Letter to the Community, by Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

LeahTallisArkIn the Jewish  tradition, we welcome people into our community in two different ways. We usually say “Shalom,” which means “peace.” We can also say “Bruchim Ha-baim!” which means, “Blessed is the one one who has come to us!” This second greeting reflects my feelings as I join the Vassar Temple community as rabbi. I am truly blessed to be a part of the 167-year history of Poughkeepsie’s Reform Jewish community. I am grateful to the leadership of Vassar Temple for engaging me as their next rabbi, and for Rabbis Emerita Steve Arnold and Paul Golomb for providing me with so much support during this transition. I know that I will continue to rely on their wisdom and guidance as we move forward into our next chapter.

There is a legend that our ancestor Abraham lived in a tent that was open on all four sides. Why would someone want to live in a home with so many openings? It doesn’t seem very practical, what with the heat, the dust storms, and the wild animals that must have been roaming about! Our tradition tells us that Abraham’s goal in living this way was that no person in need of food or spiritual sustenance should ever have to walk around in circles looking for the entrance.

Abraham’s radical hospitality doesn’t end there. Not content to sit patiently in his tent, Abraham ran out to greet travelers on their way. He met people where they were and learned their needs. There is one legend that he actually built multiple houses along the road, so that people wouldn’t have to come to his tent to get what they needed!

I share this story with you because it crystallizes what I hope to do as the next rabbi of Vassar Temple. My goal is for the Jewish community to be a tent that is open on all sides, ready to welcome both our long-term members and the strangers in our midst. I aim to create multiple points of entry into the synagogue and into Jewish life: through meaningful worship, inspiring learning, and the passionate pursuit of justice. 

I also strive to remove any barriers to entry that people may see in their path. Vassar Temple is, and will continue to be, a place where people and families of all shapes, sizes, and orientations are welcome. We open our tent to those who are part of interfaith families, those who grew up Jewish, and for those who seek to be part of the Jewish people but don’t know where to begin. 

Moreover, like Abraham pitching tents along the highway, I believe that the synagogue community can be a resource to those who have not even found their way to our tent. I know that Vassar Temple will continue to be a presence in the city of Poughkeepsie, both through our commitment to social action and by bringing our sacred traditions out of our “tent” and into the greater community.

I hope that in the weeks, months, and years to come, we will have many opportunities to say to one another: Bruchim HaBaim, “Blessed is the one who has come in to our tent!”

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the spiritual leader of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY. She blogs at thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com. Please visit our website at vassartemple.org.