Race and Judaism

As I write this, we are mourning the deaths of George Floyd, killed by a white police officer while saying, now familiarly, “I can’t breathe” and Regis Korchinski-Paquet who fell from a 24th floor balcony while police were present. Details are still being investigated. There is also the story of Christian Cooper, who was birdwatching in Central Park and, upon asking a white woman to leash her dog, was threatened; she called 911 to report being harassed by “an African American man.” 

Now there are demonstrations, increased threats of violence, and credible reports of white supremacist groups attempting to fan the flames of violence and hate. Very scary times. 

All of this is only a week or so after the Jewish media and community wrestled with some of our own racism. 

Articles in eJewishPhilanthropy and the Forward spread hurt and misinformation by downplaying statistics (and, by implication, the importance) of Jews of colour. 

I don’t want to share those pieces but I do want to amplify the voices of Jews of colour on that issue. Check out this one by Yoshi Silverstein: 
https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/jews-of-color-deserve-teshuva/ and this one by Tema Smith: https://forward.com/opinion/446872/jews-of-color-deserve-an-accurate-count/

In response to the population discussion, and now again in response to police brutality and murder, I find myself arguing with and trying to educate people about how and why the Jewish community needs to stand up against this. 

If you are outraged by the fact that no one cared when it was Jews being slaughtered in the streets…

If you are saddened by our legacy of exile, discrimination, hate…

If you are moved by teachings about justice and repairing the world in Judaism…

You should be doing something now.

I know, it is overwhelming, what is there to do? For white Jews, we have a responsibility to stand up and speak out now. For Jews of colour, it is not my place to say how you should respond. Take care of yourself the way you need to now. It is up to me and other people with racial privilege and power to do this work. 

Here are some ideas for action:

1) Read the voices of people of colour and talk about their ideas with those in your circle. I suggest Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo if you don’t know where to start. 

2) Watch this video about Jews and white privilege (I recorded this for Oraynu a few years ago when we were snowed out of an event):  https://www.facebook.com/Oraynu/videos/1591282274287729/

3) Support organizations like Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU/CCLA, and any other, especially if it is an organization run by Black/Indigenous folks doing anti-racist work

4) Have those hard conversations. Don’t submit to “white silence.” Call out racism and keep holding your loved ones to account. We can all do better. 

5) Amplify and share the words of people of colour through your social media, book clubs, publications, letters to the editor, anywhere. We each have a small but importance sphere of influence. Let’s use it. 

My heart is broken. There is just so much pain in the world right now. I believe Judaism is a path to spiritual wellness, and those who are well are less likely to hurt others, so connect with text, community, ritual, practice, rest on Shabbat, joy on holidays, and the rest of it, all while making sure we don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal: Judaism is here to enrich our lives with a view to making us instruments of justice. Let’s get loud. 



The holiday many have never heard of is getting a lot of play this year! Shavuot is this week — a harvest holiday originally, early rabbis tried to figure out a way to keep it relevant in the period of rabbinic Judaism. Many people will tell you that the holiday celebrates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The truth is that rabbis overlaid that story onto a holiday that already existed (sort of like talking about the “miracle of oil” on the historical holiday of Hanukkah). The holiday changed once again when Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) came up with a tradition to honour the receiving of Torah by studying all night long. We call that the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. 
And here we are in a new age — the internet age. And the pandemic has made the need for adapting programs for the internet all too urgent. So there are many (many many) Tikkun Leil Shavuot programs online this year so you can get your learn on. Some of these are a few hours, some all night, some as long as two days! 
Oraynu already sponsors the one at the MNJCC. My program this year will be on intermarriage. I also submitted something for the “Torah rap battle” which you can get if you sign up for the at-home learning program (by the way, I am very ego-drivenly invested in having the best rap). That stuff is all here.
The Society for Humanistic Judaism is also hosting a program with rabbis/leaders from our movement! I can’t wait to hear from these smart people! And if you tune in to the kid story hour you’ll see a cameo from my kids: Register here .
Also check out programming from JewishLive (Facebook), At The Well (register for their online programs via their site), and many more. 
If every holiday takes new signifIcance each new age, our age of the internet (and this moment of Covid-19) means Shavuot is getting big this year. So let it. Let’s lean into the learning together, while apart. 

The Miles Nadal JCC comes up with the best visuals for stuff - the rap battles will be over YouTube and at-home learning materials will be sent out to those registered. Join the fun!The Miles Nadal JCC comes up with the best visuals for stuff - the rap battles will be over YouTube and at-home learning materials will be sent out to those registered. Join the fun!

