Category Archives: days of awe

Looking forward to Yom Kippur!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Soon we will gather again for the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. Hazzan Randall Miller and I derived great joy from leading this community in davenen last week during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, and we are looking so forward to being with everyone again for Yom Kippur.

A couple of tachlis (practical details) items:

If you hope to attend the break-the-fast on Saturday evening but have not yet let us know, please reply to this email or call the office (413-663-5830) ASAP.

On Yom Kippur afternoon at 4pm we will hold mincha (“afternoon offering”) services. We will be piloting liturgy from Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform movement’s forthcoming machzor. Please RSVP to the office to let us know if you are coming so we know how many booklets to print. This is an exciting opportunity to preview the Reform movement’s new material; please join us!

And now on to other things. For those who are interested, here are explanations of three Yom Kippur customs: wearing white, wearing a tallit for Kol Nidre, and avoiding leather.

whiteWhy do we wear white on Yom Kippur?

Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. (There’s also a kabbalistic custom of wearing white on erev Shabbat, to welcome the Shabbat bride and queen — and this year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, so that’s two reasons at once to be clad in white finery!)

Another interpretation is that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us may even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial. You will see Hazzan Randall in his kittel during the holiday.) As members of our chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society) know, every Jew is buried in the same simple shroud: plain white garments, the same for everyone, men and women, rich and poor. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality and our equality in the eyes of God.

Our tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah to make teshuvah, to repent and to clear one’s personal and interpersonal slate, the day before death. But how do any of us know when we will die? Aha, say the sages; then we must make teshuvah every day. And surely this is true. But there is something particularly special and meaningful about the teshuvah we make on Yom Kippur, perhaps because on this day we get in touch with our mortality. As we face death, we become more honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.

On Yom Kippur, wearing the garments we will wear when we die is a stark reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.

Why do some Jews avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur?

There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes. And, of course, you will also see others for whom this interpretation is not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation upholds the Reform value of informed choice; each of us is empowered to choose which observances we follow and how we do so.

Why do we wear a tallit at night for Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.

There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun“) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.

For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are often buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.

Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.

A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to mimic a court, a “beit din” of three, as a beit din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.

If you are in town, I hope to see you at CBI this Friday for Erev Yom Kippur. Wherever you are as Yom Kippur unfolds, may you be inscribed for a year of life, prosperity and shalom.

Gmar chatimah tovah –  May you be sealed for sweetness in the year to come!

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Children of Sarah and Hagar (Rabbi Rachel’s sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 1, 5775)


The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We’d been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. “I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!” I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y’all have known me for a while now, so you’re probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child’s pose, you’ve had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you’ve had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It’s a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God’s hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

“Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear.” I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it’s always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah’s jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

Continue reading

Watching our holiday services from afar

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

This year we are experimenting with livestreaming some of our High Holiday services so that those who are homebound or hospitalized can watch, listen, and daven along with our community as we gather for these holy days.

We are doing this with technology we already had on hand; the picture quality and audio will almost certainly not be perfect. We don’t have a dedicated cameraperson filming our services, nor do we have a dedicated tech person who can serve as tech support if this doesn’t work! But we hope to record and livestream Rosh Hashanah services on Wednesday evening, Thursday morning, and Friday morning. (I’m not sure we are going to record Thursday evening services, though we might try.)

The videos should appear on our livestream webpage as the services are happening, and they will remain archived there for 30 days (so if you’re not able to watch while the service is happening, but would like to watch them later, they will be available.)

Here is the link for our Rosh Hashanah livestream: Rosh Hashanah 5775 at CBI.

You will need to register with in order to see the video, but there is no cost associated with doing so.

We hope that this will be useful to our members who are homebound or hospitalized, and also to members of our community who are far away and are missing the chance to be present with us this week. Of course, if you are nearby and are able to join us in person, that is what we hope you will do! I am looking forward to seeing every one of your shining faces as the holidays unfold. But if you aren’t able to be here, we hope that these livestream videos will work and will be a comfort to you.

We are still in need of someone who can start the recording on Rosh Hashanah morning 1 (Thursday morning). This person would need to press a button to begin the recording, and then to wait a few moments and make sure that the camera connects with the internet and can begin broadcasting. If you will be here on Thursday morning and would be able to serve in this way, please let me know (rabbibarenblat at gmail dot com) as soon as you can.

Wishing you every blessing as the old year winds down,

Rabbi Rachel

Schedule for the Days of Awe 5775

All are welcome; no tickets are required.

Before the holidays begin

Selichot: havdalah and short ritual (sing beloved melodies, write down what you need to release), potluck dessert reception to follow – Saturday, September 20, 8pm

Cemetary Service, Walker Street – Sunday, September 21, 2pm

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah First Evening service – Weds, September 24, 7:30pm

Rosh Hashanah First Day morning service  –  Thurs, September 25, 9:30am (childcare will be provided; childrens’ service is at 10am)

Tashlich (casting bread upon the waters) to follow

Rosh Hashanah Second Evening service – Thurs, September 25, 7:30pm

Rosh Hashanah Second Day  morning service – Fri, September 26, 9:30am

Yom Kippur

Kol Nidre – Friday, October 3, 6pm; arrive at 5:30 to hear musicians (violin and piano) playing melodies to set the mood (childcare will be provided)

Yom Kippur Morning service –  Sat., October 4, 9:30am (childcare will be provided; childrens’ service, 10am)

Yizkor will follow at the end of the morning service.

