Rachel Barenblat: "When Can I Run and Play with the Real Rabbis?"

Photo and article by David Verzi

Originally published in The Berkshire Jewish Voice, December 1, 2006-January 7, 2007 edition.

At 31, she bills (and "blogs") herself as the "Velveteen Rabbi" and her parrying of a children's book character into an "identity" is just one reflection that there is still much childlike energy and enthusiasm within Rachel Barenblat.

Good thing too...because Barenblat is studying to become a rabbi, a profession where the ability to dispense wisdom may be the goal but where an ongoing ingenuous approach to its discovery may be a wise and productive course.

Not that Barenblat is exactly "a bunny in the woods" -- in fact, she is a living celebration of the value of experiencing, changing, and growing.

Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, the youngest of five children, she attended a Conservative synagogue and later a Reform temple -- though her parents, in search of the best available academic education, sent her to an Episcopal junior and senior high school.

Encouraged by her high school Latin teacher, Barenblat came east to attend Williams College from which she would graduate with honors earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion, with a concentration in Judaic and Women's Studies.

"That's when the thought of studying for the rabbinate first entered my mind," she said, "but the time just wasn't right. I thought I would do better with a little more 'life' under my belt."

Continuing on an ever burgeoning and strengthening path, Barenblat went forward to earn a Master in Fine Arts degree in writing, literature, and poetry from Bennington College and then, putting thoughts of rabbinic life "on the back burner," embarked on an increasingly challenging course of employment "within the world of words."

As an assistant to famed conceptual artist Jenny Holzer (who incorporates a great deal of text into her works) Barenblat proofread, archived translations, and corresponded on behalf of the artist with museums worldwide.

Later, she would work as a community reporter for the Berkshires' regional press, including the Advocate and The Bennington Banner. In 1998, Barenblat married Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard Law School.

Her next literary step, taken from 1999 through 2002, saw Barenblat serve as either the editor, or contributing editor, of Great Barrington's The Women's Times and following that she undertook freelance book-editing assignments, with her clients including Storey Publishing in North Adams.

While working at The Women's Times, in 2000, Barenblat co-founded (with two Williams College friends) Inkberry, a North Adams non-profit center for the literary arts, where she served as Executive Director through earlier this year.

Barenblat remains on the board of the still flourishing organization, which offers adult workshops geared towards various levels of writing interest; conducts after-school programs to "bring the love of the written word to children;" provides a reading series that both brings established writers into the Berkshire community and promotes local talent; and helps newly minted writers "strengthen their connection between writing and life as they discover their literary 'voice'."

Now a full-time rabbinic student in the Renewal movement through the "distance learning" Aleph Rabbinic Program, and a thoroughly engaged rabbinic student intern under the guidance of Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Barenblat said that the portion of her career trajectory from the Women's Times to "Inkberry" to her commitment to rabbinic studies made "sense" to her in light of her present goal.

"At the Women's Times," said Barenblat, "there was a value placed on telling 'real' stories of 'real' women, and at 'Inkberry' the intent was to empower people to be able to tell their own stories -- I found these story-filled atmospheres 'spiritually powerful'."

"And, to some extent," said Barenblat, "that carries through to the work I hope to do as a rabbi: to empower people to tell their own stories, to speak their own truths in a Jewish context and to understand their personal story as part of the broader Jewish story -- after all Judaism is a religious tradition that pays a great deal of attention to 'story'."

Barenblat's own story, regarding her path toward rabbinical study, picks up in 2001, as she begins attending a series of retreats and workshops at the former Jewish retreat center of Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York.

There, over time, she would be influenced by the teaching of Rabbis Arthur Waskow, Zalman Schacter-Shalomi (a founder of the Renewal movement), and Shaya Isenberg, but Barenblat said that what "really blew [her] away," and what "really directly spoke to" her (and reawaked her interest in the rabbinate) was the experience of "interpretative prayer" -- a 'bare-bones' liturgy, with women laying telfillin, filled with meditation, and including a focus on chanting.

Barenblat noted, "I knew then that I had found the people I wanted to go to rabbinic school with. These were the people who 'did' Judaism the way I wanted to 'do' Judaism."

But, it would take Barenblat a few more years of attending Elat Chayyim services and workshops, and researching the Aleph Rabbinic Program, before (aided by the encouragement of her husband) she recently embarked on rabbinic studies.

Barenblat is currently, in the second year of the sixty-class "Aleph" program, which though often conducted via computer and telephonic conferencing, is nevertheless rigorous, and also includes oversight by a "spiritual director," mentoring classes with a rabbi, and masters-level, independent studies arranged through colleges.

Included in the curriculum are classes related to the Hebrew Bible, religious text interpretation, Jewish thought, Halakhic literature, Kabbalah, Jewish history, pastoral counseling, world religions, liturgy, and the philosophical study of the nature of the universe.

All these disciplines are encapsulated within the trans-denominational rabbinic study of the Renewal movement, whose aim is to revitalize Judaism drawing on such spiritual vitality as that found in the Hassidic movement of pre-World War II Europe and the "havurah" movement (What Barenblat called "do it yourself Judaism") that has been flourishing since the 1970s.

Reviewing some Jewish religious basics: Barenblat noted that in Renewal "spirituality" is grounded in the experience of the heart's seeking an enlivening, direct connection to God; that Renewal "celebration" blends tradition with new methods and new ways of approaching those that are traditional; and that Renewal "prayer" seeks to promote daily worship -- often including meditation, singing, dancing, and drumming -- that is felt as so powerful as to be transforming.

Continuing, she noted that with regard to "learning" that while Renewal seeks to teach the traditional view of Jewish texts, it also asks for creatively, the exploration of new interpretations, and movement in new directions; and that with regard to "repairing the world," Renewal affirms four worlds, "Being," "Knowing," "Relating," and "Doing," which when understood as flowing together are recognized as aiding in the repair of both man's physical and emotional world, as he not only both confronts and solves material problems but through "God-wrestling" repairs emotional vexations, such as finding a new respect for the feminine, and such esoteric problems as the need for "eco-kosher," which Barenblat explained, might ask not only "how was the cow slaughtered" but, also, "how was the cow treated while alive and was its meat packaged in an environmentally 'friendly' way."

"So, it's all a little 'far out,' said Barenblat.

"But, historically Renewal Judaism has always been a little far out. My sister calls it 'groovy' Judaism, and I am happy to 'own' that phrase," said Barenblat, while stressing however that while there are congregations that identify themselves as "Renewal," the Renewal movement is considered by many not to be a separate denomination and that the majority of Renewal seminary graduates serve in Reform, Reconstructionst, or other Jewish traditions.

So, when can Barenblat run and play with the real rabbis? Barenblat said, "My 'rule of thumb' answer is in five years, but my 'other answer' is 'when they tell me that I'm ready.'"


You can subscribe to the Berkshire Jewish Voice, if you're interested, here. My thanks to the BJV for this thoughtful article! -- RB