#metoo is a Jewish issue

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t stomach watching or listening to the Kavanaugh hearings. We’ve been down this road too many times: powerful man has been able to outrun his aggressions against women; women who come forward are subject to scrutiny and badgering. It remains far too easy for people (often men) in power to harm people (often women) with less power and get away with it for too long. If you are uncomfortable reading these words, I’m going to invite you to consider why that is. Do you naturally go to a place of “#notallmen” or “innocent until proven guilty”? Of course not all men. Of course people are, legally speaking, innocent until proven guilty. But our tendency as individuals and as a society is to immediately consider the plight of the abuser, not the abused; the harasser, not the harassed. This needs to change.

Here’s another thought exercise. I run this one with high school students quite often:

If you hear someone tell a racist or sexist joke, you have a choice to make: laugh to go along with it, speak up and tell the person that you are offended, say nothing. Most people, frankly, say nothing. Why? Well, some people have had the experience of speaking up. If you say to the joke-teller “that kind of joke is offensive to me. It hurts people to perpetuate those stereotypes or use that language,” what will their response be? We know intuitively that the joke-teller will not say: “So sorry to have caused offense. I apologize. I will consider my own biases that led me to tell such a joke.” Of course that will not be the response. The response is that the person who spoke up gets called names: too sensitive, no sense of humour, a killjoy, and, the f-word, “feminist.”

Notice the dynamic: the joke-teller feels so entitled to tell the joke that someone who objects is in the wrong. And the accusations at the one who objects are hurled by the original joke-teller and, importantly, the bystanders/others all around.

It is not safe to speak out in our world. So much the more so if you are a woman (including and especially trans/non-binary women). Now not only are you subject to the “you’re too sensitive” stuff, but also the sexist stuff: “you were asking for it; you were flirting; a guy can’t say anything without getting accused these days” and a host of other words women and girls get called that I won’t name here.

We KNOW these are the dynamics. Yet we are often still, so powerfully conditioned to think in this way, on the side of the harasser/abuser. In this, the era of #metoo, we have an opportunity to make real change.

Here’s how Judaism is part of the problem and can be part of the solution: One doesn’t have to scratch very far under the surface of our texts and traditions to see that we, as a culture, have condoned violence against women. However, Jewish groups today are mobilizing to use the teachings of our tradition, ideas like “Shalom Bayit” - Peace in the Home, or “Tikkun Olam” - repairing the world, to advocate for the end to harassment, assault, and abuse. This is up to all of us. 

Today is Simchat Torah - the day Jews conclude and start anew the reading of the Torah cycle. We start with Genesis, first woman, the first relationship between a man and a woman, and lots more to do with the establishment of patriarchy. Our job is to read old texts with new perspectives and to use them, as well as contemporary articles and thinking, to help make the future fairer. 

Fake News

I'll be frank: I'm very concerned about the political attacks on democracy right now both in Ontario and in the US. Whether I agree with the leanings of a political leader or party, I expect those in government to uphold, not erode, the freedoms we are guaranteed. I'd like to see a much more participatory form of democracy, for I see too many people feeling so unrepresented that they lose all hope.

Years ago when I was teaching literacy to at-risk teens, I would tell them that literacy was not a tool for writing boring English papers. It was a tool of self-empowerment. We did exercises to examine the bias of news articles and other sources. They wrote letters to the editor themselves (one pregnant teen I taught was published, talking about the lack of resources for teen parents in Toronto). These teens had never been told their voices were important.

Most people reading this have perfectly good literacy skills, and likely do believe that, in some way, their voice is important. So my message to you is a bit different. However, this moment seems to call for a back-to-basics approach.

Someone I often disagree with politically, recently referred to mainstream coverage of an issue as "fake news." So, here we are, in Canada, having seemingly bought into the hysteria around propaganda. Here's my handy rabbinic breakdown:

- There is fake news/propaganda. You should be able to detect it. Does it seem untrue? Are sources checked? Is the news source itself reliable/reputable? Is the bias obvious/overwhelming? That's fake news.

- Most of what is called "fake news" by some politicians, by the alt-right, and by others who dislike the coverage, is not actually fake news. Clapping loudly to drown out questions by reporters does not lead to fake news. Nor does it encourage critical coverage. One should ask what the clapping is meant to hide. I find the coverage by many mainstream/corporate media channels insufficient, but it isn't fake.

- All "news" has bias. Journalists are taught to be "objective," however the media conglomerates, the individuals themselves, the advertisers, all create some bias in the news we consume. It may be the stories that get covered versus ignored. It may be the slant the article/story takes. There is bias. Watch for it.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are fundamental democratic principles. Government-controlled news sources are not a way forward if we are wanting unbiased (or less-biased) reporting. I hope this is an issue you're willing to raise your voice over.

I used to tell the teens, but sometimes must remind myself that my voice matters. I'm a critical reader and have the ability to express myself in writing. I plan to be all over the media and my political representatives, holding them to account. Join me.

Yom Kippur Sermon/Commentary: Civility, Certainty, Divinity, Diversity

Written for Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. This followed Stories of Transformation about Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.



At Rosh Hashanah we asked the question: can humanists be happy? (For those who weren’t there, the answer is yes or, at least, I hope so). The impetus for such a question comes from the fact that as humanists many of us have a natural inclination to be critically-minded. This is good — our world needs far more critical thinkers. However, we are sometimes too critical of ourselves and others. And then it can be not so good.

Honesty time: Have you thought someone — a political figure or someone in your life — to be one of the following in recent months: an idiot, completely without moral compass, unworthy of your time/interest, less than human?

Here’s the thing, we are living in an incredibly polarized time politically and socially. And think of how this thinking is applied to “the other side” in many ways: a person is an “idiot” because they are a “left-wing snowflake” or a “right-wing ideologue.” A person lacks a moral compass because they can’t see that refugees need a safe place to land. Or they are without that moral compass because they can’t see the strain on resources that are already at capacity and the vulnerable people here who need support now. People are unworthy of our time or interest because they are in circumstances of their own making, poor because they live in the wrong communities, don’t pursue an education, use drugs and alcohol. Or people are unworthy of our time or interest because they have no sensitivity towards exactly the kinds of people described in these terms so, why bother trying to engage? I’m sure none of us wishes to admit that we see others as less than human. That last one is tricky but we sometimes fall into that trap of dehumanizations unwittingly whether calling someone else  “an animal,” referring to them as certain body parts — you know the ones I mean, or calling them a “basket of deplorables”.

I wish to avoid false equivalence here. I do believe sometimes ideas and actions are unjust and cruel. I’m not saying “everyone has a right to their opinion.” I’m saying everyone has their opinion, and we are more effective when we seek to understand that person and how they came to think in the way they do.

What we have is a bizarre turn where we are so convinced of our position and perspective, and the stakes are so so high — literally to many of us matters of life and death — that we become very ugly towards each other.

What I love about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story is not so much her fierce pursuit of justice, or her brilliant ability to articulate her dissensions in both powerful words and poignant fashion. I love those things, of course. What I love about her most of all, however, is her deep and close relationship with Justice Scalia, a political foe but a personal friend. To me this suggests more than her rise in the face of sexism, more than her astute legal mind, more than her awareness of the significance of her bench, it showcases her deep humanity. She is able to see the person behind the politics; she is able to retain her humanity and the view of her opponent’s humanity, even when fervently disagreeing. And the stakes are high. It is precisely because they are high that we need this focus on the whole person, on their humanity, on speaking to and even loving someone whose values you may find deplorable but whose human value is not in question.

