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

Proud of Jasmaine, Jordan, Vassar Temple, and Dutchess County Jewish Federation for pulling this off!

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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. . They had an intriguing idea about, giving underprivileged children a birthday celebration in a bag. It would include cake mix, frosting, candles, book, and an age appropriate toy.
Many of us celebrate our children’s birthdays without a second thought. I always plan our vacations around our girls’ birthdays, to make them especially memorable. I grew up in a single parent household, and birthday celebrations were not always a possibility. Times were tough. I remember my 7th birthday when my mom walked to a…

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Survival Requires both Sustenance and Sweetness

(Cross-posted to The Vassar Temple Blog)

Rather than create my own haggadah for our 2nd night seder, my family builds upon a basic template like The Promise Haggadah or, this year, The Kitchen Passover Game. We add readings, songs, and reflections (one of mine appears on the Jewish Women’s Archive Blog, “Jewesses with Attitude”), as well as a break for discussion just before dinner. This year’s discussion topic appears below:

The earliest version of the Passover seder appears in the Mishnah, a rabbinic text from 2nd century Israel. While most of the rules deal with commemorating the Passover sacrifice, the final chapter lays out the rites and rituals of the seder itself. The very first instruction is this:

“On the eve of Passover from the time of the afternoon offering, no one must eat until nightfall. Even the poorest Israelite should not eat on the night of Passover until he reclines at his table. And they should provide him with no fewer than four cups of wine, even if the funds come from public charity” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).

The rabbis took their responsibility to care for the poor very seriously. Though the members of the Jewish communities of that era were by no means part of the one-percent, they pooled resources and provided handouts to the poor on a daily basis, assessing each person’s need and responding accordingly: whether that was bread and water, wine and meat, a horse and driver, or even a house and a wife! (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67a-68a).

Today, we find ourselves in a society in which we debate whether the poor are entitled to assistance even to meet their most basic needs. Lawmakers and commentators argue about whether the poor deserve “luxuries” such as fresh produce, quality education, or even disposable diapers.

Here, the rabbis make a powerful statement about how we care for the poor. In the Mishnah, including the poor in the celebration does not stop with providing ha lachma anya, the bread of affliction. We must also provide the most decadent aspects of the seder experience:

Though the Torah commanded to eat the original Pesach offering with “your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…hurriedly” (Ex. 12:11), the rabbis demand that even the poorest among us have the freedom to stop working for several hours and recline. How many of today’s working poor would have that same freedom? How many on public assistance could afford to buy a bottle of wine, and not face any judgment for doing so? Though the Torah mentions nothing at all about four cups of wine, the rabbis insist that we provide even our poorest neighbors with this luxury.

Which means, of course, that the rabbis did not define these provisions as luxuries, but rather as necessities. The celebration of a festival such as Passover was not an “extra,” but an integral part of every Jewish life. Survival, then, is not about meeting one’s most basic needs. Survival requires joy and celebration. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

At the end of our seders we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and throughout the seder we remember God’s promise to “bring [us] into a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). This reminds us that true redemption requires both sustenance and sweetness.


As we gather around our seder table we ask ourselves: What is it that a person needs in order to survive in our society today? What is it that a person needs in order to thrive? And how can we be a part of providing both sustenance and sweetness to everyone in our community?

Questions to ask at your Passover Seder:

  1. What is something you need in order to survive?
  2. What is something you need in order to thrive? What brings you joy?
  3. How might we help those in need to have access to what brings them joy?

Chag sameach and a Zisen Pesach (Sweet Passover) to all!

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Vassar Temple’s Torah Visits First Congregational United Church of Christ

Our Torah had a lovely visit to First Congregational Church of Christ!

