Shana tova! Welcome to 5775!

Wishing you a shana tova u’metukah! A happy and sweet new year! I hope wherever you were it was a peaceful and meaningful holiday! At our Oraynu congregation ( service yesterday, I did a commentary on the challenging story of the akedah – the binding of Isaac. I then spoke about the need for presence, balance, mindfulness, and rest. Part of my commentary is here:

In the story, twice when called by God, Abraham answers “hineni,” “Here I am.” This occurs at the beginning of the story as God is about to command him to sacrifice Isaac, and also just before God stays his hand. The repetition signifies the importance of the phrase; the expression of Abraham’s devotion. Presence is a gift we give one another that should not be taken lightly. This story as part of Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us to be present in our own reflections as we take account of our own souls and lives in the pursuit of our own goodness. It reminds us that the gift of presence we offer our loved ones and our community is the most precious gift of all. In times of distress, or loneliness, or pain, what better solace is there than to feel someone is there for us? What more important act, than to say and demonstrate to those in our lives: “I am here.” Most read the Akedah as a call to faith. But I read it as a call to presence: the devotion to self and community that comes out of active, willing, committed, and purposeful presence.

We live in an age where there is a lot of talk of mindfulness, of living in the present moment. And yet we simultaneously live with the expectations of being able to multitask, of being constantly accessible via our various devices, and of being able to manage our many roles seamlessly. I am not saying I’m nostalgic for a time when we were expected to have one role only – men as breadwinners, women as homemakers – but I do think that life used to move at a slower pace, which allowed us to be more mindful, more present, and more available for one another. Think of the times over the past year when someone we knew and care about was sick, was sad, was struggling. Were we able to be fully there for them? Or were we too busy?

If we find we are too busy to fulfill our priorities, we are not alone. We are as a society over-worked, over-committed, and over-whelmed. Those devices that I mentioned that are meant to make our lives easier, often make us feel that we can never take a break. They are there to enable us to be “connected,” and yet I think there has never been a time in history when people feel less connected to their families and communities than we do today.

This year is 5775 – and the palendromic quality of that number suggests to me an opportunity for balance. This year in the Jewish cycle is also the shmita year – the year of the sabbatical when the Torah tells us to let the land lie fallow. The fields which give us food and sustenance, if overworked and overwrought, will stop producing. And we are the same. If we are overworked and overwhelmed then we will be unable to be fully available – fully present – to those we love. We too have a limit. And in this culture that measures goodness by productivity, it is good to remind ourselves that rest breeds productivity. Just like the harvest will be better if we rotate our crops and let the land rest, we will be better if we have a chance to rest and recuperate as well.

The word shmita literally means release. As we take this day for contemplation, a good question to ask is what we can let go of. What if we released ourselves from the feeling that we weren’t doing or being enough? What would it look like to release ourselves from guilt? From fear? What past hurts can we forgive and let go of? What tension do we carry that could be released? The shmita occurs every seven years and provides us the opportunity, as does Rosh Hashanah each year, for renewal. Every shmita year, some believe, all contracts are to be voided and renewed. There was even a small group of early Jews who believed that the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, could only be valid for seven years. My husband and I have agreed to renew our vows every seven years in order to remind us that in order to maintain a strong connection, a marriage requires mindfulness, presence, and renewal.

Many of you know that I am a new mother. I am also your rabbi, a teacher, a wife, daughter and sister, and a friend. Like many of you, I play all of these roles and try to find a balance so that I can be present and available for all those who rely on me – my coworkers, my congregants, my students, and my loved ones. I am gratified that I get to do work I believe in, and that I have a family I adore. But, like many of you, striking the balance is hard, and the cost of having a full life is exhaustion. My goal is that presence of mind so that I can appreciate the small moments. Although I don’t love getting up for 4:00 a.m. feedings there is a beauty in the intimacy that comes when the world is dark and quiet and I’m alone with my daughter. Although I don’t love that my inbox seems perpetually full, it is wonderful when I am able to help someone out, or do work that I find impactful. This year, in our quest for presence and balance, let’s try to focus a little less on the “oy” and a little more on the joy.

This year, let’s let the words “shmita” – for release and “hineni” – for presence, resonate. Let’s offer one another presence – full and complete focus, when we keep company with our family and community. Let’s endeavour to be there for one another fully. And let’s endeavour to rest and to take care of ourselves in order to make that kind of mindful presence possible. Mostly, moving into 5775, I wish you a sense of balance, and a whole lot of joy. May this be a healthy, sweet, and wonderful year, full of abundance and happiness.

In Defence of Cultural Judaism

Looking to find out more about Humanistic Judaism? This piece was recently published in the Canadian Jewish News:

Friday, August 29, 2014
Tags: Columnists Humanistic Judaism Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

Rabbi Denise Handlarski

Many people were surprised that last fall’s Pew Report found that a growing number of Jews are without any particular religious attachments and that most perceive Jewish identity as a matter of culture or ancestry. I’m surprised by their surprise. These are trends we’ve been seeing for decades.

Change makes people nervous, and it is with true empathy and respect that I acknowledge the fears of those who make claims that cultural Judaism is “not enough.” It is difficult for people for whom religious devotion, prayer, and synagogue life have been crucial to their Judaism to understand how rich and meaningful cultural Judaism can be, especially in the context of congregation and community.

Their fears come from a longing for Jewish continuity, which is a longing I share. But the worrying tones, and the admonitions and accusations that cultural Jews hear all the time – that their beliefs and practices are shallow and meaningless – do not encourage them to participate more actively in Jewish life.

