Hamantaschen Baking Day 2015

Submitted by Judy Rosenfeld
Sisterhood Hamantaschen Baking Day Chair

Every year we seem to have a new challenge for Hamantaschen Baking Day and this time it was definitely the weather. I want to thank everyone for understanding when we had to cancel our first baking day and start late on our snow date. Despite this, it was another very successful day. People came early to set up, stayed late to clean up and did a lot in between. Plates were made to send to our college students, for outreach to our congregants and for the temple staff. Tiny Temple and the religious school were able to join in too.

A special thank you to CJ Kelly and Kamil Wisniewski. Because of CJ instead of trays everywhere waiting to go in the oven or cooling, they were all neatly stacked in one place on a bakers rack she was able to borrow for us. Kamil was amazing in the kitchen. With six trays in the oven at a time, it’s very easy to get distracted, but he stayed focused the entire time and made sure that the hamantaschen didn’t burn. It’s not easy and he did an incredible job.

Our religious school kids had a great time making all the chocolate hamantaschen. Sunday school may have started an hour late because of the snow, but Joel Hoffman and Alan Kaflowitz made it work.
There were a lot of helpers who worked tirelessly to make delicious hamantaschen from all those batches of dough. It was a long day but the amazing volunteers who made dough and baked made it a fun one. A huge thank you to Laura Brundage, Andi Ciminello, Jen Dahnert, Melissa Erlebacher, Vivian Garber, Susan Karnes Hecht, Ronni Jarvis, Kristin Judd, Meredith and Haley Kaflowitz, Perla Kaufman, Muriel Lampell, Ann Lerman, Bunnie Levinson, Polly Lewis, Danah Moore, Amy Horn Oclatis, Robin, Zoe and Allison Peritz, Lisa-Sue Quackenbush, Shaari Roland, Lisa Rubinstein, Nancy Samson, Michelle Sinn, Roni Stein, Shira Teich, Melissa Wall, Zoe Weinstein, Kamil Wisniewski, Fern Wolf and Nadine Zaritsky. I’m sure I’m unintentionally omitting some names that weren’t on the sign-in sheet, but be assured I’m very grateful to them as well.
Judy Rosenfeld


Program from Performances for Musical Shabbat

Please click to read about the performances.


Letter to Congregation – Congregational Meeting to Approve Rabbi

Dear Vassar Temple Congregants,

I have historic, joyous, and exciting news for you!!

On February 18, 2015 a special congregational meeting was held in order to vote on the selection of the next rabbi of Vassar Temple, The Congregation Brethren of Israel, upon the retirement of Rabbi Golomb. (By now you most likely have heard about the outcome. I wanted to release all of the information about our candidate on a blog post and on social media which is linked to this letter, and we had to wait until the Rabbi had given notice at her current job.)

On December 15, 2014 the Vassar Temple Board of Trustees approved the selection of Rabbi Leah Berkowitz as the next Rabbi of Vassar Temple, The Congregation Brethren of Israel. Our temple by-laws require that the Board of Trustees make this selection; however, the actual approval to hire the rabbi, the salary, and the contract term (which is limited by the constitution to a maximum of two years initially), must be ratified by a vote of 2/3 of the members in good standing present at a congregational meeting for which a minimum of 10 days written notice was given. I am thrilled to report that the congregation voted unanimously 91 (visual count) to 0 to approve the hiring of Rabbi Berkowitz.

The decision to hire a new rabbi is an awesome responsibility and one to be shared by the congregation, with the help of many. Bob Abrams and I worked together to design a structure that would be inclusive, thorough, and support the search process while also providing oversight. We established both a Search Committee, chaired by Sandra Mamis, and an Advisory Committee, comprised of four presidents and the director of our Religious School committee who is also a Trustee. Together we ensured that no one was shut out and any important opinions and information were taken into consideration. The Search Committee did the heavy lifting, and during the congregational meeting Sandra Mamis detailed the search process and the candidate that the committee chose to recommend to the Board of Trustees. The Advisory Committee stayed engaged throughout the search process. The Executive Committee and I are extremely pleased with and grateful to all those on both committees for their collective hundreds of volunteer hours as well as for their quality work and the outcome that has been achieved.

