Tag: Diversity

Blessing for Non-Jewish Spouses and Partners on the Bimah at Yom Kippur Services

A Ritual for Yom Kippur Morning and Family Services
Adapted by Rabbi Paul Kipnes (Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas)
from Blessings Written by Rabbis Janet Marder and Denise Eger

[Background: At Congregation Or Ami, we honor and value all members of our community, including and especially those non-Jewish spouses and partners who have chosen to raise their children as Jews. The depth of our outreach and support is evident in the award-winning webpage for interfaith couples and families (http://www.orami.org/outreach/interfaith) which states “No one is more welcome at Or Ami than you.” Non-Jewish spouses are fully integrated into our community, standing on the bima as their children become Bar/Bat Mitzvah and sharing other simchas and sorrows with the congregation. We recognize the special gift and sacrifices our non-Jewish members make to raise their children as Jews. So at Yom Kippur services, just before we sang the Mi Chamocha prayer, we called them to the bima to bless them. I did not write this blessing. I thank my colleagues Rabbi Janet Marder who wrote this blessing, and Rabbi Denise Eger who helped me integrate it into the service. ]

Today I want to recognize and publicly acknowledge for the first time some very important people in our congregation. They are part of Congregation Or Ami because, somewhere along the way, they happened to fall in love with a Jewish man or woman, and that decision changed their life. I want to let you know in advance that in a few moments I am going to be calling up all non-Jewish spouses and partners to come to the bima for a special blessing of thanks and appreciation.

I hope that you will not be embarrassed or upset that I am singling you out in this way. The last thing I want is to make you feel uncomfortable. What I do want is to tell you how much you matter to our congregation, and how very grateful we are for what you have done.

You are a very diverse group of people. Some of you are living a Jewish life in virtually all respects. Some of you are devoutly committed to another faith. Some of you do not define yourselves as religious at all. You fall at all points along this spectrum, and we acknowledge and respect your diversity.

What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner. Most of all, we want to offer our deepest thanks to those of you who are parents, and who are raising your sons and daughters as Jews.

In our generation, which saw one-third of the world’s Jewish population destroyed, every Jewish child is especially precious. We are a very small people, and history has made us smaller. Our children mean hope, and they mean life. So every Jewish boy and girl is a gift to the Jewish future. With all our hearts, we want to thank you for your generosity and strength of spirit in making the ultimate gift to the Jewish people.

Please, please…do not be shy and do not feel uncomfortable. It is important that we show you how much you have our love and respect, and there is no better time to say that than on the most important day in the Jewish year. Please come up now, and receive the heartfelt gratitude of your congregation.

[Music is played as non-Jewish spouses and partners come up on the bima]

You are the moms and dads who drive the carpool for Mishpacha, Kesher and Temple Teen Night. You help explain to your kids why it’s important to get up on Sunday morning or to come to Temple midweek, and to learn to be a Jew. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help to make a Jewish home. You learn to make kugel and latkes; you try to like gefilte fish; you learn to put on a Seder; you build a Sukkah in the backyard. You join your spouse at the Shabbat table – maybe you even set that Shabbat table and make it beautiful.

You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language. You stand on the bima and pass the Torah to your children on the day they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and tell them how proud you are and how much you love them, and how glad you are to see them grow into young Jewish men and women.

We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.

In your honor, I now ask our congregation to rise, and repeat after me as we offer you this ancient blessing from the Torah…

Yivarechecha Adonai V’yishm’recha – May God bless you and watch over you;

Yair Adonai Panav Eilecha Vi-chuneka – May the light of the Holy One shine upon you and be gracious unto you.

Yisa Adonai Panav Eilecha, V’yasem l’cha Shalom – May God be with you always and grant you the precious gift of peace.

It was Pharoah’s daughter, a non-Israelite (a non-Jew) nurtured that baby, who became Moses our leader, who saved our people from Egyptian slavery and received Torah for us and brought us to the gateway to the Promised Land. Similarly, you nurture your children, ensuring they grow up connected to the Jewish people. What you are doing is no less than miraculous. You are ensuring that Jewish values, Jewish tradition, and Or Ami continues to shine brightly. Thank you for being the miracle in our lives.

