#Metoo – Thoughts from a female rabbi

This piece is the rabbi’s message from the October issue of the Shofar, newsletter of the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. http://www.oraynu.org

As my social media feed was flooded with #metoo messages, I was really struck by how this is a Jewish problem. For context, actor Alyssa Milano started a twitter/facebook post called “me too” and asked women who had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted to post “me too” as a way of highlighting the prevalence of violence against women and girls. It was very effective and effecting. A lot of women I know shared their stories and experiences, and it made me deeply sad to realize how every one of us has a story, has countless stories. 

If you read Jewish media, you can see Jewish responses. Actor Mayim Bialik wrote a terrible op-ed in the New York Times that suggested that she didn’t experience this type of harassment and threat because she isn’t traditionally beautiful. Here’s the thing though: this type of abuse of power isn’t about beauty. It’s about power itself. And blaming it on how the woman looks, dresses, or behaves, continues to take the focus off of the perpetrators. And who are these perpetrators? They are the people in our own communities.

Here’s a recent “me too” story of mine: I was officiating a baby naming this past summer. I was standing in the kitchen of the home before the ceremony was set to begin, speaking with the mother of the baby. Her father, whose granddaughter was about to be celebrated and named ceremonially, said this to me: “You’re the rabbi? I was about to make a pass at you!”. What were my choices in this moment? There were a lot of things I wanted to say to him. And if I had been in a different situation, I would have. But I didn’t want to embarrass his daughter and I didn’t want to create tension at the simcha. So I let it go. But guess what? I can’t let it go. It’s part of my experience now as a rabbi, as a woman, as a human. I have to wear it. I have no doubt that he has forgotten this moment and has visited this type of “joke” on woman after woman both before and since.

I’m sure right now you’re thinking something like: “this isn’t really such a big deal. Who cares? Men of that generation grew up thinking this sort of thing was ok.” Notice how we are completely conditioned to find a way to either make the woman in a harassment situation responsible (“stop being so sensitive”) or to excuse the harassment (“boys will be boys”). Guess who is getting off the hook? The harasser. And because that’s the way the discourse works, more serious forms of harassment are equally excused. Women don’t talk about these experiences because they are so often minimized, dismissed, explained away or, worst of all, we are told we did something to “invite” it and/or are overreacting. The whole culture around harassment makes it safe for harassers to keep harassing and unsafe for women to object. So we really shouldn’t be surprised when such silence surrounds other forms of harassment and assault. The dynamic is set up to protect the perpetrators and blame the victims. 

What’s the function of that “joke”? It is about him putting me in my place. I have no doubt that my male colleagues in our movement and across the Jewish world have never or rarely had anyone say anything similar. And if they have it still isn’t equivalent. As a woman, I have had so many such jokes, comment, thinly-vieled threats thrown my way that it has become commonplace. What is this “joke” really about? It is about questioning my authority. Mostly, I believe, it is about this man intimating that he has the right to make a joke at my expense. And my job, if I want to go along to get along, to not create a scene, to not be the “type of woman/feminist” who just “can’t take a joke,” is to laugh. I gave a little chuckle. I chuckled at my own expense. 

What is the cost to all this? There is a cost to me. There is a cost to his daughter who was standing there (the one I didn’t want to embarrass but was embarrassed by her father all the same). There is a cost to the baby girl who was named that day. All women and girls lose when, in the subtle and countless ways we are made to participate in our own marginalization and oppression, we undermine our very humanity. 

I’m sure if you ask most people about this man they would tell you that he is a “nice guy.” That’s what struck me about all the “me too” posts I saw. Most perpetrators of these moments of harassment, assault, and abuse would never acknowledge, may not even realize, the harm they are causing. We have all of these “nice guys” out there visiting terrible pain on the women they often love and, certainly, the many women and girls for whom they harbor contempt. And, yes, I’m singling out men. I know sometimes the perpetrator is a woman. But if we do not acknowledge that this is an expected and encouraged aspect of masculinity, that the vast majority of perpetrators are men, we aren’t going to get at the root of this problem. 

Harvey Weinstein, whose fall from grace began this particular cultural moment, is Jewish. Notice that we so often celebrate the Jews who are successful and note with pride that they share our culture. We don’t do that with people whose reputations are not so good; who are infamous as opposed to famous. I am not for a moment suggesting that Weinstein’s predatory impulses stem from his Jewish background. But I am saying that we need to check in about our attitude to this type of behaviour when it is happening by people we know or people who are “one of our own.”

Years ago I was facilitating a women’s self-defence class and a Jewish woman raised her hand and said that there is no problem of violence against women in the Jewish community. It is a myth I have heard repeated many times, even among Oraynuniks. I want to be clear: violence against women and girls is happening in every community. If you think it isn’t happening in yours, it means no one is talking about it. And if no one is talking about it, that means that the perpetrators are not being held to account, women and girls are not being taught to resist, and the culture itself is permitting and promoting the predatory behaviour. I worry that Jewish culture, especially because of external threats, has made it hard for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward. In tight-knit communities, you just don’t name and out one of your own. And in traditional communities where/when women had little power, there was no point to making a disclosure as one’s own life would certainly only get worse. 
Many people knew of Weinstein’s actions and said nothing. I have sympathy for the victims who said nothing to avoid tanking their careers. I don’t think the burden falls on the victims of sexual harassment and assault to stop it. I think it’s all the bystanders, those who knew and had power and protected him, that deserve some scrutiny here. There are times that some of us have known someone who crossed the line. Did we say something, even if it was awkward or difficult? Can we speak out, even when it outs someone we like or love?