The finance committee, under the leadership of Sam Finnerman, was engaged early in the process to establish compensation parameters for a new rabbi. Sam and the committee revisited assumptions that Vassar Temple had lived by for years and, together with the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees, determined that significant cost savings could and needed to be achieved under a new rabbi compensation package. Tough choices were made, and there was no guarantee that the Search Committee could fulfill its objectives and meet the expectations of the congregation within the compensation parameters that were set, in a marketplace where we are competing with other wonderful temples around the northeast and the country. Sam brought a Jewish consciousness and righteous guiding principles to the otherwise cold, hard realty of finance. Sam spoke to the financial aspects of the Rabbi’s employment agreement at the congregational meeting.

Minutes of the congregational meeting prepared by Leonard Greenberg, our Temple Board Secretary, will be made available once they are reviewed and approved by the Board of Trustees. Details of the contract terms are in those minutes.

Last but not least I want to thank you, the congregation, especially all those who participated in the focus groups and attended the various programs and services involving the four final candidates. Your reactions, thoughtful questions, comments, and communications were invaluable to the overall process.

Now, please visit our blog to read about Rabbi Berkowitz:

Rabbi’s Letter to Our Congregation
Rabbi’s Resume
A Photo Collection (On our new YouTube Channel. Produced by Sandra M.)

Perla Kaufman is chairing our Transition Committee. This letter is long enough, so I will simply say that we have great ideas for how we can say “goodbye” to Rabbi Golomb as we also say “hello” to Rabbi Berkowitz. Stay tuned for plans and announcements on our next steps.

Let’s all give Rabbi Berkowitz a friendly and supportive welcome to both Vassar Temple AND the Dutchess County community!!!


Bob Ritter
Vassar Temple (Congregation Brethren of Israel)

Letter to Congregation from Rabbi Berkowitz


Shalom Vassar Temple Family!

Words cannot express how honored and humbled I am to have been selected for the position of rabbi at Vassar Temple. This is a dream I have held close to my heart since I was twelve years old, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the Vassar Temple community for this opportunity.

I am grateful to Sandra Mamis, Bob Ritter, the search committee, and the board for guiding me through this process. You have welcomed me with open arms, and engaged with me in many honest, thoughtful, and heartfelt conversations about the past, present and future of Vassar Temple. Together, we are preparing to launch a “Revolution of Ruach,” by discovering new ways to engage members of this community through worship, learning, the pursuit of justice, and the sacred task of community building.

I have enjoyed getting to know the Vassar Temple community throughout this process: through singing, praying, learning Torah, and sharing our stories. While there are still some of you I have yet to meet, I look forward to connecting with each of you as we worship and study together, as we celebrate simchas and as we support one another through difficult times.

I hope you have had a chance to learn about me from the committee, but just in case, let me share some of my story with you. I grew up at Temple Sholom in Broomall, PA, where I developed a love of Jewish music and ritual, and began leading worship in middle school. My summers at Union for Reform Judaism Camp Harlam cemented my commitment to “living Judaism,” a faith that can be infused into every aspect of one’s life, not just practiced in a synagogue.

After graduating from Brandeis University, I began my studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, first in Jerusalem and then in New York City. In New York, I served on the board of the HUC-JIR Soup Kitchen, and interned with hospitals, Hillels, summer camps, and in congregations throughout the Northeast.

Synagogue life has always been my passion and, after my ordination in 2008, I spent five incredible years as the associate rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina. As we celebrated the daily, weekly, and yearly cycles of Jewish life, I built relationships within that community that I will cherish forever. I created new worship experiences for everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens, and developed a variety of educational programs for adults, children, and families.

I currently serve on the faculty of Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, MA. Though I still spend my days teaching Torah and leading worship, I miss synagogue life so much that my heart aches. I have been so excited over the last few weeks that it has been hard for me to believe that there are still several months before the school year ends and we can officially get started!

My goal as a rabbi is to empower those in our community to build meaningful lives grounded in the Jewish tradition. In a world that is changing at a rapid-fire pace, the Jewish community has had to work hard to keep up. Our challenge is to find a place in Judaism for people of all ages, genders, orientations, and backgrounds, as well as families of every shape, size, and composition.

I believe that the teachings of our faith can be relevant and inspiring for generations to come, particularly when we view them through the inclusive and innovative lens of Reform Judaism. Working together, we can create meaningful worship, enriching learning experiences, and a warm and welcoming community for all who seek to be a part of the Jewish story.

I look forward to connecting with the Dutchess Interfaith Council and partnering with local clergy and organizations to advocate for positive change in the wider community. I currently serve on the board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, and I’m a strong supporter of the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.

