Members of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore were treated to a poetry reading last Shabbat — the day before the first night of Chanukah — by local poet Karen Webber. She read from her collection ENKindle, a compilation of 10 poems celebrating the holiday centered on Jewish freedom and light.
Poetry readings are rather uncommon at Chevrei Tzedek, according to its rabbi, Rory Katz, though the congregation does incorporate poetry into their teachings and services from time to time. Webber’s work focuses on Jewish identity and mental health, fitting right into the synagogue’s slate of Chanukah-themed events.
“I’ve been with the congregation for six years, and we’ve never had a poetry reading quite like this,” said Katz of the Dec. 17 event.
She and other synagogue members reached out to invite Webber, who co-founded the Jewish Poetry Collective group along with two members of the congregation, Jennifer Zunikoff and Joey Weisberg. Katz asked the three of them if they had any words to share for a pre-holiday event, and Webber just so happened to have completed a new collection of Chanukah-themed poems.
‘Not a lens I take on and off’
Webber started writing poetry when she was a child, later majoring in English and theater dance at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Though she dabbled in theater as an actress, she later returned to writing. In addition to her poems, she also pens short stories and considers herself a visual artist.
“I write at the intersection of Judaism and mental health,” said Webber about the themes that permeate her poetry. “My poetry is not the kind of lens I take on and off; it’s there all the time.” One of her pieces centers on the timeline of the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Much of her other work is inspired by her two children, who have special needs, as well as by her work with the Mental Health Association of Maryland. The Baltimore resident has also served as a peer specialist in the state of Maryland since 2021.
Webber’s poetry has been published in a variety of different magazines and related websites, such as Voice of Eve, Poetica Magazine, Lilith and several anthologies. She also continues to be involved with the Jewish Writing Project and the Jewish Poetry Collective, often meeting with the other members to discuss and analyze poems, as well as write their own based on recent Torah portions.
“I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to get [this latest poetry collection] out into the world,” Webber said of her involvement with Chevrei Tzedek. “I partnered with a woman with her own press here in Baltimore to get it published. She was going out of business, so I thought I could help her out and contribute in that way. So it’s published now, and we’re going to be giving out a copy to each household who comes to the reading.”
‘Finding hope in the darkness’
The title of her collection, ENKindle, means the action of setting something on fire, though also has the alternative meaning of inspiring others. It relates to igniting a fire within. The term aligns with Webber’s mission to inspire others with her poetry, particularly during the holiday season.
“The message of Chanukah is a powerful, inspiring one — finding light and hope in the darkness,” said Katz. “However, holidays are really complex and bring up a lot of feelings for a lot of different people. I think [Webber’s work] does a good job of exploring some of the emotional tones and tenors of the holiday.”
When it comes to poems, Webber noted that she wants people to understand that there is no “traditional” way to write or interpret ideas, saying “poetry can lend a surprising new spin on some subjects that may be old or traditional, breathing new life into it.”