Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Boulder of Racism, the Rock of Justice - Yom Kippur Morning 5778

The southeast wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts an impressive Greek and Roman Art collection. As you stroll down the main hall, marble statues greet you with bashful smiles and virile poses. Centuries ago, their hard stone was sanded to a perfect, soft white, its bright glow dazzling all these years later.

But when was the last time you noticed that the same marble, the same white stone, was also beneath your feet? Imagine if the floor’s hard-worked marble tiles could speak to the marble statues?[1] Would they be jealous? Angry? Depressed? The marble was carved from the same brilliant stone, hewn high in the peaks of the Italian alps, but depending on when it was cut, and by whom, it either became a showcased statue or a timeworn pathway.

The same marble, different lives.

In August, the NYTimes Magazine had a stunning expose on Italian Marble[2]. The author gave the stone an almost human portrayal: “the story of Italian marble is the story of difficult motion: violent, geological, haunted by failure and ruin and lost fortunes, marred by severed fingers, crushed dreams, crushed men. Rarely has a material so inclined to stay put been wrenched so insistently out of place and carried so far from its source; every centimeter of its movement has had to be earned.”

Reading this, I instantly I thought of our Yom Kippur gathering. This whole day is made holy by the attempt to yank us out of place and pry us from our depravity; and we resist it every second along the way. It’s like every prayer is another tug on the stone around our hearts. The words are meant to cut into our core and wrench us even just a centimeter closer to the right path.

The Day of Atonement pushes this agenda by eliciting various emotions; the most powerful of which are regret and guilt. But expressing regret and guilt are not enough. Our liturgy tells us: the day of atonement does not atone until humans have made peace with one another. Regret is not an apology. Guilt is about me and my feelings. A true apology is about you and your feelings.

Social activist Diane Flinn (in a conversation with the Southern Poverty Law Center)[3] puts it this way: Guilt allows…people to maintain the status quo. Guilt creates paralysis. Guilt transfers the responsibility…By saying, "I feel so guilty, so bad," it puts the other person in a position of comforting. The other person is then silenced, must reposition or restate their truth. Or worse -- maintain their truth and risk being viewed as mean, insensitive and angry.”         

According to Flinn, guilt is where we get stuck. By admitting guilt, we believe we absolve ourselves. We feel better because we wipe our hands clean and leave the offended party to deal with our emotions – instead of us truly dealing with theirs.

Yom Kippur looks to correct this failure in apology. We recite ashamnu – a prayer in which we feel the weight of our sins, pounding our chests to break the stone-like hardness around our hearts and truly feel the hurt we have caused. Then there is al chet, a litany of transgressions, straightforwardly expressed as facts. Al chet ends with a request of God: For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us! We offer an apology and we request that God show us a new way forward.

This morning, as a community, and as individuals, we have an apology to make. For years we have felt the guilt of our segregated society, where people of color are excluded from employment and learning opportunities; they are victims of police brutality and disproportionally imprisoned in our bloated prison system.

We say we regret these facts, but we have not yet made an apology.

For those of us who are white, we feel the shame, we may be disappointed with the current state of affairs. But we don’t know how to make an apology. We might even balk at the notion that we have to, thinking that “I, a liberal Jewish woman, I am not a perpetrator of racism!” But I am white and as such, I have internalized the privilege and prejudices that come with that. I may not have owned a slave, I may not have legislated the bigotry of Jim Crow, but I have been complicit – and benefitted from - housing discrimination, gerrymandering, disproportionally harsh legal punishments, and racial profiling.

The system is rigged, and we live and work in that system.
We didn’t create it, but we can’t ignore it.

Torah teaches us that the guilt of the parents is passed on to the 3rd and even 4th generation. One generation teaches the next its bad habits, its overt prejudices, its unjust employment and legislative practices, and its racial anxieties.

Yet this sin of ours is not etched in stone eternally. We can pry the aveira of racism from the rock of our souls. The Prophet Ezekiel (18:19-23) assures us that if the next generation does “what is just and right…The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

And then he reveals God’s own self-reflection: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign God…[no,] rather, I am pleased when they turn from their ways and live.

It is time for everyone, from you and me to the President of the United States, to stop pretending that racism is not deeply embedded into our everyday lives. We can’t just regret the history of racism in our country, we must make an active apology for it. This is when we turn to our neighbor and say, “let’s live differently.” This is when we tackle the big problems like police brutality and racial profiling. We dismantle the awful, uniquely American practice of mass incarceration.

