Cantor Laura Stein thanks Vassar Temple

By Laura Stein, Friday June 22, 2018

I wanted to be a cantor my whole life. After I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah and chanted Torah for the first time, I was hooked. In high school, I interned at my home synagogue, attended the URJ’s Kutz Camp to learn guitar and songleading, and started serious vocal training – all in anticipation of one day attending cantorial school. Would you believe that I even wrote my college entrance essay – early admission to Washington University in St. Louis – on my dream of becoming a cantor and on how their liberal arts curriculum would help me get there? And it worked! They let me in and then I spent four years studying Spanish literature…

All joking aside, arriving at my cantorial ordination was a lifelong dream. And yet, it posed challenges I hadn’t accounted for. During my second year of cantorial school at HUC, I was unhappier than I had ever been before. I was working at a pulpit in the Northeast where I didn’t feel particularly appreciated or utilized, and hadn’t found a mentor in any of my co-clergy. Congregational life was unconvincing. During the week in my classes, I felt unstimulated and disconnected from the teachers and their values. Academically, I found cantorial school to be pretty lackluster. Was this what cantorial life was like? This wasn’t what I had envisioned. And so, like I had before, I followed my heart, took a big leap, and asked those around me to trust and support what I was about to do. I walked just four blocks over to NYU and handed in an application for social work school, the addition to my career I felt I needed. On the walk back to HUC from the NYU admissions office, I called my parents and told them what I had done. Their response was “wait. Did we agree to pay for that?!” I said, “I don’t care what you do. I have to go.”

I simultaneously quit my Northeast pulpit for the following year and got accepted to NYU for an MSW. That following year, my 3rd year of school, was now filled with a lot of social sciences classes and no connection to pulpit life. To say that I was a bit shell shocked would be an understatement. I was so lost that year, more lost than I wanted to admit. I wasn’t “Cantorial Intern Laura Stein” at any synagogue. I mean, I didn’t want to be and…now I wasn’t. So shouldn’t I have been happier?

Then an email arrived. It was May, the end of my 3rd year of school – a year during which I felt suspended in mid-air somewhere between the identity of a cantor and the identity of a social worker. HUC’s student placement director emailed the entire cantorial school asking if anyone wanted to make the trip up to Poughkeepsie five times the next year. It wasn’t a formal internship, she said, just a way to introduce HUC life to the congregation and show them what a cantorial intern or a cantor could bring. I responded hesitantly. “You don’t like congregational life, remember?” I told myself as I sent the email. “You want to be a social worker who just sings sometimes, remember?” I sent the email anyway. Something pulled me toward Vassar.

And so, I came last year five times, as I was contracted to do. It was supposed to be a short stint – just a way to show the congregation what an HUC student could do, and try to sell cantorial music and the value of having a cantor. And yet – it wasn’t a short stint. That email that I responded to oh-so-hesitantly changed my life.

I said this to Rabbi Berkowitz on the phone the other day – that this internship changed my professional trajectory – and she said, “Wait, really? I didn’t know that!” I don’t think I’ve shared that with the congregation, since my job doesn’t include much speaking from the bimah. So let me take this time to tell you: This congregation is the home I had been looking for during my five years at HUC. Leah – you are the mentor I had been waiting for during my five years at HUC. Joe – you are the musical partner I was waiting for during my five years at HUC. And you: the congregants. All of you were the voices I had been waiting for. The people who’d sing back when I said “now your turn!” The people who’d watch my recital online and support me as I finished my graduate school journey.

I want to thank the music committee, the ritual committee and all of the people who brought me into the Vassar Temple family and made it possible for me to find home among you. I want to thank all of you who have invited me into your prayer life, into your homes, and into your lives in general, so that I could be on your Jewish journeys with you.

It’s hard for me to believe that I was here for two years. After my first pulpit and my first year at NYU, I said I would never find another home. But Vassar found me. I now see myself as a cantor who can work in congregational life. This wonderful community has taught me that integrity can exist in synagogue life and that Judaism is alive and well.

