Category Archives: social action

Consultation on Conscience Conference next spring

The Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement will be sponsoring their next Consultation on Conscience conference April 30-May 2.

What is Consultation on Conscience?
Consultation on Conscience is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s biennial social justice leadership conference. Held over three days in Washington, D.C., Consultation empowers the Reform Jewish Movement through leadership development; opportunities for network and community building; and active dialogue culminating in an afternoon of advocacy on Capitol Hill. It is open to Congregational Delegations as well as individuals looking to build relationships and deepen their engagement in the fight for progressive social change in North America.

In 2017, there will be a special focus on issues of racial justice, including conversations on how to better organize to combat voter suppression and the staggering problem of mass incarceration in America.

To sign up, go to — and there is a discount rate if you register before 11/22. Rabbi Pam Wax and Chaim Bronstein are planning to go, and hope that others from CBI will do so as well.

The gates are closing – short words for Ne’ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don’t feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.


As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.


Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI’s tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It’s incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

“Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?”

“No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home.”

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.


The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn — teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source — to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.


[Image source.] Also posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

D’var Torah for Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d’var Torah which Reb Rachel offered yesterday. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.

“Y’all shall be holy, for I — Adonai your God — am holy.”

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we’re supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we’re holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There’s chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God’s holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week’s Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don’t render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don’t hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I’ve been studying the Torah portion, I’ve also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie’s funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I’ve seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie’s death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping “I can’t breathe.” I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It’s facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week’s Torah portion can speak to us today.

“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey’s neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah’s system of gleaning aimed to do?

“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.” Do residents of Freddie Grey’s neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

“You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself.” This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week’s Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך — “neighbor” or “other” — meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah’s voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.


Celebrate Human Rights Shabbat at CBI

imagesThis coming Shabbat — December 6/7, Tevet 3/4, parashat Vayigash — we will observe Human Rights Shabbat here at CBI.

Now in its 6th year, Human Rights Shabbat is an initiative to commemorate International Human Rights Day by educating Jewish communities about the intersection of Jewish values and universal human rights. Nearly 150 communities around the world will come together and pledge to manifest the value of k’vod habriot (human dignity) in our synagogues, schools, and homes.

“Human Rights Shabbat gives synagogues across the nation the opportunity to shine a light on some of the most pressing human rights issues of our time, through prayer, sermons, educational panels and more,” says Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “These communities are committed to the shared value that all of us are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim, and that this fundamental human equality requires us to work for human rights both around the world and in our own backyards.”

We will take part in Human Rights Shabbat by experiencing some new liturgy, readings, poems, and prayers during our Shabbat morning service (9:30am) and studying texts relating to human rights during our weekly Torah study (11:15am.) Join us!

A social action program for western Massachusetts Jewish teens

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I just received an invitation for teen members of the CBI community to attend a workshop put on by the Temple Israel Greenfield Hebrew School and the Greenfield Chapter of Hadassah.

On Jan. 6, 12:30-2:30, Temple Israel will be hosting a workshop called:

Social Justice and Jewish Ethics:
What was the Kosher Meat Boycott and What Does It Have to Do with Me?

It’s free and open to any interested teens, regardless of affiliation or level of Jewish education. (Also regardless of whether or not the teen has ever kept kosher!) They will do some interactive exploration of ideas about work and time related to the Labor Movement, learn some American Jewish history together, and read selections from sacred texts which help to provide the backbone of the Jewish ethics related to specific historic events and the Jewish participation in them. They will then study and discuss contemporary events, and will brainstorm possible projects stemming from the teens’ interests.

This is an opportunity for western Massachusetts Jewish teens to meet each other and study and discuss these issues together. It’s a chance for these teens to meet one another and to talk about important issues which matter to them. And it’s also an opportunity for them to develop their ideas and understanding of shared community ethics, and to think about what they can do to make the world a better place.

This program is ideal for teens post bar and bat mitzvah who are looking to expand their interest in tzedakah (righteous giving) and tikkun olam (healing the world). I think it’s appropriate for those who are becoming b’nei mitzvah this year, too.

This will be the first in a series of social justice workshops where teens will have the opportunity to study American Jewish history in social activism, and then to look at what interests them today and what are related problems they would like to tackle.

I would love for some of CBI’s kids to attend. I’ve sent a flyer to the parents of our teens — if you didn’t receive it, let me know and I will send you another! Please share this with your child(ren) and consider whether they might be willing and able to attend. We can arrange carpooling if that’s helpful.

Many blessings to all,
Reb Rachel

Donate used eyeglasses during the Three Weeks

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Do you have outdated eyeglasses in a drawer or cupboard somewhere? If you do, please consider bringing them to CBI between now and the end of this month. All eyeglasses collected will be donated to OneSight, a nonprofit organization which provides eyeglasses to those in need around the world.

Right now we’re in the lunar month of Tammuz, which ancient Jewish mystics associated with the sense of sight and with the need to “heal” or “rectify” our sight so that we only see the best in one another. This is a meaningful spiritual endeavor! But while we’re working on healing our ability to see what’s good in each other and in the world, we can also do our part to help others simply see in the first place.

Between now and Tisha b’Av, which we will observe beginning at 8pm on Saturday, July 28, we’ll be collecting eyewear at CBI. If you have old prescription glasses, please bring them to the synagogue and place them in the box in the foyer with the “donate used eyeglasses here” sign.

May we bring blessings to others through our generosity, and in so doing, may we ourselves be blessed.

Reb Rachel

An invitation to do good work in our community

Dear friends and members of CBI,

This week’s meeting of the Northern Berkshire interfaith clergy group focused on the work of a lay-led group in our area — an association of people of various faiths who seek to serve our community through the Friendship Center food pantry and through a system of vouchers (for food and emergency housing) made available to those in need.

The group doing this holy work is called the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative. Right now, there’s only one CBI member who’s directly involved with that group, and he’s away for the winter; I’m writing now in hopes that other CBI folks might want to get involved, as well. The commitment of time is minimal, but the benefit to our community is tremendous…and, I might suggest, the benefit to our own neshamot, our own souls, which arises when we give a little bit of ourselves to the task of helping the hungry to be fed.

If you’re interested, please consider visiting the Friendship Center food pantry at 43 Eagle Street during their next open house. The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative is planning to hold an open house from 2-4pm on Wednesday, March 21; the food pantry is open each Wednesday from 11-2 and 4-6 for people to come in, so the 2-4pm window is a time when the food pantry isn’t actively in use but we can stop in and see what the community is like and what the work is like.

(Find the Friendship Center on Facebook, if you’re so inclined; you can also check out their blog, and/or  reach out via e-mail to

The work of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative arises out of the commandment which is at the very heart of the Torah: v’ahavta l’reakha camokha, “you shall love your neighbor / your other as yourself.” Thanks for considering this mode of putting that commandment into action.

Many blessings,

Reb Rachel