Rabbi Mitchell Berkowitz serves the Montgomery County Jewish community as an associate rabbi at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. Coming from a household that was not strictly observant, Rabbi Berkowitz found a love for religion and was ordained in 2017 by the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, after which he joined the B’nai Israel family and has been helping lead the congregation as a spiritual leader ever since.
What are your responsibilities as associate rabbi at B’nai Israel?
Teaching would be at the top of the list, and that’s across all ages. Tuesdays are actually a full day of teaching for me, including a Talmud class on Zoom for adults. For weekly classes, we’ve been meeting since I first arrived at B’nai Israel. We meet every week on Shabbat afternoon. We met every week in my house actually, in the beginning. Once I had kids, we moved to the building and we were meeting at B’nai Israel. When COVID hit, I didn’t feel comfortable teaching on Shabbat on Zoom. And we couldn’t be in person, so we moved to a weekday, and it’s been that way for many years now. We’ve already studied two full tractates together and we’re on our third. It’s a decent group that comes every week and we meet for an hour. We usually start around Sukkot, and we finish sometime around Shavuot and take the summers off.
What’s the draw of teaching for you?
People come and they learn something in class, but it doesn’t end when the hour is over. There are conversations that continue, people talk to me about their own evolution in terms of their observance or practices that they take on because they learned something about it. So, it’s not just the learning itself, but it’s knowing that time spent together ultimately transforms into an actual change in people’s lives. It makes it very meaningful.
What was your journey to becoming a rabbi at B’nai Israel?
I grew up in central New Jersey going to a relatively small conservative synagogue. My family was active and involved, which made me actively involved over the years. I went to Brandeis for my undergrad and then straight through to rabbinical school at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. I’m from a not very observant Conservative Jewish family and I became much more observant on my own in college, and then obviously, much more so by the time I was in rabbinical school. So, we moved down [to Maryland]. I got married while I was in rabbinical school, my wife is actually the sister of classmate of mine … she and I moved down here in 2017 to be at B’nai Israel.
What do you like to do outside of your job?
I do a lot of reading. I always have something that I’m reading in hardcopy, something that I’m reading on my Kindle, maybe a journal or magazine. I’m trying to always stay up to date on things going on in the Jewish world and just reading what I think people either could or should be reading in the world. I like to have a mix of fiction and nonfiction. During COVID, I needed something to do that wasn’t staring at a screen and using a different part of my brain during the most intense part of the lockdown when you really weren’t going anywhere. So, I started building Lego again, which is something I did when I was a kid, and I was like, oh, they don’t have those for adults. But it turns out they do. People come to my office, they see I’ve got a typewriter and a Lego globe. It’s certainly been an unexpected, but nice way to be able to connect with some of the kids … That often is a sort of entry point for some of the kids who come in and we’re able to talk about something that they can relate to easily because they see it sitting right there.
What’s the most rewarding thing about serving the Jewish community?
The synagogue I grew up in is very small and that’s because the town that I lived in, Howell, New Jersey, has a very small Jewish population. I grew up in a strange place in the sense that I felt like I was living in a small Jewish community, but I knew that the wider community around me had plenty of Jewish life. And I think from a young age, I saw what the importance and how meaningful it was to have these connections to a synagogue, to Jewish life, to having people not only who are literally within your family … You wind up building relationships with people that are somewhat unexpected and that are very helpful because people are there to support you not only when times are tough, but people are also there to celebrate when things are going well … There are so many opportunities for intergenerational connection because the people who walk through the doors every week are from infants all the way up to active seniors and adults. I’ve sort of always been a beneficiary of those things growing up, and I decided that I wanted to perpetuate that for others as well.