When will we be able to bensch gomel for gun violence?

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Tzav and the March for Our Lives. Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

This week’s Torah portion continues our conversation about the zevach sh’lamim, the offering of well-being. Parashat Tzav separates this offering into three categories: n’davah, a voluntary offering; neder, a votive offering; and todah, a thanksgiving offering. Each offering is sacrificed at a time when one wants to acknowledge God as the source of one’s good fortune.

What makes the todah offering different from the other sh’lamim offerings is that this offering is made when a person or family has survived a treacherous situation, such as a long journey or a life-threatening illness.

While we no longer offer such sacrifices–or any sacrifices, for that matter–the rabbis transformed the practice of the todah offering into a prayer some Jews know as bensching gomel. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah and Rav tell us: “Four must offer thanks to God with a thanks-offering [by this time, “offering” probably meant giving to charity] and a special blessing. They are: Seafarers, those who walk in the desert, and one who was ill and recovered, and one who was incarcerated in prison and went out” (Berachot 54b). They add that this should be done in front of a minyan, a community of at least ten adult Jews, who, like the neighbors with whom one shared the todah offering, bore witness to the miracle and shared in the survivor’s joy.

While we don’t do it too often in our congregation, nowadays it is customary for a person or family who has survived an ordeal—an illness, an injury, an accident, or a long journey—to come up to the bimah and recite these words: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, sheg’malanu kol tov. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us. The congregation then responds Amen, adding, Mi sheg’malchem kol tov, Hu yigmolchem kol tov. Selah. May the One who has bestowed goodness upon us continue to bestow every goodness upon us forever! This blessing appears in our liturgy right after Mi Shebeirach, a reminder that, just as we plead for help when we are in distress, so should we give thanks we have come through a dark time.

The custom of bensching gomel may help us to process any guilt we might feel, for surviving when others did not. It might be a space in which we can express both our profound relief, and our lingering fear. For the community, hearing this prayer reminds us that life is fragile, and that everything can change in an instant. Thus, we must be grateful for every moment we are not bensching gomel.

I thought of this prayer this week, when reading about yet another school shooting, this time in Great Mills High School in Maryland. When someone told me that another school had been attacked, I braced myself for the worst. But nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when I read that the gunman had been taken down by the school resource officer, and that only two students had been shot. At that time, there had not been any fatalities aside from that of the shooter, though this morning, I learned that one of the victims has now died.

But in that moment, all I could think was: Thank God. I felt relieved. I was relieved that it hadn’t been worse. I was relieved that it hadn’t happened here, or to anyone I know. This feeling of relief is yet another indication that such incidents have become far too common.

Our rabbis taught us to give thanks for surviving illness, incarceration, and dangerous journeys. How long before we are bensching gomel for surviving a week at school?

Over the course of my adult life, I have watched the occasional tragedy turn into an epidemic. I graduated from high school less than two months after the Columbine High School massacre, in which twelve students and one teacher were killed, in addition to the gunmen. This shooting was the first of its kind, and sent us into a tailspin over gun violence, bullying, mental health, heavy metal music, goth culture, and violent video games. Measures were taken to reduce bullying and ensure school safety—someone I knew was banned from attending prom for making a joke about selling guns in school. But there was not a single student protest in 1999 that I can remember.

Recently, a contemporary of mine asked why we did not take to the streets, as high school students are preparing to do right now, all over the country. Some said it was because we didn’t have access to social media at that time, and it would have been difficult to coordinate action both within and between schools.

But I had a different realization: we didn’t take to the streets because we had every reason to believe that this massacre was an isolated incident. We had no reason to believe that something like this—something that had never really happened before—was likely to happen again, or often. We certainly didn’t have any reason to believe that it would happen 17 times in three months, as it has this year. And we didn’t have any reason to believe that the adults in our lives, including our nation’s leaders, would not do anything to protect us from harm.

But less than 20 years later, I find myself sighing with relief, giving thanks to God, that at least only two people were shot this time. At least one of them survived. At least the school resource officer did his job. At least this shooter only had a handgun. School shootings and mass shootings have become commonplace. But we must never allow them to become acceptable.

The North American Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY, has for many years run a campaign on Gun Violence Prevention. Now, the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as leaders in the national conversation on school safety and gun violence prevention. It is no wonder that our children are taking to the streets. We have failed them.

These students are not protesting because their classmates were killed. They are not protesting because they do not feel safe at school. These students are protesting because there are simple and concrete ways that we, as a society, could stop this from happening, and we have refused to do so.

Samantha Haviland, a survivor of the Columbine shootings who is now a school counselor, expressed a similar sentiment: “Nineteen years ago when Columbine happened, we didn’t understand it. We were shocked by it. We didn’t think this was a thing. We thought we were outliers…We adults, myself and my generation, have failed these students where we have learned this is a thing and we still haven’t done anything.”

After the nation-wide school walk-out on March 14th, some students in our high school program mentioned that their teachers told them that instead of “walking out,” they should “walk up” to students who look lonely or isolated, as many school shooters were reported to have been. Encouraging students to be kind and welcoming and compassionate is never a bad thing. But telling them that kindness will serve in place of common sense gun laws is ridiculous. Similarly, encouraging teachers to carry guns in place of providing real school security measures and mental health resources is unconscionable.