When I’m not on the pulpit, I love to read, write, and participate in live storytelling events. I’m working on a book about heroic women in the Bible, and I enjoy teaching classes in writing creative midrash. You can find some of my writing on my blog http://thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com.

I love music and theater, and am currently playing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. Thanks to the generosity of your members, I have already been to two productions at the Half Moon Theatre, and I look forward to being a regular theatergoer on the Poughkeepsie scene. I enjoy bringing these passions onto the pulpit when I can, and I can’t wait to be a part of your famous Purim shpiels!

One of the most treasured items in my home is a paper-cutting displaying the words of Pirke Avot 1:6, “Accept for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend.” Some read the verses as two separate instructions, but for me they are one and the same. I look forward to being both rabbi and friend to all of you at Vassar Temple, and I know that you will be both my teachers and my companions as we navigate this next phase of our lives together.

I hope you will join with me in our prayer of gratitude for special moments: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiymanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this joyous time.

Kol tuv (all the best)
Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz

[VT has put together a video of photographs of Rabbi Berkowitz. Please have a look.]

Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz Background


Reform Rabbi/Jewish Studies Faculty, Gann Academy, Waltham, MA 2013-June 2015

• Leads Reform worship at morning minyan, grade-level Shabbatonim, and school retreats.
• Led Alternative Liberal Minyan, where students engaged in spiritual activities through !movement, meditation, creative writing, art and discussion (2013-2014).

• Collaborates with faculty on Jewish Studies Curricular Redesign.
• Courses: Foundational Course in Jewish Studies (9th grade); Modern Jewish Literature (12th grade); Ethics of Social Justice (10th grade); Reading the Book of Genesis (12th grade).

• Jewish Journey Advising Pilot Committee: Helped build a team of rabbis that meets regularly with students to discuss their Jewish lives and learning.
• Jewish Life and Learning Working Group: Serves on an exploratory committee on Jewish Life and Learning as a part of the school’s two-year reaccreditation process.

Fall 2014
• Tikkun Olam Union: Faculty Advisor, student social action umbrella organization.
• “Rebuilding New Orleans”: Faculty Advisor, Spring 2014 Exploration Week Program.
• Advisor to 12th grade students (2014-2015); Advisor to 10th grade students (2013-2014).

Part-time Educator, Kevah Boston Educators’ Network, Boston, MA Fall 2014 to present Facilitates Jewish text learning for small independent communities in the Boston area.
High Holy Day Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El, Longview, TX
“Rabbis on the Road” program, Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Associate/Assistant Rabbi, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, NC
Sabbatical Rabbi, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, NC

• Led worship and delivered sermons for Shabbat, High Holy Days and festivals.
• Designed new worship services for Yom Kippur Afternoon, Selichot, Sukkot, and family
services for High Holy Days and Festivals.
• Instituted monthly “Community Shabbat” morning services and luncheon for seniors and other demographic groups who cannot attend Shabbat evening services.
• Initiated monthly “Kabbalat Shabbat” alternative musical service, aimed at young adults and families with teenagers.
• Directed team of writers and performers that produced the annual Purimshpiel.
• Led Religious School tefillah and preschool Gan Shabbat services.

Adult Education:
• Women’s Group Shabbaton: Coordinated day-long retreat on Exploring Jewish Prayer. 2008-2013 Aug 2009-Feb 2010
• “Shabbat on a Thursday”: Designed year-long program to teach congregants how to cele- brate Shabbat in their homes.
• “News and Nosh at Noon”: Organized a monthly discussion of current events from a Jewish perspective, held at popular lunch locations in the Triangle area.
• Introduction to Judaism: Co-instructor for 10-week group class. Supervised conversion students through year-long independent study process.
• Taught 3-6 week modules on selected topics such as Understanding the Prayer Service, Jewish Views on the Afterlife, Women in the Bible, and Creating Modern Midrash.

Youth and Family Education:
• Families Exploring and Learning Together (FELT): Supervised family programming for pre- K through 6th grades in the religious school.
• Rising 6th Grade Retreat: Partnered with temple educator to develop overnight Shabbat retreat to kick-off to the b’nai mitzvah process.
• Community Midrasha: Developed new curricula for the Jewish Community High School Program including “Topics in Jewish Identity” class (10th grade) and service-learning pro- gram (11th-12th grade).
• Mitzvah Class: Developed and co-taught six-month curriculum of learning activities and !social action projects for students preparing for b’nai mitzvah.