Vassar Temple Blog

On Wed. evening, 2/25/16, Rabbi Berkowitz and Vassar Temple took our Torah on a road trip for our “Torah-to-Go” program to the First Congregational United Church of Christ (on Mill St). We teamed up with their congregation at their FCUCC’s Lenten Soup Supper in order to provide their congregation a special chance to see a Torah scroll up close and personal. Their congregation made us feel right at home by making and serving matzoh ball soup and challah! How thoughtful, and yummy!
Andi & Paul Ciminello of Vassar Temple said, “We were so very proud to assist Rabbi Berkowitz with the Torah-to-Go program. Leah gave a basic introduction for Reverend Heather and her enthusiastic parishioners, most of whom had never even seen a Torah. The presentation was excellent and the group got to see first-hand a Torah scroll, as Rabbi Berkowitz took us on a journey through the five books.

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Check out my guest spot on You Leading You

This was my first “audio” interview. I was so fortunate to work with Sean Ackerman from You Leading You, a great podcast on leadership and self-actualization. Sean was an encouraging interviewer and asked thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.

Here is the link to my conversation with Sean Ackerman: You Leading You Episode 130: Leadership and Faith in Life with Rabbi Leah Berkowitz.

If this podcast appeals to you, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher

With many thanks to Vassar Temple President, Bob Ritter, for introducing me to Sean and You Leading You!YouLeadingYou

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Fighting for Reproductive Healthcare in New York State

Check out my opinion piece in today’s Poughkeepsie Journal!

Recently, I was blessed to be present at the stateCapitol in Albany where an overwhelming majority of the Assembly passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act (CCCA). The CCCA would expand access to affordable contraception for men and women and provide coverage for emergency contraceptives purchased at community pharmacies.

As a member of Concerned Clergy for Choice, I joined clergy from a variety of denominations — Methodist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist and more — to make sure everyone knows that providing people with access to comprehensive reproductive health care and sex education affirms the sanctity of human life more than opposing it ever will.

Many religious groups have called for making reproductive care available and affordable. For centuries, Jewish legal authorities have acknowledged how essential reproductive choice is to the health and well-being of women and families. Across all branches of Judaism and in many situations, rabbis have made a place for birth control in family life and deeply appreciate this religious liberty. I am proud to say that my denominational organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, recognized the wisdom in making birth control available in 1929. In 1947, we called for all of us to support the work of Planned Parenthood, and have strongly reaffirmed these decisions ever since.

There is much press coverage devoted to religious leaders who oppose contraception, abortion and comprehensive sex education. I want our communities and decision makers to know that Judaism, like many other faiths, teaches that the work of family planning centers and sex health educators is lifesaving work. Every day, peer and adult sexual health educators go out into our community to teach about consent, contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Sex education empowers our young people — and, I learned, our senior citizens — to make healthy, informed decisions about their bodies, and to protect themselves and others from unintended pregnancies and STIs.

Moreover, six out of 10 women in New York state rely on family planning centers for their primary source of care, not only for contraceptive and abortion services, but also for screenings for sexually-transmitted infections, as well as for breast and cervical cancer. Blocking access to such services not only increases health risks for both men and women, particularly in low-income families, it also costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars in health care expenses.

New York state has made incredible progress empowering men and women to make informed decisions about their bodies and when and how to build their families. But there is still much work to be done. The CCCA still needs to pass our state Senate, along with several other initiatives that will promote health for women and families.

New York state banned the shackling of pregnant inmates in 2015. This year, our policy makers have an opportunity to prohibit solitary confinement for pregnant women.Solitary confinement is a drastic measure that severely limits a pregnant woman’s movement, and restricts her access to necessary physical and mental health care.

Our policymakers also need to protect the health and economic stability of families in New York state by passing the Paid Family Leave Insurance Act. This bill will enable employees to take time away from work to care for a newborn or a seriously ill family member, while still being paid a portion of their salary for up to three months. This program will be supported by employee payroll contributions, at no cost to employers.

Finally, we need to increase the Family Planning Grant, an investment in family planning services that ultimately saves New York state hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs caused by unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections.

Our women, our men and our families deserve these investments in their health and well-being. I call upon our state senators and assemblymen and women to affirm the sanctity of human life, and take these next crucial steps in providing comprehensive reproductive health care and education for everyone in New York state.