I mention these proposed solutions in the same breath because they are two sides of the same coin. Both suggestions place the burden of preventing school shootings on the shoulders of the victims. Don’t our students, and our teachers, already have enough to worry about? Isn’t hard enough to be a teenager without having to prevent gun violence on your own? Isn’t it hard enough to teach teenagers, without also having to be prepared to take on a gunman? Both proposals are attempts to shift the responsibility from where it belongs: it belongs on us.

At some point, we have to think long and hard about what we owe to our children. We have to decide whether we truly believe that we, as a nation, are responsible for their safety. We have to decide whether we, as parents, educators, and concerned citizens, would really do anything to protect our children from harm. Because if that is what we believe, then we are failing them every time we do nothing.

If we believe that our children deserve to be safe at school, then we need to advocate for increased funding for our schools in general, and for mental health and security in particular. We need to fight for common sense gun laws that ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines. We need to close loopholes that allow purchasers to sidestep background checks and restraining orders. We need to promote research on gun violence as a public health crisis. And in order to do this, we need to hold our local, state, and national leaders accountable for prioritizing donations from the NRA over the lives of our children.

I won’t be joining the March for Our Lives tomorrow—except in spirit—because I’ll be celebrating a bar mitzvah. We are welcoming one of our children into the covenant of Jewish adulthood, and in the process leading up to this moment he’s learned a lot about being responsible and caring for others in our community. As we celebrate with him, I ask us to consider: Are we modeling responsibility and concern for our community for him and his peers? And are we doing everything we can to ensure that they will grow up in a safer world than we have currently put in front of them? Or are we turning our faces away?

Tonight, we are going to sing one of my favorite healing songs tonight, “Don’t Hide Your Face from Me.” The words come from a psalm asking God to be present with us, and answer us in our time of distress. This is, in essence, what our young people are doing. They cannot offer praise to God for their survival, because every day we are still putting their lives at risk. They are asking us, from a place of deep pain and trauma, to stand with them, to care for them, and to help them to emerge from this dark place to a future free from violence and fear.

How will we answer?


Generational Shabbat – a Vassar Temple Sisterhood Tradition

By Jonah Ritter

Vassar Temple Sisterhood has many wonderful traditions, and this is certainly one of them. Some years ago Sisterhood took over a temple practice – to organize and conduct a Friday night service called a “Generational Shabbat.” During this lay-led service, which Sisterhood members conduct, the Temple honors people who have been members of Vassar Temple for 40 or more years.

Part of the tradition includes having the Men’s Club host the Oneg. Special thanks to our organizers including but not limited to Sisterhood President Judy Rosenfeld, Past President Melissa Erlebacher, Bonnie Scheer, and the many others involved.

Each year the bulk of the names & faces are the same. We are proud to have some join the ranks, and deeply saddened when we lose anyone. And of course, not everyone can make it to the service.

Here is a picture of the “class” of 2017 (5777). To Vassar Temple, these people need no introduction. I love the way Lila Matlin and Sue Barbash are holding hands in the front row! Classy and strong Muriel Lampel is just behind them. Look at Gloria up top, with her big smile; her vigor and thirst for adventure is really special. See Linda Cantor on the left in front of Richard. I am in awe of Linda’s sensitivities. And of course, there is Elaine L in the front row who faces the camera and life head on with great spirit. Each and everyone is special in their own way!

The lifelong bonds that can be made at a temple make one’s life richer – increasing the joy during happy moments, simchas, and comforting one during life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.

We know there are many people in the community who were members of Vassar Temple years ago, but are now unaffiliated with any temple. Please know that it is nerver to late to come back and be with old friends, as we all make new ones.

The Meaning of Sisterhood

Generational Shabbat Sermon by Melissa Erlebacher

Good evening,

Let me tell you some of the events in history that occurred in 1913:
NYC’s Grand Central Terminal opened
After the 16th amendment was signed into law, the US federal income tax took effect
The 1st prize was inserted into a Cracker Jack box
Brooklyn Dodger’s Ebbets Field opened
The British House of Commons rejected women’s right to vote
The 1st US milch goat show was held in Rochester, NY
Henry Ford instituted the moving assembly line
The Hebrew language was officially used to teach in Palestinian schools
The 1st crossword puzzle (with 32 clues) was printed in NY World

And on January 21, 1913, 156 women from 52 congregations around the country met in Cincinnati, Ohio, under the leadership of Carrie Obendorfer Simon, to create the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which was officially renamed in 1993 as the Women of Reform Judaism. While local women’s groups had been formed in many individual synagogues in the 1890s, and first decade of the 20th Century, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) was the first national organization to bring these groups together. Differentiating itself from the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and other social service women’s groups, NFTS focused from the beginning on women’s contributions to their own synagogues. Early projects included sponsoring children’s holiday parties, beautifying synagogues for holidays, and supporting the religious schools. NFTS also raised money for rabbinical school scholarships and played a leading role in creating the National Federation of Temple Youth.