Todah Rabbah Lachem – Thank you all very much.

Breaking Down Barriers in Tel Aviv

K’sheh nichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha. When the Hebrew month of Adar begins, joy is increased! How true, at least from my seat here in Jerusalem.

I lay down for my pre-Shabbat schulfee (nap), only to be so filled with memories and stories that I could only sleep for a few minutes.

Yesterday, Thursday, was Tel Aviv day. This would be my second full day in Tel Aviv/Jaffa this trip; possibly only my third week or so total in my lifetime. I’m an Oheiv Yerushalayim, a lover of Jerusalem, by nature. When the Psalmist wrote, Eem eshkacheich Yerushalayim – If I forget thee, O Jerusalem – I seem to have understood this to mean that I must remain focused on the Holy City. Yet these recent trips, spurred on by Tel Aviv Progressive Rabbi Meir Azari’s challenge to open myself up to Jewish life outside of Jerusalem, has led me to appreciate, even come to love, this modern Jewish city.

We heard Tel Aviv mayor speak of the importance of Progressive Judaism to Tel Aviv. Incidentally, he has been a major supporter of Beit Daniel and its community center, helping allocate land and allocate funds.

We took a walking tour of Jerusalem, led by two guides: an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab of Israeli citizenship. Note the new way of speaking about the second: not an Israeli Arab, but a Palestinian Arab of Israeli citizenship. It is about identity. Years ago, many blacks decided to self-identify as African-Americans, instead of blacks, in order to grasp hold of their African descent. As we walked through Yaffo/Jaffa, we learned about the history of the port city from the perspective of two narratives: that of the Israeli Jew and that of the Palestinian. How to reconcile two “truths”? How to honor the reality each experienced, bringing wholeness to both communities?

The afternoon was a combined celebration of Israeli/Tel Avivi culture and arts, as well as a reflection on issues of social justice. Any Bar Mitzvah student will tell you that when the Torah instructs us in Leviticus 19:4, “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind…”, it was urging ethical action toward all those with disabilities. Our actions must be more than just not placing a block; we must work to embrace those with disabilities. Thus, the production of Not by Bread Alone, a play whose theater assembly is comprised of people who are deaf and/or blind. A majority of the actors suffer from an inherited genetic disorder called Usher Syndrome which initially results in acute deafness and which is followed by loss of vision. Their production was moving, engaging and thought-provoking. Rather than worrying about the stumbling block placed before them, these “disabled” actors removed the block that keep so many from seeing “disabled” as merely “differently abled.” Bravo to the CCAR for providing us with an artistic experience, a social justice encounter, and a wonderful day!

More reflections on the CCAR conference at Ima on (and off) the Bima (Rabbi Phyllis Sommer), Divray Derech (Rabbi Rick Winer), Desperately Seeking Sinai (Rabbi David Cohen). Also check out the official CCAR Israel Convention blog.

Any other CCAR rabbis blogging the convention? Email Rabbi Paul Kipnes, and we’ll link your blog to the CCAR Israel Convention Blog.

Head Spinning, Heart Soaring: Coexistence Experiences

My head is spinning, my heart is soaring, yet the Israel Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis is only in its second day. So much is happening. Where to start.

The Convention opened with a klezmer band (complete with tuba!?) serenading us as we walked to Mercaz Shimshon, the headquarters of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. We shmoozed, caught up with friends new and old, and heard from the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. Fellow blogger Ima on (and off) the Bima (Rabbi Phyllis Sommer) and Divray Derech (Rabbi Rick Winer) covered that event on their respective blogs, so click over to them for the low down.

