Tag: Center for Jewish Parenting

Sex Education: An Open Letter to Religious Leaders

Education of our young is a partnership between parents, community and teachers. We struggle to figure out how to teach our children values without inculcating them with dogma. Certain areas are off limits in our public schools – prayer, for example.

But certain subjects need to be taught: health and sexuality, for instance. We teach that the guiding principle of sexuality in the Jewish tradition is K’doshim tih’yu—“You shall be holy,” which means that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment, and God. K’doshim tih’yu, you remember, comes from Leviticus; Or Ami’s Sheryl Braunstein wrote a beautiful song about it here.

Not long ago, our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting brought Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, author of the Reform Jewish Movement’s Sacred Choices curriculum, to help us begin a conversation about talking to our children about sexuality. Since then, we have begun preparations to teach elements of the curriculum in our Temple Teen Night program. Why?

We live in a world where our children are exposed each year to thousands of messages – on tv shows, reality shows, movies, commercials, video games and more – about sexuality, most of them reducing it to something physical that people can do when they want with few consequences.

It is time that our children received a more complete understanding of the sexuality, that covers both the physical and dangers, as well as its ethical, social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. It is time that our public schools, who are already teaching about sexuality in their health courses, provide a fuller, more valued approach to sexuality. More open, more healthy, more honest.

That’s why a group of Religious Leaders, including myself, have signed onto an Open Letter to Religious Leaders about Sex Education. You can read a more beautifully formatted version here.


As religious leaders, we have a continuing commitment to the spiritual, emotional, and physical health of the nation’s young people. Now we are called to join in the public discussion about the nature of sexuality education for the country’s youth. Strong public health arguments support comprehensive sexuality education. Here we invite you to consider the religious foundations for supporting sexuality education—education that respects the whole person, honors the truth and diverse values, and promotes the highest ethical values in human relationships.


Religious traditions affirm that sexuality is a divinely bestowed blessing for expressing love and generating life, for mutual companionship and pleasure. It is also capable of misuse, leading to exploitation, abuse, and suffering. Sexuality, from a religious point of view, needs to be celebrated with joy, holiness, and integrity, but it also demands understanding, respect, and self-discipline. Our traditions affirm the goodness of creation, our bodies, and our sexuality; we are called to stewardship of these gifts.


Our religious ancestors created rites of passage to recognize the transition to sexual maturity and adulthood. God created us as sexual beings from birth to death; but it is in childhood and adolescence, that we begin to develop the sexual wisdom, values, and morality that will determine whether we will become sexually healthy adults. As religious leaders, we want young people to learn about their sexuality, not primarily from the entertainment media or their peers, but from their parents, faith communities, and school-based programs that address the biological, psychological, cultural, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality.


Religions have a venerable tradition supporting healing, health care, disease prevention, and health promotion. They also express commitment to the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, those most likely to be excluded. Sexuality education programs must benefit all young people regardless of income, class, ethnicity, and gender. Programs must also be inclusive of those who are heterosexual and those who are sexual minorities, those who are abstinent and those who have had sexual relationships, and those who have experienced brokenness and oppression about their sexuality.


Religions value education, including education about our sexuality. We have learned from our commitment to religious education that programs must be age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful, and have both immediate relevance and applicability for later life. Young people need help in order to develop their capacity for moral discernment and a freely informed conscience. Education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame. Programs that teach abstinence exclusively and withhold information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention fail our young people.


Scriptural and theological commitment to telling the truth calls for full and honest education about sexual and reproductive health. Young people need to know “there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” but they also require the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives. They need help to develop the capacity for personal relationships that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Our culture too often models sexuality without responsibility, and many adolescents are left on their own to struggle through conflicting sexual messages. It is with adult guidance and comprehensive information and education about sexuality—education that includes abstinence, contraception, and STD prevention—that young people will be able to make responsible decisions.


As religious leaders, we call on policy makers, school officials, and educators to provide comprehensive sexuality education that honors truth telling and the diversity of religious and moral values represented in the community. Such education:

* Emphasizes responsibility, rights, ethics, and justice.
* Affirms the dignity and worth of all persons.
* Teaches that sexuality includes physical, ethical, social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.
* Complements the education provided by parents and faith communities.
* Publicly identifies the values that underline the program.
* Teaches that decisions about sexual behaviors should be based on moral and ethical values, as well as considerations of physical and emotional health.
* Affirms the goodness of sexuality while acknowledging its risks and dangers.
* Introduces with respect the differing sides of controversial sexual issues.


People of faith must speak out for comprehensive sexuality education. We know that there are people of good faith who differ with us on what young people need. We seek to reach out to those from whom we may be divided to seek what is best for our nation’s youth. We all must be truth seeking, courageous, and just in our efforts to provide all young people with the sexuality education they so urgently need.

* * *

The Open Letter was developed at a colloquium of theologians in 2002, sponsored by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and funded by Planned Parenthood of New York. Participants included Rev. Mark Bigelow, Congregational Church of Huntington, Long Island; Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, Unitarian Universalist Association; Rev. Dr. Ignacio Castuera, Pacific Palisades United Methodist Church; Rev. Steve Clapp, Christian Community; Rev. Dr. Marvin Ellison, Bangor Theological Seminary; Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield, Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing; Debra W. Haffner, M.Div., Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing; Ann Hanson, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ; Rev. Dr. Sheron Patterson, St. Paul United Methodist Church, Dallas; and Rev. Carlton Veazey, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The Greatest Gift: Sisters

What do we parents seek as we try to stimulate healthy relationships between our children? Sometimes détente. Sometimes tolerance. But hopefully, a depth of friendship that endures. It IS possible. As Christine Many writes:

I’m five years old, and my mother is on her hands and knees, washing the kitchen floor. I’m telling her about a new girl in school, and she suddenly looks up at me and says, “Who are your two best friends?”

I’m not sure what to say. I’ve been friends with Jill since I was three or so, and I really like Jaime, a friend in kindergarten.

“Jill and Jaime.”

My mother stops scrubbing the floor and starts to take off her yellow rubber gloves. “Well, what about Karen and Cindy?”

My sisters? “I don’t know who their best friends are,” I say.

“No,” she says. “I’m saying, why aren’t they your best friends?”

She seems upset, like I hurt her feelings. “But they’re my sisters.”

“Yes, but they can still be your best friends. Friends may come and go, but your sisters will always be there for you.”

At the time, the idea of my two sisters being my closest friends seemed strange to me. We fought all the time over toys, food, attention, what to watch on television – you name it, we bickered about it at some point. How could my sisters be my best friends? They weren’t the same age as I. We all had our own friends in school.