 There are stories of sexual assault from our earliest Jewish sources. The biblical Sarah is forced into the harems of Pharoah and Avimelech, and Abraham does not object (but God does). Similarly the biblical Dina is raped (some cool revisionings of the text ascribe her more agency though), and so is Tamar. Vashti and Esther in the story of Purim are seen as feminist heroes but are objectified terribly. And so it goes. 

Why are these stories important? For women readers of Jewish texts, they can serve as a sort of “me too;” a reminder that these stories have been part of the lives of women forever. They also remind us that Jewish culture is no different from other cultures. These problems are our own. And it is within our own communities that we must combat them.
I know that at Oraynu we have female leadership and a long history of standing up for equity and gender justice. And yet I hate to think we might submit to a “you’ve come a long way, baby” attitude around gender justice. There is more work to do. Here are some questions to discuss with your partner/family/community of friends and neighbours to get ideas going about how to work towards a world where my daughter, and the little girl from that baby naming, don’t all have their own “me too” stories:
Do you talk to your children (if applicable) about consent? Do you make sure no one can hug or kiss them without permission? 

Do you honour their “no” and their bodily autonomy every time?

Who does the bulk of the housework and childcare (if applicable) in your home? Even if you think it’s equal, check in. Sometimes people are surprised by all the invisible work that gets done.

Who is responsible for creating family gatherings, special events, remembering birthdays, etc?

Who leads the organization of the household: coordinating appointments, knowing what events are coming up, keeping everything on track?

Who takes care of other people’s emotional lives? Is everyone receiving equal care?

Does anyone feel overburdened or overlooked? 

If someone has or does experience(d) harassment or assault, is there space to discuss it? Are they taken seriously? Are they heard and believed? 

Does everyone agree that things are fully equal? 

It is my belief that all families and communities can work to create a better balance, to foster a truer equity. As Jews, Humanists, and citizens, this is our job. And, as all of those “me too” posts tell us, the time has surely come. 


Attitude of gratitude

It’s the season for all kinds of giving thanks. I am ambivalent about the holiday of Thanksgiving because of its colonial history, but I love the idea of setting aside time to be grateful. If you’re like me, this is something you have to work at. I can be naturally critical; I have high expectations of myself and sometimes therefore have (too) high expectations of others. I generally have a positive, happy, hopeful outlook but I can get a little mired in blame, grudges, and negativity. So I actively cultivate a practice of gratitude. I know that sounds a little “woo” for some people, but there is good science to show that a positive outlook, gratitude, and shifts to attitude make a big difference in overall health and happiness. ​

So what does this look like for me?

I notice. Every single day I take time to think about the people I love most and how precious and beautiful they are. My partner makes fun of me for commenting every single day how beautiful our kids are. But I really do want to notice this every single day. They are beautiful in every way — so intelligent, creative, inquisitive, adventurous, happy, and fun. So much beauty in my life comes from them and I don’t want the drudgery of parenting and housework to cloud my ability to see that. 
​I meditate. Not as often as I should but I know that this practice helps me work on my overall mindfulness and presence and I think both are essential for quality work and relationships. 

I say thank you. I try to really be focused and present when I say thank you whether it is to a colleague, a family member, or my barista. I make eye contact. I smile. I wish them well. I am really intentional about how I say thank you both for the person I’m thanking’s benefit and for my own. I want to feel the thanks I’m giving so I remember I’m lucky to be receiving something.

​I consciously shift my attitude. I am a sleep-deprived person with two big jobs and two little kids. It’s pretty easy for me to get grumpy. I’m working on noticing when I’m grumpy and trying to change my state (through breathing, exercise, noticing what’s awesome about the moment I’m in, etc.) 

What does all this have to do with anything?

​Jewishly, this is the time of year to have an attitude of gratitude. We’ve come through the High Holidays, full of reflection, goal setting, atonement, recommitting to one’s values. Now is the festival of Sukkot — a harvest festival where one is meant to put up a “hut” and invite guests. Why the guests? The history of the “ushpizin” is interesting in itself but here’s a modern take: if you could have anyone in your sukkah, fictional or real, living or dead, who would it be? Why? Ideally, there are things we would want to learn about and from that person. ​

Guess what? Every person around us has the potential to be someone we can learn about and from; eveyrone around us might change our lives in small ways (letting us move ahead in the grocery line, offering a smile on a crowded subway car, buying a coffee if we’re short on change), or big ways (becoming someone important in our lives, helping us profoundly, giving unimaginably). And we have the power to affect others too. 

​If you know me, you know I’m a believer in stories. I love literature. I love hearing about people and their paths. Recently in my job as a professor, I got to take my students into our traditional tipi (I’m lucky enough to teach somewhere with a strong Indigenous program and focus), and I asked students to share a story from their culture. We started with Indigenous Canadian stories about the power of stories themselves. And then people shared stories from all corners of the world.