The Miles Nadal JCC comes up with the best visuals for stuff – the rap battles will be over YouTube and at-home learning materials will be sent out to those registered. Join the fun!

Poetry and/as prayer

 I don’t consider myself someone who prays. The language of prayer never did much for me with its patriarchy and relentless repeating of praising a God in whom/which I did not believe. But ever since I was a child, I always valued poetry. 
Poetry ticks a lot of the boxes for me that prayer ticks for others. I love the sacredness of special language in which each word is special and resonant. I love the rhythm and repetition. I love the imagery. I love the evocation of emotion. 
It’s nice that in the age of Instagram poetry is making a bit of a resurgence, with poets like Rupi Kaur creating a stir and causing many many youngsters to fall in love with the written (and spoken) word. 
There are some new-to-me poets I just love, and delight in having discovered recently (check out the poet Maya Stein who sends by email a new ten-line poem every Tuesday). 
And then there are the poets whose work I keep coming back to, again and again, always with a new resonance for the time and space we are in. Poets like Adrienne Rich, WB Yeats, Olive Senior, Raymond Carver, Mary Oliver. 
Many of you might know Mary Oliver, and many might know her famous poem “Wild Geese.” I returned to it recently and, oh, does it ever seem extra poignant given our current circumstances. 
It isn’t a prayer (or is it?) but it feels like one to me. And I’m grateful for these words and for my returning to them. I offer them to you, now: 
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.            

Mary Oliver
Wild Geese

Until next week,


It’s hard. Do it anyway.

Do you ever notice that it’s rare that we actually feel like doing things that we know are good for us? Some days I’m just itching to go for that run but more often than not I have to make myself do it, even though I know I’ll feel great after! Same with cooking healthy meals…. ordering in is just so appealing after a long day. And same with study, with the discipline of playing an instrument or meditating, almost anything that actually adds meaning and depth to life is less preferable in any given moment to watching a movie with one’s feet up.
Jewish practice is sort of like that too. Some people crave study and discussion about Torah and Talmud, following rules around eating or using devices on Shabbat, but most people, and especially  secular Jews, tend to bristle at the thought that someone else is telling them what to do. Most of us think we don’t like rules.

But there is a lot of research that tells us that following rules actually makes us happier. If we spend all our time doing “whatever we want” (and whatever we want is usually watching trash and eating junk), we actually don’t feel that great.
This month I’m working on finding a balance between the things I want to do (watch reality TV while texting with my girlfriends) and things I will want to have done (reading good literature and meditating regularly). We are in a stressful time and I think allowing for some indulging makes sense. But I don’t want to slide into full Bacchanalian mode either. 
Are there Jewish things that you might not completely want to do but might, later on, wish you had done? Can you list a few right now and commit to getting started with one small step? 

I thought I would hate baking challah but forced myself to do it (thanks Chef Michelle, a congregant, for the yeast!) and it turns out I love it! I never particularly feel like studying Talmud but I like the intellectual engagement and insight into early rabbis when I do. If that’s you then I invite you to download the recipe, or join a Talmud study group online, or buy that set of candlesticks, or order that book you’ve been wanting to read. 

This month, let’s find the balance between what we want to do and what we want to have done. Sometimes it feels hard to get going but it’s almost always worth it once we do. 

PS If you really want to make progress on some goals then it helps to have accountability. I always offer to be an accountabilibuddy for Secular Synagogue members, and you also get a whole team behind you to cheer you on! Every time someone says they want to do/achieve something, others jump on it. Torah/Talmud study! Mussar (character development)! Mitzvahs! Books to read! You get to do it with others and it makes it much more doable and fun. We are accepting new members just until Friday. Don’t miss out!

Join us! Click right here to learn more and sign up!


I made that challah! With my hands! By myself! I’ve never felt so accomplished!I made that challah! With my hands! By myself! I’ve never felt so accomplished!

I made that challah! With my hands! By myself! I’ve never felt so accomplished!

Don’t Just Do Something! Sit there!

