Tag: Or Ami

For Many Jewish Youth, Gay Marriage is a New Normal

I woke early one morning in June to hear the decisions of the United States Supreme Court on a pair of cases about marriage equality. Joy mixed with disappointment. I celebrated the return of marriage equality to the State of California and the effective end of the ill-named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) through the extension of benefits to gay and lesbian married couples. At the same time, the Supremes dodged an opportunity to make Marriage Equality the law of the land. Still, there is hope as advocates work within the states to move equality forward.

Some people expressed frustration at the slow pace of full equality. I am not one of those people. I see that great strides have been made and more will come.


  1. Because at its root, marriage equality is grows out of our Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), and the inalterable Jewish value that all of us – including gay men and lesbian women – are created in that image, thus deserving to be valued and inherently demanding equality. AND
  2. Because of young people like Dani and her friends who are increasingly becoming the dominant voice in our land. 

The Youth Shall See Visions

Dani is an 11-year-old young person from our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) who recently spent a month at the URJ Camp Newman summer camp.

Dani inherently gets this rightness and justice of marriage equality. The challenges raised by opponents seem irrelevant to her. Homosexuality and the resulting call for marriage equality are a new normal for her and her friends.

Dani’s mother Debby explained it this way:

Dear Family & Friends, 

I wanted to share with you the story of how Dani and her friends celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision about Prop. 8.

One of the role-playing games that girls play these days is a variation on the time-honored game we used to call “House.” Modern girls now call the game “Family.” Everyone is assigned a role: one is the mother, one is the father, and the others are various sisters, brothers, and inevitably babies. Occasionally there is a dog or cat or horse involved. The girls have never hesitated to take on male roles, and they will spend hours playing the game (which usually involves a lot of scolding of the children and heavy sighing by the frazzled and overwhelmed mother). 

Dani was away for 4 weeks at her beloved URJ Camp Newman when the announcement that the Supreme Court dismissed the Prop 8 appeal reached Dani and her beloved cabinmates. They responded by deciding that they should all get married. So the ten girls, ages 10 to 12, formed five “married” couples for the rest of their time at camp (though there was flexibility in who was married to whom from day to day).

That they so readily and seamlessly (and joyfully) adapted the game of Family to include same-sex couples truly brought home for me how far we have come as a society in overcoming ignorance, intolerance, and fear when it comes to accepting, embracing, and role-playing different kinds of loving couples.

Dani and her cabinmates’ game does not mean that equality has been achieved yet, but how this one group of girls responded provides us a glimpse into how today’s children will act when they are tomorrow’s adults. 

Statistically, it is quite possible that one of those 10 girls may already know or later discover that she herself is a lesbian. Imagine her having this silly yet loving pre-teen memory to hold dear as she chooses how to make her own way into a world that may not always embrace her sexual orientation as warmly and naturally as her cabinmates did in the Summer of 2013.

To those of us who seek full equality for gay and lesbian individuals and couples, Dani’s game playing is so moving.

Two friends of Dani’s mom reacted even more passionately:

Said one,

I am fighting back tears as I type this. My heart is too full to say much, but please know I find this a beautiful sentiment to a subject that is so hard for a lot to stomach. The fight is constant and continues, of course, but knowing this is the future is very empowering.

Said the other,

I remember playing “house” (and yes, that’s definitely what we called it then) with the cute as a button little blonde across the street, and I ALWAYS had to be the boy. It never dawned on us that we could both be the girl and live happily ever after…

Debby allowed me to publish this story after she asked Dani what she thought about sharing this on your blog. Dani does not have a problem with it.

To quote Debby, 

I think the thing that feels so remarkable about Dani’s story and about the kids my daughter is friends with is that they do not view being gay as a big deal or particularly interesting or special – or negative. Obviously, there are still plenty of kids in the country who do NOT feel this way, but the momentum feels to me to be moving in the direction of: why should I care (or have any say in approving) who someone else loves?

Right, why should I care about or have any say in approving who one marries?! Relationships between two mature, consensual, supportive adults, who see in each other B’tzelem Elohim  deserve equality.

May that equality, blessed by our communities, soon become the law of our whole country.

Drumming our Way to a Spiritual Shabbat

Ken Meyer Leads the Drumming
(All Pictures by Michael Kaplan)

We learn in Torah that Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and led the Israelite women sing, as they, her brother Moses and the Israelite men crossed through Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. We regularly tout the spiritual uplift that comes from music of shofarot (rams’ horns) and of singing.

This timbreltof in Hebrew, a percussion instrument, part mini-cymbals, part drum – was new to the Israelite orchestra. If our ancestors added this instrument into the mix, shouldn’t we?

There is something about rhythm, about holding a beat, that is primal. Drumming brings people together; it forms disparate elements in a group. Drumming transforms individuals into a community.

In the Torah, no doubt the tambourines and drumming gave purpose and direction to the Israelite tribes as they walked through the sea. Just as the heartbeats of choir members beat in sync, so too the drumming might have kept the Israelites on the exodus on task.

Drumming can Greatly Enhance Jewish spirituality

Sheryl Braunstein Sings
While Aaron Meyer Plays Piano

On a recent Friday night, at a backyard Shabbat service at the home of Rabbi Wendy Spears and Eitan Ginsburg, Congregation Or Ami worshippers gathered for a musical drumming Shabbat. Playing a range of instruments – drums, tambourines, maracas, and sticks among others – worshippers explored the hypnotizing and meditative experience of praying with a beat. Soloist Sheryl Braunstein, pianist Aaron Meyer and drummer Ken Meyer led us through a rhythmic service. Same prayers, same tunes, but with an entrancing beat. Rabbinic intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch told a story about our responsibility to respond to the beat hat calls to us. Then Ken Meyer led us in a “call and response” drumming activity.

Drumming Leader Ken Meyer explained,

It was a meaningful service to me for several reasons. It is always great to be outdoors on a beautiful summer evening… I am so glad I came to help. I have been drumming for over 50 years. By giving each of the congregants an instrument of some kind to play, they were more active participants; no experience was needed and anyone of any age could join in. Since everyone can easily make a sound, we all played various beats to the songs. We even created another new version of Cantor Doug Cotler’s prayer-song, Listen.

Sometimes I think that non-musical congregants might feel awkward when asked to sing, especially if they think they might sing out of tune or off pitch. With percussion instruments, there is no such worry. 

When we did the drumming-only “call and response” section of the service, we kicked it to a higher level of participation. It was great for community building, group bonding, teamwork, cooperation, and stress relief. It was also a lot of fun. This all led to a higher degree of spirituality for me.

Following the service, we invited other worshippers to reflect upon the spiritual rhythmic experience. The discussion continued longer than expected because the experience was so meaningful. Their experiences varied.

An Intense Active Full Body Experience

A Few of the Drumming Participants

Steve Greenberg said, Drumming along with the group got my body to pray along with my brain. It brought us together so that it felt like I was praying with the whole of my being.

Rabbi Wendy Spears wrote, I loved the sense of connection that the drumming vibrations gave us. It felt like all of our hearts were beating in a synchronous rhythm. There was a different sense of active participation when we added our hands to our voices in song.

