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?

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The Story Begins When the Stranger Arrives

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera, in observance of Immigrant Justice Shabbat. Cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

The story starts when the stranger comes to town.

This is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. The arrival of a stranger can be a breath of fresh air, a new love interest, a source of tumult, or, in most plot-lines, some combination of the three.

The arrival of the stranger is also a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in this week’s parasha. This week, we read several stories that start with the arrival of strangers: the most famous of which are the announcement of Isaac’s birth, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Parashat Vayera opens with the arrival of three strangers in Mamre, where Abraham lives with his wife Sarah. Seeing three men approaching from a distance, Abraham leaps into action: preparing—or having his wife and servants prepare—food, drink, water to bathe, and a place to rest for his guests. Abraham doesn’t know that the strangers are there to bring good news—that Sarah, long barren, will finally give birth to a son. The story gives the impression that this is just what Abraham does for all weary travelers.

This act of hospitality will result in a tremendous reward, but Abraham has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Cut to Sodom and Gomorroh, where two strangers have just arrived at the city gate. Here they are explicitly described as “angels,” whereas in the previous story, it is not clear whether the strangers are human or divine. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, doesn’t want the men to sleep alone in the city square—he knows his neighbors aren’t the most hospitable people. Indeed, no sooner does Lot invite the strangers in, than the townspeople come pounding on the door. They want Lot to surrender the two strangers for their own nefarious purposes, but Lot refuses, offering his own daughters instead. The townspeople reject this offer, and are about to attack Lot, when the angels intervene, blinding the townspeople and rescuing Lot’s family from the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Lot’s hospitality temporarily endangers his entire family, but Lot has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Later in the parasha, we see the tables turned, and Abraham’s family become the strangers: Abraham and Sarah, sojourning in Gerar, find themselves in a vulnerable position as strangers in a strange land. Hagar and Ishmael, once an integral part of Abraham and Sarah’s family in spite of Hagar’s foreign origin, are banished from the household and nearly die of thirst.

The story begins when the stranger arrives. Sometimes it turns out for the best, sometimes it leads to something traumatic. But we have no way of knowing, until we see how the story unfolds.

The rabbis tease out of this parasha two very different approaches to welcoming strangers. Abraham is what we would probably today call an outreach and engagement specialist. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham kept the four sides of his tent open, so that strangers coming from all directions could enter right away. But he also went out in order to find strangers and bring them home with him. Moreover, he set up well-stocked way-stations all over the desert, so that he could serve the stranger even when they weren’t going to cross his path (Avot De Rabbi Nathan 7).

Taking the opposite approach were the people of Sodom and Gomorroh. Legend has it that these cities held unimaginable wealth: the roots of their vegetables were literally encrusted with gold flakes and jewels. But this led them to take a protective stance, putting up barriers to keep strangers out, and harshly mistreating them if they dared to come in. They attackedthem physically, robbed them of their property, imposed ridiculous tolls and fees for entry, and even executed those who dared to help them (Sanhedrin 109a-b).

The Jewish tradition praises Abraham’s behavior, which we call hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. But it’s not difficult to see why we often take a more protective approach.

This week, we watched in horror as the news unfolded, regarding a terrorist attack in New York City. Eight people were killed and 11 injured when a man plowed a pickup truck into the bike path along the Hudson River. As the story developed, we learned that the man had been radicalized and committed this heinous crime as a purposeful act of terror. Some voices are choosing to emphasize that the man was an immigrant, and that incidents like this wouldn’t happen if we had higher walls or closed borders.

But that is just untrue. Putting aside how many acts of terror originate from native-born Americans, we must remember that, for every person we let into this country who ultimately hurts another person, there are thousands of people who come here to live peacefully with their neighbors, and contribute positively to the country we all live in. Like Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, each of these immigrants took great risks coming here, sustained by their dreams of a better life. And when that better life is threatened, it falls on our community to speak up.

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism has marked tonight as an Immigrant Justice Shabbat, with a particular focus on DREAM-ers. Dreamers are immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31, who have been in the country for at least five years. There are currently 800,000 people in this program, 87% of which are currently in the workforce. Their average age upon arrival was six and a half. The 2012 DREAM Act, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, made it possible for young immigrants to get work permits and attend school without fear of deportation.

Just two months ago, it was announced that this program would be terminated in six months. The only hope for DREAM-ers now is for Congress to pass a Clean DREAM Act, which would grant conditional permanent resident status for all DREAM-ers, as well as lawful permanent resident status and a path to citizenship for those Dreamers who attend college, work in the US, or serve in the U.S. military.

