MARK E. RONDEAU
BENNINGTON -- For Jarah Greenfield, the new rabbi at Congregation Beth El, this role includes an emphasis on both the mind and the spirit.
"A rabbi is someone who not only gives you information, or guides you along a path of learning, but is held to live a life of justice and ethics and spirit," she said during a recent interview. For her, this is a combination of the spiritual life and the intellectual life.
Greenfield began in Bennington on Aug. 1. She replaces Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, who served the synagogue for six years and has moved to the West Coast with his wife and baby daughter to be closer to extended family.
Greenfield went to Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, just outside of Philadelphia in Wyncote, Pa. She overlapped there with Boettiger. Her undergraduate work was at Sarah Lawrence College. She grew up in Miami, and has also lived on the West Coast, New York City and Philadelphia.
"My parents were both high school English teachers in a public school system and brought up my sisters and I in the tradition of loving the arts and literature and theater and you name it," Greenfield said. "But one of the things that they were not interested in was organized religion, and I remember a yearning as a young child for what I experienced as a divine presence, but didn't really develop a vocabulary for how to understand that until later in life."
Reconstructionist Judaism, which Congregation Beth El follows, is a progressive and democratic Jewish movement. "It amounts to efforts to communally educate a group of people so that a community makes their own decisions based on their learning and their lives and a melding of the past and the present so that Judaism has relevance today."
Greenfield learned about the opening from a Reconstructionist placement office.
"At first I wasn't sure whether the rural life would be something appealing to me, but after visiting I knew that it actually was perfect. And so once I made the visit, I was blessed to be offered the position in the first place," she said. "And then I could sense that this was a place where people just kind of slowed down a bit and were interested in the spiritual life and then want a leader who was able to both guide them along those paths and be attentive to their journeys as they go."
Her only previous visit to Vermont proved to carry deep significance.
"It was a spiritually potent moment for me ... that the only visit I ever made to Vermont prior to interviewing for this position was about a year earlier, when I was passing through with my then-fiance and we decided to stop at Bennington Potters and agreed that we would register for their dishes, for a registry which was emblematic of our wedding table," she said. "So it had no connection to our lives whatsoever; it was totally just passing through. And then almost a year later I was back here."
Congregation Beth El consists of a diverse group of people from the Bennington area and beyond, including from New York and Massachusetts.
"And there's also a cohort of people in Wilmington," Greenfield said. "Sometimes we'll offer a Friday night service out in Wilmington and it gets up to 70 people coming to it. There's a huge almost satellite community of Congregation Beth El there, and I want to sustain that as well."
She comes to the synagogue not long after the completion of a $400,000 renovation project including 810 square feet of additions to the synagogue and adjacent office building/social hall and many other infrastructure improvements. The renovation also included a new ark for the congregation's Torahs.
"Gorgeous. I'm inheriting the work of many years and just a lot of energy from artists who designed things within the building to people who raised the money to the architects and the committee members," she said. "So yes, it's a huge blessing to be able to step into a situation like this one."
Greenfield envisions numerous goals as a rabbi in Bennington. "To start, it's important that I get to know people, so that's an evolving process and will take time. And once I get to know of the community, I think more goals will grow out of those encounters," she said. "But I can say up front that one of the goals I have is to not only sustain the amount of volunteer energy and engagement in the community but really expand participation, involvement and volunteerism, both from members inside the synagogue and people I actually have yet to meet from beyond the synagogue."
Greenfield said she had already been in contact with members of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council. The Bennington Free Clinic and the Kitchen Cupboard food pantry are two major interfaith accomplishments of recent years through Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc.
"One really important issue that I feel already is income inequality and the need in Bennington to continue to offer services to people who don't have enough money to have the basic necessities covered," she said. " I've already met some of the folks who run the various programs. But to be involved in that I think is essential so that people know that the interfaith community has their back, that they have not only the social services but the spiritual support as well."
She also wants to take a wider, more international view.
"One of my goals as well is to try to build a more of a global consciousness around issues of human rights and hunger and those are issues that I care deeply about, and they're sometimes harder to connect with because you don't see the people involved directly," she said. "I think one of the powerful tools, mechanisms of Jewish learning, is being able to apply ancient texts to modern-day problems and to look at your own community and then to really expand your caring and your concern for the international community as well. It's one of the things I really care about."
On a personal level, Greenfield moved to the area with her partner, Elizabeth, who is a therapist and a social worker. As for hobbies, before entering the rabbinate, she studied visual arts, including ceramics, printmaking, drawing and other areas. Art-making has been a life-long habit. These include making "Shrinky-Dinks," a popular arts and crafts toy from which one can make charms, jewelry and other items.
"So I'm an animal lover and an artsy person, so I recently made Shrinky-Dink ID tags for our three indoor cats who I know are really hankering to get outside," she said. "But that's a combination of my two loves, animals and crafting."