Writing, working, wishing while the world is on fire

Some of you may know that I take classes at a creative writing studio. I am not artistic in most ways: I can’t sing or play a musical instrument, I can’t paint or draw, I can’t sculpt or craft. But I do like to write. For a really long time I avoided creative writing because I was doing so much writing for work or school or necessity. The very last thing I wanted to do after spending all day working on my doctoral dissertation was sit down in front of yet another blank page.

Two years ago I decided to find my way back to writing creatively and it has been lovely. I’m not a great writer or anything but I love the dedicated and special time it gives me to sit quietly, to look inwardly, and to create something. Even if what I create is silly or not particularly evocative, it’s so nice to simply be engaged in creativity.

Currently I’m taking a class meant for people who work in helping professions or do social justice work. It’s called “writing while the world is on fire.” Whoa, right? The world is on fire? Sometimes it feels that way.

If, like me, you simply can’t face turning on/reading the news sometimes. If you are overwhelmed by big struggles like climate change, political divisiveness, poverty, and whatever else it is that keeps you up at night, it can feel really hard to enjoy the beautiful moments in every day life.

This writing class is about making time/space to find that enjoyment. It feels like the world is on fire and so it can be easy to give up and say “why bother?” To our work, our dreams, and/or our creative passions. But it is precisely because it feels like the world is on fire that the world needs us at our best. We can’t be at our best if we don’t make time to process the things that are hard, and to celebrate the things that are good.

I hope this message feels like an invitation to make a little space for your own creativity, in whatever form it takes for you. What do you need to fill your cup; to recharge so you can keep writing, working, wishing for a better future, even when the world is on fire?

The Torah, the Ten Commandments and Us

This week’s Torah portion is such a juicy one and has so many great resonances. This is probably a familiar story: Moses ascends the mountain and while he’s gone, the people build a Golden Calf. Moses comes down with the Ten Commandments and is so angry that he smashes the tablets.

There are lots of interpretations for what the Golden Calf might symbolize. For many today, we see it as money or stuff — the true idolatry of our day is that we as a society worship things. The goldenness of the calf fits nicely with that drash/interpretation. The Golden Calf is, of course, symbolic of any form of idolatry for, as we see when we get the decalogue, the first commandment is all about having only one God.

Years ago when I studied in Israel as part of my rabbinic training, I attended a great class at the non-denominational Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. In the week of Ki Tissa, this biblical portion, the instructor posted a question I had never thought of: how did this group of Israelites wandering around the desert have the gold to make the calf? She suggested we look earlier in the Exodus narrative. Sure enough, just before the Israelites are leaving Egypt and about to cross the Red Sea, they ask their Egyptian neighbours for stuff to take on their journey

So, according to the story (and, yes, I believe this is a story, not history), the Egyptians helped the Israelites with items of value, including gold, and the Israelites used all that to build a golden calf instead of building a better life.

What’s the lesson? Well, firstly, we are told many times in the bible to “love the stranger, for you (we) were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It’s worth remembering that the Egyptian folks in the story weren’t uniformly bad — they tried to help us out, even after the plagues! And that the Israelites in the story weren’t uniformly good — they mess up too.

I loved thinking of the golden calf in these terms because it’s a reminder that we as humans have the potential to build amazing things, particularly when we share and cooperate, and yet so much of what we do with our resources amounts to nothing but garbage.

Whatever you have been given and are carrying with you, my hope is that you use it towards good. The golden calf provided false hope for a desperate people. Our job is to avoid succumbing to such false hope, to meet our own desperation or fear or despair or yearning with bravery and courage, and to build something more beautiful.

Finally, a fun activity to do with Sunday school kids is to come up with a new Ten Commandments - what are the ten rules everyone should live by? There are some in the original we might keep (like honouring your parents; that’s a good one). There are some we might discard. We might prefer to see new stuff in there, like protect the earth and its creatures, show respect and kindness, have dance parties regularly, or always say yes to cake. What are your ten?

