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

What Can Vassar Temple Do About the Refugee Crisis?

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May 5, 2016

Dear Congregants:

Many of us have watched the suffering of refugee families and felt helpless in our ability to take a concrete action to actually make a difference. As Jews, ethical teachings in the Mishnah compel us to perform acts of Tikkun Olam. I am writing to share some exciting news about how our Temple and those interested can help!

Last month, our Vassar Temple Board voted to join with Vassar College and other local faith-based institutions in a collaboration called the Vassar College Refugee Solidarity Initiative. The leaders of this project expect there to be at least 8-9 congregations who will each sponsor a refugee family for the initial phase of the project. Vassar Temple’s action has set a fine example of leadership for other congregations and fellowships in our region, and others are already following our lead.
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Because security is essential, and because we are not inventing the wheel, this project and the refugee family that will be sponsored to resettle in Dutchess County, will be under the supervision and guidance of a designated refugee resettlement agency, also known as a VOLAG. These agencies work together with the U.S. State Department to receive and relocate refugee families all of whom have been screened and vetted through diverse offices in the State Department and Homeland Security. A full description of this project and an overview of United States Refugee Law and Policy is attached to this post (see below).

The financial obligation of sponsoring a family will be covered through funding outside of the Vassar Temple budget that will include private and community foundation resources and possible support from Vassar College. Our Temple’s Social Action Committee is spearheading our efforts, and will seek volunteer efforts to assist and support the designated family with housing, schools, medical care and employment. The Ciminello family has already volunteered to provide housing for the family we sponsor.

Through this project we are able to do more than advocacy and fundraising; we can actually welcome a family to our community and demonstrate our commitment to addressing the worldwide refugee crisis. Perhaps someday, that family’s experience will somehow shape the world in positive ways! Ken Yehi Ratzon!

In the coming months, we will be forming a committee of Temple members who want to join this project’s efforts in some way. The current leadership for the project is: Andi & Paul Ciminello, Jen Dahnert, Marian Schwartz, and Rabbi Berkowitz. We are working very closely with Dr. Maria Hoehn, Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Vassar College. Information about the project will be available at our Congregational Meeting on June 15th and there will be media announcements about this newly formed collaboration.

If you have questions or are interested in supporting this very important project, I ask you to contact one of the members of this committee directly, or you can also speak with Rabbi Berkowitz. Naturally, you are welcome to contact the temple president about this decision from a board standpoint.

I am very proud of Vassar Temple for taking this important step. I ask you to have faith in our efforts and to put what we are doing in needed perspective. We are a progressive, compassionate and resourceful community. We can’t solve the whole refugee problem, but we can save at least one family.

Let’s be true to our teachings: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

Sincerely,

Bob Ritter
President

VC – VT Project Info Sheet

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Vassar Temple Men’s Club – Always Willing to Lend a Helping Hand.

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By David Wolf

Members and friends of Men’s Club came through in a big way on the first Sunday of the new year to help some less fortunate members of our larger community. Seventeen volunteers assisted chef extraordinaire Kurt Quackenbush in preparing a delicious meal of chili, rice, salad, and fruit at the Lunch Box on January 3. Several recipients of the meal commented favorably about the generous portions that were served and about the overall quality of the meal! Many thanks to Kurt and the other volunteers: Jeff Brenner; Howie Brown; Paul Ciminello; Alan, Aaron and Haley Kaflowitz; David Lampell; Jacob Moore and his friend Robby; David Posner; Bob Ritter; Jim Robinowitz; Eric Rosenfeld; Dave and Max Samson; Jerry Slate; Howard Spilke; and Dave Wolf. Men’s Club would also like to thank Linda and Joel Babas for their assistance in preparing for the event and to the Brenner, Ciminello, Creedon, Hecht, Kaflowitz, Lampell, Moore, Posner, Quackenbush, Ritter, Robinowitz, Rosenfeld, Rosenthal, Samson, Schwartz, and Wolf families for their food donations.
Volunteering at the Lunch Box is a wonderful way to schmooze with your temple friends while helping the community. It’s also a great way for students to earn community service credit.
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VASSAR TEMPLE STEPS UP TO THE PLATE!

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This morning, Vassar Temple caught wind of an immediate need for food donations on behalf of the students at Morse Elementary School in Poughkeepsie. It seems as though a large number of families associated with the school lack adequate food year round. With the December holiday break at hand, it was anticipated that many students would lack access to school-based breakfasts and lunches. The school, which houses its own food pantry, was in need of donations!

This morning at Temple, our marvelous teens Edison D’Orio and Tara Lerman helped bag canned and nonperishable foods that you, Vassar Temple members, had generously donated in the recent weeks to our VT CAN JAM bin. Cereals, lentils, soups, pastas, juices and more ~~ amazing!! Together we loaded up a car full of bags. Tomorrow the food will be delivered to the Morse School — just in time for the winter break. Thank you Vassar Temple.

Eight Nights of Chanukah, Part II

Zoe Weinstein and Betty Gibbs celebrate the second night of Chanukah and the mitzvah of Tzedek (Justice) by writing their senators!

Watch Zoe and Betty’s Video!

Activity ideas:  Write a letter to an elected official or newspaper editor about an issue of justice; teach each other about a justice issue dear to us; make and decorate a family tzedakah box; give tzedakah to an organization that works for justice; join a campaign at Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism  www.rac.org

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

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

How to Light Chanukah Candles

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

Don’t forget….Annual Chanukah Dinner and Service Friday 12/11
5:30 p.m. Annual pot-luck dinner. Bring a dairy dish for 12; Sisterhood will provide latkes, applesauce, challah, salad and beverages. Cost: $18 per family or $6 per individual. RSVP by Tuesday 12/8 to Roni Stein 223-5804 or roniagt99@aol.com Send your check to Vassar Temple Sisterhood with “Chanukah Dinner” on the memo line.

7:00 p.m. Our beautiful family-friendly Chanukah Menorah-Lighting Shabbat service, to which everyone is welcome and encouraged to bring a menorah and candles.

More Chanukah resources:

Union for Reform Judaism Chanukah Resources Page

My Jewish Learning Chanukah Resource Page

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

Eight Nights of Mitzvot, Part VIII

Ron Rosen and Joel and Sam Kelson celebrate the eighth night of Chanukah, and the Jewish value of Rachmanut (Compassion)

Watch Ron, Sam and Joel’s Video!

Activity ideas:  Volunteer at a food bank or similar nonprofit.  Vassar Temple supports Dutchess Outreach where we provide a meal at LunchBox on the first Sunday of every month.  Give out clean, new tube socks to people on the street asking for help; visit someone who is shut-in, if possible light the menorah with them; during the week of Chanukah give one dollar to every person you see begging (keep a stash of dollars just for them)…talk about how it felt at the end of the week.

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

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

How to Light Chanukah Candles

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

More Chanukah resources:

Union for Reform Judaism Chanukah Resources Page

My Jewish Learning Chanukah Resource Page

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