NFTS encouraged sisterhood women to create in their temples a spirit of welcoming community, and I quote “reminded members to bridge the distance between pulpit and congregation by sitting in the first row of the sanctuary, and suggested that they sponsor an hour of refreshments and sociability after Friday evening services.”

From its onset, Sisterhood advocated for changing the role of women in Reform Judaism. Leaders pushed for women to be able to sit on synagogue boards and, in the 1920s, instituted Sisterhood Sabbaths, during which, women both led services and delivered sermons. In 1963, NFTS called upon Reform Judaism to take up the question of women’s ordination as rabbis (the first Reform woman rabbi was ordained in 1972). In recent decades, WRJ has been active in addressing such issues as civil rights, child labor legislation, capital punishment, abortion rights, and currently pay equity, LGBTQ rights, and sustainability and climate change. In December 2007, WRJ published The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. After attending the launch party at the WRJ Assembly, Roni and I talked about the pride we felt at being present to witness such a significant accomplishment for Jewish women.

Flash forward to 2016, reform women have participated fully in synagogue life, from the Board to the bimah, for many years. The URJ and WRJ work together on many of the same issues, working hand in hand for social justice. Vassar Temple has our first woman rabbi. So perhaps this begs the question…do we still need a Sisterhood?

Sisterhood: the thought conjures up images of bespectacled, gray-haired ladies in the Temple kitchen baking & brewing coffee for an Oneg Shabbat; cooking for a temple dinner, or stocking the shelves of the Gift Shop for the annual Chanukah sale. In reality, the women who are doing these things come in all different shapes and sizes, ages, and backgrounds. In contrast to the 1920s, the women of Vassar Temple continue to cook dinners and sponsor Onegs (although tonight, as we lead the service, that role falls to our Men’s Club), not because women are relegated to the kitchen – we continue to nourish our fellow temple members because we are good at it!

I certainly don’t believe in separate but equal, but I do believe in equal, but different. Sisterhood is a place where women can deal with the pressures of modern life from the isolation of the stay at home mom, to the two career working family, to the growing number of women who are primary breadwinners, to the need for activity and purpose after retirement, to the desire to spend time with other women who share one’s values. One of the challenges, according to Rabbi Amy Perlin, is “How do we live true to our egalitarian values, while recognizing that men and women do need and seek separate time in gender specific groups?”

Rabbi Berkowitz recently shared with me the following:

A man came home from work and found his three children outside, still in their pajamas, playing in the mud, with empty food boxes and wrappers strewn all around the front yard.
Proceeding into the house, he found an even bigger mess. In the kitchen, dishes filled the sink, breakfast food was spilled on the counter, the fridge door was open wide, dog food was spilled on the floor, a broken glass lay under the table, and a small pile of sand was spread by the back door.
He quickly headed up the stairs, stepping over toys and more piles of clothes, looking for his wife. He was worried she might be ill, or that something serious had happened.
As he rushed to the bedroom, he found his wife still curled up in the bed in her pajamas, reading a novel.
She looked up at him, smiled, and asked how his day went. He looked at her bewildered and asked:
“What happened here today?’”
She again smiled and answered, “You know every day when you come home from work and you ask me what in the world I do all day?”
“Yes,” was his incredulous reply.
She answered, ‘”Well, today I didn’t do it.”
I share this story for two reasons: first, in tribute to all mothers during this Mother’s Day weekend (I wish all of you a very happy Mother’s Day) and second, to think about Vassar Temple without the Sisterhood. Can you imagine Vassar Temple without family dinners, without a Judaica shop? What would Friday nights be like if we all came to services, prayed, and then left because there was no longer an Oneg Shabbat. What about all of the fundraising Sisterhood has done to renovate the kitchen or to pay for needed repairs to our beloved building? Tiny Temple introduces our youngest members to Jewish rituals, and the holiday gifts we send to college students help them to stay connected to their temple home. Sisterhood enriches the life of Vassar Temple, as well as the lives of the women who work on its behalf. Personally, I know that my life has been made richer because of all of the women I have met, short or tall, young or old, for we all share a love of Reform Judaism, Jewish values, and Vassar Temple. Perhaps the question is not “Why Sisterhood” but rather, “What if there wasn’t a Sisterhood…” I hope we never need to ask that question.

Before I end, tonight, we not only celebrate the Sisterhood and Women of Reform Judaism, we also celebrate Generations Shabbat, recognizing those who have been members of Vassar Temple for 40 years or more. If you have been a member of Vassar Temple for 40+ years, please stand up…. Thank you for your loyal membership and for the immeasurable contributions you have made to our synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom.


Nadell, Pamela. National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. Retrieved from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/national-federation-of-temple-sisterhoods

Perlin, Amy. (2011, November 18). Why Brotherhood and Sisterhood in the 21st Century? Retrieved from http://www.tbs-online.org/listings/rabbi-study/why-brotherhood-and-sisterhood-in-the-21st-century/

What Did You Do All Day? (2011, June 9). Retrieved from http://kellymom.com/fun/wisdom/what-did-you-do-all-day/

Historical Events from 1913. Retrieved from http://www.onthisday.com/events/date/1913

A Year of Firsts with Vassar Temple

Arnoff Bris
Arnoff twin’s Bris (Henry and Miles)
Parents are Daniel and Emma

This July will mark our one year anniversary of Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz coming to Vassar Temple. Much has happened, and it is nice to recall the many happy and poignant memories. Because this is Rabbi’s first Senior Rabbi position, and her first year with Vassar Temple, it is a year of firsts. Even though Leah has performed most these rituals before, it is a first for us doing them together.

