Rabbi Susie Heneson Moskowitz will be installed Dec. 4 as president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis, the first woman to hold that position. The group serves about 160 rabbis on the Island from all streams of Judaism.
Rabbi Moskowitz, 47, has been the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Torah in Melville for the past six years after having served for 10 years as the Reform congregation’s rabbi-educator. She grew up in Baltimore and in 1991 was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. A certified family educator, Rabbi Moskowitz and her husband, Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, spiritual leader of The Jewish Congregation of Brookville, have two teenage children. The Jewish Week caught up with her last week.
Q: The Long Island Board of Rabbis has been around for decades. Why did it take so long for a woman to be elected president?
A.: I don’t know if it is because women weren’t involved at a leadership level or if it was because this is a cross-denominational organization and it took longer for that level of acceptance. As far as I know, my becoming president was non-controversial.
Will you be bringing anything special to the position because you are a woman?
Not because I’m a woman but because I have been a traditional pulpit rabbi, a family educator and a director of a religious school I have an awareness of the needs of non-pulpit rabbis, such as chaplains, educators and Hillel rabbis.
What is the greatest challenge you will be facing as president?
I’m very concerned with the changing demographics on Long Island [Conservative and Reform Jews moving from much of the South Shore], and I want to help rabbis adapt to the changing realities here. In Dix Hills it is just beginning to hit us here, but you see it more in Franklin Square and West Hempstead. Nassau is graying more rapidly than Suffolk and this trend is spreading all over. We no longer have a growing Jewish community. We work closely with UJA-Federation of New York and its synergy division that strengthens synagogues on Long Island.
How do you plan to meet that challenge?
We have to be more creative and change our models of synagogue life — create new models that reflect the economic realities and the changing demographics.
I know of at least one rabbi, Art Vernon in West Hempstead, who is reaching out to empty nesters who left the synagogue after their children were bar and bat mitzvah.
He’s on my board and has had some success in reaching out to get people to rejoin after 20 years — they are rediscovering their need for the synagogue community. We are not marketing the synagogue well enough to send the message that there is more to synagogue life than just having your children bar and bat mitzvah there.
Are there plans to do outreach to rabbis on the Island who are not members of LIBOR?
We’re hoping to reach out to those who have not been formally involved and offer programming that would meet their needs. We’re also asking them what they would like from the organization. In addition, we hope to do outreach to more Orthodox rabbis.
What do you see as the purpose of the group?
To provide support for rabbis on Long Island in terms of education and social support, and to be the voice of Long Island Judaism. We also hope to bring Island-wide adult education programming to different locations, maybe partnering with the JCCs or various synagogues.
One of the programs we hope to have in the spring is to have someone from the American Jewish World Service talk about the social action opportunities the group offers for congregants, our college students and ourselves.
We are also planning to do programming to explore models of interfaith dialogue on Long Island.
What future activities are you planning?
We’re planning a rabbinic retreat and hoping to introduce some of the non-traditional ways of meeting our congregants. For instance, I lead monthly Torah yoga classes, which connect Jewish values to the practice of yoga through meditations and asanas, the Sanskrit word for yoga positions. I play new Jewish music in the background and sometimes bring in secular music that echoes the themes of traditional prayers.
I’m hoping to bring some of the more out-of-the-box ideas to the wider rabbinic community so they can connect with their congregants on different levels.