The Religious Action Center has also declared this Monday, November 6th, as a call-in day, to encourage our senators and representatives to co-sponsor the new DREAM Act. After Shabbat, I encourage you  to learn more about this legislation, and how you can help turn these immigrants’ dreams into reality.

Because our news cycle is so often dominated by stories of immigrants who do harm, let us consider the stories of immigrants doing good:

Benita Veliz came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents in 1993, when she was 8. Benita graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class at the age of 16. She received a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University, where she graduated from the Honors program with a double major in biology and sociology. Benita’s honors thesis was on the DREAM Act. She dreams of becoming an attorney. In a letter to Senator Durbin (IL), Benita wrote: “I can’t wait to be able to give back to the community that has given me so much. I was recently asked to sing the national anthems for both the U.S. and Mexico at a Cinco de Mayo community assembly. Without missing a beat, I quickly belted out the Star Spangled Banner. To my embarrassment, I then realized that I had no idea how to sing the Mexican national anthem. I am American. My dream is American. It’s time to make our dreams a reality. It’s time to pass the Dream Act.”

Sometimes the stranger brings something bad…and sometimes the stranger brings something good. But, like our biblical ancestors, we don’t get to know that in advance. This leaves us with two choices: do we take an Abrahamic approach, letting everyone in in hopes of doing good? Or do we follow the example of Sodom and Gomorroh, shutting people out, even when it means committing an act of cruelty, even when it precipitates our own downfall?

Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to welcome the stranger, to live with our doors and our hearts open. We see in tonight’s stories how doing so can make us vulnerable. But let us not forget how opening our doors to the stranger can also open doors for us: doors of possibility and doors of blessing.

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.

 

 

 

Do We Trust Women?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s piece in this week’s Poughkeepsie Journal. To take action on this important legislation, visit Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts.

The debate over reproductive rights is nothing new. We’ve discussed it from a faith perspective, we’ve studied the economics, and we’ve debated it through the lens of public health. But all it really comes down to is this: Do we trust women?

I’m a woman in a profession traditionally populated by men, and I can say with some authority that there are a lot of times when the answer is “no.” I often have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in my field. But who knows the “field” of women’s reproductive health better than a woman and her health care provider?

Reproductive rights are under attack on the national scale. Anti-abortion legislation is forcing clinics to close and forces women to travel out of state to receive vital medical care, or to go back to the unsafe, illegal methods used before Roe v. Wade. Our nation’s leaders threaten constantly to defund the vital services provided by Planned Parenthood, going so far as to shut female legislators out of the drafting of the AHCA.

So it’s time to ask again: Do we trust women?

Do we trust women to decide when the time is right for them to become sexually active? If that is the case, our only course of action is to provide young people with education about healthy relationships and safer sex, and provide affordable, accessible contraception.

Do we trust women to decide when and if they want to start a family? If so, we need to support legislation such as the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which helps ensure affordable insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Do we trust women to decide how big they want their family to be, and how to space the births of their children? If yes, passing the CCCA can make this easier for women by allowing them to access 12 months of contraception on the same prescription, and to access Emergency Contraception at a pharmacy without a copay.

Supporting the CCCA shows that we trust women to be partners in the fight against STIs and unintended pregnancy. Trusting women to manage their reproductive health has been shown to reduce the need for abortion.

Do we trust women to consult with their medical professionals to make the best decision for themselves and their families? One overlooked aspect of the abortion debate is what happens when a pregnancy that was planned for and desperately wanted cannot continue. Abortion is a necessary component of women’s health care and should be treated as such.

The Reproductive Health Act would update New York state law to ensure that access to safe and legal abortion will always be available in New York as currently protected by Roe v. Wade. The RHA provides for abortion after 24 weeks to protect the health of the woman or when a fetus is not viable. The RHA recognizes that advance practice clinicians, within their scope of practice, can provide abortion care and regulates abortion under public health law.

In 1970, New York was a leader in legalizing abortion. Now, in 2017, New York has the opportunity to make the statement that we trust our women to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families.

Vassar Temple Advocacy Group Goes to Albany!

Andi Ciminello, Howard Susser and Marge Groten joined other Reform Jewish Congregations in Albany on Monday, May 8th for a Lobby Day organized by Reform Jewish Voice of New York State.  The event was attended by approximately 30 people.

