Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In the Neighborhood - Yom Kippur Morning 5779/2018

I was really excited to watch the latest documentary on Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. It’s amazing how just the mention of Fred Rogers elicits warmth and wonder. I think it’s linked to the core value of the program: tolerance. Tolerating people and tolerating feelings. Seems simple enough to us today, but it was actually pretty radical back then.

In fact, if you go back and look at the first episodes of the series, it might amaze you at how modern and perhaps controversial, they are. They center around King Friday the 13th’s disgust at changes being made in the fictional, puppet-ruled “Land of Make Believe.” Change makes him very uneasy. As a corrective measure, he sets up a border guard, institutes oppressive new laws and declares war on change. Only after a peaceful protest of floating balloon messages transcend the wall – each one declaring love, tenderness and acceptance – does King Friday end the war. He discovers that change is scary but it’s ok if you have partners in navigating it. He realizes that neighborhoods may change but you and your neighbors are in it together.

The language of partnership and collaboration was embedded deeply in the show’s message. The title of the program, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and it’s famous tagline – won’t you be my neighbor? - highlighted this. Fred Rogers explained that: “Well, I suppose it’s an invitation: “Won’t you be my neighbor.” It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you.”

We understand “neighbors” and “neighborhood” to be kind terms. A neighbor loans you their cooler, feeds your fish when you go on vacation. A neighborhood consists of the streets you know, the place where your children can wander; people living closely with the common goal of one another’s welfare. A neighborhood, ideally, is an extension of home.

Yet the concept of a neighborhood gets complicated when used colloquially. When applied to countries, for example, we talk about parts of the world being neighborhoods – but they manifest quite differently from what I just described, don’t they? Countries have borders and prejudices. They exist precisely because they are unlike their neighbors. They don’t trust one another and respond harshly to perceived physical and cultural encroachments, much like King Friday the 13th.

This is felt most potently in the neighborhood of the Middle East. Yossi Klein HaLevi, an American Israeli author, just released a tremendous book called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.Looking out his porch to the hill across from his, he addresses an imagined Palestinian person who lives there:

“Dear Neighbor…I call you neighbor because I don’t know your name or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, “neighbor” may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors? But I don’t know how else to address you.”[1]

If Mr. Rogers expressed that he was home by putting on a cozy sweater and changing into house shoes, when it comes to talking about Israel and her neighbors, it feels more like we’re putting on a bulletproof vest.

Yes…I’m going to be talking about Israel this morning. And I know the minute I said Israel, you could have had one of 100 different feelings. Or maybe you had all 100 of those feelings at once. Multiply that by the 1000 people in this tent, and we have an untenable heap of emotions on this subject.

So before I begin, I’d like us all to take a tip from Mr. Rogers. Let’s slowly open the door. I invite you to take off your cap, coats and shoes, slip into a sweater and some cozy slippers. Come join me in the living room. Let’s have a conversation – as neighbors. I’m going to share some of my feelings and I’m not going to judge you for yours. What you will get from me this morning is an exploration of my own feelings as someone who is deeply connected to the people and Land of Israel. You’ll hear what I’m struggling with as a Zionist. My hope is that my own wrestling will help you unpacks yours. Or it won’t. And that, in and of itself, will help you to understand where you stand.

Trust me, I did not want to preach on the most controversial topic one could choose. But I’ve spoken to too many of you about your own feelings. We have to have this conversation, as a Woodlands community and as Jews. And Mr. Rogers teaches us: it’s ok to have feelings and it’s ok to talk about them.

For American Jews, Israel can feel like Mr. Rogers’ “Land of Make Believe.” Simply put, Israel is a miracle. It has flourished into something not even Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism could imagine – a modern-day Jewish fairy tale. But it also feels far away, topsy-turvy and less than real.

Dov Waxman, a Mid-east scholar, offers this framework: “Israel is an ‘imaginary homeland’for American Jews – ‘imaginary’ not just because it is not their actual home, but also because it exists primarily in their imagination…For most American Jews, Israel has been more of amythic land than an actual place. It functions, therefore, as a kind of screen on which American Jews may project their hopes, fantasies,and fears.”[2]

We’ve heaped so many dreams onto Israel that it’s no wonder that we fall into extreme camps when talking about it.

But how can we not feel strongly about what happens in Israel?! It’s not just a modern country but the place where the whole of Jewish experience is being re-written!

When I lived there, I relished the fact that on Hanukkah all the balconies were adorned with menorahs. I loved that on Purim I found myself in the middle of a drag show at Jerusalem’s hottest gay bar. My conversation with my taxi driver seamlessly wove into my Bible class because the language of Hebrew linked them together.

