Meet Vassar Temple’s New Religious School Director!

Shalom! My name is Julie Makowsky and on July 1st I will begin my new position as the Education Director for the Vassar Temple Religious School. Over the course of this coming school year I hope I will have a chance to share with you news from the Religious School as well as information about our school programs and curriculum. At this time I would like to use this forum to tell you a little bit about myself.

Julie and Bob
I have called the Hudson Valley home for 8 years. That is a record for our family as my husband, Bob, was in the Coast Guard for the first 14 years of our marriage and we moved around a lot.

I began my career as a Jewish Educator in many years ago after graduating from The Ohio State University with a Jewish Studies degree. In the Fall of 1988 I found myself in Jerusalem where I spent the next two years studying and learning about Jewish Text and Hebrew. After returning to the States, I was awarded a Melton Fellowship at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Julie in Israel
I graduated in 1992 with a Master Degree in Jewish Education. In 1992 I also married my husband, Bob. We lived in Brooklyn and then moved to Long Island. I served a number of congregations while Bob served the United States Coast Guard as a Search and Rescue pilot at Air Station Brooklyn.

In the following years we added our daughter, Talia and son, Noah to our family. The Coast Guard moved us frequently which gave me opportunities to work in a number of Jewish Communities in a number of different capacities. We lived in worked in Traverse City, Michigan; Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; New Haven, Connecticut; Atlantic City, NJ and finally Columbus, Ohio.

We moved to Rhinebeck, NY in 2008 and we promised our children that they would be able to complete High School without moving again. Since moving to the area I have served both the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley as Education Director.

I am excited to begin the next phase of my journey serving the Vassar Temple community as the new Education Director. I look forward to getting to know each and everyone one of you in the coming months!


The Birthday Mitzvah Day Project – When A Person Follows Their Dreams

Hello, Jasmaine Russo here. First time blogger, long time reader. Today I had the honor and privilege to bring the Birthday Project to Mitzvah Day 2016. So what is it all about? Where did it come from? Well, I’m glad you asked. My daughter, Jordan, needed an idea for her Mitzvah project. While searching the web, we came across an organization called Family to Family. . They had an intriguing idea about, giving underprivileged children a birthday celebration in a bag. It would include cake mix, frosting, candles, book, and an age appropriate toy.
Many of us celebrate our children’s birthdays without a second thought. I always plan our vacations around our girls’ birthdays, to make them especially memorable. I grew up in a single parent household, and birthday celebrations were not always a possibility. Times were tough. I remember my 7th birthday when my mom walked to a 7-11 and bought me a doll. I can’t imagine how she found the extra money but she did.
Here it is 30 years later and still remember, how happy I was to have something on my special day. I explained all of this to Jordan and how we could give other children the same excitement. Jordy set a goal of 5 bags per month from October 2015 until October 2016. We contacted Family- to- Family and they linked us with the Boys and Girls Club of Orange County. It was very exciting expanding this project to include our Jewish Community. We had a goal of fifty bags and we pulled it off!!! I asked the director of Boys and Girls Club for a list of kids with age, birthdate, and interests. Then I assigned each child a number, that way people could adopt or donate money towards the cost of a child’s bag. Nancy, the admin, for the Jewish Federation of Dutchess County linked me with The United Way of Dutchess County, and they donated the books. Vassar Temple gave Tzedakah money, and the Jordy’s B’nai Mitzvah classmates adopted bags. Marian Schwartz bought birthday bags that smaller kids could decorate. We set out boxes in Temple Beth El, Vassar Temple, and Beacon Hebrew Alliance to collect cake, mix, frosting candles, etc. Jordy and I took all the donated monies, bought scrip, and purchased the toys based on the children’s interest.
When we arrived at Temple Beth El, I did not have any idea how this was going to unfold. Fortunately, our community pulled it together. So many donations, in addition to what we had, started piling on the tables. Within minutes we had a makeshift assembly line.

Station 1 was decorating committee, Kids and their parents decorated bags with drawings and sweet birthday messages.
Station 2 was the sorting. Any new items coming into the room, were dispatched to the proper areas.
Station 3 was the cake mix station. This is where the cake mix, frosting, and candles were bundled.
Station 4 was where the toys and books were put together and placed in numerical order.
Station 5 was the command hub. Here is where the bags were assembled. Kids would drop off their artistic creations, the cake mix bundle would be added in, then the gift would double checked against our spreadsheet. Volunteers wanted to make sure each gift was age appropriate and matched the child’s interests.
Station 6 was the last check off. Here birthday goodies would be added such as bubbles, candy, napkins, plates, and/ or cups.
I still cannot believe we pulled it off. All the volunteers went above and beyond to make sure each bag was given extra TLC. A few times I got a little teary eyed watching my community at work. This project embodies the spirit of Mitzvah Day. We banded to together to give these children, a chance to do something many of us take for granted. Celebrating the day, a child came to be and the simple joy in life of being a child.
Thank you everyone for all you help and support. I know I could not have done ANY of this without the volunteers. I hope that we will be able to do this again next year.


Celebrating Shabbat, Preparing for B’nai Mitzvah

One of the most exciting parts of being a rabbi is working with families as they prepare for b’nai mitzvah. It is possibly the most time I get to spend with a child and his or her family, and because of my involvement in Religious and Hebrew School, I have the honor of watching our young people transform from children to adults right before my eyes.

