BENNINGTON -- The Jewish community warmly welcomed the wider community Saturday at the formal installation of Rabbi Jarah Greenfield as the rabbi of Congregation Beth El.
Greenfield has been serving the Reconstructionist synagogue, at the corner of North and Adams Streets, since last August. Those attending the installation included members of the congregation and community members of other faiths, including representatives of a wide variety of area faith communities, who filled the synagogue to capacity for the installation ceremony.
"An installation for a new rabbi is not an ancient Jewish tradition. The closest approximation is that of dedicating a new home," said Carrie Greene, chairwoman of the installation planning committee. "Rather than dedicating a place, however, we are here tonight dedicating a moment in time, the moment when we come together in celebration of the community, the moment when we get to reflect on what we want that community to be."
The theme for the installation was "Constructing a world filled with lovingkindness."
"We touch other people's lives through kindness and action and often just be being there when we are needed," Greene said. "Many of us do this daily as individuals, but what would it look like to do this as a community, to define our community through lovingkindness and action?"
Lance Allen Wang, president of the congregation, said that over many months he has been pleased to watch Greenfield become a member of the congregational family. "Today we celebrate as a congregation that has integrated Jarah into the tapestry of our collective identity, not as Jews but as a specific Jewish community."
He noted the congregation's diverse geographical membership from Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.
Of the installation's theme, "I cannot think of anything that would be more appropriate, both in keeping with Judaism's tenets, such as ...'repairing the world,' but also in keeping with what I have learned both of and from Rabbi Jarah," he said.
"I'm not a cynical person but I can't look upon some of the terrible events that take place in this world, specifically in the past couple of weeks, without coming to the conclusion that the world can be a pretty cruel and awful place," he said. "It's a world with a range of outrages from petty slights to mass murder, a world rife with dishonesty and a world which counters with righteous mistrust. So how do you fill a world like that with loving kindness?"
The answer, Wang said, is determination. "With determination to say ‘it stops here, in this spot, right now.' In this spot, to quote Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘I can punch a hole in the darkness.' Will it fix the world? Not all at once.
"But to take an action that can be seen as a blessing, even a simple act of volunteering in your community as a conspicuous stand against apathy, we can provide inspiration to those who can all too easily be pulled toward hopelessness," he said.
The event featured haunting music, performed by Katianna Nardone on violin, and also "Oseh Shalom," arranged by Elaine Ginsberg and performed by the Bennington College Vocal Chamber Ensemble. State Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, read a poem, called ‘The Little Blue Building on Adams Street," which received robust applause. To much laughter, Miriam Silver read an exhaustively long list of qualifications for a rabbi: "To be a rabbi, to be a congregational rabbi must be the hardest job in the world," she said.
"Well, we have chosen Jarah, and we are glad we did. In the time that you have been here, Jarah, you have shown you are up for the challenge," Silver said. "May you go from strength to strength as we embark on this complicated journey together."
The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, coordinating minister at the First Baptist Church of Bennington, brought greetings from the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council. Greenfield is a member of this council and of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc. Board of Directors. GBICS oversees the interfaith Bennington Free Clinic, the Kitchen Cupboard food pantry and the Food and Fuel Fund.
Greenfield replaces at Beth El Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, who after six years as rabbi moved last summer to the West Coast with his wife and daughter.
Howard Cohen, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El, who served it from 1994 to 2006, said that many describe the relationship between a rabbi and a congregation as a marriage. He said it would be more accurate to describe the rabbi's role in relation to the congregation more as a marriage counselor than as a spouse.
"Traditionally, we say the marriage is actually between you, each of you, and God," Cohen said. "I would like to suggest that marriage is between each of you and Judaism. In this configuration, then, Rabbi Greenfield is here to facilitate your relationship with Judaism in much the way a marriage counselor might help you to enter a relationship with your partner."
Cohen added, "Now, the rabbi does not do Judaism for you, the rabbi facilitates your engagement with Judaism and all that encompasses.
"Rabbi Greenfield will not tell you what to do, but rather she will help you discern the most authentic way for you to be in a relationship with Judaism," Cohen said. She "as marriage counselor is here to challenge you, to question you, sometimes to comfort you, educate you and to inspire you in your engagement with Judaism."
Rabbi Jacob Staub, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncotte, Pa., a teacher and mentor of both Greenfield and Cohen, brought blessings from all of Greenfield's colleagues in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and her teachers at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
"The synergy between this congregation and this rabbi that I have been witness to today, this morning and this evening, is truly a wonder to give thanks for," Staub said of Greenfield.
He cited a traditional prayer for the congregation recited immediately after the weekly reading of the Torah scroll: "For all those who faithfully and reliably engage in fulfilling the needs of the congregation."
This work of community building is not easy, it is time-consuming and requires those involved to adjust to the perspectives of others -- "but it is so important. It is the way we avoid being a collection of individuals who bowl alone, who pray alone, who are alone," he said.
Staub concluded by praying with Greenfield present beside him: "May you be a source of Shalom, of peace, of equanimity for all whom you meet.
"And Holy Blessed One, bless Congregation Beth El with an unending stream of people of good heart and commitment," he said, "who are devoted to making your presence manifest in their interactions with one another and in the work that they do to improve the larger world. And may they be a source of strength to Jarah and may she be a source of strength to them."
Greenfield said she was both elated and humbled at the same time by the ceremony and the words from Staub. She spoke "about a word in Hebrew, ‘chesed,' that has so many definitions and yet one that doesn't seem to have a counterpart in English. "The Hebrew world has been translated in different contexts and faith traditions as loyalty, righteousness, justice, mercy, unfailing devotion, tenderness, lovingkindness...the list goes on and on," she said. "And none of these words is adequate because they either miss the full meaning of ‘chesed' or they add some kind of meaning or connotation."
The true meaning of ‘chesed' is multidimensional. First and most complete there is the divine nature of God spoken of in Scripture -- God's unconditional, unmerited, and unavoidable love.
When we try to translate this ‘chesed' into the human realm, we can better understand it through the lens of the Hasidic tradition. It operates among people in the form of lovingkindness and all the other translations listed above, she said.
"I will say it's very clear to me that meditation and prayer are two of the most powerful mechanisms for really coming to experience ‘chesed' in the inner spiritual realm," Greenfield said. "'Chesed,' though, can live as an inner state, but it also is defined by action, and it takes form as action directed toward others.
"That invites different questions. How would I act toward this person if I cared about him or cared about her as much as I care about someone I love in my family?" she said. "And still we might think about ‘chesed' in the context not just of action toward others, or inner spiritual state, but then in the context of community -- what does that mean?"
The installation ended with a Havdalah -- a dramatic ceremony at the end of Shabbat featuring a darkened sanctuary and a candle to mark the distinction between the departing sacred day and the coming ordinary weekday.
Celebration then continued across the way at the congregation's social hall for tapas and dessert.