Race and the Jewish Community

Last year, the Oraynu Congregation (where I serve as rabbi) hosted a series of sessions on social justice issues in the Jewish community. We’ve also been working together on Indigenous reconciliation and solidarity. One of the things I love about our community is our commitment to justice, even when it is hard.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that there have been a lot of discussions about racism within Jewish communities. I wrote about this in relation to the women’s march just last month. And here we are again. I also just returned from a Rabbis Without Borders retreat where our educational focus was racism and Judaism. I spent months going through resources and really expanded my own thinking. I want to share just a few of them with you:

--On recent news about the tweet by Ilhan Omar on AIPAC, a piece by Nylah Burton, a Jew of colour whose perspective I value: https://t.co/LGkoKyDNfJ?amp=1

--From Toronto’s own Tema Smith, on Jews and whiteness / passing:  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/jewish-and/on-passing-and-not-trying-to-pass/

--Be’chol Lashon, which provided training at Rabbis Without Borders, and has fantastic resources: http://bechollashon.org/

--Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility I strongly recommend. Check out some of her ideas here: https://youtu.be/DwIx3KQer54

--And last year when I had to cancel an Oraynu program on Jews and white privilege because of snow (must it always snow when we have a program on???) I did it via Facebook Live and you can watch it here: https://www.facebook.com/Oraynu/videos/1591282274287729/

Join me in learning about this important issue and let me know if you have any questions or want to discuss anything in these resources.

Until next week,


Love and conflict

Today we are celebrating Valentine’s Day. Coincidentally, this year our February 14th falls on the 9th of the Jewish month of Adar. Now, this pairing is perfect because Adar is meant to be a joyful, playful holiday. It’s the holiday of Purim and its mask-wearing merrymaking. It’s also a tricky month, a double month in a Jewish leap year (which this year is!), meaning at the end of Adar we start right back up at the beginning of Adar again. So it’s perfect that we should think of joy and celebration as the theme for the month of Valentine’s Day.

When I think of Valentine’s Day, I think of all kinds of iterations, whether or not one has a romantic partner. It could be a day to celebrate friendship (Galentine’s Day for some!), it could be a day to focus on self-love and how you honour yourself. It’s also a good day to consider the Jewish teaching to “love the stranger” and do good in the world.  Let’s think of love really broadly... we need to give and get it.

Although Adar is a joyous, playful, happy month, the 9th of Adar brings in some seriousness. It is said that on this day the houses of Hillel and Shammai, often in disagreement, turned violent against each other. It is a fast day for some observant Jews and a day that reminds us to consider how we manage conflict. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, right? Ok, so what we think of for Valentine’s Day isn’t usually sorting out our conflict but, of course, doing so is necessary for a happy house. So, I have two suggestions for this 9th of Adar/Valentine’s Day:

1) arrange to resolve some issue or conflict in your life

2) make a date that is filled with joy

Sometimes we need a balance of both! Neither the date nor the conflict resolution need be with a partner. To do the work of conflict resolution, we do need to be in a trusting, loving setting. And the work is hard, so we should reward ourselves with something that brings us joy. The conflict can be at work and the date with a friend. The conflict can be with a family member and the date with yourself. Both can be with a partner/spouse, or neither. Up to you.

To help you along, here are some resources from the 9 Adar project which seeks to use Jewish wisdom and sources to help with healthy conflict resolution. There is a lot to explore so here are just a few links to get you started:

From the 9Adar organization, their complete web site, and their resource guide.

From the Jewish learning institution Pardes, some text study, here and here.

After all that hard work, reward yourself with a date (partner, friend, family member, solo, strangers, anyone). Here are some ideas beyond the usual dinner out:

- See an Oscar-nominated film to be able to be in the know during the awards

- Go skating

- Read a book of poetry in a cafe or pub by candlelight

- Make some art (there are many paint night places around to check out)

- Attend a concert/performance

- Play a board game

Wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day, a meaningful 9th of Adar, and a joyful month!



Letting go and reclaiming

We’ve seen some interesting changes and evolutions in Jewish life. There are some things that, as Humanistic/secular/cultural Jews we’ve let go of (prayer services, tefillin/phylacteries, keeping kosher), while there are other things perhaps we’ve embraced (Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, matzo ball soup). I always find it interesting to look over time at what people thought was a must-have/do Jewishly, and what people thought was treyf. For example, early 20th century secular Jews, usually the Yiddish-speaking, labour-movement kind, would not typically celebrate holidays that had particular religious resonance. Yom Kippur was out. So were many other holy-days. As secularists, they had no interest. Most of us today do mark holidays like Yom Kippur, finding the human-centred or cultural meanings of the holiday and making them our own.

I’ve been thinking about reclamations as I prepare to visit the mikvah. A mikvah is the Jewish ritual bath, often done when people mark a life transition, such as conversion into Judaism, marriage, or before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the new year. The most common reason people use the mikvah is to satisfy the family/purity laws; women must use it after menstruation to cleanse. More on that in a moment.

