Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz ’78

DEGREES: B.A. in biology and French literature; M.S. in French literature, Temple University; M.H.L. (master of Hebrew literature), rabbinical ordination, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

JOB TITLE: Visiting rabbi for two Reform congregations in Strasbourg and Montpellier; teacher of adult education at the Union Libérale Israélite de France congregation in Paris.

ACTIVITIES WHILE AT TRINITY: Officer of Trinity Hillel, news staff for WRTC, host of an Israeli/Jewish radio program

What originally drew you to Trinity?
I wanted to attend a small university and was impressed by Trinity’s academic reputation. I was also attracted to the New England area and liked the idea of being in a city, no less a capital city.

Which professor(s) had the most impact on you and why?
Ralph Moyer (freshman seminar in chemistry), Dori Katz (French literature), Michel Pretina (French literature) 

In the freshman seminar, we were invited to create our own lab experiment. I applied the Kjeldahl method to determine the protein content in granola (eating granola was becoming trendy in the early ’70s). It involved certain risks such as explosion of sulfuric acid! Professor Moyer not only shared his knowledge and enthusiasm as we explored the world chemical reactions; he took a deep personal interest in the well-being of his students. I remember him standing behind me patting my shoulder with words of encouragement as I observed the various flasks burning with acid.

In one of my classes of French literature, 20th century poetry, Dori Katz did not just teach us literature but helped us develop a sensibility, a feeling for appreciating poetry. I recall that this class inspired me to write poems, and till this day I am still enamored with the French poetry of this period, especially poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Eluard.

Michel Pretina taught us a class on 17th century French theater. It was a three-hour seminar once a week. There were often a couple of bottles of red wine on the table. What was most fascinating about this class is that we not only learned about the unique talents of three playwrights: Corneille, Moliere, and Racine. We learned about the social/political/ historical/cultural context of the period in which they lived and worked. I discovered through this French literature class the importance of “civilizational context,” that is, appreciating how and why certain ideas or cultural trends developed as a result of social and political events. In my rabbinic studies, we would also learn about Judaism in this fashion following the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan, who described Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization.”

What is your favorite memory of Jewish life at Trinity?
I remember a Kabbalat Chabbat service and dinner at the old Hillel house on Crescent. Our guest was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z”l ). It was a real treat for the students to participate with him in the singing of Tefilot and Zemirot. I had brought along my guitar and recall that I strummed a few chords joining him in song.

What did you do after you graduated?
I spent a “year off” at UMass Amherst taking a variety of classes and reconsidering career goals. I initially wanted to teach biology and eventually turned to the rabbinical world. I was accepted by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where each rabbinical student was required to pursue a master’s degree in non-Judaic field. I was able to continue with my studies in French literature and prepare myself for a career as rabbi in France.

How did you come to the position you hold today?
I came to Paris for the first time in 1989 and served three different congregations during a period of eight years in Belgium, Paris, and Lyon. I returned to Paris in 2004 and served my former Parisian congregation for eight years. This year I am a freelance rabbi serving communities outside of Paris.

How did Trinity help guide you in your life?
Coming to Trinity involved a great adjustment for me in that I had been raised in a predominately Jewish environment and discovered for the first time what it felt to be a minority. I recall developing close relations with Afro-American and Latino-American students at Trinity who constituted a small minority.

What role do you think Hillel plays on college campuses across the country and at Trinity?
Hillel plays a critical role in fashioning and strengthening Jewish identity for young Jews. Hillel allows Jewish students to learn, experience, and expand their knowledge of Jewish culture, religious tradition, and history. It allows Jewish students to discover most of all the importance of community. The recent Pew Survey of American Jewry, whose findings are now being analyzed and debated in the current General Assembly of Jewish Federations in North America (taking place in Israel this year), suggests that communal leaders must ensure that Jewish students on campus have access to exciting, challenging, creative Jewish experiences that will allow them to reinforce their connection to tradition, to community and thus ensure that in the future they will be more likely to remain seriously engaged Jews.

What do you hope to see from the upcoming generation of Jewish college students?
I would like to see Jewish college students of tomorrow rediscovering the wisdom and beauty of our religious cultural traditions and integrating them into their personal lives. At the same time I would like to see them sharing with enthusiasm the creative Jewish culture with their fellow students on campus thereby demonstrating that Jewish tradition can add something positive and constructive to the spiritual lives of every human being. I would like to see Jewish students injecting new creative spirit and energy into their studies and practice of Jewish tradition and be able to one day assume leadership positions in the Jewish communities that will one day become their home.