The morning session was devoted to training the participants on the issues on the organization’s agenda for the day of lobbying and on lobbying techniques.  Presenters included the Co-chairs of Reform Jewish Voice; Assemblywoman Pat Fahey; staff from NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office and a legislative assistant from the Religious Action Center, in Washington DC.
We were asked to advocate for:
  • support of measures that curb the growing influence of money in politics,
  • support of the New York Votes Act to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers,
  • support of the Reproductive Rights Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, and
  • opposition to the Education Affordability Act, which would provide extremely generous tax credits to those making donations to private and parochial schools.
In the afternoon we meet with Assemblyman Frank Skartados, a staff person working for Assemblywoman DidI Barrett (a Vassar Temple member) and a staff person in Senator Sue Serino’s office to discuss all of the issues on the day’s agenda.  We all felt the event was very worthwhile and encourage Temple members to take the opportunity—either in Albany or locally—to lobby our state legislators on issues identified by Reform Jewish Voice of New York. Speak to one of us if you are interested.
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Fighting the Plague of Darkness

Rabbi Berkowitz’s remarks at the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March. You can watch a video of the speech here. Mid-Hudson welcomed its first refugee family, from Congo, this past Tuesday. The family our community has volunteered to welcome is delayed indefinitely.

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral, 
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands,
For the crime of indifference,
For the sin of silence,
For the closing of borders.
For all that was done,
For all that was not done,
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of
Glory;
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness
When your children, O God,
Are free and at peace.

From Chaim Stern, editor, Gates of Repentance (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).

This week, the Jewish scriptural readings find us enslaved in Egypt, inching ever closer to that moment of liberation, but with many roadblocks along the way. With Pharaoh’s heart so hardened that even his most trusted advisors cannot sway him, God brings about the ninth plague: “a darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21).

Unlike many of the other plagues, this one fell only on the houses of the Egyptians. What was the nature of this strange and selective darkness? The rabbis tell us that this is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual one, “the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors” (Etz Chayim 377).

This is a story that has recurred too many times in our history. Too many times, we have drawn the curtains and shut off the streetlights, turned off the television and silenced the radio, so that we did not have to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering, so that we would not be held responsible for our inaction.

But we are here this evening to say: we will not give in to the darkness of ignorance and indifference. We will shine the light of solidarity, even in these dark times. Because, as the ancient rabbis tell us, the break of dawn is the moment we can first recognize the face of our friend (Berachot 9b).

We are here tonight, to say to our neighbors, to our faith communities, and to our public officials: We will not let the actions of our national leadership prevent us from seeing the humanity of our neighbors, whether they are our Muslim brothers and sisters living among us now, or our refugee cousins who are, in spite of everything, still hoping to make a home in our community. We will not allow our nation to fall victim to the plague of darkness.

We are here tonight to say to our neighbors.

Our lights have not been extinguished.

Our curtains are not drawn.

Our doors are not closed.

Our ears and eyes and hearts are open:

We see you.

We hear you.

We are you.

We are standing beside you.

We will welcome you.

And we will fight for you!

 Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lirdof tzedek ule’ehov et ha-ger.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through sacred obligations, and commands us to pursue justice, and to love the stranger.

Feeding Body, Mind, and Soul

Vassar Temple Sisterhood brings good cheer and good nourishment to people who need it greatly when they serve our community’s hungry at the “Lunchbox.” As you can see from the photos of this past Sunday, they also have a great time doing it.
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Click here to learn more about Vassar Temple Sisterhood.
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Visit Sisterhood’s Blog too.
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Vital Chapter of Holocaust History Revisited at Vassar Temple

Complicit Audience

On June 15, 2016, approximately 150 individuals, including a group of 30 educators from Long Island, gathered at Vassar Temple to examine one of the most significant refugee events in world history. COMPLICIT, the documentary film featuring the story of the SS Saint Louis, was shown.
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This film, COMPLICIT, chronicles the story of the SS Saint Louis, the ship that sailed from Hamburg, Germany in 1939 with 937 Jews aboard trying to escape Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The film explores the Roosevelt administration’s role in a series of events that transpired as the ship sought entry to Cuba, the US and Canada, and was ultimately denied access and returned to Europe.

Approximately one-third of the ship’s passengers who had to return to Europe did not survive the Holocaust. A discussion with the film’s director, Robert Krakow, who traveled to Poughkeepsie from his home in Florida for this event, as well as Sonja Geismar, a survivor of the SS St. Louis, and local resident Debbie Sylvester, the daughter of another survivor, followed the screening.
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In 1939 the SS St. Louis departed Germany for North America. Among her passengers were 937 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and seeking entry into the United States through Cuba. But upon arrival, the ship’s passengers’ visas were rendered invalid and they were denied entry. After several weeks at sea pleading with the US, Canadian and Cuban governments, the SS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe where it is estimated that nearly one-third of the passengers perished in German concentration camps.