We also tackle the problem in our own homes. We analyze the overt AND subtle ways we teach bias to our children. Ezekiel implores us – if we break the cycle of unjust action, the guilt can be alleviated. Until we truly live differently, the guilt of our country’s past is still passed down through us.

Again, of all things, Italian marble serves as an incredible symbol: “What we admire as pristine white stone was born hundreds of millions of years ago in overwhelming darkness. Countless generations of tiny creatures lived, died and drifted slowly to the bottom of a primordial sea, where their bodies were slowly compressed by gravity, layer upon layer upon layer, tighter and tighter, until eventually they all congealed and petrified into the interlocking white crystals we know as marble.”

America is beautiful, but it is built on the stolen bodies of slaves and the back-breaking work of immigrants who continue to face hate and discrimination. All Americans are made of the same beautiful marble, but some have been given places of privilege while others have been relegated to the margins.

So, how do we break this cycle? How do we show we’re sorry and start to build a better future? We’re not talking about a pediatric sorry, the kind you learned in pre-school that by simply admitting guilt – “I’m sorry I pushed you” - you were instantly relieved of it. I’m talking about an adult sorry. I’m talking about moving from perpetrator to ally.

If you are white, that means taking account of the overt and clandestine privilege you have. We need to know when to pick it up and lug it aside so someone else can step through. So let’s explore exactly what an ally is and, more importantly, how to be one.

Consider that after the presidential election, some folks started to wear a safety pin. It meant different things to different people. On a whole, it meant that “the wearer was a “safe” ally, ready to stand up for anyone who might be the target of abuse, whether verbal or physical.”[4] It was instantly controversial. Some saw it as an “outward symbol of sympathy” and a mark of resistance, while others saw it as self-indulgent and empty, a “self-administered pat on the back for being a decent human being.”

It would seem that the safety pin, which went viral, and then seemingly nowhere, is the perfect way to teach about being an ally. As writer Demetria Lucas D’Oyley put it, “Actually create a safe space instead of …designating yourself one.”[5] Simply put: ally is not a noun, it is a verb.

Invictus Animus – a queer writer who wrestles with being queer and white – writes[6], “being an ally is not about me: it’s about the community I support. It’s about shutting up, showing up, educating myself on the downtime from public sources available for me, and not taking up space with my privilege… I am not proud to be an ally. I am proud to be behaving like one. My behavior is what helps oppressed communities, not my identifier. I don’t need my own flag to help others in their struggles.”

What about I appreciate about Animus’ perspective is that they are part of the LGBTQ community, and therefore one of those people impacted by prejudice. Yet, they are also white, and they understand that in regards to race issues, their gender identity does not exclude them from figuring out how to behave as an ally to people of color.

And this is where the Jewish community’s involvement in racial justice comes in. Jews have, for decades, identified strongly with the Civil Rights Movement. We simply look to the Passover story – our own account of liberation. We look to the racially-fueled anti-semitism that has impacted Jews since ancient times and we see modern racism as cut from the same cloth. It is! Not to mention – close to 20% of Jews in America are from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds.[7]

Yet we cannot ignore that, for perhaps the first time in Jewish history, we are considered part of the white majority. Most of us enjoy the societal privilege that comes with light-colored skin.

Yes, anti-semitism still rears its ignorant head. Yes, the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us” and swastikas seem to be in fashion again.

But that does not mean that we don’t have work to do in figuring out how to behave as an ally to minority communities – Black, LGBTQ+, Latinx, and more. I urge you today to adopt the old improvisational drama stand-by – “yes, and.” Yes, Jews have been victimized, and many of us are white by society’s standards. Yes, I’m a woman and worry about sexism, and I’m a white, cis-gender woman, which also comes with its own privilege to be grappled with.

Yom Kippur’s prayers remind us of this fact – we are never exempt from teshuvah – true repentance. If we are not personally guilty, then we are complicit. If we merely identify as an ally but don’t take action to act like one, then we might as well be the perpetrator.

Paul Kivel, author of Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice, offers guidelines for how we can do better. Here are a few things (in his words) we can do starting today:

Assume racism is everywhere, every day. Just as economics influence everything we do, just as gender and gender politics influence everything we do, assume that racism is affecting your daily life. We assume this because it’s true, and because a privilege of being white is the freedom to not deal with racism all the time. We have to learn to see the effect that racism has. Notice who speaks, what is said, how things are done and described. Notice who isn’t present when racist talk occurs. Notice code words for race, and the implications of the policies, patterns, and comments that are being expressed. You already notice the skin color of everyone you meet—now notice what difference it makes.
Notice who is the center of attention and who is the center of power. Racism works by directing violence and blame toward people of color and consolidating power and privilege for white people.
Notice how racism is denied, minimized, and justified.
Understand the connections between racism, economic issues, sexism, and other forms of injustice.
And, support the leadership of people of color. Do this consistently, but not uncritically.”
These guidelines can be extended to other minority communities and women, too.
I don’t purport to be an expert in this area. I’m talking to you about it because I’m still learning – and this talk is part of my education. I’ve always identified myself as an ally, but I, like all of us, can do a better job of living it.