Today (Wednesday) was for me, a day to explore the potential and challenges of coexistence in Israel. I woke early to pray at the Kotel (Western Wall) with Women of the Wall, a group of women dedicated to making it possible for women to seriously daven (and wear tallitot and read Torah) at the Kotel. They gathered at the back of the women’s section and, covered with tallitot and some kippot, davened together aloud. We men stood behind the mechitzah (divider), sang along, took pictures and prayed. We witnessed the fundamentalist, misogynist anger of some of the ultraorthodox men as they called this the “prayer of Hamas”. One colleague had his camera taken by an ultraorthodox man, and in the tussel to get it back, it dropped and was broken. The self-appointed women guards at the women’s section yelled and screamed that this was inappropriate worship. How unfortunate that the shrieking screams of a woman at this place of prayer is deemed more appropriate than the traditional prayers of sung by a collection of women. It was very upsetting, and yet for women (and mixed groups) who want to pray together at one of Israel’s most holy sites, this is more usual than not. We made our way down to the Southern Wall to read Torah; our female colleagues honored with an aliyah. Sadly, fundamentalism is alive and well in ultraorthodox Judaism.

My friend Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple is getting involved heavily in Los Angeles Interreligious Dialogue. After hearing the amazing stories he tells, I decided to take advantage of the CCAR’s interreligious experience. The afternoon included a jaunt with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. Rabbi Kronish took us to meet with the Lutheran Bishop (of Israel, Jordan and Palestine) and the Armenian Archbishop. We heard about their communities, the different narratives, struggles and hopes. In general, a picture of hopeful coexistence pervaded. We then met with the Muslim Kadi of Jerusalem, a religious judge who deals with issues of marriage, divorce and inheritance. He spoke of the freedom of religion under Israelis, about the contentment of this Palestinians who are Israeli citizens of their lives living in Israel, but also about the challenges of gaining full complement of services from the State. They shared their very productive dialogues with orthodox rabbis, and how interpersonal connections are leading to better understanding. The afternoon left me with a sense of hope and possibility. That if we see the Other within his life and tradition, barriers can fall. Bravo (and thank you) to the CCAR for bringing us this meaningful interreligious experience!

Let me speak of love. When I travel to conventions, I usually sit in my hotel room during down time. But my head spins and my heart soars with the intoxication of Jerusalem. Every free moment (blogging excepted), I am out and about. Walking the back alleys of the Old City. Meandering through the neighborhoods. Racking up hours of exploring. I cannot get enough of this place! Enough blogging. Gotta get out there and meander!

3 Rabbis to Offer Prayers at Obama Inauguration Service

JTA broke the news a few days ago in the Jewish world that 3 rabbis

Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, Conservative Rabbi Jerome Epstein and Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein are scheduled to take part in the Jan. 21 event at the National Cathedral in Washington… Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, offered a prayer on the night Obama accepted the Democratic nomination at last summer’s convention in Denver.

Haaretz comes to highlight the higher profile that religion is playing in the Democratic world and in this first African-American President’s inauguration. After a politically astute, yet very disappointing decision to invite the upcoming dean of the Christian Right world, and strong marriage equality opponent Rick Warren, President-elect Obama is offering some very significant invitations:

… Obama asked V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, to lead prayers at Sunday’s kickoff for the inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial. Gay rights groups rejoiced, while some conservative Christians wrung their hands.

Then at the January 21 National Prayer Service that caps the inauguration:

The Reverand Sharon Watkins, the first woman president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Protestant group, will deliver the sermon.

A prayer will be offered at the National Cathedral by Ingrid Mattson, the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. The Islamic Society, based in Indiana, is the nation’s largest Muslim group.

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?

Snapshot of Israel during the Gaza Conflict

As the fourth day of the conflict in Gaza continues, Israel’s Ashkelon hospital moves its essential departments underground. (I remember seeing the Haifa hospital’s underground facility, created before the Lebanon II War, which saved so many lives during that conflict.)

Fearing missile strikes from the Gaza Strip, Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital on Saturday moved its most essential departments into an underground bomb shelter. The hospital in this city of 120,000 people about 17 kilometers (11 miles) north of the Gaza border has sent half its patients home to get them out of harm’s way….

In Barzilai’s underground children’s ward, sick Gazans lay alongside sick Israelis as a clown hopped around trying to coax smiles from them all. Lobel said that his facility had close ties with Gaza’s Shifa hospital, and accepted many of its patients who need treatment the Gazan hospital cannot provide. He said it wasn’t uncommon to have a colleague in Gaza call him for assistance even as rockets rained down on Ashkelon.