I write these messages each Friday as part of my prep for Shabbat. I can close out the week knowing next week is prepared and I have had a chance to collect some thoughts and reflect on the week that has passed. As I reflect on this past week, all I can really think about is that it was exhausting. 
My kids are really starting to need more stimulation and are bouncing off the walls. My partner and I are both trying to work from home. Sitting and staring at zoom when I am used to being in the room with others is grating. And, honestly, I feel over it. 
I was part of a workshop this week in which we spoke about how people tend to rush to solve problems but don’t take the time to really understand the problem, which just leads to frustration and more work. 
Someone said that their motto is: “Don’t just do something. Sit there!” And I realized that this was advice I could use. 
Especially right now, I think a lot of us just need to get comfortable with doing less, even doing nothing. 
The problems we are collectively trying to solve are really big but, for most of us, we have some extra time to sit with them. That time is a gift! I am thinking of health care providers who are doing so much with so little time to reflect or recharge. So I’m taking my time today. I don’t have solutions to my problems, our problems, but I’m going to sit still a while and try to really wrap my head around them as my starting point. 
Inviting you to sit still a while and see what comes from it.


Small good things

This is not an easy time. We miss our families and friends. We miss walking down the street and easily passing by people without worry. We miss restaurants and coffee shops. Still, now that we are a month or so into this, there might be some things that are starting to emerge that bring joy or pleasure. There might even be some good, happy-making things about this time. That doesn’t cancel the worry or the sadness. It isn’t polyannaish to acknowledge that, while we wouldn’t choose this situation, there are some good things about it. 
I am a big fan of Firefly Creative Writing (find them at https://fireflycreativewriting.com) and often find myself doing their writing prompts or assignments (from various classes or their mail subscription packages) in a similar way that I approach Jewish practices. They create a container for me to connect with the feelings, ideas, stories that mean something to me. They also create a container for me to have fun with ritual and sacred time and space. I light candles. I clear the space. I settle in. 
Right now they are doing special Covid-19 programming and this little activity is directly taken from one of those (it is very very Jewish to borrow and cite and then make it one’s own). 
If you feel like it, clear a space and light a candle (could be Shabbat candles). Then make a list of all the small good things that you have experienced or noticed since social distancing began. What smells, sights, signs of spring? What tastes, experiences, conversations, activities? What do you hope you’ll continue doing after this time ends? What feels good? 
When I did this, I wrote about how the communal act of banging on pots and pans at 7:30 pm in support of healthcare workers has moved me to tears. It is like we are a big minyan (referring to the traditional group of at least ten one needs to pray). We mourn, we celebrate, we reflect. We do it at the same time each day, like a prayer service. It marks that another day has passed, that we remind ourselves to be grateful and focus on the big picture, and that we are doing this alone, but together. 
What sacred, religious-like, or cultural/communal experiences have you felt during this time? No one wants this to last long. But there are things about it that I hope do last far into the future.

Until next week,

Rabbi Denise

These spring flowers poking up from a spring snowfall are a small good thing I saw on a walk recentlyThese spring flowers poking up from a spring snowfall are a small good thing I saw on a walk recently

These spring flowers poking up from a spring snowfall are a small good thing I saw on a walk recently

Counting Time

Happy Passover once again! Does it still feel like Passover? This eight day holiday can feel brief, especially for those who only mark seders at the start and then go back to business as usual. For those who abstain from bread products it may still seem different, a time set apart. What is certain is that for many of us all days are now stringing together. It is hard to tell a Tuesday from a Sunday when at home all the time. 

For this reason, I think now is particularly important time to draw on Jewish wisdom around marking time. Firstly, if you don’t have a regular Shabbat practice, this would be a great time to experiment with one! Light candles, make a nice meal, reflect on a moment you’re grateful for from the week that has passed. It is a great way to end a week and, right now, it’s nice to simply note that another week has passed. 
We also have a Jewish tradition of counting the omer. This is related to wheat production and the spring harvest but also helps us keep time between Passover and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. There are seven weeks between them and we count each day, with special rules and prohibitions during this time for observant Jews. 
In Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, there are certain spiritual meanings assigned to the days and weeks, and so some people will count time with those intentions (e.g. the day I write this is the day of Gavurah (strength) in the week of Chesed (love). So today, consider how you bring strength and love together in your personal relatoinships). 

One can find apps, websites, and other online discussions about the counting of the omer. I like the one from At The Well: https://www.atthewellproject.com/ (note: this is not strictly secular — take it or leave it). 
I don’t have a typical kabbalistic practice, and not all of the intentions behind the meanings of each day resonate with me. But I sure do like our traditions about marking the passage of time in meaningful ways. I think now is a great time to play with time: how do you honour and note the movement of time. Does it feel slower? Are you implementing or creating new rituals (a Saturday “date night” to get dressed up even if you aren’t leaving the house? An online Tuesday “beer night” with friends via Zoom?)? 
We are certainly in a strange time, all of us. Wishing you all the best as we move through it together. 

