Connections and Creations: Finding Meaning in the Berkshires

August 4, 2023Rena Crawford

I thought that attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in the Berkshires would be an incredibly inspirational, gratifying, and uniquely Jewish few days of learning — don’t get me wrong, it was! Unbelievably, it was all that and more. I gained more motivation, guidance, and connection than I imagined possible in just a few short days of programming.  

I drove into the sunny Berkshires mid-morning on Friday, July 28, knowing that I was going to be excitedly whisked away to the alumni lunch. I recently graduated in May 2023 with my Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management from HUC-JIR’s Zelikow School (ZSchool) of Jewish Nonprofit Management, so “being an alumna of HUC” and “getting invited to an alumni lunch” was something wildly outside the realm of familiarity for me. I gathered that most folks in attendance of this lunch would be graduates of the rabbinical or cantorial programs — and I was right — but everyone I met was thrilled to see a graduate of the ZSchool, and even more thrilled to see ’23 next to my name! The more I spoke with folks, whether was about my graduate program, what I’m doing now, where I’m working, or where I’m from, I ended up finding some connection and making a friend. Within my first ten minutes at the event, I met someone whose son I participated in my college Hillel with, constantly proving to me that the Jewish world is so much smaller and unbelievably kismet than we know! I even managed to sit next to the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network, Rabbi Mary Zamore, whom I had had the pleasure of working with on WRJ’s Reform Pay Equity Initiative (RPEI) work over Zoom this past year. On my other side, I had Rabbi Andrew Kaplan Mandel, founder of Tzedek Box; and across from me was Rabbi Vanessa Harper, innovator behind the jaw-dropping challah creations, @lechlechallah. That night, which was Shabbat, I was shown this wonderful closeness and intimacy again.  

For one, I saw WRJ Executive Director Emerita, Rabbi Marla J. Feldman! While that was a surprise, so was seeing several other WRJ Executive Committee members. It immediately felt like I was home, in a sense, having so many WRJ folks in the room to represent. Admittedly, this was the first Shabbat service I had been to in some time. Moved by familiar faces in a room of so many unfamiliar ones, sharing in meaningful conversation with those I sat around a dinner table, and praying together in the beautiful Hevreh of Southern Berkshire space with emphatic voices and music all around, it truly felt like the first Shabbat service I had ever really been to. Walking away with a few expected Berkshires-bug- bites (mosquito season, am I right?), I also walked away with a newfound passion for our Shabbat practices, (however cliché) tears in my eyes, and more connections to the Jewish community than I stepped into the space with. 

I was excited to revel in how astounding this environment could be and expand upon these connections over the rest of the weekend’s activities. From the morning “Trails and Torah” hike, led by Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Ph.D., and Dr. Daniel Fisher-Livne, — during which we studied the themes of love and listening in Parashat Vaetchanan; to HUC-JIR President Dr. Andrew Rehfeld’s afternoon session on why Reform Judaism in Israel is more important than ever before,  to the rainiest and most enchanting havdalah led by Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, Cantor Jill Abramson, I began to grasp why HUC-JIR wanted to bring us to this sacred space: to reference their tagline, to “connect, learn, and create together.”  

Those three words may seem so simple, but, in a way, they are quite holy. Not only did we connect with each other, but we connected to the texts and the practices in a way we hadn’t done so before. Not only did we learn Torah with our peers and colleagues, but we learned more about ourselves as Jews and professionals, and the impact we can have on the world around us. Not only did we create tangible and edible challahs (for those who attended the challah workshop on Friday morning before I arrived), but to create special and lasting bonds, meaningful memories, and new defining moments in how we “do” and “be” Jewish. 

The final inspirational day of the Berkshires immersive began with hearing from Rabbi Andrew Kaplan Mandel and Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Ph.D. (the new Director of ZSchool!) discussing innovation and closed — for me, at least, as I needed to hit the road — with the WRJ and Lilith Salon and Writing Workshop, hosted by new Executive Director of WRJ, Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch (she/her), and Executive Editor of Lilith Magazine, Sarah Seltzer. There couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to the experience for me as it combined HUC-JIR’s themes of connection and creation with WRJ’s own three pillars of sisterhood, spirituality, and social justice. Rabbi Andrew Kaplan Mandel’s Tzedek Boxes create new traditions and practices around social justice and spirituality, while Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch and Sarah Seltzer embody sisterhood, and led us in a creative writing activity that ended up being spiritual (and ended with a short story) for so many in the room, myself included.  

My time at HUC-JIR in the Berkshires was immeasurably inspirational and motivational. Although I have graduated with my master’s degree and have been working in Jewish spaces for seven years now, there is always more to learn and always more work to be done. Whether it be inherently educational, spiritual, or religious, about others or ourselves, opportunities that provide continued Jewish learning are invaluable and for the betterment of the world around us. Not only did I meet impressive folks who I consider famous in my worldview for the work they have done, but I shared space and felt valued by so many powerful, knowledgeable women in the field I find inspiration in every day. It’s an honor knowing that I work to contribute to the same field as they do, and an honor to represent WRJ when I do so.  

Related Posts