“It might seem completely absurd,” Lobel said. “But we have the privilege to be doctors. Our medical ethics do not distinguish between patients. We treat whoever needs to be treated.”

A Gaza woman, whose two-month-old granddaughter was being treated for an unidentified ailment, wept when asked how she was coping. She said she was fortunate her granddaughter was getting the best medical treatment but was worried about her daughter and other grandchildren in Gaza City. She said some of their next-door neighbors had been killed by the Israeli airstrikes that have killed more than 280 people. “I am very sad and hurt,” she said, in Arabic. “We want peace, not war.” She refused to identify herself or have her picture taken, for fear of retribution if her presence in Israel was discovered in Gaza.

A few doors down in the maternity ward, 23-year-old Israeli Keren Shaltiel was resting after giving birth to her second child. She said hearing sirens and exploding rockets outside while in labor was bizarre. A resident of the frequently-hit nearby town of Sderot, she said she was used to such sounds but didn’t expect them to accompany her delivery. “Today is a very happy day for me personally,” she said from her underground hospital room. “But today I am also very worried about my town and my country.”

#5: The Candle of Religious Freedom

Chanukah Candle #5. Chamesh (Hebrew), pět (Czech), öt (Hungarian), talliman (North Alaskan Iñupiaq). Happy Fifth Night of Chanukah.

Blog Tzedakah:
Remember, for each comment written today, I will donate tzedakah. Through your comments over four days, we have donated a total of $138.00! What’s today’s tzedakah recipient? Scroll below.

Chanukah Blog Thots:

Chanukah is a holiday of stories, old and new. We retell the tale of the Maccabees boldly fighting for religious freedom. We share family stories or read Jewish folktales about Chanukah in distant and not-so-distant times. Many of these stories focus on the powerful symbolism of the Chanukah menorah (lamp), such that the Chanukah lights are an expression of Jewish identity and a symbol of hope for a better future. There are Holocaust tales of European Jews who somehow managed to gather around the menorah in the ghetto or to improvise one in the concentration camps. Other stories tell of American Jews who found hope and strength as they gathered around the Chanukah lights during the long winters of the 1930s and 1940s.

Although we are commanded to make known miracle of Chanukah by placing our Chanukah lights in the window, in many of these stories, the Jews had to hide their Chanukah menorahs out of fear. In such tales, the chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) symbolizes hope for a future free from religious persecution; a future in which Jews could reveal the light of the Chanukah lamp, openly declaring their identity and practicing Judaism without fear.

Displaying our Chanukah Lights
While the Jews in these Chanukah stories faced persecution, hid their identity for self-protection, and feared for their brothers and sisters, we are blessed to live in a country where we have freedom of religion. Many of our ancestors came to America in order to be free from religious persecution and to find the freedom to practice (or not practice) religion as they saw fit. When we proudly display our Chanukah lights, we are celebrating the very blessings for which so many Jews could only hope.

Freedom of religion allows Jews and people of other faiths or no faith to worship or refrain from worship as they see fit. Religious freedom is guaranteed for all Americans by the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Our Bill of Rights has allowed religion to flourish in America by preventing the government from inhibiting religious practice and from harming or interfering with religious institutions.

A Nation that Thrives on Religious Freedom
In a November 2004 press conference, President George Bush explained the importance of the separation of Church and State: “We live in a nation that has thrived on religious freedom and religious tolerance. Our founding fathers realized the dangers of building a society based upon a single state religion. They rightly feared the tyranny of state sponsored religion. Rather, the framers put up a wall of separation between Church and State. This separation has allowed all different religious groups — Jews, Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and secularists to flourish in this country.”

Yet we have witnessed a growing presence of overt religion in the halls of government. Many elected representatives proclaim themselves the embodiment of religious values. Others declare that America is, and therefore ought to act like, a Christian nation. Such sentiments threaten the tradition of liberty that is at the core of America’s identity.

