. 

It’s a really really good month to have a good month - and make the world a little better while we’re at it. 

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Children in Concentration Camps

This past week there was some tension in the Jewish community over whether it is appropriate to call U.S. detention centers housing migrants “concentration camps.” There were also horrific news articles about how children are being denied basics like toothbrushes, made to sleep on cold floors, and must represent themselves in court. We are talking about little children - the youngest of which is four months old.

I am ashamed that some in the Jewish community seem more outraged by the use of a term they feel belongs uniquely to the Jewish experience, than about innocent children being taken from their parents and tortured in these ways. 

What is a concentration camp? It is a small area in which innocent people are held without due process based on their ethnicity or country of origin. We have to use this term to describe what is happening because there has been too much complacency so far. Let’s start calling things what they are. Concentration camps. Torture. There are going to be round ups of migrants. The repetition of history is happening as we are watching. 

I serve many community members who are not in the U.S. But do we as Jews not hold countries besides Germany and Poland accountable for allowing the Holocaust to happen? Do we not wish there had been an international effort to stop it? We need to be that effort. “Never again” is right now. 

Here’s what I have done and I encourage you to join me:

- I wrote to my MP, to MP Freeland (who handles foreign affairs and diplomacy), and our Prime Minister asking them to use any possible diplomatic channels to ask for this to end. At the very least, these migrants — children! — deserve basic care and legal representation. 

- I have financially supported RAICES, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — all doing good work on the ground.

- I posted about this issue on my professional and personal social media, sounding the alarm and saying that as a Jew I am deeply concerned about where concentration camps and round ups are heading. I want everyone to act.

- I sent a message to my rabbinic colleagues in the Humanistic Jewish movement saying that after our summer meetings in Chicago (already booked), I will no longer travel to the United States. No more vacations or work travel there until this ends. It is time to vote with our dollars and our feet. I will not spend one more dollar in that country while children are being tortured. 

It feels like it is not enough but it is a start. Who’s with me? If you can’t do all of these things, what can you do? Let’s show the world that when Jews say “Never Again” we mean for all people. 

Denise

Pro-choice

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: http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/choice/. 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: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/abortion-in-jewish-thought/. 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,

Denise

Are You a “Bad” Jew?

Are you a “Bad Jew”?  Admit it: you’ve thought it. You’ve said it. Sometimes apologetically or sometimes defiantly: “I’m a Bad Jew”. Why? Oh, the usual reasons. Don’t observe Shabbat, like bacon, are intermarried, don’t speak Hebrew, have no idea what the holiday of Shavuot is all about, etc.

We’re entering the High Holiday, Fall Festival, Jewiest time of the year. So I want to capitalize on this moment and tell you something serious, even sacred. You’re a good Jew if you’re a good person. 

Here’s a little bit of text for you (I’m a rabbi, after all. I’m gonna throw a touch of text your way from time to time) from the Prophet Isaiah, about the fast on Yom Kippur (Isaiah 58: 5-7):

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and to not ignore your own kin.

Yes! Right? I mean, Yesss! Most Jews are “bad Jews” if the metrics are fasting on Yom Kippur, keeping kosher, or lighting Shabbat candles regularly. Guess what? It doesn’t matter! You know how people say “You do you”? Well, I say, “You Jew you.” Jew it your way.

The bottom line is this: Judaism is not meant to be a religion or culture of relics and traditions that are devoid of meaning but people do because they feel obliged.  Judaism is meant to be a living tradition and culture that brings meaning to your life and goodness to the world. Isaiah knows what he’s talking about. What good does it do to fast, to afflict your soul, to pay for the High Holiday tickets, but then be a crappy person? No good at all. It’s not about any of the things you feel like a “bad Jew” about. It’s about how you treat others and how you treat yourself. That’s it. The Golden Rule. That’s all. It’s about Tzedakah, for charity and justice. Focus there this year and I promise, you’re a good Jew, a good person, and in for a good year.

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