Rabbi Denise is the creator and spiritual leader of the online community SecularSynagogue.com. She is also the spiritual leader of the IRL community Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto. She serves pregnant folks and their partners/families as Jewish Doula (jewishdoula.com) and also teaches at Trent University’s School of Education. She is a mom to two great kids and a lover of good wine and bad television.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I work in the secular humanistic Jewish movement and communities, offering meaningful Jewish practices to folks looking for a culturally Jewish approach. I believe so strongly in the richness and value of Jewish teachings and life, and want people to find ways to connect with it to best serve their own needs and also so they are their best selves to add to goodness and justice in the world. I started an online community to meet people where they’re at (which is their couch) and make sure that when we scroll through our social media there is actually something meaningful and valuable there.
What inspired you to become a Rabbi?
I was not planning to become a rabbi. I was planning to become a professor of English and was pursuing a PhD in literature. As I was writing my dissertation, realizing about six people would ever read it, I began asking myself what job I could do that would bring maximum impact, joy, and goodness to the world. I think people are hungry for communal connection and spiritual fulfilment and I wanted to do work that would support those important human strivings and needs.
What do you enjoy the most about your chosen profession?
I love officiating weddings! I do many intermarriages and I love talking to folks about how they plan to bring Judaism into their homes and lives and simply getting to know them and find out how they fell in love. I’m constantly inspired!
Do you have a favourite Torah portion?
I wrote a whole Humanistic Torah commentary on each weekly parshah. I think my favourite is Lech Lecha. I’m inspired by the idea that people can just get up and go. Join a new people. Make a fresh start. Become something they couldn’t have imagined.
What is your favourite Jewish holiday?
My favourite Jewish holiday is Passover. I love the ritual and the way people come together. I was part of 6 seders last year! I adored my online community’s seder where we each made our own seder plate, co-created a haggadah, and met in real time all over the world.
You are the founder of Secular Synagogue. Can you tell us more about your community?
We are an online community for people who are Jewish, Jew-ish, secular, atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, etc. We come together online and have formed a genuine community, divided by geography but united by shared values. We learn and laugh together, and the community supports folks in celebrating holidays, bringing Judaism more fully into their lives, and pursuing social justice.
How have you seen inclusion grow since you have become a Rabbi?
The nice thing about the movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism is that we have always been open to people who have felt excluded elsewhere. We were the very first to welcome the LGBTQ+ community; the very first to welcome women as clergy; the very first to celebrate intermarriage. I see a lot of people in my Toronto and online communities who have felt the sting of exclusion elsewhere and feel fully included and able to be themselves. That’s as important to me as any Jewish thing we might be doing on a particular day. We are all about affirming who people are and loving them exactly as they are.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a Rabbi?
It’s much better and much more demanding than you can possibly imagine. I’d also say, work somewhere that you can be your own authentic self as a person and a leader. If that place doesn’t exist, create it!
What are your wishes for the future?
That we solve climate change and that my children start sleeping past 6:00 am.
How can our readers get in touch with you and where can they find out more about Secular Synagogue?
Facebook: Rabbi Denise Handlarski
Twitter and IG: @rabbidenise