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From ‘how to’ to ‘why bother?’: Michael Strassfeld writes a new guide to being Jewish

(JTA) — “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” That’s known as Hansen’s Law, named for the historian Marcus Lee Hansen, who observed that while the children of immigrants tend to run away from their ethnicity in order to join the mainstream, the third generation often wants to learn the “old ways” of their grandparents.

In 1973, “The Jewish Catalog” turned Hansen’s Law into a “do-it-yourself kit” for young Jews who wanted to practice the traditions of their grandparents but weren’t exactly sure how. Imagine “The Joy of Cooking,” but instead of recipes the guide to Jewish living had friendly instructions for hosting Shabbat, building a sukkah and taking part in Jewish rituals from birth to death. Co-edited by Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld and the late Richard Siegel, it went on to sell 300,000 copies and remains in print today.

Fifty years later, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld has written a new book that he calls a “bookend” to “The Jewish Catalog.” If the first book is a Jewish “how to,” the latest asks, he says, “why bother?” “Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century” asserts that an open society and egalitarian ethics leave most Jews skeptical of the rituals and beliefs of Jewish tradition. In the face of this resistance, he argues that the purpose of Judaism is not obedience to Torah and its rituals for their own sake or mere “continuity,” but to “encourage and remind us to strive to live a life of compassion, loving relationships, and devotion to our ideals.” 

Strassfeld, 73, grew up in an Orthodox home in Boston and got his master’s degree in Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Coming to doubt the “faith claims” of Orthodoxy, he became a regular at nearby Havurat Shalom, an “intentional community” that pioneered the havurah movement’s liberal, hands-on approach to traditional practice. He earned rabbinical ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College when he was 41 and went on to serve as the rabbi of Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side and later the Society for the  Advancement of Judaism, the Manhattan flagship of Reconstructionist Judaism. 

“To be disrupted is to experience a break with the past and simultaneously reconnect in a new way to that past,” writes Strassfeld, who retired from the pulpit in 2015. This week, we spoke about why people might find Jewish ritual empty, how he thinks Jewish practices can enrich their lives and how Passover — which begins Wednesday night — could be the key to unlocking the central idea of Judaism.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency:  I wanted to start with the 50th anniversary of the “Jewish Catalog.” What connects the new book with the work you did back then on the “Catalog,” which was a do-it-yourself guide for Jews who were trying to reclaim the stuff they either did or didn’t learn in Hebrew school?

Michael Strassfeld: I see them as bookends. Basically, I keep on writing the same book over and over again. [Laughs] Except no, I’m different and the world is different. I’m always trying to make Judaism accessible to people. In the “Catalog” I was providing the resources on how to live a Jewish life when the resources weren’t easily accessible. 

The new book is less about “how to” than “why bother?” That’s the challenge. I think a lot of people take pride in being Jewish, but it’s a small part of their identity because it doesn’t feel relevant. I want to say to people like that that Judaism is about living a life with meaning and purpose. It’s not about doing what I call the “Jewishly Jewish” things, like keeping kosher and going to synagogue. Judaism is wisdom and practices to live life with meaning and purpose. The purpose of Judaism isn’t to be a good Jew, despite all the surveys that give you 10 points for, you know, lighting Shabbat candles. It’s about being a good person. 

So that brings up your relationship to the commandments and mitzvot, the traditional acts and behaviors that an Orthodox Jew or a committed Conservative Jew feels commanded to do, from prayer to keeping kosher to observing the Sabbath and the holidays. They might argue that doing these things is what makes you Jewish, but you’re arguing something different. If someone doesn’t feel bound by these obligations, why do them at all?

I don’t have the faith or beliefs that underlie such an attitude [of obligation]. Halacha, or Jewish law, is not in reality law. It’s really unlike American law where you know that if you’re violating it, you could be prosecuted. What I’m trying to do in the book is reframe rituals as an awareness practice, that is, bringing awareness to various aspects of our lives. So it could be paying attention to food, or cultivating attitudes of gratitude, or generosity, or satisfaction. My broad understanding of the festival cycle, for example, is that you can focus on those attitudes all year long, but the festivals provide a period of time once in the year to really focus on, in the case of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for example, saying sorry and repairing relationships.