Kevin Palm explained, Friday night’s “out of the box” Shabbat service kept worship fresh and did two things for me: It made me an involved participant by having to match the beat and participate wholly in the songs and prayers. Simultaneously, it proved once again that we don’t need to be in a synagogue to create a holy place – we can create one anywhere including a backyard, a campfire, a park… anywhere…

A Sense of Communal Connectedness

Aaron Koch wrote, The experience of everyone joining together in the collective rhythm of prayer, created a feeling of connectedness, community and Shalom.

Dianne Gubin emailed, Friday night’s Drum service was a memorable and touchstone experience for me. It was really fun and creative to be so fully engaged in services. Soloist Sheryl Braunstein, pianist Aaron Meyer and drummer Ken Meyer were easy to follow and quickly had everyone drumming together… I love the variety of services we have at Or Ami!

Soloist Sheryl Braunstein noted, The rhythm connected us all to each other and to the prayers. I loved Jonathan’s story and story telling!

A Liberating Participatory Experience

The Lachers and the Koches

Ralph Lacher responded, A liberating environment seemed to grow as the evening of Shabbat drumming and humming matured into a communal singular voice. The experience was a very enjoyable stress reliever that had a child like quality of innocence.

Rabbinic Intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch texted, For someone who is not musical I looked forward to being able to play an instrument no matter how out of sync I was because I knew it was acceptable.

Of course, Congregation Or Ami will again hold a Shabbat Drumming Service again soon. Still, this experience leads me to wonder…

What are other ways that we might enhance (and change up) the communal prayer experience?

We All Need Help Sometimes. Or Ami Makes It Easy – and Personal

It can be so darn frustrating! Our Jewish community has so many resources at its fingertips to help people in need, and yet we still struggle to connect up those who need with those who can help.

That’s why I was so charged up at a gathering of the West Valley Caring Community coalition of three synagogues (Congregation Or Ami, Shomrei Torah Synagogue and Temple Aliyah), three Jewish community helping organizations (Jewish Family Service, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and JVS – Jewish Vocational Service), and the Jewish Federation.

We met over a simple yet profound idea: that synagogues are gateway institutions tied to their communities with access to significant constituencies while the Jewish service organizations are pros at helping but need access to the constituencies that they are designed to help. Thus was born a poignant partnership called “Caring Community,” designed to place a Jewish Family Service social worker in these synagogues 4 days a week (rotating daily between the three).

Having had significant success with our synagogue/JFS social worker Elenna King, we tackled Phase 2: expanding the Caring Community partnership to include Bet Tzedek and JVS. How thrilling to be able to open the synagogues up as places where the community can come for help!

Whether you are a synagogue member or not, we are here for you.

Here’s how it works. 
Are you in need (see below for an overview of ways the community can help)? If so, then you may:

Then you and the social worker can call or meet to explore how the Jewish community can help. She has so many resources at her fingertips, including direct lines into a Bet Tzedek legal counsel and a JVS (Jewish Vocational Service) counselor, both dedicated to work with this Caring Community coalition.

Confidential Support
What you talk about with this social worker is totally confidential. In fact, unless you sign a consent form, the social worker will not even share with the rabbi or synagogue that you in fact talked or met. Because we care more about connecting you up. Moreover, if you are uncomfortable meeting in your own synagogue, you may set up your meeting at one of the other synagogues.

So getting down to brass tacks (tachlis, the details). Here are a few of the ways that the Caring Community program can help.

The Jewish Family Service Social Worker can help with:

  • Aging Parents (first steps, finding good home help, searching board and care facilities)
  • Appealing Disability Claims
  • Children with Special Needs
  • Divorce and Family Issues
  • Domestic Violence Resources
  • Drugs and Alcohol Addiction Resources
  • Eviction
  • Family members with Mental Illness
  • Grief Counseling
  • Home Foreclosure
  • Legal Referrals
  • Navigating support systems for
  • Financial Issues
    Emergency Cash Grants
  • Other Counseling and Counseling Resources
  • Parent Support Referrals (classes, groups, resources)
  • Unemployment

The Bet Tzedek Legal Services Caring Community Project Attorney can help with:

  • Bankruptcy
  • Conservatorship
  • Consumer issues
  • Elder Abuse
  • Elder Law
  • Employment rights
  • Estate Planning – Wills
  • Guardianships
  • Government Benefits
  • Holocaust Reparations
  • Landlord-Tenant
  • Referrals for: Immigration and Family Law issues

JVS Caring Community Counselor can help with:

  • Career Assessments
  • Interview Skills
  • Job Changes
  • Job Searches
  • LinkedIn Advice
  • Online Job Application Processes
  • Out of Work
  • Professional Networking
  • Resume Writing
  • Salary Negotiation
  • Under-employment

Start by contacting our Social Worker Elenna King.
Remember: We all need help sometimes. Now Caring Community makes it easy – and personal.

So take a chance. Make a call (or send an email). Getting help should be that simple!

By the way, the Caring Community is funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Good works take the support of a whole community.

When Dating Between Married People IS Appropriate

While people join a synagogue for a plethora of reasons. As scholar Ron Wolfson notes in his book Relational Judaism, most place finding a community and friends near the top of our lists. Yet with multiple pressures on synagogues to educate, celebrate, engage, worship, and counsel, relationship building seems to fall through the cracks.

Recently our Congregation Or Ami’s educational leadership made an active decision to integrate more relationship-building and more parenting “How To” opportunities into our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program. A good decision, it nonetheless led to a complex pedagogical problem: how does one weave content learning, relationship building, and parenting “How To” into one coherent experience? It was a daunting task.

Our solution? Encourage our married (and unmarried) congregants to date.

Speed Dating – Synagogue Style
For this, we turned to Speed Dating, a late 1990’s social phenomenon which spread like wildfire across the country. In classic Speed Dating, two concentric circles of chairs face each other, or sometimes across tables. Assuming heterosexual relationships, one gender sits in the inside circle while the other gender sits in the outer circle. Every two people face one another and “date” for a specified amount of time, usually 5 minutes. Then the outer circle stands up and rotates a few spaces clockwise. Sitting across from a new partners, each pair introduces and dates.

Our modified “Mishpacha Speed Dating” invited pairs to share names, names and grades of children and other basic info, and then to answer a specific question. The questions/prompts, developed from that week’s content – the Joseph narratives of Genesis – explored into issues of parenting. Since Mishpacha program parents began the session reading a detailed summary of the narrative, the context made sense.

