Karl Grossman

Making Aliyah — My Wonderful Rabbi and Family

My wonderful rabbi, Leon Morris, his wife Dasee Berkowitz and their children, Tamir, Yael and Shalva, will be making aliyah next week.

“As you know, Dasee and I have always aspired to make aliyah to Israel, and to be a part of what we see as the most important project of the Jewish people in our time,” he wrote in January to members of Temple Adas Israel.

And on June 25, Rabbi Morris and Dasee, who has been integral to the education program at the synagogue, and their children, will be bound to Israel on an EL AL jet.

They’ll live in Jerusalem where Rabbi Morris will be a vice president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. From Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, the oldest Jewish congregation on Long Island (outside of New York City), he’ll be going to the institute which emphasizes how it is “a center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.”

For 15 years, Rabbi Morris has been rabbi at Temple Adas Israel, for the past four the first full-time rabbi in its 118-year history.

Rabbi Morris has been absolutely fabulous. It is no exaggeration to say that he is deeply beloved by each and every member of the congregation. He is exceptionally learned and articulate, warm, caring and charismatic, and extraordinarily humble.

“Rabbi Morris has become the pied piper of Sag Harbor,” states Temple Adas Israel President Neal Fagin, an engineer from Sag Harbor. Rabbi Morris has “taken our temple” from a limited mostly vacation season synagogue “to one where there are activities every day all-year round. We leave our shabbat services with a smile. When Leon conducts his last service, there will be smiles but not a dry eye. Who will follow him to Israel?”

Temple Adas Israel’s loss is a huge gain for the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

“We’ve always known that the realization of Leon and Dasee’s Zionist and spiritual aspirations was to join the ‘ascenders’ and be part of the great fulfilment of aliyah to Israel,” says Temple Adas Israel member Jill Collier Indyk. “In these wonderful years they have shared with us on their journey, they have both transformed and inspired us and will leave behind a dynamic and remarkable legacy in what Leon calls ‘this magical place’ where we are fortunate to live. That they will do so under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute speaks to the recognition and respect for Rabbi Morris’s voice—in our congregation, in the broader Sag Harbor community, in [the  newspaper] Haaretz, or in the composition of the new Reform prayer book [Rabbi Morris is one of four editors of Mishkan HaNeth, what next year will be the new High Holy Day prayer book of the Reform movement]—addressing the complexities of our worlds and challenging and expanding our understandings. We will hear much of them in the future, I have no doubt. Watching this remarkable young family prepare themselves for this departure fills me with joy.”  Indyk of East Hampton is executive director of the Charles Bronfman Prize, awarded annually to a Jewish humanitarian, and was the wife of a U.S. ambassador to Israel.

It’s “a very idyllic life we’ve had in Sag Harbor,” relates Rabbi Morris about a village noted for being charming, picturesque, a magnet for writers, artists and other creative people. This includes Jews such as author E.L. Doctorow (whose late brother, Donald, was a member of the board of Temple Adas Israel) and the late Betty Friedan, who is buried in the temple’s cemetery.

Still, as Rabbi Morris wrote in a recent Temple Adas Israel newsletter: “Israel stands at the center of our Jewish lives. Not only does Israel represent a singular opportunity in modern Jewish history; it represents a renewal and rebirth for the Jewish people. It is now the world’s largest Jewish community. And it will, in several decades, be the home of the majority of the Jewish people. Israel is central to our Jewish lives because Israel is a springboard for the most important Jewish conversations there are to be had.”

“Israel,” Rabbi Morris wrote, “is the one place where we can make something concrete from Jewish ideas and values that were largely theoretical for 2000 years. There is nothing theoretical about a state, and about a society. Israel gives us the opportunity to build something out of those ideas and values. Israel gives us the opportunity to try to live out ideals in real ways. Israel also gives us the opportunity to fail, and to try again. It is a living laboratory of Jewish life.”

Rabbi Morris is originally from Connellsville, Pennsylvania, a small town 57 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Two sets of great-grandparents started stores there. In high school, the only Jew in his class, he was “very open about being Jewish.” And although his family wasn’t observant, he sought to be. As a youngster, “I asked my mother to light candles on Friday evening” and he built a sukkah in the backyard. He was driven to services at the nearest synagogue, 30 miles away.

At the University of Pittsburgh, he majored in religious studies, spent a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and backpacked in 1989 through eastern Europe visiting “endangered Jewish communities.”