In all my research, one thing I appreciated most was the strong message that in figuring out how to behave like an ally, there will be misunderstanding and mistakes. Part of this work is expanding our capacity for accepting mistakes when they are made.

For example, a tremendous thing is happening today. Today is the March for Racial Justice on the National Mall in Washington. When the date was announced, Jews doing the work of racial justice were hurt. Scheduling on Yom Kippur meant that many of us could not lend our support. We felt cast out and unappreciated. In an effort to be good allies, we reasoned, it’s not our march, it’s not about us. But it still hurt – we wanted to know that we were wanted. For many, an existential crisis erupted.

Then the march organizers issued a very public apology. It read: “Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships…We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result.

We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing anti-Semitism. We recognize and lift up the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism perpetrated by white supremacists, whether they wave Confederate flags, don swastikas, beat and kill people on the streets in Charlottesville, deface Holocaust memorials, or threaten and harass members of our communities and our religious and community spaces. And we recognize the need for all of us to work together in the face of an administration that condones widespread oppression of all those most vulnerable among us…we hope that on that holy day, Jews in synagogues across our country will pray for racial justice - lifting up black and brown people, Jewish and non-Jewish - in hope for safety and wholeness. Spiritual sustenance is an essential part of this work for justice. We’re committed to working together with the Jewish community throughout the year and every year until true justice for all of us is won.”

I believe this was a sincere and powerful apology. And I believe it was our responsibility to accept it without ceding support. A true ally moves out of the way.

This is more important now than ever. This Yom Kippur, we have a President who uses harsh, vitriolic language against black athletes who kneel in peaceful resistance, while he offers the benefit of the doubt to violet protestors in Charlottesville.

Sports players are sons-of-bitches, tiki-torch bearers are “fine people.”

Today, may we know the true meaning of apology. Let us begin, or continue, the work of critically assessing our privilege. Let us pry ourselves from the heavy rock, formed from centuries of bigotry, and create something new and beautiful; a society worth celebrating because it is fair, just, and holy. Amen.

Closing remarks
“From the Place Where We are Right” by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

We can muster the strength to lift up the heavy stone of racism and bigotry that weighs down our country. We cannot stand unmoved like a deep deposit of marble in the Italian alps. We must lift up the rock, let the grass breathe and let it grow. We do this through true apology and behaving as an ally. We do this through educating ourselves, looking critically at our own behaviors, and, even despite mistakes, committing ourselves to a new way forward.

[1] This thought was inspired by the story on this webpage:

Friday, August 18, 2017

After Charlottesville

Let’s get one thing straight, folks: racism in America is not new. Anti-semitism in America is not new. People marching openly in the streets with loaded guns and ropes set for hanging is not new.

What is new, is that we have a President who, in his rash and irreverent behavior, openly stokes the fires of this old-fashioned hate. The individual who is supposed to represent the principled unity and great potential of our country is spouting false moral equivalences and bemoaning a culture rift that he keeps snipping open…tweet by tweet by tweet by tweet.

But I’m not here tonight to stoop to that level. Your emotions are already high. I can empathize - I can say that I feel the racing heartbeat, the dumbfounded shaking of the head, the welling of tears. So as much as I want to, I can’t, we can’t, no one right now can dispel the supremely uncomfortable feelings that keep us from concentrating; those feelings that are keeping us compulsively scrolling and swiping and waking up from nightmares.

I’m hyper-aware of how serious and alarming this sounds. I have moments when I say, “Come on! It’s just a fringe group of psychopaths and sick opportunists. Let’s not blow this out of proportion.” But proportion is precisely the thing. Our country has spent years relegating these extremists to the margins. But now they have been given a megaphone and they’re yelling with a new confidence from the edges, making us feel like we’re surrounded. They’re heaving bricks of centuries-old slurs at an America that is still weak from its rocky foundation but was trying, seemed to be trying, is trying, to build a sounder civil structure.