But my mother never let the three of us forget it: Sisters are lifelong friends. Her wish–like most parents’–was to give us something that she never had. Growing up an only child, she longed for siblings. When she gave birth to three daughters –separated by only four years–the fufillment of her dream had only just begun. She had given us each a gift–our sisters–and she wanted to make sure we did not take that gift for granted. She would frequently tell us how lucky we were. But there were other, more subtle ways that she encouraged us to grow closer. She never showed favoritism to one daughter over the other, as not to cause jealousy or bitterness between sisters. She constantly took us places together–skating, shopping, swimming–so we developed common interests. And when we were teenagers, Mom always punished us equally, giving us yet another bonding experience.

We didn’t always get along beautifully and fought just like any other siblings. But somewhere in between Mom’s lectures, the family vacations and the shared memories, we realized that our mother was right. Today I share things with my sisters that I do with no one else. My sister Cindy and I ran the New York City Marathon together, side-by-side, even holding hands when we crossed the finish line. When my sister Karen got married, I was her maid of honor. Cindy and I traveled through Europe together and even shared an apartment for two years. The three of us trust each other with our greatest secrets.

It was twenty-three years ago that my mother first asked me who my two best friends were. Today she doesn’t have to. She already knows.

Sibling Rivalry: Can’t Kill ’em so Try to Love ’em

I have three siblings: an older sister, and two younger brothers. Our relationships with each other have, like the sides of an accordion, sometimes drawn closer and sometimes moved farther apart. At times distance (east-west coast, California-Israel) has made my heart grow fonder; occasionally the distance provides an easy excuse to ignore them. While we may argue over who is our parents’ favorite (“my son, the rabbi”…, kind of hard to beat that), we so often turn to each other when the going gets really tough.

A seven-year-old girl, discussing her younger sister and herself, once said: “I think that God is having one big experiment. God put two people who are very different in one house to live and wants to see what happens.” Truth be told: my brothers and I had some knock-down, drag-outs in our day, and we all did a lot of kvetching – complaining – about each other too. But in various ways, my siblings are the people who consume much of the space in my heart. Our relationships are intense, complex and deeply cherished.

Torah Truth 1: Sibling Relationships are Challenging
In truth, many sibling relationships are challenging, for the children and for the parents too. These problems reach as far back as our Biblical past. Torah, in its brutally honest way, bares the truth about siblings for all to see. Rather than whitewashing our founding families, Genesis details the fratricide of Cain and Abel, the supplanting of Ishmael by Isaac, the outright disdain and deceit between Jacob and Esau, jealousies between Leah and Rachel, and the parental favoritism, egotism (and attempted fratricide) between Joseph and his brothers.

No doubt Biblical parents helped fuel these sibling rivalries: Abraham’s willingness to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, Laban’s deceiving of Jacob with Leah, and Jacob’s fawning over Joseph. How much do our actions (or inactions) as parents influence the relationships our children develop?

Torah Truth 2: Not All Sibling Relationships are Toxic

While the fratricidal Cain and Abel are perhaps the Torah’s best-known brothers, there is also the example of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, who learn to live in harmony to benefit the Jewish people and have become models to emulate through the generations. In fact, each Friday evening, Jewish parents worldwide bless their sons, “May you be like Ephraim and Menasha.” These two young men have become a model for boys on how they should get on with each other.

By the end of the Torah, we see a very different picture of sibling relationships. Sandy Littman, of the London School of Jewish Studies, argues that “you have situations where each sibling’s role is complementary and their characters mesh with each other to function in a harmonious way. The Torah gives us the negative picture first.” Jacob and Esau, for example, could have had a partnership. Two brothers who were so different had something to make the world complete, bring some good to the world. But instead of forming a partnership, they went off in different ways.

Yet brothers Moses and Aaron combine their talents to free the Israelites. Aaron, the high priest, and Moses, the leader, complement each other’s talents. They completed each other. One wonders, suggest scholar Littman, whether Aaron and Moses worked so well together “because they had a big sister to look after them.”

Tips for Family Flow Rather than Friction

  • Encourage your kids to work as a team. Suggest they make pizza together every Sunday night, or put them in charge of recycling bottles and deciding how the return money is spent.
  • Step back and allow your children to create their own relationships apart from you. Catch yourself if you tend to micromanage their interaction.
  • Come to the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting’s presentation by Bette Alkazian (Thursday, February 5, 7:00-8:30 pm) on Brothers And Sisters: The Joys And Challenges Of Sibling Relationships. More information here.
  • When kids begin to squabble, don’t become the referee. Come up with ways they can work out their own spats. One mother does more than just send fighting kids to their rooms. She asks them to stand in their bedroom doorways and talk out the problem. They aren’t to return downstairs until they have worked it out. Standing in the doorway staring at each other leads to lots of interesting solutions — all without parental input.
  • Disagreements and irritation are part of any relationship. Accept that negative feelings will surface and try to develop a built-in structure for dealing with them.
  • Don’t expect automatic “brotherly love.” It lessens the guilt associated with “Well, he’s your brother: You should love him.”
  • Spend one-on-one time with each child. This communicates, “Yes, we are a team, but you are special!” We all want to be loved for our unique selves.
  • Take the time to truly observe each of your children to discover their temperament and approach to the world. What makes their spirit sing?
  • Strive to meet a child’s individual need when it arises. When one child is sick, he may need chicken soup and a back massage. That doesn’t mean it’s unfair that his brother doesn’t get the special treatment. His turn will come.
  • It’s our job to care for our children, not an older sister’s or brother’s. (Cain resented having to be his brother’s keeper, and we know how that turned out.)

Remember that no family is perfect. Even the Bible illustrates some pretty messy family dramas! (Adapted from Beliefnet)


Are you (or did you) struggle to stimulate healthy relationships amongst your children or grandchildren? Become part of our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting exploration of these central relationships.

Attend Lecture: Come to the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting’s presentation by Bette Alkazian (Thursday, February 5, 7:00-8:30 pm) on Brothers And Sisters: The Joys And Challenges Of Sibling Relationships. More information here. Please RSVP to Kathy Haggerty.

Share Your Parenting Tips: Let us know what has worked for you to mellow the monsters (er, to stimulate healthy relationships). Share your answers on the blog. Click below (remember to type your name at the bottom of your comment and then change the “Comment As” drop down box to “anonymous”).

Teen Promiscuity: It Might Not be As Rampant as We Thought!

We have heard a lot about rampant teen sexuality. But evidence suggests otherwise. The NYTimes brings this:

While some young people are clearly engaging in risky sexual behavior, a vast majority are not. The reality is that in many ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.

