Where has the Summer gone?

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
your encampments, O Israel!

Numbers 24

Hello Everyone!

The summer offers a special opportunity for our temple. When school is out, things are quiet and there is less going on at the temple. It is a perfect time for “sharpening the saw.” And, so many of us did!

Rabbi used what summer she had since July very productively! With the help of “Transition,” many connections were made. The reception Rabbi is getting with Torah study is fantastic. Ritual was very busy, rethinking ways to make the spiritual life at Vassar Temple more meaningful. The music committee was also very active – and our new “sound” and melodies are going to be a delight! Sherrie and the office did a lot of things with data, budget entry, and more. Together with the Finance Committee, the serious business of the temple is being thoughtfully attended too at the start of the new fiscal year. Sherrie also took it upon herself to put an amazing amount of extra effort into organizing our classrooms. (Above & beyond the call of duty.) Shaari Roland jumped right into her new role as chair of the RS committee – helping to make decisions with the lower level classrooms and organizing a special “first day of school” program, to which the Men’s Club traditional Sukkah raising and Sisterhood activities on the same day are a perfect compliment! The House Committee finished important large projects and researched and obtained bids for other needed work to make our “tent” more beautiful and functional. Lay leaders and volunteers produced wonderful services throughout the summer. Publicity/Marketing was effective at promoting greater awareness in social media and creating a new email distribution system. They even redid the Service handout. Improvements to our hallway bulletin boards, another communication medium, are coming right up! We organized a presence at Jewish Heritage Day at Dutchess Stadium thanks to our Youth Group advisory team, the Teich’s. Need I say that Marian Schwartz and Social Action have been hard at work too? (I think you know that!) Michele Sinn, our new Library Chair (I like to say Librarian) has been formulating her plans for making the Reifler Libary a more integrated part of temple life as she has her work cut out for her in just straightening it out. (I have faith in Michele!) We have a new Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guide thanks in large part to Michele which is going to be a great resource for Rabbi Berkowitz to use with this year’s large group of b’nai mitzvah! There is more I could list, so please don’t anyone feel overlooked!!!

Yes, a lot has been accomplished. The Summer WAS a great opportunity – but now we are “back-to-school.” Time for the children to learn and see the ways our religious education programs have improved.

The start of the school year, and the start of the Jewish New Year, is not a time to let up! There is much we can do to make the coming year a sweeter and better year. Just keep saying HENENI and let’s show the community that Vassar Temple is where they belong!!

Shana Tova!

Bob Ritter
Vassar Temple


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.

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.

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.


Fifth- and Sixth-Grade Vassar Temple Students Recreate Ancient Hebrew Poetry

Fifth- and sixth-grade Vassar Temple students studied and recreated the ancient Hanukkah poetry of Maoz Tzur. Commonly translated as “Rock of Ages,” the familiar words appear in a strict rhyming pattern. They reference the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple after Antiochus the Insane destroyed it, a path paved by Alexander the Great’s untimely death.

The students learned about the rhyming scheme and the historical background to the Hanukkah story before writing their own poems in the same pattern.

Here’s one poem, written by Bizzy, Anna, Chloe, and Mariel:

On Chanukkah we eat challah
In Temple we light the oil
They also celebrate it in Venezuela
We wrap our leftover latkes in tin foil
If you don’t they will spoil
They are made of potatoes from the soil
I love to eat gelt — but hopefully it won’t melt!
Alexander the Great was royal.

Now it’s your turn! Here’s the rhyming scheme:

— —A
— —B
— —A
— —B
— —B
— —B
—C —C
— —B

Can you use it to write a poem about Hanukkah?

A Special Thank-You to Our Teachers

A beautiful early summer evening provided the backdrop for our annual picnic and outdoor service. As an added treat, religious-school director Dr. Joel Hoffman offered a few words of thanks to the teachers whom he supervises.

He started with Argentina’s northern Patagonia region, of all places, recalling when he had traveled there to lecture some years ago. His hotel room there faced an inner courtyard, which is why he had no way of knowing what exactly was happened when his sleep was interrupted first by someone shouting “no, NO, NOOO!” and then by the sounds of gunfire.

Next came the emergency vehicles, more shouting, and more gunfire. But he had no visuals, because he couldn’t see the street. He did know that Argentina hadn’t always been the most stable of countries, so he was doubly worried.

After a fitful sleep marked by nightmares, he learned the next morning that the shouting had been at the television in response to a tense last-minute soccer play, and the gunfire had been in celebration after a dramatic end to the game.

He was relieved, but hardly relaxed.

Fortunately, Dr. Hoffman told us Friday evening, he had been invited to a Shabbat service that evening in a nearby town. The host congregation turned out to be a small, entirely lay-led group. But at the service, with its recorded music and informal atmosphere, Dr. Hoffman found a community and a respite from a difficult week. “A base of spirituality,” he told us.