In “Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century,” Michael Strassfeld argues that the challenge of each generation’s Jews is to create the Judaism that is needed in their time. (Ben Yehuda Press)

Passover is coming. Probably no holiday asks its practitioners to do so much stuff in preparation, from cleaning the house of every trace of unleavened food to hosting, in many homes, two different catered seminars on Jewish history. Describe how Passover cultivates awareness, especially of the idea of freedom, which plays an important part thematically in your boo

The Sefat Emet [a 19th-century Hasidic master] says Torah is all about one thing: freedom. But there’s a variety of obstacles in the way. There are temptations. There’s the inner issues that you struggle with, and the bad things that are out of your control. The Sefat Emet says the 613 commandments are 613 etzot, or advice, that teach us how to live a life of freedom. The focus of Passover is trying to free yourself from the chains of the things that hold you back from being the person that you could be, not getting caught up in materiality or envy, free from unnecessary anxieties —  all these things that distract us or keep us from being who we could be. 

The Passover seder is one of the great rituals of Judaism. We’re trying to do a very ambitious thing by saying, not, like, “let’s remember when our ancestors were freed from Egypt,” but rather that we were slaves in Egypt and we went free. And at the seder we actually ingest that. We experience the bitterness by eating maror, the bitter herb. We experience the freedom by drinking wine. We don’t want it just to be an intellectual exercise.  

Unfortunately the seder has become rote. But Passover is about this huge theme of freedom that is central to Judaism. 

I think some people bristle against ritual because they find it empty. But you’re saying there’s another way to approach rituals which is to think of them as tools or instruments that can help you focus on core principles — you actually list 11 — which include finding holiness everywhere, caring for the planet and engaging in social justice, to name a few. But that invites the criticism, which I think was also leveled at the “Catalog,” that Judaism shouldn’t be instrumental, because if you treat it as a means to an end that’s self-serving and individualistic.  

Certainly rituals are tools, but tools in the best sense of the word. They help us pay attention to things in our lives and things in the world that need repair. And people use them not to get ahead in the world, but because they want to be a somewhat better person. I talk a lot these days about having a brief morning practice, and in the book I write about the mezuzah. For most Jews it’s become wallpaper, but what if you take the moment that you leave in the morning, and there’s a transition from home to the outside and to work perhaps, and take a moment at the doorpost to spiritually frame your day? What are the major principles that you want to keep in your mind when you know you’re gonna be stuck in traffic or a difficult meeting?

And a lot of traditional rituals are instrumental. Saying a blessing before you eat is a gratitude practice.   

But why do I need a particular Jewish ritual or practice to help me feel gratitude or order my day? Aren’t there other traditions I can use to accomplish the same things?

Anybody who is a pluralist, which I am, knows that the Jewish way is not the only way. If I grew up in India or Indonesia and my parents were locals I probably wouldn’t be a rabbi and writing these books. 

But a partial answer to your question is that Judaism is one of the oldest wisdom traditions in the world, and that there has been a 3,000-year conversation by the Jewish people about what it means to live in this tradition and to live in the world. And so I think there’s a lot of wisdom there.

 So much in Jewish tradition says boundaries are good, and that it’s important to draw distinctions between what’s Jewish behavior and what’s not Jewish behavior, between the holy and the mundane, and that making those distinctions is a value in itself. But you argue strongly in an early chapter that that kind of binary thinking is not Judaism as you see it. 

Underlying the book is the notion that Rabbinic Judaism carried the Jewish people for 2,000 years or so. But we’re living in a very different context, and the binaries, the dualities — too often they lead to hierarchy, so that, for example, men matter more than women in Jewish life. And we’ve tried to change that. We are living in an open society where we want to be more inclusive, not less inclusive. We don’t want to live in ghettos. Now, the ultra-Orthodox say, “No, we realize the danger of trying to live like that. We don’t think there’s anything of value in that modern world. And it’s all to be rejected.” And it would be foolish not to admit that in this very open world the Jews, as a minority, could kind of disappear. But I think that Judaism has so much value and wisdom and practices to offer to people that Judaism will continue to be part of the fabric of this world — the way, for example, we have given Shabbat as a concept to the world.  

You know, in the first 11 chapters of the Torah, there are no Jews. So clearly, Jews and Judaism are not essential for the world to exist. And that’s a good, humbling message.

OK, but one could argue that while Jews aren’t necessary for the world to exist, Judaism is necessary for Jews to exist. And you write in your book, “If the Jewish people is to be a people, we need to have a commonly held tradition.” I think the pushback to the kind of openness and permeability you describe is that Jews can be so open and so permeable that they just fall through the holes.

It certainly is a possibility. And it’s also a possibility that the only Jews who will be around will be ultra-Orthodox Jews.

But if Judaism can only survive by being separatist, then I question whether it’s really worthwhile. That becomes a distorted vision of Judaism, and withdrawing is not what it’s meant to be. I think we’re meant to be in the world.