I want to admit to you publicly on this day that we account for our souls and make public declarations of where we falter: I am terrible at this. I am not sure I could have dinner with Scalia. My own brother and I have certain discussion topics that we intentionally avoid so that we don’t try to throttle the other over dinner. I have no-go zones that I simply will not discuss, debate, or, frankly, develop a personal connection with someone if they hold opposing views. I’m sure you have some of these red line issues as well. For some it’s women’s rights. For some it’s Israel. For some it’s climate change. I guarantee you two things: there are people in this room who disagree with you on one or more of these issues. And they are here for the same reason you are: to use this opportunity given to us each year to reflect, to pursue self-betterment, and to foster a more meaningful life.

If we could find a way to dialogue, even when we disagree, we could open our minds and hearts in ways that we can’t accomplish just sitting and listening to the rabbi, engaging though she may be ;)

I’ve been working on this dialogue across difference thing. One of my red line issues is being pro-choice. I so strongly disagree with the anti-choice perspective, finding it rooted in misogyny, religious fanaticism/fundamentalism, and basic scientific misinformation about issues of gestation. I will admit to having thought thoughts like “these people are idiots with no moral compass who are not worthy of my time who are — insert name of body part, or item from the basket of deplorables here.” I would either not engage with the anti-choice segment or, if I passed them with their graphic signs, for example, I might shout out an expletive or insult. I would never really engage.

Please understand, I still feel just as passionately and strongly about this issue and still, if I’m honest, know in my heart that I’m right. The challenge is that they know in their hearts that they’re right too, even though our ideas are diametrically opposed. So, what to do?

I recently had the opportunity to try build and flex this dialogue across difference muscle when I posted publicly on social media my “top ten things to say to abortion protestors” and, unsurprisingly, received some comments that were from the anti-choice side. I resisted the urge to name-call, to dismiss. I engaged. There was one person in particular who said some things that were filled with contempt for women. I asked him to consider that contempt; I said I’m sure his heart was in the right place but to me these issues are about women’s rights and autonomy, things I care passionately about. That’s right — I used “I” messages instead of simply criticizing him and his point of view.

Do I think I got through to him? No. But often these discussions, especially when occurring in public, are not about the person on the other side of the argument. It’s about the people watching from the sidelines, either looking for models who share their point of view, or who are open to being convinced by the opposing one.

In being resolute in my argument, but respectful in my discussion, I affirmed his humanity and, importantly, my own. Part of what I was doing was saying “Hey, look. I’m a woman. I’m intelligent. I’m worthwhile. My rights matter.” It’s much easier to dismiss someone’s humanity when they are dismissing yours.

I noticed something after that discussion. I felt lighter than I usually do when entering into arguments, especially online arguments! Could it be that treating someone else with respect actually feels good? At Rosh Hashanah I discussed the false dichotomy between righteous indignation and happiness.

I want to tell you — in that moment, I felt super righteous. I had been cool and convincing. I also felt happy at how I had handled myself. There is an adage that I find very true: there is no such thing as winning an argument. We need to be civil with each other.

Let’s talk about the notion of civility for a moment: on the one hand it is a no-brainer and, on the other hand, it is a most dangerous proposition. The root of “civil” is “civis” for citizen. Who counts as a citizen though? Does it include the immigrant or the refugee? Does it include the Indigenous peoples? Think of the brutal history of colonization globally: a civilizing mission; a mission driven by the idea that the people indigenous to the majority of the planet were not fully human yet.

Indeed, today, there is such an interesting use of the word civil. A few months ago, when the US started separating immigrants and refugees from their children, and then placing those children in cages, the spokesperson for the White House reminded people to be “civil” when discussing it. I was struck by how that term is still being used to oppress, to suppress dissent, to whitewash. It’s not dissimilar from the approach of the colonizer who took seriously what they called the “white man’s burden” to civilize others.

Let’s not forget the role religion plays in these civilizing missions. Colonizers across the continent of Africa used it to “civilize” the people there. People seeking refuge in North America now are catalogued by religion and treated accordingly. The idea of the citizen is very fraught indeed.

And yet I take seriously what it means to be a citizen — of my country and of the world. I dislike it when politicians refer to their constituents as “taxpayers.” I am a taxpayer but does this buy me access or a voice? My children are not taxpayers, but they are citizens. Same for some elderly people, some people with disabilities, some people down on their luck. As citizens, we deserve equal protection under the law — exactly what Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her life and career fighting for.

To me, what it means to be a citizen is to fight for those rights. To stand up for my fellow citizens, of my country, of the world, and be serious about the equal protections we are owed. It’s why I care about abortion access, climate change and environmental justice, anti-Black racism and the treatment of Indigenous peoples across our country and the world. I have a responsibility to engage — I am a citizen.

I am also a Jew. And Jews have often been called uncivilized. We have been subject to the same types of categorizations and civilizing missions that others have experienced and continue to experience. Part of the idea of the uncivilized Jew is simply a reflection of deep antisemitism. It is garbage. I want to rescue part of the image, however. Jews have been known as a “stiff-necked people,” meaning that we are stubborn. Part of our stubbornness is our refusal to bow before leaders and gods with whom we don’t agree or in whom we don’t believe. For Humanistic, Secular, atheist, agnostic Jews, we keep in line with the very Jewish tradition of refusing to bow before what we perceive to be false gods. It is in our ethos as a people and as individuals. I value our stiff-neckedness. I want to be stubborn where it matters. I have my red lines. I don’t think that makes me uncivilized; it does make me an engaged and vocal citizen.

This idea that the cagers of children should call on their opponents to remain civil really throws into harsh relief how dangerous the term can be. Some of these same people are incredibly disrespectful, discourteous, and dangerous in their attacks on their political opponents, calling them all manner of things including “snowflake,” “Pollyanna,” “Fake news.” I notice a trend for people to call for civility in exactly the moment that they are violating civility, and undermining the humanity, of others.

We have to do this better. It is frustrating, believe me I know, to be the one who remains calm, poised, and, yes, civil, when the other side is the opposite of all those things. But there is no winning an argument. And the stakes are high. We have to dialogue across difference and “they” will never be civil to “us” if “we” can’t be civil to “them.” You can’t see the scare quotes I placed around all those words - us and them. But they are there. Because, ultimately, there is no us and them. As I said, we disagree, even in this room, even where we agree on so much. Ultimately, finally, there is only us — we humans, fallible and frail, trying to live out our lives. Being citizens of the world we must share.

This talk is entitled “Civility, certainty, divinity, diversity”. I think civility is challenged by the other three ideas. Our certainty. My certainty that I’m right and your certainty that you’re right. I’m part of a cohort of Rabbis Without Borders — rabbis reimagining how to make Jewish life meaningful and relevant for our people. One of the books we discussed together was by Rabbi Brad Hirshfeld, entitled You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right.” In it, he discusses the violence done to Jews and Judaism when we are shouted down, ostracized, made to feel ashamed for who we are. Many of us in this room have experienced that from outside and inside Judaism. We are subject to antisemitism. We are subject to people telling us we’re not “real” Jews or we’re “Jewing” it wrong. We are subject to questions about our choice in partner or the validity of the Jewishness of our children if we are intermarried. We are subject to the sting of feeling a lack of belonging - with our people, without our people. What if we agreed that someone doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right?

Jewishly, what if we agreed that it makes sense to worry about Jewish continuity even if and as we celebrate intermarriage?

What if we took seriously the idea that the person who votes differently to me has very real concerns that they care about and that’s what compels them to vote the way they do?

What if instead of calling each other snowflakes, deplorables, and worse, we actually listened to each other?

For us to retain our civility we must sometimes question our certainty. And when we feel certain we must acknowledge that the other side does too.

