Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Israel as Muse (Yom HaAtzmaut 5772)

What is it about the land of Israel that makes it act as Judaism’s muse?  Surely all landscapes have the power to call to human beings.

For example, “America the Beautiful” croons of the landscape’s grandeur. The writer, Katharine Bates, wrote of these sights after a breathtaking cross-country train ride from Massachusetts to Colorado. The ride gave her the words:  amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, the fruited plain!  All song worthy; all symbolic of the promise that the American frontier held.

Israel does the same thing.  Israel’s scenery, wildlife and geography have inspired poems, songs, and artwork for centuries. Yet, in some way it seems to go deeper.  The land of Israel is more than aesthetic beauty and metaphor. America’s beauty makes us feel patriotic.  Israel’s beauty makes us feel spiritual.

But why? To understand, we turn to Rahel, a great pioneer poet of Israel. Rahel Bluwstein is so loved and respected, she is known by just her first name in Israel.  In 1909, at the age of 19, Rahel arrived in Eretz Yisrael with her sister.  Inspired by the spirit of the early Zionist pioneers, she stayed for years, working the land on various kibbutzim. Life for the early pioneers was excruciatingly difficult. Malaria ran rampant and food could be scarce.  But Rahel and her comrades fell in love with the earth their worked in northern Israel, specifically the area by the Sea of Galilee. She wrote:

“I remember a moonlit night in summer, we rowed out boats toward the sands of “that shore.” We strode on the earth, preserving the footsteps of Abraham; we heard the echo of God’s words in the olden days: “I will make your name great.” We climbed boulders and looked down on the narrow fissures. There the springs quenched the ancient carob roots with chill waters…

I remember we planted eucalyptus trees in a swamp, where the Jordan River leaves the Kinneret and runs southwards to the Negev, foaming on the rocks, flooding its banks. More than one of us trembled with fever afterwards on a thin bed. But not one of us, not even for a moment, ever lost the feeling of thankfulness for our fate. We labored out of soulfulness.

The thirst was racking. One of us would enter the water with our favored container- a tin can once used for kerosene. What a pleasure it was to reach down toward the gravel of the shore, and to drink endlessly, like a forest creature, to immerse one’s burning face into the water, stop to take a breath of air, and once again to drink until exhaustion.

It is said: this water has wondrous properties. Whoever has drunk it will return. Is this why the young men abroad long for the quiet shores of the Kinneret, because their ancestors quenched thirst here.

On the Sabbath I used to set out for a rest in the nearby hills. So many twisting crevices, so many dear hiding places, so many green river beds: if only I could remain here all my life. It is good to walk down the path around the shore, until one sees the wall of the city and its round towers. Tiberius is ancient. It doesn’t look like a city to me, but rather a drawing in a school book about the distant past. Look, these stones saw the pale face of the preacher of Nazareth. Heard the oral law of the rabbinical sages…

The Kinneret is not simply a landscape, not just a part of nature; the fate of a people is contained in its name. Our past peeks out of it to watch us with thousands of eyes; with thousands of mouths it communicates with our hearts.”

Surely, there are thousands of beautiful shorelines across the globe. But Rahel picks up on a uniqueness to Israel’s shores. It has everything to do with our historical footprint there.

Despite dispersions, Jews, in some number, have continuously lived in the land. Walking in the footsteps of Abraham, our ancestors have all thirsted for freedom, connectedness and dignity. Every generation, at one point or another, has sought these in Israel.  On a whole, the land of Israel has quenched this thirst. Israel has always been the place where Jews could be Jews. It is where the plants and animals match those described in our most ancient texts.  Israel brings our tradition to life – like a storybook coming true.

It has not always been pristine. The land has produced our people’s greatest joys as well as our greatest sorrows.  But put together over the years, the land has shaped our people’s story. When it comes to Jewish history and tradition through he years, we can look at it this way: we wrote it down in Torah; we sang it in our prayers; we lived it in Eretz Yisrael.

As Rahel masterfully said, “The Kinneret is not simply a landscape, not just a part of nature; the fate of a people is contained in its name. Our past peeks out of it to watch us with thousands of eyes; with thousands of mouths it communicates with our hearts.”