Today, fewer than half of all high school students have had sex: 47.8 percent as of 2007, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, down from 54.1 percent in 1991.A less recent report suggests that teenagers are also waiting longer to have sex than they did in the past. A 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls had experienced sex, down from 38 percent in 1995. During the same period, the percentage of sexually experienced boys in that age group dropped to 31 percent from 43 percent. The rates also went down among younger teenagers. In 1995, about 20 percent said they had had sex before age 15, but by 2002 those numbers had dropped to 13 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys.“There’s no doubt that the public perception is that things are getting worse, and that kids are having sex younger and are much wilder than they ever were,” said Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. “But when you look at the data, that’s not the case.”

Why do we perceive that teen promiscuity is rampant? The article continues:

One reason people misconstrue teenage sexual behavior is that the system of dating and relationships has changed significantly. In the first half of the 20th century, dating was planned and structured — and a date might or might not lead to a physical relationship. In recent decades, that pattern has largely been replaced by casual gatherings of teenagers. In that setting, teenagers often say they “fool around,” and in a reversal of the old pattern, such an encounter may or may not lead to regular dating.

Read the rest. Very interesting for us parents of teens!

The Gift of Caregiving

Or Ami Congregant Linda Fingleson received an award for this essay entitled, “The Gift of Caregiving” from Caring Today website. Linda writes:

“Mom ‘n Dad, I’m here.” How many times a week doyou say that? If you are a caregiver of loved ones, you would be saying it almost every day of the week, for months at a time, possibly continuing for years.

I have calculated that between my twin sister and me we have said it at least 2500 times in the last three years. When our parents could not drive anymore, they became totally dependent on us. When my father fell and broke his wrist and hip, we knew they could not be alone anymore. We hired a full-time caregiver to be with them during the nights and the few hours we could not be with them because of our own families. We are responsible for all their basic needs, food, clothing, medicine, doctor appointments and entertainment. That first year it felt like a chore, and both my sister and I were somewhat resentful because how did we end up with this job? If we went grocery shopping and the next day my mother called and said she forgot something, we became angry. Doctor appointments became a nightmare: By the time we got them in and out of the car, waited for the doctor, had the blood work done, it was a three-hour ordeal.

But the most amazing thing happened about a year into our caregiving duties. Instead of being angry or resentful, we started to fell like we had been given a gift. Yes, a gift! Those long lines at the market or the even longer waits in the doctor’s office became an opportunity to have conversations and find out things we would never have had the chance to do-the stories and long talks about the different lives they both lead and how it made them the people they are today—memories and snapshotpictures in our minds that can never be taken away from us. I think the biggest gift that my sister and I have received from our parents is the appreciation—the appreciation they feel for what we have given them of our time and energy, and most of all, for our unconditional love. We feel blessed to have been given these last three years to give care to our parents and hope and pray that there will be many more memories and stories to come.

There is a bond so strong between us that it is unlike anything we thought possible. We have become an inspiration to our friends and family who in the beginning thought we were crazy for taking on this task, but now see the opportunity we have made of it. Yes, it is hard; yes, some days are more difficult than others. But anyone who is giving care to loved ones has made a commitment to make the lives of those people the best it can possibly be. Both my sister and I feel that this, initself, is a gift from God!

Coping with an Autistic Brother: A Teenager’s Take

Siblings of People with Special Needs: Next Steps in Disability Awareness Outreach

Or Ami spends significant time and energy embracing and supporting families with children with special needs. We are proactively welcoming, because our tradition teaches us that we all were created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Taking our lead from the Union for Reform Judaism’s Disability Awareness initiatives, we have come to understand that “with special needs children, there are two values being played out, simultaneously. Working with one child, Brandon Kaplan, for instance, we saw that Brandon is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. But Brandon is also a special kid and there is an honor and joy to the congregation that he participates to the fullness of his abilities. So he’s normal and special, but here’s the secret: so is every other kid.”

Often though we focus on the needs of the person with special needs, or on the struggles of being his/her parent. We welcome special needs children into our education programs and kvell as they become B’nai Mitzvah. Our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting sponsors a support group for people with special needs.

Now comes the New York Times reporting on NPR’s poignant account of the experiences of the sister of a boy with autism. The article, and story, Coping with an Autistic Brother: A Teenager’s Take, is powerful listening. It reminds us that the constellation of those touched by disabilities is far wider than we often consider. It goads us to explore more deeply how we reach out – really reach out – to all those affected.

The New York Times Well blog reviews the story:

The piece focuses on 15-year-old Marissa Skillings, whose 11-year-old brother Andrew has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Marissa talks about the challenges of living with a brother on the autism spectrum.

He talks nonstop; talking and talking and talking. He’ll tell anybody information about any animal whether they want to hear it or not. People can tell Andrew has a disability….When he gets nervous he moves his hands back and forth.

Having a brother with autism takes a toll on Marissa’s relationship with her parents. Her brother often interrupts and makes it difficult for her to receive attention. Sometimes she stays out as late as her curfew allows so she can avoid time at home.

I come home and deal with it when I have to, and when I don’t have to deal with it, I make sure I don’t.

She and her brother tell the story of the time a neighborhood boy picked on Andrew. She chased the bully down the street, cornered the boy and slapped him. I don’t hate my brother. I’d kill for him. But I could kill him too.

Read/hear the NPR story (and see pictures of Marissa and Andrew) here.

I was astounded after listening to this story. With all the good work we do, here is another important area in our outreach to families of people with special needs that we haven’t really focused on yet. Although our Jewish tradition teaches “lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor – it is not up to us to complete the task,” we do need to explore each challenge as we become aware of it. So this story has led me to ponder three questions (perhaps you can help me learn and respond):

  1. What would congregational support of the siblings of people with special needs look like?
  2. Do any siblings have any suggestions for us?
  3. Are any synagogues doing this already?

The Pain and Dilemma of an Israeli Father and Citizen

I’ve been following A Soldier’s Mother to read and live with the jumble of emotions that come from sending one’s child (or watching one’s child) go off toward war. Now, Donniel Hartman offers a father’s perspective. In this moving and very personal essay, entitled The Pain and Dilemma of an Israeli Father and Citizen, Donniel Hartman talks about pride and fear create a painful dilemma for an Israeli father on the eve of a possible ground war in Gaza. He writes:

I am a father. As parents of children in combat units in the Israeli army, we live at a particularly difficult time. It’s not that the dangers facing our children now are greater than in the past. Unfortunately, war and fighting for our survival has been a permanent feature of Israeli life….