Additional Synagogue Activities:
• Provided counseling and presided over life-cycle events: weddings, funerals, namings, conversions, and b’nai mitzvah.
• Coordinated 20s and 30s programming for graduate students and young professionals.
• Co-supervised Social Action, Adult Education, and Religious Practices Committees.
• URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Camp Institute, Oconomowoc, WI: Limmud Faculty for Tiferet (Arts) Unit, Summer 2011; Limmud Faculty for

Moshava (Adventure) Unit, Summer 2009.

Rabbinical Intern, Temple Beth Elohim, Brewster, NY 2006-2008

High Holy Day Rabbi, Brandeis University Reform Chavurah, Waltham, MA Fall 2006

Editorial Intern, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, URJ Press, New York, NY 2006-2007 Collected creative pieces for the
“Voices” section and drafted promotional study materials for the pilot parasha.

Student Rabbi, Temple Beth Am, Monessen, PA 2005-2006 !Chaplain Intern, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY Summer 2005
Neurology, Oncology, and Neonatal Intensive Care Units; Perinatal Loss Support Group.

High Holy Day Rabbi, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ Fall 2004

Cultural Studies Coordinator, JCC PRAMUS Camp, Melrose Park, PA Summer 2004 Designed and implemented Jewish cultural programming—including a Shabbat experience for young children and creative social action projects for teens—at K-12 arts and music camp.

Annual Guest Lecturer, Temple Sholom in Broomall, Broomall, PA 2001-present Leads text study, meditation, and discussion session for Women’s Spirituality Group.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, NY 2003-2008
• Rabbinic Ordination, 2008.
• Master of Arts in Religious Education, 2008.
• Master of Arts in Hebrew Literature, 2007. Rabbinical Thesis: “ ‘Who Built up the House of Israel’: Reproductive Power Plays in the Biblical Narrative” (Advisor: Rabbi Andrea

• Premarital Counseling Practicum for Interfaith Couples, May 2014.
• Yours, Mine and Ours Facilitators’ Training for Working with Interfaith Couples, May

• Songleader Boot Camp, JCC St. Louis, MO, February 2014.
• Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Summer Learning Program in Bible and Talmud,Jerusalem, Israel, July 2010.
• PREPARE/ENRICH Relationship Assessment Training, Winston-Salem, NC, February !2010.

• Women’s Rabbinic Network: Networking Vice President, 2013-present. Coordinates national learning opportunities, recruits regional representatives,and provides support for regional and national educational programming for the WRN.
• CCAR Journal: Reform Jewish Quarterly: Editorial Board, Summer 2012-present.
• CCAR High Holy Day Machzor Committee: Chair, Alternative Readings Sub-committee, January 2011-present. Contributing member, Spring 2010-present.
• Urban Ministries of Durham: Board of Trustees, July 2009-June 2011.
• HUC-JIR Soup Kitchen: Fundraising Co-chair, 2006-2007; Head Chef, 2005-2006; Volunteer, 2004-2008.
• Davar Aher: HUC-JIR Student Publication: Editor-in-Chief, 2007; Editorial Board, 2005-2008.
• The Clothesline: HUC-JIR Year-In-Israel Student Publication: Editor-in-Chief, 2003-2004.
• Brandeis Reform Chavurah (BaRuCH): President, 2002-03; Education Coordinator, 2001- !02; Service Coordinator, 2000-01.

• “Reimagining Role Models,” in Graf, Rabbi Alysa Mendelson and Schorr, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein, eds., The Sacred Calling: Forty Years of Women in the Rabbinate. New York: CCAR Press, 2014 (expected).
• “A Prayer for New Members,” “A Prayer for Marriage Equality,” and “A Caregiver’s Bless- ing,” in Covenant of the Generations: New Prayers, Poems, and Meditations from Women of Reform Judaism. Women of Reform Judaism, 2013.
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
• Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. • Journalism Program; Hebrew Minor.

• Reform Jewish Outreach Training, Boston, MA.
• Wedding Ceremonies and Contemporary Pastoral Challenges, June 2014.
• Clinical Pastoral Education, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY, Summer 2005.
• “Response to Rabbi Elise Goldstein on Brit Milah.” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly. Fall 2012.
• “Keeping the Sabbath.” Fidelia’s Sisters: A Publication of the Young Clergy Women Project. March 13, 2012.
• “Book Review: Eating Animals.” The Reform Jewish Quarterly: CCAR Journal. Fall 2010.
• “The Truth about Cats and Dogs.” Union for Reform Judaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah. October 18, 2010.
• “Tzimtzum or Temporary Expansion.” Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. January 2010.
• “Choosing a Faith that Fits.” The News and Observer. Religion Section. November 27,2008.
• Contributing Author, God: Jewish Choices in Struggling with the Ultimate. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2008.
• “At the Same Table” and “Counting Sheep . . . Counting My Blessings,” in Schwartz, Harriet L., ed. Spirituality 101: The Indispensable Guide to Keeping-or Finding-Your Spiritual !Life on Campus. Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004.