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Remembering Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz

One of my favorite memories of my time at HUC-JIR was watching Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz make his lunch on Thursdays. As everyone chowed down on bagels and shmear, Dr. Borowitz meticulously prepared a bowl of grapenuts, bringing his own bowl and spoon, cereal box, a quart of milk, and jar of cinnamon. If anyone stared as he did this, he would say gruffly, “It’s heart healthy.”

I heard this afternoon that Dr. Borowitz, my teacher, has passed away. I began to post my hesped  (remembrance) on Facebook, as my friends and colleagues were doing, but found I had too much to say about this literal and figurative giant of the Reform movement.

He was firm in his ideas about worship and language, among other things. Once, after a cantorial student gave a beautiful “sermon-in-song” in lieu of a spoken sermon, Rabbi Borowitz got up and said, in his deep voice, “I think there ought to be a sermon,” and proceeded to give one extemporaneously.

When Rabbi Josh Strom and I led Birkat Hamazon at Thursday lunch, using the familiar, campy, chaverai n’varech “friends let us bless,” instead of the more formal, rabotai n’varech, “gentlemen/rabbis, let us bless,” he cornered us and asked, sincerely, “Am I your chaver?” (Rabbi Peter Rigler shared that he had a similar experience).

While Dr. Borowitz was certainly principled, he was also open-minded. He didn’t sign ordination certificates, except by special request, for ideological reasons surrounding LGBT ordination, but he let us challenge him, and we were all privileged to watch him evolve on this matter. After years of students pointing out that LGBT individuals were also building Jewish families, he changed his mind.

He was convinced that the Jewish people were not producing enough children to replace those lost in the Holocaust, a drum he pounded publicly often enough that I’m pretty sure that’s why I have a little brother (my mother heard this claim at a Hadassah luncheon, but we can’t confirm that he was the source that inspired her to have a third).

I had the pleasure of studying one-on-one with Dr. Borowitz, quite by accident, when I was the only person to show up for the first day of his Mishneh Torah class. It was a privilege to have him as my chevruta (though not, as he pointed out, my chaver) as I learned Hilchot Teshvua, which is probably the most used volume in my rabbinic library other than the TaNaKh.

He wrote extensive notes in the margins of our essays in flowing, purple script, which to me felt incongruous with his gruff exterior, and always made me feel like there was another side to him.

Dr. Borowitz was possibly the most intimidating intellectual figure I’ve ever studied with, large in stature with a booming voice, but I occasionally caught him letting his guard down: making faces at a student’s baby, or laughing as he watched us try on costumes to imitate our professors at the Purimshpiel.

He was filled with gentle wisdom that I still carry with me. When visiting his class as a prospective student, there was a loud commotion in the hallway, someone screaming. It was something the rest of the class was used to, someone with a chronic condition, but still, we all wanted to jump up and offer help, even though our help would have been useless and possibly harmful. Dr. Borowitz reminded us, in a quote I’ve applied to many things, “It’s not your tikkun (I.e. not yours to fix).”

I spent senior week in college reading Renewing the Covenant (exciting times at Brandeis!), and was inspired by his model of leadership found here. He argued that being a rabbi was just as much about making space for others as it was about what you had to bring to the table. Though I cannot find the article I wrote responding to his theory, I can tell you here that it shaped the way I think about education and leadership.

I’ve had the privilege of watching Dr. Borowitz granddaughter, rabbinical student Emily Langowitz, preach at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. While she is certainly an incredible almost-rabbi in her own right, she also carries on something of his stature, his brilliance, and his eloquence. I always went home after her sermons inspired (and, to be honest, intimidated).

Every year, as the fifth-year students scrambled for jobs in an increasingly dismal market, Dr. Borowitz would post a photograph of himself taken around the time of his ordination, “Last student in rabbinical class to be placed. Placed after ordination.” As if to say, “Everything is going to be alright. I turned out fine, didn’t I?

