Let us bring you some light

Suddenly we all are holding hands and swinging
Doubling our smiles and tripling love and blessing
Adding up to one so helping keeps us free
That is what we learn and teach the world to be

 
By Becky Skoff

These words are from Suddenly Perfectly, the first English translation of the Hebrew song Tov Lanu Pitom, by Rafi ben Moshe. The song appears in the musical version of the iconic Israeli book Simlat HaShabbat Shel Hannale (Hanna’s Sabbath Dress), by Itzhak Schweiger Dmi’el. We have translated it for an American audience for our original musical, Hanna’s Moonlit Dress, which we are presenting in just two weeks at the 14th Street Y.

These words are a little hard to absorb right now. As the voices of talented young actors fill the halls of our preschool, smiles on their faces and enthusiasm in their dance-steps, I find myself wondering: is this a message parents want to hear right now? Will they feel moved to get up and dance with their children? Are they ready to smile? Will they even come?

Our team at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y has been working since fall 2011 to bring these words and their story onto the stage and into the hearts of the Jewish community. Now, two weeks before we open a 3 week run of our play, it is almost ironic that we are staging a show about idealism, unity, good deeds and self-sacrifice, for an audience largely heart-broken by recent events that have called these values into question.

I originally fell in love with this book because of its vision of optimism, hope, and promise. The story seems deceptively simple: a young girl – Hanna – lives alone with her mother. Her mother has stayed up late at night, laboring over the creation of a beautiful, white Sabbath dress for her daughter. Soon, Hanna finds herself in a predicament: a stranger, carrying a large sack of coal, is in need of her help. But if she helps him, her new, white dress may be ruined. Of course, Hanna makes the right choice, and magic ensues, leading us to this cheerful song, a talking moon, and a lesson in how easy it can be to bring warmth to others.

You may wonder what a coal man was doing in Israel. Itzhak Schweiger Dmi’el wrote Simlat HaShabnat Shel Hannale in 1930s British Mandate Palestine, and published the story in Davar, the influential workers’ newspaper. The coal man – along with the absence of Hanna’s father – is symbolic of the suffering, isolation, and incompleteness of the Jewish people at this moment in time. Pre-state Israel was a time of dreaming. Most people had very little and were struggling just to survive. Dmi’el wrote this story for a community of big dreamers – people who believed that with every seed planted, they were creating a better future for the Jewish people.  This was the idealistic, pioneering vision of Israel; a vision of pure hope and promise.

Fast forward to today. The idea of helping a stranger struggling with his workload becomes equally relevant.  How can we help the coal men in our society – both in America and in Israel? Where is the little girl in a white dress, willing to get dirty to do the right thing? When will the moon be ready to give us some magic to help ease the way?

I don’t have all the answers right now, but I do know this: I need a positive way to talk to my son about the power of doing good in the world. He needs to see examples of the joy of community, and of love for each other.  I need to sing, dance and smile with my child. I need a little joy in my life too, and a reminder of the power of idealism. We all do.

If you are ready to emerge from your cloud of disbelief and anxiety, open the curtain with us in the coming weeks. Come be transported to another world and time. The clouds may still be there when you leave the theater, but I promise: you’ll leave with a little more light in your heart.

Adding up to one so helping keeps us free
That is what we learn and teach the world to be

Hanna and the Moonlit Dress plays December 2-18 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, at 344 East 14th Street.  For tickets, please visit 14StreetY.org/Hanna

A Message from Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

Photo by Bridget Badore
Photo by Bridget Badore

Dear 14th Street Y Community,

I am writing this letter after the 2016 presidential election. After an election season filled with rancorous argument, it has been a breath of fresh air every day to walk into the 14th Street Y to see the warm and welcoming faces of our members and staff.

Here at the 14th Street Y, we are a diverse and supportive family. From the newest babies to our members over the age of 100, we laugh together, learn together, workout together, and build relationships that last a lifetime.

Our country ended fall as a nation divided. While we are looking hopefully towards spring, as this letter goes to print, the mood in our community is one of uncertainty. Whether by the election outcome or by responses to the election outcome, some of you have shared that you’re feeling distraught about what’s next. Many of us are also experiencing painful and divisive conversations with family and friends who may have a differing view on the country’s future.

I don’t have any magic fix to this uncertainty, but I know that here at the 14th Street Y, we pride ourselves on being and supporting a diverse, welcoming, and caring community. As a staff we promote tolerance, listening, and respect. We each have many different beliefs and political ideas, but each of us comes together in a values-based community because we want to make our world and nation better. Here at the Y, we focus on you; our valued members. The time you spend at the 14th Street Y exercising your body or mind in a positive way is an opportunity to meet someone face-to-face, learn from someone different from you, build a friendship, and thereby strengthen the local community we live in every day.