• Women of Reform Judaism Centennial Prize, HUC-JIR, 2007.
• Michael Alper Memorial Prize in Education, HUC-JIR, 2007.
• Aaron and Margery Levenstein Prize in Human Relations, HUC-JIR, 2006.
• Marvin Gimprich Prize in Rabbinics, Rabbi Robert L. Lehman Award, HUC-JIR, 2006.
• Louis and Dorothy Sperling Memorial Prize in Modern Hebrew Literature, HUC-JIR, 2006.
• Rhoda Malino Prize in Modern Hebrew Literature, HUC-JIR, 2005.
• Lavine Scholarship Recipient, HUC-JIR, 2003-2008.
• Ezra Z. Shapiro Family Prize in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University,2003.
• Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society, Brandeis University, 2003.
• Eta Beta Rho Hebrew Honor Society, Brandeis University, 2003.
• Justice Brandeis Scholar, Brandeis University, 1999-2003.
• Wendy J. Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah Award, NFTY Convention, 1999. 

[VT has put together a video of photographs of Rabbi Berkowitz. Please have a look.]

When I was born, a family friend reportedly exclaimed, “With a name like that she’s going to be a Sisterhood president!” But God had other plans for me.

The Jewish community has always been where I felt most alive, most engaged, and most loved. While my entry point into Judaism was a love of Jewish prayer and music, I also cherished the sense of community I felt during Shabbat worship in synagogue, at summer camp, in youth group and at Hillel.

As I immersed myself in the study and practice of Judaism, I discovered a tradition that is beautiful, logical and meaningful: from the rituals of mourning that support us when we are grieving, to the “attitude of gratitude” we cultivate through daily prayer, to the way we wrestle with the traditions of our ancestors during Torah study.

I could imagine no better way to spend my life than sharing the warmth and beauty of the Jewish tradition with other people. And so, at an age when most of my peers still imagined themselves becoming movie stars and astronauts, I set my heart on becoming a rabbi.

I entered rabbinical school naively thinking that Jewish communities sprung forth organically around charismatic leaders whose own love of Judaism was contagious. My perspective changed when, for a graduate-school project, I interviewed an interfaith couple at my student pulpit. Although they had little religious education between them, Michael and Alice had managed to raise two Jewish children. Their daughter was enthusiastically preparing for bat mitzvah, Michael was a regular in my adult education classes, and Alice identified as Jewish, although she had never formally converted.

While they seemed perfectly comfortable in the synagogue, their family had stopped making seder in their home after Michael’s parents passed away. Alice didn’t know how to make brisket. Michael didn’t know how to lead seder. Not wanting to ignore the holiday completely, they ate their Passover meal in a restaurant. It broke my heart that something as simple as a lost recipe or a lack of familiarity with the haggadah had prevent- ed such a dedicated family from celebrating the holiday in their home.

I realized then that my life’s work would be something far more challenging than teaching classes and presiding over worship. I needed to teach my congregants, person by person if necessary, how to be in charge of their own Jewish lives. I couldn’t hope to keep Judaism alive purely by setting an example. I needed to teach couples like Michael and Alice how to set their Jewish table.

My purpose as a rabbi is to empower the next generation of Jews to live their best Jewish lives. This might have been much easier if my goal had been to hand out a finished product, a one-size-fits-all Judaism with simple instructions for usage and care. But a strong Jewish future can only exist when we teach the members or our community how to create meaningful Jewish lives for themselves.

Many Jewish professionals liken their role in the Jewish community to a treasure chest, an all-you-can-eat buffet, or even a dry-cleaner. I imagine my rabbinate as a hard- ware store. I aim to provide individuals and families with the tools and resources they need to build and repair their Jewish lives. Only by working together can we construct a positive prayer experience, a sense of religious literacy, an authentic set of home rituals, or an ap- proach to answering life’s big questions.

