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A note from Rabbi Rachel before Christmas

Some of you may remember receiving this note in years past. It seems to really speak to people, so I’m sending it again; the sentiments remain true!

Dear friends,

One of the interesting asymmetries of being a minority religious culture is that while members of the dominant religious tradition often have little awareness of our festivals, we can’t help being aware of theirs. At no other time of year is this more true than now, as we approach Christmas.

Across the breadth of our community, we respond in many ways to this omnipresent holiday.

Some of us may enjoy Christmas although it is not our holiday. We may admire our neighbors’ Christmas lights, appreciate the festive beauty of each household’s unique decorations, enjoy classic Christmas movies, and delight vicariously in the pleasure our Christian friends and neighbors take in their festival of light and hope.

Some of us may find Christmas overwhelming because it is not our holiday. We may feel excluded from public displays of Christmas celebration; the day and its trappings may evoke entrenched feelings of isolation and “otherness.” For those of us who associate Christmas with uncomfortable memories of being an outsider, or communal memories of antisemitism, this can be a challenging season. We may resent the way mainstream American culture ignores the reality that not everyone celebrates this holiday, or may struggle with the message that everyone is “supposed” to be happy at this time of year.

Some of us may enjoy Christmas because it is a festival we share with loved ones. Our community includes many Jews by choice (many of whom still have Christian family), and many families of dual heritage (who likewise have Christian family, as well as Jewish family). For those in such families, this holiday may offer a time to connect with loved ones across a variety of traditions.

Some of us may experience December 25 as a secular midwinter holiday of gift-giving and cheer having little or nothing to do with Jesus. Others may experience its customs as as a thinly-camouflaged variation on pagan winter solstice festivities. (Did you know that in ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated on December 25? It was called the festival of sol invictus, the birthday of the unconquered sun.)

Some of us may take Christmas as an opportunity to serve others. I know many Jewish doctors, nurses, therapists, and chaplains who choose to engage in pastoral work on Christmas so that our Christian colleagues can take the day off. Others may choose to work in soup kitchens or homeless shelters so that all who are in need will be cared-for and fed on that day and all days.

And some of us — single-heritage households and dual-heritage households alike — may engage in the age-old Jewish custom of eating Chinese food and going to the movies! (Okay, that one wasn’t handed down to Moses on Sinai, though we’ve been doing it since the late 1800s.)

Whatever your next week may hold, a blessing:

May we experience light in this season of darkness.

May renewed awareness of Jesus as a Jewish teacher open for us new ways of relating to our neighbors’ commemoration of his birth.

And may we emerge into the secular new year ready to enjoy the increasing daylight!

And for now: Shabbat shalom and happy winter solstice to all!

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Lech Lecha

Shavua tov — a (belated) good new week to you!

Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Spiritual Life chair Steven Green. This week we’re reading from parashat Lech Lecha.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by builder Rabbi Ben Newman:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

There’s a lot happening at CBI this week. On Monday 10/15 at 7:30pm we’ll hear from speaker Kenneth Stern on Antisemitism In America: Past and Present. On Saturday 10/20 at 5:30pm we’ll gather for our 125th Anniversary Gala. And in between, there’s Jewish Values, Trans Inclusivity, and “Yes on 3,” three events with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz (who’s teaching at CBI at 7:30pm on Weds 10/17.)

Hope to see you soon at CBI!


Rabbi Rachel

Jewish Values, Trans Inclusivity, and “Yes on 3” – Three Events With Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

There’s a lot happening at CBI next week! On Monday 10/15 at 7:30pm we’ll hear from speaker Kenneth Stern on Antisemitism In America: Past and Present. On Saturday 10/20 at 5:30pm we’ll gather for our 125th Anniversary Gala. And in between, there’s this:


What do Jewish texts say about trans inclusivity, and can we square the value we place on human rights and dignity across the spectrum of gender expression and sexual orientation with Jewish tradition? Spoiler: yes we can!

