Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, May 17, 2024

Jewish Resilience

The drawing you are looking at is called Portrait of a Young Woman with Two Yellow Stars by Esther Lurie.

The Jewish Women’s Archive gives it some context: “Esther Lurie was an artist who sought to document the atrocities of the Holocaust and leave a testimony of the Jewish experience in the Kovno ghetto. The clandestine production and documentation of ghetto life was the artist’s way of struggling against murder and destruction, an act of spiritual resistance.

Esther Lurie was born in Liepāja, Latvia. In June 1941, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Lurie was arrested in Kovno, Lithuania while visiting her sister and deported to the Kovno ghetto.

In the fall of 1942, at the request of the Jewish leadership of the ghetto, Esther, together with other artists, began documenting life in the ghetto. Drawing supplies were hard to acquire; artists had to smuggle them from the workshops controlled by the Nazis. In Portrait of a Young Woman with Two Yellow Stars, the yellow badge is depicted as a hole that goes through the young woman, [like that] left by a gunshot wound when the bullet passes through [a] body.”

As I gazed at the drawing more, I thought about how despite her “wound,” the girl is very much alive. Perhaps the stars, meant to mark the bullet’s path, defy death. We Jews defy death. We survive when history would say it wasn’t possible.

It is impossible to know what happened to this young woman. Did she survive the liquidation of the ghetto? This drawing is either an early photograph in a child’s history or the portrait of a ghost.

Either way, it is a picture of a child. And the children are my concern tonight.

In this week’s Torah portion, God commands the people of Israel: "If anyone among the Israelites, or anyone among those who live with them in the land, gives their offspring to Molech, they should be punished by death." (Lev 20:1-2)

Some background to the Torah:

- It acknowledges that Jews and non-Jews will live in the Land of Canaan together.

- It prohibits, with disgust, the ancient practice of sacrificing one’s child to the false god Molech. This sacrifice was done, typically, by fire.

By these standards, all of humanity deserves punishment. In the very land the Torah speaks of, the number of children who have been taken hostage, burned, and bombed is unconscionable. They have been sacrificed to the false gods of war and extremism.

And the ones who are still alive? I weep for the trauma that will scar a generation of Israeli and Palestinian children. They are innocent. They deserve innocence. It’s right there in this week’s Torah portion.

Resilience. What does resilience look like in a moment like this?

Well, unsurprisingly, it comes from the children.

Back in April, Concord Road Elementary School - grades K through 4 - held its International Day. I, along with other WCT members and our friends, prepared and worked at the Israel booth. The concept was simple: write a wish on a Post-It note and place it on our giant Western Wall.


Many of the contributions were whimsical.

Some more poignant.


Predictably, war in the Middle East was on their minds.

We took a deep breath and accepted that there would be a variety of perspectives.


I find the post-its on the left to be particularly meaningful….two very different articulations of the same place…an encapsulation of this moment’s complexity….and there they are, side by side. 

But for the most part, the kids expressed the most honest yearnings of any human.





The words of these children are our prayer tonight.

We pray for innocence and joy. We pray for the reunion of parents with their children. We pray for safety and sweet dreams; for leaders who put the lives of their people first. We pray for thoughtful discourse and peaceful disagreement. We pray for connection and continuity.

We call upon the courage and determination of our ancestors, invoking the best of the moral path they laid for us and pray with our whole hearts for peace.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Ha Lachma Anya - Shabbat HaGadol

 “Ha Lachma Anya! This is the bread of our affliction! This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate the Passover. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves. Next year we will be free!”


It’s a real invitation because in just a few haggadah sections we’ll literally break matzah and eat the festive meal, in theory, inviting others to join us in doing so.


The Association for Experiential Education understands experiential education as "a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities." The seder is certainly a Master Class in experiential education. 


Dr. Wendy Zierler, a professor at HUC also illuminates the impressive experiential pedagogy of the seder. The seder, according to Zierler, is an example of “liberatory education,” as opposed to “oppressive education.” It elicits questions and experiences by which one is opened up to learning. This is differentiated from a dogmatic lecture which deposits knowledge into a submissive learner. (https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-haggadah-toward-a-pedagogy-of-freedom)  


This is an important pedagogic choice by the sages on a holiday that celebrates freedom. It is notably democratic and inclusive. Zierler points out that in addition to this model, various Jewish texts also discourage distinction between the rich and poor at the seder table. It is their way of expressing that this story is not reserved for the elites. This is in contrast to the Greek symposia, a contemporary of the seder when it was being developed. The seder itself is the manifestation of the freedom we are celebrating.