In this past year, Rabbi and the temple have experienced the full life cycle together. From baby namings and Bris, to funerals, and everything in between. From Rosh Hashanah to Shavout, we traveled through the whole Torah together. In the process, we have experienced a full range of emotions from joy to sorrow, and we come out the other end of our first year with a deeper relationship, and a greater appreciation for one another.

The feedback from our members illustrates how much Rabbi is valued. In the month Rabbi began with Vassar Temple, Dr. Irving H. Dreishpoon, passed away. We received a letter from his wife, Mrs. Gorgene Dreishpoon, in which she expressed, “Rabbi has a gift of dignity in the listening while maintaining her role as our Rabbi … The ceremony she led was everything our family wished for.”

On the occasion of their twin’s bris, Emma and Dan Arnoff wrote, “Rabbi Leah Berkowitz was wonderful in helping us prepare and celebrate our boys Bris. While I was on bed rest she came to visit me and helped choose Hebrew names for Henry and Miles. On the day of the Bris she was supportive and helpful. She worked together with the Mohelet to provide our family and friends with a service that was spiritual and moving in a way we could not have anticipated. It was a beautiful day.”

After Sammy Roland’s Bar Mitzvah, his father Mark wrote, “Thank you is not enough … let me say how wonderful Sammy’s Bar mitzvah ceremony was … you have truly touched my soul.”

As Temple President, throughout this past year I’ve had the great pleasure of working closely with Rabbi Berkowitz. The positive comments that have come my way are too numerous to list. It’s been a year of firsts for us together. As I step down as President, it is gratifying to know that Rabbi Berkowitz continues on – as we all go through our lives together.

There are things that a Rabbi and a temple provide us that no other organization or relationship quite can. In the Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers 1:6, Yehoshua ben Perachiah said: “Make yourself a teacher; acquire a friend; and judge every person favorably.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov likened this world to a “very narrow bridge.” Indeed, life is a series of dangerous crossings and that we continually have important decisions to make. It is wise to “Get yourself a Rabbi.” At Vassar Temple, we are blessed to have a wonderful Rabbi, teacher, who I’m so very happy to also call a friend.

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: http://www.urj.org/blog/2016/01/30/north-american-reform-movement-applauds-passage-plan-enhance-egalitarian-prayer#sthash.uJnUpcm5.dpuf

50th Anniversary of the Passage of Nostra Aetate

Last week the Catholic Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of Nostra Aetate, literally “in our time” (Declarations on the relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) promulgated by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council on Oct 28th, 1965. (Passing by a vote of 2,221 to 88 of the assembled Bishops.)

Specifically for Jews, Nostra Aetate established for Roman Catholics that:
1. Jews, being precursors to Christianity have the right to be respected. Judaism is accepted as an appropriate religious expression for Jews.
2. The Church would no longer promote the concept of deicide – the notion that Jews should not be held responsible for killing Jesus
3. Anti-Semitism is a sin.

Last night, the Dutchess County Jewish Federation showed Sister Rose’s Passion, a 2004 American short documentary film directed by Oren Jacoby. It celebrates Sister Rose Thering, who for 67 years as a Dominican nun, passion was exposing and overcoming anti-Semitism. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short and won the Best Documentary Short Award at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. Film Trailer

Sister Rose Thering
The Jewish people honor Sister Rose Thering. “There is not enough time, and there are not enough superlative adjectives to adequately describe what the life and work of Sister Rose Thering have meant to the world,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “She changed the course of history. She is a woman of valor who has brought enlightenment, honor, scholarship, and pure passion to remembering and teaching about the Holocaust, to battling the demon of anti-Semitism and to challenging the ignorance and prejudice and the teaching of contempt for Jews.”

After the film, Rabbi Golomb, Vassar Temple Senior Scholar, participated in a discussion on the film and took questions from the audience. Rabbi Polish recently attended an event marking the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate at the Vatican.

As one (Bob Ritter) of several Vassar Temple members who attended the Federation’s event, I can tell you the experience was very enlightening and moving. It amazes me that Jews are still coping with deep seeded anti-Semitism that is partly rooted in positions there were only put down in 1965 by Nostra Aetate. Popularity of a film such as “The Passion of Christ” by Mel Gibson illustrate that such views are unfortunately still too prevalent today around the world.

Many thanks to the Dutchess County Jewish Federation for making this event possible!


Black Lives Matter – by Adam Ciminello

An Explanation of the Black Lives Matter Movement
by Adam Ciminello

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Adam Ciminello. This topic is being approached from the perspective of social justice, NOT from a political standpoint. NO candidate or party is being endorsed or promoted.]

