Category Archives: education

Journey into Judaism

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share news about a Journey into Judaism program that I’ll be offering over the coming school year, and to invite your participation.

There are a few folks in the northern Berkshire community who are not yet a part of CBI who have approached me about taking a journey into Judaism that might culminate in choosing Judaism formally next Shavuot. Y’all will get to know them over the course of coming months as they come to CBI to experience Jewish life in community.

Teaching people about Judaism is a joy and a privilege and an important part of my work. I’m looking very forward to working with this group in coming months. I’m writing now to open the invitation to all of y’all as well. If you, or someone in your family, might be interested in joining this group please let me know?

Starting in September, our intention is to meet on Tuesdays after lunch. I recognize that this will not work well for people with day jobs, and I’m sorry about that.  (The timing is dictated by the work schedules of those who approached me to set up the class in the first place.) We will meet twice a month from September until Shavuot.

We’ll work with the On One Foot textbook that my Introduction to Judaism class used last year, and I’ll augment that book with other materials, from books to experiences to hevruta (paired study).

If any of my students decide to “take the plunge” (as it were) and formally enter the Jewish people, that will take place next May on the cusp of Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, the Jewish retreat center where some of y’all have joined me for Shavuot over the last few years.

Shavuot is a traditional time to welcome Jews-by-choice into the community (because at Shavuot we read the book of Ruth; Ruth is often considered to be the first Jew-by-choice). Our new Jews will come before a beit din (a rabbinic court) and then immerse in beautiful Lake Miriam to effect and mark their change. Then we’ll celebrate them over the course of Shavuot as we receive Torah together anew. (Save the dates: next year’s Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman is May 18-22.)

If you’re interested in taking part in this Journey into Judaism on Tuesdays during the coming nine months, please let me know!

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

Ranana Dine on religious symbols and BRCA

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Those of you who had kids in our Ne’arim (“Youths” — our 5th through 7th grade b’nei mitzvah prep program) class this past year had the chance to meet Ranana Dine, the Williams student who taught Hebrew to some of our beginners and also tutored our three bar mitzvah boys in Torah reading practice.

Ranana is spending the summer engaged in research at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, and her research project was inspired by her time at CBI. She recently published a blog post on the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s blog which explains how her work at CBI sparked her research. I thought her work might be interesting to many of you, so I’m sharing a glimpse of it here. Here’s how her post starts:

When I began teaching Hebrew school this past year, I never imagined the experience would inspire a major research project. Each week, I would arrive at the small synagogue and try to get 11-year-olds to think that the Hebrew language was cool by playing them music by Idan Raichel (alas, they seemed to prefer American rap music). While this experience was interesting and challenging on its own, it didn’t quite inspire my academic imagination like my school readings on feminist Biblical scholarship or American landscape painting. But as I returned each week to teach about the letter yud or play hide and seek with Hebrew vowels, I could not help but occasionally find myself in the women’s restroom. And there inspiration struck…

You can read her whole post here: Should religious symbols be part of the BRCA Discussion? (The BRCA gene test is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify harmful changes in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes, mutations which are more common among Ashkenazi Jewish women than in other populations.)

Ranana will be studying abroad in the fall, but we hope that she will lend her expertise and her energy to CBI once again in early 2015.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Ne’arim video podcasts

One of the projects undertaken by our 5th through 7th grade Hebrew school class this fall was a series of short video podcasts, exploring themes of Judaism and civil rights through the lenses of some of their favorite pop culture stories.

Here are their four short videos, ranging in duration from about two minutes to about five minutes. The password for watching the videos is the name of that class (capitalized, no punctuation) followed by the current Jewish year.

(If you are a CBI member but can’t make the password work for you, email Rabbi Rachel for help.)


Nearim Video Podcast 5774: Civil Rights and Doctor Who


Nearim Video Podcast 5774: Oppression, Privilege, and Harry Potter


Nearim Video Podcast 5774: Oppression, Privilege and the Hobbit:


Nearim Video Podcast 5774: Star Wars and Civil Rights:

Postponing Chai Mitzvah

Dear Congregation Beth Israel community,

I am writing to let you know that the Chai Mitzvah program at CBI has been postponed for another time, possibly next year. If you are interested, please hang on to that interest!