Thank you for everything you have given to me. V’yarechecha – May God Bless all of you.

Cantor Laura Stein


Youth Group Social Action & Birthday Blessing for Rabbi Berkowitz

Written by Nancy Samson:

One of the strongest values of Jewish tradition is gratitude; expressing our thanks and awe to G-d for blessings large and small in our lives. Our very lives are a blessing, and as such,Trim A Thanksgiving at Vassar Temple 2 we have obligation to use our lives for good, for making the world better. Tonight the gorgeous baskets of trimmings donated by Temple members and arranged by our VTRS students honors that commitment. In making these basket, we share a special opportunity to express our thanks, to notice our own blessings, to decidedly act on our ability to move to world, to make a difference in someone’s life, to repair it.

But did you know that engaging in the act of tzedakah like this can also be done in celebration of a birthday?

It’s Rabbi Leah’s Birthday. Rabbi Leah is a present to us, to all of our families and friends at Vassar Temple, to her family and friends outside of the congregation too. She is a blessing to be grateful for. Rabbi Leah comes to us with her own unique gifts like the courage to relocate to a new place, to join and lead in a new spiritual home. She comes have been willing to meet a lot of new people, willing to talk with us, to inspire us, and to share her wisdom and knowledge. Her gifts too include her warmth, enthusiasm, her abiding passion for Judaism, her commitment to spiritual growth, faith and more. Tonight, we have a golden opportunity to recognize the blessing of having Rabbi Leah, and to celebrate her both by engaging the mitzvah of helping to feed others and by letting her know just how grateful we are to have her.YouthGroup@Birthday

A birthday is a wonderful time to recite the following blessing in which we give thanks for having reached this day:

“Zeh hayom atah Adonai, nagilah venism’cha vo” –
This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

It is said that a birthday is a “mini-Rosh Hashanah,” referring to the tradition that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:
for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion.

And of course, a birthday is the best time to sing! Happy Birthday Rabbi Leah!

Busy second day at the Biennial

We started today by attending the morning prayer service using Visual T’filah. I wanted to see how they supplemented the information on the screen to make for an engaging service. The service was run by a young (female) Rabbi and (male) Cantor, both with beautiful voices. The Cantor played a guitar during half of the service and a piano during the 2nd half.

Next I attended a session on the “Intentional Interim Rabbi” where I learned about the CCAR training now required of all interim Rabbis, and how the interim rabbi not only helps with transition from the prior rabbi, but also helps the congregation determine the profile for what they’d like in a new Rabbi. Typically hired for a 1 year period, the intentional interim rabbi is typically an empty-nester who likes traveling to different areas, helping congregations in need, and then moving on. It was stressed that the interim year is not a disruption, but is an opportunity for the congregation to reexamine who we are, identify traits that we feel we absolutely require, and help the congregation arrive at consensus. Where there’s conflict, the interim doesn’t take sides … he/she needs to hear from everyone and help all arrive at consensus. It was mentioned that congregations who don’t hire a full rabbi rather than an interim will often take on a second rabbi search within the next year. So planning is very important.

The session on Visual T’filah was particularly enlightening. The temple purchased the CCAR model service based on Mishkan T’filah and we enhanced it to meet our needs. This session focused on how to create new, fresh visuals for services, and create unique services for specific situations, like a Martin Luther King service, or tailoring a Saturday morning service to highlight the interests of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. One of the panel participants was Rabbi Danny Dreskin of Woodlands Community Synagogue in White Plains. Rabbi Dreskin started the Visual service trend and Visual T’filah is used regularly at his temple with very wide acceptance. After speaking with him following the session, he invited us to visit his temple on a night when they’re using Visual T’filah to observe how they conduct the service using this medium.