In these moments of befuddlement and emotional desperation, I return to a moment that changed me forever while touring the Rosa Parks Museum Montgomery, Alabama. In the museum, there is a life-sized diorama of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting at his kitchen table. The diorama depicts him in January of 1956, in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott. He’s just received a call in which a man threatened: get out of Montgomery or you and your family will die. Dr. King is left with a decision: get out of town with his family, or stay and resist. Both are valid choices. Which one is right for him?

In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King tells us how he made his decision:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.

I hold that image of Dr. King in my mind, because it is all of us sitting at our kitchen tables, sitting in front of our TVs, our iPhones. We’re exhausted, we’re unsure what to do next. We want to lead the charge, but we just don’t know where to go from here. And let’s say it, we’re scared.

So we take our problem to God – but not as a scapegoat and not necessarily because we expect God to provide a clear, direct answer. When we turn to God, we have the words of the Shema at hand – “Hear, Israel, The Eternal our God is One.” Our job as Jews, at this juncture, is to listen. We must listen past the obnoxiously loud voices, listen more keenly for the quiet voices – the voices of the vulnerable – the voices of our partners who we have not met yet. We listen for the whispers of resistance – because only peaceful quiet can infiltrate the hard stones of that hateful noise.

In these whispers, in this quiet, we find God. If we listen, we can hear the Divine challenge 
to look past the impulsivity of hate and attach ourselves to the eternal arc of goodness.

And yes, it is so much harder to the do the latter. So how do we start?

Frankly, we have already. We tend to want to fight bluster with bluster, grand gestures with grand stands. Yes, we do those things, but more importantly, we work in our own community.

What do we do? Our Immigrant Friends initiative struck such a chord that we had to limit attendance at the Accompaniment training session next week.

We do we do? We continue to strengthen our bonds to local churches and the Muslim community of Westchester. Just this week I was on the phone with a number of our local ministers.

Many of you have been calling our representatives, donating to organizations that act as watchdogs and advocates, marching and signing petitions. Keep on, keep on!

Through the last few weeks, I keep coming back to this one passage from Pirkei Avot:

Hillel used to say: A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

Let’s break it down: “a brutish man cannot fear sin” – those who hate in their hearts will not be intimidated by consequences or mandates, in fact, these things fuel them. Know that.

“An ignorant man cannot be pious,” – devotion comes from seeking truth but not professing to know it quite yet. Compromise is a virtue.

“Nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach,” – there is a time to be quiet and there is a time to speak up.

“He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise,” – because he only cares about his own gain.

Finally, “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” – when you see the world falling apart around you, you can refuse to crumble. Or as a modern sage told us: When they go low, we go high.

So upward we go. Mee Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, may the one who blessed our ancestors with courage, bless us with a listening ear - the ability to hear the quiet voice of love that never stops humming, despite all the yelling that attempts to suppress it. We will sing, we will pray, we will cry, we will march…but we will not fight.

Why not fight? Fighting is for wartime. But isn’t this war? To understand, I give you the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai, that sees peace not as a decision or something to be won, but a natural blossoming in the world, brought into being by our strong, confident whispers and our actions:

NOT THE ONE of an armistice,

not even the one of the vision of wolf and lamb,

as in your heart after an excitement:


without the commotion of turning swords into plowshares, without
words, without
the sound of heavy seals; let it be light

on top like lazy white foam.

Let it be like wild flowers,

suddenly, an imperative of the field; wild peace.


Friday, March 3, 2017

The Metaphysical American Tabernacle

Noah’s favorite part of pre-school is seeing her friends. Her second favorite part is painting at the classroom easels. She used to paint thick multi-colored dots. Now she’s going through a period where she paints the entire sheet of paper

pink with broad brushstrokes, but leaves a small section available for an accent color. I imagine she was standing at her favorite easel, paintbrush in hand, when the announcement came that everyone had to leave, immediately. She was instructed to take her pink winter coat but leave her Hello Kitty lunchbox. She and her friends were shuffled out of the building and walked to the hotel next door where they were told “the fire chief has to go into our building” and that they were being picked up from school immediately.

As you may have deduced, Noah attends the early childhood program at the JCC on the Hudson, where there was a bomb threat on Monday. Our JCC is one of 100 bomb threats called into JCCs since early 2017. When I got the message, I wasn’t surprised. I had prepared myself for this, knowing that it was just a matter of time until our JCC made the call list.

All of these threats have been hoaxes, but all had to be treated seriously. Noah is one of hundreds of Jewish preschoolers who have had their mornings disrupted and their Hello Kitty lunchboxes left to have “a sleepover at school.”

