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04/19/2019 16:01 EDT | Updated 04/22/2019 09:36 EDT

Crafting Her Own Traditions Helped This Canadian Return To Judaism

Or Har-Gil is combining her family customs with new ideas to align with her values.

Or Har-Gil
Or Har-Gil's Passover/birthday celebrations with her family three years ago.

HuffPost Canada

Or Har-Gil remembers sitting across from her siblings and cousins during Passover seders. The gaggle of youngsters would conjure up silly hand gestures to go along with the traditional Hebrew songs sung before breaking matzoh, just to get through the long evening celebration.

"I had mixed feelings about Passover growing up. It was the first spring holiday and my birthday is often on Passover, so I would look forward to that. But I couldn't eat carbs for a week, which meant bland birthday cake," she told HuffPost Canada wryly.

But it was more than just the carb deprivation that didn't sit well with young Har-Gil. The Toronto art therapist said her family would have a seder, a ceremonial dinner on the first (and sometimes second) night of Passover, in a very traditional and harried way that didn't always resonate with her.

"It didn't feel like we were doing it in a way to experience it, but to get through it really fast so we could get to the food. It was a long, drawn-out dinner and, even though Passover is rich in symbolism, it felt like we went through the motions, rather than engaging with the symbolism or metaphors of the holiday."

Passover, which starts Friday, is an eight-day holiday that celebrates liberation, based on Jewish slaves freed in Egypt during the Biblical Exodus. The Egyptian pharaoh had enslaved Jews living in Egypt, out of fear they would outnumber his own people. When Moses requested their release, the Pharaoh refused.

According to the Torah, God then unleashed 10 plagues on Egyptians, the last of which culminated in the slaying of every firstborn son. To avoid this fatal outcome, Israelites marked the doors of their homes with lamb's blood, so that the angel of death would "pass over" Jewish homes.

Or Har-Gil
Or Har-Gil with her cousins shortly after arriving in Canada.

Born in Israel to Jewish parents, Har-Gil emigrated to Toronto with her family at age five. Over the years, she attended Hebrew school and celebrated all holidays. She said, while she didn't feel like the religion was forced upon her, she also didn't feel like its values always aligned with her own.

"In the traditional, Conservative Jewish community I grew up around, there was a lot of judgment around people who didn't fit in, whether that was because they were queer, or people of colour, and I was naturally more inclusive and curious, so I felt like I didn't always mesh with those conservative attitudes."

She said she was turned off by the patriarchal aspects of the religion, noting that men have many more responsibilities and privileges.

"Only men could read from the Torah, only men could become rabbis. It felt like women were less important — we were seated in different parts of the synagogue. Feeling like less than was something that didn't sit well with me," said the 35-year-old.

And so, Har-Gil moved away from practicing the faith in her 20s while she was discovering more about herself, what she valued, and the world around her.

"As I got older and left my Jewish bubble, I was exposed to other ways of being in the world, including other ways of being Jewish and doing Passover. It opened my eyes to the possibility of having a more personally meaningful connection to the holiday and to Judaism," she said.

Or Har-Gil
Or Har-Gil celebrating Passover with her husband and siblings.

Her shift back to the religion was sparked when she attended a seder with her husband's family. Rather than using a traditional haggadah (the book used to guide the Passover service), they created a family haggadah with more commentary, songs, and modern references.

"I was really moved by that, and it drove home the idea that you can make traditions your own and infuse them with your values."

Har-Gil said over the past year, she's been thinking more intentionally about what kind of spiritual practice she wants to have.

She's been inspired by Jewish leaders such as Kohenet Annie Matan the founder of Matanot Lev and Rabbi Denise Handlarski of Secular Synagogue, both of whom foster an inclusive Jewish community in Toronto that welcomes interfaith families and couples, and LGBTQ+ folks.

Or Har-Gil
Or Har-Gil celebrating her birthday/Passover three years ago.

Prompted by Matan, this year Har-Gil will spend Passover in a way that resonates with her: she'll be attending a week-long retreat at the Song of the Sea retreat in Costa Rica. The week will explore the Exodus story through dance, music and story-telling, led by a dance therapist.

"The retreat is being led through a modern, feminist, nature-based approach to Judaism, which I'm really excited to experience," she said. "I started crying when I read the description. It was such a clear YES."

The retreat will explore women's knowledge, rituals, and traditions that were passed down orally but didn't make it into the formal texts, said Har-Gil.

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She's now focused on supporting and lifting up other voices, she said, particularly those that might not be heard otherwise.

"My mother is from Morocco and has darker skin than me, and she and her family experienced a lot of racism in Israel from white Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, so I've wrestled with hearing about their experiences while being someone who looks more white/Eastern European," she said.

Har-Gil is also looking forward to experiencing a more interactive, inclusive, nature-based approach to Judaism.

"Judaism can be very text and study-based, very cerebral," she said. "Recognizing that the divine is everywhere and that I can have direct sacred experiences anywhere, not just in a classroom or synagogue is a game-changer for me."

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories — join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at bornandraised@huffpost.com.

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