But seder-as-experiential-education-tool is hardly a modern take. We do a lot of imagining during the Passover seder: imagine being a slave, imagine the cries of the mothers who lost their children, imagine poverty. All of this instills an empathetic heart that should move us to action in our own time.


When it comes to the instruction of “all who are hungry, come and eat,” Rashbam (writing in 12th century France) says: “The way of the poor is to split bread, the poor need to share it. This act puts us in touch with the experience of those who hunger, that we might work in our day to share the resources we have and feed all humanity.”


12th Century sage Maimonides sees the sharing similarly. In his opinion, this is the moment to acknowledge our privilege. We should use this moment to check our own arrogance and greedy tendency to hoard resources. This is more than inspiration, “ha lachma anya” is our first experience of acting altruistically.


The matzah is perhaps the most potent symbol of the seder, an element that has been relatively unchanged by time. It’s the matzah they ate coming out of Egypt, it’s the matzah they ate in the 12th century and it's the same matzah today. 


And yet from the beginning of the seder to the end, the symbolism behind the matzah transforms. It goes from the bread that represents affliction to the bread that represents freedom. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expands on this: “Matza represents two things: it is the food of slaves, and also the bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in liberty.” How can a slice of flat bread make the leap from slavery to freedom? 


Rabbi Sacks continues: “What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others....Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer [their] bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown [themselves] to be capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. Bread shared is no longer the bread of oppression. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.” (https://rabbisacks.org/ceremony-celebration-family-edition/ha-lachma-anya-pesach-seder-guide/)


Tonight we will prepare for this act of empathy, this act of freedom, by working as a community to share our bread. Immediately after services, we invite you to take a cookie or two and then get to work making sandwiches for Open Arms Shelter in White Plains.


It is Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, the Sabbath of Miracles. We start with a small act of redemption tonight, a springboard, we pray, to larger miracles, and bigger redemptions ahead.


Monday, April 15, 2024

Coney Island

Who has been to Coney Island?

But what an amazing living artifact of New York, right? And surprise, surprise, Jews were intimately connected to its development in the modern era. For example, Nathan of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was Jewish.

Nathan Handwerker was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who started his humble hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916, helping to bring crowds to Coney Island’s shores.

Every generation of New Yorkers has memories of Coney Island. If your family goes back in New York far enough, chances are your great-grandparents, your grandparents, and your parents all have a story of “that time we visited Coney Island.” It’s a generational inheritance. A joyful one.

We also know that every generation inherits and experiences its own hardships. And, every generation develops the tools to live through and grow from those experiences.

We hear a lot these days about generational trauma, the wounds that are passed from generation to generation. But as a life coach Xavier Dagba said: “As you clear your generational trauma, don’t forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than wounds.”

He’s talking about survival tools and he’s talking about generational JOY.

You get handed those strengths as much as the traumas, and Coney Island gives us an incredible story of this.

In addition to hot dogs, the Wonderwheel and the Cyclone, Coney Island is famous for its carousel.

It is a work of art as much as it is a ride. The Coney Island carousel brought the art of European carousel horses to New York and represents the beauty of folk art. It is so historically significant, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each horse is hand carved and painted in a special style brought over and developed by Charles Carmel and Marcus Charles Illions, two Jews from Eastern Europe who fled from antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the late 1880s.

I learned about this at the Jewish Museum, where two such horses were on display. According to the Jewish Museum: “Carmel was born in Russia and trained in wood carving as a young man. He was steeped in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of intricately carved wooden Torah arks, replete with lions, deer, eagles, and other symbolic animals. After immigrating to the United States in 1883, he settled in Brooklyn, and soon began applying his skills to the crafting of carousel horses at Charles Looff’s and William F. Mangels’s workshops. There, he met three other Eastern European Jewish master carvers — who, like himself, translated their artistic repertoire from the sacred realm of the synagogue for secular use in the amusement industry.”

Illion’s story was similar: “Born in Vilnius, Illions too became immersed in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of magnificent wooden Torah arks as a young apprentice at a carving shop…By 1888, he was in New York, where he soon established his first workshop, employing young apprentices who, like himself, carried on the Eastern European Jewish wood-carving tradition.”

Who knew the art of the Coney Island carousels is inspired by late 19th century synagogue Torah arks? Learning this, and gazing into the intricate, life-like eyes of the carousel horses, I felt a chill.

