NORTH ADAMS -- Rachel Barenblat serves as the rabbi for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, where she is known by her congregation as "Rabbi Barenblat." But to a larger readership across the country, she is known as "The Velveteen Rabbi," the name of her nearly decade-old blog on which she blogs about various aspects of Judaism.
"I started this blog in 2003," said Barenblat. "Two years before I even applied to rabbinic school, originally I had spent a few years working on a book manuscript about Judaism. After that, I had a manuscript and finally felt I knew enough to start writing the book, but I was tired of it. But I still wanted to do writing about Judaism, and in the summer of 2003, my husband [Ethan Zuckerman] had a blog and said, ‘you should try one of these!' and I said ‘why not?' I didn't imagine then that I'd still be blogging on a nearly daily basis at the end of 2012, but here we are."
The blog, VelveteenRabbi. com, is about what Barenblat refers to as "Judaism writ large," which covers a wide range of topics including Torah, festivals, holidays, texts and poetry. More recently, her blog has also stretched to encompass a little bit about parenthood and life as a congregational rabbi.
"I think my blogging has changed as I've gone from being interested in the rabbinate, to moving through the rabbinic school, to now being a practicing rabbi," said Barenblat. "On the other hand, I'm still writing on a lot of the topics that captivated me 10 years ago. That's a nice thing about Torah, God, religious practice and poetry -- they never get old."
Barenblat spent a few years posting weekly Torah poems on the blog and eventually compiled her favorites into a collection called "70 Faces," published by Phoenicia Publishing in 2011. The blog was named in reference to the children's book "The Velveteen Rabbit," about a fabricated rabbit who wanted to run and play with the real rabbits.
Barenblat, in the meantime, has not only become a real rabbi, but has picked up a solid blog following as well. In 2008, Time Magazine named her blog as one of the Top 25 Sites on the Internet -- the only religion website on their list of 25.
"I felt pretty good about that," said Barenblat. "That's probably the most visibility I've ever had. Although, I guess [New York Times columnist] Nick Kristof mentioned my blog in his column as well, which also gave me a boost."
At this point, VelveteenRabbi.com gets over 300 page views per day, with over a million page views since its inception. With roughly 1,600 subscribers who are notified whenever Barenblat adds to the over 2,000 total posts, the blog has a fairly wide reach.
"I don't know if it's brought anyone in, but I think it helps build our community's visibility," Barenblat said. "A lot of times I'll meet someone and they'll say ‘oh, you're the Velveteen Rabbi!' and I think that's good for our congregation to get that positive Internet buzz."
Barenblat's congregation is a ware of the blog where she writes about her experiences as a rabbi.
"So far, there's a lot of enthusiasm," Barenblat said. "The people I hear from tend to be the ones who like it, and they leave comments and so forth. I think of the blog as a constant resource both for my congregation and the wider world. It's an extensive archive of teachings and prayers and ideas and different ways of engaging with Judaism which I hope are helpful both to the local community and to the community at large."
Barenblat sees the purpose of her blogging as communication, but also feels that blogging overall falls well within the spirit of Judaic teachings.
"I think that blogs are very much in the spirit of the multi-voiced classical Jewish tradition," said Barenblat. "I think of something like the Talmud, which was written over time by a variety of voices in conversation, and I hope that some of the good blogging that's being done today works in some of those same ways. I hope I'm adding something to the Jewish communal conversation."