We spoke about how many cultures have a harvest festival at this time of year, and often story sharing is part of those festivals. From Indigenous Canada, to the mid-autumn festival of Vietnam, to my own Jewish culture, there is a time and place to come together, trade narratives, and listen and learn. Of course, this is about more than the stories themselves. This is about how families and communities bond and grow. 

I’m so grateful for the wonderful people in my life, who allow me to be part of their unfolding story. At this time of year, a time to celebrate abundance, and humanity – from guests, to strangers, to those closest to us, it’s nice to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. We all have challenges and sometimes things are hard. They are made easier when we focus on what we’re thankful for. ​

Belief, behaviour, belonging

Yom Kippur commentary (following our Stories of Transformation: “Paperclips” and “Gene Wilder”)
“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams.” If there was ever a Humanistic Jewish line, that’s it! The purpose behind the Stories of Transformation is to inspire us to make our own music, to dream our dreams and, of course, to make them reality. Yom Kippur is traditionally understood as a day to repent for one’s sins so that one may be written in the Book of Life. We prefer to see it as a day to reflect, not repent, and to express who we hope to be and what we hope to achieve in the coming year. This way, we author the next year’s chapter in our book of life; not a mystical book, but the metaphorical story of our lives and our collective impact as individuals and as those in the Jewish community. 

There is an old Jewish joke about Yom Kippur. There is a man in an Orthodox synagogue who is fasting. He disrupts the service constantly, calling out: “Oy, am I toisty! Oy, am I toisty’!” Partly because he is disruptive to others, and partly because of compassion for the man, the rabbi tells him he is permitted to drink some water in order to continue with his prayer. The man drinks. A few minutes later all in attendance hear a resounding shout: “Oy, was I toisty!”

Like all good Jewish jokes, this pokes fun at both Jewish convention and Jewish stereotype. The convention is that we suffer on Yom Kippur. The stereotype is that Jews never suffer in silence. 

Suffering is an interesting concept when it comes to repentance. The idea is that on Yom Kippur one “afflicts their soul” so that they may feel truly sorry. But this sorrow should be about those we have wronged or hurt in some way. It seems to me that afflicting one’s soul does nothing for these others. Is not the whole idea to focus outward? To worry about others we’ve harmed or hurt and how we can do better? The more one experiences suffering, or affliction, the more they simply concentrate on themselves. Perhaps this is a wasted opportunity on this special day. 

It isn’t wrong to focus inwardly; it is necessary. But the overall goal must be to find the tools that help us behave better, act according to our values, in the year to come. Sometimes, as the joke highlights, what goes on in services doesn’t meet that need. This was me many years ago in a synagogue. 

Teenage Denise would be thinking: “I’d love to connect to the spiritual and somber themes here; I believe in reflection for personal betterment. But oy, am I toisty. And also there’s a lot in here that sounds pretty suspicious to me. A book of life? I just didn’t believe in it. I’ve been pretty bad this year and yet I still plan to be around for next year’s Yom Kippur. I wonder if I’ll be less hungry then. I wonder what’s being served at the breaking of the fast.” None of this was particularly helpful in bettering my outlook or behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, there was also much in those services that touched me. There are good reasons to fast. This isn’t to disparage the way Jews around the world and through the centuries have marked Yom Kippur. Rather, I want to focus on the point of tension where we look inside ourselves without getting lost; how we use introspection to better our outward action. 

It’s hard for us to get out of our own heads at the best of times. Once we add hunger, thirst, a long Torah service (if this feels long to you, I get it. The most traditional thing you can do this Yom Kippur is be bored when the rabbi speaks), once we add all that, who can pay attention to anything lofty? Not so conducive to personal and communal transformation. 

I don’t believe in suffering as a tool of soul-searching. So, what do I believe? 

It’s my hope that we try as much as possible to define ourselves according to what we do believe, rather than in opposition to that which we do not believe. Rather than asking you to suffer, and certainly than to suffer in silence, this Yom Kippur, I’d like you to consider three aspects of your life and what you do to foster them. They are easy to remember – think of the 3 Bs: Belief, behaviour, and belonging. For these 3 Bs comprise who and what we are. 

Research suggests that, in a religious or cultural context, it is these three things that lead to affiliation and fulfillment. We are shaped by we think, what we do, and where we go. And these become mutually constituting and reinforcing factors. If I attend a great lecture or service, it might change my thinking, which might influence my actions, which might affect the next choice I’ll make in attending a lecture or service at that same place. 

White supremacist groups, of which we’ve seen a rise if not in their existence, certainly in their expression, offer the 3 Bs. If we are serious about opposing them, we need to be serious about the 3 Bs too. Today in Peterborough Ontario, where I have lived and where I work, Jews must choose between Yom Kippur services and counter-rallies against a permitted white supremacist demonstration. This Yom Kippur and this year I want us to use the 3 Bs to enhance our strength as individuals and as a community so that we are poised to take on these challenges. 