I also attended a session on Best Practices for fundraising. During this session, issues related to marketing and messaging, running fund development, and running an annual campaign were discussed, as well as how to inspire donors to give. A panel of reform synagogue development professionals offered advice and answered questions. A common theme throughout the entire discussion was the need to make connections with everyone at the temple, to cultivate members, set goals and to get the message out … to always tell our story about what’s involved in running the temple and why additional fundraising is necessary. The role of clergy was also discussed, how clergy relationships with potential donors is very powerful. Build relationships via life events, engage new congregants, and develop appropriate goals on why funding is required, and how the donor will benefit. While I felt many of the suggestions were more appropriate for larger congregations, the basic principles apply regardless of the number of families.

On a side note, I got to meet Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Joel’s dad), who was doing a book signing at the URJ Bookstore. Rabbi Hoffman’s wife was there as well. They are both looking forward to visiting Vassar Temple for the Shabbaton in the Spring, to see the temple that Joel has been raving about!

This evening’s Plenary session will feature Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President and other speakers, followed by music entertainment featuring Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols.

Bob Abrams

First day at the Biennial

First day at the Biennial is off to a great start. Our flights (LGA to Dallas, then to San Diego) were smooth and we got to our destination close to on schedule. And our bags got to our destination as well … yay! Many thanks to Mary Ritter for driving us to LaGuardia Airport very early in the morning for our 6am flight!

After checking into the hotel we headed over to the huge convention center to check in and get our bags with the program and other handy info. We located the Kikar, which is the “central square” with the URJ Book store and a stage featuring Jewish music artists much of the afternoon. I spent much of the afternoon at a program for temple presidents, where I met up with several fellow presidents who I met at the Scheidt Seminar last year. I got there too late to hear Ron Wolfson talk about Synagogue 3000, but was fortunate to attend There were two great speakers: Rabbi Sam Joseph and Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Joel’s father).

Rabbi Joseph’s topic was on the need to establish relationships as part of creating community. He stressed that the Board needs social settings (away from the Temple) to help create and enhance relationships, something that cannot be done at the Board meeting around a large table. He then took the group through a self-survey of leadership orientations that expressed the importance of considering 4 major leadership styles among the Board and its leaders: structural, human resources, Political and Symbolic leaders. It’s a good exercise that I’ll try to do with the Board. During the discussion I found out about a good way to engage families with younger kids is a “Pajama Havdalah”, with activities for the little ones. Rabbi Hoffman talked about the need to “think differently”, establishing the true values of the congregation (look beyond being a welcoming temple) and crafting our messages to focus on the values that matter. He also offered some useful tools for determining the culture of the temple, such as level of trust, purpose of programming, whether congregants are consumers vs. partners, and other aspects. Rabbi Hoffman received an award for his long-time contributions on the Synagogue 2000 and 3000 initiatives.

The first Plenary session was kicked off by very funny comedian, Joel Chasnoff. Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the Biennial via pre-recorded video, introduced by Rabbi David Saperstein. VP Biden was recognized for his work on social justice issues, stopping gun violence, rights for disabled Americans, and national security for the US & Israel, including elimination of Iran’s nuclear program. Later in the evening was a wonderful concert by Jewish musicians Julie Silver and Michelle Citrin!

Bob Abrams

2013 Biennial in San Diego

San Diego, here we come!  This week Bob Ritter and I will be attending the 72nd Biennial conference at the San Diego Convention Center.  The conference, which runs December 11-15, is the place for Jews from across North America to assemble to learn, pray, share ideas, sing, listen to great music by modern Jewish groups, hear from inspiring guest speakers, reunite with old friends, create new connections, and make decisions about the policies of the Reform Movement.  The Biennial attracts about 5,000 lay leaders and professionals from Reform congregations.  Activities and events are planned for each day of the Biennial, starting in the morning (for those who like to attend early morning worship service) and lasting well past midnight with engaging music and other forms of entertainment.  Learning sessions are scheduled throughout each day with countless choices in each time slot. 