Yes, you did. Dr. Borowitz. And, thanks to you, so did we.

I can’t attend his funeral. I’m officiating at one myself, for an unaffiliated family seeking comfort in tradition. I think he’d have wanted it that way.

Zecher tzaddik livracha. May the memory of this righteous man be a blessing.



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Publicizing the Miracle #pirsumhanes

Check out my Chanukah video:

Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Chanukah!

You might also want to check out the Vassar Temple YouTube Channel, where my amazing Ritual Committee put together eight videos for the eight nights of Chanukah!

The hashtag I’ve been using this Chanukah is #pirsumhanes, or “publicizing the miracle.” This is one of the major mitzvot of Chanukah, the commandment to let the whole world know the miracles we’ve experienced by placing our chanukiyah in the window. I still don’t have a safe window set-up yet, nor do I get much time in my house to light, so I’ve been publicizing the miracle on Instagram. 

Each night, as I post a picture of my chanukiyah, I think of something miraculous about that day, whether it’s something silly like finding a lost glove, or something profound like a kind word from a professor, getting a few minutes to myself to write, or the couple I met who believes that their love is a miracle.

It’s been a really wonderful exercise for me, as I pretty much want to spend this time of year curled up under a blanket drinking tea (also a miracle, when I get to do that!). Not to mention that synagogues get busy, and rabbis get tired, as Chanukah approaches. Everyone is running on empty; we’re not sure if our oil will last the winter.

Publicizing the miracle reminded me that there are miracles, small and large, happening all the time, if I could just pull my head out from under the blanket (or behind the computer) to see them!

This past Sunday at Religious School, the seventh graders were talking about prayer, and they read a list of prayer-related quotes, including one of my favorite quotes by Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” I wasn’t sure if any of the kids would choose it from the list, or even read it in the first place. But (by some miracle!) one student did, and he talked about how it made him think about how we should take notice of the world around us.

I’ve been taking that to heart this week. And guess what? There’s some pretty amazing stuff happening.

Here is my annual tzedaka menorah, eight causes for eight nights, to bring a little more light into the world.

  1. North Carolina Art Therapy Institute: This is in honor of my North Carolina friends, to my creative friends, and to my friends in helping professions. I always give to this organization around this time of year, to support my amazing friend Hillary Rubesin and the work she does with refugees. This year, her work is all the more important, as it is all the more difficult to be an immigrant in the United States right now.
  2. Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: My sister-in-law, Christine, asked that her gift go to help refugees this year, and HIAS has become my go-to for such contributions. They have a special resource page for Chanukah too! This is for my family, since we were once immigrants, too.
  3. Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism: The lobbying arm of the Reform movement, this donation is to help initiatives that will stop the epidemic of gun violence in our country. They also have a special Chanukah Social Justice Gift Guide.
  4. Israel Religious Action Center: The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. This organization fights for religious freedom, civil rights and pluralism in the State of Israel. You can also join this fight by joining the #myrighttolight campaign and telling Prime Minister Netanyahu to include women in the public lighting at the Western Wall.
  5. Planned Parenthood: Women’s reproductive rights and health are under attack, and if the government won’t fund universal access to life-saving health-care, I’ll do it myself! This gift is in honor of all of the strong women and dedicated health care professionals in my life.
  6. URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy: In honor of Brett Lubarsky, my favorite Commissioner of Superhero Education, and the camping system that made each of us who we are today, and allowed us to (almost) meet 12 years ago!
  7. Jewish Women International: This is one of my favorite places to give, as they provide books to libraries in domestic violence shelters, supporting literacy, financial independence, and healthy relationships. Not easy to find all that in one non-profit! This is in honor of my grandmother, Anne.
  8. Vassar Temple: I’m in a new home this year, and a new community, and the people at Vassar Temple have welcomed me with open arms, open minds, and a great deal of support. This gift supports our Hineini Fund, for our youth programs, and our Social Action Fund.

Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Festival of Lights! May you have many miracles to publicize!


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