Through historical film footage, survivor interviews and dramatic interludes, COMPLICIT recounts the story of this ill-fated voyage. Included in the film is a mock trial that confronts the Roosevelt Administration’s flawed WWII refugee policy, based on a play written by Krakow. In addition, COMPLICIT documents the US State Department’s formal apologies to the surviving passengers of SS St. Louis.

Robert Krakow is the Executive Director of the SS St. Louis Legacy Project Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses education through drama to enlighten audiences on events in world history, including the story of the voyage of the SS St Louis.

This was an extraordinarily rare and moving event in our community as it included the film’s director, Robert Krakow, participating in a discussion with a survivor and family members of survivors after the film. The event was organized in partnership with the Long Island Temple Educators (LITE) with support from the Irving and Gloria Schlossberg Family Fund of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley and the Poughkeepsie Library District. Vassar Temple organizers were Bob Ritter, Jennifer Sachs Dahnert, and Cathy Bokor.
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NEW Update on Vassar Refugee Resettlement Project

[Scroll down to see earlier posts in descending chronological order.]

 

January 2017 – WOW!! We all did it. Let’s kvel. NY Times Article
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November 13th – Vassar Temple holds a meeting to start organizing our “Welcome Team” in accordance with the role that Church World Service has sponsors play.
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Link to information on the Role of Refugee Welcoming Teams.
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November 10th Church World Services Informational Meeting at Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie:
Follow this link for HNN news coverage of a recent Church World Services informational meeting.
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November 6th Church World Services Informational meeting at Vassar College:

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Introducing the refugee resettlement initiative to an audience of over 300 at a community meeting held Nov. 6 were Andi Ciminello (Vassar Temple refugee resettlement), Rev. Susan Fortunato (Christ Episcopal Church), Umar Ahmad (Masjid al Noor), Rabbi Leah Berkowitz (Vassar Temple), Rev. Deborah Hafner DeWinter, (First Evangelical Lutheran Church), Dr. Maria Hoehn (Mid Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance), Sarah Krause and Roisin Ford (CWS), Jon Chenette ( Interim President, Vassar College). The first refugee families are expected in early 2017. To help please contact refugee@vassartemple.org .

Images captured at the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance “Community Meeting” at Vassar College. A packed room of people from the community, college faculty, students, clergy, representatives of Church World Services, local government, and supporters for the Alliance, gathered at Vassar College to hear an explanation of the refugee resettlement efforts, let voices be heard, and questions answered.
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RELEASE: November 6, 2016 – Update on Refugee Resettlement Project
Earlier this year the Vassar Temple Board voted to join Vassar College Refugee Solidarity Project, a project to support refugee resettlement in Dutchess County through a collaboration with Vassar College and local faith-based institutions, including Vassar Temple, Christ Episcopal Church, the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association, along with Duchess Community College, SUNY New Paltz, Marist College and Mount St. Mary College.
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This project is moving forward! Church World Service (CWS) received approval from the U.S. State Department to receive and relocate refugee families to the Hudson Valley, all of whom have been screened and vetted through the offices of the US State Department and Homeland Security. As sponsors, Vassar Temple will work with CWS to assist the designated families with resettlement through financial support, and guidance with housing, schools, medical care and employment. Click here for information about CWS.

Over 300 participants attended standing-room only Community Meeting at Vassar College on November 6th.. Representatives from CWS, addressed questions about the resettlement process. Rabbi Berkowitz led the clergy welcome along with the other founding faith-based congregations, Christ Episcopal Church and Majid Al-Noor Mosque. Together they reaffirmed our dedication to welcoming refugee families into our community.
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Representatives from the different sponsor groups were also in attendance to express their support and work on committee assignments. We are very proud to note that Vassar Temple was the first to make this very important commitment, setting a fine example of leadership for other congregations and fellowships in our region.

As many of us have watched the current refugee crisis unfold, we have felt helpless in our ability to take a concrete action to make a difference. With this project, we can do more than advocacy and fundraising; we can welcome a family to our community and demonstrate our commitment to addressing the worldwide refugee crisis.
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Andi Ciminello and Lisa Rubenstein are serving as Co-Captains for the Vassar Temple team. If you want to be involved in this project and aren’t already receiving updates, please contact them at the email listed below and you will be added to the Vassar Temple Refugee Resettlement Team. refugee@vassartemple.org

Link to Dr. Umar M. Ahmed remarks

Link to Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz remarks

Link to Video of the meeting.

