Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yizkor Presentation

Remembering Faith Zimmerman

My Grandma Faith was a woman who spoke in proclamations. She’s famous for them really. For example:

Every Thanksgiving she would proclaim that “this is the last Thanksgiving” she’d be making her famous stuffed cabbage. But sure enough, with enough cajoling from my sister, she’d be rolling those cabbage leaves up again the following year.

Or, if you ever brought up that time that so-and-so was sick or ended up in the hospital, from a broken bone to a difficult labor, she would always proclaim, “…and we almost lost her!” According to the grandmother, every member of our family was “almost lost” at some point in their lives.

Oh, and then the most random one was when she would proclaim she didn’t like Spanish food because in a prior life she was a witch burned at the stake in the Spanish Inquisition.

Given all this, I guess it makes sense that she sang Dayenu with fervor at Passover. Dayenu is the ultimate proclamation – it would have been enough! – a requires an enthusiastic singing voice, which my grandmother had.

When my Grandma Faith would call me, she’d say, “Mara, it’s your lady grandmother here!” Grandma Faith was your classic lady of the 1940’s, a true member of the greatest generation. She was an FDR-loving, liberally minded gal who worked her whole life, even though she really didn’t have to. She was a teacher and guidance counselor. She played bridge and drank scotch with her husband, my grandfather, who she was happily married to for 70 plus years. She was president of her local American Association of University Women. She founded a synagogue and was part of the League of Women Voters. I got my feminism from her.

Rabbi Billy was gracious enough to officiate at her funeral. I had officiated at Mark’s mother’s funeral, and my Grandma Jane’s funeral, but I found this one difficult to do. I didn’t realize why until after the intake. After the intake with my family, Rabbi Billy turned to me and said, “Wow. It’s like they were describing you.”

And I suppose that’s right. I can be ornery like her, smart like her, loud-mouthed like her, loving like her.

My grandmother referred to Noah as “her royal highness” and Asher as “the holy terror.” In true Grandma fashion, she’d insist on holding them, even though we thought she wasn’t strong enough to do so. “Ridiculous!” she’d say, “do you know how many babies I’ve held in my life?”

Grandma’s bond to Noah in particular was so unique and special. I really miss watching it in action. I’ll never forget when Mark and I took the kids to see my grandparents in Florida. 5 year old Noah hadn’t seen “Gee” in months. The minute we entered their apartment, Noah climbed up onto the couch, gave Grandma a hug, and then put her head in her lap. She remained snuggled up to Grandma until we had to pry her away to go back to the hotel. I think they had twin souls, born in different times. There was always an ease between them, a true closeness. We have so many pictures of the two of them snuggling. I am so grateful for those pictures.

My grandma was diagnosed with Leukemia and died in the span of 3 months. I was able to be with her in Florida while she was in hospice. She was alert for the first day, less so for the ones after. It may sound strange to say, but those days in hospice were some of the most special in my life…particularly those hours when I sent my mom and my aunt away for some coffee. I bought some trashy magazines, turned off the lights, and just sat next to her, holding her hand.

At times she’d get agitated and push back the covers. She’d say in a stupor, “Mara, this is ridiculous! Let me get my shoes!” and I’d have to tuck her back into bed. “Ssssh, grandma, ssssh.” The hospice nurse said this was normal. When someone is dying, but lived life so determinedly, it is hard for them to let go. “They fight it,” she told me.

At one point, Grandma apologized. She said, “I’m so sorry you have to sit here with me like this.” I proclaimed to her: “Grandma, I’ve got two kids who never leave me alone and a full time job. Sitting here with you, reading my trashy magazines, is a gift!” She smiled and shifted back to sleep.

Amazingly, I wasn’t sad in those moments. I felt calm, complete and at peace. If one must die, this should be the way it happens. A room full of natural light, affirmations of love, and stories of a life well lived.

Whereas once my grandmother held my mother, held me, held my children, now I could hold her. And when I couldn’t anymore, God could.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Walk In, Not Away - Yom Kippur Morning 5780/2019

If DNA is the blueprint of our bodies, computer code is the blueprint of our lives. Code lies at
the base of all software programs and technological devices, meaning it builds our educational materials, professional workspaces, and even our social lives as they migrate onto smartphones and apps.

A lot of computer code is privately owned by people and businesses, making it proprietary and top-secret. “You can see what it does, but you can’t see how it works unless you work at the company that makes it.”[1]Despite these exclusive ownerships, the world mostly runs on “open-source code,” meaning it is free, re-usable and collaborative. Anyone can inspect, modify and enhance it.[2]

Technology writer Paul Ford is particularly fascinated by the way people improve open-source code, fixing bugs in public forums. His own code-correcting program is a living document of human collaboration. He muses: “with a history going back more than 40 years; the codebase itself starts in the 1980s, and as I write this there are [almost 140,000] different [edits] that get you from then to now. More than 600 contributors have worked on it. I find those numbers magical: A huge, complex system that edits all kinds of files started from nothing and then, with nearly 140,000 documented human actions, arrived at its current state. It has leaders but no owner, and it will move along the path in which people take it…It will outlive me.”