Meanwhile, we are offering several other wonderful educational opportunities this fall — including some mussar learning taught by R’ Pam Wax on several Shabbats (starting tomorrow), a two-part class on kaddish and minyan and creating community (co-taught by R’ Pam and myself) on October 24 and 26, and a Friday afternoon monthly class on the poetry of Jewish liturgy which I will be teaching at the Williamstown coffee shop, starting on October 25.

I hope that one or more of these other offerings will be your cup of tea. All are free and open to everyone.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Rachel

Guest Post from Rabbi Pam Wax: Mussar Learning at CBI


To further the work with Mussar that was begun on Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Pamela Wax will be offering a Torah study class focused on Mussar.  These sessions will be offered following the services she leads on the following upcoming Shabbatot: Saturdays, October 12, November 23, and December 28. They are open to all.  Please join us for services at 9:30 AM and then for Torah study at approximately 11:15 or 11:30.

Mussar is a spiritual practice meant to elevate our character by a focus on our behavior, our motivations, and the cultivation of soul-traits/middot. Through an exploration of the behaviors and intentions of our patriarchs and matriarchs in the book of Genesis and Exodus, we will consider how best to model “walking in God’s ways.”


This update also appears in the Fall 2013 CBI Newsletter.

New Adult Learning Opportunity: Kaddish, Minyan, and Creating Community

A two-part class taught by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi Pam Wax
Thursday 10/24 at 7:30pm and Saturday 10/26 after services.

In this two-part class, we’ll learn about Jewish death/dying traditions, the history and practice of the mourner’s kaddish and why our tradition historically requires a minyan for that prayer, how to co-create community and the importance of “showing up,” and more!

On Thursday night (October 24) we will explore our community’s booklet Everlasting Life: A Guide to Jewish Death & Mourning Customs [pdf] and will learn about mourner’s kaddish and other prayers and practices relating to mourning. We’ll also learn a bit about shiva minyanim: what they are, how they work, why they matter.

On Saturday morning (October 26), after reading the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah (which includes the death and burial of the matriarch Sarah), we’ll learn some of the traditions which come out of that Torah portion, and we’ll explore some texts relating to cemeteries, mourning, and caring for each other. We’ll also honor our chevra kadisha and cemetery committees during that Shabbat morning service.

All are welcome; this class is free. Bring your questions about kaddish, minyan, death and dying! We look forward to exploring your questions, and some of our tradition’s answers, together.

Join us this year for Chai Mitzvah learning!


Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing in hopes that you will join me this year for an exciting new educational program called Chai Mitzvah.  Chai Mitzvah was created in 2008 as a way to engage adults in a Jewish journey throughout their lives.

The program features three elements: exploring a new (or new-to-you) Jewish ritual each month, doing some social action each month, and attending one Chai Mitzvah class at CBI each month. The Chai Mitzvah curriculum features lessons on subjects ranging from “Creating a New American Jewish Minhag/Custom” to “Tzedakah/Philanthropy” to “The Individual and the Community: What Are Our Responsibilities to Each Other?” It’s a terrific curriculum, assembled by a transdenominational group of educators; you can get a glimpse of it on the Chai Mitzvah website.

Chai Mitzvah classes will meet at CBI once a month, on Saturdays, after Shabbat morning services. (Either we’ll make it a brown-bag lunch affair, or we’ll order in each time.) The class dates are 10/5, 11/2, 12/7 (2013); 1/4, 2/1, 3/1, 4/5, 5/3, 6/7 (2014). Classes are slated to run from 12:30-2pm, though we might shift that to be 12pm-1:30pm.

For those who do not write on Shabbat, never fear — there will be no need to write things down. These classes count as Torah study, which is a wholly Shabbat-appropriate activity! For those whose Shabbat practice does include writing, you are welcome to bring your preferred note-taking materials if you like. We will all respect each others’ practices and choices.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Rabbi Rachel at 413-663-5830 or Tuition for the year is $18, which includes all curricular materials. If that’s not comfortable for you, please let the rabbi know privately. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.

The first class meets on October 5, which is about ten days from now. Class size is limited — please sign up now!

Moadim l’simcha, wishing you a joyous festival of Sukkot,

Rabbi Rachel