Category Archives: about the rabbi

A week of learning, vision, and building with Bayit

Dear CBI members and friends,

I’ve just returned home from my annual rabbinic study week. This year I spent my study week with my hevre (study partners / colleagues / friends) from Bayit: Your Jewish Home, the new nonprofit organization that I co-founded last year along with Steven Green and several other wonderful folks. If you’ve ever wondered what kinds of things I do on my rabbinic study week, here are some glimpses… and I look forward to bringing some of this work into completion in a way that will enliven and enrich Jewish life at CBI!

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel


A week of learning, vision, and building with Bayit


Bayit‘s summer learning week together begins with Shabbes. We come together from all of our various home places, put on our Shabbes whites, and daven, walking outside with a guitar to welcome the Shabbat bride into our midst. When we gather around the dining table, our kiddush soars, and my soul with it. We feast and talk and laugh and sing the birkat hamazon (grace after meals). We walk to the beach under the just-past-full moon and swoon at the sparkling path of moonlight across the waves.

On Shabbes morning our davenen is long and leisurely. Leadership flows organically: someone picks up the guitar or begins to offer a melody and the rest follow. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz gives over some Torah, and we talk about Balaam, social justice, and when it is and isn’t someone’s job to educate those who mistreat them. Later we study when one can send a shaliach (messenger) on one’s behalf and when it’s important to do a mitzvah with one’s own hands, and social justice, individual, and community.

There’s beach time, text study, singing. There’s the indescribable sweetness of spending a full Shabbat with others who care as much as I do. There are long afternoon conversations, and singing around the table as daylight wanes. There’s havdalah outside, our hands cupped around the candle so the ocean breeze doesn’t blow it out. There’s late-night conversation about what it means for our building work to be a tikkun for what has been broken, and even later-night Pictionary with endless laughter.

And that’s just the first night and day.


We daven every day, gliding in and out of service leadership, singing in harmony. We dedicate hours to talking about Bayit’s mission and vision, about the projects that are already underway, about partnership and collaboration, about what we yearn to build. We cook meals and clean up from meals and walk across the street to the beach and lounge by the ocean and swim and bask in the sunshine. We dive deep into the nature of innovation, systems and structures, how to wisely do spiritual R&D.

We study Ezekiel with Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, diving into difficult questions of theodicy, relationship, spiritual formation, privilege, bypassing, gender, and grief. We study the theology of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy): how narratives and instructions from earlier in Torah are recast there, and what it means to hear God’s voice and study God’s word, and immanence and transcendence, and what the Deuteronomic God asks of us (learning and love.)

We study Shabbat and medical halakha and ethics with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. There’s a text from the Nezer Yisrael — about Shabbat, oscillation between giving and receiving, and how divinity can be manifest in authentic relationship —  that lights me up like a Chanukiyah. There are teshuvot (responsa) and texts that raise big questions about identity, disability, change, personhood, and the halakhic process. We talk and grapple and question and learn.

We spin blue-sky dreams about where we want the Jewish future to go and what we want to build, about curation and collaboration and innovation — and then we anchor those dreams in six-month and one-year and three-year and five-year plans. We talk about empowering folks to build an accessible, meaningful Judaism now. We talk about governance and publishing and the internet and spiritual seekers and “all ages and stages.” Then we set our work aside and immerse in the ocean, with joy.


We begin to brainstorm about how we might re-invent the second day of Rosh Hashanah. What is the spiritual journey of that day, and how is it different from the first day? What do our communities need on that day? What elements ask a new uplift? What is the valance of teshuvah (returning / “repentance”) on that day distinct from the day before? What kind of temporal and spiritual runway do we need so our communities can accompany us into the spiritual territory we want to explore that day?

One night we bring folding chairs to the beach and daven ma’ariv with a guitar, accompanied by the waves, beneath the spread of stars. No one has a siddur, but it doesn’t matter; we have the words and the matbe’ah (the service’s internal structure) by heart. We sing to the One Who placed the planets in their orbit and the stars in the heavens. Because it came up in conversation earlier that day that one of us loves “Hotel California,” we close with “Adon Olam” to that melody in multipart harmony.

When Bayit’s summer learning and visioning week comes to an end, I’m sad to leave this space of learning and visioning and holy play… and grateful to have such hevre with whom to do the holy work of building together. Deep thanks to The Jewish Studio, our fiscal sponsor, for making this week possible — and to my hevre, for dedicating their hands and hearts to the proposition that everyone can be a builder, and that a meaningful, accessible, renewing Judaism is ours to build together.


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With [some of] my Bayit hevre: building toward the Jewish future together.



Originally posted at Velveteen Rabbi.

Bayit: Your Jewish Home and CBI

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share with you some news about a new endeavor in which I am involved that I think will be terrific for CBI!


