Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Email Rabbi Penzner: rabbi@templehbt.org

Rabbi Barbara Penzner has served Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, MA since 1995. During her time with HBT, she has brought in younger families, invigorated our prayer life with spirituality and depth, enriched intellectual engagement for all ages, and inspired us to act justly in the world.

Rabbi Penzner received the degree of rabbi and a Master of Hebrew Letters from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in 1987. She is active in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the national association of Reconstructionist rabbis, and served as its President. She has also served as President of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Penzner is active in greater Boston's Jewish community and in interfaith work, including leadership of Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Labor Committee.

Her writings on topics including Israel-Diaspora relations, mikveh (ritual immersion) as a meaningful ritual for Jews today, and adult Jewish learning have been published in various journals and books.

In addition to her Jewish interests, our rabbi is an avid Red Sox fan and a follower of Bruce Springsteen. She has lived in Jerusalem twice, once for a year and again for two years. She was born in New York and grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. She and her husband, Brian Rosman, work together on social justice causes, and are the proud parents of two children, Aviva and Yonah, who are now adult activists.

Tikkun Olam

  • Labor: Rabbi Penzner now serves as co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and serves on the JCRC Council as representative of the JLC. She leads the annual Jewish Labor Seder which brings together labor leaders and Jewish community leaders to celebrate Pesach as a holiday that can inspire us to support workers' rights. http://newenglandjewishlabor.org/ Rabbi Penzner has also contributed to the JLC blog, Kolot: http://www.kolotproject.net

  • Human Rights: In 2011, Rabbi Penzner was among the first #TomatoRabbis to visit Immokalee, Florida to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. www.ciw-online.org She continues to serve as a member of the Faith Working Group of the Alliance for Fair Food, the partners and allies who support the work of the CIW. www.allianceforfairfood.org/

  • Thanks to her work with the CIW and her leadership of the movement on behalf of the Hyatt 100, a group of hotel workers who were summarily fired from their jobs in 2009, T'ruah, the Rabbinic Voice for Human Rights, named her a Rabbinic Human Rights Hero.

  • Awards and Honors: Rabbi Penzner serves on the Council of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. In 2016, the JCRC awarded her the prestigious Warren B. Kohn Award for Excellence in Jewish Communal Service. http://www.jcrcboston.org/

  • In 2012, Mayor Tom Menino invited her to give the invocation to his (last) State of the City address at Faneuil Hall. In 2015, she also gave the invocation at the inaugural dinner for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, in Dorchester. https://www.emkinstitute.org/

"Who knew there were Jews in West Roxbury?"

Watch the video of Rabbi Penzner offering the benediction at Mayor Menino's 19th State of the City address, held at Faneuil Hall on Tuesday night, January 17, 2012. She is the first rabbi the mayor has invited to participate in the State of the City.  Watch the video here---Rabbi Penzner's benediction starts at about minute 7.  Read the text here.

Click here to watch the video of the Rabbis for Human Rights Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award ceremony for Rabbi Penzner.

Read Rabbi Penzner's Opinion Piece: The True Light of Chanukah in the West Roxbury Patch


Rabbinic Human Rights Hero

HBT members celebrate with Rabbi Penzner as she receives the Rabbinic Human Rights Hero award from Rabbis for Human Rights--North America December 19, 2011 (24 Kislev)

Rabbi Penzner receives Honorary Doctorate from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Rabbi receives honorary doctorate

What were you doing twenty-five years ago? What has changed in your life, in your work, in your family over the past twenty-five years?

These important questions prompted my own reflection upon receiving the honorary Doctor of Divinity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia this past Sunday. When I graduated 25 years ago, there were no honorary DDs. None of our graduates had more than 15 years of experience. That seemed like a very long time then. Now it feels like it passed in a the blink of an eye.

For those who wondered how I had the time to complete a doctorate, the answer is that it took twenty-five years of reading and study, twenty-five years of building relationships, twenty-five years of making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, twenty-five years of balancing being a parent and developing a career, twenty-five years of seeking my purpose, and twenty-five years of finding my voice. And with all of that, I could easily spend another twenty-five years learning and growing into the role of rabbi.

Sitting in the front row at the 40th graduation ceremony of RRC, I was moved by the wisdom and devotion of the ten students who were to become rabbis. At Shabbat services the day before, I had witnessed their skills as Torah readers, liturgical masters, teachers and preachers. At graduation, these budding leaders and scholars stood on the bimah in their variously shaded, differently textured, large, small and in-between sized tallitot. Each dedicated to a different purpose, from chaplaincy to education to social justice to congregational work. Full of enthusiasm and confidence, pride and exhilaration,

I recalled how I felt at my own graduation: my unbridled commitment to bring a new vision of Jewish life to Jews and my naïve confidence in my own ability to change the world. Twenty-five years later, I am humbled by my own limitations and deeply mindful of the “cost of living” that takes its toll on the lofty ideals of our youth. And yet I remain hopeful for these new graduates that they may have the blessings that I have had, to see a portion of their dreams fulfilled.

My colleagues who shared the honor of receiving the Doctor of Divinity honoris causa impressed me with their accomplishments, each following their own distinct rabbinic paths. One classmate has spent twenty-five years as a military chaplain in the Navy, including serving for a time in Iraq. Recently he has worked with the State Department forging inter-faith bonds in North Africa. Another colleague has spent most of his twenty-five years serving the progressive Jewish community in France, challenged by entirely different issues, including fear of anti-Semitism and living in the shadow of the much larger and more visible orthodox Jewish community in Europe. The other three honorees have devoted themselves to teaching Torah and building community in their congregations, each making a unique contribution to the world as well.

Two other honorees are worthy of mention. RRC graduate Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum (1990) and esteemed leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the largest GLBT synagogue in the world, received the Keter Shem Tov (Crown of a Good Name) award. Sharon was lauded for her exemplary rabbinate: a visionary leader for her community, an outspoken advocate for human rights, and compassionate pastoral presence during the AIDS epidemic.

Feminist scholar Lori Lefkovitz, formerly an instructor at RRC and now on the faculty of Northeastern University, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Lori is widely-recognized for her ground-breaking work in Jewish feminist studies. She was also one of the minds behind Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing. I hope she will come speak at HBT sometime soon.

All in all, listening to stories of remarkable rabbis, receiving blessings for my work, and reconnecting with Reconstructionist colleagues reminded me that this path has been a gift. It felt good to be a rabbi and to be part of the Reconstructionist movement.

Having Brian, Aviva and Yonah at the ceremony made me keenly aware of the sacrifices they have each made and grateful for their significant roles in helping me become the rabbi I am today.

And, as always, I felt so privileged to be part of this remarkable community at Hillel B’nai Torah, where I have learned so much.  I hope to continue to learn with you for many years to come. And no, please don’t call me Doctor. Rabbi is the best title I could ever hope for.

- Rabbi Barbara Penzner