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IMPORTANT UPDATE: October 9,2016

We are thrilled to announce that Church World Service (CWS) has been approved by the US Department of State, Bureau of Population and Migration (PRM) to open a refugee resettlement office in Poughkeepsie, New York.

More details will be forthcoming soon. We will also be in touch very soon about a meeting of our community at Vassar College to discuss the way forward. By then we will also have more information from CWS.

A public information session with staff from CWS headquarters will also be held onThursday, November 10th (2 – 7PM) at a location to be determined.

Thank you for your continued support and looking forward to our important work ahead.

Warm Regards,
Vassar Refugee Solidarity

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From: VC Solidarity
Sent: Wednesday, August 24, 2016 8:27 AM
Subject: Dutchess Refugee Resettlement update

Dear friends:

Church World Services (CWS) is awaiting official approval from the US State Department. Upon receiving approval, CWS looks forward to meetings with the community and partners and Vassar Solidarity events to prepare for refugee welcome in the Hudson Valley. Any interested individuals can sign up here Email Sign Up to receive future updates from CWS directly. We will of course also stay in touch with you about updates and news.

CWS is asking us to encourage individuals, faith communities and organizations to visit http://www.refugeesarewelcome.org/get-involved/ and sign an electronic postcard to be sent to President Obama.

Community and faith-based organizations can also bundle signed cards and mail them to 110 Maryland Avenue, NE, Suite 110, Washington, DC, 20002 by September 12th so they can be delivered to Congress and President Obama before the UN summit on refugees.

The president and congress needs to hear from you. Please urge President Obama that the U.S. needs to lead by example in responding to the refugee crisis at the upcoming UN General Assembly and White House Summit.

As soon as CWS receives the official approval, we are planning a large gathering with them at Vassar College for all the individuals and groups involved.

We are grateful for all your support and what you have done to help us move this initiative forward. We extend a warm welcome to our new partners.

Thank you,
Vassar Refugee Solidarity
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On Sunday, June 5th more than 50 members of the interfaith community gathered at Vassar Temple to learn more about the Vassar Refugee Resettlement Project. This project, led by Dr. Maria Hoehn, of Vassar College, is working with faith-based communities to resettle refugee families in the Hudson Valley. Vassar Temple, Christ Church and Masjid-Al-Noor – the three Abrahamic Faiths – have each committed to sponsoring a refugee family through the US Department of State’s resettlement program.

The meeting was an opportunity to introduce the community to this very important project and to learn more about the resettlement process. Rabbi Berkowitz opened the meeting with a Jewish teachings about welcoming the stranger. We also heard from Dr. Hoehn about how the project has been developed with education and outreach among Vassar faculty and students. Participants from Masjid-Al-Noor and Christ Church reaffirmed their commitment to the project. We were very fortunate to have Pastor Deborah Hafner deWinter from First Lutheran Church speak about US Refugee Law & Policy. Pastor Deborah has worked with Church World Service and other organizations on refugee resettlement project in this country and overseas.

Below is a summary of the current status of the project and what we believe will occur over the next few months:

• Church World Services (CWS) has submitted an application via the NY State Refugee Coordinator to the U.S. Department of State for establishing a VOLAG in Poughkeepsie for the lower Hudson Valley.
o This VOLAG or Voluntary Agency will be the nodal agency responsible for resettlement.

• CWS expects to hear from the U.S. Department of State in 4-5 weeks and we are optimistic about the outcome given the already existing commitment and support in our community

• If the application is approved, we can expect to start resettling refugees by December/January in our community (and a 50-mile radius) and will need your efforts and enthusiasm to ensure our community is a welcoming place for all.

• Once we have the go-ahead (hopefully by mid-July), we can start getting ready to collect furniture and other useful items. The Arnoff family has generously offered a trailer to be kept at Vassar College for that purpose.

• Vassar Temple, Christ Church and Masjid-Al-Noor are the three congregations so far that have officially committed to co-sponsor one family each together with CWS.
o There is enthusiasm from other congregations to join the effort and we are waiting for the approval of the VOLAG to welcome more partners.

Looking forward to a sustained and fruitful partnership. Together we can make a difference in the lives of refugee families.

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

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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. http://www.family-to-family.org/hands-on-giving-projects/handson-birthday-giving-project/ . 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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🙂
Jas