We are all in this together. When you enter the 14th Street Y’s front doors know that you are not alone. In our lobby, pool, fitness center, classrooms, or basketball gym—we look one another in the eye and see that we all equally human. This support can give us all a greater sense of security and hope.

As we all listen to each other and learn from each other, I hope to hear more from you. My email is sepstein@14streety.org. My ear and my heart are open to you, as I hope yours will be to each other.

Warmly,

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Executive Director
14th Street Y

A Message from Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

“When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”
– Rav Nachman of Bratslav

Photo by Bridget Badore
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

Yesterday I sat with members of our community who were incredibly shaken by the bombing on Saturday night and the manhunt that followed. As resilient (and at times weary) New Yorkers, we have different reactions to this most recent violence in our midst.

I have heard a lot of different things from our members and staff over the last few days. Some of us are anxious, some angry; some expressing gratitude to have made it safely to this moment; others left feeling insecure.

Here at the Y, we work hard to keep our facilities, our members, and all of our community safe and secure. Our physical safety is maintained through our careful, continually updated, and expert-informed safety and security procedures, and your helpful vigilance in notifying us if anything seems unusual or out-of-order.

However statistically unlikely we are to be hurt, the hardest part for many of us is to maintain a feeling of security at times of uncertainty. As Rav Nachman of Bratslav suggests, sometimes we have to face narrow bridges — circumstances in which we feel a sense of insecurity. And, at those times, it is natural to have a level of anxiety that helps us to look before we step, and to look for a railing when we need one. But, it is all too easy to frighten ourselves, to conjure up terror that is much greater than the threat and to decide not to cross the bridge at all — to stop progressing in our journey.

As a child, I was afraid to get on an escalator — well past the age when children usually conquer such fears. I had heard stories of children getting clothing stuck and getting hurt. I was certain that those mighty metal teeth would eat me right up. I would go the long way to take the stairs, or find an elevator. Luckily, I had a family friend who understood fear, took my hand, and gently showed me how to step carefully on to the escalator.

Here at the Y, we can take each other’s hands. We can continue to be the kind of community that comes together in all of our glorious diversity to support each other in moments of anxiety and to celebrate with each other in moments of joy.

So, as we support our security staff as they scan every card, and keep vigilant for anything out of place, we also scan our community for anyone in need of a hand, a hug, or a kind word. We keep vigilant for how to reach out and get to know someone else in a class, in the lobby, and on the basketball court. We make sure that they are not alone. Together we help each other not to frighten ourselves; instead we help alleviate each other’s anxiety, and in this way, work to restore a sense of security in our beloved city.

L’shalom (To peace),

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Executive Director
14th Street Y

A Safe and Comfortable Place for Connection

Dear members and friends,

Heading into the fall, I find myself hungry for cleansing breaths after a heavy summer of mass shootings, deep mistrust between citizens and police, and vitriolic, ugly political discourse.

Frequently, media seeks to tell us the worst version of the story. And social media enables us to paint large groups of people that we think of as “other” with a broad and damning brush. Sometimes we share more positive images, like photos of the hugs between Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters in Dallas. Yet, social scientists and media critics tell us that both conventional and social media are more likely to harden than change our opinions.

Instead, it is when we come together in community, telling and listening to one another’s stories, that we often find common ground with the people we see as “others”—and can find and reinforce a reality so much better than what we see on our screens.

I believe that the 14th Street Y is here to help bring us back to the basics of coming together in community—to connecting with and supporting our neighbors, in times of pain and times of joy.

In these unsettled times, we want the Y to be your safe and comfortable place for connection in our big and often anonymous city. And that doesn’t just mean our careful, expert-informed, and continually updated safety and security procedures. The 14th Street Y is a place where you can take a break from it all. A place where you can find others with similar beliefs, as well as significant differences where our common commitment to creating community encourages us to engage in conversation, exploration, and reflection.

This is why we have chosen the LABA theme of “OTHER” for our artists and our community to explore this year, looking at Jewish texts that challenge us to understand true difference while also seeing the innate humanity in every person. I hope that as you join an activity here, you will meet neighbors who are different from you—and that over coffee or on a treadmill, you will ask them what matters to them, and listen to their answers.

Our community thrives, and we can feel a sense of security, when we celebrate and learn from each other’s differences, and develop relationships that allow us to support each other in our shared humanity. We can start in Downtown Manhattan, right here on East 14th Street and 1st Ave.

L’shalom (To peace),

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Executive Director
14th Street Y

Shavuot and Orlando

Completing my observance of Shavuot, a celebration of the revelation of Torah, I find myself reaching for any words to respond to the death and destruction that took place in Orlando.

On Saturday night at 2am, over 500 of us were at the 14th Street Y–celebrating our culture, expressing our identity, studying the Torah. Shavuot celebrates the acceptance of Torah, the narrative tradition and law that informs and regulates our lives.

