Rabbi Leon Morris, his wife is Dasee Berkowitz and children Yael, Shalva and Tamir. Photography by Rob Chron.
By Karl Grossman
In January, Rabbi Leon Morris wrote to his congregants at Temple Adas Israel, informing them of his decision to move, with his family, to Israel. And next week, the rabbi and his wife, Dasee Berkowitz, who has been integral to the education program at the Sag Harbor synagogue, and their children, Tamir, Yael and Shalva, will depart for Jerusalem.
There, 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 joining an organization that describes itself as “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 as the first full-time rabbi in its 118-year history.
“Rabbi Morris has become the pied piper of Sag Harbor,” said 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.”
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.
Members of the temple say Rabbi Morris has been transformative figure in their lives.
“Before meeting Leon, my spirituality and religious observance was sitting on a shelf gathering dust and aging none too gracefully, said psychiatrist Brad Tepper of Noyac. “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.”
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 accompanied him on a recent trip to Israel, and “it was there, in Israel, I saw, I felt, I knew—Leon is an Israeli.”
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, 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.”
“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…. 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.” 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.
On a return visit to Mumbai in 2003, he met Dasee Berkowitz, who was doing educational work there. A Barnard graduate with a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew University, Ms. Berkowitz’s 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.
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 making the temple 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 said. “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.”
Margaret Bromberg, 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, said that when she retired as a social worker a few years ago, “one of my goals was to be available for more observance of various Jewish holidays.”
She added, though, “I was uncertain that a full-time rabbinical presence was going to be good for me, for our community. After all, for as long as anyone could remember, Temple Adas Israel had never had a full-time rabbi. This meant that we were somehow free from the authority which a rabbi might bring to various individuals’ daily, weekly, monthly, or perhaps, even annual observance of Jewish law and customs…Rabbi Morris has, in a quiet, gentle, unassuming way, made it possible for me to approximate my initial goal.”
Sag Harbor real estate broker David Weseley, who was “lucky to be on” the trip to Israel with Rabbi Morris speaks of how “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.”
David Lee of East Hampton, long a businessman in Sag Harbor, 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.”
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.”