Reading Ford’s perspective, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to Jewish text and tradition. It has a history going back more than 5,000 years, the codebase starting somewhere in early human civilization. There are thousands of texts that get you from then to now. Millions of contributors have worked on it. It has leaders but no owner and it will outlive us.

I’m confident that Judaism isn’t going anywhere. Our numbers may increase or decrease, but we’ve proven that even up against the most formidable, murderous foes, we find a way to survive. We edit, re-interpret or adjust the code to meet the challenge.

But this doesn’t mean we can just coast into 5780 with ease. Whereas once Judaism’s survival meant outlasting empires and despots, it must now survive a “you-do-you” culture, a social ethos radically concerned with the self. These days we’ve all become individual arbiters of right and wrong, dedicating our time and money to the promotion of the self. In doing so, we seek happiness ferociously but are left wondering why it alludes us and our children.

Being an active part of a humanity’s magical, complex system and Judaism’s evolving 

codebase has taken a backseat to this more egotistic focus. Americans in general have turned so extremely inward that most institutions of greater camaraderie are starting to crumble around us. 

According to Gallup Polling[3], Americans lack confidence in a great many things: 87% of Americans have “some or very little confidence” in Congress and the government, 71% have some or very little confidence in our public schools. Overall church affiliation is at an all-time low of 50%, attributed to the increasing proportion of Americans with no religious preference and a general “lack of confidence” in organized religion. Synagogue affiliation and formal engagement with the Jewish community is not far behind this statistic.

While there are many factors behind these figures, research shows that in present-day America, lack of empathy and a lost sense of “being in it together” seem to the biggest contributors. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the US doesn’t even crack the top 10 of the United Nation’s ranking of the world’s happiest countries in 2019.

Consider Finland as a comparison, ranked by the United Nations as the happiest country in the world. Interestingly, not only are native-born Finns happy, but immigrants to Finland are thriving just as equally. What causes this? The report finds that Finns “pay high taxes for a social safety net, they trust their government, they live in freedom and they are generous with each other.”[4]

Americans have become self-obsessed and aren’t better for it. We know this intuitively. Our lives in a cutthroat capitalist culture are fast-paced and lonely. So we seek out quick, cheap highs and engage only in that we think makes us and our children “happy.” “We’ve moved more to a microview of well-being, having positivity in the minute,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California.[5]

The irony is that in our desperate desire to seek out more joy in our lives, we’re abandoning the places that can actually help us find it. We consume media that fits nicely with our own point of view, we engage in activities, even altruistic ones, that give us momentary highs. But like a bottle rocket blasting upward, we have nothing underneath it to sustain us for the long haul. After we experience the high, we crash right back down.

Judaism has warned about the cult of the self and quick fixes of pleasure since its inception. The insistence on one, supreme God and the prohibition against idolatry, found right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, advocate for a step out of the self. It’s not so much that God is possessive or egotistical, but that we are. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Daniel Prager find that “when we excise God from our lives, we fill the void with gods of our own choosing: science, revolution, happiness, [and] the self…”

Sarah Hurwitz, head speechwriter for First Lady Michele Obama, recently published a must-read book called Here All Along. It’s about her journey to find meaning in her life and how she found it in Judaism. She picks up on Telushkin and Prager’s train of thought: They seem to be talking about an specific sort of idolatry, where we have a belief in false gods, “including the belief that you yourself are God, in control of everything.” She’s critical of how we engage with social institutions, particularly religious ones, saying that we stick around for the easy, feel-good parts and walk out the door as soon as it requires something of us: “We’re reifying, maybe even deifying, ourselves, focusing on the self-discovery, self-affirmation, and self-expression parts of religion and neglecting the self-discipline, self-sacrifice and self-transcendence parts.”

Why are we abandoning social institutions and ancient wisdom when we know that they can bring us the happiness we seek? Well, our out-of-control self-determination drives us to anything that feels good and avoid, at all costs, the things that challenge or trouble us. I’m not saying we should temper those things Hurwitz mentions: self-expression, personal autonomy over our bodies and beliefs. Instead, I resonate deeply with her concern – can we find room in our lives for confrontation, challenge and sacrifice along with self-discovery?

Consider Gen Z. That’s today’s teens. Along with Millennials, they demonstrate the lowest engagement in organized religion in history. That said, lack of engagement with religious institutions has not stopped them from being moral, caring people. You don’t need church or temple for that, really. It’s good to have a motivating factor, it’s good to find strength in numbers, but you don’t need organized religion to make the world a better place. Indeed, we’re rearing one of the most socially conscious, activist generations ever.