Bayit: Your Jewish Home is a nonprofit organization I recently co-founded with several colleagues — including CBI’s own Steven Green! The word Bayit is Hebrew for “house” (hence the tagline “Your Jewish Home”), and we want to help people feel “at home” in their Judaism in renewed and renewing ways. Our goal is to give people the tools they need to build the Jewish future, and to empower everyone to take their Judaism into their own hands. I’m deeply excited about Bayit, and about bringing the tools that Bayit creates “home” with me to CBI.

Bayit’s initial keystone projects include a few things that I think will directly benefit CBI. We are diving into the world of Jewish publishing, collaborating with Ben Yehuda Press to release a volume for mourners called Beside Still Waters. That volume contains materials for before death, for the time between death and burial, for shiva (the first week) and shloshim (the first month), yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance), and more. I’m looking forward to using that book in our community as we accompany and comfort those who mourn.

Bayit is also launching an Innovation Pilot Program that will entrain 10-20 congregations across the continent and across the denominational spectrum. We’ll create innovative community experiences, and seek responses from participants to discern “what works.” Assuming that the Board approves, CBI will be one of the participating communities. Bayit’s offerings will be keyed to the Jewish festival calendar, and participating communities will get to offer feedback to help improve these rituals, practices, and experiences — participating in meaningful spiritual R&D.

There are other projects on Bayit’s to-do list, among them a website of curated resources for lifecycle transitions, a website of curated resources for spiritual seekers (think The Jewish Catalog, updated for the 58th / 21st century), and more. And: we want to know what you most need. What tools would best help you feel like you have ownership of Jewish tradition and practice? What resources do you most need in your Jewish life? What can we build together with you that would help you feel more “at home” in Judaism and in your spiritual life?

I think the work I’m doing with Bayit will facilitate a variety of ways for me to better serve you as your rabbi. I’m looking forward to seeing what unfolds.

Bayit doesn’t yet have an email list, but we have a website, and we’re on Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to follow us in any of those places. And tell us what you want to see us build! (Our doors are always open, and given that two out of the seven Founding Builders of Bayit are CBI members, y’all have a particular “in” — nu, reach out anytime.) I look forward to bringing Bayit’s resources and programs here to CBI to enrich and enliven our practice, and to helping all of us at CBI feel “at home” in our Jewish lives and in the life of the spirit, now and always.

Blessings —

Rabbi Rachel

Reprinted from the March CBI Newsletter.

Deepening our connections with Williams

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share with you some happy news: this spring, in addition to serving CBI as your rabbi, I will also be serving the Williams College community as interim Jewish chaplain to the College.

The position at the College (which officially begins in February) is halftime, as is my position at CBI. I know that there will be challenges in dovetailing these two positions, but I am confident that it can be done — and I hope that CBI will reap benefits from this opportunity to more closely connect our shul with the Jewish community and the multi-faith community at the College.

The students have already expressed to me an interest in figuring out how to be more connected with CBI. I’m hoping we can sponsor at least one celebration or program together during the spring semester, so stay tuned for more on that.

I will still be at CBI two days a week. I will still lead davenen (prayer) at CBI two Shabbatot a month. I will still teach my five b’nei mitzvah students. I will still teach the Introduction to Judaism class at CBI. I will still lead our meditation minyan on Friday mornings. I will still provide pastoral care and counseling. And I will still preside over lifecycle events at CBI from babynamings to funerals and everything in between.

I anticipate that there will be times when I have to say “no” to an obligation at the College because I am already committed to something at CBI, and times when I will have to say “no” to something at CBI because I am needed at the College. I know that won’t be easy for anyone (least of all for me!) and I ask all of you to please bear with me as I figure out how to walk this path.

I recognize that this news may evoke anxiety for some of you. You may be wondering whether I will still be able to provide sufficient service and care to the CBI community. I am happy to sit down with anyone who wants to talk about this and what it brings up for you. I promise you that I will do everything within my power to continue to serve CBI with whole heart, even as I also move into serving in this other way to which I am called.

With loving blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Rabbi Rachel named one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis

Each year, the Forward solicits nominations from the public for their Most Inspiring Rabbis list. This year they received 350 nominations, and chose 32 rabbis for this national honor. Our own Rabbi Rachel was one of those 32! Congratulations to Rabbi Rachel.

On serving CBI, and my new ALEPH role

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Some happy news became public this week: along with my friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus, I’ve been tapped to serve as co-chair of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. (See ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal names new leadership.) Rabbi David and I are humbled and honored to be asked to serve in this way — to have the incredible opportunity of carrying ALEPH and Jewish Renewal forward for new generations.

As the news has been percolating around Facebook, a few of you have reached out to ask me: will I still be your rabbi? What does this news mean for CBI? I’m writing today to offer instant reassurance: I will still be your rabbi for as long as y’all want to have me. I am honored and delighted to serve as CBI’s spiritual leader. That won’t change.