And between college and rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he worked with the Jewish community of Mumbai, India as a Jewish Service Corps volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

He kept returning to Mumbai and on a visit in 2003 met Dasee Berkowitz, who was doing educational work there. A Barnard College graduate, she has a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew University. Her mother is from the Baghdadi Jewish community that came to Calcutta in the 18th and 19th centuries. A Massachusetts native, she had been living in Israel for a decade. They married in 2005.

After being ordained a rabbi at Hebrew Union, Rabbi Morris for three years was director of New York Kollel: A Center for Adult Jewish Study, and then he founded and for 10 years was executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

He succeeded Rabbi Paul Steinberg as rabbi of Temple Adas Israel. Rabbi Steinberg, in a long succession of part-time rabbis at the synagogue, was otherwise vice president of Hebrew Union. In his last of 20 years at Temple Adas Israel, Rabbi Steinberg would have Rabbi Morris substitute for him at times. Rabbi Steinberg told me, when he retired and Rabbi Morris replaced him at Temple Adas Israel, that Rabbi Morris had been his “best student” at Hebrew Union.

In 2010, Temple Adas Israel made a commitment to having a full-time rabbi and Rabbi Morris, Dasee and their first child, Tamir, moved to Sag Harbor from Manhattan. Rabbi Morris and Dasee immersed themselves in the temple becoming a bustling, busy full-time synagogue.

Indeed, the rabbi gives enormous credit to his wife for much of its growth. “Dasee has been much more than the rabbi’s wife,” he comments. “The biggest, most important change” at Temple Adas Israel has been the drawing in of “families with small children as part of the congregation” and initiatives such as a pre-school program and a mothers’ network. “That’s all Dasee,” he said. The “young families are the ones that are going to drive the character of the synagogue.”

Rabbi Morris’s position at the Shalom Hartman Institute will be Shalom Hartman Institute-North America Vice President for Programs in Israel. He notes that he along with the American rabbinate has been very much influenced by the late Rabbi David Hartman. Rabbi Morris attended lectures over the past 20 years and went to seminars led by Rabbi Hartman who himself made aliyah with his wife, Bobbi, and their five children in 1971, leaving his pulpit in Montreal, Canada.

The members of Temple Adas Israel speak in superlatives about Rabbi Morris.

Temple member Morris Kramer of East Hampton, on the board of overseers of Hebrew Union, notes that he has known Rabbi Morris since he was a student there. “He brought to the congregants of Temple Adas Israel—indeed to the whole Sag Harbor community—a tremendous feeling of caring, of loving and of always being there for congregants, neighbors and friends, in a significant and meaningful way,” says Kramer, an attorney. “His knowledge and love of Torah and Jewish tradition, his love of Jewish music and singing, and his warmth and spirituality has made Temple Adas Israel the center of attraction of the Jewish community, young and old, weekenders and year-rounders, parents and children alike.  We all love Leon and his wife, Dasee, who has played such an important and meaningful role in TAI, and we will miss them and their wonderful children. To paraphrase a saying of an old Jewish sage, we not only acquired an outstanding rabbi, we acquired an extraordinary friend.”

Dr. Perry Silver speaks of how “since our first meeting, I have never seen Rabbi Leon Morris without an open heart and a broad welcoming smile on his face. I once confided to Leon that I doubted the existence of God. Leon then said to me: ‘Here’s a million dollars, now make me an apple!’ I capitulated. Leon has done so much to educate our congregation about what it means to be a Jew and has cobbled together many divergent socio-economic groups into our congregation. Leon is a magnetic beacon of light, understanding, and brotherhood in our community and his legacy of wisdom and devotion will live on long after his departure for Israel,” said the Sag Harbor dentist.

Artist Jacqueline Berg of Southampton said: “Some people carry on in their everyday life not knowing how much they are contributing to society just by being themselves and communicating to all of us in the utmost ethical and caring way. Rabbi Leon Morris is one of them. He is a blessing to all of us.”

Sag Harbor real estate broker David Weseley, who is also on the temple’s board, notes: “Leon recently led a temple trip to Israel that I was lucky to be on, and through his leadership we met with many agents of change in Israel, learned a ton about the country and its people, had many moments of spiritual discovery and sharing, opened up in surprising ways to each other, and came home as a vibrant and energized group. Not coincidentally, what was accomplished on this trip reflects so many of Leon’s outstanding skills and qualities:  he is an educator, scholar, spiritual leader and consummate community builder. Leon is that remarkable combination of brilliant and charismatic and warm and above all considerate.”

