Rachel Barenblat and a circle of rabbis build a contemporary community

At the foot of Mount Greylock, a round building with a wall of windows looks out at the the stone path of a labyrinth in the grass. The center of the room is a sanctuary, and a woman stands taking in the light.

She moves with poised self-command and an undercurrent of laughter. Walking in, a neighbor might hear her singing a prayer to a folk melody on her guitar, or sharing and reflecting a friend’s quiet triumph, or talking frankly about navigating a time of pain.

On a Saturday morning she will welcome in the community, wearing a rainbow tallit, a prayer shawl. Rachel Barenblat is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, the only shul in the Northern Berkshires. 

Around the walls hang messages of support written on paper in colored marker. Last fall, in the wake of the violence at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people in North Adams reached out to CBI; the congregation coming to shabbat prayer found loving graffiti — Your community stands with you. Sending you peace. We’ve got your back.

For Barenblat, being a rabbi means leading a community within a larger world and reaching out to both. It means standing with the people she serves in high times and hard times — comforting illness, celebrating a coming of age, washing a body and preparing it gently for burial.

It means finding beauty and meaning, day to day. In a recent poem on her blog she listens to her son singing as she bakes challah for her mother on the last sabbath they will ever welcome in together. And, as it did then, her work means weaving tradition and contemporary life and keeping them in relationship, direct and real.

“It’s one of my moments of greatest joy,” she said at Tunnel City on the first day of spring, “when someone comes up after a high holiday or a b’nai or bat mitzvah and says ‘I didn’t know Judaism could be like that — I didn’t know I could feel it like that.’ Those are the days I know I’m really doing my job.”

She has served here as rabbi for eight years, and as a rabbinical student for five years before that. And in that time her influence has grown across the country and beyond.

She was born in San Antonio, Texas, and she has lived in the Berkshires for more than 20 years, since her college days at Williams; she earned her MFA in from Bennington, and as a writer she has published five books of poetry.

She has also earned an international readership for her blog as the Velveteen Rabbi. In April of 2008, Time Magazine named hers as one of their top 25, and in 2016 the Forward named her as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.

And in 2018, she has taken the lead in an adventure with a group of rabbis, scholars and writers from coast to coast. 

With her fellow Williams alum David Markus (a lawyer and public official and co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island, New York) and six fellow rabbis and scholars she has created Bayit, an online community and tools to build a contemporary Jewish life.

The team reaches up and down the eat coast: Rabbi Bella Bogart in the Catskills, Steven Green in the Berkshires, Rabbi Evan Crame in Maryland, Rabbi Ben Newman on the Hudson River, Rabbi Jennifer Singer in Florida, artist Steve Silbert with the Visual Torah Project, and in New York City, Shoshanna Schechter, professor and international journalist, and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, a Talmudic scholar and teacher and now as scholar-in-residence on Queer and Trans Issues at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

In their first year, they have built a nerve center for writing, teaching and talking over new ideas, and a network of rabbis, scholars and teachers who are eager to use them.

“We come from all branches of Judaism,” she said, “from Reform to ultra-orthodox, which for me is part of the joy of it, and I hope means the tools we create and curate and share will have a broad capacity to reach people.”

They share an excitement in broadening an understanding of their faith, with open minds and conversations.

In that spirit, Congregation Beth Israel has also joined with Williams College in hosting events including Michael Twitty, the author of The Cooking Gene, who visited the college and the shul in April 2019.

“He (talks) about his work and exploring the history of Southern food as black / African food that came here with people who were enslaved,” she said, “and what it means to explore ancestral memory through food, as a man who is black and gay and Jewish.”

She recalls a passage in his book: “At Pesach (Passover), when we eat matzah, we say it is ‘the bread of our affliction.’ He talks about the ash cakes cooked in the ashes and eaten while harvesting,” literally the bread of affliction for enslaved people in the American South not long ago. 

“What does it mean to relate to Passover,” she asked, “when it’s not just ancient tradition and metaphor?”

That question defines the work of Bayit, as she explains it — to relate tradition and metaphor vibrantly in contemporary life. And it has already come home in hers.

In the last year, Barenblat has been writing and gathering a book. She has been writing freelance for more than 20 years, and for this project she brought together some 40 writers; in March, in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press, Bayit has published Beside Still Waters, a companion for mourners.

She has this book wanted to exist for 14 years, she said, and readers have welcomed it eagerly — as of the first week of spring it is the #1 new release in Jewish life on Amazon.

In prayer and contemporary poetry, it walks through stages of grief, from death and burial through the first week of loss, the first month and the first year. 

And it is newly released just as she has come to need it. She lost her mother a month ago, after a long illness.

“In my own days of mourning,” she said, “I was amazed at how resonant it was and how new it felt for me. Encountering it in my own time was entirely different.”

In that time, she listened to a friend reading aloud her own poem, an evening prayer for the first days after a deep loss — soothe my fear of life without enough light — surrounded by the voices in her new work, and candle flame, and her own windows looking toward the hills at dawn.

Note from the writer — Rachel Barenblat has been my editor and teacher and friend for almost 20 years.

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