The Stranger Within Your Camp

havdalah crane lake camp panoramaMy sermon this Shabbat on parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

After each of the four summers that I attended URJ Camp Harlam, I’d get a terrible case of laryngitis. By my final summer as a camper, it was so bad that the only noise I could make for a week was a honk. This wasn’t just from screaming cheers during color war, or staying up all night talking with my bunkmates. It was actually because I, previously the quietest child in my family, talked for the entire two-hour drive home to Philadelphia. I told my parents every last detail, stories that I thought were hysterical, and that they likely didn’t understand, many of which I still remember today.

For example, one summer, we had a British counselor named Sarah, and there was a running joke where campers would try to get her to say “to-mah-to” so that they could make fun of her accent. By the end of the summer, she would say, in an exaggerated American accent, “to-may-to.”

One evening, while we were camping, our counselors decided to make banana boats: basically a s’more, stuffed in a banana, wrapped in tin foil, and cooked over an open fire. They got really hot, and Sarah was put in charge of warning us. She made each of us raise our right hand and repeat after her, in a proper English accent, “I will not touch my hot ba-nah-nah boat because it will buhrn my tongue.”

I don’t know why I still remember this, but it still makes me laugh, every single time I think of it.

Now, you are probably thinking: Rabbi Berkowitz has run out of sermon ideas, and is now just telling silly camp stories. I assure you that is not the case. I told this story because I wanted to explain to you tonight how international staff have become an integral part of the fabric of URJ summer camps. This is important for you to know, because the current administration is considering doing away with the J-1 visa program, which would affect international au pairs, as well as international staff at summer camps.

The attack on the J-1 visa program is part of a “Buy American, Hire American” initiative in the White House. Encouraging us to spend our money on American products and American workers is a noble and admirable goal. However, doing away with the J-1 visa program would be detrimental to our summer camp programs, are an essential component to fostering Jewish identity and a relationship to Israel in our young people.

For starters, I’m not sure how many camps would be able to stay open without hiring international staff. Sadly, with the rise of the unpaid internship, fewer and fewer American college students choose to spend the summer being a camp counselor, let alone work in the kitchen or tending the grounds. But there are plenty of international candidates who would happily make thousands of gluten-free pancakes a day, teach arts and crafts, or supervise 12 eight-year-olds for eight weeks, in exchange for a subsidized trip to the U.S.

More importantly, however, having international staff at camp provides an important opportunity for cultural exchange. As the Jewish community becomes increasingly diverse, it can be incredibly moving for campers to relate to Jews from all over the world. It helps both sides to see that Jews around the world are very different, or in some cases, very similar, to them. Last summer, Crane Lake Camp hosted two Jewish girls from Uganda as counselors. How incredible it must have been, on both sides, for these counselors to interact with campers of color, who rarely see an adult Jew who looks like them?

Not every international staff member is Jewish, which means that often, we are teaching young adults from around the world about Judaism and Jews. As we experience global spikes in anti-semitism, one of the best things we can do is give people from other faiths and other nations a positive experience with American Jews.

For those staff members who are members of the tribe, meeting Jews from around the world gives both campers and counselors a different perspective on what it means to be Jewish, whether the staff in question comes from Europe, Australia, Africa, or Israel.

Having Israeli staff on camp is particularly important, and not only for the reasons you would think. Yes, Israeli staff teach our campers about real life in Israel, and introduce them to the language and culture of their spiritual homeland. They teach Israeli music and dancing, and design celebrations for the camp-only festivals such as Yom Israel Day. They also spend eight weeks with our children, building relationships that can long outlast the summer. One of our Israeli counselors at Camp Harlam later served as a staff member on our NFTY in Israel trip, and we came to know him as our protector. When there was an incident of hate near the camp in Pennsylvania, he kept watch on the porch all night so that we could feel safe. When there was an attempted bombing during our travels in Israel, he gave us a very real perspective about what it means to live in Israel and to be constantly under threat.

But there is yet another side to the Israeli staff coin. As a rabbi on faculty, I now realize that, as much as we want our American Reform Jewish kids to meet real live Israelis, it is imperative that Israelis meet real live American Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is often disparaged, and even discriminated against, in Israel. This may not seem like a big deal here, where there is friendly competition between all the denominations. But in Israel, where the line between synagogue in state is blurred, this distaste for Reform Judaism can have far-reaching implications. Israel is a country where many secular Jews allow an Orthodox rabbinate to dictate what is permissible in both public and private spheres. The rabbinate controls not only what goes on at the Kotel, but also marriage, divorce, and conversion, all of which have implications for citizenship, the equality of women, and the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

You might be aware that, for nearly three decades now, Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center have been fighting for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, a plan for this space was agreed upon by all parties. But in June, the project was suspended. The rising tension came to a head when the chief rabbi of Jerusalem reacted to protests by calling Reform Jews, “evil,” an “abomination,” and “worse than Holocaust deniers.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned that such statements had the power to incite violence, as just over a week ago, he and two major Reform leaders in Israel received death threats from an Orthodox man in B’nei Brak.