“Rabbi Leon Morris has been a game-changer in my life,” says psychiatrist Brad Tepper of Garden City. “Before meeting Leon my spirituality and religious observance was sitting on a shelf gathering dust and aging none too gracefully. Through Leon’s ever-present compassion, empathy and love, I felt brave enough to dust off a part of my soul and with his nurturance, allowed it to grow. I joined Temple Adas Israel because of Leon, not a small feat as I live 90 miles away. Through Leon I have met so many wonderful, loving and caring individuals. In Temple Adas Israel under Leon’s guidance, I have found a real spiritual Jewish home. My experience with Leon reached its apex and pinnacle on our recent pilgrimage to Israel. Leon brought our homeland alive in all its sensuality. Leon is a consummate educator, confidant, rabbi and friend. Leon brought us to the Galilee, to the Golan Heights, to the kibbutzim of the valleys of the north, to Haifa, to Tel Aviv, to Masada and Dead Sea and, of course, to Jerusalem. Leon took the time to explore so many aspects of critical issues facing Israeli society today. He did so in an apolitical and educational manner. Through Leon we all learned so much. I could see Israel as well through Leon’s eyes and now I understand so well why he must make aliyah. Leon and Israel are made for each other. I am not the only one who will miss Leon greatly. He has touched me and so many of us deeply. May he and his family be blessed on his journey.”

“My life has been transformed by Leon’s presence at Temple Adas Israel,” said Julie Tatkon Kent of Sag Harbor, a social worker and former New York Police Department officer. “Although I was born a Jew, I was raised a Christian.” Rabbi Morris “reconnected me to my Judaism with his compassion, his kindness and love—and his passion for being a rabbi.  He is a true teacher. He is a gentle soul. Leon Morris is my spiritual hero.” She, too, was on the trip to Israel with Rabbi Morris and “it was there, in Israel, I saw, I felt, I knew—Leon is an Israeli.” He and his family “belong in Israel.” Her “heart is broken” by his departing from the synagogue but “at the same time full” of happiness about the family making aliyah.

Myra Peskowitz of Shelter Island, the membership chair of Temple Adas Israel, tells of how Rabbi Morris “helped me to more fully develop my Jewish self. He taught me Hebrew, He saw me through my bat mitzvah at age 72.” A health professional, she was unable to become bat mitzah in the old-style Jewish circumstances when she was young. Rabbi Morris “helped me to develop confidence in my Jewish practice and to see myself as a more fully evolved Jew. It is difficult to see him go. I told him that I could only let him go because I know that this is the right move for him and his family and because I know that his influence on my Jewish journey has brought me to a place where I can make the rest of the journey without him. I guess he has done what every teacher aims to do —-he has prepared me to be independent and that is the best gift that he could have given me.”

Margaret Bromberg, a social worker who has been involved with Temple Adas Israel since she was 10 years old, growing up in Sag Harbor in the 1950s, and is a former president of the congregation, says “I appreciate the opportunity to live a more fully Jewish life to which his commitment has significantly contributed.”

Businessman David Lee of East Hampton, several times the temple’s president and currently its secretary, tells of arriving in Sag Harbor after service in the British army during World War II and “I looked for a shul. I found Temple Adas Israel on the hill. It was in poor shape both physically and from a membership point of view. We hoped and prayed that we could bring it back to life. After over 60 years I’m happy to report that all is well. Much of our success is due to the fact that we have had Leon and Dasee with us. As the Haggadah says ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’  and my grandma used to say ‘gay mit mazel.’” To Rabbi Morris and Dasee Berkowitz, declared Lee, “our thanks and love.”

Rabbi Morris is being succeeded at Temple Adas Israel by Rabbi Daniel Geffen, who has just been ordained by Hebrew Union College. He is from a family of rabbis—his brother is a rabbi, their grandfather a rabbi, and a great-grandfather also a rabbi—and he, too, is a warm, personable, caring and a learned rabbi. He is coming to Sag Harbor with his wife, Luanne (Lu) who is also a Jewish educator with a combined master’s degree in Jewish education and non-profit management from Hebrew Union.

Rabbi Geffen says that “to be following in the footsteps of Rabbi Morris and Dasee is both a great privilege and a great responsibility.  “Thus, my vision,” he says, “is to do whatever I can to continue the tradition of warmth, openness and acceptance that has been established by Rabbi Morris and our rabbinic predecessors, and to work together with this amazing and unique community to build a more just and righteous society here in Sag Harbor and indeed, throughout this all-too-fractured world.”

Rabbi Geffen also joined the temple’s recent trip to Israel.-


About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.