Beyond Hobbies and Movies: Questions that Led to Great Conversations
We asked questions designed to spark conversation and sharing:

  • As a group, Jacob and his four wives (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah) were prolific parents, giving birth to twelve sons and at least one daughter (Dinah). We would like to think that he and they enjoyed parenthood. What have been, for you, the joys of parenthood?
  • Jacob gave his son Joseph a “coat of many colors” as an expression of his love. We give our children many gifts, and there are many intangible “gifts” we often wish to impart to them. What quality or value do you wish to impart to your child but have found it challenging to do so? Invite your partner to offer suggestions about creative ways to share this “gift”.
  • Joseph and his brothers took sibling rivalry and “bad behavior” to the extreme, when the brothers – having contemplated and rejected killing Joseph – threw him instead into a pit and sold him into slavery. Some commentators argue that father Jacob’s silence on the matter allowed these behaviors to fester and grow. What challenge are you facing with your child that you have not been able to resolve? (If you have more than one child, choose one. After presenting, ask your partner for suggestions and advice.)
  • Toward the end of the Joseph narratives, father Jacob blesses each of his sons. Some believe the blessings include two parts: a realistic yet positive assessment of the child’s best qualities, and a hope for how the child will grow in the future. For one child, what are your blessings for him or her. Although Jacob’s blessings include some uncomfortable truths about his children, keep your blessing focused on the most positive qualities only.

Minimal sharing followed each Mishpacha Speed Dating interaction because during each of the 6 iterations, the pairs seemed to have plenty about which to talk.

Let the “Dating” Continue: Connecting through Parenting
The forty adults in the room shared a common bond, finding both incredible joy and at time numbing challenge from parent our children. We recognized that none of our kids came with instruction manuals, and that even second and third children seem at times to defy the instruction manuals we “write” as we raise the first. As such, it was helpful to have other parents – and a group of other parents – with which to share, commiserate and consult when the challenges are most gut wrenching. So the secret was out of the bag: here in Congregation Or Ami, especially amongst the participants in our Mishpacha program, we have compatriots in the lifelong process of raising children. So we invited participants to turn to one another – as we did today – for advice and support.

Making New Friends through Risk Taking
Life can be complicated and exhausting, and few of us easily make new friends in our middle years. So here’s an invitation and challenge we shared with participant adults: you have each spent time with a minimum of 5-6 people today and with others at previous Mishpacha sessions. Surely you found one or two people with whom you felt a commonality. Take a chance; date them. Invite him or her for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or perhaps lunch. See if there is a friendship that might grow from this encounter. It is a risk, but when it works, it can be life’s greatest blessings.

They Loved It!
That week’s Mishpacha session seemed to turn a corner, providing participants with a little of each, and whet appetite for even more. Speed dating, like many daily encounters, is an opportunity for learning, friendship and new experiences. While we DISCOURAGE people from actually dating, we encourage them to “Friendship Date.” As congregant parent Talee Sands commented on our Facebook pictures, “This was one of my most favorite activities.” And as congregant couple Kristin and Al Brenner emailed, “Al and I truly enjoyed our session today. It has inspired further thought and perspective, and great conversation.”

Using the ATM to Bring Teens into Temple

The entire American Jewish world, it seems, is focused on how to engage or reengage the younger generations of Jews. Foundations are funding, denominations are discussing, and Federations and synagogues are searching for the latest and greatest strategies to engaging these lost generations. Our own Union for Reform Judaism kicked off its Campaign for Youth Engagement, on the theory that unless we engage young people in their early years, we surely will lose them in their later high school years and beyond.

While the solution to this contemporary challenge necessarily needs to be multi-pronged and multi-focal, at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA we have stumbled upon some success in the most unlikely of places: at the A.T.M.

Paying Jewish Kids to Play?
For most of us, A.T.M. refers to the computerized kiosk which dispenses cash. Young people are drawn to them second only to their parent’s credit card. At Congregation Or Ami, our teens do seek out A.T.M., not for money, but instead to make deposits (of their talent) to the temple.

At Or Ami, A.T.M. stands for “Art, Theater, Music,” a teen engagement program that is part of our constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and by similar programs at URJ Camp Newman’s Hagigah Festival, A.T.M. begins with a simple premise: that many young people find expression and relief from stress through arts and music, and we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality. (Read about our Future Coaches track: Saving the Jewish People… On the Sports Field.)

Creating Their Own Production Company
A few times a month, a diverse group of 7th-11th graders meet with a talented Jewish musician, and sometimes also with a young actress. Following a semester’s study of trends in Jewish arts, theater and music, our teens explored a variety of Jewish topics, settling on the issue of Jewish identity as their focus. Through class discussions and values clarification exercizes, they delved into the multitude of experiences which influence Jewish identity development. Then the teens labored to create their own musical theater production.

As a group the teens wrote and edited a script, and utilized multimedia – music, singing, rap, video and more – to articulate the story of a teen developing her Jewish identity. Background sets were painted, props collected, stage hands selected, and costumes created. Their regularly scheduled A.T.M. sessions were supplemented with extra rehearsals during their free time.

A Festival of Jewish Arts
Rabbi Julia Weisz beautifully wove the A.T.M. musical theater production into a teen-led Shabbat service, forming Or Ami’s first Festival of Jewish Arts. Teens from all the Triple T tracks, joined parents and temple leadership, for this multimedia service.

The service began with a video presentation in which one student (who happens to be on the autism spectrum) interviewed other students about their experience in A.T.M. Throughout the service, teens from other Triple T tracks led prayers after introducing them with kavannot (inspirational creative writings) on the theme “What prayer means to me.” We were particularly inspired as one teen, whose father is fighting cancer, shared his interpretation of the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing and then led us in the healing prayer. The musical theater production, a modern drash if you will, was engaging and inspirational.

The Kvelling Began As the Curtain Came Down
Our teens, their parents, and our entire temple community kvelled continuously that night and in the nights that followed, as each tried to capture the essence of the Jewish experience that embraced their teenage children. The comments from three parents are indicative of what we are hearing:

Parent Lesli Kraut: I was very inspired by the Festival of Jewish Arts Shabbat Service. Remembering back to when I was a teenager, my parents forced me to be involved in a local youth group chapter. I didn’t want to go and definitely did not feel like I belonged. Our teens, including my own son Andrew, want to be at Temple. They are engaged, excited and most of all comfortable with their Judaism. It is so wonderful watching them interact with each other and knowing that they share a special bond and a sense that they definitely belong. Thank you, Congregation Or Ami!

Parent Mike Moxness: When my son Aaron presented his interpretation of the Mi Sheberach and led the prayer, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I have been living with advanced cancer for the past year and I have always taken great solace in this part of the service. It exemplifies the caring community of Or Ami and I truly believe that all the prayers offered up on my behalf have helped me survive. Having Aaron sing those words brought up strong feelings of gratefulness for all the support we have received. I am especially grateful for the home our kids have found in Or Ami’s youth programs. It provides a place of comfort in this turbulent world. All teenagers face many challenges, and letting them express their thoughts without judgement is incredibly important. It is difficult for most kids to talk about painful experiences, however, giving my son the podium for a few minutes in front of a supportive community helped the healing continue.

Parent Addy Chulef-Mindel: I want to let you know that after the Festival of Jewish Arts Shabbat Service, my daughter Jessie said, “I feel that Or Ami is my second family…” We are thrilled that we joined Or Ami, and Jessie looks forward to continuing to make new friends and doing Tikkun Olam (acts which fix the world). Having the feeling of community, and the opportunity to help and give back is where Jessie finds meaning–and that’s what Congregation Or Ami is all about.