So let’s free ourselves from the traditional model, even the traditional Oraynu model, of a Yom Kippur service. We are going to look inwardly and connect outwardly. I’m asking you in a moment but not yet, if you are comfortable (but feel free to be brave and get outside your comfort zone), to take a minute or two, introduce yourself to someone sitting near you who you don’t know and answer the following. If you can’t think of answers to all of these, that is just fine. It means it’s a good question for you to ponder over the year to come. But, you may just have these answers. I’ll be asking you to share: 1 thing you believe, about anything. It could be a belief that Game of Thrones is the best show ever made. A belief that humanity can solve climate change. Go anywhere you wish. Then say 1 thing you do that you are proud of, be it a hobby, social service, your job, a role in your family, etc, again, anything goes. Finally, name 1 place or community where you belong, be it Oraynu, an online community, a gym, your family, anything, any place where you feel you belong. Again, please turn to someone and share a belief, a behaviour and a site of belonging for you. You’ve got about two minutes to both share your 3 Bs and hear someone else’s. And… go!

And just like the Jew in the joke… it’s hard to get you quiet! 🙂

Here’s the thing: at Oraynu, we are a community of believers. We are often seen by others as a community of non-believers. But that’s not true. We are completely united, and influenced, by what we believe. 

We are approaching the 50 year anniversary of our community. Five decades of people coming together to do Jewish in a way that feels right to them. Here is what has connected all of us: we wish to be music makers, we are dreamers of dreams. It is such a beautiful affirmation of life to publicly declare by participating in a community like ours that we courageously face the challenges of our world and pledge to try to meet them; to affect change because we are the ones who both create and solve the problems of the world. And we need each other to do it.

I have said to you for many years that the Stories of Transformation service is my favourite of the year. I love thinking about the small differences individuals, like Gene Wilder, and communities, like the one in the Paper clips story, make. I love the focus we place on taking what we believe: that humans and humanity are worthy of a better world and that humans and humanity can create it. We take those beliefs, and we translate them into behaviour. Here is an example:

This past spring we held a program called the Blanket Exercise, which takes participants through an experiential walk through Indigenous Canadian history with an Indigenous perspective. It is followed by a talking circle for people to share their reflections.

We had a full house. More than a full house – we were pretty crammed together standing on those blankets. I knew this community would show up for something so rooted in education and justice, for we believe in both. In the talking circle, people pledged one after the other their desire to help make change in Canada for Indigenous folks. We have signed petitions, we have contacted our MPs, we have written letters, we have educated our friends and family about their misconceptions. We have done this all because we know that, for any sense of integrity and authenticity, our beliefs and behaviours must align. So many of you wrote or spoke to me after that program to express how much it meant to you. The learning, of course, but, more than that, the opportunity to do that learning in the safety and comfort of our Oraynu community. We hold each other up at Oraynu; listening to one another, respecting one another, even if we disagree, and affirming one another’s individual goals and whole selves. Belief, behaviour, and belonging. We got it covered.

Why is this important? Precisely because I don’t want for this service to be an exercise in thirst: literal thirst or a thirst for something more inspiring. I want you satiated today and all year long. The way to become so is to engage your beliefs, to align them with your behaviour, and to find communities of belonging that will reinforce your values and affirm who you are. Belief, behaviour and belonging are important for individual growth and happiness. To me, this is a worthy goal in itself but it is not the only goal. It is my goal that we take our collective beliefs, behaviour and belonging and turn it outwardly, so that we can affect broader change.

The stories we just heard exemplify this. Gene Wilder was persecuted for being Jewish, and then he found like-minded Jewish comedians to work with, be in relationship with, and create work with that would be affirming to others. He took his belief in comedy as a healing force, and applied it through his work and community, behaviour and belonging, to help create cancer support and fundraising groups. Belief, behaviour and belonging for a higher purpose.

Similarly with the school group we heard about in the Southern U.S. They believed in education for social betterment. They did something about it. They did it with their peers. Their small group achieved a lot: they united a global village of those wanting to learn about the Holocaust to ensure similar genocides are prevented in future. Belief, behaviour, belonging.

Not all of you are Oraynu members. Perhaps one day you will be, but for now those who aren’t are our treasured guests. And we wouldn’t encourage you to join until you knew us well. You don’t get married on the first date, as it were. We want you to engage with us, see if we are a good fit for your beliefs, see if we can impact your behaviour, see if we can give you a sense of belonging. But if it isn’t with us, I hope you’ll find another group, or several groups or communities, that fulfil the goals of the 3 Bs. I hope you are able to find your people in achieving your own personal goals. 

Today marks the conclusion of what we call the Days of Awe. Ten days at the start of the Jewish year set aside for personal reflection, for making amends, and for goal setting for the next year. I am in awe of the concept itself. What a gift, what an opportunity, to consciously and mindfully set a course for our year. 

I am in awe of our movement and community. The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, over 50 years ago, sat down with members of his Reform community for an honest conversation. He said, not only do I not believe most of what we say in our prayer service, but I’m convinced many of you don’t believe it either! Together they founded the Birmingham Temple in the Detroit area. A movement was born. 10 years ago Rabbi Wine died. He left a legacy of a movement, an educational arm, many congregations and communities, and a way of putting philosophy into action. If our movement can be summed up in one sentence, it is: We say what we believe, and we believe what we say.” Communities were established and thrive today around the 3 Bs: belief, behaviour and belonging. We are living examples of what can be achieved when we have all three cohere. 

