Rabbi Philip Berkowitz – Reflections on 50 years in the Rabbinate

First and foremost, my emphasis in the rabbinate was pastoral. I was blessed to serve two congregations. One in Pontiac, Michigan and the second in the Township of Washington in New Jersey. Early in my tenure in Pontiac (in the 1960’s), I was asked to serve on the Police Trial Board. I was reassured that the need to meet was rare. The first summer we had meetings every evening. Two cases regarding police brutality. The first we found the accused innocent. The second case the officers were found guilty. All of this during civil unrest. On Kol Nidre Eve, Pontiac was under a city wide curfew.  We managed to hold services with the understanding the police not subject us to the curfew. As serviced ended, I asked everyone to go directly home. In event some wished to ride around town, I would not visit them in jail. Such was the tribulations of a young rabbi.

In 1975, we moved to New Jersey where I served Temple Beth Or in the Township of Washington. During my rabbinate there I became involved in helping the homeless. I  also had to deal with a NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue. Temple Beth Or responded to my call. The battle was with local towns to permit congregations to house the homeless. Those battles were also won. In the years that followed, I was elected president of the Inter-religious Fellowship for The Homeless. It was a first for a Jew in Bergen County.

One extraordinary event in New Jersey stands out in my mind. We planned a community program, which had such a large turn out we had to move to a larger location.  We invited Elie Wiesel z’l to address the community. I was honored to introduce him that evening. Prior to the program we sat in a second floor office. We decided to step outside the office a see what was going on. The auditorium was filled. There were hundreds of teenagers there. Many of the came over to greet me. They did not recognize our guest who was nearby.  Elie observed all of this and was impressed with the turnout of young people. He was outstanding that evening. He changed his topic, and spoke to the teenagers. He was at his very best and everyone was moved and inspired.

Looking back on these chapters, they are mild in comparison to events of 2016. I thought I accomplished a great deal, but there is more that must be done. During the span of my rabbinate I prayed from the The Union Prayer Book, Gates Of Prayer, and Mishkan T’filah. So much has changed. Would I conduct worship services today as in 1966? NO! Today I would use more Hebrew and encourage more music. I would recommend the use of live streaming. There is a need that cannot be ignored in order to meet the needs of an aging population.

In 2001 we found a retirement home on the beach in Kennebunk, Maine. We moved there in 2003, the day I retired. In 2004, I became a conductor and volunteer operator at The Seashore Trolley Museum. Shortly thereafter, a president of NAORRR called me and asked if I was alright. Did I have to work to survive financially?  The answer was all was well. I had learned to operate old street cars from all over the world.  I went on to become Assistant Superintendent of Railway operations, a Board trustee, and its vice chairman. Never did envision that kind of retirement.  I have now retired from the Railway, and enjoy life at the beach. From our porch we have seen our 41st president skydive twice, as well as his boat stranded on the sand in front of our home. Such is the joy of retirement that Nancy and I share in beautiful Maine. It is here that our children and our grandchildren join us to enjoy the pleasure of retirement and share the way life is in vacation land.

Rabbi Philip Berkowitz is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Or, Township of Washington, New Jersey.

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