Then he asked us if the teachers of those Argentine lay-leaders had any way of knowing what affect their teaching would someday have, how their teaching had so positively influenced a weary traveler.

So too, the lessons our teachers teach here reach beyond the students as we see them now, like ripples on a pond that extends behind the horizon. We never get to see the full benefit of teaching.

Vassar Temple Confirmation

Left to right: Rabbi Paul Golomb, Wayne H. (top); Olivia D, Ally B, Brianna E (bottom).

Left to right: Rabbi Paul Golomb, Wayne H. (top); Olivia D., Ally B., Brianna E. (bottom).

Though bar or bat mitzvah marks the transition from childhood to Jewish adulthood, the decision to celebrate bar or bat mitzvah is usually made by a child’s parents, precisely because the would-be bar or bat mitzvah celebrant is still a child while the plans for the ceremony are underway.

Confirmation, by contrast, gives young Jewish adults the opportunity to make what is often their first major Jewish decision as adults: will Jewish study be a central part of their lives?

Yesterday at Vassar Temple, four young Jewish adults — Ally, Brianna, Olivia, and Wayne — answered that question with an enthusiastic “yes” by leading their congregation in worship and by offering words of Torah.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, their remarks bridged their religious and secular worlds. Neither focusing too narrowly on the minutia of Jewish text nor ignoring their Jewish values, they spoke about human dignity, our obligation to care for the world, and the enduring value of Judaism.

The issue of global climate change speaks directly to our Jewish obligation to care for the world, as Wayne reminded the congregation. He spoke in favor of dealing with climate change now, and not bowing to pressure from those whose financial interests align with dismissing the problem.

The minimum legal drinking age is not a mere number but a decision about people’s welfare, Ally said as she argued that lowering it back to 18 would help people more than it would harm them, and, in addition, that a drinking age of 18 would better match the other rights and obligations that people earn when they turn 18.

School-wide dress codes have significant benefits, Brianna noted, but she still spoke out against them because in her eyes they do more harm than good. They make it harder to hold people accountable for their actions, restrict expression, contribute to inequality between men and women, and even indirectly promote misogyny.

Judaism focuses on this world more than any potential world that might follow, which is one reason Olivia said she was glad to confirm her Jewish identity. For her this was a particularly conscious choice because her family background gave her two clear paths in life, only one of which was Jewish.

“The world is based on three things,” our sages teach: “Torah, service to God, and acts of kindness.” It was a joy for me — and, I know, for the congregation — to see how these four young Jewish adults incorporated Torah and kindness as part of their service to God, continuing a tradition that began hundreds of generations ago, and, thanks in part to them, shows every sign of continuing for untold generations to come.

Left to right:  Ally B., Brianna E., Olivia D., Wayne H.

Left to right: Ally B., Brianna E., Olivia D., Wayne H.

Happy Purim

Dr. Joel "Hoffmantaschen."  Costume by Zoe  Peritz Greenman.  Photo courtesy of Brianna Erlebacher.

Dr. Joel “Hoffmantaschen.” Glasses by Zoe Peritz Greenman. Photo courtesy of Brianna Erlebacher.

Inspired by a couple of 4th graders who invented a Yoshi-taschen and a Hamario to help spread Purim beyond the walls of the synagogue, we invited other students to create their own Purim amalgams.

The one judged most creative (over my vehement objections) was Dr. Joel Hoffmantashen, seen to the right.

Happy Purim.

Community Partner Award Given To Vassar Temple by Dutchess Outreach

By Marian Schwartz


Anyone who has been around Vassar Temple knows that “Vassar Temple Cares About Hunger.” At their 7th Annual Brunch, held at the elegant Grandview, Dutchess Outreach recognized our congregation for our efforts with their Community Partner Award.

Brunch award accepters

Vassar Temple began providing monthly meals for our hungry neighbors 30 years ago, in a project spearheaded by Emily Himelstein, the first meals being prepared in Emily’s home and served at the Temple. The project was rapidly moved to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and eventually to the “new” Family Partnership Center, where it still continues today under the aegis of Dutchess Outreach’s LunchBox. Our collection of nonperishable foods for food pantries including the pantry at Dutchess Outreach was transformed into the CanJam project by Nancy Samson, and now includes not only an ongoing food collection, but special seasonal food drives such as Trim-a-Thanksgiving, Turkey Trot, Souper Sale, Purim Pasta, Cereal Counts and Protein Plenty. Our Youth Group sponsors the yearly Yom Kippur Food Drive and all our rabbis over the years have led congregants in participating in the DCIC CROPWalk against Hunger. A dozen members of the congregation who are active in Temple social action efforts attended the brunch, and former LunchBox chairpersons Emily Himelstein and Jenny Krevolin accepted the award in behalf of the congregation. However, the award really honors each and every member of the congregation, without whom none of our projects could succeed.

vt award plaque  2013