Some builders are looking for basic tools and instructions on how to use them. Others need help drawing blueprints and choosing materials for a specific project: a sledgehammer for breaking down barriers, a can of paint for putting finishing touches on an already solid structure, or a roll of duct tape to hold it all together when things are fall- ing apart.
My Jewish experience thus far, in communities of all shapes and sizes, has provided me with my own set of valuable tools that I carry with me wherever I go.

I carry with me a commitment to creating a diversity of Jewish experiences for the communities that I serve. Coming from a long line of believers, seekers, and wrestlers, I empathize equally with those who pray fervently, whose who sit in the back reading the footnotes of Mishkan Tefillah, and those who can’t sit still at all. My family has taught me that the greatest gift we can give to the Jewish people is to greet each one of them with our arms open wide, for those who wish to embrace tradition and for those who wish to wres- tle with it.

I carry with me a love of the Jewish story. As an avid reader and writer, I seek out creative ways to make our sacred story relevant and meaningful to our modern lives. Through divrei Torah and text studies, children’s stories and blog posts, I aim to show how the Torah can be a mirror in which we see ourselves, a prism through which we can see the world around us, and a telescope through which we can search for God.

I carry with me the belief that an enriching Jewish life is grounded in these essential Jewish ideas: appreciating our blessings; sanctifying time; balancing work and rest; mind- fulness in everyday actions; balancing tradition and change; recognizing and celebrating the dignity of every human being; taking responsibility for oneself and others; and creating community in an increasingly cold and disconnected world.

My desire to transmit these ideas to the next generation has instilled in me a pas- sion for lifelong learning. I believe that it is equally essential to provide positive Jewish ex- periences and valuable basic skills to our young people, to encourage teens to make Jewish choices as they become adults, and to equip adults to be the primary educators of the next generation.

While serving as a congregational rabbi, this passion inspired me to create multiple points of entry through which my congregants could access Jewish life. I created diverse worship experiences for Shabbat and holidays, offered classes on everything from “How to do an Aliyah” to “How to Write Midrash,” and encouraged our members to contribute their own talents to our community through art, music, and their commitment to social justice.

My passion for Jewish learning also motivated me, after five incredible years serving as a rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation, to become the first full-time Reform rabbi at Gann Academy. Working at a pluralistic Jewish high school has given me the opportunity to further hone my skills in teaching Torah, building relationships, and creating meaningful worship experiences for a diverse Jewish community.

Through my daily encounters with our teens, I learn what inspires this generation and what turns them away, what weighs on their minds and what they have to offer the Jewish community and the wider world. I love watching our hyper-competitive, technology-addicted students celebrate and rest together at Gann’s Shabbatonim. Disconnected from their schoolwork, and their devices, they connect with one another through prayer, shared meals, and endless games of ping-pong.

Taking part in our curricular redesign has given me a front-row seat to an organiza- tional change process that is both radical and thoughtfully executed. The creativity and in- novation of my fellow faculty continually inspires me to challenge myself and to try new things in the classroom and in worship.

Being outside of the pulpit rabbinate has also provided me with the invaluable ex- perience of being a congregant. My free Shabbatot have become a time to explore how different communities approach worship, learning, and community engagement.

Moreover, I now know what it’s like to walk through the doors of a sanctuary and not know a soul, which will forever transform how I reach out to newcomers in my own community.

While I deeply value these experiences, I have discovered that I miss building rela- tionships with families over time: naming the children of couples I married, consecrating the children I named, and confirming the teens I prepared for b’nai mitzvah. It excites me to celebrate simchas with families I have mourned with or prayed with in the hospital, and to watch Jews-by-choice come into their own Jewishness after we walk through the process of conversion together. I love experiencing the rhythms of Judaism within the life of the synagogue: greeting members of my community each Shabbat, preparing the annual Purimshpiel and yes, even the high-stress process of writing High Holy Day sermons.

This leads me back to where I started: my fervent desire to serve a congregation as rabbi. The Jewish life that I wish to build for myself is one lived in the service of a commu- nity, guiding people through the Jewish year and the family life-cycle. I hope to engage students of all ages in Jewish learning and living, and to challenge the members of my community to bring positive change into the world through the pursuit of justice and the practice of kindness.

It has been a blessing and a privilege for me to bear witness to the Jewish lives that my congregants and students are creating. As I prepare once again to serve a congregation as rabbi, I look forward to building relationships that will last a lifetime.

