Beth El, new rabbi looking to serve

Friday March 15, 2013


County News Editor

BENNINGTON -- Having expanded and upgraded its physical facility, including both its synagogue and other spaces, under its previous rabbi, Congregation Beth El is now looking outward for more ways to be involved with and serve the wider community.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, who has been serving at Congregation Beth El since last August will be formally installed as the new rabbi on Saturday, April 27. Activities throughout the day will take place at the synagogue, at the corner of North and Adams streets.

The wider community will be included and welcomed to attend.

Congregation member Carrie Greene, chairwoman of the installation committee, said much discussion had gone into the theme of the installation.

"The installation is really meant to talk about the community, where we're at and where we're going and it's not so much about the rabbi as it is about the community," she said.

Greene added, "We've had some programming that's run quite well for a number of years, but its become clear that we need to do some things differently. What worked when (previous rabbi Joshua Boettiger) was here is not necessarily what's going to work with Jarah moving forward. That's natural, that part of how communities evolve, and we do need to evolve as a community; nobody wants to sort of tread water and stand still."

Greenfield said the installation is also about a shared vision for the community and the rabbi, a chance for her to articulate a vision and for the community to embrace and support it.

"In all things you have life-cycle events, a birth, a death, a marriage, a bar mitzvah, and here basically our Jewish community is going through its own life-cycle event with a new rabbi coming in, which is a very significant moment," said Lance Allen Wang, president of the congregation.

Beyond that, it's also a life-cycle event for the wider community, he said. "So it's an opportunity for everyone to participate in what otherwise might be seen as just our little in-house life cycle of a community."

Greenfield said the theme chosen for the installation is a phrase from Psalms. An interpretative translation of it is "Constructing a world that's filled with lovingkindness."

"And the idea is that as a community we need to focus our energies on more of a social-action based presence," she said. "One that builds bridges between communities that are of different faiths but also different socio-economic levels, and be concerned locally not just within our own Jewish community but in Bennington as a whole."

Strengthening the relationships with other Bennington organizations is and important part of this. "There are a number of things that we've been doing or that we're planning to do or that are initiatives that are taking root," she said.

"One that's coming up is that we're going to do a Shabbat day of service action which is farming out congregants to different places to spend time volunteering," she said. "So the idea is to build some momentum around outward focus."

A key word in the installation theme is "Hesed" or "lovingkindness," she said.

"That word ‘Hesed' is pretty central, so I'm going to take that apart and really teach it forward," Greenfield said. "It has to do with aligning your inner sense of caring for the other with your outward actions. And the word itself, it's complicated to teach it, it has to combine concepts that in English don't normally get combined -- action, just action, love and kindness."

Yet, Greene noted, it's a concept that can be taught to people of all ages. "We talked about ways to engage the kids in the school, the families in the school, and it's one that everyone can relate to on many different levels."

Greenfield has joined the board of directors of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc., which runs locally a free medical clinic, a food pantry, and a food and fuel fund. She mentioned possible initiatives for the congregation, such as interfaith dialogue between Muslim exchange students and Jewish and Christian students and perhaps creating a "skill share" effort with Bennington College.

"As you know, sometimes we want things to evolve. I felt we were a little reticent to say ‘here is what we're going to do,' because that kind of doesn't let things kind of evolve naturally, (which) would be great," said Al Bashevkin, a member of the installation planning committee. "I think the desire and the willingness is to become more involved and more engaged in terms of different social action or activities. Hopefully, this will inspire us and things will happen, things will come as a result."

Greene mentioned the idea of having a meeting shortly after the installation to ask members of the Beth El community what they wanted to do moving forward in light of the installation and its theme. "And then to mobilize the community, the kids in the schools, the parents, the people who don't have kids in the school, folks who may live in more outlying communities, how they would like to see this vision manifest, because it can't be top-down. It really has to be grassroots."

Congregation Beth El is affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and draws members from New York, Massachusetts and Vermont.

"This is a new congregation, it's a new community, and it's a very dynamic community, so many of us haven't known each other for 40 years or 50 years," Bashevkin said. "It's a lot of new people from different walks of life. And actually we have great leadership, from the rabbi to the presidents, it just doesn't stop, and I think that it's very unique in that way, and I think we're really fortunate to be here."

Music at the installation will be sung by congregation members, with help of an outside conductor or two, he said. "It will be the congregants who will be singing the music, and I think that will be a nice way of engaging a variety of different people."

Contact Mark Rondeau at Follow him on Twitter @banner_religion


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