…We no longer raise our children to be soldiers. We raise them to be citizens of a beautiful and vibrant country that will enable them to achieve their individual dreams, and whose collective strength and greatness is constructed from the tapestry and sum total of these dreams…

…When war knocks at our door, and our children are placed in harm’s way, we feel proud at the bravery and loyalty of our children, but deeply disturbed and fearful at the same time. We are fearful that our children’s primary contributions to the country – their ideas, dreams and energy – are in danger of not being fulfilled.

Read on

The Demise of Dating OR Teach Your Teen How to Date

We teach our kids that they were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That they are unique, worthy, valued.

We teach our kids that their bodies are a gift from God, on loan from the Holy One. That they must take care of their bodies as their most prized possession.

We teach our kids that when two people find each other, share love, bond for life, it is kedushin, holiness. And that relationships that precede “the one” should strive for that holiness.

But I wonder, in this age of the internet, where we can spill out our guts (and our whole lives) on the blog, Facebook or MySpace, where do we learn the give and take of creating a wholesome, mutual, “real” relationship?

Then comes the New York Times announcing The Demise of Dating, saying:

The paradigm has shifted. Dating is dated. Hooking up is here to stay.
(For those over 30 years old: hooking up is a casual sexual encounter with no expectation of future emotional commitment. Think of it as a one-night stand with someone you know.)According to a report released this spring by Child Trends, a Washington research group, there are now more high school seniors saying that they never date than seniors who say that they date frequently. Apparently, it’s all about the hookup.

Kind of sad (though my memories of dating are not all positive). Kind of scary.

It turns out that everything is the opposite … Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.

Where do we learn to date?

It used to be that “you were trained your whole life to date,” said Ms. Bogle. “Now we’ve lost that ability — the ability to just ask someone out and get to know them.”

Funny. We worry so much about teaching our kids how to study, how to stay away from drugs, how to help friends who are suicidal. Intense stuff. And now we learn that we may need to go back to basics… to teach them how to date…

Facing a Suicide: Talking to Kids About…

I heard about another suicide. This time of an Oak Park elementary teachers who has 2 small kids. He was a local photographer who was there as many of the children became B’nai Mitzvah.

Those who knew him and even those who did not, are shocked, scared and anxious. Many are reviewing their interactions with this man to see if they missed any signs about what he was thinking. Others are wondering how someone could be considering such drastic action and they did not know it.

Parents are wondering how to help their children deal with this tragedy. Still others are wondering if they are missing signs from their own children.

Five Initial Thoughts when Dealing with Children after a Suicide:

  1. Be with them, let them talk, or cry, or just be. Suicide is confusing and it may take time for your child to open up and begin to talk about it.
  2. While most suicidal individuals give off warning signs, many of these signs are missed by even those closest to them. Scrutinizing past interactions for such signs is normal, brought about by feelings of guilt, sadness or remorse. Listen to your child, don’t dismiss his/her sadness, but remind him/her that even those closest to the person who killed himself did not recognize the signs.
  3. Most adolescents have thoughts at one time or another about suicide. It is NORMAL to have such thoughts. Let your child know that he or she can talk to you about anything. Be prepared not to “freak out” if your child shares such thoughts.
  4. If necessary, and if your child needs it, consult with a therapist who works with children. I would be glad to refer you to such individuals.
  5. Please do not hesitate to call the synagogue (818-880-4880) to talk to me. When you call, please let them know it is about a suicide and that this is very important.

Finally, allow me to offer a few pieces of information to help you in the future. When the time is right, you might want to discuss this with your child.

Some Statistics and Facts Concerning YOUTH Suicide:

  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young adults ages 15-24 years, following only AIDS and accidents.
  • Among college students, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
  • Girls are 3 times more likely to ATTEMPT suicide, but boys are 5 times more likely to COMPLETE suicide. Alcohol and/or drugs are involved in 50% of adolescent suicides. Guns and overdoses are two frequently used methods. Out of every 10 suicide attempts, 9 take place in the home.
  • Recent studies indicate that nationwide more than half a million high school students attempt suicide every year.
  • Over 90% of all suicidal adolescents talk to others about their suicidal feelings. They do NOT, however, always talk to their parents, teachers, or counselors but instead talk to their FRIENDS.

Six Warning Signs
Depression and anxiety are the strongest precursors of suicide. Here are some common warning signs:

  1. Direct statements such as “I want to die” or “I don’t want to live anymore”
  2. Indirect statements such as “I want to go to sleep and never wake up” or “They’ll be sorry when I’m gone” or “Soon this pain will be over”
  3. Making final arrangements (giving away possessions, saying good-bye, etc.)
  4. Increased risk taking (reckless driving, etc.) and frequent accidents
  5. Personality changes, withdrawal, apathy, moodiness
  6. Themes of death and dying in a person’s writing and artwork

Seven Things to Do: When You Suspect Suicidal Feelings: How You Can Help

  1. Direct questions about suicidal feelings do not provoke suicidal behavior.
  2. When asking about suicidal feelings, find out if the person has decided how to commit suicide. The person who wants to commit suicide, who has figured out how to go about it, and who has the means to do it is in the greatest danger.
  3. Whether a suicidal person plans to succeed or is using the threat of suicide to get attention does not matter. That person needs the same help.
  4. Having made the decision to die, the suicidal person may seem very calm. That individual is still in great danger.
  5. If someone shares a suicidal intent with you, take it seriously and contact an appropriate counselor, clergyperson, parent or other responsible adult—even if it means breaking a confidence and losing a friend.
  6. If you suspect someone is going to commit suicide, don’t leave them alone.
  7. The paperback book When Living Hurts by Sol Gordon, available from the URJ Press, does an incredible job helping teens deal with depression and difficult feelings. Purchase a copy for your teen now.

Lastly, our thoughts and prayers go out to the man’s family, his students, co-workers and the community. May they find the strength and fortitude to weather the difficult days and months ahead.

Talking to Parents about Talking to Kids about Drugs

The Acorn published an article about the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting’s lecture series on Talking to Parents about Talking to Kids about Drugs. The complete original article, written by congregant Julie Buckley, appears below:

Talking to Parents about Talking to Kids about Drugs
By Agoura Hills Resident Julie Buckley

Congregation Or Ami’s Center for Jewish Parenting knows that children do not come with an instruction manual. That is why we offer a series of lectures that cover a wide range of parenting issues, from raising grateful children in an indulgent society, parenting our parents, to creating ethical wills.

This month Or Ami brought in representatives from Beit T’shuvah and Malibu’s Visions Treatment Facility to help parents understand some of the reasons kids turn to drugs, and to explore ways to prevent or help our children if they do. The program, called “Partners in Prevention,” brought in former addicts who spoke about how they ended up becoming addicted to drugs. Over 180 adults from all over the Conejo and San Fernando Valleys attended the three sessions.