Perhaps that is the intangible feeling we get when we travel there.  It’s the buzz of that ancient communication.

I felt it the year I lived there.  I settled in the new part of Jerusalem at 7 Molcho Street.  My life was much easier than Rahel’s. The supermarket Supersol was open down the block. No malaria threatened my life.  My biggest problem was a flooded living room after a hot water heater exploded. It was city life and I had to travel out to find the vegetation, which, in the small world we live in now, has groomed paths and hiking trails.

In totally different worlds…yet I still feel Rahel’s experience was mine. I too saw my ancestors in each rusty crevice. I heard their whispers through the silence that descended on Shabbat.  Trees, mountains and lakes, while found everywhere, seemed lined with ancient living.
And they drove me to write.  These flowers appeared one day on the walk to my house and caused this inspiration:

The year I lived in Jerusalem the winter was particularly cold
The mist descended gently from the 7 hills
And kissed the ground with weighty lips
Remaining low in the valley four months

Pesach cleaning swept the dampness from the corners of the kitchen
Brushed it out the front door where it dissolved in the sun
The water bubbles bursting with excitement
As they rose into the blue skies.

I hadn’t known it when I moved in,
But there was a thick rose patch that lined the walk to my front door
I didn’t notice stems or buds, just, one day, roses!

Their petals unrolled overnight
Exposing, unabashedly,
Open-palmed spirals of color
Tie-dyed whirls of springtime hallelujah.

Fanned out, sunsplashing,
the quiet gasp of resuscitation.
A triumphant return from the depths.
A surprising restoration of color to the soul.

I don’t know that anything was too different about these roses – although if you can tell me how they got this swirly pattern, that would be amazing.  All I know is that they spoke to me.  Would pretty roses speak to me anywhere? Yes. But for some reason, moments seem to amplify in the Land of Israel. The land speaks. It doesn’t have a monopoly on communication, but it sure does have a continuous history of it.

And the important part: as Jews, we’ve learned to speak back.  The land is not perfect – physically, politically – but just like Rahel and the early pioneers worked it with love, so too the Jews before them and the Jews after them plowed it.  They have plowed it for resources and for meaning. May we, here, continue to plow it in our own day – whether through planting trees or planting hospitals or simply growing relationships to our Jewish family over there. And whatever we do, may we continue to plow it for peace.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Yom HaShoah

This drash was offered after reading from WCT's "Shoah Scroll." It came from the town of Rakovnik, now in the Czech Republic. Written in 1890, it was used continuously until the Shoah. The scroll is on loan to WCT. We will use it and read from it until the Jewish community of Rakovnik is reborn and requests that we return the scroll. Until then, we honor their lives by learning from their Torah.

This week we read from the tenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus - parshat Shemini. Until now, life in the Israelite camp has been about preparing for the priests’ ordination. Sacrifices have been offered, vestments procured, and the whole community has gathered. Aaron, Moses’ brother, has assumed the role of high priest.

Shortly after ordination, though, Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – take their fire pans to the sacrificial altar and offer a strange fire before God. The text offers no details of their sacrifice, except that God had not demanded it of them. As Nadav and Avihu bring their fire pans to the altar, almost instantly a fire shoots forth, consumes them and leaves t
hem dead. A shocking sight, a moment of extreme terror, a horrifying, instant loss of life before the eyes of the entire congregation. Moses tries to offer brief words of comfort, but they feel incomplete, almost incongruous. And amidst it all, Aaron, their father, falls silent.
For centuries we have tried to understand this enigmatic story. We’ve tried to make sense of the fire that Nadav and Avihu offered and the fire that consumed them. Did God intend such a gruesome end to their lives?

And we’ve tried to make sense of Aaron’s silence. What father says nothing? But on the other hand, what is there for a father to say? Moses tries to find reason, but we receive little comfort by his words.

Yom HaShoah does not always correspond with this Torah portion – yet it gives us pause when it does. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the fire that consumed million of lives. When we try to twist our hearts around why, we find our words clumsy and incomplete. And often we find ourselves like Aaron, silent in our grief, wordlessly besieged by conflicting emotions.