What a blessing.

While we were celebrating in New York, a few hundred young people were celebrating and expressing their identity in a nightclub in Florida. Seeking and feeling acceptance and a night of safety in a world that all too often denies that expression to gays and lesbians. Until a hateful person, whose combustible combination of ideology and psychology were well-recognized, took his legally-purchased guns and murdered at least 49 beautiful people, wounding scores of others.

What a curse.

The Torah that we accept each Shavuot tells us that we can choose blessing or curse.

We can choose the consequences of lawlessness that masquerades as freedom. Or we can choose the blessing of regulations, the rule of law that limits the freedom of the individual for the sake of the greater good.

As a Jewish leader, as a community leader, I commit myself to working towards greater regulation—an acceptance of the responsibilities of freedom. To do whatever it takes to protect all of us from those of us who are driven by zealotry, or illness, or immaturity, to their easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

As mass shootings happen nearly every day, time and again I have worked to educate myself. What do we say to children?

What does Jewish law have to say? How can I organize for tighter gun regulations, and work to temper unchecked freedom with regulations that allow for public safety, security, and well-being??

I hope that you will join me not only in learning, but in acting. The local organization that I am choosing to get involved with is Metro IAF. Let me know where you are involved, and other ways to help be part of the solution.

At a time of grief, Jewish sensibilities teach us that we should not be alone; instructing us to come together, to listen to each other, to hold each other.  As many of us are hurting, angry, grieving, or frightened, now is the time to be together in community. Please let me know how I, our staff, and the 14th Street Y can be a place of refuge and community for you at this difficult time.

The trajectory from Passover to Shavuot, from slavery to the acceptance of responsibility, is the path towards redemption. May we work together to choose the regulations that allow blessings to overcome curses, to come together in community to comfort and support each other, and may we see some of that redemption in our lifetimes.

L’shalom (To peace),

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Executive Director
14th Street Y

The Other Side of the World

shira
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

There on the other side of the world, I was instantly reminded of our community here in downtown Manhattan. Familiarity, warmth, energy, and connection, just like my experience at the 14th Street Y, was right in front of me at the Nikitskaya Jewish Community Center in Moscow, Russia.

Laughing, smiling, learning; children and adults of all ages joined in conversation and activities that inspired thought and expression. From Reggio–Emilia programming in the dual language Russian/Hebrew early childhood center to the harmonious silence of artists molding clay to the rhythmic movement of dancers in class, one thing was clear; I felt at home.

What I truly admired, and reflect upon now as I write this, was the common thread that bound the children and adults together through experiences. Both community centers take pride in the Jewish sensibility of Brit, or partnership— meaningfully connecting ourselves to others by agreeing to shared commitments. The Nikitskaya JCC has thrived as it is built on member and patron’s shared interests and goals.  At the 14th Street Y, we too are made up of people of all ages building relationships together around our shared interests and goals.

I encourage you to share your interests and goals with your 14th Street Y community. As the sun begins to peek through the clouds and bring the warmth of springtime, let’s continue this journey together. I can’t wait to hear about the ambitious goals you set out to do.

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Executive Director
14th Street Y

 

Faith and traditional wisdom help shape our lives and our legacies

shira
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

I have been lucky to attend a lot of milestone birthday parties recently. It seems that it is moments of round numbers when many of us look back and look forward and ask ourselves the deeper questions of meaning and purpose. Is my life what I hoped that it would be? As I count my years, and start to recognize the urgency of living life in a meaningful way, what gives my life meaning, and a sense of purpose?

One of the reasons that I fell in love with Jewish tradition and culture is the sensibility of “Z’chut Avot”–the memory of our ancestors.  Like many ancient traditions, Judaism prizes the remembering and retelling stories of those who came before us, and adding our own stories, insights, and sensibilities to the narrative as we pass it on to the next generation. This treasure trove of remembered and recorded wisdom is open to all of us to mine for learning, and also can serve as framing stories that help us locate ourselves.

Whether or not we are Jewish, we can all find meaning in unpacking, retelling, interpreting, and remembering the wisdom and sensibilities of stories of previous generations.

In my ELI talks, which I will share in honor and memory of my father, Rabbi Norman Koch, z”l, I had a chance to share a few of my stories of meeting people who had deep wisdom to share on what gave them a lasting sense of purpose–and some ideas of how re-enacting and remembering Jewish narrative as a living story is the best kind of Jewish education.

What ancestor stories or traditional wisdom help give your life meaning and help you find your purpose? What do you find meaningful in Jewish narrative or in other traditions that you apply to your own life? As a diverse community, I bet that among us we have many faith and wisdom traditions that help shape our lives and our legacies. I would love to hear your thoughts and responses–don’t hesitate to stop by my office, to comment below, on YouTube, or to send me an email.

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Executive Director
14th Street Y