Your book is called “Judaism Disrupted.” What is disruptive about the Judaism that you’re proposing?

I meant it in two ways. First, Judaism is being disrupted by this very different world we’re living in. The contents of the ocean we swim in is very different than in the Middle Ages. But I’m also using it to say that Judaism is meant to disrupt our lives in a positive way, which is to say, “Wake up, pay attention.” You are here to live a life of meaning and purpose, and to continue as co-creators with God of the universe. You’re here to make the world better, to be kind and compassionate to people, to work on yourself. In my mind it is a shofar, “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep!” “Judaism Disrupted” says you have to pay attention to issues like food, and justice, and teshuva [repentance].

You were ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi. Do you think your book falls neatly into any of our current denominational categories?

[Reconstructionist founder] Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s notion of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization is the one that I feel closest to. But I feel that the denominational structure isn’t particularly useful anymore. There’s basically two categories, Orthodox and the various kinds of liberal Judaism, within a spectrum. The modern world is so fundamentally different in its relationship to Jews and Judaism that what we’re seeing is a variety of attempts to figure out how to respond. And that will then become the Judaism for the next millennium. It’s time for a lot of experimentation. I think that’s required and out of that will come a new “Minhag America,” to use Isaac Mayer Wise’s phrase for the emerging custom of American Jews [Wise was a Reform rabbi in the late 19th century]. And we don’t need to have everybody doing it one way. As long as people feel committed to Judaism, the Jewish tradition, even if they’re doing it very differently than the Jews of the past, they will be writing themselves into the conversation.

The post From ‘how to’ to ‘why bother?’: Michael Strassfeld writes a new guide to being Jewish appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Canada’s economic growth projected to be about 1% in the first half of 2024

Canada is a country with a thriving Jewish community and has traditionally offered the security of a strong economy for residents. The national economic outlook is naturally something that everyone in Canada’s Jewish community keeps track of – especially those involved in business in the various provinces.

With this in mind, the July 2023 Monetary Policy Report from the Bank of Canada made for interesting reading, projecting a moderate economic growth figure of around 1% for the first half of 2024. This is in line with growth figures that had been forecast for the second half of 2023, and sees the country’s economy remain on a stable footing.

Steady projected growth for first half of 2024

Although projected economic growth of around 1% in early 2024 is not as impressive as figures of around 3.4% in 2022 and 1.8% in 2023, it is certainly no cause for alarm. But what might be behind it?

Higher interest rates are one major factor to consider and have had a negative impact on household spending nationally. This has effectively seen people with less spending power and businesses in Canada generating less revenue as a result.

Interest rate rises have also hit business investments nationally, and less money is being channelled into this area to fuel Canada’s economic growth. When you also factor in how the weak foreign demand for Canadian goods and services has hit export growth lately, the projected GDP growth figure for early 2024 is understandable.

Growth in second half of 2024 expected

Although the above may make for interesting reading for early 2024, the Bank of Canada’s report does show that economic growth is expected to pick up in the second half of the year. This is projected to be due to the decreasing effect of high interest rates on the Canadian economy and a stronger foreign demand for the country’s exports.

Moving forward from this period, it is predicted that inflation will remain at around 3% as we head into 2025, and hit the Bank of Canada’s inflation target of 2% come the middle of 2025. All of this should help the country’s financial status remain stable and prove encouraging for business leaders in the Jewish community.

Canada’s economic growth mirrors iGaming’s rise

When you take a look at the previous growth figures Canada has seen and also consider the growth predicted for 2024 (especially in the second half of the year), it is clear that the country has a vibrant, thriving economy.

This economic growth is something that can be compared with iGaming’s recent rise as an industry around the country. In the same way as Canada has steadily built a strong economy over time, iGaming has transformed itself into a powerful, flourishing sector.

This becomes even clearer when you consider that Canadian iGaming has been a major contributor to the sustained growth seen in the country’s arts, entertainment and recreation industry, which rose by around 1.9% in Q2 of 2023. The healthy state of online casino play in Canada is also evidenced by how many customers the most popular casino platforms attract and how the user experience these operators offer has enabled iGaming in the country to take off.

This, of course, is also something that translates to the world stage, where global iGaming revenues in 2023 hit an estimated $95 billion. iGaming’s global market volume is also pegged to rise to around $130 billion by 2027. These kinds of figures represent a sharp jump for iGaming worldwide and show how the sector is on the ascent.