And at the same time, we condemn silence in the face of this tragedy. Silence abetted Hitler’s sinister plan. Silence leaves the
murdered forgotten. Silence is the crime that allows genocide to continue in our own day. We come here tonight to break that silence – in the name of memory and in the name of hope.

I believe the Torah’s story is purposefully enigmatic. It requires us to search deeply. It wants us to challenge this awful course of events and learn from them. It wants it to never happen again.

This is why we continue to tell the Torah’s story and this is why we continue to tell the story of the Holocaust. We tell them year after year as a call to action. Telling stories is the best tool we have in developing the awareness and empathy necessary to make a change in our own day. We bear witness. Perhaps one day we can bear change.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jewish Experiential Education - guest speaker Mark Young

Shabbat Shalom! To introduce you to Jewish experiential education I am going to start with a Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” If I were to lecture to you about Jewish experiential education you might forget about it by the oneg. If I were to show you a promotional video, you may recall it someday. But if I involve you directly, you may learn. So here it goes…

Close your eyes, think of a favorite Jewish memory or moment from your life. It could be at home at a Passover Seder, here at Woodlands unrolling the Torah at Simchat Torah, or around the campfire singing a Debbie Friedman tune. Identify one favorite Jewish moment of yours.

Now, take 30 seconds, transport yourself back to th
at moment and re-experience it, try to harness the emotions that moment conjures up.

Think about how you felt. What about that moment brings up those emotions? And now the hard part: what did you learn Jewishly in that moment?

Now turn to the person next to you. Share your memory, your emotions, and the Jewish lesson you took from it. Take one minute each.

I wish we had time to hear your memories and what you all learned from them. We would all learn something new by reflecting as a group.

Now you might think your moment was just that, a personal memory. But, it turns out your memory was a moment of serious Jewish learning; although you may not have contextualized it that way initially. By asking you to re-experience it and reflect on it we give it a whole new meaning. Experiences last forever. When we reflect on them, it becomes experiential learning.

We just engaged in Jewish experiential learning. We each had a meaningful experience in a Jewish context AND we just now reflected on that experience to understand the Jewish learning that took place.

Think of it this way: our whole lives are like a text. When we examine the text, challenge it, reflect on it, it turns out we are learning from it. But here is the important piece: because we are connecting emotionally, we become even more engaged in the material. This is the TRUE power of experiential learning.

Jews have been learning this way for centuries. The Passover Seder, fresh in our minds, is a great example. We acted out a historical narrative, engaged in an experience, asked reflective questions (maybe four of them) and therefore learned about our Jewish heritage. Another great example is at Jewish camp. Think about sitting around the campfire. On the surface this seems like just a simple song-session. But, with the right reflection, we may find a deeper lesson about Jewish community. We may discover that we each have a voice to contribute and an obligation as a member of the circle to participate. This simple campfire can lead a profound lesson and lifelong Jewish engagement.

Now there is a difference between experiential learning and experiential education. With experiential learning, the only person involved is you. If, however, your experience is planned and guided by a facilitator, this is experiential education. Experiential education acknowledges the relationship between educator and learner that makes experiential learning meaningful.

For example, I go to Israel, visit the Western Wall and reflect on my experience, that is Jewish experiential learning. I go to Israel on a trip with my Rabbi and she guides me through an experience. She then helps me to reflect through questions and planned exercises. This is Jewish experiential education.

For those familiar with literature on education, you might know of John Dewey, who modernized the educational philosophy originally popularized by Aristotle. Aristotle said, “the things we learn how to do, we learn by doing them.” Dewey stated, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn, and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

In Jewish life, we do things that stimulate us emotionally. The artistry of making challah, the joy of the Shabbat dinner table, and the sadness of seeing the Havdalah candle extinguished in the wine. Jewish experiential education aims to provide an intellectual side to this. If we are engaged emotionally, we are more apt to learn intellectually.

Ultimately, this will make us more committed, literate Jews. When we are positively engaged, we begin to love what we are doing. We also grow to love the people we are doing it with.

This is what Jewish experiential education can have the power to do. It can give us a “strong sense of Jewish literacy,” AND permission to love Judaism; strengthening our positive identification with our heritage, religion, and community.