Recovering addicts spoke about the many challenges that kids face today. There are demands to perform academically, athletically, creatively, in the community– all while navigating what might be awkward adolescent years, wanting very much to be liked and to fit in. The adults in attendance, by a show of hands, had themselves experienced feeling different and feeling they were alone in that experience. Our youth is susceptible to experimentation, whether at parochial or secular, private or public school. The drugs available are not only chemically stronger than in years past, the range of what is available has expanded. Prescription drugs are being sold on campuses, sometimes referred to as study aids. The combination of pressure and awkwardness at a time when kids may not have strategies for coping with the feelings which may arise makes them vulnerable to curiosity about drugs. In the absence of alternative methods for managing these age-appropriate stresses, children are at risk of substance abuse.

Providing parents with insights into young people’s social needs and pressures, as well as identifying specifically what drugs are available in our schools is critical to being able to see the signs of trouble. “Partners in Prevention” organizes youth peer groups as well as parent support and education.

Or Ami President Susan Gould, thought she knew why kids turn to drugs: peer pressure, loneliness, curiosity. She was surprised to learn that many kids use drugs to escape the pressure to succeed. “We all want the reassurance that we can keep our kids “too busy” to experiment with drugs. The reality is that no matter how filled their days are, they will have numerous opportunities to experiment.”

Keeping lines of communication open could not be overstated by either treatment group. Rabbi Paul Kipnes, trained in addiction counseling and spiritual care from HazeldenTreatment Center, reiterated that knowing your children’s friends is essential. Monitoring internet, text, and call activity may be warranted. Being certain that there is adult supervision at parties and gatherings is crucial. Noticing changes in kids’ behavior, whether it is grades, new friends, or energy levels is another possible barometer. More information about talking to kids about drugs can be found on the rabbi’s blog: http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com. Ultimately, recognizing that as parents, we can not know all, seek help from experts if there is any doubt that your child is in trouble.

Talking to Your Kids about Teen Dating Violence

A year or two ago, Or Ami’s Temple Teen Night held a program, sponsored by the Family Violence Project of Jewish Family Service, which dealt with teen dating. It profoundly affected our teens, as they had a place to talk about their responsibility to themselves and their peers in terms of appropriate and inappropriate dating.

The Sunday Magazine of the New York Times now published a blog article in Motherlode about

Today is “It’s Time to Talk Day,” supported, as it has been for the past five years, by Liz Claiborne, Inc. …. , and the Burkes [a couple whose child was murdered by the man she was dating] will be spending the day talking. They are both high-school teachers in Rhode Island (Ann teaches health, Chris teaches culinary arts), and they believe the warning signs of abuse in dating should be taught to teens the same way they are taught about sex and drugs. If she had learned that abusers “tell you that your family doesn’t really love you and your friends don’t really like you,” then Lindsay might have been less willing to allow her boyfriend to shut her family and friends out, Ann says. If she had known “that she needed a safety plan when she left him, because when a victim leaves the relationship is when they are at the greatest risk of being harmed,” then Ann believes Lindsay might still be alive today.

The article offers some important links:

The Burke’s goal is to have it taught in every middle and high school in the country, and this morning they teamed with Claiborne to launch a group called MADE, Moms and Dads for Education to Stop Teen Dating Abuse. Teens are reluctant to talk to their parents about this subject, the logic goes, and they turn to their peers instead. So what parents can do to help is make sure those peers are educated and informed, and the goal of MADE is to expand the availability of information to high school students by requiring the subject be a required part of the curriculum in every state. You can learn more about MADE, here. You can visit the Love Is Not Abuse Web site, here. You can contribute to the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund, here. And teens who can’t talk to their parents can visit loveisrespect.org or call the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (1-866-331-9474, or TTY 1-866-331-8453.) Because it’s time to talk.

Enough said?

Rebecca’s Pregnancy Problems: Finding a Way Through the Pain

As we read in the Torah (Toledot, Genesis 25) about Rebecca’s pregnancy problems and the pain it brings to her life, I recall a sermon I gave during one of my first years as a rabbi. Talking about infertility brought forth a whole series of emotions: those who were dealing with it and were pleased to have their rabbi recognize it; those dealing with it who we pained to have to face their pain; those with kids who did not understand what was the big deal; those who thought the issue had no place as discussion on the High Holy Days.

I learned a great deal from that sermon: about contextualizing such issues, particularly about those that touch only a specific group – so that larger messages of healing and caring come through. Nonetheless, I remain aware that infertility is one of the most painful of issues we face.

Rabbi Natan Fenner, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, offers this touching drash on Rebecca’s infertility this week’s parasha:

In the unfolding narrative of the first Israelite family, Rebecca and Isaac experience a period of infertility, followed by a difficult pregnancy. In the depths of her pain and fear, Rebecca cries out, voicing profound uncertainty and existential doubt (see Genesis 25:22). She is given to understand that she is carrying twins with vastly different personalities, struggling even in her womb and destined to part ways from their earliest days. Thus is the stage set for a life of conflict and irreconcilable differences between sons Jacob and Esau, which Rebecca will witness and try to manage as a mother.

Where can one turn when in the midst of overwhelming or long-term suffering? When facing a persistent family conflict; a chronic and painful condition; a seemingly bottomless or endless personal trial? Reflect on your experience, or with a conversation partner: In such circumstances, when the pull toward despair may be strong, what allows us to tolerate the pain and fear, to endure with some sense of hope?

Rebecca’s prayers to God are answered not with an immediate end to the painful experiences of her pregnancy, but she emerges with some clarity about what is happening (she is carrying twins); with the knowledge that some element of her suffering (the intense internal ferment preceding the boys’ birth) is finite; and with the assurance that God is aware of her condition and is in some way accompanying her in this journey (in the promise of the “two nations” that would ultimately flourish from out of her womb). While the text does not state it explicitly, we are left to infer that Rebecca finds a renewed sense of purpose and determination both during the remainder of her pregnancy and beyond.

Whether we cry out in the depths of our hearts, to God, to a trusted confidante, or out into the Universe, we are following in Rebecca’s footsteps. And when we have understanding companionship in response, we may be soothed, or strengthened, even as our underlying condition remains deeply challenging. Realizing that we are in motion, if only in our
yearning or in the expressions of our grief, can counterbalance a sense of stagnation or being stuck in an interminable state. Similarly, having a sense of direction for “afterward”, or having some confidence that aspects of our situation will eventually improve—even having the mental and spiritual space to allow for that possibility—can similarly bolster us as we “hang in there”.

Take note also: in response to the spiritual dimension of Rebecca’s plea for help and understanding, she connects with a new contextual frame and a part of life that transcends this moment of anguish. Like Hagar and Sarah before her, and like countless generations that follow, Rebecca finds strength in a vision of her place in the flow of life as she reconnects with the Divine and with a larger future.