Until next week,


Going on a “chametz” hunt! (AKA let’s get our sh*t together this Passover)

As we prepare for Passover which starts tomorrow evening, we might be thinking about how to make the holiday meaningful this year, when we can’t do the typical seders with our families that we may be used to. 
One way is to join a virtual seder (there are enough options for one each day — or you can check out the one Secular Synagogue ran and follow along!)! Another may be to focus on the themes of oppression and freedom, the purpose of Passover, and how you can work for freedom this year. Some of us are doing a #donatethedifference tzedakah (charitable) donation. The idea is to take the money we may have spent on hosting big dinners or purchasing host gifts etc and donate that money to a worthy cause instead. 
Another opportunity our current reality provides is doing a different kind of “clean out”. Many Jews search their homes high and low for “chametz” – bread/unkosher food. Even the smallest crumb must be burnt. My house is not fully kosherized for Passover (my husband, who isn’t Jewish and loves sandwiches at least as much as he loves me, wouldn’t be on board). 
The “chametz” I want to clear out this year is anything that isn’t serving me as I adjust to this new reality. I am taking the opportunity to purge documents or work files I don’t need, etc. Some do a full spring cleaning around Passover and now that most of us are at home a lot more, it’s a great time to Marie Kondo your living space and get rid of stuff that doesn’t “spark joy.” 
Some of us are also cleaning out our social media feeds. You can “unfollow” or mute  people who are posting news from untrustworthy sources, who are fear-mongering, or who are for any other reason not helping you at this time. I cleaned out my social media feed of stuff that tends to stress me out — even news/media sources. I consciously check the news once a day instead so that it isn’t overwhelming. The truth is, social media can be an incredible connector, especially now. I realize there are problems with Facebook, Zoom, and the rest — stealing our data and exposing us to weird ads. But we can control a lot of what we see and put out there via social media. Make it a “space” that you are proud of and that serves you.
Finally, take this time to clean out your own thoughts via journalling, meditation, talking, or simply breathing. If you have been stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed, that is all normal and ok. It is also possible to start to try and feel a bit better. Focus on the present, on what you can control, and on what you have to be grateful for. Sometimes the cleaning out we really need to do is of our own negative thoughts.  As we head into this Passover, ask yourself: what is no longer serving me? What can I let go of? 
I wish you a beautiful and meaningful Passover! 

Until next time, 
Rabbi Denise

PS: I was recently on this beautiful radio show Tapestry, speaking about how to make Passover meaningful now. If you want to give it a listen, it’s the second half of this episode: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/tapestry/soundtrack-for-the-soul-featuring-hawksley-workman-diy-digital-passover-seder-1.5519104

PPS: Secular Synagogue is still welcoming new members for this cohort but our doors close soon. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more!


Passover Prep – Digital Seders, recipes, Intermarried/intercultural family ideas and Freedom

Passover Prep Round Up:

There is a lot here but feel free to skim and enjoy. Take what you like, leave what you don’t! I want you to have a great Passover! Here are some resources…

A greeting from me, if you want, and my cheesy telling of the Passover story – in rhyme!

I recorded this for my congregation but feel others should get to experience my rhyme that tells the Exodus story that I wrote in rabbinical school. Is this embarrassing a little? Yes. But I’m sending it to make you smile. Feel free to play me during your seder if you want a quick and easy Maggid (story)!


Digital Seder Ideas:

As the rabbi of a virtual secular synagogue, this actually WAS like other years in terms of how we do our seder. Our online format is a really special way to get people dippin’ the parsley and sippin’ the wine all across the world in real time. We had folks from Eastern and Western Canada, around the US, Germany, the UK, and South Africa! Here are my tips:

1) Go big on creating meaning, not trying to recreate the experience you’re used to.

It won’t be the same. But it might be better! Or at least meaningful in a new way! I recommend:

  • co-create a Haggadah with people (see below for resources) or pick one that fits your values

  • go around and speak about what you love about Passover and what resonates with you the most

  • make sure you make time for a check-in and genuine connection with the people there. It’s not all about the content, it’s about the connection.

2) Make it fun!

Here’s how I do a digital Afikomen hunt (the part where you search for matzah). I “hide” it somewhere in the world (this year I randomly chose the Eiffel Tower) and people have 20 yes/no questions to find it. It’s fun! And gets the job done.