Where can Jewish experiential education happen? Anywhere. Popular discussion over the past ten years often equates experiential education with Jewish camp, youth groups or Israel trips. Basically, educational settings outside the classroom. These settings have fewer walls, are immersive, and make "fun" a priority. As a result, they often facilitate experiential learning with great success. But, as we saw before, all it takes is a guided experience and meaningful reflection. This can even occur in a classroom.

One might say, that every moment is an experience! But, sitting in a classroom or even at a camp, being told information or taught skills through rote repetition, is not experiential learning. Some would call this “classical” or “frontal” education. And this approach is certainly critical in the fabric of Jewish education. But experiential learning, there must be, as I said, guided facilitation, engagement, and meaningful reflection. This is critical to the fabric as well.

So again, we have been engaging in Jewish experiential education throughout our history. The field, however, one that includes academic literature, research, and professional training is new. In 2003 Dr. Barry Chazan wrote a seminal article where he began to codify what he then called informal Jewish education. This was followed with pieces by Dr. Joe Reimer and Dr. David Bryfman, who is now at the Jewish Education Project of New York and Westchester. They are among an emerging cohort of academics and practitioners who are researching and examining how and why Jewish experiential education works. This includes the successes of Jewish camp, youth groups, Hillel, and Israel trips, and how their modes and educational approaches can be applied across the Jewish landscape.

Jewish experiential education can happen any time. But in order to harness these opportunities we need an engaging, trained facilitator, like a Rabbi Mara, Rabbi Billy, Cantor Jonathan, Harriet, Ross, or another.

As a result, the field has begun to create training programs that professionalize the career path of a Jewish experiential educator. Why? Because we want to honor this as a valid educational method and therefore a professional career path. Yes, you can work at Camp Eisner or Crane Lake or for NFTY as an adult career and there is a program that will train you to do just that. There are many talented individuals who want to educate, inspire and innovate in the Jewish world and may not necessarily have the calling to be clergy or a classical educator. That includes me.

This is where my work comes in. In 2010, the Jim Joseph Foundation granted 45 million dollars to HUC, JTS and Yeshiva University to train more and better-trained Jewish educators. Each institution launched several initiatives, many of which include programs that involve cutting-edge training for Jewish experiential educators. Your awesome youth director Ross will soon be a graduate of one of these programs.

At JTS's Davidson School, I coordinate several experiential learning programs, including our new Master’s in Jewish Experiential Education. We enrolled our first full cohort of 11 Masters students this past fall, and are welcoming another full cohort of 12 next fall into the 2 year Masters program. Our program includes targeted course work in pedagogy, Jewish content and leadership skills for the Jewish experiential educator. They also take part in enhanced field-work and internship opportunities to, as Dewey advised, learn by doing. Senior Jewish educators mentor our students through their learning and oversee their field-work. Finally, they learn as a cohort. As we did just a few minutes ago, students share their ideas and challenges and therefore learn from each other.

We at The Davidson School hope to further enhance the field of Jewish education by empowering our students to be transformational leaders and innovative, thoughtful practitioners. In doing so, we aim to professionalize the field. This is what makes my work, relevant, important, and really fun.

“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”

If you tell me about Judaism, how amazing a Shabbat Dinner or camp experience can be, I may forget about it. If you show me Judaism, observing a service, hearing a Jewish song, I might recall it someday. If you involve me in Judaism, bring me into the hora, let me eat the matzah, sing at the top of my lungs “Mi Chamocha,” I might just learn, and learn to love it. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Leviticus 7:11-15 - guest speaker Harriet Levine