Come learn how with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, Scholar-in-Residence for Queer and Trans Issues at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City and also a co-founder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home with Rabbi Rachel (and with CBI Board member Steven Green).

Together we’ll open up some of what Jewish tradition teaches about trans rights and human dignity, and then we’ll explore the implications of those teachings for voting in Massachusetts this fall.

10/17: Torah discussion & study with R’ Mike Moskowitz at CBI, 7:30pm
10/18: Lunch & Learn with R’ Mike Moskowitz at Williams, 12pm
10/18: Torah discussion & Study with R’ Mike Moskowitz at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, 7:30pm

Free and open to the public — all welcome.

Co-presented by Congregation Beth Israel, Knesset Israel, the Williams College Jewish Association, Keshet, and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Noach

Shavua tov — a (belated) good new week to you!

Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax. This week we’re reading from parashat Noach.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by builder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!


Rabbi Rachel

The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

SeenIt was four in the morning on Shavuot in the year 5770, also known as 2010. I was on retreat at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center in northern Connecticut. My son was seven months old.

My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear Reb Zalman (z”l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.

But it turned out that my son didn’t like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.

Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.

Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.

“Why didn’t you kill your bird?” asked the Sufi master.

“I tried to do as you asked,” said the student. “But no matter where I went, I couldn’t find a place where no One could see me.”

Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.

That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, “awe” or “fear of God.” Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.

Continue reading

A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

BetterThere’s a meme going around the internet — maybe you’ve seen it — that says, “if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you’re doing it now.”

I’m too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south.

But in the last few months we’ve seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There’s a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There’s mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We’ve seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I’m doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is “nothing” — I’m overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it’s overwhelming.

So much is broken. It’s overwhelming. There’s no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It’s so easy to shrug and say, that’s the new normal. And it’s easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z”l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.” If the overwhelm of today’s news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm? Continue reading

More melodies for the Days of Awe

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

A few weeks ago I shared a post containing some melodies for the Days of Awe — focusing on those melodies I knew we would begin singing at our Selichot service.

Here are some other melodies you’ll hear at CBI during the Days of Awe. The first one is the Bar’chu or Call to Prayer, sung in the nusach — the melodic mode — unique to this time of year:

Bar’chu – High Holiday Evening Nusach

This next one is Mi Chamocha, the blessing for redemption that reminds us every day of the Exodus from Egypt, also sung in the special nusach for this season:

Mi Chamocha – High Holiday Evening Nusach

(If you listen to the above two tracks together, you’ll hear how they are variations on the same melody — they are sung to the same nusach, adapted for different words.)

This next one is the prayer called Avinu Malkeinu — “Our Father, Our King.” For some of us the patriarchal language of fathers and kings can be challenging, but the melody may feel meaningful even so. (For me, part of what’s beautiful about this prayer is how it plays with the intersection of transcendence and closeness. Kings are far away and distant; parents are intimate and loving, at least ideally.) I have two Avinu Malkeinu recordings for you:

Avinu Malkeinu – Max Janowski setting

Max Janowski’s melody for “Avinu Malkeinu” was popularized by Barbra Streisand, and we will hear it a few times over the course of the holidays.

Avinu Malkeinu – “traditional” (waltz or 6/8) setting

Many people are deeply attached to this setting, sometimes referred to as a waltz though I would say it’s in 6/8 time rather than 3/4. We’ll sing this refrain a few times over the course of the holidays also.

Next up is Kol Nidre — “All the Vows.”

Kol Nidre – “All the Vows” – sung by Rabbi / Cantor Angela Buchdahl

The text of this prayer asserts in advance that we know we will miss the mark in making promises we cannot keep, and begs for forgiveness for that human frailty. The melody is haunting and is sung only once a year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, before sundown (ergo before Yom Kippur officially “begins.”)

May listening to (and singing!) these melodies prepare our hearts to open as we approach this most awesome and powerful time of year.

Wishing you blessings as we approach the new year —

Rabbi Rachel