So Go Ahead
Ask the A.T.M. teens what they accomplished at the Festival of Jewish Arts. They might say that they put on a musical play. They might respond that they made great friends and had a lot of fun. But we know better.

In the midst of the scripts and the sets and the rehearsals, our teens utilized their artistic and musical talents to grapple with what it means to be Jewish. All within the context of a Jewish night for teens. Although we did not pay them to participate, they each came away with something even more valuable:  A deeper understanding of their Jewish identity.

Is it Kosher to Walk in The Great Race on Shabbat?

It is rare indeed when a rabbi has a free Shabbat (Sabbath). With 54 B’nai Mitzvah a year, I joyously find myself in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, being inspired by our young people as they lead services, chant from Torah and teach us about the intersection between Torah and life.

When a Shabbat comes along during which I do not need to be in shul (synagogue), there are five items on my short list that I want to accomplish. Each helps me observe the holiest day of the week.

What this Rabbi Seeks to Do 
on a Shabbat Away from the Shul

First, I try to be out in nature. Our tradition teaches m’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with God’s glorious creation. Moreover, God is sometimes called HaMakom – The Place, because every place is where God is. On Shabbat particularly, the day we are called upon to recognize as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, I want to be out in nature to revel in God’s greatness.

Second, I want to be involved in Tikkun Olam – fixing the world. On Shabbat, rather than acting upon the world, we are invited to sit back, notice and celebrate the blessings of this world. Taking it one step further, many activities which heal this world are by definition opportunities to celebrate and advance the blessings of this world.

Third, I want to be involved with learning. Shabbat is a day of study. Most often we Jewish understand studying as referring to Torah, the repository of God’s wisdom. Yet we know that all knowledge comes from the Holy One and has its roots in Torah. So on Shabbat, I try to learn myself, help others learn, or more generally, support the enterprise of education itself.

Fourth, I try to be with my family and our community. Our sages teach Al tifrosh min hatzibur – do not separate yourself from the community. Shabbat, given as a day of rest, provides us a chance to gather with those closest to us, to celebrate life and its blessings.

Fifth, I recite blessings and prayers to honor the Holy One and celebrate the holiness of the Sabbath day. On Shabbat in the outdoors, I can recite the words of Yotzeir Or (which praises the Maker of Light who is the Creator of All Things), the Shema (which recognizes the Oneness of all Creation), and Oseh Shalom (which asks the One who makes wholeness and peace to help us bring wholeness and peace to the world and everyone in it).

Supporting Local Schools
The Great Race of Agoura Hills was established in 1986 by a group of parents looking to raise money for their children’s elementary schools. Now professionally produced by Endurance Events and in its 28th year, The Great Race of Agoura Hills is one of the largest running events in the Los Angeles area and continues to donate to many schools in Agoura Hills and Oak Park.

The proceeds from The Great Race benefit seven elementary schools in Agoura Hills and Oak Park as well as the athletic programs at Agoura H.S. and Oak Park H.S. In the past, the event has helped to pay for programs that were not funded by the state. However, with huge state budget cuts to education, these schools face financial hardships and must find many more ways to raise more funds to just to maintain their exisiting programming and staffing levels.

Come Walk with Me – and Celebrate Shabbat
So, is it kosher to walk in The Great Race on Shabbat? I say “yes” and therefore, on Saturday, March 23, 2013 – after praying at the synagogue on Friday night – I will be walking in The Great Race of Agoura Hills. In doing so, I will be doing Jewish because I will be:

  • Out in nature, amongst the hills of Agoura
  • Doing Tikkun Olam, as I help support the improvement of our local schools
  • Involved with learning, as I support an event that raises funds for our schools
  • Connecting with community, as with family, I participate in the race and then welcome the community at Congregation Or Ami’s post-race booth. 
  • Reciting blessings, particularly one which praises the Creator of all for bestowing upon me a body which is able to walk distances and recognize the beauty surrounding us.

Whether being outside is as much of a religious experience for you as it is for me (I once wrote that I most often encountered the Holy One in our national parks), I invite you to join me and thousands of others for a run or walk out in nature to change the world by supporting deeper education for all our young people.

Visit the Congregation Or Ami Post-Race Booth
And if you walk, run or just wander around the race area, come by the Congregation Or Ami booth to say hello and Shabbat Shalom (a Sabbath of Peace) and to receive a fun giveaway. You may register for the Great Race of Agoura Hills here.

[Can You Volunteer at our Booth?
BTW,  thanks to Vic Cohen for heading up the booth. If you can volunteer an hour at the booth, please let me know and I will put you in touch with Vic.]

Adults-Only Purim: Inappropriate, yet Purimly-Acceptable

Cotler, Weisz & Kipnes: Clergy Rockers

We laughed so hard. At Cantor Doug Cotler’s cleverly funny songs, at Rabbi Julia Weisz’s ridiculously hysterical costumes, at Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ inappropriate yet Purimly-acceptable riffs on Megillat Esther, the story of Purim. We laughed out loud, belly laughed. And in between, we reflected on lessons of transcendent importance. We adults, we did.

“It was one of the most unorthodox service I have yet to attend at Congregation Or Ami. I say this in the most positive way,” wrote David Silverstone. “Our two Rabbi’s and Cantor should receive an Academy Award at this years Oscars for their creative and entertaining performance. With out question, Rabbi Paul should receive the award for best Performance in a documentary, Rabbi Julia for best costume design and Cantor Doug who already has a Grammy Award to his credit should now be the recipient of his first Oscar.”

Not Pediatric Judaism… Not Your Father’s (uptight) Shul
Once again, Congregation Or Ami gathered on erev, erev Purim (the night before the night of Purim) for an adults-only Purim celebration. The flyers and other PR were clear: this Shabbat eve would not be appropriate for children. Kids could come to Purim itself for our Multigenerational Purim Celebration. But this Friday night before was reserved for adults.

Not because there would be drunkenness. The pre-service wine and cheese gathering allowed for socializing but to my trained eye, no one really got tipsy (not even me. My ridiculousness came a different kind of high… being high on Purim-induced joy).

The adults-only experience grew out of the need of adults to have a safe space where they can be learners without fear of being teased for their lack of knowledge about the stories and traditions of our people. Creating an adult-only experience allowed adults to give voice to their questions and ideas. Pediatric Judaism gave way to questioning, grasping, and comprehending.

Melinda Pittler explained that “the adult Purim service was nice to enjoy adult only time, dressed in costume and spinning our gorgers. It was fun because how often do we get to see our Rabbis and Cantor with “tattoos, mohawks and wigs” while leading a service?”

The Whole Megillah – Farcical, xenophobic, dangerous
How empowering it was to read the whole Megillah! (Okay, we sped-read through some sections, but for the most part, we read the whole text in English.) We laughed at the farcical nature of the story, making fun of the blatant male chauvinism and xenophobia (fear of strangers). We boo’ed Haman, and the unbounded evil he epitomizes.