Civility, certainty, divinity... well, if you’re here in this room you are probably suspicious or skeptical of the idea of the divine. I don’t believe that any supernatural force, certainly not the God of the bible, is going to counsel me on how to navigate these tough times. I am extremely anxious, as are many of you, about the certainty that comes with the belief that one’s ideas are divinely inspired or inscribed. There is just no arguing with someone who, yes, conveniently, yes, sometimes uncritically, believes that their political and social points of view all happen to match up perfectly with their religion or god they worship. I advocate for dialoguing across difference; I’m still working out how to dialogue with divinity. What I have in place of a belief in the divine is a belief in my fellow humans. This belief, like all beliefs, gets tested. It wavers. But it is foundational to how I move through the world. The very meaning of what it is to be humanistic is that we place our faith in each other. We often hear about the “divine spark in every person.” I like that metaphor, not because we are made in the image of a god. I like it because, to me, humanity is holy. It’s the only phenomenon on which I can place my belief. I’m not saying people are gods. I’m saying if we treated each other like we could see the spark of divinity inside each person we’d be living in a better world.

Civility, certainty, divinity, diversity. I’d love my political opponents to get a little more comfortable with diversity. I am so proud to be part of this community that meaningfully and truly celebrates diversity. There are Jews here of all skin tones and backgrounds, Jews by choice, Jews by birth, Jews by marriage. There are people here who are intermarried, in-married, and unmarried. Some of you awesome folks are LGBTQ, some are allies. And, yes, we are diverse politically too. Members of my staff and board here vote differently than I do — I admit I find it astonishing. And yet, we love each other.

Right now, I find that civility is threatened by certainty and the divinity of humanity is strengthened by diversity. I want us to hold fast to our beliefs, and at the very same time, reconcile some of these contradictions and challenges.

When in doubt, ask yourself WWRBGD? What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg do? I think we can agree that she’d remain civil, even when certain. She’d acknowledge the divinity in her fellow human and celebrate the diversity of humanity. On this day of atoning, of accounting for our souls, of acknowledging our faults and faultlines, and of actualizing our goals of who we wish to be moving forward, she’s a pretty great role model. I don’t believe the year ahead is going to be a particularly easy one. We face many challenges as a community and as individuals. What I wish for you is what we spoke about at Rosh Hashanah. Find ways to let joy in. Try to occupy the nexus between what’s meaningful and what’s pleasurable. Seek out ways to elevate the sense of your own humanity and that of those around you. Love yourselves and love each other. Even if the year ahead is filled with challenges, may it be a meaningful, rewarding, good, and yes, sweet year.



My shirt for Yom Kippur: Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah. Shirt by and in support of T’ruth: Rabbis for Human Rights  

My shirt for Yom Kippur: Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah. Shirt by and in support of T’ruth: Rabbis for Human Rights  

Speaking and silence

You'll be receiving this just before erev Yom Kippur, right before our evening Kol Nidre service. This is a solemn service, but also the most beautiful. We mourn, we commemorate, we also reflect on our year, our trajectory, our deepest selves. The ancient melody of Kol Nidre grounds us. Some describe it as haunting. Others call it meditative. For my mother, the melody always makes her cry -- it pulls her heart towards the memories of her forebears, those she knew and loved and those in the long history of Jewish generations.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time when we encourage one another to speak up and speak out. Speak out against injustice; ask for forgiveness; tell your truth about yourself. You also hear the rabbi speak about the year to come, what it may bring, things to focus on. We hear the shofar - the blast that wakes us up to the task and road ahead. It is a time of many words, songs, sounds.

Right after Yom Kippur this year, I am leaving for a silent retreat. I want to balance the cacophonous Days of Awe with a few days of rest and silence. This is not to forget all those words, the songs and their resonant meanings, rather it is so they may have time to sink in. I want to drop into the silence so that I can drop deep into myself, solidifying the promises I've made for the year to come.

We live in such a noisy, chatty culture. We can feel bombarded by sounds: traffic, children whining/crying, people asking for our attention, conversation, argument/disagreement, the dings and buzzes of technology, news programs, songs, radio, background noise, smoke alarms, the quotidian noises of daily life. These comprise the soundtrack to our lives. They are often beautiful and wonderful sounds, such as the voices of loved ones, the simple clink of dishes in the sink, even the hum of traffic can be soothing.

At the same time, I really think we all need to find ways to slow down and seek some quiet. This doesn't have to be in the form of a retreat. Meditation, taking a quiet walk, simply sitting still for a while can invite stillness and silence into our lives. We need that more often than we are likely getting it. We need to take a break from all that noise.

My goal this year is that I be able to truly listen. I want to hear, really hear, the people in my life. I want to hear the question behind the question, the unarticulated need, the joyful telling of a story. I'm taking this time to pause, taking a break from talking, partly to quiet the never-ending chatter in my own mind. It's my hope that it will free up a little space for hearing others more clearly.

What will you do after these High Holidays? Is there something you can do to extend the awesomeness of the Days of Awe into the rest of your year?

Rosh Hashanah sermon - Can a Humanist Be Happy?

This was the Rosh Hashanah commentary from the service at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, September 2018 (5779). Note: it followed the reading of Jeremiah 31: 2-20, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah.


Stop me if you heard it: The Brandeis University rowing team has failed every time. They send an observer to watch the Yale and Harvard crew teams, and he reports back, "guys, we're doing it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling!" This joke works because of the stereotype that Jews yell, disagree, can’t steer together.

Jeremiah tells us that when the exiles return there will be immense joy, there will be celebration, there will be singing and dancing. Mourning itself shall turn to joy. But, with respect to Jeremiah, as the people who are more likely to call out “oy” than to experience “joy” we are perhaps still waiting for the prophecy to come true.

Quick exercise and please try not to overthink: If you have children or grandchildren in your life: what’s the one thing you want most for them in their lives?

And here’s one for you? What do you want for your life most this year?

Do the answers match up? #1 answer when parents are asked what they want for their kids is not a fancy job, or a spouse, or wealth. It’s happiness. When we set our own goals, they are often for these parts of life that we think might make us happy, but usually we do not set out simply to be happy ourselves.

Paul Golin, the Executive Director of our movement organization  the Society for Humanistic Judaism, was here this past June. He asked what job Judaism is doing in our lives, which I think is a really worthwhile question. It’s a question I put to you. I answered that I thought Judaism could be a force to make people’s lives happier, and Paul was surprised. He said something like, “wow, happy. I never considered happy. I’m not even sure I’m capable of happy. What I have is something more like righteous indignation.”

If you know me at all, you know I’m actually quite a fan of righteous indignation. I believe we are living in an incredibly pivotal political time and the very real fights we face around climate change, racism and discrimination, sexism and sexual violence, immigration and refugee rights, food security, and many more, are deserving of our fervour, our ferocity, and our fury. I’m a big fan of anger when it motivates us to act. I think we are entitled to be angry — there is a lot going on that should make us angry. But when you think about what you want for the children and grandchildren in your life is it to walk around being angry all the time? Of course not. We need to find a way to balance the righteous indignation with the joy. Can a Humanist be happy? I sure as hell hope so!

You are likely familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The bottom of the pyramid is filled with things we need to survive: food, shelter, water. As we go up the pyramid there are things like love and belonging. Further up is esteem, and the highest need we have, a need we are capable of achieving only if all the other needs are met, is self-actualization. I like a lot of what is in this theory, but I have two criticisms: firstly, while it is important to focus on the self, I believe we as humans actually need to focus beyond our selves. There is nothing on that pyramid about doing good, pursuing social justice, helping others. I think if we are to truly reach self-actualization we have to look outwardly as well as inwardly. The second criticism I have is the shape... the pyramid. Maslow suggests that we can’t focus on love and belonging until we have basic physiological needs met. I disagree. I think people who do not have the basic means for survival often experience incredible love and feelings of belonging. I also think the love and belonging help us find the tools to survive, for we are motivated by our own survival and that of the people we love.

