Rabbi Leon Morris of Sag Harbor’s Temple Adas Israel, his wife, Dasee Berkowitz, and their three children will be leaving next week for Israel, where they will live. Rabbi Morris is being succeeded at Temple Adas Israel by Rabbi Daniel Geffen.
Rabbi Morris wrote in January to the members of the temple: “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.”
On Tuesday, Rabbi Morris, Ms. Berkowitz, who has been integral to the education program at the synagogue, and their children, Tamir, Yael and Shalva, 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, the oldest Jewish congregation on Long Island, he will be going to the institute, which emphasizes being “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, and for the past four the first full-time rabbi in its 118-year history.
Rabbi Morris is my rabbi. He is 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 [sabbath] services with a smile. When Leon conducts his last service, there will be smiles but not a dry eye.”
Temple member Jacqueline Berg, an artist from Southampton, says of Rabbi Morris: “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.”
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,” said the Sag Harbor dentist. “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.”
Members of the temple tell of Rabbi Morris being a transformative figure in their lives.
“Rabbi Leon Morris has been a game-changer in my life,” said Brad Tepper of Noyac, a psychiatrist. “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.” He “joined Temple Adas Israel because of Leon, not a small feat” because his weekday home is in Garden City.
“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,” he said.
Dr. Tepper said his “experience with Leon reached its apex and pinnacle” on a trip 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,” she said. “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,” she said. Her “heart is broken” by his departing from the synagogue but “at the same time full” of happiness about the family making aliyah, the Hebrew word for “going up” used for Jews going to Israel to live.
It’s “a very idyllic life we’ve had in Sag Harbor,” related Rabbi Morris in an interview about a village noted for being charming, picturesque and a magnet for writers, artists and other creative people.
Still, as he 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 2,000 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, then he 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. She is a Barnard graduate with a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew University, and her mother is from the Baghdadi Jewish community that came to Calcutta in the 18th and 19th centuries. A Massachusetts native, Ms. Berkowitz 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, which became 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 preschool 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.”
“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 fulfillment of aliyah to Israel,” says Temple Adas Israel member Jill Collier Indyk of East Hampton. “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.”
She continued: “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 Israeli 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 Jewish 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.” She 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.
Rabbi Morris’s position at the Shalom Hartman Institute will keep him well connected to Jewry in America. Indeed, his title will be Shalom Hartman Institute-North America Vice President for Programs in Israel.
Rabbi Morris notes that he along with the American rabbinate has been very much influenced by Rabbi David Hartman, who died last year. He was “the teacher of several generations of American rabbis.” Rabbi Morris attended lectures over the past 20 years and went to seminars led by Rabbi Hartman. Rabbi Morris was a member of the Hartman Institute’s North American Scholars Circle. Rabbi Hartman, originally from Brownsville, Brooklyn, himself made aliyah with his wife and their five children in 1971.
The Shalom Hartman Institute began in 1976 and expanded with “astonishing speed” and “Rabbi Hartman’s original students became distinguished scholars in leading universities, introducing the institution’s approach into Israeli society and establishing strong ties between the institute and prominent thinkers abroad,” it says on its website. “A leader in sophisticated, ideas-based Jewish education for community leaders and change agents, SHI is committed to the significance of Jewish ideas, the power of applied scholarship, and the conviction that great teaching constitutes to the growth and continual revitalization of the Jewish people.”
Morris Kramer of East Hampton, a temple member, an attorney and also 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. 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.”
Sag Harbor real estate broker David Weseley, who is also on the temple board, says Rabbi Morris “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.”
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 mitzvah 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,” she said.
Businessman David Lee of East Hampton, several times the temple’s president and currently its secretary, tells of arriving in Sag Harbor after World War II service in the British army and looking for a synagogue. “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 [the prayer book for Passover] says, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’” To Rabbi Morris and Dasee Berkowitz, declared Mr. Lee, “our thanks and love.”
Rabbi Geffen, who is succeeding Rabbi Morris, 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 nonprofit 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.”