Is America a Christian Nation?
America is not just a nation for Christians; it is a nation for all. (At best it is founded on Judeo-Christian values. And while a very large number of American citizen are of one of many different Christian denominations, these denominations often cannot agree with one another on basic tenets of their creed.) Not all Americans read the Bible in the same way as religious fundamentalists. Those of us who read the Bible understand its text against the backdrop of our own faith traditions and personal life experiences. Many Americans do not look to the Bible for religious guidance at all. To turn the halls of government – and the mission of government – into a mission of faith is to destroy one of the pillars upon which our nation rests. The light of religious liberty is being threatened. Not by those who would destroy religion, but by those, who, out of devotion to their own religious beliefs, wish to impose their worldview on others through force of law.

This spread of religion into government is evident in the drive to embed one group’s religious beliefs regarding marriage, women’s rights, protection of the environment and even the validity of scientific discovery into the legal codes that govern us all. The problem is not with faith; rather, it is with the imposition of one person or a group’s beliefs onto the entire nation.

Focusing on the Second Chanukah Blessing
For Jews, religious liberty flows through the story of Chanukah. When we recite the second blessing over the Chanukah lights (…sheh-asah neeseem lavotaynu), giving thanks for the miracles that God performed for our ancestors, we acknowledge the importance of religious liberty. This prayer recalls our ancestors’ celebration as they were no longer subject to tyrannical rulers who prevented them from practicing their faith. Indeed, it is our religious beliefs that inspire us to fight for religious liberty for all and for the preservation of the separation of Church and State.

This Chanukah, as we gather around the menorah and rejoice with family, friends and Jews around the world, may we remember our call to and the benefits of religious liberty. May we work to keep the light of liberty shining brightly.

Adapted from Chanukah: Tales of Religious Freedom, by Rabbi Leah Doberne-Schor (then intern at the URJ Commission on Social Action)

Blog Tzedakah: The seven of you who left comments yesterday ensured that collectively, we donated $21 of my money to the Or Ami Matching Grant Fund, meaning that today it was worth $42 of tzedakah.

Today’s Tzedakah: Comments you write today will yield donations to the Madraygot (12 Step) Addiction Prevention fund, which offers drug and alcohol addiction prevention education and counseling for grades 4 through 12, creates tools for parents through an online resource, and develops Jewish 12 Step support groups. Learn more about its activities here. To donate yourself, click here.

Chag Chanukah Samayach – Happy Chanukah!

On Inviting Rev. Warren to Give Invocation at Obama Inauguration

Politically it was both brilliantly strategic (if you want to show yourself as being open to diverse opinions and a wide variety of religious perspectives) and very disappointing (for it does not move us beyond this nonsensical discriminatory way our state and country deals with gay men and lesbians). Thus I signed onto a letter to President Elect Obama, saying (you too can sign on here) :

Dear President Elect Obama:

I am disappointed by the invitation to anti-LGBT and Prop. 8 supporter Rev. Warren to give the invocation at your inauguration next month.

But I am writing to you today as a Human Rights Campaign supporter urging you to turn the corner on this controversy by officially committing to HRC’s Blueprint for Positive Change — a concrete plan for LGBT equality:

— Issue an Executive Order within the first 100 days that reaffirms protections for federal workers based on sexual orientation and expands them to also include gender identity;

— Work with Congress to sign Hate Crimes legislation into law within 6 months;

— Support only a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA);

— In the first 100 days develop a plan to begin the process of eliminating the failed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; and

— Work with Congress to end unequal tax treatment of domestic partnerships benefits.

Yesterday, you defended your selection of Rev. Warren by saying “I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.”

I ask you to restore my trust by pledging to support HRC’s Blueprint for Positive Change.

Kids Say the Most Amazing Things: Confirmation Class 2008

Question: What do you get when you take four most thoughtful, compassionate, committed Jewish teens, with whom I have studied Judaism for eight to twelve years, and put them together up on the bimah at Erev Shabbat services?

Answer: A very moving Confirmation Class service.

Congregation Or Ami’s service last night was deeply meaningful. Our Confirmands – Alex Krasnoff, Ross Meyer, Jonny Wixen, and Sarah Wolfson – led the prayers and in between, offered their reflections on a series of questions:

  • If asked by a non-Jewish person what you cherish about Judaism, what would you say?
  • What do you believe or think about God?
  • Having studied Judaism for 10-13 years, what ideas or parts of Judaism are most significant or meaningful for you?
  • What has Judaism taught you that will help you later in life?
  • How do you feel connected to Israel?
  • When have you felt the most Jewish and why?