I’m going to return to some of these concepts, particularly love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I think they are key to our happiness as individuals and as a people.

But first I want to explore more about why this happiness thing is so hard to come by, perhaps especially for Humanistic Jews. Partly it’s that most of us do not believe in a grand plan, in fate, in things being by design. When someone believes in those things, I think it is easier to resist despair. We not only have no faith that these things will all turn out fine because they are preordained, but we don’t necessarily have faith that the humans on whom we rely have the will or the skill to address the challenges we face.

I think there is something cultural at play too. In Michael Wex’s book “Born to Kvetch,” he discusses how Yiddish encoded something in the Jewish psyche. He says Yiddish is not a “have a nice day” language. One doesn’t ask “how are you?” Because the answer will be “how should I be?”

And yet there are examples of Jews who make happiness their mission, sometimes literally. The Chasidic movement is so successful because it has a goal of making Jewish practice extremely happy and joyful, almost frenetically so sometimes. The Chasidim sure bring the party, and you know what? They’re right. There is much with which I disagree in Chasidic and other branches of Orthodox Judaism. But Chasidism got the joy piece right. Why be or do Jewish if it doesn’t help make you happy? I stand by my answer to Paul Golin. I think Jewish identity, practice, ritual, and experience can absolutely help you up Maslow’s ladder, from offering love and belonging, to reasons for self-esteem and the esteem of others, and to self-actualization. Judaism also helps with the social justice piece that Maslow forgot.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about happiness. We have traditional sources on this.

The Mishnaic sage, Ben Zoma, expresses it very succinctly: Eizehu ashir? Hasame’ach bechelko. “Who is rich? He who is happy with his share.” Good advice.

Anne Frank noted, “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are different and yet the same.”

And many people who are not Jewish have much to offer in understanding how we can increase happiness in our lives and strengthen the link between doing Jewish and being happy.

In The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, we learn techniques that Rubin tried for a year to help make her more happy, a project she claims was successful, she is truly happier now. I’m a fan of Rubin’s. I get her daily “moment of happiness” emails with a quotation about happiness or something meaningful and I find it helps me start my day. One of the biggest takeaways from the Happiness Project for me, is one of the simplest. One of her rules for happiness is, “Be Gretchen.” She writes about how she always felt insecure about how she didn’t particularly care for music. She saw how much meaning it brought to others. She wanted to like it. She tried to like it. But she doesn’t really like it. She is happier focusing on the things that really are suited to her. In all things, be Gretchen. Or, you know, insert your own name. Later in the service we’ll here of the midrashic Zusya, a story from our own tradition with a very similar moral. Be yourself.

How does that map out Jewishly? Well, focus on the aspects of Jewish culture and practice that are meaningful to you and here’s the real trick: DFBA - don’t feel bad about it! If you are the kind of Jew who could not care less about Torah/Tanakh ( Tanakh is the Hebrew bible... like what we read from Jeremiah..) if you just went to sleep - if you’re that kind of Jew- guess what? DFBA! It’s ok! It’s better than ok! You now know your link to Judaism isn’t bible. But you’re here - so what is it? Personal betterment and fulfillment? Community and the traditions and people of our ancestral past? Social justice? Judaism has something to offer as we seek all of these things, and also shows us how these things connect. So, be Jewish your way. Be Gretchen or, rather, be you.

Last year I spoke about belief, behaviour, belonging. I returned to the concept a few weeks ago when reading Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, a book that I wholeheartedly recommend. In it, Brown speaks about the human need for belonging — the middle of the Maslow hierarchy.  Brown’s definition of “true belonging” is: when we are truly and authentically ourselves and feel accepted.” But, of course, we won’t always be or feel accepted. So we must foster self-acceptance... it is a book for what she called outliers. Those who buck trends. Those who, in her words, brave the wilderness.

“True belonging” — makes me nervous. It sounds and feels a little too much like True believer. Our community is a community of misfits, skeptics, and outliers. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have found each other in the wilderness. I love that metaphor because it reminds me of Passover - the Exodus story (sorry for the bible-haters...)  of Jews who wandered for 40 years. And still we wander... outliers.

The wilderness for Brown is being an outlier; being brave enough to stand up and stand out from the crowd. In her words, “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness” (49).

That’s us in multiple directions: some here left traditional Judaism and found this form of it which feels more authentic. Some left a family or community of disconnected Jews and found us and increased their Jewish experience and engagement manifold. Some married or partnered into Judaism and discovered us. But, for most of us, choosing to be in a Humanistic Jewish space on the high holidays is a sign of our outlier status. My mission is to help my community brave the wilderness - to lend support and foster community around the idea of being in the wilderness, a lonely, scary, but also beautiful space, open with possibility.

We have to sort out where we stand alone and where we stand with others. Brown notes that:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” (196). Be Gretchen.

Braving the Wilderness talks about the how of being true to oneself and being in community and society with others — I’ll take that up on Yom Kippur when I discuss “civility, certainty, divinity, diversity.”

Some of Brown’s best tenets are: “people are hard to hate close up. Move in.... Speak Truth to BS, be civil... Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart.” (7)

I love this last one best of all. We need a strong back to carry the load of working for justice, speaking our truth, being who we are. We need a soft front to stay vulnerable — it’s hard being truly who we are out in this harsh world. The soft front makes us loving, open, available. And the wild heart. If I could wish one thing for you this year, it’s this wild heart. What would or could you do with this year if you listened to your impulses? If you pursued an unrealistic dream? If you gave generously, danced maniacally, laughed and loved exuberantly?

Her book ends (spoiler) with a sentiment I feel is perfect for the start to the year:

“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”

I connect Brene Brown’s words with the reading of Jeremiah. The idea here is that we are coming out of the wilderness and so will rejoice. I’m thinking though that we never really come out of the wilderness. I think most of us are stuck in one wilderness or other for a long time. There is no true Promised Land. I’m not speaking of the dream and vision for the state of Israel precisely, but we can go there for a minute. It’s clear that there is more to do. We can apply this to our own lives too. With respect to Jeremiah, I’d like to invert the meaning of the passage: I don’t want to wander through the wilderness and expect joy on the other side; I want to know how we bring the joy to the wilderness.

Does being the wilderness, or being in the wilderness, make a person happy? Partly. It means that we are struggling for something, and often that something is beautiful and precious. Braving the wilderness gives our lives meaning, and meaning is key to happiness.

Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor focusing on positive psychology, notes in his book “Happier,” that we have words like “pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, and contentment” which “are often used interchangeably with the word happiness, but none of them describes [it] precisely (4)”.

In our service we note that there are many words in Hebrew for joy; these are part of the seven wedding blessings: gila, rina, ditza v’chedva.

All these words... but identifying a true definition for happiness still seems so elusive. I generally see myself as a happy person, but I’m so often not *aware* of being happy. Mostly we all just feel sort of regular. People who are generally unhappy are likely much more aware of it, but even they might sometimes experience pleasure, bliss, gila, rina, etc and not take stock of those feelings or how those feelings are aiding in increasing their overall happiness.

Ben-Shahar says that rituals help aid happiness (8), which is part of why it’s so important to mark holidays like this one, including all of the attendant rituals we experience here and at home — reading Torah, lighting candles, apples and honey. These are all part of what is happy-making about holidays. The specific experiences bring us joy and meaning, and the rhythm of the ritual happening annually also increases our happiness because it offers both the comfort of regularity and the excitement of the special — we do it every year but only once a year. For Ben-Shahar the real ticket to a happy life, or at least a happier life, is when our lives are filled with both pleasure and meaning. We need a mix of both pleasure and meaning for our lives to feel happy because either one alone is not enough. All pleasure all the time might sound good, sometimes it might sound really good!, but ultimately we get bored, feel unfulfilled, and cannot serve others if we are only about our own immediate pleasure. All meaning all the time feels a little weighty. We need time to let go, recharge, enjoy the fruits of our labour. Where pleasure meets meaning is where we can start to find real happiness.

