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Our Intern Grew Up: Installation of Rabbi Alissa Forrest

Installation of Rabbi Alissa Forrest
As a Rabbi at Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, CA By Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA October 11, 2007 * 1 Cheshvan 5768

It is an honor to be here tonight, to stand on the bimah of four esteemed colleagues, Rabbis Roberto Graetz and Judy Shanks, Cantor Leigh Korn and Educator Debbie Enelow, each one beloved and respected throughout the world of Jewish professionals for their wisdom, their warmth, their humility. Each possesses a gutta neshama, a good soul. Because of their leadership, and the partnership between them and your lay leaders, Temple Isaiah is highly regarded all over for your top notch religious school, your active youth group(the largest in the region), your incredible leadership development curriculum, for your strong adult learning programs, and for your openness to exploring new ways of being and doing Jewish. It is an honor to visit a synagogue about which I have heard so many outstanding stories.
It is also a pleasure to welcome Rabbi Forrest’s parents Linda and Richard. Spend some time getting to know them and you will understand quickly why Rabbi Forrest is so warm and approachable. You can tell a lot about how wonderful a person is from the wonderful friends they keep. So please welcome Rabbi Jocee Hudson, Rabbi Forrest’s classmate and friend, now Director of Religious Education at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana. I transmit to you a heartfelt mazel tov from our Cantor Doug Cotler, whose father Ted Cotler was cantor here at Temple Isaiah (your library is named after Ted Cotler). Cantor Doug Cotler cut his cantorial teeth – or better, tuned his cantorial vocals – in this very community. Finally, I bring you greetings from Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA for you and for Rabbi Forrest. Know that these greetings are bittersweet, because our congregation deeply admires your Alissa Forrest. In her three short years with us, they came to view our Intern Alissa Forrest as one of their rabbis. We all miss her. A story. A week before he travels up north to install a former intern as rabbi in her new congregation, a rabbi is talking with his son. The child, being inquisitive and exceedingly bright, peppers his father with questions. “Daddy, what is an installation?” The rabbi answers, “Remember when we redecorated the house and put down new floors? We say we installed the floors. Get it?” The son thinks it over and says, “Oh, an installation is when people get to put something down and they get to walk all over it.” Rabbi responds, “Well, yes, but no. We hope that by installing this new rabbi, people won’t be putting her down, but that she will lift them up spiritually. And we pray they won’t walk all over her either. Hmmm, try this. Remember when we bought that new computer program you love? First, we took the computer CD and put it in the disk drive. Then the program installed itself on the computer so you could play with it. Understand?” The son nods his head, “I remember that. It took you four tries to get it to work right, and you kept blaming the program. Is that what’s going to happen at this synagogue when you try to install her?” The rabbi, with a wry smile, answers, “Gosh I hope they won’t blame her every time something goes wrong. But this new rabbi is very intuitive and she’s really a team player. When things do go wrong, we hope they will turn to her in partnership so she can help figure out how to address the challenges.” Confused, the son asks, “Then Daddy, what is an installation?” The rabbi takes a deep breath and tries again. “Remember when we visited that new art exhibit at the Museum? In the weeks before the exhibit opened, the Museum workers installed the artwork.” The son smiles, “Oh, now I get it. An installation is when you make everything look nice so people can look at it but they don’t necessarily have to buy it.” Rabbi, exhausted now, responds, “Well, we hope that they will buy what the new rabbi has to say. She is very bright and thoughtful and her new congregation would do well to listen to her guidance.” “Then Daddy, I don’t get it.” begins the son. At which point the rabbi, having had enough, interrupts his son and telling him, “Go into the living room and install that new light bulb.” As the son walks out of the room, you could hear him whispering, “Ohhhhh, I get it now. To install the intern, turn clockwise.” In the three wonderful years I shared with your rabbi as our intern, I rarely turned her clockwise or counterclockwise. Rabbi Forrest, however, turned around so many programs at Congregation Or Ami. Creative beyond her years, particularly in the areas of community building, formal and informal Jewish education, and youth work, then Rabbinic Intern Alissa Forrest partnered with us to transform Or Ami in abiding ways. Our once tired post-B’nai Mitzvah program was reinvigorated by Rabbi Forrest who, in partnership with our educator, created the Temple Teen Night, an evening of socializing and study that has succeeded in ensuring that 85% of our B’nai Mitzvah students now continue to be involved in the congregation. Simultaneously, Rabbi Forrest created ex nihilo, out of nothingness, a new Saturday morning minyan and Torah study which, in partnership with our tutor, now involves B’nai mitzvah families, is developing committed lay readers, and infusing our congregation with even more Jewish spirituality, learning and warmth. There’s another memorable