Good Evening, Shabbat Shalom. Members of the Congregation, Members of our larger local community, Binei Mitzvah Betty Gibbs and Family, and Rabbi Berkowitz. Thank you for sharing your Friday evening with me. It is truly a pleasure to be standing before you in a place where so many of my childhood memories were forged. Before I begin discussing my involvement with Black Lives Matter – a movement which has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to march with – I would like to make it known now and totally of my own fruition that this sermon is NOT one of political urging. NO endorsements of any candidates will be made. I am here to discuss a moral crisis, one which America and its white communities have consistently deflected away from but can no longer outrun, one which involves the continued prejudice and pain of an American race whose history in this country I would wager predates everybody in this room tonight. There is nothing political about this issue that any single candidate could cure. There are solutions on how to move forward as a people which we will discuss, some of which necessarily will be implemented through political means, but this not a ‘blue state’ or ‘red state’ issue. Basic humanity, oppression, and institutionalized racism cannot, and should not, be quantified on a political spectrum. This is America’s issue. On a micro-level – in a community blessed with such proud diversity and multi-culturalism – this is Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Vassar Temple’s issue. So I hope this alleviates any initial concerns.

To begin, I’d like to read a few statistics that highlight racial biases in our criminal justice system and in the larger context of America’s institutions. Know that these data points are a window into a larger systemic issue, but I am pressed for time. In each larger statistical category, hundreds of additional examples can be found. Please see me afterwards if you’d like the citations/sources.
• When charged with the same crime, a black male is six times more likely to go to jail than a white male. In spite of being only 12% of the population, black people make up 38% of arrests for violent crimes. They are twice as likely to be victims of the threat of, or actual use of force by the police (Sentencingproject.org).
• In specific localities, the unequal enforcement of our laws is even starker. Black people make up 15% of drivers, 42% of stops, and 73% of arrests on the NJ turnpike, although they violate traffic laws at almost identical rates. In spite of white people being more likely to be caught carrying guns, drugs, and other contraband, 52% of those stopped by NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy were black (sentencingproject.org).
• Studies show that only 13 % of drug users in this country are black – in line with their share of the overall population – yet they account for nearly 36% of those arrested and 46% of those convicted for drug-related offenses (sentencingproject.org)
• Institutional racism does not stop at the arrest. There is also racial bias in jury selection, which leads to illegally turning away qualified black jurors at rates as often as 80% of the time (equaljusticeinitiative.org)
• Black people are sentenced to 20% longer prison terms than white people for similar crimes (WSJ.com).
• A black man convicted of a drug offense spends as much time in prison as a white man convicted of a violent offense (NAACP)
• Even black children are treated as second-class citizens. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children and make up 58% of children admitted in prisons (apa.org)
• In the workplace, black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates overall. People with ‘black sounding names’ need to send 50% more job applications than people with ‘white sounding names’ to get a call back (nber.org)
• A white applicant with a criminal record is (epi.org) is more likely to get an interview than a black man with a clean record

I’ve chosen to highlight three different sectors – policing, the court room, and the work place – to hopefully offer a small window into the blatant discrimination that black communities survive and endure on a daily basis. Given these unequal opportunities, and combined with the disastrously shameful effects of larger policy initiatives like redlining, gerrymandering, and predatory practices from the private sector, it should come as no surprise that black communities continue to feel marginalized, oppressed, and as though their lives do not matter. We are not removing personal accountability from black communities or black citizens by acknowledging that this systemic condition is the primary reason white supremacy continues to persist in this country. Yes, white supremacy, the centuries old elephant in the room. Often this term sociologically is prescribed to the Bull Connors, the George Wallace’s, and more recently the Dylan Roof’s of the world, but I’d like you to challenge yourselves here and now to see this term as being applicable to anybody who finds themselves content in the face of such undeniable inequality, where white communities enjoy a higher quality of life than their black counterparts. By extension, friends, that implies that this term is applicable to many of us in this room tonight at one point or another in our lives. White supremacy isn’t merely a deranged man with a Rhodesian badge sh¬ooting up a black church in Charleston; it’s also the guy who calls Black Lives Matter a ‘Hate Group’ because he feels threatened at the idea of a movement seeking true equality for black communities or worse, pretends that our black brothers and sisters already know true equality under the law and its institutions, that racism is a thing of the past. By reading the news yet doing nothing, by throwing our hands up in the air as if to say “What more can we do”, by constantly telling black communities in the words of Martin Luther King Jr “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action,” by arguing on social media and Thanksgiving talks alike with our families ‘It’s time for them get over it,’ when we know very well that ‘It’ is still going on, we too are white supremacists, because we too are content to see the system remain intact.

We have witnessed some truly shocking displays of police brutality over the past year, and sadly they are displays that are not a new phenomenon to black communities. They are not a revelation to which naturally begs sudden admonishment or newfound sadness, or even collective outrage. They are an everyday part of black history in this country. We just simply now have the technology to fully capture its breadth and horror. And yet, after every single fatality, we immediately see the media, local government, law enforcement, and concerned white citizens everywhere defame, dehumanize, and demonize that fallen citizen’s character. As though marijuana in your blood stream is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a series of minor, non-violent arrests is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a legal switchblade is a tangible reason to take a life. As though holding a toy gun in Wal Mart is tangible reason to take a life. Not too long ago, the media and government once used these tactics to justify Emmett Till’s murder – ‘he shouldn’t have whistled at that white woman that way, what was he doing in that shop unaccompanied, he was asking for trouble’ – and sadly we already know it worked there too.