This won’t be my first mikvah experience. Before I got married I did a riff on the bridal mikvah visit and created a beach-side ceremony for and with the women in my life. We all went into the lake together. Last year as I was researching birth traditions for my Jewish Doula work, I came across many different ways mikvah is used to prepare or heal from birth. I decided to visit a mikvah in Toronto because I found a Shomeret (often called a “mikvah lady”) who would let me do a secular version of blessings and let me create some other readings/ritual for my particular needs. I found the whole thing to be really lovely... I became a mikvah person.

This is surprising, not least of all to myself, because for many years I would have said that the tradition of the mikvah is completely rooted in sexist beliefs. Women are unclean? Puh-leaze. Many of you have likely heard me talking about visiting a mikvah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn when I was on a Lubavitch-led trip. I was about thirteen years old. They started talking to us about the need to purify yourself after bleeding, and the whole thing was sold as this wonderful way to connect with God. All I heard was a bunch of sexist garbage. I was so outta there (and shortly after that became involved with Secular Humanistic Judaism!).

Over time, however, I’ve changed my tune. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein in Toronto wrote about “reclaiming the waters” of the mikvah. I listened to an interesting panel of Orthodox feminist women at Limmud Toronto sharing their own stories of struggling with mikvah. And I read accounts of people who use mikvah to heal after loss or life changes (this is an aside, but if you watch the show Transparent, the rabbi Raquel goes to the mikvah after her miscarriage. I love that character and that scene made me choke up something fierce). I became convinced. And now there are exciting initiatives to open up the mikvah in new ways. In Toronto, there are guides who will take people of any and all genders, including transgendered folks. In Boston there is mayyim chayyim, a mikvah with a mission to make accessible and meaningful the mikvah ritual broadly. ImmerseNYC is similar, and I’ll be in New York next week so I decided to dip with them; see how it feels to keep working on reclaiming something that is part of my Jewish legacy, but also something I have struggled with.

ImmerseNYC sent me a guide to prepare for my immersion, and in it they ask: “What do you want to let go of?” What a question! I’m thinking about that as I write this. What do I want to let go of? What do I want to reclaim?

Taking Care of Yourself

Every week Jews around the world mark Shabbat. Maybe you do that at Oraynu services, or with family dinners, or with simply taking time away from your email each week. To me, the practice of Shabbat is one of the wisest in our tradition. Humans have always needed dedicated time to rest, but perhaps never more so than today. We live in a world in which we are “connected” all the time by phone/email, meaning we are always at work, always supposed to be accessible and available, and always “on”. That’s just not sustainable, and there is a lot of research to suggest it is taking a toll on our collective mental health and well-being. Cue Shabbat.

I will admit I don’t take a full day off work every week, but I do set intentions and limits around rest. I also do a Shabbat dinner with my family each week. My heart is so full when my kids help me set up the Shabbat table, sing Shabbat Shalom, and attack a challah as though they have never eaten a meal in their lives. It is a really special time for us. Each Shabbat I try to think about some way to take care of myself; some way to really engage in the practice of recharging.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. If you’re interested, I recommend Yoga with Adriene on YouTube — a free yoga channel which I think does a nice job of blending the mind/body work of yoga. Each year she does a “30 days of yoga in January” series, which I have been doing (along with literally hundreds of thousands of others around the world).

Some days I’m so excited to hit my yoga mat and stretch out. Other days, it’s a real struggle to find the time and the energy. I am aware that sometimes “self-care” can feel like just another thing on the to-do list.

In one of the recent practices (it’s called “Joyful” if you want to check it out), Adriene speaks of the yogic principle of Sukah (not to be confused with a Sukkah, the huts we construct at the fall harvest festival of Sukkot). Sukah means ease. The idea isn’t that things are *easy* but, rather, when you find things challenging, when you are at your “edge,” to try to find ease and grace. Can you meet a challenge with ease? Relax in the posture of tension or difficulty? That’s the work of yoga. That, to me, is also the work of Shabbat.

Rest, true rest, isn’t easy. It’s not like the world stops around us. It’s not like our problems park themselves until Sunday when we’ve recharged enough to meet them. We have to do the hard work of finding the time and energy to take care of ourselves, even and especially when that time and energy are at their most elusive and depleted.

Sometimes people think “self-care” is about bubble baths and mani-pedis. I think self-care is about finding ease in times of tension. It’s about relaxing even when things are hard. It’s about taking time to rest in a world that doesn’t stop. And it’s about making sure that no matter what else is going on, I’m going to make sure I get to watch my kids attack a challah with gusto each week. How do you rest? How do you find ease in difficult moments?