Torah Study Notes 2-14-15

February 14, 2015
Moses encounters God and receives very detailed rules for the conduct of society.
22:4 The Code of Hammurabi, clearly the source of some of this material, is dated to about 1900 BCE. The responsibility here is primarily for negligence. These are regulations for an agrarian society. Note that rabbinic courts are essentially medieval – post Talmudic. At that time there was a sufficiently connected Jewish community –in Tiberias or Baghdad – to require determinations to be made beyond those of the polity. Also, God permits the divine will to be overturned. Recall the story of Eleazer and God arguing and, when Eleazer is adamant God is smiling. LL: Very impressive that Moses is able to remember all of these rules without writing them down. PG: After Moses relays all of this to the people it is written down. The fundamental notion here is that each person has responsibility for his/her actions.
22:6 This implies swearing before God to tell the truth. It assumes that both parties are within the faith therefore their oath can be trusted.
22:9 A missing animal and a determination of responsibility. This does not apply in situations where the animal’s guardian is paid – such as an employee.
22:13 A fine distinction as to responsibility for an animal for hire or loan.
22:15 “If a man seduces a virgin…” Rabbinic literature addresses how one became betrothed. Once a man marries a woman he becomes responsible for her entire estate. If the marriage dissolves part of the estate remains with the wife. “ Proscribed” refers to something that is consecrated and refers to a death penalty – or excommunication. Verses 17, 18 and 19 refer to foreign practices. But even a foreigner must abstain from these acts while residing in the land of Israel. That includes praying to other Gods. How was the bride price related to dowry? In the latter the parents contribute to the bride and grooms estate. The bride price is additional and goes to the bride alone. It is intended to insulate her from penury going forward – as in becoming a widow.
22:21 Mistreatment of widows and orphans. Exact no interest for the loan of money. Note the emotional content here – referring to compassion and anger. The problem of interest is complex. Here it is forbidden but note that the lender is arguably somewhat harmed by making a loan – he has no benefit from that asset. This is taken up extensively in the rabbinic literature. Deuteronomy implies that any additional benefit is forbidden – that there is an inherent benefit to the lender in the act of making a loan. Again, interest still may be charged to a foreigner.

Crafting a Worship Service

A Song For ShabbatPrayerbooks open, music compilations at hand, iPhones for downloading audio and video. And a dozen members of the Vassar Temple youth group.

Such was the scene yesterday evening when Vassar Temple teens worked over dinner to craft a worship service.

Working from an outline of the traditional Friday evening liturgy, the teens evaluated each worship element:

Which songs come from the traditional Friday evening Psalms? What melody should we use for Lecha Dodi? Should we sing the V’ahavta in English or Hebrew, and how does that choice influence the Shema that comes right before? Do we want a festive mood or a contemplative one? How long should the service last? What parts do we want to write ourselves? And so on.

Guided by the youth-group president, the teens reviewed 3,000 years of Jewish tradition as viewed through the lens of contemporary American Judaism. The result, a gift to the community, will be a remarkable worship experience on Friday, February 20.

You really don’t want to miss it.

Building a Holy Community: A Case Study

The power and impact of music are undisputed, but helping children find their Jewish musical voice is a tough needle to thread, because it demands an unusual combination of diverse qualities in a teacher: musical expertise and skill, an understanding of developmental psychology, an ability to relate to children, technical teaching skills, repertoire, patience, flexibility, and more.

PullQuoteFor example, musicians are frequently bored with the music that children like, while amateurs often lack the level of musical proficiency required to do justice to the music. As a result, supplemental music programs can end up backfiring, either teaching children to dislike music or teaching them that Jewish music isn’t very good.

Similarly, leading music is different than performing it, in the same way that conducting is not the same as playing the tuba. Many skilled musicians have difficulty making the transition to music leader.

So for a while I ran a rudimentary and fragmented music program myself, but I was limited by my own musical shortcomings. Most of the music I wanted to teach was beyond what I could do well.

Then two years ago a 10th grader who happened to be an opera singer joined Vassar Temple. She, obviously, could sing any of the music I wanted to introduce to the school. It turned out that she was also a natural teacher, and by nature patient and flexible. Most importantly, she would be a positive role model.

PullQuote2For a year and half we worked on applying her natural skills to the demanding task of teaching music. She learned how to lead services. She learned how to teach songs. She learned what kinds of music appeal to different age groups. She starting teaching music from time to time. She helped me lead worship services. Over the summer, she further refined her skills as she led a complete Friday night service with me.