story in Torah this week: about Noah, the great flood, a multilayered ark, and a bunch of animals wandering around. One day God decides to transform the world and elects Noah to do it. God was investing in this person so much trust and such responsibility. Why did God choose Noah? About this, the Torah only hints. We read nothing about an executive search committee conducting interviews of potential leadership candidates. But we do find clues about what kind of leader we should turn to for guidance and direction. Torah refers to Noah as an ish tzadik, a righteous person. The Torah teaches us tamim hayah bedorotav – that Noah was “blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). When we look for people to guide us, our standards should be equally high. As Rabbi Jonathan Blake writes: Who is Noah? Noah is every man and woman who will swim against the tide when the waves crest high. He is the kid who won’t bully the small boy at recess even when all his buddies are doing it; the shareholder who won’t take the insider tip even when everyone’s sharing. She is the prison guard in a faraway place who won’t join in the humiliation of the captives (and might even hold accountable those who do). He is testimony that God desires not perfection, but the will to strive for excellence. She is the hope that even when it looks like everyone is becoming corrupted, some are not. Some will not. Noah is you and I at our best, when we remember that the power to tarnish the soul, or to polish it, lies deep within every human being. He is, most of all, proof that Hillel’s advice is always timely: “In a place where there are no menschen (ethical people) strive to be a mensch (ethical person)”. You have chosen to welcome into your community Alissa Forrest – a leader, teacher, nurturer, programmer, spiritual being – a rabbi who like Noah lives ethically, strives toward excellence, and will guide you all – adults, teens, individuals, couples and families all – to attain the wholeness and greatness toward which God calls you. You, like God, made a wise choice. Now remember, at the time God installed him, Noah was a relative youngster, a mere 600 years old in a world where people lived to be more than 900. (Alas, we all were like that once. I remember fondly when my beard was black not white, when hair was, well, present.) Like Noah, Rabbi Forrest will fool you with her relative youthfulness. Those of you wise enough to look beyond her age, will turn to her for guidance and support, and will find a depth of wisdom and compassion borne out of experience counseling Jews recovering from addictions and supporting adults lying alone in their hospital beds. You will soon kvell as young families flock toward her enthusiasm for Judaism; teens seek out her genuineness; as each of you come to appreciate her as your teacher and confidante. You see, your rabbi is an isha tama, a righteous person, humble, thoughtful, spiritual. So learn from her. Treat her well. Give her time off to learn Torah. Make sure she has enough time to nurture a personal life. Send her off to Israel and study retreats to nurture her soul. Let her guide you with her innovative ideas. And enjoy. For she is truly amazing! A final story, which I learned from Rabbi Janet Marder. Back in the late 19th century, Rabbi Nathan Finkel headed a yeshiva in Slobodka, a small town in Lithuania. On cold, dark winter mornings, the rabbi used to get up early, cross over the bridge and go into town. He would stop off in all the shtibelech, all the little prayer houses and places of study, one after another. And in each small, dark room, he would light a fire in the oven and stoke the flames before continuing on his rounds. “Why did he do it” his closest friends would ask? And he would respond: “If all the prayer houses and places of study are warm early in the morning, then coachmen, porters and all kinds of people will come in to get warm – and then they will find themselves in a sacred place.” What does a good rabbi do? She helps make the synagogue a warm place — a refuge from the chilly indifference of the streets, the brutal competition of the marketplace, the casual cruelty of the playground – places where people are judged by how they look and how they perform and what they earn and who they know. A good rabbi makes the synagogue a sanctuary – a holy place, a safe and protected space, where people come in out of the cold. “They’ll come in to get warm,” said Rabbi Nathan, “and then they will find themselves in a sacred place.” It is warmth that brings people in – the comfort of finding friends and feeling at home; the knowledge that within these walls, within this place of Torah, a different ethic prevails; here we behave like a mensch: we treat one another with compassion and respect. Your new Rabbi, Alissa Forrest, radiates deep caring and kindness that lie at the core of her being. She understands the power of Rabbi Nathan’s lesson: Let people first get warm – and then they will turn to study, and begin to understand the meaning of a holy place. Remember that little boy in that first story said “to install intern as rabbi, turn clockwise.” I counsel something different. I invite you to turn, to turn your hearts toward Rabbi Forrest, as you do to Rabbis Shanks and Graetz, to Cantor Korn, to educator Enelow and to the rest of the staff. You see, your Rabbi Alissa Forrest is one of the up and coming bright young stars of our Reform movement. And you, Temple Isaiah, are making her one of your own. You should feel very, very proud. Mazel Tov.

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