When I ask you what your goals are for this year, maybe some are about pleasure: vacations you want to take, experiences you want to have with special people, etc. And maybe some are about meaning: social justice work you will pursue, career goals and milestones, working on developing or sustaining close relationships. All of these are worthwhile things to focus on this year. Sometimes we feel our dreams or goals to do with pleasure are too frivolous, unserious, undeserving of our attention, our money, or the sacrifice of others. “What right do I have to take off for the weekend with my girlfriends when I have a full house and a full inbox?” But what happens if we don’t focus on our own pleasure? We resent the people in our homes and those at the other end of the emails.

You may have heard me say before that I try not to tell people that I’m “busy,” but rather that my life feels “full.” It really does! I feel so grateful for meaningful work, meaningful family, meaningful friendships, meaningful ideas I get to read, discuss, and contemplate. I really do have a full house and a full inbox. Does this fullness leave me feeling fulfilled? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The fullness of it all can certainly lead to overwhelm, which I know is something many of you experience.

To be happy, we need the meaning and the pleasure. My best moments are ones like this when we are together, enjoying, truly enjoying our holiday, our community, our time to focus inward. There is a lot of pleasure here (at least I hope there is!). We even have honey cake afterwards! There is also, I like to think, some real meaning. I often feel happier after having attended a service or celebrated a holiday. The meeting of pleasure and meaning is why.

So, my challenge to you is finding out ways to bring pleasure and meaning together more often. I’m not saying that because I like you and so I want you to be happy. I do like you. I do want you to be happy. But it’s not just for you. I want you to be happy because I know that a lot of hurt is happening in our world right now. I know that when we are happy, when we are moving through the world like we love ourselves, we are more likely to bring happiness to others. We are certainly less likely to cause harm to others.

The happiest people I know are also the most generous, most giving, most caring. They can afford to be this way because they operate from a place of abundance and not scarcity. I want you to be happy because I know that if we could harness the power and potential of everyone here today when we are at our happiest and strongest, we could achieve incredible things in this world. And this world certainly needs us now.

As I look around, I see wilderness. I see pain, fear, hurt, anger. Lots of searching. Lots of frustrated wandering. The story of our people is this story. And we know what to do with it. The Chasidim know, the wedding couple filled with gila, rina, ditza knows, when we think of what we wish for our children and grandchildren, we know. Our lives must be purposeful. To achieve self-fulfillment, the highest level for Maslow, and to reach a happy life, a high value in and of itself: we need all of it: joy, anger, righteous indignation, struggle, meaning, purpose, pleasure, wilderness. I wish you all that and more this coming year. Shana tova u’metukah. May it be a very good, very sweet, and very happy year for you and yours.


What to do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?


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

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

 Purge, clear, clean

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

Do you 10Q?

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

Make amends

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

Focus on what matters

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

Shana Tova!

Rabbi Denise


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.


Gratitude after the fire

A few months ago, a friend of mine awoke in the night to the smell of smoke. She yelled for her partner and together they got their three children, one still a small baby, out of the house. As they looked back, they saw smoke all around. The fire fighters said they thought they made it out with about thirty seconds to spare. They were in bare feet, underwear, and too little clothing for the cold night. They lost everything they owned.

As I heard about this, the story touched my own terror. It made me think of how I would feel if I lost everything I owned. The fire had spread from the neighbouring house. How would I feel about the person who started it? Would I be angry? Filled with anguish and despair? Overcome with the challenge of rebuilding and finding a place to live in the meanwhile? Grief over all the mementos lost?

I don’t think any of us can know how we’d feel in this situation, but I know how my friend and her family have reacted: a beautiful, deep, overwhelming sense of gratitude. The mother/grandmother of the family puts it this way: “I breathe in and breathe out fall on your knees gratitude that everyone is ok.”

I reached out to the woman, this mother of three who is suddenly without a home, and all she has to offer is gratitude that her kids are safe, gratitude to her friends, family, and community who have come together to quickly raise clothing, funds, and other necessities to get them through this time. All I get from these people who have a right to be bitter is gratitude and more gratitude.

I’m really touched and inspired by this family of strong and courageous women. They would be forgiven for being grouchy, angry, bitter, resentful, jealous, spiteful, and hardened by this. They would be justified. But they are choosing to focus on the positive that comes out of bad situations. What a gift that is to themselves and those kids, who will learn about grit and resilience from this. They will never forget this time.

Many of us might be walking around feeling grumpy, angry, bitter, and we might feel justified in that. We might have real reasons to feel that way. However, for many of us, whatever it is that we are dealing with also likely has a positive side. The more we can focus on that, the more we can grow in our positivity and resilience, the better the outcome for ourselves and the people around us.

I say this with our community in mind because I know a lot of people who are Humanists struggle with gratitude. We may think, “to whom, exactly, am I supposed to be grateful?” People who believe in the supernatural force often called God have someone to thank, and someone they can believe made any good things happen, or has a plan for when bad things happen. This isn’t my belief, but I really do try to practice gratitude daily. I am not grateful to God. I am grateful to the world, to my family and community, to my children, to myself, for the beauty and joy that I find all around me.

There is lots in my life that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful or joyous. I spend a lot of time commuting. I really hate sitting for long periods of time and I really dislike driving, and yet I spend about ten to fifteen hours a week exactly this way. Sometimes on my commute I’m dealing with weather, or aggressive drivers, or construction, none of which is wonderful. When I find myself in this situation or other unpleasant ones — someone being hurtful, an unexpected and expensive home repair, all of the things that fill our lives and can make us angry or unhappy, I try to ask myself: “what is awesome about this?”

I don’t like driving but I get to listen to audiobooks and podcasts that stimulate me. Someone says something that hurts my feelings. What is awesome about that? They are letting me know something about myself that I can confront and perhaps help me grow. They are letting me know something about them that can heighten my empathy (mean people are usually just angry or fearful themselves), or can help me know who in my life is truly trustworthy and good for me. Something in my home breaks? I’m lucky to have a home, and people in it who I love so much, and these instances are small inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.

The more I practice this intentional form of gratitude, the more I am able to let go of the feelings of negativity more quickly and more fully. Frankly, it’s a better way to go through life. I am working on my own resilience. I can be too cynical, too grouchy, too judgmental. That isn’t great for the people around me, and it isn’t great for me. I want to be a force of light and positivity for others, and the best way to be that is to feel lightness and positivity within.

Humanistic Jews have the wisdom of both Judaism and Humanism to draw from, and there is lots in both about becoming the best version of oneself. I see it as a Jewish responsibility to take care of myself and to take care of others. In the Hebrew bible and Talmud we are told to honour our parents, love the stranger, and respect our bodies and health.                                                                                                        In Humanism, we are told that the cosmos is chaos, and so whatever good there is on earth is ours to create and enjoy. We believe life is limited to our time here, thus it is short, so we might as well find a way to see the good in it.

I am not asking you to keep a gratitude journal, take up meditation, or stop and ask yourself “what is awesome about this?” every time something goes awry. However, I’ve tried all of these things out and believe that some kind of practice of gratitude, which will help foster an overall attitude of gratitude, is a good thing to do. Gratitude helps us experience joy more fully, and helps us minimize the damage of fear and pain. Gratitude can strengthen relationships (think of the impact of someone pointing out all they appreciate about you! We tend to focus on only the things we wish we could change). Gratitude can make us healthier, happier, more giving, more gracious. If you’re a Humanist who has felt excluded from a practice of gratitude because you don’t believe in anyone pulling all the strings, recognize that the puller of strings is you, and you deserve to feel proud and grateful for all the good you create.