And thank God it was only that: a morning disrupted.

I approach this rather minor incident in our lives with a great deal of perspective. Yes, these phone calls are terrorism – meant to confuse, intimidate and scare the Jewish community – but they are by no means the worst our people have experienced. And certainly, they pale in comparison to the fear undocumented workers feel anytime they leave their homes, or the violence inflicted against people of color our
country’s streets. There have been 139 vandalism attacks on US mosques in the last year, with 4 mosques set on fire since January. Trans individuals are being murdered for expressing their identity. Terror has been in America, but now more and more of us are sharing in it.

I understand my privilege and safety as a white, cisgender woman. And still, Monday’s incident here in the Rivertowns leaves me rattled. Maybe it is because it comes on the heels of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries…and a few months after the entrance sign to my seminary, HUC, was desecrated for the very first time in century with a swastika. I worry for the well-being of my family: three out of the four of us spend our entire days in decidedly JEWISH institutions (Asher gets to play blocks and nap at home all day, lucky him). I also worry because history has proven an undeniable trend: hate against a particular group begins with hateful graffiti, business boycotts and damage to property. It eventually escalates to violence to human beings themselves.

I was pleased that President Trump began his remarks on Tuesday night by (finally) calling out this loud anti-semitic trend and invoking Black History Month as a time to be reminded of the cause of Civil Rights. He stated: “we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” I’m pleased to, for the first time, quote something he said that I support.

But then, after a short breath, he began his intended remarks. He praised the “new national pride sweeping our Nation” with a “surge of optimism.” The two sentiments, just seconds apart from one another, couldn’t have been more disjointed for me, trying desperately to listen with an open heart.

He posed a question to the country that I pose to you tonight: “What will America look like as we [approach] our 250th year? What kind of country will we leave for our children?”

His vision, as he articulated it, included de-regulation, new international allies, school choice, an increased military, and a hunt for individuals who are dragging us down with drugs, freeloading and job-grabbing.

Still trying to listen with an open heart, I meditated: we differ on policies, but we can unite to condemn evil. We differ on policies, but we can unite on values.

So it is exactly those values we must consider. What, precisely, are we meant to be building in America?

Our constitution says it in its first line: we want to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Blessings of Liberty. Our Torah portion this week has much to say about the enterprise of building in order to secure “blessings of liberty.”

Almost every verse this week is a detailed explanation of the materials used to build the mishkan, the sanctuary to God that will travel with the Israelites as they wander and solidify as a people. Every person is commanded to bring their skills and materials as they are able and moved. Every piece will fit together in an elaborate unison. It will be beautiful, the most beautiful, unlike anything you’ve seen before.

But the structure we spend so much time reading about turns out to be pretty much inconsequential. Case in point: it no longer exists (if it ever did). Only the descendants of the people who built it remain. Only their traditions and values have mattered in the long haul.

It was never about the thing itself – it was always about the united heart of the people building it. God gives away the rouse in Exodus 25:8 – “let them make me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” Note, the words are not “within it.” No, it’s “among them.” That is, according to the rabbis, within the hearts of the people. “There”, says verse 22, “I will speak with you.”

The eternal flame, also ordained in this Torah portion, would serve as a reminder of the Godly life burning within each member of the community – the Jew and the stranger, the insider and the outsider – all who had chosen to be there.
So what are we going to build in America? Are we going to  uild walls or are we going to build a Mishkan – a metaphysical meeting space where we discover the divine spark within each human soul?

Attacks against buildings are only a short jump to attacks against humans. We Jews have met this foe of bigotry before. We are equipped to defeat it again.

And not just because of our historical resilience. No, it is because for once in our people’s history, we have the ear and the heart of our neighbors.

On Tuesday morning, Cantor Jonathan, Rabbi Billy and I met with diverse faith leaders from the Rivertowns and Greenburgh area. The threat against the JCC was only our touch point. We shook hands with one another and pledged to work together to leave no room in our community Mishkan for anything but the presence of God. I was so proud.

And so motivated. Now is NOT the time for us Jews to play the victim. The anti-semitism is scary, but the broader wave of hate is scarier. Minority communities have been suffering for years. We talked about it, we got on board. The Black Lives Matter movement, refugee resettlement initiatives. Now, with the hate coming to our doorstep, we cross the threshold to take an even more public stand. We are a people who know what is like to be the outsider, to suffer at the hands of those that hate because it’s all they know how to do. Let us take our own experiences, and sharing them with our neighbors’ experiences, build a mishkan of love and a sanctuary of fellowship, amen.