Denise Handlarski: Judaism Unbound Episode 165 - SecularSynagogue.com


Denise Handlarski, rabbi and founder of SecularSynagogue.com, joins Dan and Lex for a wide-ranging conversation, looking at digital Judaism, interfaith relationships, colonialism, among other topics. [1]

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(0:01 - 20:30): To begin the episode, Handlarski outlines what SecularSynagogue.com is. [2] She explores how her project has sought to reach Jews with a desire for deep Jewish practice, but for whom synagogues do not resonate — often because the central event of many synagogues is a prayer service. She also looks at what it means to “practice Judaism daily,” arguing that it is possible to do so while identifying as Secular (and that she herself embodies that possibility). Introducing the two communities she serves — she is rabbi of an “offline” (on-the-ground) community called Oraynu in Toronto, [3] she asserts that both of them are “real life” even though one, SecularSynagogue.com, meets digitally. Handlarski also considers ways in which, counter-intuitively, some elements of communal connection can actually occur more effectively in a digital space than an offline location.

(20:31 - 37:57): Handlarski looks back at the history of Secular Humanistic Judaism, exploring the two streams (Secular and Humanistic) that are its key influences. [4] Simultaneously, she puts forth the idea that the history of this movement (or these movements, plural) should take a backseat to the contemporary practices being lived out in spaces today. She also looks at how even 5-10 minutes of daily Jewish practice, through digital modalities, can mean a great deal in people’s lives. Handlarski then examines how her background studying colonialism continues to influence her life today, and in the inverse, how her Judaism played a role in her study of colonialism before she was ever thinking about becoming a rabbi. [5] She also opens up conversation around the geographic make-up of her digital synagogue.

(37:58 - 54:56): Dan asks Handlarski why she chose to call her organization a “synagogue” when SecularSynagogue.com looks so different from how many people conceive of a traditional synagogue space. Handlarski responds by exploring the ways in which her effort represents a reclamation of the idea of a “synagogue,” and an implicit argument that the old definition of it need not be our contemporary conception. Turning to the topic of interfaith relationships, she talks through the role that her own relationship (which is interfaith) plays in her Jewish leadership. She speaks to the ways in which intermarried rabbis have life experiences to bring the table which can be transformational for those they serve — whether the latter are themselves intermarried, “intramarried,” or neither. To close the episode, she amplifies the idea that representation matters, highlighting that reality through the example of intermarried rabbis like her, who demonstrate through their leadership a new model of empowered Jewish engagement. [7]

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[1] Visit SecularSynagogue.com to learn more about Handlarski’s digital Jewish community. Click here for a full bio of Denise Handlarski.

[2] For an article about SecularSynagogue.com featured in The Jewish Week, click here.

[3] Learn more about Oraynu at Oraynu.org.

[4] For more on the evolutions of Secular Humanistic Judaism over time, listen in to Episode 44: A Secular Humanistic Hanukkah - Adam Chalom and/or Episode 136: God? Optional - Judith Seid.

[5] If you are interested in Jewish conversations about colonialism, we recommend the Facebook group Jews for Decolonization, which has over 2,000 members.

[6] Denise Handlarski’s article “I am an Intermarried Rabbi,” featured in Canadian Jewish News, can be accessed here.

[7] For a piece from Lex that explores the idea that online and offline forms of Judaism are both “real-life,” click here.

[8] Connect to Denise Handlarski on social media at any of the following links: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Learn about Handlarski’s doula practice at JewishDoula.com.