3) Eat yummy food

I went big and ordered a full catered dinner for my little family of 4. I want the food to be special and memorable and, yes, traditional. And i don’t want to cook it myself. Maybe you love cooking – so do that! But don’t skimp on the good stuff just because 97 people aren’t coming over. Give yourself the pleasure of cooking or eating the foods you love — just you or the people you live with.

There’s more great advice out there! I personally like the stuff from Hey Alma: https://www.heyalma.com/how-to-host-a-virtual-passover-seder/ and Haggadot.com: https://www.haggadot.com/blog/the-art-of-virtual-gathering-passover-2020

Intermarriage/Intercultural families:

My book! Why not read it now? It has tips for celebrations such as Passover:


My blog on Passover and Intermarriage:


Jewbelong resources (including Ruth’s Mix for Intercultural/intermarried families):


18Doors also has great stuff on intermarriage/intercultural famlies:



A couple Haggadah options to check out:



DIY a Haggadah via Haggadot.com (do a search for “secular” and great stuff comes up! The one by Haggadot itself has some clips from me and others in the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement!  ):



Recipe ideas:


Warning: This is the best thing ever and self-control, particularly while in self-isolation, is not possible:


Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World):

As sad as it is to think about, there are many people who are enslaved today. This Passover I encourage us to consider the issue of Human Trafficking. There is much we can learn about this issue and things we can do – even while we are at home! Check out these great resources:

This one has ideas for how to make a truly meaningful Passover!


I always love the work of T’ruah: Rabbis for Human Rights:


Join a coalition:


Learn and do more:


Sending out big love for a great Passover! If you want to check out the replay of the Secular Synagogue seder to follow along to then send me a message. We’re still taking new members and would love to have you!

Rabbi Denise


How To Do Jewish During A Pandemic

We are certainly in strange and difficult times. We are all adjusting (and then readjusting) to shifting realities. There is fear, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom. I hope there are also moments of joy, connection, hope, fulfillment, rest. For some of us (hi working parents!) we are figuring out how to juggle and fit everything in. For other,s we are figuring out how to meaningfully fill our time.

So here are some suggestions, broken into two categories: Busy Bees vs Hermit Crabs (you figure out which is more you):

Busy Bees: 

Slowwwww Downnnnn.

I am a busy bee so I know how hard this is. But it seems like we have no choice now but to stop for a while. Are there at-home projects you’ve been waiting to do? Are there people you can connect with by phone or online instead of your usual coffee dates? Can you make more time for rest, napping, writing, meditating, whatever will make you feel good and not like you are under house arrest? 

Hermit Crabs:

Don’t let this be an excuse to hermit your way through spring! If you are someone who often is alone, I’m going to suggest that you explore new ways to connect during this time. Find someone who will teach you how to use Facebook and jump into some great groups (see below). I’ll be leading coffee dates and other programs by Zoom. Zoom is an online platform that’s really easy to use from any computer or smart phone. If this is something that sounds intimidating to you, use this as an opportunity to get comfortable with new technologies. 


Don’t forget to take care of yourselves and each other!

Remember Jewish teachings: Tradition, Torah, Tikkun Olam

Tradition: this might be a great time to build a Shabbat practice. I have been playing with tech Shabbats (no screens) and really liking it. Our newsfeeds are overwhelming these days. Take a break! Light some candles! Maybe bake a challah?

Torah: It doesn’t have to be literal Torah but think of Torah broadly as learning. Are there books you’d like to read? Explore museums that have virtual tours. Or peruse sites like My Jewish Learning and Jewish Live. There is so much we can do when we suddenly are at home with time on our hands. 

Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World

The people who will be hit hardest by Covid-19 are the already vulnerable and marginalized. People who are immunocompromised, the poor/homeless, those without adequate healthcare. Even consider all the kids relying on breakfast programs who may go hungry these next few weeks or months. As people are stockpiling toilet paper, don’t forget to give to food banks, check on your elderly neighbours, and look out for opportunities to practice good deeds (mitzvot). Consider offering to help folks with tasks like putting the garbage out (while maintaining social distancing). And continue to advocate for sound health and other policies while at home. 

Take care of yourselves! Eat healthy foods that will boost your immunity, get outside as you can (you can have social distance and go for a short walk or sit in a backyard/on a balcony), make sure you are connecting with others — by phone or online, and don’t forget to rest and sleep. Maybe we’ll emerge from this crisis a well-rested bunch! And, of course, wash your hands… all the time… 

If anyone is struggling, sad, or anxious, please reach out to me by email or phone. I’m around, like everyone else!