Playing well with others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nothing is promised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peak Tikkun Olam?!

Last week in the Canadian Jewish News there was a provocative little piece called "Have We Reached Peak Tikun Olam?" You can read the piece here: https://www.cjnews.com/living-jewish/have-we-reached-peak-tikun-olam 

Here's what I wrote in response:

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

Indigenous Issues and Us

My congregation hosted a Chanukah event featuring Jesse Wente, a Canadian media personality with an Indigenous background. It was a wonderful evening. Wente is a dynamic and inspiring speaker who urged us to remember that Canada's 150 years is "cute" compared to the 15,000 years that Indigenous peoples lived here on Turtle Island.

He spoke about land acknowledgements, respecting the nations fighting pipelines, and that this is our time to go beyond being "allies," instead becoming "accomplices" in "conciliation." He noted that "reconciliation" implies there was a good relationship in the first instance. We need to create that relationship for the first time.

Many people who were there have been letting me know how inspired they were. We want to do what we can to support Indigenous peoples, both because of our Jewish call to tikkun olam, to repairing the world, and also as people who live in this country, and so want to do right by the people who live here and have experienced injustice.

Judaism tells us to "honour the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Indeed, to the Indigenous peoples of this land, we are strangers still. And they were welcoming of our ancestors when they arrived; we should be gracious in our dealings with them.

If you are inspired to be an "accomplice," there are a few things you can do. Firstly, he suggested we all give input on the Broadcasting Act as it is being revisited now: http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/110.nsf/eng/home

If all of us write in that we demand fair allocation of time and resources to Indigenous media, so that all Canadians can hear the many stories of Indigenous peoples, we can make a real difference. Mr. Wente spoke beautifully about how if we know each other better we will care for each other better.

He also suggested attending a Pow Wow to meet Indigenous folks and get to know them.

At my community’s Indigenous/Jewish Tu B'shevat seder a couple of years ago, we signed petitions asking government to clean up Grassy Narrows, an Indigenous community poisoned by mercury from a nearby mill. The story is back in the news: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/grassy-narrows-youth-report-1.4931731

Ask your MP and MPP to clean up Grassy Narrows now. Check out this site for more resources: http://freegrassy.net/

For me, the reason to be Jewish is the teachings about how we treat the stranger, each other, our world. I am inspired by all who walk with me.  Happy to be accomplices with you!

Latkes and light and learning, oh my!

Who's excited for Chanukah? My kids sure are! And so am I. There are two ways to look at this holiday:

1) Chanukah isn't a major Jewish holiday; it celebrates some religious zealots that Judaism has chosen to valorize; we only do it big because of Christmas


2) Chanukah is a super fun holiday filled with things that are so good for us: light, play, comfort food, family. Let's Jew it!

I'm choosing the latter. Of course everything under point 1 is true. But everything under point 2 is equally true.

I didn't get the whole big deal about Chanukah until I had kids. One night when my daughter was two years old we sang the song "Chanukah oh Chanukah" which includes the line "let's have a party, we'll all dance the horah." And so she asked: when is the horah starting? And just like that a tradition was born. We dance around the kitchen each night. It's silly and awesome.

We also play dreidel each night, we decorate the house, we cook together (my children basically only eat beige food so latkes and applesauce are perfect). We host family and friends many of the eight nights. We make special dedications on candles about things that are important to us. And we laugh a lot. It took me having kids to get why all of this was so important. I have so few regrets in my life, but one of them is that I didn't take the opportunity to make this holiday as special as it can be much, much earlier.

So make this holiday wonderful - celebrate and embrace it for all the fun it can be!

To get you in the mood, check out Bohemian Chanukah, this year's Jewish song adaptation of awesome.

Until next week,





Chrismakkuh and Chanukah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week,



Dialogue Across Difference

Isn't it funny the assumptions we make about each other? At Oraynu's Holocaust Education Week event, historian Max Wallace spoke about how lots of historians have ignored or discounted records from the Orthodox Jewish community. Max said working with these records and the people whose tireless work to end the Holocaust gave him a lot of respect for the orthodox, even though he himself is "the most secular Jew you'll ever meet."

I would say as well at more religious Jews sometimes make assumptions about us and how we do things. Yesterday I spoke in a sociology class at York University. This class looks at contemporary Jewish life and I was there to discuss Secular Humanistic Judaism. Some of the orthodox Jewish students said they had never heard of us and what we do. They said that even though we disagree about many things, they're glad we exist to keep Jews connected to Judaism. It's big of them to say so.

