New rabbi in town takes an active approach

BENNINGTON — Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein advocates a hands-on Judaism, including writing and performing Jewish bluegrass music.

His newest CD is "Kosherdawg: Jewish Newgrass Jamboree," which is a blend of bluegrass and traditional liturgy.

"The language of music provides a universal connection to spirit and also connects me to my Judaism," he writes on his website. "I am nourished by collaborating with other musicians and creating new pathways for sound and spirit to blend. With each song I write, I am aware of music's power to teach and connect."

Becker-Klein just began his duties at Congregation Beth El. His latest posting had been in Newark, Delaware, where his family will remain for the time being. He will be making 18 extended visits to Bennington over the course of a year and staying in a cabin during his visits. His duties will include teaching, outreach, pastoral counseling and making interfaith connections.

He will be around Bennington quite a bit between September and early October, including the High Holy Days, he said.

Born on Long Island and raised in the Blue Bell suburb of Philadelphia, Becker-Klein, 47, received his initial higher education at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary at Columbia University.

"I've always had a deep engagement with Jewish life and Jewish communal life." he said in a recent interview. "An interest with working with people — and I think that in many ways that's what propelled me to enter the rabbinate."

For rabbinical school he attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and graduated in 2000.

Becker-Klein is no stranger to New England or Vermont. One of his postings was in Keene, New Hampshire. He enjoys cross-country skiing and is a big fan of the Mount Prospect Ski Area in Woodford, which he visited often when posted in New Hampshire.

Klein's wife, Rachel, works in educational evaluation. They have a son and a daughter, both in high-school.

How would he describe his strengths? "I'd say I'm energetic, engaging, musical, with a sense and grounding in tradition and an openness to universal spirituality,"he said, adding that he likes people.

He likes "lifting up the idea of positivity in Judaism so people can feel it's relevant, inspiring and valid for them," he said. "I've always been kind of an extrovert, I've always been a people person, I'd say. Between my love of religion, spirituality and Judaism, it's kind of brought me there."

Music is an integral part of his life: "If I got paid better, I'd say I'm really a professional. I have a number of CDs out there," he said. He plays guitar, mandolin and sings and performs a concert every month or so, one recently at a retreat center in southern Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

Influencing his Jewish bluegrass are such genres as Americana music, folk music, old timey music. "And then the blending of that with Jewish liturgy and bluegrass and Gospel and Christian music seem to work really well," he said.

He hopes to incorporate this music into his ministry in Bennington: "It's always a balance of getting people a taste of something new with the grounding of tradition and familiarity at the same time."

What are his thoughts about ministering in a post-modern era, in which fewer people than ever have formal or consistent ties with houses of worship?

"It's about trying to find both the places where people feel invited and comfortable and creating opportunities with those places that, like I say, gives you the positivity," he said. "I think that there's a very interesting and important dance now, that's different than it was, that says we have to get out of the buildings. It has to be out of the building to get people to see it's just not about that place but about who we are.

"It's a challenge because it means that you're trying to meet, sometimes it feels like different segments, right, so a Friday night or a Saturday morning or a Saturday night might really get different interest groups," he said. "But for me, and it's both the opportunity and the challenge to it is to get out and around and about in many places where it's not large groups."

Becker-Klein said that as a preacher, "I teach, I'm a teacher. I like to have people consider questions. Talking about our values. I would say that I'm not a directly political preacher."

One responsibility at Beth El will be working with the young people. He said he will work to make things positive, engaging, uplifting, relevant. Another of his hands-on areas of focus has been Jewish overnight camping, which he has been involved with for many years. He is on the board of directors of a camp and serves on staff for a week, which he finds a joyous experience, he said.

Another of his hands-on areas of involvement is in Jewish farming. He started a gleaning program for teens and teaches the Kosher slaughter of farm animals to conform with dietary laws.

"If they want to consume (the animals) or prepare them for eating in the kosher manner, I train, I visit the farms, I work with people," he said.

On a wider community level, Becker-Klein is interested in interfaith work and is very impressed with the services provided by Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc. "I think that's wonderful," he said.

"My work in the past few months has been together with a lot of the clergy around issues that seem to be important to us these days," he said. "Communities of faith do well when they're connected together and understand each other well. It's not about me becoming Roman Catholic. It's about me understanding what the Catholic Church and community is seeing and feeling and doing here, and that the Roman Catholic church and priests would know what my concerns might be or our concerns would be as a Jewish community.

"We're in a world where there are so many ways to separate ourselves and in a political climate that seems to be separating ourselves," he said, "and I would really rather work on how are we together in this."

Reach Mark Rondeau at 802-447-7567 Ext. 113


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