There’s a huge lineup of speakers & musicians, featuring keynote speaker Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  I hope they set up a separate stage for featured musicians to perform … a great way to wind down or occupy yourself between sessions.

This week Bob and I will also meet with our URJ representative, Gila Hadani Ward, about how the Temple can take more advantage of URJ offerings.  I’m also hoping that we can meet with Rabbi Dan Medwin to discuss how we can gain better use of Visual T’filah, which we’ve used during a few services over the summer.

We are looking forward to a very full long weekend of activities, and will try to summarize the high points of each day in this blog.

Bob Abrams



Suggestion Box

We’d all like to see Vassar Temple be a place where we can gather for social, educational and other purposes.  To date we’ve held a number of excellent Adult Education programs and social events.  But after watching a few dinners get cancelled due to low interest, I’d like to reach out to all of you to see what kinds of events or activities might appeal to you.  In general, the Temple needs to establish a good balance of “fun-raising” and “fund-raising” activities, as lack of the latter (other than the very successful SCRIP program) have put a lot of pressure on the Temple’s operating budget.

So, I’d like to use this blog entry as a way to solicit your ideas for events or activities at Vassar Temple:  fun things, educational, ideas for fundraisers.  Simply click “Comment” below this post and enter your ideas in the comment box.  Identifying yourself is optional, but it would be great to know from whom to obtain more info or clarification.  Then click “Post Comment”.  If you see a suggestion that you like, feel free to “second” it in another comment.

If you feel shy and don’t want to append to the blog, but would still like to share your ideas, feel free to send me an e-mail (  But the real value of sharing your ideas in the blog is to allow other readers to build on your idea, and collaborate! 

I look forward to your responses!!   Thanks, Bob

Temple Restroom Renovations Are Complete!!

The Temple restrooms are now outfitted with brand new sinks and vanities, mirrors and lighting. The ceiling tiles have all been replaced. There are new window dressings: valences and coordinated vertical blinds. The new soap dispensers are clean and dispense a measured amount of gentle hand cleanser. The towel dispenser is motion activated.

And … there is art work to complement the new fixtures and add a bit of panache to the atmosphere!!
Hope you like it!

I’d like to extend a big “Thank you” to the Sisterhood for their financial support to cover all remodeling costs.

Here are some photos of the remodeled Ladies Room:
























… and here are some photos of the remodeled Men’s Room:














Sandra Mamis

Hineni Biennial: The Enduring Legacy of Seth Erlebacher, by Rabbi Richard Jacobs

Rabbi Jacobs distributed a very impressive article to the URJ Biennial distribution, highlighting Seth’s excitement for the Biennial and ways in which Seth “understood the serious challenges facing our congregations and our movement, but as a true leader he was always focused on turning challenges into opportunities.”   Please follow this link to the article.

Bob Abrams

Before we get there … Preparing for the Biennial

I’m looking forward to attending the Biennial at the Gaylord Conference Center in the National Harbor area just south of Washington D.C.  (The area is across the Potomac River from Alexandria, VA.)  In addition to the great speakers listed at, there are numerous forums and learning sessions to select from prior to even getting to the Gaylord, resulting in a personalized schedule.

The sessions focus on many areas, like Congregation management, Leadership Development and Membership & Outreach … just to name a few.  In my first pass, I found so many interesting topics that I had 4- to 8-way ties for many of the Learning Session slots!  I finally whittled the list down to a primary and secondary session for each slot.  I’m sure that some of Seth’s selections are similar, and others reflect his specific interests as well, so we’ll be able to ensure that we cover as many different topics as possible.  A special highlight of the Biennial two years ago was the continuous entertainment offered by numerous Jewish musicians … I’m looking forward to hearing many of the musicians again (see for a list of featured musicians).

I hope that additional people from Vassar Temple attend future Biennials so that we can cover even more informational presentations and discussion topics among us, as well as benefit from the overall program!