I’m grateful to you for reading this. Please like, comment, or share to let me know how this resonates with you. What are you most grateful for? 


18 summers

This past weekend I was booked to officiate a wedding. The day before I got an urgent call asking if I could come a few hours earlier to the hospital because the bride’s father is in cancer care and, unexpectedly, is now too sick to attend the wedding. I had just been away at a Rabbis Without Borders retreat, and was excited to spend the day with my kids. It was one of those moments when I had to explain to my kids, in the words of my colleague Rabbi Eva, that although they were more important to me than my clients, this time the clients were more urgent.

Also this past week, I had reserved a little island of time for myself on a Sunday night, feeling desperate for a break, when I got a call to meet with a family planning a funeral. Their mother had a scheduled physical-assisted death and they needed to plan the funeral quickly, even though she was still alive.

These moments represented two instances when I made the choice to sacrifice my own time for rest and rejuvenation because what was being asked of me was more important. I’m sharing the story with you with the details of my own desire for a break not because I wish to be the centre of this story — I’m not the centre; two people with cancer and their families are the centre — but because I wish to highlight that sometimes serving others requires sacrifice. I was tired. I was wanting time with my kids. But I showed up for these people anyway because, in my view, that’s what Humanists do: we show up for people in need.

The flip side is that I really believe we need healthy and appropriate boundaries, including time that we protect and reserve for those closest to us. As you know, I have young kids, and I recently saw an online photo saying “we only get eighteen summers with our kids.” It really hit home! Summer is the time when many of us spend time away with family — at a cottage, in the place where we grew up, etc. It is a time when many of us have fewer work obligations and so we do get a chance to recharge. I want that for you this summer. I want you to figure out who and what are most important to you and make sure you devote them some time.

How do we strike the right balance between protecting time for ourselves and our priorities, and ensuring we are there for those who need us? Many of you are caring for others, be they aging parents, children, and members of your community. How will you recharge so you can best serve them, while still ensuring their needs are met? That’s really my question of summer. I plan to ruminate on that as the lead-up to the High Holidays when we ask ourselves who we wish to be in the coming year. I want to be someone who serves others. I want to be someone who is attentive and present with my family. I want to be someone who has boundaries that are porous enough to make exceptions for emergencies but solid enough that they are meaningful. Are you with me? What are you going to focus on this summer?


Migrants at the US Border - What We Can Do From Here

I imagine most of you are like me and have been losing sleep over the stories and images of children being separated from parents at the US / Mexico border. Many Jews I know, some Holocaust survivors, have likened this situation to the Holocaust. Parents have been told their children are going to “showers” and the children don’t return. People are separated quickly, roughly, without any chance to say goodbye. Children are being kept in jail-like conditions. It is horrific. I know there is new information that families may be jailed together. This is still unacceptable and doesn't address the thousand of kids already separated.

As Jews we understand the plight of refugees who feel unsafe staying where they are and are also unsafe where they end up. We recall and consider the Canadian history of “None is too many” as a stain on our country. And yet this exact sentiment is being used to justify these torturous acts and conditions.

There are people mobilizing, including interfaith groups. I consider us part of the interfaith movement, even without faith, and want our community to be a force for good in this situation and in the world.

I’m asking you to consider our Jewish teachings of “tikkun olam” - repairing the world - and use your voice to help repair these families, who are right now undergoing terrible trauma.

Here are some things we can all do:

1) Write your MP and Prime Minister Trudeau, asking them to use diplomatic channels to end this disaster. I know we are in a trade war of sorts. I know Trudeau has said he isn’t going to “play politics” on this issue. We have to show him he’s wrong — we’re not playing and this is the time to act and speak out as we wish other countries had done when it was Jews in cages

2) Sign this petition by Amnesty for Canada to end the Safe Third Country Agreement. This is something I engaged my MP on last year as well. This agreement says migrants must apply for status in the first “safe” country they reach. The US is no longer safe. Here’s the petition: https://www.amnesty.ca/news/safe-third-country-agreement-must-be-suspended-say-canadian-council-refugees-and-amnesty

3) If you can, support one of the many organizations working to fix this situation. I have recently donated to RAICES and the ACLU. This article has a link to these and other organizations: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/06/how-you-can-fight-family-separation-at-the-border.html

4) Engage any friends or family you have in the US, especially if they vote Republican or live in a place with Republican representation, to work to stop this through their own Congressperson or Senator

5) I’ll be at the rally in Toronto on June 30th at 10:00 am at the US consulate. I hope to see you there. I know of an event link only in Facebook for now: https://www.facebook.com/511013648/posts/10155946732608649/

6) We have problems here at home too with family separation, particularly for Indigenous communities. Our history of residential schools and the 60s scoop continue to impact many families. There continue to be children separated without good cause by child services. And we have some migrant family separation at our border as well. We need to continue to speak out in support of Indigenous and refugee rights, as individuals and as a community. 

One final note: you likely heard that Jeff Sessions used the bible to justify these horrific policies and actions. This is exactly why we must defend both the separation of church and state — for the bible is not the rulebook for government policy, and also why we must engage with our religious heritage and tradition to be able to say that for every line justifying this behaviour is another that condemns it. Sessions used: “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” I give you: “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

I am so proud to be part of this community and I know you’ll stand with me as we work to end this. Wishing you all peace and love.

Rabbi Denise

Ubuntu and Humanistic Judaism

This upcoming weekend, I’m thrilled to be officiating a Bar Mitzvah of one of our Oraynu students. This Bar Mitzvah and his brother (who also graduated from Oraynu) are both bright, creative, humourous young men. Their parents really exemplify Humanistic Jewish ideals: they are caring, they are committed to community and to bettering the world, they believe in equality, they are loving and giving parents, and they are kind, decent, warm people.

All Bat and Bar Mitzvah are special. This one is particularly wonderful for me because this student chose to focus his research on the Stephen Lewis Foundation and, in particular, the Grannies Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) program in South Africa. These grannies take care of their grandchildren, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS. Stephen Lewis is the Humanistic Jewish hero, but the grannies, as the Bar Mitzvah boy says, are the true heroes for all they do.

This family traveled to South Africa to meet some of the GAPA families. There, they learned of the concept “Ubuntu,” which means “a person is a person through other people,” also sometimes quoted as “I am because you are.” I came across this concept frequently when doing my PhD research on South African literature. What I did not consider at the time is how nicely the concept works with Jewish wisdom.

Hillel, the Jewish sage, is frequently quoted as having said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only or myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” In the Bar Mitzvah, we are discussing how this Jewish idea pairs beautifully with South African “Ubuntu.”

What we call “Jewish values” are not uniquely Jewish, but they are rooted in Jewish wisdom. What we can “Humanist values” are values that take seriously the worth of each human being and their right to thrive. It’s sometimes a nice reminder that cultures different from our own share some of our same beliefs. It’s a nice reminder that we are all in this together. I love that Humanistic Judaism allows us to take from Jewish and global cultures and find the values, ethics, and teachings that lend meaning and inspiration to our contemporary realities.

If, like me, you find this to be a significantly more meaningful way of approaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah than, say, you had when you grew up, you’re not alone. The facebook group Humanistic Jewish Discussion had a post about this recently. Check it out here if you’re interested: https://www.facebook.com/groups/humanisticjudaism/permalink/531456263915682/

While you’re at it, join that group to get updates. And “like” Oraynu’s page too: www.facebook.com/Oraynu

Until next week,


For mothers




A belated Happy Mother’s Day to anyone who identifies as a mother! Mothering is a particular identity. It often (but certainly not always) involves pregnancy, labour, and birth, all life-changing and life-giving processes. It often involves a great deal of caretaking and caregiving. It often involves taking a lot of criticism, correction, and unsolicited advice from family, Facebook, and “friendly” strangers in the local coffee shop. It often involves long nights, thankless jobs, and a great deal of monotony. It also often involves getting to watch the people you love the most learn, grow, change, and laugh.