We need secular Israelis to see—and to tell their families and friends—that Reform Judaism is not an abomination, or a joke, but rather a valid and vibrant way of practicing Judaism. And I would argue that that is something that happens at URJ summer camps more than it happens anywhere else. It doesn’t always mean that they stop being secular—in fact secular Judaism in Israel can look very similar to Reform Judaism in America—but it might mean that the sight of a woman in a kippah or holding a Torah scroll won’t seem foreign to them anymore. It might mean that they see a positive Jewish identity blossoming in a child of intermarriage–something the Orthodox rabbinate currently renders legally impossible, such that an interfaith couple could only be married abroad. It might mean that they decide to read from the Torah for the first time themselves, and realize that doors that the Orthodox rabbinate closes for them might yet be opened. And that might mean a change in how they think, feel, speak, and vote.

Whatever it means, it won’t happen if the J-1 visa program is canceled. There is so much going on in the world right now, and we are all fighting battles big and small. This is an opportunity for us to make an impact. After Shabbat, and after Selichot, I hope that you will contact our senators, the President, and the Secretary of State to let them know how important it is for us to continue the J-1 visa program, so that we can continue to have international staff at our summer camps.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the famous passage listing all the people that Moses is speaking to in his final address: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

While clearly Moses was speaking about a different kind of camp, his words remind us that, when something really matters to us, we need all hands on deck, regardless of status. Whether they are scrubbing pots in the kitchen, teaching our children to swim, or making sure they don’t burn their tongues on hot banana boats, the stranger within our camp is an essential piece in the summer camp puzzle. And when we welcome them into our home and our hearts, we give ourselves the opportunity to become a part of their Jewish story as well.

Shabbat Shalom.





Big News Out Of Israel – And How Vassar Temple Deals with It

By Bob Ritter

Rabbi Berkowitz gave her Shabbat sermon last night, 2/12/16, on the news below out of Israel. The news about an enhanced egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Rabbi didn’t just report the news. She asked us to think about the meaning of the news. Was it a victory? For whom? And, if so, who lost?

I admire the way Rabbi Berkowitz engages us. Rabbi poses questions to us and invites us to share our thoughts and opinions. In this is way our community grows in understanding and respect. Rabbi is teaching by drawing us out – by engaging our each and every mind. Surely Rabbi’s own knowledge and views are valued, but Rabbi’s process reminds us that we all have a role too. And, Rabbi gives us opportunities to exercise our role by providing us with actionable ways we can make a difference. By empowering us our Rabbi is helping Vassar Temple to make a greater difference and to do our part, individually and as a community, to build a better world.

Each Friday evening YOU have an opportunity to be part of the wonderful way Vassar Temple is growing. We are growing by helping you, our family to grow. Vassar Temple’s tag line is “Where YOU Belong.” Come see and experience why that is very true.

Statement of the North American Reform Movement:

North American Reform Movement Applauds Passage of Plan to Enhance Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall

Years of Organized Efforts Yield Significant Victory for Reform Jews, Women of the Wall: New Area to be Under Non-Orthodox Oversight

Sunday, January 31, 2016; NEW YORK, NY – In the most significant development in the nearly generation-long campaign by Women of the Wall and their allies for religious equality at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Israeli government today approved the creation of an enhanced egalitarian prayer space at the Wall, which, for the first time, will be under the authority of non-Orthodox leadership.

The government’s proposal – which is the result of a coordinated effort by the Reform and Conservative Movements, both in Israel and in North America, Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations of North America – calls for a significant revamping of the Western Wall area to create a more unified relationship between the three prayer areas (men’s, women’s, and egalitarian). The existing egalitarian space – near the area known as Robinson’s Arch – will be enhanced by the creation of an expanded platform with more access to the Western Wall, including from the ancient Herodian street. The site will be open through the main plaza by removing existing visual barriers and building a new, inviting entrance.

The approved proposal was the result of several years of intense negotiating, advocacy, and leadership, led by the North American Reform Movement and Women of the Wall and developed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, and the prime minister’s office.