True, this story’s moral could be as simple as these men seeing an opportunity to apply their skills and make a living. And that would have been enough. But my sense is that they weren’t just looking to make a buck. There seems, to me, a meaningful tie between the Torah ark’s carved wooden doors and the art that would help Illions, Carmel and others escape persecution and find a footing in the new world.

It means something that the tradition of their ancestors was precisely the tool that would save them as they sought a new life of freedom in America.

Jonathan Swift is known for saying, “everything old is new again,” but I think we Jews give this tremendous meaning. We have a toolbox of generational strengths that help us no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Look at this week’s Torah portion, for example.

Tazria: it’s all about skin afflictions and how to keep a communal outbreak to a minimum. This portion has always been dismissed as stuck in ancient days and ancient maladies, yet it became wildly relevant in Covid where it taught us how quarantining was a holy act.

Furthermore, Tazria insists over and over again on trying to find a way for an afflicted person to re-enter society. Our ancient medicinal practices have inspired the way we Jews insist on congregating and community, and has probably influenced the way in which we have extended our arms wide open to people of all faiths, welcoming in folks with compassion and love.

And above all, it teaches that even through plague and persecution, we have found ways to survive - physically and spiritually.

The carousel horses Carmel and Illions carved may be affixed to their carousels, but with their wind-swept manes, bejeweled eyes and hooves in flight, they represented pure freedom - the freedom that the US offered American Jews. And just like the painted ponies of the carousel go up and down and round and round, our sense of safety and opportunity as Jews has its trials, tribulations and cycles.

Carmel and Illions sought to escape anti-semitism, but anti-semitism is one of those things that always rotates back around in one way or another - the moment we’re living in being the latest.

And yet, like the wooden horses who were inspired by the fierce cherubim on the ark doors, we’ll continue to charge forward with gusto, energetically starting over again, as our ancestors have done for millenia. And just when we wonder if we’re making any progress or we're just going in circles, we feel the wind in our faces and the simple joy in living. We hang on tight and keep riding, knowing that we inherited the tools to live and find joy from our ancestors.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Back from Sabbatical

British Writer Douglas Adams tells a story about a time he was a bit early for the train in Cambridge. He went to get himself a newspaper to do the crossword, as well as a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. He sat down at a table. A man wearing a business suit sat down opposite him. A few moments later, Adams noticed the business man lean across, pick up the packet of cookies, tear it open, take one out and eat it. 

Adams was astounded, but [being a respectable Brit and wanting to avoid confrontation] he didn’t say anything. He simply took a cookie out of the packet for himself. But a moment or two later the man did it again. He took another cookie.

“We went through the whole packet like this,” writes Adams. “When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back. A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper and underneath the newspaper were — my cookies.”

“The thing I like particularly about this story,” he continued, “is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been, wandering around for the last quarter-century, a perfectly ordinary guy who's had the same exact story, only he doesn't have the punch line.”

Adams told this story as a giggly example of just how “British” he is. Subsequent bards have understood it as a lesson in perspective. And that is how it hits me. It highlights how we are so entrenched in our own narratives that often we fail to see the forest for the trees, or the cookies for the newspaper…or something like that.

Returning from my sabbatical, this anecdote resonates. Before I left, I shared that I love the ever-evolving, immersive and intimate nature of rabbinic life; and I missed it in many ways. And yet, more than anything, clergy sabbaticals are important reality checks. Rabbinic life moves at an intense pace and consists of holding grief, joy, existential questions and calm all together all the time. I love it, and I understand, deeply, the need to step away and find perspective. Normal life does not consist of the intense highs and lows of a clergy day.

And this is not unique to the rabbinate. I know we all experience this, whether in our workplaces or our homes. We often grumble as we watch our cookies get eaten only to discover they were under the newspaper the whole time. With some time and distance, we can find ourselves less jaded, less quick to judge, less myopic in our perspective.

Early on in my time away, I realized that my sabbatical would be about perspective shifting and reconnecting with my spiritual self. It was time to take parts of myself out of the freezer, so to speak.

I began with becoming certified in a program called Prepare/Enrich, which enhances clergy’s ability to work with couples, including engaged couples. Its goal is to help strengthen their partnerships. I also spent a week immersed in our tradition’s texts at the Hadar Rabbinic Yeshiva Intensive - a pluralistic neo-traditional yeshiva-style learning program in NYC. I followed that up with a trip to Philadelphia for the CCAR conference - the gathering of over 400 Reform rabbis. Both of these conference experiences nourished me spiritually as I basked in the greatness of my colleagues and teachers and learned just for the sake of learning.