So, this year, be the music-maker of your own life. Dream your dreams, articulate them, make them happen. As much as we can, let’s try to shift our focus from our own suffering to that of others. 

Let’s try to consider how to practice our beliefs, how to find the people who can help us do that, and how to be our best selves, to the best of our ability, at least most of the time. The goal is never perfection. The goal is transformation. And we have the power to transform our own lives and those of others. To all of you here today, I thank you for being with us in our close and courageous community, and I wish you all a wonderful year ahead. 

Rosh Hashanah 5778 – How Humanists Handle Hard Times

(Note: this commentary was part of our High Holiday service and followed a reading of the biblical David and Goliath story)
A little later in this service we will consider Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” This is not only an oft-quoted line from Jewish wisdom, but it is, in my view, crucial to the whole Jewish experience. It is certainly crucial to the story of David and Goliath. David makes a name for himself here. He is drawn to action, to battle, leaving his defenseless sheep with an unknown keeper and throwing himself into the fray. We think of him as heroic because we know the end of the story. But what if he had failed, would his actions still have been considered heroic or would they have been considered foolish? We can never know the outcome of our choices fully and, so, it begs the question… does the Hebrew Bible tell us to take risks, even when that means putting ourselves and others in danger? Is self-sacrifice an honour, Jewishly? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We are told in Talmud that each life is precious; that to save a life is as though one has saved the whole world. Perhaps we can extrapolate then that to end one life is as though one has ended the whole world. Would that have applied to David, had he died? Does it apply to Goliath? How do we determine whose lives are worth sacrificing and whose worth saving? And what of the sheep? Did they deserve their abandonment? In the long view of Jewish life through the ages, which of these characters best represents the Jewish people? The sheep? Eliab, who admonishes David for leaving them? David himself? What about Goliath?
The Hebrew Bible is always complex but in this story it is uncomplicated in its notion of right and wrong. Three times, David says that the “Philistine,” Goliath, defies the “armies of the living God.” The text tells us that because Yahweh is on the side of Israel, Israel can’t lose and David, even as a youth untrained in the art of war, will prevail. And he does. There is a lovely circularity to the logic: God is on David’s side so he must win; David wins, thus proving that God is on his side. Clean and simple. Note, however, that David’s own actions are what lead to his victory. This is not divine intervention; for David must first convince Saul that he can fight, which he does through the force of his argument, and then he must defeat the hulking Goliath himself, which he does with cleverness and the force of his arm.
Humanists lack the certainty of believing that what we do is pre-ordained and divinely justified. It must be nice to live a life with that kind of conviction! What is not so nice is when that kind of conviction leads to war and suffering. For we know that plenty of people from all religions have felt divinely justified to enter into battle with their enemies. It turns out it is tough to tell who is defying the “army of a living God” when each side believes they are religiously compelled to defeat the other. Humanists therefore must find our conviction from another source; from within.
I woke up the morning of November 9th 2016, in what I would call a state of depression. I barely left my bed for two days. I found it difficult to summon the strength to care for my children. I phoned it in at work a little (yes, even rabbis do that on occasion). The results of the American election were in and, I admit, I was shocked. I hadn’t anticipated the result. Mostly, my belief in humanity was shaken. I could not believe, I still find it difficult to believe, that millions and millions of people voted for someone who was a known and proud racist, contemptuous of women and people with disabilities, someone who exemplifies greed and indifference to suffering. I understand the many reasons for this and have no desire to rehearse them here. I am not talking about the failings of a political system, or party, or a desire for change, or the hurt, misunderstood feelings of the masses. I know all that. You know all that. I’m not talking here about what we know. I’m talking about what we feel. And in those days after the election, I felt truly bereft. I had lost my faith in people, the only faith I ever had.
So what is a Humanist to do if she no longer has faith in humans? This was the source of my depression, and I call it depression with the fullness of understanding of the seriousness of the term. I felt shaken to my foundation and I no longer saw the point in continuing my work. Why lead a Humanist community when humanity is unsalvageable? Why continue pursuing, through community, the ideals of tzedakah, justice, when justice so rarely wins out. I worried, I still worry, for the future my children will inherit, with food and climate insecurity being at the top of a long list of seemingly insurmountable problems. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of pointlessness. Why bother?
I imagine this is what it feels like to lose one’s faith in God. Some of you may have been through something similar. It is a total paradigm shift; the world is not as it was and never will be again. So, now what?
I couldn’t stay in bed forever. At a certain point, we all must face our reality and decide what to do next. I am so grateful to have been given a good Humanistic Jewish education and to be in this community because I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten out of my funk without both. Firstly, I know from my Humanistic Jewish education, from Sunday school to youth group to adult education and, yes, to rabbinic school, that my Jewish history and ancestry compels me to keep fighting, even when things are tough. In fact, it is especially when things are tough that we toughen up ourselves. We keep on fighting. It’s the lesson from our biblical narratives like Moses, and, yes, like David versus Goliath. It is also the lesson of Jews who found their way through the generations of exile and violence. We would no longer be a people if we folded when the going got tough. And so much the more so for a Jewish Humanist. I am not waiting around for any deity to save me, my people, my fellow peoples. So who am I waiting for? We don’t expect to be saved; we expect to save ourselves.