After a year and a half of work, she was ready to start running our school’s music program. She began in the fall.

Then an opportunity arose for her to learn from two of the pioneers of American Jewish music, one an internationally recognized performer and songwriter, the other a professional cantor who runs one of the Reform Movement’s most important musical training programs. Together they offer a weekend-long master class in songleading. The rabbi funded the minimal attendance fee that made it possible for our music teacher to join a handful of other high-school students from around the country who gathered to perfect their craft.

The students at Vassar Temple now benefit from learning the songs that will be tomorrow’s mainstream melodies, just as they experience the joy of Jewish music that only an experienced teacher an bring. Just about two years after a musically inclined 10th grader first walked through our doors, we have an engaged high-school student, a top-notch music program, and joyous musical worship.

The words and values of our tradition rise in song from the mouths of the next generation of Jews.

What we have even extends beyond the individual successes and achieves the broader goal of bringing members of our community together to celebrate Judaism as part of a holy community and to continue the 3,000-year-old tradition of working in unison to create a glorious Jewish future.

Torah Study Notes 1-31-15

January 31, 2015

P. 436 The final plague has now occurred. Moses approaches the Red Sea and God explains what will happen. PG: For several reasons it appears that God needs to impress the Israelites. We read this as a story in terms of what was going on at the time but also in the context of when it was written. This happens with both fiction and non-fiction. As to the later – the context of the time in which the story was put down – there is frequently an effort to uncover something new. On both occasions we have to consider Israel’s relationship to Egypt. For a considerable portion of their history the ancient Israelites turned to Egypt when there was pressure from the north – in the form of the Assyrians or other invaders. Again, the overall arc here is to accept God as the one God of the Israelites. If this was written after the return from Babylonia it is argued by some scholars that Egypt is effectively a disguise for Babylonian.

14:19  The angel of God – a pillar of clouds. LL: Is the “angel” as a manifestation of God here a pillar of clouds? PG: Yes. Whenever you see a reference to an angel in Torah – with only two exceptions – it means that there is a manifestation of God – one God with different images. One cannot see God but God can be experienced by concretizing. Martin Buber said that we need to create an image of God. See  “kib’ya kohl” which is the process of rationalizing scripture toward the goal of living a good life. See the essay “ Ethics” by Peter Singer http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1985—-.htm

14:21 Moses held out his arm… “The Eternal is fighting for them…” Note that there are a variety of terms throughout the Torah referring to God. Here the writers of the text is being ironic in that he has the Egyptians calling upon the one God. Whenever armies clashed at this time it was understood that the respective God’s were also clashing. It is rational that the Egyptians would know how the Israelites called their God.

14:26 The waters come back upon the Egyptians. Great effort has been made to find natural explanations for these phenomena. There needs to be some minimal verisimilitude in order to make all of this work. Consider the difference between science fiction and fantasy. LL: To treat all of this as the result of natural phenomena is to take away the miraculous element.

14:30 A logical problem as to the location of the Egyptian bodies. Suddenly they are on the east bank of the Red Sea.  The Rabbi’s had an ingenious explanation for this: The sea knew it could be cursed so spews the bodies onto the dry land.

p.438 The Song of the Sea. This can be sung and there are cantellation marks in the text. Note again that songs and poems precede narratives chronologically. The narrative here was most likely drawn from the song. There are only two complete songs in the Torah but there are many instances of fragments of song. Peter Schickele (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Schickele )has pointed out that most folk songs do not have a definitive version. There were likely a variety of oral versions before this was written down.

Note that Red Sea could be a middle English spelling of Reed Sea. SF: This is a manifestation of the Oedipal complex where P is the father. LL: This is triumphalism at its worst. A kind of crowing that would not be looked upon favorably today in civilized societies –  except in the end zone. Was this society militaristic?  Paul Johnson in his History of the Jews suggests as much. See: https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/09/03/specials/johnson-jews.html

Compare paragraph 11 which is not militaristic and is part of the Shabbat service. It is in every morning service in its entirety. As is the entire Akidah.  See: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Torah/Genesis/The_Binding_of_Isaac.shtml

Note that all of the success of the flight from Egypt is being attributed to God – exclusively. Also, the “booty” sought by the Egyptians could be the return of their slaves as well as the wealth of those who are fleeing. The word “earth” here refers to Earth inclusive of land and sea. The word “celestials” in Hebrew refers to “Gods.” Note also that the Song of the Sea in Hebrew is written to look like waves.