We contemplated why all other mitzvot (religious obligations) are set aside for the reading of the Megillah except met mitzvah (the burial of an unattended corpse) (Rambam, Hilchot Purim 1:1). We concluded that the Purim story reminds us of the miracle; focuses us on the danger of leaving evil unchallenged; invites us to focus on where else God is hidden yet present in our lives; and pushes us to celebrate the simchas more than we ruminate over the sadness.

As Nina Treiman wrote, “The adult Purim celebration was funny, yet still educational, because we experienced it through unfiltered lenses.” Robert Rosenthal: The best advice I can give you is “don’t quit your day job”. Thanks for the laughs. We had a great time.

Letting Our Hair Down
So donning costumes and silly hats, we let our hair down and celebrated. Adults being silly with adult while sitting in the sanctuary.

Sharon Weiss wrote, “The adult Purim Celebration was an excellent time. It was great to be in an environment of laughter in our temple and to celebrate together. One of my favorite parts is seeing our clergy interact with each others and knowing they really like each other. I also really liked Cantor Doug’s Politically-Correct version of the Megillah. I walked away smiling and happy.”

Judaism as it is supposed to be experienced. As pure, unadulterated joy.

Chag Purim Samei-ach – Happy Purim!

Saving the Jewish People… on a Sports Field

How do we save the Jewish people? 
With more Jewish day schools or more creative religious education? With greater outreach to interfaith families? By transforming the B’nai Mitzvah process? Or by focusing on Jews in their 20’s and 30’s?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Much has been written about each endeavor, and undoubtedly we will discover that each offers a significant, if partial response to the challenges our Jewish people face.

We Found the Solution on a Sports Field
Recently, however, as I watched a group of teens lead a group of at risk kids through a day of sports, I realized that at Congregation Or Ami, we may have discovered yet another piece of the “Save the Jewish Future” puzzle. We found it on the sports field, of all places.

Called Future Coaches, this teen engagement program is part of a constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, Future Coaches begins with a simple premise: that many boys (girls too) find meaning and purpose in sports and that we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality. (Read about the summer 6-Points Sports Academy.)

A few times a month Future Coaches participants – most are boys between 7th and 10th grades – gather in our sanctuary to learn from four congregant dads, who between them have over fifty-six years of coaching experience. These dads – Brian Buckley, Frank Catone, David De Castro, and Paul Gross – plan each session, with Jewish content input from the rabbis.

Future Coaches Analyze then Organize
Each session includes a review of what makes an excellent sports player or a talented coach. Sometimes they analyze YouTube sports videos; other times they learn leadership skills from a professional leadership coach.

Each session also focuses around a Jewish value, which is illuminated in the YouTube video or in the skill workshops. They have explored kavod (respect), emet (truthfulness), shmiat ha-ozen (attentiveness and good listening), shmirat haguf (caring for the body), among other values. These Jewish values become touchstones as the Future Coaches explore and practice coaching techniques.

Coaching and Connecting with At-Risk Kids
Three times a year, the future coaches break into working teams to plan the upcoming sports day. Teams include scheduling, team building and event planning. The dads reserve a local sports field and arrange for a local caterer to provide a buffet of breakfast foods, sandwiches, snacks and drinks for game day.

We are partnering with New Directions for Youth (NDY), an organization which helps at-risk youth gain confidence, improve academic achievement, and develop appropriate social skills. For a few years now, Or Ami has taken groups of NDY children on Back to School shopping sprees, fishing trips, and fun outings.

No sooner do the NDY kids arrive than our Or Ami future coaches – clad in special “coach” t-shirts – get to work. They usher the NDY kids over for breakfast and then divide them into teams for the first round of games. I watched a laughter-filled water balloon fight, followed by 3-on-3 basketball, a mud-sliding game of capture the flag, and flag football. Arts and crafts projects filled the down time. Our Or Ami future coaches alternated between playing, coaching and refereeing.

Each New Directions for Youth participant went home with a sports medal, an age-appropriate reading book (also donated), a full stomach, and memories of a great day.

My Epiphany about the Jewish Future
The epiphany came while I was schmoozing and taking iPhone pictures with the dads and the teens. Of the 19 Or Ami students in attendance that day, all but five of them would have disappeared from temple life had this program not been available. None of them wanted to continue in a class situation. Most academic or religious topics would have bored them.

That’s the brilliance of Future Coaches. Accepting that for many students, and most boys, sports is the priority of their teenage years, Future Coaches meets them where they are and then stealthily engages them into learning about Jewish values and participating in Tikkun Olam. Sure, it is not Talmud or Comparative Religion. But for these 19 young men and women, it is just what anchors them to Jewish communal life.

So Go Ahead
Ask the Future Coaches teens what they accomplished on game day. They might respond that they had a great day at the park. They might say they befriended a bunch of kids over sports. But we know better.

In the midst of the sports and the food, our teens displayed leadership, served as role models for at risk kids, and lived out wholesome Jewish values. All within the context of their synagogue. For 15 of the 19, Future Coaches saved them for Jewish life.

Not bad for a sunny day in the park.

Campaign for Youth Engagement Continues: Bringing Teens to the 4th-6th Grade Retreat

The teenage girl puts her arm around the fourth grader. They both smile. The younger child feels warmth, love and a sense of “I matter” from her protector, a cool positive Jewish role model. The teen feels a sense of purpose, of meaning and a sense of “I matter” from a child who looks up to her as a positive Jewish role model.

For which child’s benefit did Congregation Or Ami organize this 3 day retreat at Malibu’s Camp Hess Kramer? Ostensibly, for the younger child as this weekend was designated a 4th-6th grade retreat. Yet anyone who has witnessed the powerful effects of empowering teens to be counselors (actually CITs, counselors in training) recognizes quickly that upon assuming some responsibility for the safety and emotional health of younger charges the teens are themselves transformed. One might argue that the teens benefit the most from these retreats.

Why did Or Ami bring more than 20 teens to a younger kids’ retreat? To transform them into leaders, to engage them as positive Jewish Role Models. It worked so well!

A Call for Youth Engagement
When our national organization, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a clarion call for communities to reengage our youth, Or Ami listened and responded. “Find new pathways for them to build relationships with each other and with the clergy,” we were told; it will transform everyone, we were promised. This would change the meaning of synagogue to them, helping stem the erosion of post-B’nai Mitzvah families from the synagogue.

Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens
So Or Ami’s clergy-lay team listened to the interests of the teens themselves and their parents, and we committed to the new notion that any path that leads a child from Bar/Bat Mitzvah student into Jewish connection is as equally valuable as a class taught by the rabbis. So at Or Ami some teens become Future Coaches, learning about the art of sports coaching and the Jewish values that inform that process, and then they plan and run sports clinics for at risk youth. And other teens become VolunTEENS, learning about Jewish social justice and organizing skills, and then creating social justice projects for themselves and others to fix the world. Some teens visit Jewish cultural places with Jewish Culture Chug while others engage each other socially and Jewishly in LoMPTY, a teenager-led NFTY temple youth group. Every path (or Triple T or Track for Temple Teens, as we call them) is valued as a roadmap toward Jewish commitment, connection and knowledge; each path transforms the participant in subtle and significant ways. Each delivers and reaffirms Jewish values along the way.