This week’s parashah, Tzav, concentrates on the offerings required of the Israelites for the daily upkeep of the temple. The first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus can be looked at as an operations manual, as it gives the specific instructions to the priests of how they should conduct sacrifices in ancient times.
The kohanim, the high priests, are told how to prepare and present offerings for the entire community and how to facilitate those offerings for purification, which only they can do. Tzav recounts in great detail our ancient system of daily sacrifices that were offered by the priests as proxies for the people and sets forth the procedures for the different types of sacrifice.
Since the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the sacrifices, these offerings, were replaced by prayer, and the question is asked…do the descriptions and commandments concerning the sacrifices still have meaning to us? As they are now obsolete, is there anything to be learned from them? Tzav, with all of the details of sacrifice in the ancient sanctuary and temple presents us with challenges – how to find relevant meaning in those obsolete rituals.
The specific verses I chanted speak of the zevach sh’lamim, the sacrifice of well-being. Today we refer to it as the todah, a voluntary thanksgiving offering. And we learn that cakes of both leavened and unleavened bread, soaked with fine oil, were offered for that thanksgiving.
The rabbis taught that when the messiah or messianic time arrived, the atonement sacrifices - the burnt, sin, and meal offerings – would cease, but the thanksgiving offering would endure. In the 2nd century, Rabbi Meir taught that the Zevach Sh’laminm the peace offering, was mentioned last to emphasize the importance of peace, of Shalom. He and other rabbis of the time believed that peace is the culmination of all blessings and the most important for humans. For those rabbis, that the Torah mentions this one after all the others was proof of their claim. Today, more than ever, the prayer for peace is uppermost in our thoughts --- peace for us, for our families, for our country, and for the world.
But the Todah, the verses I chanted, is more than a peace offering. It IS a prayer of thanksgiving. In Psalm 107, we are taught that there are four types of individuals who must give thanks in public –those saved from the wilderness, those freed from prison, those who have recovered from illness, and those rescued from the perils of the sea. They were to give thanks for God’s loving kindness, to acknowledge the miracles God performed, and to make offerings of thanksgiving, recounting with rejoicing, what God had done for them.
Again we might ask - In our modern world, what meaning do those rules have for us? After all, we no longer have a temple in Jerusalem where we are obliged to make sacrifices. We do not have Kohanim to perform rituals on our behalf. Instead, it is incumbent upon each of us to form our own connection with God through prayer, righteous acts, and study.
Why shouldn’t we all give thanks – either in public or in private – for the same things – for God’s loving kindness and for the miracles God performs.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. Is it a coincidence that we read parashah Tzav each year on the Shabbat preceding the celebration of Pesach? Rabbi Gerald Kane says it is more than a coincidence - and suggests that the Torah and the Jewish calendar send us a very strong message – that as we rid ourselves of the chametz of old habits we are given a chance to begin anew, to pay closer attention to the details of our lives.
In ancient times the sacrifices were at the core of Israel’s relationship with God. But, relationships change, and in today’s world, the way in which we approach sacrificing is very different than the ancients. I like to think that even those of us who may not agree that those rules and rituals in Tzav have meaning for us, can find meaning in the rules and rituals of Pesach.
Perhaps this is the connection between the ritual Thanksgiving offering in Tzav and the Pesach seder we will be celebrating next week. After all, if we do it right, we are expressing Thanksgiving through sacrifice – giving up chametz to remember the great miracle of being taken out of slavery. In tzav, we are reminded that the sacrifice of the peace offering is for a thanksgiving and, the person offering the todah is to give cakes of bread made without yeast, matzot. As the Torah commands us to offer sacrifices, the Haggadah that we will use next Friday evening, no matter which version, also gives us commands – to tell the story of the exodus and to observe the Pesach as though we were there.
In 1974, when Rabbi Herbert Bronstein edited the then new Union Haggadah, he wrote that the originial Haggadah, written in the 1st century CE, came at a time when Judaism was wrenched from its roots and splintered within its ranks. He reminded us that Judaism had been a sacrificial system, whose religious festivities revolved around a series of cultic acts performed by the priestly class within the Jerusalem temple. With the destruction of the temple and the splintering of the Jewish community into disparate sects – the past severed and rival factions competing for the right to determine the present, the need for a definitive interpretation of Judaism was felt. This was offered by the Haggadah ---
-- Jews were able to convene annually to recall their past, explain their present, and envision their future. Rabbi Bronstein further explained that in his Haggadah, he tried to bring about mitzvah l’Shem Shamayim, a free-will offering to the Highest. I choose to believe that this is no different than the Zevach sh’lamin, the free-will offering of Thanksgiving of so long ago. And that the sacrifices we choose to make today, regardless of what they are and why we choose to make them, are of our own free will.
May we all, always have the ability to thank God in whatever way we choose, for Shabbat, for Pesach and all of our festivals, for our health, for our family and friends --- for all that we are and all that we will be.