In weeks and months to come, the North American Reform Movement will work with its partners in Israel to implement the proposal and to celebrate this new arrangement, which will allow all Jews to experience an egalitarian prayer space at the holy site.

“This is a groundbreaking agreement,” said Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall and the head of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. Hoffman, an indefatigable crusader on behalf of this issue who experienced arrests and insults through the decades of struggle, said, “After years and years of insisting that we have an equal place for prayer, after enduring campaigns of abuse against us, and being encouraged by a wave of Jewish support from across the globe, we have accomplished this extraordinary first step. We will be able to stand as part of living history, read the Torah, and pray in the spirit of pluralism and equality that we believe is critical to a vibrant Judaism. Now, we look forward to the steps that will need to be taken to implement this plan.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), celebrated the agreement: “This effort is the result of the extraordinary commitment shown by those in Israel who wouldn’t agree to the second-class status imposed by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, and by all of us outside of Israel whose unconditional love for our Jewish State compels us to tirelessly advocate for a more equal, pluralistic, and Jewishly vibrant Israel.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism proclaimed, “This struggle and this potential victory is just the beginning of our efforts to ensure that the Jewish state of Israel is indeed a state where all forms of Judaism are practiced freely and without state prohibition – and where those of us who represent the largest force in Jewish life in the world today, the Reform Movement, will be a powerful force inside of Israel and a more visible alternative for worship for Israeli Jews.”

Signatory Organizations

American Conference of Cantors

ARZA – The Association of Reform Zionists of America

ARZA Canada


Association of Reform Jewish Educators

Central Conference of American Rabbis

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

North American Federation of Temple Youth

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Union for Reform Judaism

Women of Reform Judaism

Women’s Rabbinic Network

World Union for Progressive Judaism


– See more at:

Eight Nights of Chanukah, Part VII

Melissa Wall celebrates the seventh night of Chanukah, and shares her love of Israeli music and the Jewish value of Ahavat Yisrael (Love for Israel)

Watch Melissa’s Video!

Activity ideas:  Give tzedakah to an Israeli organization or a local Jewish organization; watch an Israeli or Jewish-themed film together & discuss over popcorn; put on Israeli music or Klezmer and dance! Give to an organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel such as the Israel Religious Action Center.

Watch for these videos every morning in your inbox, or check the  Vassar Temple YouTube Channel.

We hope that you will join in the celebration by lighting, and celebrating these mitzvot, in your own homes!

How to Light Chanukah Candles

You can also celebrate religious freedom by joining Women of the Wall’s “It’s My Right To Light” Campaign, which is fighting for the inclusion of women in Israel’s national Chanukiyah lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

More Chanukah resources:

Union for Reform Judaism Chanukah Resources Page

My Jewish Learning Chanukah Resource Page

May your Chanukah be filled with light and joy, and may we all bring light and joy to those who need it most!

Imagining a New Reality In Israel

Rabbi Uri Regev

At this year’s Shabbaton with Vassar Temple and Temple Beth-El we had an extraordinary leader, thinker, and speaker – Rabbi Uri Regev, Esg., President & CEO of Hiddush. Hiddush is a non-profit organization dedicated to religious freedom and equality, focused primarily on Israel. Here you can read about the vision of Rabbi Regev and Hiddush.

Rabbi Regev spoke to both congregations, on Friday evening at Vassar and on Saturday at Beth-El, and was warmly received. He provided liturgical, historical, political and cultural basis for the change that is needed in Israel so that Reform and Conservative Jews can enjoy the right to have a religious marriage ceremony honored. Israel is the only democracy in the world that limits the rights of free marriage. American Jews have proven that they can influence change, and Hiddush which has successfully championed the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in the Courts in Israel, needs the support of American Jewry to influence the leadership in Israel. This Israeli news series demonstrates the urgency and centrality of freedom of marriage to Israelis.

What Hiddush is finding, through polls and research, is that there is broad Israeli desire for international support for their cause of marriage freedom. Click here for result of a poll release in 2014 by Hiddush.

You can learn much more and support the vision and purpose of Hiddush by going to One simple way of supporting Hiddush is to sign Hiddush’s Vision statement.

The Shabbaton’s with Vassar Temple and Temple Beth-El are a wonderful way in which our temples collaborate. While our rituals and buildings have their differences, we are united in friendship, love of Judaism, and our strong history in the greater Poughkeepsie area. It is a delightful experience and we must thank Rabbi Golomb and Rabbi Barnett, the temple leadership, and the congregants for another tremendous Shabbaton. Yahser Koach!