So this is why we say Black Lives Matter. This is why we march. This is why we are blocking traffic with our hands up. This is why we are filming police and yes, this is why we’re getting arrested. White Supremacy – this idea of being comfortable with the work we’ve done while completely disregarding that which we didn’t, that which we elected not to, that which we looked the other way from, or that which our silence allowed to persist – is alive and well in this country and we have a moral obligation as Jews to play an active role in its total eradication. All Lives Matter – this we know and need little reminder of from the naysayers worried their own life somehow now matters less – but over 200 years after the American Dream was constitutionally created, as our founding fathers so boldly set out to create a better world, the oldest demographic of Americans are still fundamentally denied its most basic opportunities. It’s most basic principles. We’ve seen distinctly defined waves of immigration come to America and define Americanism in search of opportunity, in search of a better life. We’ve seen Irish peasants escape famine, Italian merchants in search of economic freedom, Eastern Europeans seeking political escape, Central Americans escaping crime and cartels, South Americans running from corrupt governments, East and Southeast Asians fleeing from classism and caste systems, all driven by the rightful and just idea that in America, your merit and your worth are measured by your drive. By your character. And yet, we continue to restrict the opportunities to which black merit, black worth, and black character are measured amongst its everyday citizens, all while extolling and appropriating the virtues its exceptional citizens – the LeBron James’, the James Brown’s, the Maya Angelou’s of the world – produce for this country. We cannot proudly support black celebrities while in the same breath ignoring the oppression and injustices the communities from which they were raised continue to endure in 2015. Black Lives Matter is simply a movement attempting to change this. Attempting to change a country which still treats individual circumstances of implicit racial biases against its own citizens – from the casual, to the grotesque, to the sometimes fatal – with callous indifference.

It is NOT about black lives mattering more. It is NOT about hurting police officers. It is NOT about starting a ‘race war,’ whatever that means. It is about urging America and by extension all of us in this room tonight to come to terms with our country’s original sin, to understand that we have not done nearly enough and mostly, to understand that TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THIS. If you truly value human life – the life of your neighbor no less – you will have no problem outwardly supporting our cause.

As heirs of a people biblically enslaved for 400 years, as an ethnic race of Jews who escaped political and religious persecution worldwide, as descendants and survivors of the most diabolical genocide mankind has ever known, and most importantly as community members of a progressive synagogue right here long dedicated to civil rights and social justice, I call on you now to act. I call on you now to challenge yourselves. I call on you now to make yourself uncomfortable. I call on you now to think about racial inequality every single day, as our black brothers and sisters are forced to, to understand that racism in this country is still systemic, and that our silence is the loudest form of consent we give towards its perpetuity. As American Jews, we have been fortunate enough to never know in this great country the level of oppression that black communities have endured – the antisemitism that has plagued us globally thankfully never made its way fully onto American shores – but historically as a people we know all too well what it is like to be treated as second-class citizens, to cry out our plight while our neighbors remained silent. From Egypt, to the Inquisition, to the Pogroms, to the Nuremberg Codes, we understand the pain it feels to be judged by your race and your physical appearance. In Midrash Devarim Rabbah, it is explained that God loves justice even more importantly than sacrifice. It is explained, “To do what is right and just is MORE desired by the Lord than sacrifice.” Not as much as sacrifice, MORE than sacrifice. How we treat those who are less fortunate is forever a core foundation of what it means to be Jewish, but it is not enough to treat those less fortunate with tsedakah, as though to imply this condition will never change. We must work to change the condition itself. As the Torah in Deuteronomy Shoftim insists “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” I call on you tonight to carry out this virtue for our black friends, for our black families, and for our black citizens right here in this community. I call on you now to pursue justice.

So, in a practical sense, what does this mean? We can agree that human suffering is inherently wrong, that racism is inherently bad, but what does Black Lives Matter want, and what can we do to help? First and foremost this means supporting communities of color, giving them the space to speak for themselves, and truly listening to their concerns, even if they seem to contradict yours. When you’re walking home and you see a black man walking in your direction, in more cases than you might be willing to realize, he is a lot more afraid of you than you are of his presence. He’s afraid of walking home in a society where he is 15X more likely to be targeted by the police. He’s afraid because his father sat him down when he was ten and said “The world will come to fear you when you’re older son, you will be scary to most who aren’t black, and law enforcement will assume you’re up to no good.” He’s afraid because his mother is terrified every second when he’s not home. Because of the color of his skin. Because of the demonization of his character which leads to the denial of his basic humanity. I cite this day-to-day example to illustrate a basic component that contributes to our collective racial ignorance. I implore you to meaningfully interact. Reach out to communities of color and ask them the question “What does being black in America mean to you?” And then, listen. Really listen. Listen to what they are saying. Too often, conversations about race are directed and dictated by white people with little consideration for the black community. Again, so we can feel better about ourselves. Often, even the perspectives on what it is like to be black in this country will be spoken for by white people. From Woodrow Wilson, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to Bill Clinton, to most recently Jeb Bush claiming black communities vote democratic for the ‘free stuff,’ – ironically coming from a man who’s experienced traditional wealth and free stuff his whole life – white politicians and social leaders have continued to speak for, and on behalf of, black communities instead of giving their leaders the support and separation to speak for themselves and call discriminatory policies for what they really are without fear of being labeled a Black Panther, or otherwise radical. You can be an ally in this regard by reaching out to your local black leaders in Poughkeepsie. Listen to what they are saying. Do not dismiss it as conforming to an “angry black male” or “crazy black lady” stereotype if you don’t automatically agree. Challenge yourself to understand fully. Do not confuse this with blind agreement or support, either. Dialogue and love are our greatest weapons against ignorance and fear.