I love being a mom and I love my kids and family, including my own mom (who is an Oraynu member. Hi mom!) very much. I’m not sure I love Mother’s Day as a tradition. Its creator apparently felt the same way (see a Washington Post article on this, here). It is a commercialized “holiday” that, at best, involves long waits for brunch and, at worst, gives people licence to under-appreciate moms for the rest of the year. What I do love is spending Mother’s Day with my family. Our tradition is a hike, a farmer’s market, and cuddles. I have wondered how to mark Mother’s Day with my congregation Oraynu but, given my objections to the day, had not found a way yet, until this year.

Our staff came up with a perfect idea and it was truly a delight: we hosted a havdallah and High Tea in honour of Mother’s Day (men / dads were welcome too, although none attended!), and raised money to pay it forward with cupcakes for women in a shelter.

I was so excited to be able to drop these cupcakes off at the 50-bed Red Door Shelter in Toronto. Red Door has both a family-housing shelter and one, the one we donated the cupcakes to, for women fleeing abuse.

See photos above and below: Kim serving Ruth tea, our gorgeous spread, and me with the cupcakes for the shelter.

This year, perhaps we are more aware than in previous years, that many, many women experience violence in the forms of harassment, assault, and partner-abuse. If the #metoo movement taught us anything, it is that this behaviour is pervasive across all sections of society. The Jewish community hasn’t always been great at acknowledging that this is our problem too (#ustoo). This is starting to change, which is why I was so proud that Oraynu chose to gift the courageous and strong women who are moving to make their lives safer and better, with a Mother’s Day treat of their own.

So happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate. I hope it was meaningful for you. We all deserve a treat - that’s for sure! If you’re interested in learning more about Judaism and the #metoo movement, I’m presenting two sessions on the subject at this Saturday’s JCC learning program for Shavuot. The program runs all night (midnight cheesecake!) but my sessions are early. See above for information. Hope to see you!

Until next week,



Lessons from surf school


A couple of weeks ago I went on a quick, last minute trip to a small town in the Dominican Republic. My main goal: learn how to surf. I am someone who is not naturally athletic but have discovered the joy and fun of trying out new activities. Surfing has always scared me and I’m really of the belief that we miss out on a lot of life when we let our fear determine our actions. I packed a little bag and boarded a plane alone in search of adventure.

My first day, in need of groceries for the week, I had to figure out how to take a “bus” (they call them “guaguas” and they are really little vans that pile in as many people as possible and then barrel down the one road very fast). I was out a little after dark, wondering if that was safe for me by myself. I got myself back to my little guesthouse and said hello to some neighbours. And then I crashed for about nine hours. I was out of my comfort zone. Good. That’s what I came for.

My second day, I took my first ever surf lesson. It is not as hard as I thought to stand up on a surf board, but it is quite hard to *stay* up. I had a lot of thoughts flying through my head as I got knocked around by the waves. It seemed to me that surfing offered me a lot of life lessons, particularly as a Humanistic Jew. Because that’s who I am, I really believe in values like doing things for oneself, even while depending on others (we believe in our own power to transform; we believe in community to help get us there and to help make transformation meaningful to others). I believe in the power of nature/the natural world to inspire awe. I believe in making and meeting new challenges. Not all of us are going to learn how to surf, but all of us can learn a thing or two about what the experience teaches. Here are some specific lessons from surf school:

-Go with the flow! The waves come at you no matter what. There is no point in resisting them. Learn how to catch a wave and ride it.

-Listen to your surf instructor. He (mine was a he) knows what he’s talking about. Trust experts.

-Look up, look ahead. Sometimes when we’re nervous of falling we keep our heads down. We’ll go much further if we look to the horizon to see where we’re going.

-Don’t overthink things. Sometimes it’s better to just trust your gut and go.

-You’ll get knocked down and around. Get back up and try again.

-When you least expect it, challenge turns to fun.

-You don’t have to be great at everything. In fact, sometimes you get a lot more out of doing something you are not that great at.

-Sometimes a mantra/meditation/intention helps. Mine was: strength, balance, horizon. Not a bad mantra/meditation/intention for life.

-The ocean is powerful, beautiful, amazing, dangerous. The world is powerful, beautiful, amazing, dangerous. Who do you want to be in those waters?

Overall, I am no surf whiz. I will not abandon my life to buy a board and move to Bali. But I was able to ride some good waves to shore. I was scared; I did it anyway. What will you do that scares you?



Passover and the wilderness


I hope you had wonderful Passover seders and, for those who celebrate Easter, a terrific Easter as well. Passover is my favourite holiday of the year. I love the ritual, the storytelling, and the focus on children. I have young children and it has been beautiful to watch them begin to engage with some of the traditions that I remember as a child. In particular, this year my daughter sang the whole of the four questions in Hebrew. She took learning and practicing really seriously, and she really shone at the seder. She also was an expert negotiator when it came to returning the afikomen in exchange for a present. I can remember being her age and doing these same things. That sense of continuity is meaningful.

There is also a sense of change that is meaningful. Each year we tell the story of the exodus, but each year we do it differently. There is a tension between tradition and change that all Jews, but particularly Humanistic Jews, wrestle with. When I grew up, we told the story as though it were literal. Now we tell it as myth. When I was a child, we spoke about the “four sons” uncritically, including the “wicked” and the “simple” child. Today, we speak about how the metaphor of the “four children” tells us that we need all kinds of people in the world, and that sometimes what someone perceives as “wicked” is really someone who is critically-minded. And on our “night of questions,” we encourage questioning. We want to instil that sense of inquiry.

For adults, the seder reminds us to check in with ourselves. The meaning of Passover does not end at the seder. Rather, the seder is a call to ensure we are doing our utmost to enjoy the freedoms we have, fight for the freedoms still needed in the world for ourselves and others, and to ensure that our freedom does not impinge on that of others. How do we reach our own “promised land?” A better world...

The above quotation by Michael Walzer has been meaningful to me for years. This year just before Pesach I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, which is about having the courage to be an outlier, to speak one’s truth even when it is unpopular. The book reminds me of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, who spoke of leading “lives of courage.” Sometimes it is hard to foster change when the pull of tradition is there. Humanistic Jews give tradition a vote but not a veto. We do not practice traditions that conflict with our contemporary values. We value tradition, but we do not value it above everything else. Sometimes at our family seders, or at other times of the year, we need to brave that wilderness.

Walzer and Brown both speak of togetherness. In order to brave the wilderness we need to find “our people.” Sometimes this is our family. Sometimes it is chosen family — friends who feel like family. Sometimes it is community, something I truly value in my life as a person, a mother, a rabbi. Community matters. 

Passover is eight days of changing our usual habits to make space for thinking of what kind of freedom is possible in our lives and our world. I look forward to walking the wilderness with you.

Goals/resolution check-in

If you were reading my blog or receiving this email blast in January, I wrote a piece about New Year’s resolutions. I understand that the Jewish new year is Rosh Hashanah. I also understand that if you live in North America, you also experience January as a new year. In my own life, I actually find I mark three periods of transition in a year: September with Rosh Hashanah and the start of the school calendar, January as a new start (especially after the vacation time and slipping of good habits that December inevitably brings), and spring time as a time of rejuvenation and renewed energy. We are inching towards spring and a couple of months have gone by since the resolutions post, so I wanted to check in. How are you doing with your goals? If you didn’t set goals maybe now is a good time. They don’t have to be the usual ones: weight loss, finances, general organization and management. Maybe they are fun goals: try surfing, eat a whole cake, spend a day doing only things you wish to do. Or maybe they are more meaningful. I suggested a way of looking at the year in terms of monthly themes to focus on:

January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)


I love the way these Jewish values can lend meaning and structure to my life.