Madrichim: Synagogue-based Counselors
And then there are our Madrichim, teens who work with our younger students in our Kesher, Mishpacha and our Hebrew tutoring programs. They spend time with each rabbi, with a master teacher and with leadership mavens. Then they lead prayer services, run holiday programs and help children master reading Hebrew letters. They organize games during breaks, and perform in Torah-based skits during family programs. And all the while, they serve as positive Jewish role models, showing their younger charges that being Jewish, knowing Judaism and being connected to synagogue is cool and meaningful.

Teen Madrichim at the Retreat

So why take more than 20 teens to a 4th-6th grade retreat? Because the teens discover within themselves qualities of selflessness, patience, compassion and teamwork. Because each moment they spend focused on the care and feeding of younger children is a moment that creates responsible leadership for the next generation.
And because as the teens lead the educational programs – on this weekend, about the qualities of a Jewish hero (see Color Games, Hero Worship and Counter-Cultural Learning)- they begin embody the values and become the heroes themselves.

We are so blessed to have dedicated young people who want to be leaders and counselors. They made the retreat so meaningful for so many.  Thank you all!

Nurturing the Next Generation of Jewish Songleaders

Recently, Congregation Or Ami sponsored two teens – 10th graders Sophie Barnes and Josh Gellerman – to attend the NFTY NASHIR Songleading Weekend in Seattle, Washington. As Cantor Doug Cotler has made it a priority to nurture new Jewish songleaders, musicians, composers and singers, we were excited to send these musical teens for training. Both Josh and Sophie recently reflected on their experiences:

Sophie Barnes and Josh Gellerman Lead Jewish Songs

Sophie writes: In early January, I attended a NFTY NASHIR Song leading weekend with about 30 teenagers from all over the country and Canada. We learned all about being a song leader in a Jewish community and to lead services for the children in religious school. The convention was held at Temple Beth Am and was lead by many talented, professional song leaders. I have been singing my entire life and performing has always been a passion of mine, but I had never tried song leading before. I went into the weekend barely knowing anything about song leading and by the end I felt like a professional.

Josh writes: I flew to Seattle for the Nashir Songleaders Retreat, and after being picked up at the airport, I was driven to Temple Beth Am. Once I arrived, I went to the youth lounge and basically just hung out and jammed with about thirty other kids who were there for the program. The trip turned out to be a lot more Jewish than I had originally thought that it would be. Every day, we all gathered for services. One thing that I noticed and really liked about Beth Am is that – much like Congregation Or Ami – every service is more like a concert. While of course we still prayed with spoken words, the congregants seemed to really connect with the spirituality through music.

Josh: Both of the nights that we were in Seattle, we stayed with very nice families who attended Beth Am. It was very generous of them to let us into their homes, as they were very accommodating and pleasant.

Sophie: Over the weekend we learned multiple Jewish songs and many techniques on how to be a song leader. We also participated in a bunch of workshops that taught everything you could possibly need to know about song leading.

Josh: The next morning we had interactive services for two hours where we all sang and prayed with the cantor. The whole time that I was there, I was constantly learning new things.

Sophie: We helped lead Shabbat services, taught and lead a song to our peers, and then worked up to finally getting to lead the kids in the Temple Beth Am religious school.

Josh: After services, we split up into our home group to do a “teach,” where we demonstrated how we led songs. I played Cantor Doug Cotler’s, “Listen.” We then went to workshops where we learned better ways to song-lead. A notable addition to the staff was made when Alan Goodis joined the leadership crew. I suggest you check out some of his music.

Sophie: The fact that we were able to learn so much in one weekend was truly amazing. I absolutely loved leading the kids and it was something I will never forget. I came home from the weekend with a whole new outlook on song leading, and I also returned from the weekend with tons of new friends. I reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. When we weren’t practicing our song leading, we were in a circle jamming on our guitars and singing. It was so eye opening to see that there were so many Jewish teens that have the same exact interests as me. I got so much out of the weekend and it helped me realize how much I love being a part of the Jewish community. It was an overall amazing experience and I am so glad I was able to be a part of it.

Josh: All in all I am really glad that I went. I learned a lot of new things about songleading and service leading that I will bring back home with me, not only a song-leader but also as a musician. A bonus from the trip was finding an immediate connection to a greater Jewish youth community. I made new friends from not only our own San Fernando Valley, but from Canada as well.

Josh and Sophie: Thanks again, Congregation Or Ami, for recommending us and sponsoring us for this weekend. It was great! We look forward to doing songleading for the congregation and religious school.

At 103 Year Old, Lil is Still Learning (and Teaching)

I’ve known Lil for almost 14 years, a minuscule portion of her quite long life. Still, I have grown quite fond of her as our paths crossed and recrossed through vicissitudes of life: celebrations of B’nai Mitzvah, visits to her during a near death hospital stay, holy day services and the more mundane moments in between.

I remember being touched that she was the inspiration that led three of her great grandchildren (and her adult daughter) to become B’nai Mitzvah, and being inspired by her finesse at helping them craft each d’var Torah (speech). I am prepared each High Holy Day morning to find “Nana”, right after services, to give her a kiss and a few words of blessing.

Who Knew?
So when I was asked if I had time to visit Nana at the Convalescent Home, I just tossed a date out and recorded it in my iPhone. Who knew that the request to visit a congregant’s 103 year old mother would turn out to be one of the most meaningful, spiritual moments of the week?

Sightless but Insightful
Lil was waiting for me in the Sun Room at the end of the hallway. I approached; she offered me a seat. We held hands; I gave her a kiss. 
Lil may not be able to see, but she is very insightful. We talked about her grandkids (who call almost every day) and her family, about the convalescent home and her upcoming 104th birthday (not a big deal to her). Our conversations delved into the joys of family and the sometimes incomprehensible depression that temporarily descends (perhaps the result of being old?). 
Well Before its Time, A Girl Advocates for the Chance to Study Torah
Lil reminisced about her own Jewish upbringing. Hers was a very religious family; two older brothers were taught by a tutor – Mr. Yunefsky? – who came by every day. Although girls generally were not taught Torah and Hebrew back then, Lil very much wanted to learn. With the help of her brother, she convinced her father to let her learn.  “Why don’t you have a teacher for me? Because I’m a girl?” Her dad responded, “Is that what you’d like?” She responded “Yes, because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn.” So she started to absorb everything that the teacher would teach: Hebrew, Torah, and Bible.
Time and again Lil explained about how important it was that the next generations (her grandchildren) love being Jewish and are involved in the synagogue. Hers are! Her youngest is a Madricha (teaching assistant) in our schools and a leader on our LoMPTY youth group board; the two boys regularly stop by to visit me (their rabbi) when they are in town from school. Lil takes great pride in the fact that they are members of Congregation Or Ami and are bonded with Judaism. 
Learning Torah Together

During a lull in the conversation, I asked her if I could read her this week’s parasha (Torah portion).  She lit up. Opening the Tanach for All (Bible) app on my iPhone, I proceeded to read the portion in Hebrew; Lil surprised me by translating the words. Back and forth we went. Hebrew then English; me then she. I was moved in this moment. Separated by three generations, we nevertheless shared Torah, something that transcended the generations.
I needed to drash (interpret) the parasha for that Shabbat. So I asked her how to best interpret these words for our congregation. 103-year-old Nana was full of suggestions. I wondered just what was really happening here. To the casual observer, it might appear that I – the Rabbi – was teaching Torah to this older woman; in truth, Lil was passing the wisdom onto me.
A Moment when Blessings Overflowed 
Today I learned Torah from a 103-year-old woman. Her wisdom filled my soul; her love overflowed into my heart. On reflection, I keep coming back to the blessing one says upon seeing a Torah scholar (found in my iPhone CCAR Daily Blessings app):

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam, shchalak meichochmato lirei’av.Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe: You share Your wisdom with those who revere You. 