This week I started a conversation on Facebook with Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, an orthodox rabbi who is also a Jew of color,a man, a millenial, and a person living in New York. There are differences in our identities and approaches. There is also so much common ground! Our first conversation was on race and the Jewish community (it's up on the Rabbi Denise Handlarski facebook page if you want to check it out). Our goal is to show that talking to each other is the best way to dispel myths and assumptions. And that we can care about others, even when there are substantial differences in points of view.

We all certainly tend to hang out in a "bubble" - and social media algorithms ensure that often what we see confirms and reinforces things we have seen and thought before. It's hard to leave that bubble! But the bubble is bad for us, limits us. If we can listen and truly hear people who come from different places and perspectives, we will go a long way in creating a more gentle and peaceful world. One conversation at a time.



Isaiah and I having our conversation. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:   https://www.facebook.com/secularsynagogue/videos/3116799218564230/

Isaiah and I having our conversation. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:  https://www.facebook.com/secularsynagogue/videos/3116799218564230/

Let there be light!

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

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

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

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

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


I Heart Hashem and Humanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After Pittsburgh

I know all of us are feeling the impacts of the synagogue shooting this past Shabbat. And we are feeling it in different ways. I am aware that what I feel in my body and my mood is a grief. It's a similar grief I feel when someone I know has died. It's also a similar grief I felt when there was a shooting at a Quebec Mosque, or the Pulse Nightclub (targeting queer folks). The grief comes, as all grief does, in waves. Sometimes it's when I have a quiet moment. Sometimes, inconveniently, when I'm trying to do other things.

If you've been following my facebook page, I've posted several updates there, including a piece I wrote on Saturday called "Love and Rage." You can find it here (and follow that page if you want updates -- I'll post there way more often than I'll send emails. We all get so. many. emails.). I also posted about a gorgeous interfaith vigil I was privileged to speak at, and called for supporting HIAS, or JIAS, Jewish organizations that support refugees and who were also the target of the Pittsburgh murderer.

Here's what I haven't posted but I'll share with you:

1) I was teary during parts of my speech at the vigil. I couldn't help it. I hate feeling vulnerable in public but, there it was, I couldn't control the tears. My friend commented that what I'd said was powerful. I replied it would have been more powerful if I could have held it together. She said that it was powerful precisely because I couldn't hold it together. What I'm learning is that we need to feel whatever we're feeling here. The grief, the rage, the love. All of it.

2) I got beautiful comments about my post. But I got a couple of comments telling me I'm naive to think we can fight hatred with love. I am not saying we need to love blindly and to our own self-detriment. I am not saying we should allow others to harm us. But I am standing by my call for love. The less love there is in the world, the more hatred and indifference. And it is hatred and indifference that leads to othering and violence. So I'm gonna double down on the love.

3) One thing I have learned from powerful teachers of mine is how revolutionary it is to take care of yourself, especially when the world is saying you are not worth it. You are so worth it. Do what feels good now: stretch, walk in the sunshine, call a friend, do some yoga, see a therapist, have a bath. Take care of  yourself now. Right now. Eat that pint of ice cream or have that glass of wine (I've done both) but then get off the couch and go to work, first making yourself better and then making the world better.

4) You, we, are not alone. At my vigil, faith leaders of many religions spoke. I've received messages of support from people who aren't Jewish, but who know I'm in pain. Yes, this is a scary time. Yes, antisemites have been emboldened. But so many people are with us.

5) Words matter. Trump has stoked the sentiments that led to the shooting. In Ontario, where I live, Premier Doug Ford supported a virulent antisemitic white supremacist in Toronto's mayoral election, and when called out couldn't quite bring himself to condemn her or her views. But he spoke at the vigil in Toronto last night. Trump also has issued statements feigning concern (and some spectacular ones that reveal how he really feels). I am not tolerating this hypocrisy. I'm telling Jews I know who vote for these leaders exactly why it's dangerous. It was dangerous when we were not as obviously the targets. It's still dangerous now. And as Jews we should know better.

6) What next? Well, that's the question, isn't it? Not much is different for me. I am still going to work. For me that means providing Jewish experiences that bring meaning to people's lives and help promote justice in the world. It also means working with teachers to help make schools more equitable. Now more than ever I know my work is needed. I'm not giving up and I hope you don't give up either.

The folks over at SecularSynagogue.com are offering each other support at this tough time. I hope you have support. If you don't, reach out to me. I may not be able to hold back my tears, but I'm a great listener.