Yet we’re also raising the most anxious and depressed generation ever recorded. According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of teens say anxiety and depression are a “major problem” among their peers. They suffer in an existential way.

There are a number of contributing factors: social media and modern parenting trends being

the biggest. According to psychologists, “Happiness is emphasized so much in our culture that some parents think it's their job to make their kids happy all the time.”[6]Unfortunately, we misconstrue happiness for lack of disappointment and the absence of struggle. Today’s kids are emotionally dependent and unable to weather life’s storms effectively. Resilience is at an all-time low.

But this, thisis exactly where Judaism starts. Yisrael means to struggle – to tackle the complexities of life - the existential questions - and come out the other side changed and more fulfilled. It is to put time, energy and money into showing up and working it out together. Not every moment is fun, but every moment can move us from merely living to truly thriving.

Yom Kippur is the “day of dread.” The rabbis called it such because we imagine we are standing in God’s throneroom, awaiting a judgement on our lives. Today, I think we see Yom Kippur as a day of dread because we spend a whole day immersed in the emotions and fears we try to avoid all year. Today, we are faced with the brutal vulnerability of our humanity. Today, we admit to our faults, most of which we have tried to reason way or sweep under the rug. It hurts. It sucks. But it has the power, if you’ll let it, to transform you. Hurwitz urges us: “Yom Kippur is Judaism’s way of telling us: Do not wait for a nose-diving airplane or your final days in hospice to take your life seriously.”

But we don’t like to feel this way. We don’t like to feel small, or vulnerable, or obligated to anyone but ourselves and our immediate family. So we avoid it. We avoid it spiritually and we avoid it physically. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Being part of a formal Jewish community, like a synagogue, is like going to the gym. The less you go, the more you neglect it and the less you feel like you “need it” in your life. It’s a waste of money.

But if you make it part of your regular practice, it becomes second nature. You even crave it. In fact, with regular attendance and participation, we can find ourselves healthier, wiser and more fulfilled. A 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center found that participating in a religious organization was the only contemporary social activity associated with sustained happiness—even more than volunteering for a charity, taking educational courses or participating in a political or community organization.[7]

There’s an important word in this conclusion, though. One must participatein a religious community. It is not enough to just “feel connected” to that community.

On a number of occasions now, I’ve been told that our religious school has done its job really well. A young person, or a family, “feels Jewish.” Therefore, they need not continue with their Jewish education or with synagogue membership because, mission accomplished, everyone feels Jewish.

I wish I could be content with this. But “Jewish” is not just a designation in your head, a box you check on a census. It’s not a feeling of nostalgia that exists only to warm your heart. It can do that, it should do that, but that can’t be all it does. In the end, that feeling lives and dies inside of you and offers little to the world around you. Feelings wax and wane in our lives. Why would this one be any different?

So many of us are gratified that we, our children or our grandchildren love being Jewish, but do we know how we are going to transform and transmit our knowledge? Without ongoing engagement, how will Jewish tradition nurture you through the high and low seasons of your life? And an even more grim question: why be Jewish at all when it is becoming scary to be Jewish publicly? Might you diminish or hide your “sense of Jewishness” in the face of those who tell you it is wrong? Is it really worth the trouble?

Basically, we’ve made it all about us when it really should be about our collective history, our shared destiny, and God.

This is our modern-day idolatry. Yom Kippur day is about reorienting our hearts and turning to the Divine presence that unites all of us.

Today, we understand God in two ways. One is the still, small voice within us, the voice we must listen for and nurture. The other is the transcendent, connective force of the universe. It is God within and without.

Judaism done outside of community is not Judaism. Our tradition makes this clear in so 
many ways: you must have ten people for a gathering, public feasts and celebrations are mandated by law.

Indeed, the only time in Torah that God finds anything “lo tov” – not good – is when people go

it alone. The phrase occurs just two times – two times in the whole of Torah! First in the Garden of Eden where God realizes it is not good for the first human to be alone and creates a partner for them. The second time is when Moses’s father in law, Jethro, tells him it is not good for Moses to render his decisions on his own, for certainly he will burn out and lead the people astray. He must engage other leaders of his community for help. They must render decisions as well.

Torah teaches that not only do we need companionship, we need people to challenge us and help us to grow.

To just “know” you are Jewish is to sell yourself short of what could be a more enriching process. You may be met with some spiritual wrestling, but the Jewish people ultimately seek a more sustainable happiness, a dance with the rhythm of life, rather than instant gratification.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering,highlights the power of bringing people together. “Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel and make sense of the world. Lawgivers have understood, perhaps as well as anyone, the power inherent in gatherings. In democracies, the freedom to assemble is one of the foundational rights granted to every individual. In countries descending into authoritarianism, one of the first things to go is the right to assemble. Why? Because of what can happen when people come together: [we] exchange information, inspire one another, test out new ways of being together.”