Israel is the place where the line between spiritual fulfillment and the banality of everyday life vanishes.

I think Yossi Klein Halevi illustrates it best: “One morning I was driving my teenage son, Shachar, to school. Not far from the Old City, we got caught in a traffic jam. I said, “You know, in one sense here we are, sitting in a traffic jam, just like in any city anywhere. But sometimes it occurs to me that the most boring details of our daily life were the greatest dreams of our ancestors.”[3]

Scholar Jack Wertheimer explains further: “Ever since Israel’s founding, American Jews have contended with the freighted symbolism and complex realities of the Jewish state. How could it be otherwise? After living for nearly two millennia as a minority, scattered across much of the globe and dependent upon the tolerance of host countries, Jews around the world have been confronted since 1948 with a radically novel situation: A Jewish state in the land of their ancestors, with a Jewish majority exercising sovereignty and considerable military might, not only conducting its life according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and in the revived Hebrew language, but also defining itself as the homeland of every Jew and as the defender of Jews around the world.”[4]

The Jewish State is a dream-come-true: a technological wunderkind, a cultural center, a place where Jewish history awakens in each Jerusalem cobblestone and where Jews do not have to fight for the right to be Jewish. In Israel, we can be “un-remarkably” Jewish.

But at the same time, modern Israel is far from the manifestation of our Jewish hopes and dreams. Just look to an untenable situation in the West Bank and Gaza…a right-wing religious take-over of Jewish affairs…an unnecessary Nation-State Bill that alienated Israel’s minorities over the summer.

There’s unresolved conflict at every border – far from the neighborhood ideal. Take for example The Iron Dome – the air defense system that guards the country. It has provided immeasurable safety to the people living there, but what does it mean that such a technology needs to exist? Since 2011, it has intercepted over 1000 enemy rockets.

Yes, the Israeli people deserve safety, but think of the cycle of violence that has led to such a situation.

David Grossman, an Israeli author, recently delivered these words on Israel’s memorial day: “Home is a place whose walls – borders – are clear and accepted; who existence is stable, solid, and relaxed; who inhabitants know its intimate codes; whose relations with its neighbors have been settled. It projects a sense of future…and we Israelis, even after 70 years…are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home.”[5]

If the sense of home is complicated for Israelis, it’s even more of a quagmire for American Jews. We were taught, or we believe, that Israel is a magical place where Jewish suffering ends, where morality reigns, and holiness effortlessly infuses the benign. A lot of the time that is true.

And a lot of the time, it’s not.

I know that many of you have trouble talking to your children and grandchildren about Israel. Young people today are reminding us that we raised them to be socially conscious individuals with a strong moral compass. According to them, it is precisely that moral compass that makes it difficult for them to support Israel. And we just don’t know what to say.

What are we to say when we are out with our friends and they say to us, “how can you support Israel when you see what it’s doing to the Palestinians and other minorities?” I know many of you have been asked this question.

My initial answer, albeit fraught, tends to be simple: I can disagree with the current government’s policies and I can maintain faith in Israel’s promise. I believe in the dream and maintain my hope.

I understand that Israel is inextricably linked to the Jewish past, present and future yet now wrestles with wielding something Jews have never had before: power. It’s not an excuse for Israel’s actions, but rather a demanding new reality.

Many organizations make claim on American Jewry’s voice on Israel: AIPAC, JSTREET, the New Israel Fund. Add to the mix the even more controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. Each believes it is promoting a moral voice in our uniquely Jewish space.

I’m not going to tell you who to support. Yet I will offer two things to consider when evaluating an organization’s stance on Israel.

First, do they listen to multiple narratives; can they hear many voices in a rancorous room? You may side with one voice more than the other, but when you completely silence one narrative, you lose sight of the full picture.

Secondly, is there love in their message? Not infatuation, not fanaticism, but love - the real kind. The kind where you commit to helping your partner grow. The kind where you know you are bound together by history and understanding; because you are bound by a familial pledge to raise one another up in holiness.

It is because of this love that I am deeply hurt when I watch particular organizations and news-media slowly erase the centuries-old Jewish struggle for autonomy. I see the blind-spots in their reporting, the inability to admit any good that Israel pursues or the centuries of anti-Semitism that we Jews have faced and continue to experience.

And with that same fire in my belly, I cannot support moral laxity in the one place where we should be living our moral utopia. When the Chief Rabbinate of Israel won’t let my Reform colleagues officiate weddings and Palestinian homes are being demolished, I will speak up. I will speak up because I believe that many of these internal issues impact the safety of the country – either in the way it’s viewed on the world-stage or how it functions for Israel’s citizens and her neighbors.