The day after the election I had a tearful conversation with Rabbi Adam Chalom, Dean of the rabbinic school I attended and a rabbi in Chicago. Some of you had a chance to learn with him this past spring. One of the things he said was: “you’re strong. Don’t forget it.” And he was right. And so now I want to say the same to all of you. Many of you are struggling with the political realities of our time. Many of us also have our personal struggles, be they sick or struggling family members, our own health problems, financial pressures, loneliness, and more. But you are here today, which signals to me and all of us here that you believe that things can be better in the year to come. If you had lost that belief, shaken though it sometimes is, there would be no reason to mark the Jewish new year. So, you came. You sit here waiting to be inspired by someone who struggles too, someone who is just like you in their humanity and in their hope. And I say to you: “You are strong. Don’t forget it.”
The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, called Humanistic Jews to lead “lives of courage.”
For it takes great courage to go against trends that are harmful and destructive. I like the idea of a life of courage precisely because it does not signify an easy life, for there can be no such thing as a life that is both easy and meaningful. Life is full of struggles and that is the way it should be. We are made who we are by how we find strength and courage in the face of adversity and fear. There is no courage without fear; there is no strength without hardship. And you are strong, don’t forget it.
I remember in those November days we Oraynuniks got together in the home of Roby and Jim Sadler. Roby, our office manager, is probably the one person in this room you’ve all connected with at some point. It’s fitting for her to host an evening of shared concern and connection. We went around in a circle each discussing our concerns and then, I believe, I heard a shift to a discussion of courage. Alone we all had our individual heartaches but together we were emboldened. We knew we would face whatever was to come as a community and, as important, a community that believed in humanity and in humanity’s capacity for justice. So I say again, I am really grateful to you, Oraynu, because although it is my job to inspire you, to offer support, to lift you up when you need it, you do the same for me.
What does any of this have to do with David and Goliath? I’m not saying Trump is Goliath although, with the portrayal of someone who has become a giant in the eyes of “his people” but who is galumphing and generally not so smart, it’s tempting. Forgive my party politics from up on the bimah – I couldn’t resist. What I am saying is that this is a political and historical moment that, I believe, calls us to be David. Our people, Jews, and our people, the people in our world more broadly, need heroes now. We do not have to be the boldest and the best, for David isn’t. We do not have to be experts, for David isn’t. We do not have to be armed with swords or the best tools for whatever our particular battle is, for David isn’t. We have to be willing to fight the good fight.
Here’s where we diverge from David. The slingshot is a nice device the writers of this section of Tanakh included. It is reminiscent of both childhood innocence and crude conditions; again, David’s victory is pre-ordained because he has the right God on his side.
Any of us could wield a slingshot, and Jews throughout the ages have looked to this story for inspiration particularly because we have so often felt outgunned and outnumbered. We believe ourselves to be people who rely on our wits and use whatever is available to us. But are we also the people who do what David did next? Goliath is dead, must David take Goliath’s own sword and behead him? Must the children of Israel plunder the camp of the Philistines? Is this still right?
Here is my concern for the Jewish people. We believe ourselves to be David. But at some point, I worry we become more like the other children of Israel who plunder the camp. I worry that, at a certain point, we become Goliath. When any of us attains societal power and privilege, do we lose the ability to care about those we may step on to get where we’re going?
It is difficult for me to read the narrative of David and Goliath and not think of Israel, the modern state. Is Israel David? Is it Goliath? Well, yes and yes. And for us here in the diaspora too – whether we vote for those we perceive as “strong,” knowing others will be hurt, whether we turn a blind eye to the problems of racism, poverty, gender discrimination, environmental degradation because they are too big for us to tackle alone and, anyway, truly tackling these problems might mean giving something up. Whether we think of being Jewish as a site of victimhood or a site of strength. Whether we tune out news and politics because they can be depressing and we have a life to lead here. I’d say we are all guilty of becoming a little too much like Goliath, a little less like David. And, or, a little too much like the David who is willing to leave his sheep and head into the fray. We can sometimes forget who we are, what we are here to do, and why it matters.
We live in tough times. The world turns on, of course, and we know the problems go on too. I have been so proud of how our community has risen up against Islamophobia and the continued ill-treatment of Indigenous Canadians. How we have been engaged in deep ecological experiences, and advocacy. How we are renewing our sense of vigour around volunteerism and helping others. And how we take seriously the need to care for one another in our community in these tough times.
We are Humanists… we answer Hillel: we are decidedly and avowedly not only for ourselves, but we are for ourselves. And we know that the time for courage, the time for strength, the time to act is now.
I wish for you continued hope and strength in the year 5778. I wish for all of us to know joy and peace. I wish for our community and the other communities of which we are all part to be sources of support and inspiration. I wish for us laughter and happiness. Above all, my intention and hope, for this particular year is that we find courage where there is fear and we find and remember our strength. We are strong. Let’s not forget it.

After Charlottesville

Recently sent this out to my congregation:
Dear Oraynu,

It has been a difficult week and I wanted to reach out and check in with you. The events in the United States reverberate here and many of you have been in touch with me with deep concern over the emboldening of Neo-Nazis/ White Supremacists, and a political leadership that can’t seem to condemn them. The murder of Heather Heyes was shocking. We saw another terrorist attack in Spain. It seems that there is pointless, endless hurt all around.
I wish I could promise that things will get easier. I hope they do, but it seems we are in hard times indeed. I am not writing you with political analysis; there is plenty of that out there and that isn’t my role.