Second, recognize that white people have the luxury of being white and appreciate that this privilege is real. Recognizing that allows us to engage on a platform where social hierarchy might start to change. I proudly wear a BLM shirt today to prove this point. Riding the subways to marches, I am often ostracized by all groups of people. White people think I’m crazy, Black people think I bought it for fun, and police officers think I want to kill them. None of those are remotely true, and it can feel deeply hurtful at times to see a movement founded on love be treated with such hate and vitriol. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed from the pain and sadness of these wildly untrue stereotypes, friends, do you know I do? I put a sweatshirt on to cover it up, and instantly I’m simply another white male in America living the American dream and appreciating the privilege that being white affords me when I choose – that being the ability to not think about race. Our black friends and family have no such luxury of escaping the toxic stereotypes placed on them solely by the color of their skin. They cannot escape the color of their skin. They cannot escape the implications it brings each day in this country.

Thirdly, support the political processes – not the candidates – engendering change. Make this one of your ‘issues’ when going to the polls and evaluating candidates. Pay attention to who’s talking about racial justice and more importantly, pay attention to who’s avoiding talking about it at all costs. Pay attention to who’s risking alienating their political base to make people uncomfortable. A radical social intervention is needed nationwide when it comes to talking about race. Urge your local leaders to allocate funding for body cams to help us understand fully what happened when violence is used, to provide additional training for de-escalation practices, to adopt methods of advanced psychoanalytical screening for incoming officers using techniques like word association to ensure that all law enforcement officers – black or white – have a better understanding of the implicit racial biases they may be bringing with them into the field. It can save lives. It can build bridges of trust in communities that need them most. Police forces should look like, and be actively involved in the communities they are sworn to protect. Blatantly discriminatory policing policies like Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows must end, or be more transparently monitored.

Finally, once we move beyond this, we are not finished. Two years ago, 5 conservative Supreme Court justices eviscerated critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, and now in local, state and federal elections we are seeing basic denials of America’s most cherished liberty. Alabama recently passed a law requiring a license for voter registration, and then promptly closed DMV’s in ‘black belt’ communities, to very little uproar. See these atrocities for what they really are and urge your local, state and federal leaders to understand that this is not a ‘red state’ or ‘blue state’ issue. This is America’s issue. This Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Judaism’s issue. This our issue.
As I close tonight, ultimately, friends, I want all of you to do more. None of us in this room tonight have done enough. I want you to see yourself in the faces of black communities, to see your children in the faces of their children, to see their plight and continued oppression as your plight and continued oppression. We’ve all built this country together, woven a fabric that tells a mighty tale of triumph and exceptionalism. We are the greatest country in the world, and despite our imperfections the world is a better place with America leading. And yet, despite our patriotism, despite our global standing, despite our financial security, none of us will ever know freedom until all of us know equality. We will never be truly free until all of us are truly equal. So tonight I will leave you with this: Let us join together as Jews and Local Citizens of the Hudson Valley to do what we can right now to push ourselves slightly closer to that goal, to creating a country which fully establishes in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren “That Black Lives Matter, That Black Citizens Matter, That Black Families Matter.” For if we ever get to that place – that sacred heaven of radical love, universal humanity, and colorblind equality – All Lives might actually start to matter. Thank you, Shabbat Shalom.

Being a Jew on Campus

Photo by Perla Kaufman

Submitted by Rabbi Golomb

At its Shabbat program on December 20, the Temple featured four students – Rachel Plotkin, Marissa Gally, Ilana Wolf and Emily Brundage – who talked about what it meant to them to be Jewish college students. Although each of their experiences have their own distinct features, a number of common themes were brought up.

Being Jewish on campus is not daunting when one is at a school with a relatively large Jewish population. While many colleges have a Hillel or a Jewish Student Union and a Jewish Studies Program, these organizations supplement the more informal Jewish connections that are made as a part of campus life.

Yes, there are instants of anti-Jewish activity, particularly attacks on Israel, but they need to be taken in context of a mostly benign state of affairs. The incidents are relatively rare, have little enduring impact, and tend to be opposed by the college administration. While Vassar College, for instance, had some agitation for censuring Israel (the initiative is known as BDS – boycott, divest, sanction Israel) during the past academic year, the activity receded greatly this year, even after the summer’s operation in Gaza.