May we, too, in our times of deepest fear and existential questioning, our wearying seasons of bleak horizons, our moments without apparent comfort, find ways to cry out and to direct our pleas where there might be a compassionate ear, an understanding heart, a spiritual perspective, or a Divine embrace; and may all who wrestle with despair receive the strength and support to endure and reach a place of greater fullness and blessing.

An Ethical Will for My Children

Some years ago, I wrote this ethical will for my children. With a few adjustments, I shared it with the congregation as a High Holy Day sermon. I still stand by these values.

As Congregation Or Ami’s New Dimensions (activities for adults only) prepares for a seminar on Writing an Ethical Will (Monday, November 17, 2008 at , I went back to my Ethical Will to see what I wrote. I still like it:

On Aaron’s Advice: An Ethical Will for My Children
Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Rosh Hashana 5763 / September 2002

When Becky asked me to officiate at a minyan after her father Aaron’s funeral, I stepped forward without question. Friends help friends. It was only as I stood there, for two nights, before our extended group of friends, before Becky, that I realized the daunting task of trying to find words of wisdom to comfort someone whom I considered more a family member than a friend. Doctors do not operate on their loved ones; rabbis probably should not officiate for family members either. It is just too close.

But there we were. We prayed the prayers, moving forward without comment. Becky seemed to take strength from the regularity of the ritual and comfort from the companionship of the community surrounding her. I worried about what to say to bring uplift to her heart, solace to her soul. I was saved, however, by none other than Aaron himself – yes, the deceased. Before heart surgery ten years earlier, being well aware that “you can never be sure when the end will come,” Aaron, wrote an ethical will to make sure that his ideals would survive. A short, two-page letter to his loved ones, the ethical will bequeaths to them the values he holds most dear. As the letter was read aloud, Aaron himself comforted his daughter and his grandchildren, and led us all with wisdom and humility to a meaningful moment of kedusha, of holiness.

A few weeks later, emboldened by Aaron’s example, I sat down to write. You don’t need 10 years as a rabbi officiating at funerals to know that all it takes is some freak accident, unexpected disease or, however unlikely, some terrorist action to end your life prematurely. So I accepted for myself Aaron’s implicit invitation to impart words of comfort and wisdom to those who would survive me. I will share now but a few of the words I have written down in an ethical will to my family. Should I live to watch my three children mature, make their way in the world, and create their own lives and family, I hope to have passed on these values both in name and by example. But if not, God-forbid, I want them, and you, to know what is in my heart as you all continue to live your lives. With the High Holy Days upon us, this just might be the most important sermon I write this year.

To My Beloved Children:

We live in a world in which celebrity seems more important than what good you have accomplished. Where America’s leading businesses and business watchdogs lied to thousands of investors who counted on their honesty to plan for their future. … Where anti-Semitism – unadulterated hate – has raised its head in Europe, endangering our people yet again. … Where the bravado, self-interest and violence of the Palestinian leadership destroyed our realistic heartfelt offers to end the Mideast conflict. These are frightening times for our people, for all people.

With so many spurious values abound, I find myself contemplating the awesome responsibility we have to guide you in life. As you navigate the uncharted waters of life, I wonder, have we filled your life raft with a strong enough set of ethics and ideals to keep your heads above the raging waters?

The key, it seems, is to remember that you have all you need to bring goodness to yourself and into the world. Do not allow yourself to be limited by others, whether because of your gender… or your religion, race, orientation or age. These provide you with unique tools with which to navigate our world. You can do anything you put your mind to, anything you truly wish to accomplish. By the way, that is the central lesson of the modern Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Having completed an arduous, complex task, you will have learned that nothing is too difficult or beyond your reach.

When each of you was born, we celebrated with a Jewish ceremony. Surrounded by family and friends, and delicious desserts baked by PaPa and LaLa, we shepped nachas, shared the joy. At its most basic level, these ceremonies proclaimed that you were Jews and that we intended to bring you up as Jews. More significantly, it taught, even before you could understand it, that you are inheritors of a sacred tradition. As you grow, immerse yourself in our Jewish values and become our ideal, an Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations.

My children, you are part of Am bachor, a chosen people. Not necessarily better than others. Merely chosen for a special responsibility. You are chosen to receive Torah values and effectuate them in our world. To help you understand this, we have prioritized our lives around enabling you to gain a strong Jewish education, learning the teachings of Torah. Torah encompasses all that is good and worthy. Hafach ba v’hafach ba d’chula ba – turn it and turn it, everything is in Torah: our stories and traditions, rituals and ceremonies, ethics and values. Taken together, Torah goads us into making our special contribution to this world.

Of course, the pursuit of wisdom begins with Torah, but should not conclude with Jewish learning alone (although your ability to evaluate the world will be severely limited without it). As Am hasefer, the People of the Book, we value secular scholarship too, for its own sake and as the key to our survival. Complete your studies with vigor; pursue college and advance degrees thereafter. Jewish knowledge and secular studies, combine these and you will be able to more easily pursue your dreams. It is a marriage made in heaven.

Speaking of marriage, back in ancient days, I would have had the privilege of picking out your spouse. Today, thankfully, you choose your own. Allow me to share with you what I have learned about love and marriage. Look not to movies or Madison Avenue advertisements for guidance in your search for a soul mate. Look, rather, for a partner who loves you, who helps you realize your fullest potential, with whom you feel enabled to expand your horizons. And find someone who has a commitment to Jewish life. With them you will share a heritage, and an ethical and spiritual encoding that was programmed into you at the moment of conception, nourished within you from the time you nursed at your mother’s breast. With such a partner, your life will be easier and, I believe, fuller. Yet whomever you choose, Jew or non-Jew, a male or a female, know that we will love you and your partner, and will try to support the life you build together.

I have learned that marriage takes as much if not more work than whatever you get paid to do, but the rewards of these efforts far exceed the paycheck you bring home. Continue to date your partner throughout your life. Make your time with him or her a priority, even when you have children, and share the responsibilities equally. That sage Dear Abby wrote, infatuation is to marriage like fireworks are to fireflies. Though infatuation (even lust) will light up your skies with an overwhelming display of light and noise, a mature, strong marriage – like a firefly – will provide you with a beacon of light to guide you home after a long lonely day in the world. And that, the beacon of light shining forth from my wife’s love, is what keeps me sane in our crazy world.