At the High Holidays this year I am planning to speak about How Humanists Handle Hard Times but, given recent events, it seems that a preview is in order. If you are feeling sad, angry, fearful, anxious, please know that all of those feelings are normal and valid, Know also that there are some things we can do so that those feelings do not become feelings of hopelessness. Here’s what I am doing. Some of these things may be useful to some of you.

– Stay informed — read and support solid journalism and writers/analysts whose ideas you value

​-Unplug — find the balance between being informed and being media-saturated. Take breaks from media/social media. Schedule time to read the news and schedule time when you will not

-Take care of yourself. In this world, self-care is nothing short of revolutionary. Eat healthy food, move your body, go outside, spend time with people who make you laugh

-Support causes that make positive change and work for social justice with money or with volunteerism. Ideas include the ACLU or CCLU, legal funds that support at-risk communities, places like Planned Parenthood, civil rights groups, Indigenous communities/initiatives, the political party of your choice, etc.

-Engage in political and social action that serves your vision for a better world. Join a demonstration (like last year’s women’s march or upcoming counter protests when white supremacists gather), sign petitions (check out Avaaz or the many online petition groups that send them right to your inbox), get in touch with your MP, MPP, city councillor about issues you care about (I’ve been engaging with mine around Indigenous issues since the Blanket Exercise)

-Take care of the people close to you. A lot of people are worried and upset right now. Check in with friends you haven’t heard from, ask those in your family or community how they are doing, reach out to someone who is lonely or suffering

– Put pressure on the companies you support (via consumerism or via investment) to uphold ethical standards of business. Divest from places that support people/projects/politicians that are inconsistent with your values

– Be kind. We all have a small but important sphere of influence. Big social changes happen via everyday interchanges and exchanges. See, acknowledge, and be kind to the people you encounter at the coffee counter, the subway car, the driver next to you, the people on the street

– Be mindful. It can seem like terrible things are happening all around all the time. There are wonderful things too that, for balance and for sanity, we need to take in. Witness a sunset, savour a delicious meal, get into a great book, listen to beautiful music. This does not erase the problems and pressures of the world but it reminds us of the wonderful things in the world that are worth protecting

– Reach out if you need help. In hard times, it takes courage and bravery to admit that you need help. Ask loved ones and friends for company if that is what you need. Reach out to your Oraynu community if we can be of service. There are also many mental health services available in our community. If you need support, find it. If you need help finding it, get in touch with me and I’ll help you
Some religious leaders are calling on their congregants to pray for things to improve. That’s not our style; not our belief that the solutions to the problems of our world can be found outside of our world. We are it. How Humanists Handle Hard Times is that we take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet. We rest and then re-engage. We resist when necessary, rejoice whenever possible, and remember the lessons of the past to inform the direction we move in the future.

We will speak more about these issues at the High Holidays and at our gatherings before and after that. There is a lot of good sociological research that proves how important community is in hard times. So come out to events and programs and be in touch with Oraynuniks. We will face these hard times together.

Yours always,
Rabbi Denise

Our calendars, ourselves 

Reprinted from the Oraynu Congregation newsletter:
How many times a day do you look in your calendar? Whether you use an online or paper version, my guess is that you check what’s happening with your day, week, month and year fairly frequently. I know some families who have colour-coded calendars and perform sync operations to make their calendars cohere that require a level of technical expertise and security clearance well above my pay-grade.

My own calendar is feeling very full these days. We’ve had a very busy spring at Oraynu and life with my family keeps me busy too. I am sure many of you can relate. A pretty big shift in my thinking I’ve been working on is rather than saying that I’m “busy,” I say that my life is very “full.” I am grateful to have a great family, great friends, and great work to keep my calendar so full. So I might as well enjoy the fullness rather than focus on the busy-ness. Perhaps that’s a shift you might find helpful too.

Spring/summer is the time we at Oraynu plan our upcoming year, so I’ve been working on our collective calendar too; it too is full! We have much to do and much to be grateful for! The Jewish year begins each September, coinciding with the new school year for parents, teachers, and kids. Thus, summer marks the ending to a year, a time to slow down and reflect. One of the things I love about Jewish life is how our calendar helps us regulate our moods, our lives. The final month of the year, usually coinciding with August/September, is called Elul. Elul is an important month, for it is meant to be set aside for study and personal reflection. The idea is that you take time to process the previous year before heading into the next one. This works well for many of us, as we take some personal time this summer. Whether you are sitting on a dock, exploring the woods, hanging out on patios, or going for country drives, I hope that you do make time to slow down and enjoy. This is the time of year when the calendar can be a little less full. This is true at Oraynu, often, as we slow down over the summer. However, this year I think you’ll find our summer programming to be fuller and, I hope, more uplifting. We hope you’ll find time for us in your summer calendar.