Particularism and Universalism: An Exploration with Rabbi Pam Wax – after Yizkor is complete. (“How, as Jews, do we hold the tension between our particularistic longing for Jewish community and survival with our universalistic longings of Jewish purpose beyond mere survival? What do the High Holy Days have to say about this tension?” This will be the first in a series of three sessions; the second will fall during Sukkot and the third in November.)

Gentle Yom Kippur Yoga,  3pm (appropriate for those who are fasting)

Yom Kippur Mincha service (including the Avodah service – during which we will pilot liturgy from Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform movement’s forthcoming machzor), 4pm

Spiritual discussion: what has opened up in you, during these Days of Awe?, 5pm

Yom Kippur Ne’ilah service, 6pm

Yom Kippur Break-The-Fast: after services. Please RSVP!

Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah

Help us build the CBI sukkah on Sunday, October 5, at 2pm! Sukkot begins on Weds 10/8.

Sukkot / Shabbat Potluck, Friday, October 10, 5:30pm. (Feel free to drop in & use the synagogue sukkah any time during the week of Sukkot.)

Sukkah Cycle Sunday, Sunday October 12, starting at 10am – we’ll caravan (via bicycle or car) from the Williams College sukkah, to Bob and Susie Scherr’s sukkah, to two other sukkot, to the CBI sukkah. In each location we’ll have the opportunity to nosh, schmooze, shake the lulav, and learn a little Torah.

Shemini Atzeret services, with Yizkor, Thursday, October 16, 9:30am

How do the Days of Awe “work” for us? Groundbreaking research – at CBI!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I hope that this note finds y’all well! I have sweet news to share with you. We at CBI have an opportunity to be at the cutting edge of understanding how Judaism functions at the beginning of the 21st century.

Some of you may recall that I was chosen as a Rabbis Without Borders fellow last year. Rabbis Without Borders is a program of Clal (the Center for Learning and Leadership — the Hebrew word clal means “inclusive”), and the fellowship experience gave me all kinds of tools and ideas to bring back to my service of CBI.

Because of my participation in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, our congregation has been invited to participate in the first ever national study of the impact of the High Holiday experience on the strengths and virtues central to human flourishing. In other words, do you get something out of the High Holidays? Does some aspect of the experience of coming to shul during the Days of Awe help you in your life? No one has ever asked these questions before. Our answers could shape the Jewish future.

Here at CBI, we’re already hard at work planning the experiences we’ll open up to you during those special days. We want your high holiday journey to be meaningful and sweet. We hope that our services will uplift your spirits, connect you with each other and with God, and launch you into a new Jewish year filled with renewed desire to be your best self. This mirrors what Rabbis Without Borders aims to create nationally, a Judaism which helps us flourish as human beings.

How will the CBI community participate in this research? Those who choose to do so will be invited to fill out a survey both before and after the high holidays to measure how we are affected by the holidays. The survey will be anonymous. If you are interested in participating please let me know (email rabbibarenblat at gmail dot com, or call the office and leave your name with Jack.)

The information we gather will be a novel contribution to the fields of positive and social psychology, and will benefit the Jewish world as a whole. Beyond that, in filling out the survey, we ourselves will learn more about how the High Holidays work for us to increase our capacity for gratitude, optimism and belonging.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this process. I look forward to sharing more about it with you in the months ahead.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

This year’s erev Rosh Hashanah mini-sermons

Over the last several years, it’s been the custom at CBI for the Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon to be given by three congregants speaking on a shared theme. This year, in anticipation of my Rosh Hashanah Morning 1 sermon on Creating Community, I asked Bob Bashevkin, Robin Brickman, and Lisa Howard to speak about finding home at CBI. Here is what they said. — Rabbi Rachel

Bob Bashevkin

My assignment tonight is to give you some of the history of this congregation as I have lived it, and to do that in a limited amount of time.

One cannot fit very much into a limited amount of time, and I will do my best to stay as close to that limit as I can manage. So please be aware that between these lines there is a lot more history that I have not included –some of it humorous, and some of it serious.

When I was born, the North Adams synagogue was the center of Jewish life in the northern half of Berkshire County.

The Jewish population of North Adams was quite large, and many of the retail stores in downtown North Adams were owned by members of our congregation. In fact, every fall, when the High Holidays were coming, the Jewish merchants in North Adams would join together and pay for a full page ad in the local newspaper. The ad listed all their stores. And it announced the dates of the High Holidays, when their stores would all be closed. Continue reading

High Holiday Survey

Dear Congregation Beth Israel community,

main_25Shavua tov / a good week to all! I hope that your journey through the Days of Awe has been meaningful and sweet.

We want to hear from you about your experience: what worked for you, what was good, and what we could improve for next year. To that end, we’ve created a very simple survey. It’s only five questions, and won’t take long! It’s online here: Days of Awe at CBI 5774 / 2013 Survey.

The survey will be open for ten days, until September 26 (which is, coincidentally, the day when we’ll be celebrating both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — join us!) We want to receive your responses while your memories of these days are fresh in your mind.

Thanks for taking part in the survey. We look forward to hearing from you.


Rabbi Rachel