Jewish students generally wish to find their own way. The University is a universalizing experience, opening all of its students to a range of new ideas, life-styles and practices. Further, students are now on the first steps to independent adulthood, living away from home and with little supervision. Jewish students, like most others on campus, view their time in college as a process of self-discovery. Many are quite confident in their own Jewish identity, and therefore draw on the Jewish opportunities (Hillel, Jewish Studies, etc.) available to them, but at their own choosing.

Admittedly, the students who attended Vassar Temple’s Shabbat program were self-selected, but they probably reflect reasonably closely the attitude of most of the students from the congregation.

“Helping,” Is Caring In Action

Submitted by Marian Schwartz

Let us be thankful that, because they have never had to go to bed hungry, we have to explain to our children that there are some people who cannot afford enough food to eat. Let us be thankful that we all have something we can share with others and still have enough for ourselves. About five years ago I was contacted by Hudson River Housing, asking if our congregation could provide any Thanksgiving food baskets for their clients. At first I thought, “We already do LunchBox every month, provide meals for the homeless shelter, and collect for CanJam—gee, we ask so much of our congregation already”. Then I thought, well, maybe we can do just a little bit more, hence Trim-a-Thanksgiving was born. The congregation so generously responded that we eventually increased the amount of baskets we made from 5 to 7, and this year to 10, double the original amount. Three years ago we started Turkey Trot, which far from detracting from Trim, resulted this, the third year, in our being able to donate a total of 1,525 lbs. of turkeys to local food pantries to distribute to client families and for LunchBox to use to put on a turkey dinner, 10 turkeys to accompany the Trim baskets, and 4 additional turkeys (one kosher) for local Jewish families in need on Thanksgiving. This is all due to your unflagging generosity.

And now I’m thinking, “We ask so much of our congregation already, but can we ask for a little bit more?” I’ m thinking this because new statistics show that 30,280 residents of our county are food insecure (either struggle to eat a decent meal on a regular basis or even have to go without food for a day or days at a time). Of that number, 15,000 cannot get food stamps and have to rely on emergency help such as food pantries and LunchBox (food stamp assistance recently reverted to pre-2009 levels). This puts a tremendous strain on food pantries & LunchBox, which has lost 50% of the financial assistance NYS had been providing. We need creative, grass roots initiatives to bring more help for the hungry. We can each bring in an extra box of cereal to CanJam or provide that dozen pieces of fruit for this month’s LunchBox. Never doubt this—to hungry families, every box of cereal, every jar of peanut butter matters. And it is clear that the need is greater than ever. That is why I am especially asking you to please consider bringing in support from the broader community.

We at Vassar Temple are empowered, so let’s share our giving spirit with others. Hold a mini food drive amongst your friends, your neighbors, your book club, your workout buddies, your bridge group, your co-workers. For ideas and practical pointers about holding mini-drives we have a wonderful resource person you can contact, Nancy Samson , founder of our own CanJam program, and a national consultant on combatting hunger (canjam123@aol.com).

No matter how “mini,” each effort will make a difference, and I predict you will be surprised by the generosity of others when personally asked to help those in need. Talk to others about what we do at Vassar Temple. Inspire them to bring these ideas to their own houses of worship. At Vassar Temple we care about hunger.

Marian Schwartz, Social Action Chmn.

Would you like to help Vassar Temple help others? No gift is too small. Please let us know.

What We Say Matters

By Bob Ritter

One of the most fascinating things about becoming Vassar Temple’s President is how it has helped me to focus on the question of growth — growth of the temple, and my own personal growth.  The irony I am discovering is how much they are tied to one another. Personal growth starts with self-awareness and leads to personal struggle. So it is for the congregation too.

Growth isn’t always measured in numbers.  One way to measure growth is by how you feel.  Do you feel better or worse than before?  How can you and I feel better about Vassar Temple?  I am sure there are many ways, but this letter is about one in particular.

As President, I feel a greater sense of responsibility for what I say, which has made me more conscious of what others say as well.  Both of which have brought me to consider a very Jewish concept about speech.

There is a Hebrew term – lashon hara (לשון הרע or “evil tongue”) – otherwise known as derogatory speech, which is considered a very serious sin in the Jewish tradition (see Leviticus 19:16).  Spreading a bad name or gossiping (hotzaat shem ra) is considered an even worse sin.  The distinction between the two terms is that the former is based on true remarks and the latter on untrue remarks.

As interesting as all this halakhic discussion can be to some, it also gets very heavy.  So I will make my point.  We have to watch our tongues.  We can say things that build others up, or we can say things that tear people down.  We can find the good, or we can find the bad.  We can speak of growth, or we can speak of destruction.

When you walk into Vassar Temple, literally, or conceptually when you think of Vassar Temple, I want you to feel accepted, safe and loved.  No matter what!  Regardless of your problems, faults, or fears.  Do you?  I believe one way to accomplish this is for us to speak in ways that build people up – to say things which build OUR temple up. Vassar Temple will grow by creating an environment where people can grow.

Fortunately there is much to speak about positively, because many good things are happening at Vassar Temple.  Even more than we can squeeze into the limited pages of our bulletin, which is filled with the ways Vassar Temple is building up people’s lives.  Being a part of that is a wonderful feeling – a feeling of belonging.