Take care (really. Do that),

Rabbi Denise

Ghosts, Goblins and Gemara

It’s almost Halloween, a very important holiday in my house. Fun fact: Charlie and I got engaged on Halloween (and then watched the only scary movie we could find as we were post-cable but pre-Netflix - it was House of Wax starring Paris Hilton. I can’t say I recommend it).

I have always loved the energy and excitement of Halloween. I love how, when you think about it, it’s weird that all these kids dress up, go to homes of people they don’t know, accept candy from those people, stay up late (all no-nos all other times). It’s a holiday for rule-breakers and outliers. It’s perfect for secular Jews who, generally speaking, are up for a little rule-breaking and a little partying.

The other thing that’s neat about Halloween is that it’s a holiday that emerges from other holidays: The Celtic festival of Samhain was incorporated into the Catholic All Saints Day and its All Hallows Eve. There are resonances with Mexico’s Day of the Dead. While this has nothing to do with Judaism, it is similar to how our own holidays evolve over time. Take Chanukah, borrowing from other festivals of light, a historical holiday, then the rabbinic overlaying of a narrative about “miracles,” and the ways the holiday has been shaped by other winter festivals, particularly Christmas. It’s not a process unique to Judaism, but it is a pretty foundational practice in Judaism, to reinterpret things to make them relevant for the day.

The Gemara is the Talmudic rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, which is the oral commentary/law coming from Torah. It’s text on text on text. Like Halloween, new meanings are layered on to create a compendium, confluence, convergence, of ideas and practices.

Halloween is ghosts and goblins meet Gemara; how we make it work for us now, where and who we are. So, while Halloween is not a specifically Jewish holiday, we can enjoy it through a Jewish lens. Make whatever traditions you have (even if that’s watching a terrible Paris Hilton movie), your own.

Until next week,



The Deluge

Earlier this month the Torah cycle ended and started anew with the Book of Genesis. If you've never read any Torah, it's a pretty fascinating exercise. Secular Jews don't normally make Torah reading or study a regular practice, but I have found it to be really interesting to see how our people have thought and constructed our foundational stories. A great resource to start experimenting with Torah for any newbies is Sefaria.org. They are digitizing Torah, Talmud, have source sheets up, and more. Check it out if you're interested! This blog started with secular commentaries on each of the weekly parshah. You can search them by name or simply go chronologically. Fun, right? 

This week the parshah is Noach (you know him better as Noah). You likely encountered the story of Noah and his ark in school or your early education. It's strange that we make it a kids' story given how violent and apocalyptic it is. Not just the flood, but what happens with Noah and his family after (you'll have to read it to find out).

Jewish environmental groups take the story of Noah as inspiration. We are facing terrible storms and other devastating effects of climate change. There was the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, for example. It's not just Noah, we live in a deluvian time. And predictions are that it's getting worse.

The Noah story provides us with some interesting symbols - the olive branch and the rainbow. Both are symbols of peace. The rainbow in particular is a nice symbol because it is made possible only by the rain itself. We need the harder times to see the beauty that can emerge from it.

I see that in the beauty of environmental and other forms of social action. People are coming together in all kinds of ways to make positive change. There is lots of work to do, and lots of difficult moments and things to encounter, but there is beauty too.


Chesed in Cheshvan - or a month of loving-kindness

There has been lots of difficult stuff in the news lately. For some balance, I'd love for you all to check out this article about a wave of kindness for seniors started by just one person: https://www.chathamdailynews.ca/news/local-news/wave-of-kindness-coming-to-local-seniors

Just one person created a ripple effect of so much kindness and goodness! Inspiring, isn't it? We can all do that.

We are now in the Jewish month of Cheshvan. It is the only month without any holidays (much to the delight of rabbis and congregants everywhere who need a break after all those Fall Festivals!). I think it's an opportunity to move our focus from celebration to chesed - the Jewish value of loving-kindness.

This month I'm trying to practice more chesed. The Jewish concept goes beyond kindness into the realm of caretaking. I'm thinking of how I am with my kids, trying to play and even set limits with a loving kindness. I'm also thinking of random acts of kindness and gifts for strangers I can plant around... a little note that says "Open me" and then inside says "Whoever you are, accept this $5 Starbucks gift card and have a drink on me. Love, a stranger". Things like that. I also definitely want to put loving kindness into how I am with friends and family -- listening attentively, loving fully, being present.

Happy Cheshvan! Let's make it a month of chesed.