Our students and parents at the Metzgers' house.

Our students and parents at the Metzgers’ house.

This can be an exciting and a challenging process, and we are doing our best to keep it from becoming scary. Throughout this year, the 7th grade and their families will be meeting with me, and with each other, to engage in a conversation about what it means to become b’nai mitzvah and how we can best get ready.

This past Shabbat, our seventh grade class came together to celebrate and learn together. We began our morning by praying with Betty Gibbs as she became bat mitzvah. Betty took her responsibilities as a prayer leader very seriously and also led the service with joy, which set an incredible example for our 7th graders as they begin their journey to become b’nai mitzvah.

Over lunch at the Metzgers’ house, we looked at Pirke Avot 1:2: “The world stands on three things: on Torah (learning), on Avodah (prayer) and on Gemilut Chasadim (acts of lovingkindness).” This started a conversation on how each of these elements are a part of our own everyday lives, and how they are a part of becoming b’nai mitzvah.

Carolynn and Jeremy Frankel.

Carolynn and Jeremy Frankel.

Then each parent paired of with his/her own child(ren) to talk about what they had seen at the service and what they were excited for and nervous about for when it was their turn. Hearing their answers was a reminder of something incredibly important: that each student is so different, and that a bar or bat mitzvah experience–both the preparation and the ceremony–should reflect who each student is and what his or her family values.

This brought up a lot of great questions: Does it matter if I wear a suit and tie (or a dress and heels) if that’s really not my style? How can a tzedaka project create an ongoing, meaningful connection rather than just a one-time event? How do I make this special for both of my children when we are celebrating their b’nai mitzvah together? What role do I play as a parent if I never became bar or bat mitzvah myself? What if I don’t like to sing? What if I really like to sing?

Sam, Joel, and Mariel Kelson.

Sam, Joel, and Mariel Kelson.

Perhaps one of the most profound moments was when parents and students both answered the question: “How can I best support you and help you as you prepare for this moment?” The parents and students admitted that they thought they were in separate corners: the students preparing to read Torah and lead services, the parent planning a party and driving carpool to services and Hebrew School. Taking the time to spend Shabbat together reminded us that we are in this together, and that each person on the team needs to support the other as we prepare for this sacred moment.

And, as your rabbi, I’m excited to be a part of that team!

For more of Rabbi Berkowitz’s thoughts on b’nai mitzvah, read this article on Rabbi Berkowitz’s blog!

Learning to Love Hebrew at Vassar Temple

Whiteboard after Hebrew class about Passover

Whiteboard after Hebrew class about Passover

Students love writing on classroom whiteboards after class, and what they write can serve as a uniquely unfiltered window into what they are thinking.

This is why I was so delighted to find the words “I love this class!” under the Hebrew word for “questions,” both the Hebrew and English left over from Wednesday’s Hebrew class about Passover.

For us, it’s not enough for the students just to learn Hebrew. We want them to learn to love it. It takes a lot of work and planning, so it’s all the more gratifying when we find this kind of anonymous tribute.

Hamantaschen Baking Day 2015

Submitted by Judy Rosenfeld
Sisterhood Hamantaschen Baking Day Chair

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

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

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

Crafting a Worship Service

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

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

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

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

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

You really don’t want to miss it.

Building a Holy Community: A Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Vassar Temple is now part of the New York Area Region of NFTY

Submitted by Melissa Erlebacher

Dear Parents of Vassar Temple 8th – 12th graders,

As you know, we have recently hired Rachel Cohen as the adviser of the Vassar Temple Youth Group. Our goal is to build a strong, vibrant youth group at Vassar Temple. The Vassar Temple Youth Group is for students in grades 8 – 12.

I am currently serving as the Youth Committee Chairperson. I will be sending out periodic parent updates in order to keep you in the loop and to foster communication (and hopefully to encourage participation).

Vassar Temple is now part of the New York Area Region of NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth). This is the Reform Movement’s youth program. In November, three of our teens participated in the Fall Kallah at Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. Back in my day, they used to call these retreats or conclaves.

Below is a summary of the Fall Kallah weekend. I hope you will take some time to read it and then discuss with your teen the possibility of attending the Winter Kallah from January 9 – 11.

Please note that the Kallah is only open to students in grades 9 – 12, however, I am including 8th grade parents in this email in order to keep you informed. The Spring Kallah at Eisner Camp will be open to 8th grade students.

There is an early bird discount until December 23. If cost is an issue, please talk to Rabbi Golomb. There are scholarships available through the Sisterhood. Winter Kallah will be hosted by Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners. The early bird registration price of $175 is available through December 23rd. You can register for Winter Kallah online at

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email or call me at 635-9854. I will be available until December 20 to discuss the Kallah.

I wish you all a very happy Hanukkah.

Melissa Erlebacher

Hanukkah Contest!

The talented folks at Key Tov have put together a spectacular Hanukkah dance and song mash up:

So here at Vassar Temple, we’re running a contest, with prizes for the first three people to correctly identify all of the songs in the mash up.

Even if someone beats you to an answer, you can move yourself up in the ranking by offering more information: Who wrote the songs? Where do they come from? What do the Hebrew words mean?

Put your answers in the comments — which will remain hidden until Friday, December 19, when we’ll announce the winners. The contest is open to students affiliated with Vassar Temple.