I am a real believer in goal setting. As a humanist, I feel strongly that if I want something to be different in my life, it is me who has to make it different. I don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. I believe in the efficacy of hard work with clarity about my own intentions.

One of my personal goals this year was to learn more about how to achieve goals (does this make me sound like I’m boring at parties?). I have been reading interesting books, learning about things I know nothing about (like sales, like building websites, like habit formation techniques). I decided 2018 would be a year of big goals for me, and to make them happen, I had to learn more about, well, how to make them happen.

If you do have goals that are meaningful to you, whether they are immediate or long-term, check in with yourself right now. Are you on track? If not, what could you be doing to get on track? How is your 2018 going? If you’re having a bad start to the year, what can you do to change it?

Many people I know have found 2018 to be a difficult year so far. There may be good reasons why that is so — from school shootings to serial killers, the news has been bleak. There are also, of course, personal challenges such as sickness and loss that some are dealing with. However, as we ushered out 2017 people were saying things like “good riddance to a terrible year!” Prior to that, 2016 was known as the “worst year ever” due to some very high profile deaths and an election result that was disappointing to say the least. Do you see the trend? 2016 was bad. 2017 was bad. 2018 is bad so far. If this reflects you and your thinking then I want something more for you. We can’t control the messiness of the world. But we can control the small corner of our own lives and our own small sphere of influence. What can you do to make this year a great one for you and for the people around you? Let’s stop wishing time away until an imagined future when things will be better. They will never be better! Or, more accurately, they will never be perfect. To a large extend the future is shaped by what we do today

Purim Jews and Passover Jews

We are now in the period between Purim and Passover. On Purim the tradition is to drink until one confuses Haman with Mordecai. We remember the peril of the Jews, and our oppressors. We say the name Haman and/as we blot it out with noise. We remember in order to forget. We get to go on living, but always with that noise in the background reminding us we are not quite safe. In the bible, we are told to remember the name Amalek, another would-be Jew-killer. What does this constant remembering do to us?

On Passover the sentiment is quite different. We recall the metaphorical journey out of Egypt. And the bible tells us to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. One act of remembering, the Purim-style act, is about our own self-protection. And one act, the Passover-style, is about using our experience to foster empathy over others.

You’ll hear people talk about “Purim Jews” and “Passover Jews” citing this difference. Does Jewish history make you more likely to feel insular, craving a Jewish community that will provide you with a sense of safety and the comfort that comes from being with those like oneself? Or are you a “Passover Jew,” using Jewish experience to foster connections with others who have been slaves, exiles, imperilled?

Of course, the dichotomy is false. The nice thing about these holidays being close to one another is that they remind us that it is natural and reasonable to be both interested in self-protection and also interested in the well-being of all humanity. Striking a balance here is important for obvious reasons. We should not be self-interested to the point of cruelty to others. We should not be so giving to others that we victimize ourselves. You know the Hillel quote (if not, look up “Hillel quote” and you’ll find it).

I was born in South Africa and when I was young I remember being so puzzled by Jewish South Africans who had been happy to be part of apartheid’s despicable treatment of Black people. Did they not know better after the persecution of their own people? I worry about these types of Jews, the “Purim Jews,” and what they do to us as a community. Not only do they perpetrate terrible crimes and injustices in the name of Judaism and Jewish survival, but they also lessen and weaken the Jewish experience by framing what it means to be Jewish in apocalyptic terms.

Think about it: do young people feel drawn to be Jewish when it is framed as a responsibility and terrible obligation? Or do we excite people about being Jewish when it is framed more as a joyful and beautiful experience?

What in our own humanity gets reduced when we feel we cannot be generous to others because we are constantly in self-preservation mode? And what of those others? Are they not deserving of the care that we crave?

If you’re Canadian you likely know of the recent miscarriages of justice in the deaths of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine, two Indigenous youths who, in two separate stories, were killed. They were also failed utterly by our Canadian institutions, including the legal system. I haven’t spoken or written about this yet because I couldn’t do so without oscillating between tears and blinding rage. But I can’t stay silent about this. We need to change things in Canada to foster meaningful reconciliation. Our systems of education, the law, child protective services, aren’t working. The Jewish community has been painfully silent about these cases and, with some exceptions, Indigenous issues more broadly. I see it as a Jewish imperative to do something about this. We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are settlers on this land. We need to start loving our neighbours. I have written letters to my MP in support of legal reform and donated to funds to support Indigenous youth. It is not enough but it is something. If this issue doesn’t move you then focus your energy where you feel it is important. But if you are similarly outraged, I really encourage you to use your voice at this time. We can’t afford to be “Purim Jews” now, there is too much at stake.

Passover is on its way, with its themes of rebirth and resistance. Passover is my favourite Jewish holiday of the year. I love the ritual. I love the creativity with which people infuse their seders. I love matzah pizza. Mostly what I love is the metaphor of this Jewish story that has been the cornerstone of Jewish identity and experience for generations. We were in bondage, now we are free. With that freedom comes the obligation to help others achieve freedom


My last blog was about multitasking and mindfulness and this week I want to write about “unplugging.” Last year I spent 5 days at a resort with two girlfriends. It was hard to get wifi at the resort - there was just one area that had it and it was crowded and uncomfortable. I decided that I was spending 5 days free of my phone. I told my partner that if there was an emergency to call the resort directly and that I was offline. It took me a full day to lose the feeling that I was missing something by not carrying my phone around. Whenever there was a lull in activity (my friend had to get up to use the facilities after our third margarita, say), I found myself reaching for the phone to check messages as I usually do. But no phone was there! I was alone with my thoughts. Sometimes that can be scary, but sometimes it can be freeing. I was left to contemplate, to daydream, and to simply shut off my thinking mind. Life used to be like this all the time. When riding the bus, or finding oneself alone, it was common to just... be. But now we are used to constant distraction or tasks. And I’m not even getting to the part about always feeling like we have to be available and accountable to our jobs or our families — even on vacation.

I’m working on finding freedom from my phone and unplugging more often. I set a deadline for when the phone goes off at the end of the day. It no longer gets to sleep with me in my bedroom. It does not join me during meals or times when I’m with someone in person. My phone and I are consciously uncoupling (if you don’t know what this refers to you can easily look it up... on your phone?).

The Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, is a weekly reminder to unplug. It can be unplugging from work, from stress, from the demands we face during the week. And it can also be an invitation to be free from technology for a while. Most of the Jews I serve are not strict about following Jewish law concerning using electricity or driving on Shabbat. But have you ever tried it? It makes the imperative to rest impossible to avoid. It also makes us get outside and walk, talk to the people around us, connect. Unplug to connect — imagine that.

On the Shabbat of March 9-10, sundown to sundown, it is the Day of Unplugging. Reboot, a great organization, challenges all of us to commit to being free of our phones / computers for the full 24 hours. I am doing it and I hope you will join me! This is a photo of the yurt I’ll be in that day:





But you don’t have to be in a yurt in the middle of the woods to unplug. If you wish to join the Day of Unplugging, I encourage you to sign up with Reboot’s page and check out their resources like conversation starters with family about technology use:  https://www.nationaldayofunplugging.com

They’ve also sent me some nifty “cellphone sleeping bags” to store your phone in for the day. The first ten of you to write me at rabbidenise@oraynu.organd tell me you’re Unplugging will get one in the mail!




Wishing you all a week of peace, rest and regeneration!