There are many personalized, uber-convenient ways to do “Jewish stuff” these days. There are ways to watch services online and study Hebrew in small groups from the comfort of your living room. These experiences aren’t bad. In fact, they’re not too unlike the experience of the generations before us.

My grandfather wasn’t really part of a synagogue growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930’s. He was playing stickball and helping his poultryman father, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. He used to help his dad pluck chickens and drive them over the Brooklyn bridge to the Manhattan restaurants. When he was 12, his parents brought in a melamed, a religious teacher who would educate him and have him ready for his bar mitzvah. Private tutoring is not a new thing.

But things were different for my grandfather than they are for us. Jewish identity was not just established internally, but externally as well. Your Jewishness determined your job and college opportunities, your friends, and who you married. “Jewish” was the culture you lived in, the words you spoke and the food you ate. You could feel more or less Jewish, but still be immersed in a Jewish community.

Thankfully, many of the restrictions Jews faced then don’t apply today. We can access a diversity of thoughts, cultures and institutions that help us to be worldly and included in the broader culture. I don’t begrudge this for a second. As Parker urged: if we assemble and exchange ideas, we can be transformed.

But this means we have to work harder to preserve and develop Jewish tradition. We have to support, with our time and our money, Jewish institutions. If we take a consumerist approach to Jewish life and synagogue, saying, “I got what I needed” and then walk away, then we weaken the ability for anyone else to have that experience. Then we’ve really lost sight of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

One person cannot generate and sustain a Jewish life alone, no matter how “Jewish” they feel. Judaism has always been synonymous with community.

And while participating in the greater community, the individual soul can be enriched. Jewish tradition is an on-going, dynamic conversation between people. The original open-source code. We’re all speaking the same processing language; coders building on one another’s contributions, fixing bugs, creating new functions.

Think of a basic sense of Jewishness as a simple computer program. It’s effective, a good foundation. But over time there are going to be glitches: incompatibilities with modern software, formats that change; viruses and interruptions. If the code isn’t updated or patched over time, it will be rendered useless and eventually void.

The code embedded into every Jew, young and old, needs reformatting and refreshing. It needs the finesse of more experienced coders, the creative input of fellow writers. If left alone, it loses relevance and fades. If shared with others, it grows and expands, it transforms the heart of the Jew and the world itself. If one is not connected to a power source, it is too easy for the Jewish light to die out.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hillel taught: “Do not withdraw yourself from the community; Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die;” By this he means, being in community reminds us of our individual value and even adds to it. Don’t be so chutzpadik to think you can go it alone.

He then concludes his teaching: “Do not say “It is not possible to understand this” for eventually it will be understood; Do not say “When I have free time I will study,” for you may never have free time.” Just because it is uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should run from it. Just because it requires more of you doesn’t mean it’s expendable. God is optimistic that we can rise to the challenges of our human existence, but that we cannot meet these challenges alone. “Do not withdraw yourself from the community” - each one of us may not be sure of ourselves but we can certainly find confidence in one another. Jewish is what we are when we are together. Ken yhi ratzon.

Closing prayer

On a warm summer day, a traveler came upon three brick layers working side by side. The traveler asked all three: what are you doing?

The first bricklayer answered: I’m laying bricks.

The second answered: I’m feeding my family.

The third answered: I’m building a palace.

All three men answered correctly. The first brick layer saw just the task at hand. He had bricks, he had mortar and he had been asked to put the two together. That’s why he did it. A reason good enough.

The second man answered with his personal reason for his laborious task. His job of bricklaying enabled him to put food on the table for his family. That’s why he did it. A reason good enough.

The third man, though, did not just concentrate on the task itself. He understood that his task was a part of a larger whole – building to something bigger and more beautiful than the section he was working on. Imagine how fulfilled he must have been every day he showed up to work.

I want that fulfillment for each of us and for the children of this congregation. We cannot build a palace alone.

Lucky for us, the palace has already been built! But if we walk out of it, saying to ourselves, “it will always be there if I want to go back and visit,” then it will fall into disrepair. It won’t bring the same majesty to others that you enjoyed.

As Isaiah urged us this morning: “Individuals from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins, restore foundations laid long ago, so that you will be called Repairer of fallen walls…and then you can seek the favor of the Eternal, who will let you enjoy the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… With God’s eternal guidance, your thirst will be quenched, you bones will gain strength. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.”

In other words, be a builder, a restorer. Walk in, not away.

G’mar chatima tovah– let’s finish this Yom Kippur strong and united.





[5]Are We Living in a Post-Happiness World? Laura M. Holson, The New York Times. Sun Sept 29 2019.

[6]Gen Z Now: Report by the Jewish Education Project