Rabbi Rachel Barenblat: Light and Heat
By David Verzi
published in The Berkshire Jewish Voice, November 1 to December 1 2011 edition
By time honored custom, tradition and calling, a rabbi is sought to serve as a formal beacon of enlightenment and wisdom, this while much of modernity desires and demands that the illuminating insights of spiritual leaders come packaged within relaxed, comfortable, and comforting pew-side warmth.
These words with music, pedagogy with passion, light with heat combinations are no mean magic for a cleric to perform.
Fact is, it's no trick at all -- it's a feat melded with a gift.
For while the law, liturgy, and lessons that shed light can, through arduous scholarship, be attained for teaching: the heat, if authentic, must be childlike, filled with wonder, and heart-sprung.
At Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat -- ordained by "ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal" in January and installed on an interim basis by Beth Israel in July -- comprehensively emits the light via academic prowess, generated by near six years of rabbinic education and ongoing post-studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Williams College, and a Master in Fine Arts from Bennington College.
But, she "brings the heat," organically -- both through a clear-eyed, open-faced, grateful, articulate selflessness of character, wherein she seeks to find blessings in all things, and a bona fide love of her hundred-and-ten-family Reform congregation, within which, during the last ten years, Barenblat, 36, has played a critical role, as member, lay cantor, lay leader of services, and rabbinic student intern.
Even Barenblat's previous careers speak of light and heat -- a well-known area writer and editor, she is a master of factual communication but her forte is poetry rather than cold, hard facts. "With prayers, as with poems," Barenblat noted, "each word matters and each has the power to change something within us."
The light-giving-theologic-while-warmheartedly-pastoral Barenblat is engagingly apparent during conversation, as questions and comments are first met with thought-pregnant pauses -- often accompanied by a classically sagacious and contemplative "hmmmmm" -- but thereafter responded to enthusiastically, joyfully, sensitively, and unequivocally.
Of her first pulpit, Barenblat said she "wasn't nervous taking it," "was trained very well for it," and was able to "ease into it as a continuation and intensification" of her congregational duties of recent years.
However, married to Ethan Zuckerman and the mother of their son Drew, 2, Barenblat noted an initial "apprehension" regarding her ability to be "a working rabbi and the parent of a toddler" and the general "balance of work and family."
"My anxiety lay in: could I be a mother to Drew in the way I wanted to be and at the same time minister to the congregation the way I wanted to," said Barenblat, who noted that all has worked out fine even though her rabbinical position, designated as "half-time," nevertheless finds her trying to meet all of Beth Israel's needs.
Though trained and ordained within Judaism's Renewal tradition, which was founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1962, Barenblat noted she is a "perfect fit" for the Beth Israel community as the congregation, over its one-hundred-eighteen-year history, has been successively Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform and, more over, said Barenblat, "is a warm, open, and friendly" congregation.
Thus, noted Barenblat, as her Renewal training was "transdenominational" it will be "very useful in creating a worship life and community life that will feel like home to all."
To the benefit of Beth Israel, Barenblat noted, she has a high comfort level in expressing that "there is no single 'right' Jewish way to pray, study Torah, or conduct social action."
"So, I have the flexibility to try different things and see what resonates most for most of the community," said Barenblat, who with "storytelling" as a specific course within her Renewal training, might be seen -- rather than reading -- out amid her congregation telling a sacred story with an emphasis on dialogue and gesture; or, in contrast, this month, facilitating Beth Israel's first contemplative Shabbat service.
"My job is to create services that the congregation will respond to positively, and while hopefully that aligns with the services I want and need for my own spiritual life, the congregation comes first," said Barenblat, who noted that a rabbi is both a leader and a follower.
"On the one hand, I must hear what the congregants say is needed, yet, on the other, inspire the community to consider something more, something a little different, open them to exploring spiritual yearnings," said Barenblat. "If I go too far in the latter direction I risk not hearing them; if I don't go far enough I'm serving a consumerist model I don't believe in. Ministering to a congregation -- well, it just isn't exactly like selling someone a sofa! I may need to take your color and size preferences into account, but I also need to nudge you in a new direction."
Barenblat, aware of the criticism of the Reform movement as being so "wide open" as to be near "not standing for anything," acknowledged that certainly one of her challenges is to strike the right balance between tradition and innovation.
But looking at the fearless worship life of Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, who ordained her and who she notes as a great inspiration, Barenblat said, "If our roots are deep enough, if we're really well planted, then our branches can be wide and there's nothing to fear."
Also having a profound effect on Barenblat's outlook was her stint, within her rabbinic training, as a chaplain at Albany Medical Center.
"It was extremely valuable because it involved interfaith work and because I had the opportunity to walk with people during their most glorious, wonderful moments and during their most tragic, terrible times," said Barenblat, who noted that the work "pulled her out" of herself.
"When you're sitting there in the emergency room with a woman whose son has just been hit by a car and it's not known if he'll live or die, all the things you might have been worrying about all day become 'little'; you're focused only on the person who is right there in front of you and in need of you," said Barenblat, who noted that other times all patients were looking for was a blanket, a glass of water, or a bit of conversation.
"But," recalled Barenblat, "another day I sat with a woman outside that emergency room who was cursing God with an eloquence that would make a sailor blush."
"Well, she looked at me expecting my correction. But I said 'I hear you,' and that was the comfort she needed -- to hear a clergyperson acknowledge her need under stress to curse God."
Once a counselor at a Jewish camp, Barenblat reminisced that it was always "the rabbinic pieces of the job" that she loved most -- "helping the kids learn to lead prayer services, and comforting them when they were homesick and needed to cry."
Bringing to bear her light and her heat to the benefit of others -- Barenblat's been at it for a long time.