Some of their responses include:

If asked by a non-Jewish person what you cherish about Judaism, what would you say? I would talk about Tikkun Olam, or fixing the world. What is most important to me about Judaism is that Jews care about more than just our community but also the world. At every Jewish camp or temple I have ever attended, there has always been an emphasis on community service. Community service is something that I love and my passion for helping others is influenced heavily by the Jewish community and Judaism. It is great to be a member of a faith that is comprised of a community that cares about others.

If asked by a non-Jewish person what you cherish about Judaism, what would you say? I cherish Judaism because it provides me with a moral code about how to live my life. Judaism teaches that if I follow its laws, then I will live a productive and happy life. Judaism also allows me complete spiritual freedom. I do not have to be spiritual to be Jewish. I do not have to believe in that the biblical times were historical, and yet I still am able to gain so much from Judaism. Judaism has not taught me one particular thing that will help me later in life. Judaism has shaped HOW I live my life. Many of my most defining characteristics are either due to Jewish teachings or from my experiences in my Jewish community. I live a Jewish life. I learned many of my morals and beliefs through Jewish teachings, and I strive to life my life as Judaism teaches me.

One of the most meaningful things I have learned throughout my studies it to be accepting of others. It is important to accept other people for who they are and what they believe in. Not only does it help to prevent problems, by not dwelling on peoples differences, but also you might become friends with them. Another thing I have learned it to help those in need. One of the reasons helping those in need is important is because if you were in need, you would want someone to help you. The reason I like to help those in need is the wonderful feeling I receive from helping someone else.

What has Judaism taught you that will help you later in life? Judaism is full of life changing ideas and lessons. I know that I will use my studies later in life to help me make large decisions and live a fulfilling life. Judaism teaches us to be patient with one another, which I feel is really important if I want to go far and be happy. The idea of repentance on Rosh Hashana is an extremely important idea to me. I feel that it is crucial to reflect, but not regret, and then in a healthy way move on. If I can live these values, which Judaism has taught me, I know I will go far.

Having studied Judaism for 10-13 years, what ideas of Judaism are most meaningful for you? Judaism, at least Reform Judaism, has adapted to modern times. We are not forced to follow traditions just because that is how it has always been done, when those rituals have no relative meaning to modern times. Also, Judaism allows me to choose what I believe in and yet still provides a way to live my life to its fullest. This is what I love about Judaism the most, that Judaism instructs on how to live a successful Jewish life, yet does not require you to believe in every aspect of Judaism.

Rabbi Kipnes teaches that the strength of Judaism is its teaching that every aspect our Torah and tradition is open to questioning and challenge. Even the existence of God…

What do you believe or think about God? I do not believe that God exists. I prefer to believe that in a society as advanced as ours, people can be weaned off of the opiate of the masses. I do think that there is a place for religion without God. I think that religion is a great place to build a safe community, and to teach valuable morals and lessons. It is not that I ever lost my faith in God. It is that I never had it. To be frank, I think that science makes a much more logical and compelling case for creation. I believe that history makes a better case than the bible, although I think that neither science nor history account for life’s little unexplainable miracles.

What do you believe or think about God? Deism is the belief that God created the world but has no business in it today. I do not believe that God is someone that directly controls our daily lives. I believe more in free will instead than destiny. My understanding of God is slightly different from the God in which most people seem to believe. I believe that God is what you make for yourself.

In what ways do you feel connected to Israel? I wish I had a stronger relationship with Israel, the Holy Land. I feel connected in the sense that it is our ancestor’s land and that I have read and been taught many wonderful things about it. But I have never been. I want to go to Israel very soon. If I am fortunate enough, I will go on my birthright trip within the next few years to deepen my connection.

In what ways do you feel connected to Israel? I never really felt a connection to Israel until I visited Israel with Congregation Or Ami’s first Family Trip two winters ago. I found Israel to be a magical, beautiful place. I developed a connection to Israel the more I thought about how Israel was a nation that had risen from a horrible tragedy, existing among unfriendly neighbors. There is something very powerful about having a Jewish state in such an unfriendly and extremist area. I think that Israel is something that we need to protect for not only historical reasons but also because regardless of its past, today it is a Jewish state with Jewish families, people who have made their lives there. That right to exist must be protected. It is in that cause that I feel most connected to Israel.