There are two dominant yet competing narratives in contemporary Jewish discourse: on the one hand are the deep concerns for Jewish continuity, and on the other are the politics of exclusion that suggest to cultural Jews, intermarried Jews and Jews who do not fit a particular set of expectations and practices that they aren’t welcome, aren’t doing it right or, worst of all, aren’t Jewish at all.

I am a rabbi at Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. We provide a congregational context for what many call cultural Judaism. The movement of Humanistic Judaism, which is 50 years old, offers rich and meaningful holiday celebrations, educational programs, and congregations wherein cultural Jews can connect with Jewish tradition and community. Humanistic Judaism offers the best of secular humanism and the best, in our view, of Judaism. We offer a school which has a deep focus on Jewish history, culture and tikkun olam. We have dynamic adult education programs where art, Jewish thinkers, and text are studied and debated. Our holiday programs offer music, poetry, reflections and adaptations of traditional Jewish texts. Our life-cycle celebrations and commemorations from birth to death feature Jewish tradition and human-centred language that truly celebrates the person or people at the heart of the ceremony. We are, in short, very proud of how deep, meaningful, and rich our expression of Judaism is. Those who claim that cultural Judaism is shallow have never seen us in action. In fact, the experience of attending synagogue and saying prayers that one does not believe feels far more shallow – I know, because I was one of those Jews, wandering and wondering, until I found Humanistic Judaism.

There is no question it is not for everyone. Neither is Orthodoxy. We exist on a spectrum of beliefs and practices. My concern is not that people disagree with my ideas about theology, or who the Jews have been, are or should be. My concern is that we have so much in common along the Jewish spectrum, but the politics of exclusion mean that we often cannot dialogue, share experiences and learn from one another.

Humanistic Judaism is not a movement defined by what we do not believe, but rather by what we do believe. We believe that Judaism should be welcoming of all who wish to be part of our family, from those who are born into it, choose to be part of it or marry into it. We need not all be the same to recognize our shared heritage and/or connection. We believe that equality and egalitarianism should be an inherent and important part of our Judaism. We believe that Jewish history grounds us and gives us roots. We believe that Jewish creativity and human ingenuity give us branches. We believe that tradition gets a vote but not a veto. Most importantly, we believe in the power of ourselves and one another to effect meaningful and positive change in the world.

– See more at:

Officiant services

Hello again,

People ask me about what I can offer as an officiant for life cycle events. Below is from my website:

Denise is ordained to perform life cycle events including wedding ceremonies, funerals and memorials, baby namings, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Humanistic Judaism has a focus on how Jewish identity can bring meaning to our lives and deepen our experiences of our relationships, our communities, and our world. Denise’s particular focus is on “Tikkun Olam,” or repairing the world, and how Jewish culture encourages ethical behaviour. Delighting in and reflecting human creativity, intellect, and emotion, Denise creates ceremonies that inspire those being celebrated and in attendance.

Denise is currently the Assistant Rabbi at the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto.


Denise delights in performing Humanistic wedding ceremonies, with or without Jewish content. Celebrating couples of all cultures, sexual orientations, and genders, Denise can create a ceremony that reflects the beliefs and values of the couple. Custom wedding ceremonies ensure that couples participate in the creation of their ceremony, and tailor it so that it reflects their views, their lives, their love for one another.

Bar/Bat Mitzvahs

Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is traditionally the Jewish time of entering adulthood. Denise helps guide the individual through a program of Jewish learning including history and literature, tzedakah (charity/justice) projects, and cultural engagement. The main focus of the ceremony will be a research project on a Jewish topic and/or a Torah (Hebrew Bible) reading and analysis.

The goal of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is to mark the inheritance of Jewish wisdom and cultural values. A Humanistic Bar or Bat Mitzvah ensures a program of study and a ceremony that reflect the individual and his or her cultural identification, an inspiring look at what it means to be Jewish today, and a celebration of cultural history and community.

Denise also specializes in women’s Bat Mitzvahs – at any age. Given the exclusionary nature of many streams of traditional Judaism, many adult women have never marked their own inheritance of Jewish culture. Denise can create a meaningful and inspiring program for individual women looking to assert and celebrate their place in Jewish tradition.

Baby Namings

Celebrating the birth of a child is a joyful and wonderful occasion. A baby naming is a way of celebrating with community, and honouring the newborn child and their family. Whether a couple chooses to have a ritual circumcision or not, a baby naming ceremony adds an element of Humanistic celebration and is a way of publically welcoming a child into their Jewish identity and community.

Denise will work with the family to create a ceremony that reflects the family and their cultural backgrounds, values, and traditions.

Funerals and Memorials

Death is a difficult time for a family. While traditional Jewish funerals have always provided means for mourners to find solace, a Humanistic funeral allows for flexibility in the aspects of Jewish tradition that are included. Always with a focus on aiding mourners in their grief, and in honouring the life of the deceased, Denise will work with you to create a ceremony that is respectful and reflective of the person being honoured.

Other rabbinic services

Denise also provides programming in the Jewish community such as for holidays, Jewish education, young adult community-building, and Holocaust remembrance. If you wish for Denise to speak or lead a program at your organization or community, please get in touch.

Welcome to Rabbi Denise’s blog!


I am a rabbi at the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. As part of my rabbinate, it is my goal to connect with my congregants, and my broader Jewish community.

My vision for the upcoming year (5775) is to blog each week. I’ll use the structure of the weekly Torah portion to frame my thoughts. To begin with, I’ll post about my rabbinic services, and about the movement of Humanistic Judaism.

I hope that in reading my blog you’ll feel inspired, provoked, challenged, and/or uplifted. Looking forward to connecting with you!