Yes, 103-year-old Lil was my Torah teacher.  Thank you God, for this moment of wisdom in the midst of everyday life.

A Teen with Asperger’s Tells Her Story to Her Peers

On the TV show Parenthood, teenager Max has Asperger’s Syndrome. While running for student body president, Max tells his classmates about his Asperger’s. The episode is riveting television, but not quite as poignant as when one of our Congregation Or Ami teens stepped up before her peers and shared her own Asperger’s story.

It all began when one of our teens and her mother watched the Parenthood episode. It inspired her to contact their rabbis to suggest that our teen tell her fellow teens about how her Asperger’s affects her. Since at Congregation Or Ami we start at “yes” – especially with regards to full accessibility for individuals and families with special needs – we moved quickly to scheduling a date for her presentation to her peers.

Our teen worked with her parents to compose a paragraph about her strengths and challenges she wanted to share with the group. To make it most comfortable for our teen, one of our rabbis was present to support her when she was speaking.

Jewish Teenager with Asperger’s Shares Her Story with Her Temple Peers

Our teen said:

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a part of me. I might think differently than you do. My brain is kind of like a MAC and everyone else is PC. I just do things a little differently. My brain functions a different way than yours does. It’s not wrong or bad to have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s just another way of thinking and being. 1 out of 88 people is on the autism spectrum. This is a recent number. Chances are you, or your mom, dad, sibling, grandparents, whichever, may know someone who works with, is friends with, or goes to school with someone on the autism spectrum. Scientists are still not sure what causes Asperger’s Syndrome. They have been working since the 1930’s to discover what it is and what causes it. 

There are people who have been suspected to have some form of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. 

  • Temple Grandin is an American doctor of animal science.
  • Bill Gates is the creator of Microsoft and is one of the richest men in the world.
  • Albert Einstein was a German/American theoretical physicist.
  • Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. 

My Strengths:

  • Artist
  • Ambitious
  • Honest
  • Loyal
  • Loves Animals, and
  • Loves Reading

My Struggles

  • I can take things out of context.
  • I may say things that might seem rude, but I don’t mean it.
  • It’s hard for me to make eye contact and make friends.
  • If it seems like I walk away sometimes, I just need a little break.

What can you do?

  • Understand that I struggle with social interaction and try to understand what I am going through.
  • Accept everyone as unique and valuable.
  • Talk to kids who seem shy. Include them.
  • Stand up for kids that are being bullied.
  • Don’t be reluctant to give friendship advice, but be kind about it.

Our teen answered some questions and the session continued with the scheduled session plan. But like the fictional Max from tv’s Parenthood, our real-life teen inspired her peers and taught us all about strength, grace and courage.

On Judaism and Accessibility

Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA has long been committed to accessibility for individuals with special needs and their families. We have a webpage emphasizing our accessibility to Jews with Disabilities. Our Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Fund helps us integrate people with special needs and their families into all aspects of our congregation. We are also the synagogue for Chaverim, a program of Jewish Family Service, for developmentally disabled adults, age 18 to 88. I blog regularly about the intersection of Judaism and Jews with Disabilities.

Our national Reform Jewish movement – especially the Union for Reform Judaism – has a long history of working for full inclusion and openness for people with disabilities and special needs.

URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA has a dedicated Nefesh team comprised of psychologists, therapists and social workers who are at camp all summer. The Nefesh team helps the counselors and roshim (unit heads) integrate and support all children with unique situations (including emotional, physical, psycho-social and other “special needs”). Read about Ethan’s experience at Camp Newman.

Or Ami has an On Site Social Worker

We all need help sometimes.

Now our Henaynu Caring Community makes it even easier – and more personal.

If you’re dealing with economic problems, or the challenge of helping an elderly parent or a teen in trouble, you’re not alone. If you need support as you go through a separation, search for a new job, deal with a child with disabilities or a loved one with addictions issues, we have a new way to help.

We now host our own social worker, Elenna King, working out of our synagogue. In partnership with Temple Aliyah and Shomrei Torah, Congregation Or Ami offers this new program which provides free social services and referrals in the comfort and confidentiality/privacy of each of these three synagogues.

You’ll get help with financial assistance and government program eligibility, access to one-on-one sessions with a social worker, as well as referrals for other services and information about upcoming workshops. We all need help sometimes. It’s good to know it’s available through Caring Community.

Contact Elenna King directly at (818) 854-9760 or ask Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Rabbi Julia Weisz or our office staff to put you in touch with Elenna.

Caring Community is a community network of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in partnership with Jewish Family Service. Caring Community is funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

Counting Down the Miracles at Or Ami

Dear Friends:

As Congregation Or Ami enters its 16th year and the Jewish world begins its 8 nights of Chanukah, we – your president, rabbis and cantor – rededicate ourselves to this incredible Jewish community.

16 years ago, Grammy award winning Cantor Doug Cotler was engaged as the first clergy member of a new community, dedicated to communal caring, Torah learning, effusive thanking and musical energy.

14 years ago, Rabbi Paul Kipnes was inspired to join Or Ami by the warmth of the community, and the dedication of our membership to innovation, to deep Jewish spirituality, to Henaynu caring and to social justice activism.

3 years ago, Rabbi Julia Weisz was charmed by Or Ami’s educational creativity and the commitment of the parents and leadership to learn and grow alongside the children.

1 year ago, Helayne Sharon accepted election as president of Or Ami, based on her strong commitment to a vibrant Campaign for Youth Engagement, a vigorously active Board of Directors, and a vital board-clergy partnership.

Daily we are energized, uplifted, and humbled by the remarkable Jewish community we experience at Congregation Or Ami.

We feel blessed to work in partnership with our hard-working and diligent Board*, self-reflective and inspired adults, and amazing young people – the very people who are ensuring Jewish continuity today and a Jewish future for tomorrow.