Future economic outlook for Canada in line with global expectations

When considering the Canadian economic outlook for 2024, it is often useful to look at how this compares with global financial predictions. In addition to the rude health of iGaming in Canada being reflected in global online casino gaming, the positive economic outlook for the country is also broadly in line with expectations for many global economies.

Global growth is also predicted to rise steadily in the second half of 2024 before becoming stronger in 2025. This should be driven by the weakening effects of high interest rates on worldwide economic prosperity. With rate cuts in Canada already expected after Feb 2024’s inflation report, this could happen in the near future.

The performance of the US economy is always of interest in Canada, as this is the country’s biggest trading partner. Positive US Q2 performances in 2023, powered by a strong labor market, good consumer spending levels and robust business investments, were therefore a cause for optimism. As a US economy that continues to grow is something that Canadian businesses welcome, this can only be a healthy sign.

Canada set for further growth in 2024

Local news around Canada can cover many topics but the economy is arguably one of the most popular. A projected GDP growth figure of around 1% for Canada’s economy shows that the financial state of the country is heading in the right direction. An improved financial outlook heading into the latter half of 2024/2025 would make for even better reading, and the national economy should become even stronger.

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The Legal Landscape of Online Gambling in Canada

Online gambling has grown in popularity around the globe in recent years. While many jurisdictions have legalized land-based gambling, it hasn’t applied to online platforms. Nonetheless, Canada is one nation that has legalized online gambling with their provinces’ licensing and regulating sites.

Nonetheless, Canadians of legal age can enjoy playing their favourite online games where available. So many games like slots, blackjack, and roulette still maintain their popularity even in the digital sense.  Want to learn about what’s legal in Canada for online gambling? Let’s take a look.

What is legal for online gambling in Canada?

What is the best online casino in Canada? The list we provide you here should be a good start. It’s also important to note that most Canadian provinces do not have laws that prohibit offshore online casinos.

Many provinces provide licensing to online casinos. They even regulate them as well. For example, Alberta and British Columbia have sites regulated by their respective governing bodies. The Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC) allows legal online gambling and oversees the services it offers to Maritime provinces such as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, there are some caveats to address. In Newfoundland and Labrador, online gambling that is not offered by the ALC is considered illegal. Therefore, it is the only Canadian province as of 2024 that prohibits offshore options.

In terms of the legal age, there are three provinces where the legal age is 18: Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec. The remaining provinces establish 19 as the legal age for gambling including online.

Who are the regulatory bodies for gambling in Canada?

At the Federal level, the Canadian Gaming Association is the regulatory body for gambling in Canada. Thus, they cover both land-based and online gambling in the country. There are also provincial and regional regulatory bodies such as the Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC) – which covers the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador.  

The Western Canada Lottery Corporation covers Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon Territory. A handful of provinces also have their regulatory bodies covering lottery and gaming.

Canada requires online casinos that wish to accept players from the country to adhere to regulations and licensing. These licenses are provided by provincial regulatory bodies. When licensed, online casinos must follow the regulations and security standards.

However, there is the belief that many of the laws about gambling in Canada may be outdated. This could be because these laws were created long before the advent of the Internet. Therefore, such laws may need to be modernized. Nonetheless, online gambling for the most part is legal, just dependent on the province.

Are there any legal grey areas to discuss?

The grey area that is considered a concern pertains to the use of offshore sites. As mentioned earlier, Newfoundland and Labrador is believed to be the only province that prohibits it. Even online casinos with no licensing by Canadian or provincial authorities accept residents of the country.

On the players’ end, many Canadians are allowed to play at online casinos. However, they may be restricted from certain platforms. This is to ensure that the players themselves are protected from unknowingly playing on platforms that may be illegal. 

What are the other laws and regulations about online gambling in Canada?

Online casinos have implemented measures for responsible gambling. This includes providing support and resources to problem gamblers on their site. They are also restricted regarding the marketing and advertising aspects of promoting their platform. 

One restriction of note is that marketing that is targeted at minors is prohibited. Another prohibits professional athletes from appearing in online casino ads in Ontario.

Even offshore casinos must adhere to these laws and regulations. Especially if they have obtained a license from the provincial bodies that allow them to operate.

Canada’s online gambling is legal – but will things change

As it stands right now, the legality of online gambling in Canada seems to fall under the purview of provincial laws and regulations. Canadian citizens must perform their due diligence further to see which online casinos are allowed by their respective provinces. Just because it may be legal in one province, it may not be the same in others.

Nonetheless, the question is: will any laws relax certain restrictions? Will Newfoundland and Labrador change their tune regarding offshore casinos? It’s unclear what the future holds – but watch this space for any changes about online gambling in Canada.  

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Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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