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Rabbi Mara Young: What you may not know about Woodlands’ newest rabbi

By Mike Winkleman

Back in March 2009, Rochelle Stolzenberg and Mike Winkleman went to the headquarters of Hebrew Union College to interview about 15 potential rabbinic interns—each of whom had decided that Woodlands was the temple for them. The first candidate Rochelle and Mike met with was Mara Judd—now Young—a young woman from New Jersey with a great resume, a chatty, sparkling personality, an inquisitive intellect, and a solid conviction that Woodlands was right for her—and that she was right for Woodlands.

Rochelle and Mike agreed. The minute Mara left the room, they turned to each other and said, “We’re done now. We don’t need to talk to anyone else.” They did, of course, talk to 14 other people. But when it came to submitting their first choice, Mara was it. Fortunately for us, Woodlands was Mara’s choice, too. So the match was made.

And the rest, of course, is history.

Why Woodlands?

Mara started as our rabbinic intern in the fall of 2009. When it came time to choose someone to fill in during Billy’s sabbatical in 2012, which was not long after her ordination, she was the logical choice. When Harriett announced that she was retiring as temple educator, Mara’s name was raised, seconded, and affirmed unanimously. And a few months ago, when Billy announced that this would be his last year on the pulpit, the temple leadership found it necessary to look no further than Mara’s office to find his replacement.

This path, of course, is highly unusual. Woodlands has had many interns, but other than Mara, only one of them—Billy Dreskin himself—has ended up staying beyond his tenure (and even Billy’s stay was interrupted a few years in Cleveland).

And it isn’t that our interns wouldn’t have stayed. It’s just that for most interns, there’s a big world out there to explore. Why stay in one place? That’s a question the board put to Mara when they offered her not only the sabbatical position but a six-month contract leading up to the sabbatical. For Mara, the decision was easy. Though she remembers that her classmates in rabbinical school thought she was crazy to tie herself down to the temple where she’d been an intern, instead of exploring other options, Mara had no doubts. “I’m one of the lucky ones who found the right fit right away,” she says. “I knew that this is exactly the type of synagogue I wanted to end up at.  A lot of rabbis bop around for quite a while before they know where they want to settle down. I said to my classmates, forget all of you and your funny looks. I’m going to trust my gut.”

That was also her reasoning when the educator position became available. And it was certainly the reasoning that has brought her—and us—to this point.

But while Mara may have stayed in one place, she hasn’t kept still. And Woodlands has benefitted from her many activities.


Social Justice Through a Reform Jewish Lens

Take her work as a Brickner Clergy Fellow for the URJ’s Religious Action Center. As Mara describes this, the fellowship has allowed her to take “a deep dive into community organizing and modern social justice movements as seen through a Reform Jewish lens.”

As we’ve learned from listening to Mara’s sermons over these many years and from watching her develop aspects of the religious school’s curriculum, social justice is key to who Mara is. But her work as a Brickner Fellow, she says, has caused her to rethink and realign how she approaches social justice in the organizational setting and informs the work, for example, that she’s been doing recently with the temple’s Racial Justice Task Force. It has also allowed her to begin to imagine what social justice will look like in the future—at Woodlands and in the broader world.

“An important part of my role,” Mara says, “is keeping an eye on what’s happening in both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds around us and helping to bring real wisdom to the real people power of our members in line with the current trends. This also involves aligning both ancient and modern Jewish wisdom to make the organization a powerhouse of social justice.”

Learning from “Hatikvah”

This ambassadorial role extends to Mara’s involvement in Israel education. Invited to be part of an Israel Education Fellowship pilot cohort in 2016, Mara traveled to Israel with the group and found her entire understanding of how to talk and teach about Israel completely transformed. As a result of her participation in this program, she was hired as a mentor by the Jewish Education Project and now coaches program participants on how to imagine what Israel education should look like in their synagogues.

The key, as Mara says she’s learned through her participation in these programs, is to base discussion on a framework inspired by the next to the last line of “Hatikvah”: “to be a free people in our land.” As Mara explains, that means dividing discussion about Israel into four quadrants: “to be”—such existential issues as security and borders; “people”—the Jewish country; “free”—a democratic country, including issues related to non-Jews living in Israel; and “in our land”—the historic and cultural connections. Which means, Mara says, sometimes you can talk about Israel-Palestinian relations, but sometimes it’s OK to just talk about falafel.

This way of thinking has informed the way Mara works with the Israel Committee, as well as how she’s helped to formulate—and continue to evolve—an Israel curriculum in the religious school.

Again, as with social justice, Mara says that “where the rubber meets the road is in taking the ancient wisdom and tradition of our people and marrying them to our modern understanding. In that crucible of mixing all of this together is where we can see all the beautiful creative stuff that comes out it—related to social justice, Israel, education, and, of course, ritual.”

Ritual, COVID, and the Future of Jews in Westchester

While ritual is where, Mara says, she’s learned so much from master showman Billy Dreskin, she’s particularly excited to take the wisdom she’s gained from collaborating with Billy into work with her new clergy partner, Cantor Lance, himself a veteran of musical theater. The two of them, having grown up in the same milieu at the same time, have already developed a great chemistry. And “while we’re not looking to do anything outrageous,” Mara says, “we’re excited to be in this crucible, to be trying something a little new and different.”

And speaking of crucibles, there has, most recently, been COVID, a situation that has pushed Mara, along with the congregation to flex all sorts of creative muscles. In responding to new demands, Mara says, things have happened quickly. “Old excuses don’t fly anymore,” she says.  Things that were simmering on the back burner have suddenly moved to the front—small group Hebrew tutoring, for example, a new name for the religious school. “It’s catapulted people into doing things they should have been doing all along,” she says. Which doesn’t surprise her. “I’m so proud of our people,” she says. “It’s been a real partnership. People at Woodlands are feeling closer together than ever before.”

And this has tied in well with one of Mara’s other out-of-the-temple projects, serving through the Westchester Board of Rabbis on the Westchester 2040 initiative. The goal: crafting a vision of Jewish life in Westchester 20 years from now. COVID, she notes “has also leveled walls here. Some of what we thought we’d be doing in 2040 we’ll be doing in 2022.”

One of the things that drew Mara to Woodlands and continually challenges her here, she says, are the high expectations that Woodlands has of itself, its people, and its clergy. Mara has those same high expectations of herself. And, after 11 years, our expectations of what she can bring—especially in her new role as Woodlands’ rabbi—are higher than ever. And will, we know, be both met and exceeded.   

Wed, March 3 2021 19 Adar 5781