Rabbi Rayzel Raphael is a gloriously vibrant work of art; as colorful as the painted-on -silk tallit she designs in rainbow array. A true Renaissance Woman, Rayzel teaches, leads services, runs an organization, records and performs music.
How do you live your bliss?
Through music and art, rituals and women’s circles. Music and art take me out of my mundane regularity of life- errands, computer, carpool, work- and elevate my spirit to another realm.
What led you to the spiritual path you are on, personally and professionally?
It was a gradual unfolding of the path, and responding to the call to serve my people. I grew up in Tennessee in a Conservative Jewish family. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi and my family was pretty traditional- keeping the Sabbath, going to synagogue, keeping kosher. I began as undergraduate major in Jewish studies at Indiana University. I went to graduate school at Brandeis in contemporary Jewish studies, spent a year studying in yeshiva in Israel and then another year studying women of the bible at Hebrew University – (My first cd Bible Babes came out of that research )
Bible Babes Abeltin’ is my collection of strong songs of Jewish women from scriptures. I use music to tell stories and educate. To me music is “the spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine of lessons go down” -it makes learning fun.
I worked at Hillel in Toronto Canada, I was the executive director of Jewish Student Federation and on campus organization at York University that helps Jewish students stay connected to their heritage, through social, cultural educational and religious activities. Then I couldn’t resist the call anymore to come to Reb school in the Philadelphia area. (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.) Reconstructionist Judaism sees it as an evolving religious civilization, not static or frozen in ancient time- always subject to interpretation in new ways. It’s the Reconstructionist philosophy that gives me license to create and transform liturgy.
I know that you perform solo and in collaboration with a group of other talented women, called Miraj. What is the nature of the music you offer?
We write and arrange our own liturgical, ritual, and educational songs – with a specialty in women of the Bible. We met in rabbinical school in Hebrew grammar the first year and started singing to learn the lessons, we sounded pretty good together it went from there- we’ve been together 15 years- Rabbi Margot Stein, Juliet Spitzer and myself- we’ve had others sing with us as well through the years, but we’re the core. A lot of lunches and laughter.
How does music allow you to express your heart and soul?
I can sing about and through the pains- my own which I can also assume at some level I sing for others who carry what I do – we all carry pain, can I transform it through music? It’s one of my goals. I can educate about the Jewish tradition. I can use my poetic skills to translate ancient prayers into modern language and make it meaningful/relevant today.
Shabbat Unplugged was the way that I first met you. Can you speak about that?
I created Shabbat Unplugged when I was Rabbi at Leyv Ha-ir in center city – it was originally called Rock and Roll Shabbat. I invited my Reb school friends to “do something creative” and I marketed it to my Hillel students. We were mobbed, we then got a grant from the Jewish federation to do it in area synagogues- we were really busy for years. Now we get a couple of gigs a year but its always a joy. We created a lot of new music.
My album Friday Night Revived contains a completely transformed Hebrew- English Friday night service – a lot from that era my partners there were Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Rabbi Micah Becker Klein, Rabbi Margot Stein and Juliet Spitzer.
I also developed a project called Sidewalk Shabbat that took this music to the streets and met Judah Prince and Yofiah Deikman. All of my singing partners have their own cds as well.
What is InterFaithways?
It is a non profit organization : an interfaith family support network of Greater Philly. I started it under Jewish Family Services. We are now independent with Leonard Wassermans & Rubenstein Family Foundations and others’ support. I’m the Rabbinic Director, Gari Weilbacher is the Managing Director we have two missions to :
Welcome interfaith families and to make the community welcoming to them.
InterFaithways has been my vehicle for service to my community. As the rates of intermarriage arises- its almost 50% .The interfaith families represent a huge opportunity for the Jewish community to grow their numbers AND transform their culture to be welcoming. We have such fear encoded in our DNA from years of oppression and persecution. Welcoming interfaith families gives us the opportunity to conquer fear and embrace love.
I invite couples in to my home for Shabbat to give them a sense of Jewish family life, we also sponsor a Movie Night and Interfaith family weekend with the area’s 50 synagogues.
How do angels blend with the work that you do since most mainstream Jews were not taught much about angelic presence?
Angels are my guides. I did a paper on them in Reb school and I’ve called upon them for support and guidance ever since. I’m one of their PR agents and love to sing and teach about them. I call on them for help as well.