I feel connected to Israel not only through the fact that I am Jewish but also through the friends I made that live in Israel. The first time I went to Israel I was too young to really appreciate it. Then in the 6th grade, I went back to Israel to visit my Great Grandmother and it was so meaningful that I do not know how to explain what I felt when I was there. Then last summer I was a counselor at my summer camp and became friends with a group of Israelis. Now I am trying to find time to go back to Israel so I can visit them and see the sights once more.

When have you felt the most Jewish and why? I felt most Jewish a few summers ago as I stood before a row of cribs in South-east Vietnam. I had traveled there with my parents and other Or Ami members on Or Ami’s Humanitarian Mission to the Orphanages in Vietnam. I felt most Jewish not just because I was with a group from the temple, but because of the emotions that I felt during those three weeks. I knew that being there was crucial to my growth and development as a boy becoming a man. That experience showed me that there are so many things to be thankful for and that it is our duty to give back whatever and whenever. It illuminated for me the Jewish ideal of Mitzvot, that we all have the responsibility because of our good fortunate to give back to others.

When have you felt the most Jewish and why? I felt most Jewish when I hosted a foreign exchange student from Spain and she attend a High Holy Day service with me. Before the service, I had to explain Judaism to her. Although I do not believe in God, I found in explaining Judaism to her, that I do have an extraordinary connection to the community and the lessons of our religion.

Mankind is No Island… Shot Entirely on a Cellphone

Tropfest NY 2008 winner, “Mankind Is No Island” by Jason van Genderen

Torah teaches us to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor… Are we doing our job? Is it enough to go serve in a shelter or food pantry on Thanksgiving or New Years?

According to the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, there are:

  • 73,702 homeless people on any given night in Los Angeles County
  • 40,144 homeless people in the City of Los Angeles alone
  • 141,737 homeless people annually in Los Angeles County (COC)

Can you stand to look at the problem straight in the face? If so, check out these lives that need our help:


  • Approximately 59% of the homeless population is male, 24% female, and 2% transgendered[1]


  • African Americans are over-represented in the homeless population, comprising over 50%, while in Los Angeles County they comprise just over 9% of the general population
  • Nearly 24% of the homeless population is Hispanic/Latino, and 19% is Caucasian


  • Median age of Los Angeles COC homeless is 45 years old
  • 15% of the homeless population (10,116) are children under the age of 18


  • 12% of homeless people are veterans.


  • 41% of the homeless population have a high school diploma or GED
  • 7% have an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or higher degree


  • 83% of the County’s homeless population is unsheltered
  • Of the 35% of homeless who tried to access a shelter, 45% of the individuals state they were turned away

Homeless Families

  • 24% of Los Angeles’ homeless are homeless families
  • 16,643 homeless individuals comprise over 6200 homeless families in Los Angeles County
  • 82% of homeless families are unsheltered

Domestic Violence

  • 20% of women reported experiencing domestic violence
  • 11% of homeless individuals stated that they were currently experiencing domestic violence


  • 27% of homeless people report being a victim of assault since becoming homeless
  • 42% of homeless individuals report being victims of police harassment since becoming homeless

Health Care

  • 48% of homeless people use the emergency room as their primary source of health care
  • Over 53% had been to the emergency room at least once in the last 12 months
  • 22% have needed medical attention since becoming homeless but were unable to receive it


  • Nearly 31% of homeless survey respondents are mentally ill and almost 35% are physically disabled
  • Overall, around 74% of homeless individuals report a disabling condition

Need Affordable Housing[2]

  • Over 40% Los Angeles renters use more than 30% of their income to pay rent
  • 10% of Los Angeles affordable housing needs have been met

[1] Does not add up to 100% because homeless children were not assigned genders.

[2] Building Healthy Communities 101. “Housing Affordability.”

*Continuum of Care (COC): does not include cities of Pasadena, Glendale, or Long Beach.