I believe, and I know Rabbi David agrees, that it’s important for ALEPH’s leadership to be pulpit clergy. ALEPH isn’t only an academic venture: we can’t lead ALEPH from a walled-off place detached from real life. Our Judaism needs to be lived: innovation needs to be effective in touching the lives of individuals and communities, or else it’s not particularly useful to anyone.

I think of CBI, and of Rabbi David’s little shul on City Island, and the growing network of other communities led by ALEPH-ordained clergy and aligned with ALEPH’s mission and vision, as living laboratories for the renewal of Judaism. What works at CBI, we can try to bring elsewhere. In that sense, the work I do at CBI is a key part of my ALEPH role.

I am always honored and blessed to serve the CBI community. And, I think and hope that the bigger-picture work I’m doing in the Jewish world will bring some prominence to CBI… and my experience at CBI will help me bring more wisdom to my ALEPH work. Perhaps my new role will bring some visibility to our little community in North Adams, and — who knows! — maybe even entice some new members to join us.

I hope that I will continue to bring creative and meaningful teachings, interpretations, and practices to our community, as I have done from the very beginning. And when what we do at CBI seems translate-able to a different setting, I will share some of our community’s practices and our community’s wisdom with the broader Jewish Renewal world.

For my part, I’ll be spending more of my non-CBI time working with Rabbi David, and my ALEPH colleagues, on striving to bring the spiritual resources of Jewish Renewal to a broader audience. My ALEPH work, like my poetry work, will happen during the “other” half of my time.

As I wrote in a blog post recently on my own blog, Velveteen Rabbi, Jewish Renewal has given me incalculable gifts. I look forward to helping to share those gifts with more people — including all of y’all at CBI — in years to come. And I hope that over time I can strengthen the connections between our little community which I love, and the broader Jewish Renewal community where I have found a home.

If you have questions or concerns about this, or about anything, please don’t hesitate to reach out — my door is always open.

Wishing y’all many blessings, as always,

Rabbi Rachel

What is the Rabbi Reading?

One way to know someone more deeply is to find out what they’re reading. Board member Pattie Lipman asked our shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) what they are reading, and here’s what they said in response!

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is reading:

Rabbi Pam Wax is reading

  • Colum McCann’s new book TransAtlantic;
  • Eitan Fishbane’s memoir about his wife’s tragic death (at age 32!) Shadows in Winter: A Memoir of Love and Loss. I teach in Eitan’s “Practical Hasidism” class at JTS every year, and he gave me the memoir as a gift because of all the bereavement groups I lead.
  • My Mussar hevruta partner and I are slogging through Avraham ben haRamban’s (Maimonides’ son) Mussar tome The Guide to Serving God, from the year 1230.
  • And I am re-reading (for the 3rd or 4th time) the most seminal Mussar classic, Mesillat Yesharim/The Path of the Just (early 1700’s) to try to keep at least a half step ahead of the rabbi/cantor Mussar group I lead.

She adds: “There are a lot of books I dabble in regularly but don’t read cover-to-cover — Naomi Levy’s amazing book of personal prayers, Talking to God is a mainstay, as are the poetry books of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.”

Rabbi Howard Cohen is reading

And Rabbi Dennis Ross, who will lead services here on Shabbat Shuvah (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), is reading

Stay tuned for the next installment in this periodic series of glimpses into the bookshelves of our shlichei tzibbur!

Announcing a new book by Reb Rachel

Dear CBI members and friends,

I’m delighted to be writing today to announce the publication of Waiting to Unfold, my new collection of poems about motherhood.


About the collection, poet Merle Feld — who visited CBI last year — writes,

In these remarkable poems Rachel Barenblat traverses the world of first-time parenthood with insight, generosity, rare courage. She shares first innocent awe, then unexpected darkness as a winter of the soul claims squatter’s rights in the nursery, and finally, aching, yearning, growing toward hope, a relearning of holy presence in small things. New parents will be astonished that someone has found words for their deepest secrets, parents long past these early months will gratefully nod: yes, I remember, this is true.

And poet Rodger Kamenetz writes:

The intense observation of the poet and the intense observation of the mother unite in a celebration of what is new and newborn, what is intensely felt and cherished and what is lost and mourned. Rachel Barenblat’s poems are easy to enter into, and they carry both the uniqueness of her persona as poet and serious Jew and the universality of love that has made us all. There’s a subversive wit here too,—a changing table that’s also a throne of glory, or the baby chewing on his mother’s tefillin—that speaks to a newly emerging sensibility about what is reverent and what is holy. It’s in the everyday as our best American poets have taught us, and as Rachel Barenblat teaches us in a new way too.

You can learn more about the collection at the publisher’s website; if you’re so inclined, you can purchase a copy there, or on Amazon.

I’ll be giving a reading from the new collection at 4pm on Sunday June 9 at CBI, and books will be available for purchase then too. Stay tuned for more information about that.

Thank you for joining me in celebrating this milestone!

Blessings to all,

Reb Rachel