During this Festival of Lights, we celebrate these numerous Or Ami miracles:

1,408 sufganiot (jelly filled donuts) to be hand-delivered at Chanukah
1,190 worshippers at our Yom Kippur service
987 pages of music, prepared for our Or Ami chorale
613 marshmallows consumed at our campfire Shabbat services
320 adults at a recent parenting lecture
300 comfort bags filled on Mitzvah Day for foster kids
285 children in our school programs
173 times per day we buzz people into the synagogue
162 adults at a congregant-led evening all about deli
131 thousand dollars in our rainy day savings account
115 youth involved in our new Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens
103 at risk children touched by our social justice programs
54 B’nai Mitzvah celebrated annually
41 rabbis and educators who served as our faculty and interns
39 families studying Torah in Mishpacha
26 mini-Torah scrolls for new primary school students
24 board members overseeing our sacred congregational work
21 empty nesters, active adults at a pot luck dinner
20 LoMPTY teens attending a regional NFTY retreat
18 adult B’nai Mitzvah this past year
12 musicians in Jewrassic Park, our Shabbat band
9 national congregational awards earned by Or Ami in our first 15 years
5 detailed financial reports prepared monthly by our finance committee
2 new exciting youth retreats (for 7th-12th and 4th-6th graders)
1 amazing Congregation Or Ami!

During Chanukah, we Jewish families put a chanukiah in our windows to illuminate all that is holy and true.

Congregation Or Ami is holy and true. We feel blessed to be part of it and we are thrilled that you are part of our family.

Chag Chanukah Sameach – Happy Chanukah!

President Helayne Sharon
Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Cantor Doug Cotler
Rabbi Julia Weisz

* Thank you to our Board and Officers: President Helayne Sharon, VP Debi Young, VP David Silverstone, VP Vadim Parizher, VP Hedi Gross, Secretary Stephanie Blau, CFO Steve Goldstein. Board Members: Eddie Bauch, Michelle Feinstein, Heidi Friedman, Dianne Gubin, Gary Kaplan, Cheryl Lederman, Steve Martini, Kevin Palm, Debby Pattiz, Melinda Pittler, Amir Rudyan, Jeff Singer, Cathy Spencer, Jon Wolfson. Ex-Officio: Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Cantor Doug Cotler, Rabbi Julia Weisz, Immediate Past President Lucille Shalometh Goldin; Past President/Advisor Michael Kaplan, LoMPTY President Noah Kipnes

Comfort Bags for Foster Kids Bring Comforting Meaning to Mitzvah Doers

Under the watchful eyes of Mitzvah Day chairs Laurie Tragen-Boykoff and Cathy Spencer and thirty volunteers, Congregation Or Ami’s Mitzvah Day created 325 Comfort Bags filled with new clothes, toiletries, books, games, journals, toys, a decorated “sweet dreams” pillowcase and a personalized card. The Comfort Bags have been given to social workers who will give them to children who would be going into foster care because of abuse or neglect in their families. Volunteers expected to help foster kids; little did they realize how much their lives would be touched by the Mitzvah Day experience.

Three Or Ami congregants share their experiences: A mother of two teenagers, a father of two younger children, and a newly married man.

Amy Pucker writes:

Sophie Barnes (center) with other VolunTEENS

On November 6, 2012, our family took part in Mitzvah Day. We have been participating since our now teenage girls were little and this is an event along with Child Spree that we look forward to each year!

Mitzvah Day is a chance for our family to focus on and participate hands on in Tikkun Olam (fixing the world). It is a concrete reminder for us and our children of the many kids and families out there that are less fortunate. For the past several years, the girls have donated part of their tzedakah (charitable donations), either shopping for items needed on the list or donating money. In 2010, as part of her Bat Mitzvah project, Sophie collected gently used backpacks that were also distributed to the foster kids as part of Mitzvah Day. 

This year, Abby had to miss as she was in Israel yet she was able, through Or Ami’s VolunTEENS group, to help plan the teen project. Sophie enjoyed working alongside the other VolunTEENS members cutting and making blankets to donate to animal shelters. My husband Brett filled extra bags for us.   

I had the ability this year to stand in the center of the sanctuary to direct other volunteers to the different areas on their list. I was thrilled to see so many familiar and new faces sharing in the event. It was amazing to watch as children as young as 3 years old, adults of all ages, and everyone in between, as they took such care and concern in making the right choices for their Comfort Bag, carefully decorated their pillowcases and designed caring cards to try and bring comfort for the kids that would receive them.

Although Mitzvah Day is just one day in the year, it is a reminder to our family of our need to help others less fortunate throughout the year.

Adam Wasserman writes: 

Aidan with his parents

Two weeks ago, my son’s journal assignment was to write about something meaningful to him. Aidan is 10 years old and in fourth grade. He wrote about Mitzvah Day at Congregation Or Ami, packing Comfort Bags for children that he did not know, and what the experience meant to him.  

In his essay, Aidan wrote that “there are troubled children in the world and he wants to help him.” I didn’t know it meant so much to him. Nor did I know he was thinking about Mitzvah Day a year later.

Today at Mitzvah Day 2012, I was able to watch him do it again. I saw his anticipation for the event; how excited he was to get there and pack another bag. From the way he was acting, this could of have been a day at Disneyland, another Halloween, or a trip to GameStop with his $100.00 gift card. Today, his excitement for Mitzvah Day exceeded all of these.

As a father, this means so much to me on many levels. A main concern I have for my young children is what they get excited about and what they look forward to in life. I thought I knew what was most meaningful to my ten year old: his Xbox, PG+ movies, iPhones, play dates, crazy birthday parties, and lots of sugar. I was wrong; it is Mitzvah day. He is more excited about helping people than anything our modern world offers him. My son, in the midst of everything that surrounds him, chose Mitzvah day. 

Such a happy feeling and comfort for me! I know in Aidan’s heart there is solid truth. Mitzvah day allows him to realize his truth and express it.

Aaron Koch writes:

Aaron Koch, the Body Wash and Deodorant Man

My wife Krista and I arrived at Congregation Or Ami on Sunday morning to a lot of energy in the room. It reminded me of something but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had been at the synagogue the day before, helping to sort and count, but it was different on Sunday; people seemed really excited.

I was paired with a father-son team in the hygiene area where I was working the “body wash and deodorant” station. Two minutes later, there were people everywhere, going every direction. I was tossing deodorant and body wash in bags, directing people to the hidden station in the back corner of the kitchen. All of a sudden, my inner “Yankee Stadium hotdog vendor” overwhelmed me and I shouted in my thickest New York accent, “Deodorant! Body wash! Getcha deodorant and body wash right here! Stay fresh all day! Get it while it’s hot!”

I know I amused several people; I may have frightened a few as well. But it was fun, extremely rewarding and, as it turns out, Mitzvah day brought out the NFTY kid in me. (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth, of which Or Ami’s LoMPTY youth group is a part.) I didn’t realize it at the time, but it makes me chuckle now, just thinking about it. I got downright silly on Sunday.  

I find it beautiful and amazing that we can get together to do something so profound, and, at the same time, have such a light hearted, silly time together doing it. One young man, about 12 years old, was packing a bag meant for a 14 to 17 year old girl and actually covered his eyes as he stuffed the feminine hygiene products into the Comfort Bag. I almost laughed out loud, LOL, but I managed to contain myself.  

I was really struck me by how much care everyone was putting into the process. Picking out the right game or book, even the deodorant, was a careful choice, each person making sure to choose the right one. The pillow case art was impressive; people really went the extra mile. It makes me feel good and very proud to be a part of this community.