Category Archives: tikkun olam

Grieving the Pittsburgh news

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

As I left the synagogue on Shabbat after morning services and a beautiful celebration of bat mitzvah, I learned the news of the horrific shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Words fail me: I am horrified, and grieving, and angry, and fearful. I suspect that most of you are feeling all of those things, too.  (In case it’s helpful, here’s what I wrote on my own blog: From hope to horror and back again.)

Please know that I want to be here for you, and I want to hear from you if this news is challenging or if you need to talk. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at any time.

Judaism calls us in every moment to build a world redeemed from hatred and bigotry and violence, a world in which this kind of horrific action would be unthinkable.  As we move into the new week individually and together, may we recommit ourselves to the work of building that world of justice and love, safety and hope.

Where there is darkness, it’s our job to bring light. I encourage all who are so moved to begin the new week by giving tzedakah toward building a better world. You might give to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — an organization that the shooter particularly denigrated), or to the Anti-Defamation League, or to the Southern Poverty Law Center, or whomever you believe is working toward building a world of greater justice and love. You might also consider sending a note of condolence to Tree of Life Congregation, 5898 Wilkins Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217.

May the friends, families, and community of those who were killed this Shabbat in Pittsburgh be comforted along with all who mourn. And may we all be strengthened in our resolve to build a better world.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel



Mitzvah opportunity: translators needed to assist ICE detainees in the Albany area

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

A colleague forwarded me a plea for translators to help migrants detained by ICE, now housed at the Albany county jail. The note I received is from Caroline Rider at Marist College, and she writes:

“We’ve never seen anything like this…

[The migrants have] been sent here from all over the country and the legal project is overwhelmed. They have plenty of lawyers to do the intakes, but not enough interpreters.

They need ALL languages: Spanish, French, Hindi, Punjabi, any Mayan languages, Mandarin, Polish, Russian, you name it, we can probably use it.

If you’re able to translate, please contact Christina Armistead,

Also the Rev Lynn Gardner [from Schenectady Clergy Against Hate] commented that they may be able to coordinate some kind of visitation for these people who have been so cruelly detained. They could really use some support.

My heart is absolutely shattered. The stories I heard were heartbreaking.”

For more on the situation in Albany, here are some articles from the Albany Times-Union: Many of the immigrants at Albany county jail seeking asylum, Albany county jail maxes out with 100 more detaineesAs immigrants wait at Albany county jail, volunteers working to learn basics.

If you speak another language and could volunteer your time, please do — it would be a profound mitzvah. I’m reaching out to Rev. Lynn now about the possibility of offering pastoral care for those who have been detained, and will let y’all know if there is an opportunity for CBI folks to take part.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel


#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You’ve spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are “infesting” our country — language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it’s the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it’s also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today’s refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through — and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to “love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt” is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaismthe Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement — is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here’s a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn’t “do” much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program’s efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews — and it’s work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Prayer after the shooting, by Rabbi Rachel and Rabbi David


I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins – Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander – Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also – From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life – “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly – The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance),netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity),malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words – 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.


Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R’ David’s website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)

Gratitude for support of Take & Eat in remembrance

Dear CBI Members and Friends,

As you know, here at CBI we take part in Take & Eat. One Sunday a month we prepare and deliver meals to homebound seniors who would otherwise go hungry.

An anonymous donation in support of Take & Eat was recently made in honor and memory of the mothers of three active members of CBI (Ruth Winer, mother of Bob Miller; Hilda Radin, mother of Dr. Len Radin; and Beverly Galun, mother of Fern Sann). They instilled in their children the need for Tzedakah (charity / righteous giving) – and the value of giving back to the community. 

May their memories be a blessing, and may it inspire others to be generous with their time and their fiscal support of this holy work.

We are endlessly grateful to the anonymous donor who supported Take & Eat with these funds, and we hold Bob Miller, Len Radin, and Fern Sann in our hearts as they continue to walk the mourner’s path.

Wishing everyone joy as we move toward Sukkot,

Rabbi Rachel 

Interfaith series on criminal justice reform

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Our community is invited to take part in an interfaith series — including a panel discussion, a book discussion, a meeting with local elected officials, and an action for justice TBD — along with other faith communities in northern Berkshire. This was organized by Reverend Mark Longhurst of First Congregational Church, with some input from me. I hope to take part, and I hope some of y’all will, too.

Here’s a description of the series, which will meet at 7pm on Thursday evenings in October:

This four week series will explore issues of criminal justice and reform on a local and statewide level through 1) a panel featuring Williams faculty and staff reflecting on Williams’s course at the Berkshire County House of Corrections 2) Discussion of excerpts from Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow 3) A meeting with local elected officials to learn about statewide criminal justice reform efforts and 4) an action for justice to be determined.

This group meets at The Water Street Grill (123 Water Street) on Thursdays at 7pm, October 5, 12, 19, and 26th.

To sign up for one or more sessions, please click through to this google form and indicate which of the sessions you’d like to attend.

And here’s a Facebook event for the first evening in the series, the panel discussion about Williams at the Berkshire County Jail. (The first session is during Sukkot, which may or may not get in the way for some of us; but please know that you can choose which sessions you want to attend, and even if you can’t make the first one, you’re welcome to come to later ones in the series!)

Here’s to a 5778 of hope, justice, and community engagement.

G’mar chatimah tovah / may you be sealed for good,

Rabbi Rachel

After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

One Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” They shouted, “white lives matter.”

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I’ve never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it’s not just hatred of us: it’s hatred of everyone who doesn’t fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work… and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I’ve had cause to say, “this isn’t the America I thought I lived in,” my non-white friends have said, “…this is the America we’ve always known.” And they’ve pointed out that the fact that I’m surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I’ve never had to walk a mile in their shoes. Continue reading