I also read a lot of books - non-fiction and fiction - and rediscovered the beauty of getting lost in the page. I had lost that joy as work and motherhood filled most of my waking hours.

Like cookie crumbs, I swept jadedness away by putting myself in the presence of people and ideas larger than me.

If we are connected on Instagram or Facebook, you also know that I visited, on average, a museum a week. I used practically every free Museum Pass from the Greenburgh Library. (As a side note, my appreciation for our public libraries is at an all time high - what treasures in our communities!)

From the Met, to the Jewish Museum, to the MoMA, to the NY Historical Society, Natural History, and the Guggenheim, a common experience started to strike me. I realized I felt most enriched by large-scale installations.

One powerful experience was at the MoMa. I visited Richard Serra’s “Equal,” which the museum describes as “eight forged steel boxes stacked in pairs. Each box measures five by five and a half by six feet and weighs 40 tons in a rectangular cube. To differentiate one stack from another, Serra has rotated the position of the shorter and longer sides of the boxes. Despite the varying orientation of the individual components, each stack measures 11 feet tall. This simple construction—one block sitting atop another—yields a variety of experiences; the massive sculpture may overwhelm the viewer and, in this sublimity, invite contemplation.”

“Overwhelming” in a “sublime” way. This was exactly how I felt. The room seemed to hum. Standing in this mini-Stonehenge, I felt peaceful. It felt good to feel small, to surrender to my surroundings and accept that I need not contemplate everything in the room, or even be able to see all of it. There was no need to control or understand. I could simply exist within it.

As the weeks went on, I realized that I was spending my time finding my place in the world…not in terms of role, per se. I feel quite confident in my role as rabbi, as mother, partner, etc. But I went looking for who I am in the overwhelming shadow of the gargantuan reality of the world’s violence and desperation. In the continued unraveling of October 7th’s horrors and the swelling devastation that has come in its wake, I, like all of you, have despaired in my feelings of helplessness and indignation.

I asked myself: what can I do, one person awash in pain? As I journeyed through museums, novels, forests and even Disney World, I came to a sublime, simple conclusion: I can control those things closest to me.

I can nurture and fortify my relationships. I can articulate the values our community holds dear and make sure we manifest those values in our immediate Rivertowns and Westchester community.

This became powerfully clear to me on March 8th, when I stood in the Ardsley town square and participated as a Jewish representative in the first-ever lighting of a large crescent moon sculpture in honor of Ramadan. I was there because of some hard, but honest conversations between neighbors after October 7. Amid the pain, we realized that our job as neighbors is to help one another feel seen and safe. This security and love was the gift we could give one another in a moment when it felt like current events were tearing us apart. This, I could control.

This is just one of the many ways I put myself in context and gained some important perspective. With this comes inner calm and fresh perspective.

In my travels, I came across a passage of the Talmud (Taanit 7a), that examines a contradiction in the prophecy of Isaiah. In Isaiah 21, it commands us to “bring water to the thirsty,” but in Isaiah 55, it reads, “if you are thirsty, come for water.” The rabbis wonder aloud: which is it? Should we seek out a thirsty person and serve them or should the thirsty come and ask for water? The rabbis interpret the “thirst” here to be the “thirst for knowledge.” Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa reconciles Isaiah’s contradiction by saying that if a student is ready to learn, then you should seek them out to teach them, knowing it is what they need. But if a student is not yet ready to learn, they must begin the journey and seek a teacher themself, discovering the need on their way.

Our sages understand there are times where we will see folks parched - whether by true thirst or some other sort of need. When we sense that need, we should provide it. At other times, there is value to a person beginning to journey towards nourishment, discovering their thirst along the way and then seeking out its resolution.

My sabbatical would seem to be both of these. Three years ago, you generously provided this time in my contract, knowing that one day it would be valuable. You anticipated that need and provided for it. And when it started, I found that my journeying into it was often the lesson itself. Throughout the three months, I was able to clear away some newspapers in my brain and find some parts of myself, or some interests, that I thought had been lost.

You too are on your own journeys. My return tonight coincides with Sacred Seasons, the time when we bring you a blessing. It is also a time when you set out in search of one.

I’d love you to come join me for this sacred season of return or venturing forth - whichever it is for you.