Mishpacha, your family needs to be a high priority. Mom and I made decisions about where we wanted to live based on our desire to raise you in proximity to your grandparents. Yes, family has the ability to push your buttons like no other, but they also have the ability to accept you and love you unconditionally. Find a way to love your family and they will sustain you through the most challenging of times. Let yourself be separated from them when you are adults, and the tragedy of separation will be passed on as a model for your children as they develop their familial relationships. So call your adult siblings regularly and your parents even more. Throughout your life, make Shalom Bayit, peace in the home, one of your goals, and you will find unparalleled strength as you to venture out into the world.

About work, I have learned this: Find a career path that will allow you to bring goodness into our world. Making money for money’s sake, or even just to support your family, will slowly consume your soul. At the end of the day, you will not sustain yourself without seeking a greater good because the sole pursuit of money and material things is unending. And by the way, don’t try to keep up with the Jones’, because you can never keep up with the Jones’, because there will always be more Jones’ who always will have more.

Be ethical in all that you do – especially at work. Not because otherwise you will get caught – which ultimately you will. Rather, be ethical because it is the right thing to do. Always remember that Hebrew National hotdog commercial. It says it all. You are “responsible to a Higher Authority.”

As you prioritize your time, seek out a synagogue that speaks to your heart. Help it fulfill its mission to educate Jews and to respond Henaynu, that we are here to support each other. Attend services frequently. They will heal and uplift your soul in ways that you will recognize only after you have expended the energy to show up. Al tifros min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community, since within community, can we best feel God’s loving Presence.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Sha’alu Shalom Lirushalayim. Nowhere is the need for shalom more clear and yet often more difficult than in relationship with the State of Israel. But Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for each other. As you know, I am drawn to Israel even now, when most people are staying away. I have traveled there in both good and in difficult times. And I will again. Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel that courses through my veins, calls me to stand on her soil and to speak with her people, even at times that others deem dangerous. Just as I cannot imagine a world without you, neither can I imagine a world without Israel. As such, we all must wrap our arms around this tired little nation, comfort and support her, and tell her that Od yavo shalom, peace one day will come.

We can discern in our hearts a special love for Israel as we learn about her past and her present and as we visit her unique, precious places. As this love and connection grows – even before it fully matures – we need to support Israel with our time, energy and money; and dedicate ourselves to her wellbeing b’chol l’vavcha uv’chol nafshecha uv’chol m’odecha – with all our heart, soul and might. That too is part of the purpose for which God placed us on this earth.

You know that I have been studying Talmud with my colleagues. I recently studied the Talmud’s short list of six responsibilities of a parent to his or her children. Curiously, number six was “teach your children to swim.” Why swimming of all things? Did the rabbis witness their own set of tragedies and understand the simplicity of prevention? I wonder if they recognized the poignant symbolism inherent in swimming: that on occasion we all will be thrown into waters over our heads and we need the skills to keep ourselves afloat. In teaching you to swim, we endeavor to provide instruction in more than just the physical act of treading water and self-propulsion. We confirm that within each of us are many diverse tools – physical, emotional, spiritual – to help us navigate the currents of life. We have taught you the power of seeking out others for help and the wisdom of listening closely to their advice and counsel. I hope we have taught you that turning to others for support – friends and school counselors, rabbis and therapists – is the mark of courage and strength, not of weakness or shame. So seek out help when you need it.

Life, you may be learning, is filled with mysteries. The greatest perhaps is why God placed us upon this earth. Recently, I have discovered a hint of that ultimate purpose. Embedded in Torah, in a portion we read every Yom Kippur, are the words: Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem – you are holy because I, the Eternal your God am holy. Life, I believe, is supposed to be about Kedusha, holiness, about those significant yet indescribable moments of inspirational uplift that result from right-minded actions and intentions. Holiness, like spirituality, is not just a state of being; it is a manner of acting within the world by being compassionate, pursuing justice and seeking truth. When we do this right, our actions reflect shutaf Adonai, a partnership with God.

Well, these are the values I cherish. Values which carried me through the dark days of years gone by. I hope they carry you through too. I wrote these down, on Aaron’s advice, as a way to guide and comfort you in the years ahead. Perhaps one day soon you too will follow Aaron’s example and write down your ethical will. It truly is a holy task.

For now, mine kinderlach – my children and the children of my Torah teaching – honor my memory, and your family’s memory, and the tradition passed down midor lador, from generation to generation since the time of Moses, by being holy, by being kadosh. I know you are… May you know you are…

I love you. Love, Daddy.

There’s an Elephant in the Room; He’s Smoking Dope

We, Jews and Jewish families, living relatively comfortable lives, find ourselves increasingly facing uncomfortable truths: that abuse of drugs and alcohol runs rampant through our community. Jews are not immune from the battle with the bottle or the pull of the pills. Though we talk about it less than some communities, alcohol and drug abuse – especially among teens and young adults – continues to ruin lives.

It is time to face facts: too many of our kids have access too much money, easy transportation and freedom from parental oversight that allows them to explore and get hooked on drugs and booze well before we adults even have a clue. For those who are searching for something, our high schools – secular and Jewish alike – provide ample opportunity to experiment and get hooked. It is happening too often with our “nice Jewish boys and girls.”

At Or Ami we talk about the difficult issues: sex, drugs, disease, death. Our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting strives to help our community face the future by talking about those subjects that often make us uncomfortable, and by bringing our Jewish values and healing tradition to the conversation. Sometimes we pass on valuable insights through eNewsletters; sometimes we gather parents for open discussions about the challenges we face parenting.

Recently, our Rabbinic/Education Intern Lydia Bloom Medwin gathered together our Temple Teen Night participants for a discussion on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. I watched in amazement as our students listened attentively, and responded inquisitively, to the experience of one Jewish mother whose “nice Jewish boy” overdosed on drugs. Read on…

Rabbinic/Education Intern Lydia Bloom Medwin writes:

“You Can’t Compete with Heroin, Mom.”
These words helped speaker and author Rita Lowenthal comprehend just how deeply her son had descended into addiction. Rita’s son Josh began experimenting with drugs at age 13. By age 38, he had died of an overdose. This made Rita a particularly poignant speaker at our Temple Teen Night session focusing on the issue of drugs and alcohol one Wednesday. Rita’s reflections helped us to begin to understand the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the nature of addiction, as it functions in our own Jewish community.

