Nail art has been in existence since ancient times, with Egyptians and Greeks using polish to signify their social class. In today's culture, nail polish is more of a beauty aid than political statement. Rabbi Yael Buechler took this trend and created Midrash Manicures, blending traditional Torah study with nail painting. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing her about this innovative program.
What inspired you to become a rabbi?
Since early childhood, my dream was to become a rabbi. My father is the rabbi of a large Conservative synagogue, and I treasured his devotion and dedication to our synagogue community. When I was in elementary school, I even tried to emulate some of his ritual roles by performing baby namings and weddings for my pet guinea pigs (he handled the funerals). During my high school years and college years, I deepened my observances and commitments to traditional egalitarian Judaism. I came to realize that the Jewish community had gaps in positive female role models for my generation. All too often it was perceived among my generation that being egalitarian and female is “not cool.” I wanted to change that perception through example. I know that I am not alone in this mission and I have met many inspiring colleagues who transform the image of the rabbinate daily – they are amazing rabbis – who happen to be female.
Rebecca Alpert, one of the first Reconstructionist woman rabbis, said she viewed entering the rabbinate as a feminist act, while other of her contemporaries felt it was just neutral. To which school of thought do you belong, if either?
I wanted to become a rabbi before I had even heard the term feminist. In my personal journey, entering the rabbinate was a decision based on my passions, not my gender. I certainly wanted to be a role model for the next generation of Jewish women, but my desire to go to rabbinical school stemmed from my passion for Jewish living, Jewish learning, and transmitting Jewish values. As I have begun to encounter the unique contributions that women bring to the rabbinate, I can better appreciate Rabbi Alpert’s perspective. As a rabbi, I have come to value the perspective and programs that I can bring to communities given my gender, not despite my gender.
Why did you decide to go into teaching?
Part of what attracted me to the rabbinate is that it would afford me the opportunity to be an educator in many exciting and different capacities, whether in a congregation, camp, non-profit organization, hospital, or school. I certainly explored all of those options while in rabbinical school, and last year, I found a wonderful fit at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. I know that wherever I serve as a rabbi, I will bring my passion for cutting edge and engaging experiential education to my community. Having been a student at a Schechter on Long Island, and with fond memories of my inspiring mentors throughout those years, it is truly incredible for me to be able to give back to the Schechter network and hopefully inspire others into the paths of their Jewish journeys through creative portals such as Midrash Manicures.
What motivated you to create the Midrash Manicures program? It seems to be a very random pairing.
My middle school social studies teacher, Mrs. Goldstein, was a powerful mentor in my life. While I certainly enjoyed learning about ancient Egypt, Mrs. Goldstein also taught me about the values of patience, sensitivity, and fostering community. I could not help but notice that each week Mrs. Goldstein came to class with a new professionally-done manicure. She inspired me to begin to paint my own nails. My personal nail painting was initially quite a mess, but with time and patience, I mastered the basics of applying coats of one color. I then began to experiment with more intricate designs such as hearts and smiley faces.
Unfortunately my mentorship with Mrs. Goldstein was cut short as Mrs. Goldstein had been diagnosed with a rapidly growing cancer that ultimately took her life in February of 2001, in my sophomore year of high school. To honor her memory, and the impact that she had on me and so many other students, I continued to paint my nails each week themed for holidays and special events.
When I entered Brandeis University, I began to study the weekly Torah portion on a much higher level and incorporate the themes of the parasha into my weekly manicure. Since then, Midrash Manicures has been an exciting weekly part of my learning routine and creative interpretation of Torah. This past July, I launched MidrashManicures.com in hopes to introduce the world to this creative form of Jewish learning. I also was gifted with the opportunity at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester to offer a Midrash Manicures Club as an elective at in my role as the Coordinator of Student Life.
I love how Midrash Manicures really epitomizes how everything secular can be turned into something religious. When you established the program, did you have this in mind?
Since I have been doing themed manicures since before I knew anything about the nail art industry, it really did not occur to me that I was turning something secular into something religious. I always enjoyed painting my nails, and I really enjoyed studying the parasha of the week, so the combination of the two seemed like a natural step in my own Jewish journey. The overwhelming response to Midrash Manicures has demonstrated to me the power of adding our own personal and creative touches to Judaism and to religion at large. There are now people around the Jewish world, across the streams of Jewish observances, who visit MidrashManicures.com each week in order to be inspired in their Torah learning as they create their personal Midrash Manicures.
There’s been a lot of conversation about how Midrash Manicures boxes girls into traditional femininity. Do you have a response to this?
I created Midrash Manicures with the intent that this would be a tool and skill set for student-centered learning. The Midrash Manicures Club, for example, gives students who enjoy painting their nails a venue in which they can infuse that activity with meaningful Torah study. There are plenty of other ways that women can express themselves and learn about Judaism. My hope is that Midrash Manicures inspires women to find ways their own ways to express themselves Jewishly, be it through art, music, or other mediums.
Do you have any words of inspiration for the next generation of Jewish girls?
It is up to you, the next generation of Jewish women, to bridge your passions with Jewish learning, so that you can take hold of Judaism. The future of Judaism rests in our hands! Let’s paint them wisely.