Many thanks to the editors at the Berkshire Jewish Voice for running such a lovely article! You can read the May 1 to May 31 2015 edition of the Berkshire Jewish Voice at their website [pdf], or -- for those who have difficulty accessing the pdf file -- the text of the interview is included below.
Bringing the Joy
Local Rabbi Rachel Barenblat Appointed Co-Chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal
If Didi Gregorius somehow finds himself in need of empathetic pastoral counseling in this his first season stepping in for Derek Jeter as the New York Yankees’ shortstop, he might consider reaching out to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. She probably has some idea of what he is going through.
This April, Rabbi Barenblat took on the position of co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the umbrella organization for the Jewish Renewal movement inspired and led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who passed in 2014. A larger-than-life figure, Reb Zalman’s long career was marked by many of the major milestones of 20th century Jewish history. A refugee from Eastern Europe, he was ordained by and then broke with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was a friend of Shlomo Carelbach, Timothy Leary, Thomas Merton, and Ram Dass, and participated in the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelic drugs and all.
Barenblat says Reb Zalman developed a “deep ecumenism that was different from we think of as interfaith dialogue.” While retaining a connection to Judaism informed by his core experiences in the Hasidic world, Reb Zalman recognized “that others were also on a spiritual path,” says Barenblat, “and that Jews can learn from them and even pray with them.”
She shared a quote from Reb Zalman: “If I want to appreciate a stained glass window I don’t look at it from outside into a dark space, then I can’t see what’s going on. A stained glass window is meant to be seen from the inside. If I want to understand what it’s like for a person standing in front of a crucifix, to address God through that image, I have to at least temporarily set aside my own point of view so I can see it from inside that person: what does that person see?”
The Jewish Renewal movement represented by ALEPH, explains Barenblat, is “a trans-denominational effort to revive Judaism and bring back joy. It honors the fact that Judaism has always been about change.” Approximately 50 congregations worldwide identify as Jewish Renewal, but Barenblat says the movement’s influence has permeated even traditional denominations. “Jewish Renewal opened up a toolbox of Jewish contemplative practices,” she says, citing widely adopted innovations such as translating prayers into “davenable” English, incorporating yoga and meditation into services, and employing inclusive God language. Reb Zalman also created the rainbow-colored B’nai Or tallis, which introduced color to prayer shawl fashion that had hitherto been exclusively black or blue and white.
Barenblat first encountered the ideas of Reb Zalman in 1994 as a student at Williams College when she read The Jew in the Lotus, poet Rodger Kamenetz’s account of a historic Buddhist–Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama that took place in 1990. “The book showed that we are not the only people on a spiritual journey,” she says, “and we should not delude ourselves by thinking we have nothing to learn.”
Barenblat had grown up in an observant Jewish home and studied religion at Williams, but did not think about becoming a spiritual leader until 2002, when she went on a week-long retreat at Elat Chayyim (now a Hazon program) and first encountered Jewish Renewal teachers.
She attended meditations in the morning, tikkun olam programs in the evening, and was exposed to alternative kinds of services. She recalls that while on retreat, she davened in a yurt (a portable, round tent covered with skins used by Central Asian steppe nomads), where for the first time she saw women wearing tefillin. She remembers thinking: “I want to be a rabbi like these rabbis.” But, she says, “I thought I’d do it later in life.”
She had obtained an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars, and was immersed in writing poetry and other literary endeavors. But spurred on by her if-not-now-when-Hillel-quoting husband, Barenblat changed course and entered the ALEPH rabbinic program in 2005. Her path to ordination included 60 courses over six years of study; she later received a secondary ordination in spiritual direction as a mashpi’ah from ALEPH. Along the way, she blogged as “The Velveteen Rabbi,” a site Time magazine cited as one of the top 25 blogs in 2008. In 2011, she was appointed the rabbi at CBI (after having served an apprenticeship there), while in 2013, she was named a Rabbis Without Borders fellow by Clal, the Center for Learning and Leadership.
Clearly, though Barenblat has long been engaged with the Jewish world beyond the Berkshires, she says her role as a rabbi and the life of her congregation keeps her grounded. Her ALEPH co-chair, Rabbi David Markus, is also the spiritual leader of a small congregation, his on City Island in the Bronx.
“Both David and I serve small shuls,” she says, and while with ALEPH they “have flights of fancy of what we want to bring to all the world, but we have to balance that with our congregations, which are living laboratories” of what can actually be accomplished. She adds: “I think have the best of both worlds – I have a rural congregation and can also have an impact on the canvas of Jewish life.”
No doubt, many would find carrying on the work of a beloved and world-famous figure like Reb Zalman – who did not name a successor – to be a daunting proposition. (At press time, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius was batting .154.) But Barenblat is approaching her new role with confidence and energy, secure that Reb Zalman and his students have left a sound foundation.
“David and I are students of his students,” says Barenblat. “We want to bring Jewish Renewal to new people, to share its wealth of riches. It changed my life, and now I have to figure out how to let other people know what it is.” Their terms run for three years, and their jobs will be to guide ALEPH’s board. Since she and David Markus are the first to jointly hold the position, she says she does not know what to expect. She is starting out with “a listening tour around the country where we can talk to the innovators out there.”
She also sees the Berkshires as a place where Jewish Renewal ideas can flourish. Two rabbinic colleagues in the county received ordination from the two other most prominent Jewish organizations that can be described as trans-denominational – Rabbi Joshua Breindel from Hebrew College and Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman from the Academy for Jewish Religion. “We learn together,” Barenblat says, and have explored ways to collaborate. “We are moving into a post-denominational era, where no one is sure one denomination has the whole answer. There are a lot of people out there doing Jewish Renewal work, even if not formally.
“Through ALEPH, we want to get them all working together.”