Next year you can expect a few changes, as well as the same type of great programming you’ve come to expect. Our Tikkun Olam Oraynu committee has a full roster of volunteer opportunities and social justice events. One of the new additions, is some intra-Oraynu tikkun olam work, as we explore topics in justice for our contemporary world. Look for programs like: do Jews have white privilege?; cultural appropriation and Indigenous/Black art; and, a discussion on issues in gender/sex, including the “pronoun wars.” The goal is that we explore these issues together as a community, hear each other out, and see if there are new directions we can learn and grow. I’m committed to being as conscious and just as possible, and I know you are with me. This will be a chance for us to put our values into action both internally as a community, and then use them externally as we come together to make a difference for others.

For me, the whole of next year’s programming schedule has been floating around my head. It has given me a chance to pause, reflect, and realize something about who we are as a community: we are more than a series of events and programs. We are greater than the sum of the parts of each speaker, film, holiday celebration, and music night. We are a community that comes together around our common identities and interests, each individual sustaining that community and being sustained by it. We hope to see lots of you in the coming months and in the coming year. If you can’t make it out, know that you are still a very important member of this thriving community, and we value that you are part of us.
What I am saying is this: our lives are consumed by what’s on the calendar. It’s easy to just go through the motions and forget to be present. What we choose to diarize on the calendar says something about our choices, our values, and our priorities. Whatever fills our days and weeks and months reflects us, but it doesn’t define us. We are in charge of charting our own course, our own destinies. We are more than what’s on the calendar.
This summer, and this upcoming year, perhaps spend some conscious time with your calendar. Decide where you want to schedule some time for fun, some time for reflection, some time for learning, some time for nature, some time for play. Perhaps remember Oraynu in your planning. And perhaps determine that this summer, this year, will be the time that you commit to doing whatever it is that you’re doing, whatever is on the calendar, with presence, focus, and joy. Strong individuals, building a strong community, and enjoying the fullness of life

Secrets and stories

This past Passover my daughter, who had just turned three, sang the four questions at our seder. It was a lovely moment for me. She also delighted in finding the afikomen, in dipping parsley in salt water, and in eating the traditional egg (she really likes eggs). As we and Jews around the world tell the story of the Exodus around our seder tables, we are part of generations who use the occasion of Passover to instil Jewish learning and identity. Passover, like other holidays such as Purim and Chanukah, is designed to excite the imaginations of children. These holidays work to teach our kids and remind ourselves as adults that we are part of a special, distinct group of people, and that our traditions help make us who we are.
Passover is a night of questions. So here is mine: does it matter that the Exodus, as we tell it, almost certainly didn’t happen at all? Is it wrong to share this story and participate in all of the many traditions Jews have built around it, knowing that it is, in short, a fabrication?
Here’s a related example: on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees. This is a story that is based in history. And yet, who were the Maccabees? Religious zealots who killed their fellow people who wanted to Hellenize, who were interested in literature, art, mathematics, sport, and expanding their cultural base. These are our heroes?
Passover is a time for questions. And, as Humanistic Jews, we are big believers in questioning. One of the things that first attracted me to this movement when I was a teenager, was that when I asked a question, people were excited and eager to share what they knew. When I had asked questions in more traditional and religious environments, my sense was that they were shielding me from information. And truth mattered to me then. It matters to me now.
So, am I a hypocrite for spreading the mis-truth of the Exodus story? Should I tell my daughter it’s all make believe? She’s three now. Is it ok for her to believe in fantasy for a while longer? How much longer? These are new questions for Passover and beyond in our age.
A few years ago I offered rabbinic support and some programming at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s youth conclave. Many Oraynu teens were there. We did an exercise on truth and fiction. One of the questions I asked was whether it mattered that the Exodus story wasn’t real. And the teens, brilliantly, answered that stories don’t have to be true to make them real. In other words, the events of the Exodus story don’t have to be true for them to have real impacts on our lives, as we take their symbolic meaning and apply to it our current world.
In singing the four questions, and asking many more questions than those four, in participating in the rituals of the seder, in coming together to talk about our stories and our histories, we make an untrue story into an event that is real for us. Our struggles for freedom and justice, as individuals and as a people, are very real.
For many years I devoted myself to the study of literature. I also have a degree in History, but it was through literature that I really learned about the lives of people who have suffered in wars (Timothy Findley’s “The Wars,”,) live in places far from here, with their histories of colonization and resistance (Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”), occupy identities and have histories different from my own, such as Black survivors of slavery (Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”), and understand Canada very differently than I have as a white settler (Thomas King’s “Green Grass Running Water”). All of these are fictional narratives of freedom struggles. They at times overlap with our own narratives as Jews. At times, they diverge. None of these are true stories, but all of them give us insight into the truths of these historical and contemporary realities. This is the complicated interplay between fact and fiction.
I believe in the power of stories. And I believe in distinguishing fact from fiction. I believe we can have our Jewish narrative tradition and also be honest about what is true.
So, when I tell my kids the story of Passover, I will be real with them as they grow about what we know and don’t know. I will tell them that just because the events of the story didn’t happen, the Jews have made the larger truths come alive every time we fight for freedom and justice. I will tell them that they are part of the Jewish people, a people no better than any other but, equally to any other, deserving of pride. And part of what is fun and meaningful about being Jewish is participating in our special rituals and practices. In telling the stories that are about and of our people, even if they are not about the actual events that happened to our people. And I will tell them that the first time they learned and sang the four questions, they made me a very proud mama!