As American Jews, we exist in a meaningful in-between space. Worldwide Jewry consists of about 14.5 million people. Of that, about half of Jews live in Israel and half live in the US. We may be far away, but we are half a whole.

I can’t cast a vote for Israel’s leaders, but I can cast a vote for the moral conscience of a Jewish state.

I can also speak up to the American government, reminding our nation’s leaders: don’t forget about my people and our cause.

Now, you may argue it is not my place to weigh in on internal issues of the Israeli state. But consider the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. In a very Jewish response to a global crisis, overtime, Israel has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Africa. In November 2017, Netanyahu’s government announced it would force these approximately 38,000 refugees to leave Israel or face indefinite jail time. Jews around the world organized and insisted that Israel as a Jewish state fulfill its responsibility toward those fleeing torture, slavery, and war. Bowing to this pressure, on April 24, 2018, Netanyahu backed down.[6 Our voice mattered.

So then what is Zionism for a Jew like me – one who appreciates, respects, and is at times disappointed by the modern state? Simply put: my Zionism is a love for the Jewish homeland and a belief in its moral imperative.

Back in April, a few of us from Woodlands joined the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City. We marched with ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The groups around us were Orthodox day schools, Zionist youth groups, and, on a whole, more traditional congregations. The ARZA delegation wore a shirt that drew a lot of attention for how small a contingent we were: “This is What a Zionist Looks Like.”

I thought it was clever. I was also tentative. The word “Zionist” has become so corrupted, to emblazon it on my body felt bolder than I wanted to be. Who knew what version of the word someone would assume? Just being at the parade was a statement I wasn’t sure I wanted to be making. My relationship to Israel is so multi-vocal that I hesitated to be linked with an event that seemed to be so monolithically messaged.

But that was exactly the point of being there, wasn’t it? So I put on the shirt. I wanted to say, Zionism includes me – all my loving, all my wrestling, all my nuance. I want to be a people free in our land. Not to the exclusion of other people, but also not to the omission of my people and our story. Israel is a dream, a dream only partially fulfilled.

I hate to break it to you: there’s no magical ending here. Maybe you’ve felt heard or maybe you are completely incensed. Those 100 emotions you may have felt are still there.

But here’s the thing about feelings. They can be expressed, understood, and ultimately transformative. Wrestling with them leads to our growth – individually and as a people.

Is it uncomfortable to talk about Israel? Sure. But it’s worth our effort. And if we think of it in terms of neighborliness, perhaps we’ll actually get somewhere.

After the September 11th attacks, Fred Rogers offered this public service announcement which feels apt when considering what we see and hear about Israel today:

“If you grew up with our Neighborhood, you may remember how we sometimes talked about difficult things. There were days ... even beautiful days ... that weren't happy. In fact, there were some that were really sad.Well, we've had a lot of days like that in our world. We've seen what some people do when they don't know anything else to do with their anger…[there is a way] to express…feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods."

I’d like to see healing in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of the Mideast.

It’s not going to be as easy as peace balloons being sent over a wall. It will take much listening, much sharing, more invitations to be close to one another.

So then one more Fred Rogers piece of wisdom that sounds a lot like Herzl: “What makes the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, and it may take months or years for a wish to come true, but it’s far more likely to happen when you care so much about a wish that you’ll do all you can to make it happen.”

In other words: if you will it, it is no dream.

I’ll close with a prayer that I’ve plucked from the Jewish wedding ceremony, one that feels appropriate today: “Blessed are you, Eternal God, who created joy and gladness, peace and companionship. Eternal God, may there soon be heard in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness. Partnered together, may we go out from this blessed canopy with hope. May we one day hear in the Land of Israel the voices ofyoung people singing together. Blessed are you, Eternal God, who brings joy to the hearts of those who learn to love their neighbor.” Amen.


Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s great poets. In the poem I am about to read you, he finds himself wandering the streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. He stops in front of an Arab man’s shop which beckons to him like the open ark. It awakens a fraught Jewish past and a radically different present:


On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s hole-in-the-wall shop,
not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with
buttons and zippers and spools of thread
in every color and snaps and buckles.
A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.

I told him in my heart that my father too
had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for the Neilah prayer.
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
and I returned, with all the worshippers, home.

As we stand before the open ark today, we too will consider our past, present and future. Israel’s past and present are difficult. Perhaps with more moments of standing before our neighbors, and then speaking with them, the future can be brighter.

[1]Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, 1.

[2]"Trouble in the Tribe" (2014)

[3]Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, 28.

[4]“American Jews and Israel: A 60-Year Retrospective” (2008)


[6]Information and language taken from T’ruah’s website:

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