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High Holidays.com for the secular set
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High Holidays.com for the secular set

Secular Humanist Rabbi Denise Handlarski: Trying to build online community.
Secular Humanist Rabbi Denise Handlarski: Trying to build online community.

Growing up, Jenny Tryansky went to a Conservative day school where Judaism was a daily part of her life. But now, the 39-year-old mother and personal development coach says things are different.

“I’m not very connected to my Judaism anymore,” said the Toronto resident. “I’m more culturally tied through my family — holiday celebrations, that sort of thing — but I haven’t gone to synagogue in 20 years.”

When a local rabbi invited her to participate in an experimental online Jewish congregation, she was intrigued.

“I don’t want to actually go to synagogue,” she said. “However, I kind of wondered: ‘What would it be like to infuse bits of Judaism into my daily life, especially now that I’m a parent?’”

Tryansky was one of 14 people who participated in a pilot program called SecularSynagogue.com over the summer; on Sept. 10 the synagogue will begin accepting long-term members.

SecularSynagogue.com is the brainchild of Rabbi Denise Handlarski, who heads the Secular Humanistic Synagogue Oraynu Congregation in Toronto.

Humanistic Judaism focuses on how Jewish identity and culture can bring meaning and encourage ethical behavior without bringing God into the equation. Oraynu is one of 26 Humanistic communities in North America with about 10,000 members; another six communities are currently in formation.

“Today there are many people who live secular lives who are proudly Jewish,” Handlarski said. “Maybe they’re spiritual but they don’t find prayer meaningful, or maybe they’re atheist but they find Jewish cultural practice meaningful.”

Still, they feel Judaism has lots to offer. Take the High Holidays: “Many ideas resonate with Jews both secular and religious alike — making amends, the concept of teshuvah, which means both repentance and turning, thinking about who do we want to be in the coming year…. These ideas are very Jewish but also apply to people regardless of belief,” Handlarski said.

She started SecularSynagogue.com after experiencing a strong sense of community in other Facebook groups. “I thought: ‘There is so much potential to bring that kind of community to the Jewish world,’” she said.

SecularSynagogue.com takes place through a private Facebook group, where members, who pay $18 a month, can interact through discussion, opportunities for joint social justice work, and interviews with spiritual thinkers. There is also a weekly “inspiration injection” (aka sermon) video from Handlarski.

Membership includes access to resources for such activities as do-it-yourself Shabbat and High Holiday celebrations, parenting guides, and video-based Jewish learning on a range of topics.

Andria Samis, 39, a Toronto mother of two young children and manager at a national health charity, took part in the pilot project and plans to join in the fall.

She appreciates how active Handlarski is online. When she posted a question about matrilineal descent, within a few hours Handlarski posted a video response to it.

Samis also likes the daily reminders that Judaism is about more than just seders and High Holiday services. “I didn’t realize that there would be something every day…. You could be waiting for a bus and there is something that could be posted and you can respond. It just sort of brings it into your daily life,” she said.

“There are a lot of people like me out there whose lives are busy and hectic, who don’t really have the time, or frankly, the interest to be connected to a bricks-and-mortar synagogue, and who don’t necessarily have a lot of the traditional beliefs about God,” Samis said. “And so to know there’s a community of people out there that feel that same way, who want to find that connection to being Jewish and who don’t want to lose that thread, it’s really nice.”

Amy Sara Clark is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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