Israel News Sources – from The Jewish Federation of Dutchess County

I have posted this information by copying and pasting from an email. The links referenced below did NOT copy over. Please search for the resource and I can update and add the links at a latter date I will.

Good Morning:

Late yesterday, the Jewish Federations of North America sent out an email offering a long list of resources and links providing updated information about the current situation in Israel. Please see the full text of that message below. Additionally, the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires sent out their own update and resources, and that text appears below as well.
We share this information with you in order to help our entire community remain as fully informed as possible and to identify ways to take action when possible.
From the Jewish Federations of North America:

Operation Protective Edge:
As hostilities continue in Israel, Israeli PM Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to intensify Operation Protective Edge, although he stopped short of ordering a ground invasion. With rockets continuing to be fired from Gaza toward Israel, the IDF has continued its air strikes against Hamas and other Gazan targets. A long, extended military operation remains a distinct possibility with officials on both sides unclear of when hostilities may end. And Israeli forces are doing everything possible to warn Palestinian residents of incoming airstrikes to avoid civilian casualties.

A previous update from Jewish Federations on the ongoing situation in Israel can be found here.
A resource page, which is being constantly updated by the Jewish Federations, can be found here.

• Times of Israel — Netanyahu orders army to intensify Gaza operation
• Jerusalem Post — IDF strikes 80 Gaza targets in under 30 minutes
• Haaretz — No end in sight for Operation Protective Edge
• New York Times — Israel Warns Gaza Targets by Phone and Leaflet
Recruitment continues across the country for AmeriCorps VISTA members to work with Holocaust survivors, including in Los Angeles. Jewish Federations have joined a coalition urging the United States government to deal humanely with the unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the border into the U.S. And a new report on charitable giving shows that family influence is playing a larger role in philanthropic decisions.
Meanwhile, Federations are highlighted in Cleveland, Sarasota-Manatee and South Palm Beach County.


• Jewish Journal — Local groups receive volunteers to aid Holocaust survivors
• JTA — Jewish groups call on Obama to ‘welcome the stranger’
• eJewish Philanthropy — Family Influence Plays Growing Role in Giving Decisions, says Fidelity Charitable Giving Report


• Cleveland Jewish News — Talisman to honor hometown Holocaust survivors
• Sarasota Herald-Tribune — Woman leaves $1 million to Jewish federation
• Florida Sun-Sentinel — Adults join students for March of Living

Israel Advocacy:
A group of academics in Israel have established a new forum aimed at combating academic boycotts of the Jewish state. And an Israeli university is taking students on a 10 day trip to the U.S. in what program organizers are calling a “reverse Birthright.”

• Israel Hayom — Israel fights academic boycott
• JNS — Reverse Birthright: pioneering academic program takes Israelis on U.S. adventure
For more Israel advocacy news, see the Israel Action Network website.

Global Jewish News:
Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky is worried that the recent spike in French aliyah could mean the end of Jewish life in Europe. Ira Forman, the anti-Semitism monitor for the U.S. State Department, is working to prevent European bans on ritual circumcision. And Jewish leaders across the world are condemning the appointment of a German Neo-Nazi political leader to a European Parliament committee on civil liberties.

• JTA — In Paris, Sharansky warns of ‘beginning of end’ for European Jewry
• JTA — U.S. intervenes in Europe’s circumcision wars
• Jerusalem Post — Jews blast inclusion of Neo-Nazi on EU Civil Liberties c’tee


Speaking at a peace conference in Israel, a senior White House official condemned rocket fire from Gaza and affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself from attacks. Despite the current turmoil in the region, a group of Jews from the U.S. made aliyah this week.
Domestically, businesses in southern Israel are struggling as employees and customers alike stay home until the situation becomes safer. The family of an American teenager allegedly beaten by Israeli police in the West Bank is pushing for his quick return home. And what was initially a joke application for smartphones has been repurposed by Israeli developers to provide real-time updates on incoming missile attacks.

Regional News:

• Haaretz — U.S. calls for restraint, confirms Israel’s right to defense
• YNet News — 64 US Jews make aliyah despite escalating security situation
Domestic News:

• Haaretz — Business in south hurting as workers, shoppers stay home
• Washington Post — Family of U.S. teen beaten in the West Bank urges for fast return
• Times of Israel — Red Alert app offers a Yo! update on missile attacks

For more Israel news, see the weekly JFNA Israel news page.
For more security news, see JFNA’s Secure Community Network (SCN) website.