Talking to kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs requires honesty. So we began by admitting that Judaism is not a religion that forbids the pleasures of alcohol. On the contrary, we customarily use wine in our holiday and life cycle celebrations. We drink wine to make these moments special and to increase the joy. However, Judaism also understands that moderation and responsibility are the keys to drinking at Jewish celebrations. Clearly, our tradition understands that there is a difference between alcohol use and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol and drug abuse can be dangerous and is certainly illegal for our youth. Rita explained to a fully engaged group of seventh through eleventh grade students about the risks of even experimenting with these substances, especially for the type of people who are naturally adventurous. We learned that while some people might be able to try a drug and then never touch it again, so many others try it once and cannot stop abusing drugs until the day the substance kills them. As such, just trying drugs could mean a life sentence. That is what happened to Josh Lowenthal when, at age 13, his mother found that it was already too late. In and out of rehab and jail for twenty-five years, Josh went from devastation to healing to hope and back again in a vicious cycle. Josh, a bright and outgoing Jewish kid, was musically talented who was inclined to write poetry and listen to NPR. Still, as Rita so eloquently in her book, “One Way Ticket,” even her “nice Jewish boy” wasn’t immune to the realities of addiction.

Congregation Or Ami is a community where we talk openly about drug and alcohol use. At Or Ami, students can ask the difficult questions and receive honest answers and thoughtful advice. If one of our students or our families is in trouble with drugs or alcohol, they can turn to Rabbi Paul Kipnes (who has been trained in Alcohol and Drug Counseling and Spiritual Care), our Rabbinic and Education Interns and our temple family for help. Or Ami will always respond with an open mind and open arms. For many, Or Ami has already been the first stop on the road to recovery.

Drug and alcohol addiction is nothing new; its roots stretch back to Biblical times. Addiction is a disease that affects a great deal of people, and the Jewish community is not immune to its ravages. At Congregation Or Ami, we are working to understand (and teach) more about the nature of this disease. Simultaneously we support our families who are currently struggling with addiction and we celebrate with those who have found recovery through the Twelve Step Program.

We welcome all those struggling with these issues to contact Rabbi Paul Kipnes or Rabbinic/Education Intern Lydia Bloom Medwin for support or Jewish resources regarding addiction and recovery.

Talking about that Dope-Smoking Elephant
Or Ami is committed to shining a light on this age-old problem. We have learned that when parents talk openly and calmly, kids hear what they have to say. With the support of Bruce and Wendy Friedman, and the Wolfson Family Foundation, Or Ami has been holding conversations – public and private – about the challenges of alcoholism and addiction. Each year Or Ami introduces another rabbinic student to the realities of addiction in the Jewish community and we provide him/her with opportunities to develop pastoral skills to address these challenges. As Lydia Bloom Medwin moves onto her new internship at UCLA Hillel, Rabbinic Intern Sara Mason will learn and teach about the dangers of addiction.

After the High Holy Days, our community will gather again under the auspices of our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting to learn from Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish halfway house in Los Angeles, about what we parents can do do help our kids combat the pull of the pills.

Until then, explore my blog article on Talking to Your Kids about Drugs and Alcohol, Part I. We parent more effectively when our eyes are open wide.

As always, I am here to listen, to strategize and to help, as we all walk the tightrope between parenting too much and parenting too little. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Email Rabbi Paul Kipnes here.

Did You Call Your Mother (or Father)?

It made the Top Ten: Kibud Av v’Eim – Honor Your Father and Mother (coming in at #5, between the commandments about our relationship with God and spirituality, and those about how we treat other people). It made it into the Holiness Code: You shall revere your mother and father (appearing right after God tells Moses to tell us to be holy, kedoshim tehiyu).

The way we treat our parents tells us more about about the character of a person than the words he speaks or the gifts she brings. Looking for a spouse or partner for the long haul? Watch how he or she treats his/her parents. Wondering if you children will treat you well when you get older? Just look in the mirror and observe how you treat your parent(s). After all, we are the role models for our own children.

I call my father every morning (usually at 8:15 a.m., right after I drop the kids off at school). Why? Because he likes hearing what is happening in our lives. Because he enjoys the conversation. Because I love him. Because I want my kids to follow my lead and call me regularly when I get older. And as a small way to repay the debt I owe him because this wonderul man spent his adult life working, stressing, supporting my siblings and me. It is the least Ican do. (Yes, I call my mother also, plenty).

Our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting recently gathered adults together for a discussion about how to parent our parents. Those who attended said it was intense, because the emotions surrounding the aging of our parents can be intense.

Can we prepare ourselves for the inevitable process of watching our parents age? How can we hold onto the sacredness of who they are and what they have meant to us? Our congregant Don Weston, 83 and going strong, offers these words of wisdom.

Aging Parents: What Do They Want from Us?
by Or Ami Congregant Don Weston

I am 83 years old and I have two children so I guess that makes me an aging parent. I enjoy talking to people, particularly young people. I ask police officers how the crook business is. That always gets a smile. I talk to bank tellers and ask for samples. That always gets a smile. I talk to anyone and everyone. What I find interesting is the response I get with my closing comment. I generally always end my conversation with a young person with, “Be careful out there and call your mother.” Mostly I get a surprised look and a smile and a comment like, “Okay I will” or, “I haven’t talked to her in awhile” and sometimes just a guilty look. Amazingly, they don’t seem to forget it. If I happen to see them again, they smile and say, “I called my mother.”

I can’t tell you what every parent wants. I believe I can tell you what we don’t want. We don’t want to be left out of the loop, the loop being the family: you, your spouse, our grandchildren, your in-laws, and your friends. Aside from respect, kindness and consideration, we need to know what’s going on in your life. We need to know the little things that happen in our family. How did you do at Mah Jong or poker? What movies have you seen, or what do you have going on for next week? How are the kids doing in school? We need to know that we haven’t been put out to pasture or placed on the back burner. We need to be in touch. Most of all, we don’t want to feel forgotten. At the same time, we don’t want to bother you.

You have a cell phone 24/7 so give us a call, maybe when you’re waiting in line for something. Bring us up-to-date. I kno, I know. You are going to have to hear about a friend’s surgery or how Mrs. Fein slipped and fell in the mall. So what? You forgot how to listen? (The more you talk, the less you will have to listen.) I realize that some of us don’t move into modern times as easily as others, and you’re also going to hear (more than once, I’m afraid), about when gas was 24 cents a gallon, and the comedians were a lot funnier (and a lot cleaner). Okay, okay. So once in a while we slip into “the good old days.” Is that so bad? Then give us some of your good old days.

You have to understand that when the phone rings and we answer and we hear, “Hello Ma (or Mom or Mama or Pa or Pop or Dad or Daddy), it’s your loving daughter (or son),” to us it is like manna from heaven. The back doesn’t hurt as much, the sun is a little brighter, and love is coming through the phone.

Listen, I love to talk, but enough is enough. So be careful out there and call your mother.


When do you fulfill the fifth commandment to honor your father and mother?

How do you keep your relationship going with your mother or father?

As always, I invite you to join the conversation. Leave me a comment. (You may also contact Don Weston by email.)