Tag: People who Inspire

The Gift of Caregiving

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Living with Rockets: Live from Sederot

What is it like to live with the knowledge that any moment missiles might rain down on you? To understand this is to understand the situation in Southern Israel that led to Israel’s operation against Hamas.

David Farer in Living with Rockets describes what it is like to live in Sederot with the daily barrage of rockets from Gaza. Notice the heightening of senses, of awareness of subtle changes in the rockets’ sounds, of the normalcy that invades what should be “normal.” Notice how acts of heroism go unnoticed because “its just what we do.” He writes:

On Tuesday morning, as I was getting ready to leave my home, a woman’s voice said “Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom!” over Sderot’s public speaker system. I had already heard this alarm a few times that morning, and several hundred times since I moved to Sderot. It meant that a rocket fired by Hamas in Gaza would explode somewhere in or near Sderot in about fifteen seconds. I went about my business, turning off my computer and packing my books, as I awaited the explosion. When the inevitable happened, I heard that unmistakable cracking sound at the tiny fraction of an instant, the KA of the KABOOM! It indicated that Hamas had been lucky this time and hit somebody’s home, instead of their rockets landing in a field whose mud muffled the blast. One learns to pick up these subtle differences in kinds of explosion if one lives in Sderot. Less subtle was that my building shuddered, and my windows danced in their frames; I felt the slight shove of the shockwave going through my body. I knew that this Kassam rocket had landed within a few blocks of my home.

The missile, as you will read, hits the building across the alley. Reporter’s life becomes part of the story.

Prosper Peretz owns the Peretz Shefa Market on this street, Mivtza Sinai (the street hit by the missile).

His shop stood immediately opposite the home that was hit, and he surveyed the scene from the sidewalk in front of his foodstore. I often shopped in his little store, which his parents had founded. He lived above the shop with his wife and children, all of whom help run the family business. I asked Peretz if he had been present when the rocket exploded. A calm and soft-spoken man, who spent much of his life in army uniform, he nodded his head. I asked about damage on his side of the street. He pointed to blown-out windows above his shop. Peretz was polite, but evidently not in a communicative mood today. I walked inside to greet Peretz’s daughter and to buy a chocolate bar. I asked her about her experience of the bombing. She told me she had been upstairs when the rocket hit her neighbor’s home across the street, but that she ran downstairs just in time to see her father taking care of “the one who was wounded.” My eyebrows went up. “What’s that?”, I asked. She told me she ran downstairs and saw her father bandaging a bleeding man who was lying on the sidewalk outside their shop. Prosper Peretz, a man with the calm, humble demeanor of the professional soldier, had told me none of that. I went out to ask him what he did. He smiled slightly and told me that one of the sons of the family whose house had been hit had been walking down the street, either to or from home, when the alarm went off. Hearing the recording, he tried to run into the Peretz Shefa Market, but he did not run fast enough. The man had received two shrapnel wounds, one of which made a gash on his cheek. The second piece of metal opened the artery on the left side of the young man’s neck. Blood being pumped up to his brain was squirting out in bursts, each burst in accordance with the heart beat that sent the blood in the direction of his brain. The young man would clearly have bled to death soon had Peretz not taken action. His daughter walked downstairs to the sidewalk to see her father saving a life. She went into their shop to call an ambulance. This ambulance had left just a minute or two before I arrived, carrying the man whose life Prosper Peretz had saved. “I see”, I said. Peretz told me he was able to do that because of the good training he had received in the army. “And by the way, why are you wearing a mere undershirt on a cold and rainy day?” I asked him “I used my shirt on the guy’s neck.” I pointed to what I now understood to be bloodstains on Peretz’s undershirt, and he just nodded his head – “It happens here.” I stood there trying to think of a way to express my admiration for someone who had just saved a life, but who had no wish to display that fact, when the alarm sounded.

How does one live a life when this is the reality? To face that question is to face the reasons behind Israel’s operation against Hamas. Make sure to click over to the blog, Living with Rockets, to read more about the situation under which Southern Israel did and does live.

Wars Sicken Me, Even Wars that I Support, Says National Reform Jewish Leader

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, articulately explains how most American Jews support the current Israeli response to Hamas’ seven year barrage of missiles:

Wars sicken me, even wars that I support. I support Israel’s offensive in Gaza, but watching it on TV — the images of bombed-out buildings, crying women and, inevitably, the bodies of innocent bystanders — is a painful experience. I suspect that most American Jews feel the same discomfort that I feel. They support the military offensive too, but they are well aware of the risks that it entails, and they expect Israel to be both politically wise and morally sensitive in how it fights. It is especially important to us that Israel do everything humanly possible to avoid the death of innocents and to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There is much evidence that Israel has worked hard to limit the carnage, and the credibility of Israel’s leaders in providing assurances on these points is an important factor in assuring the continued support of American Jews — and, indeed, of all Americans — for the Gaza campaign.

Further, Rabbi Yoffie puts this conflict into the larger issues facing our world:

American Jews have a commonsense approach to these matters. We are aware that American forces have gone halfway around the globe to engage in a war in Afghanistan against terrorists who once carried out an attack on American soil. We know that civilians have frequently died in that war because terrorists make a point of operating in civilian areas. We know too that this war has the support of our liberal president-elect. So why, we ask, should Israel’s center-left government, after long periods of restraint and desperate efforts to renew the cease-fire, be expected to refrain from fighting terrorists that are regularly attacking from right across the border? And we are certain that if rockets were being launched from Canada into our own homes in Michigan or Maine, we would demand immediate action, and our government would quickly oblige. American Jews see Israel’s Gaza offensive as a tragic necessity, unwelcome but inevitable, carried out by a reluctant Israeli government doing what it must to end rocket attacks against its citizenry. In short, American Jews are, as usual, sensible and centrist, and supporting Israel in her hour of need. Read on.

An Israeli Soldier’s Mother Speaks

How do Israeli moms view the prospect of their children taking up arms to bring quiet to their country’s south? No bombastically.

A Soldier’s Mother, in What I Want… and What I’ll Do, writes:

What I want…is to go collect my little boy and bring him home. I want to lock him in a room and tell Israel that no, you can’t have him. I’ve changed my mind. No, I’m sorry. He’s not allowed to play with guns and big things that go boom. No, I’m his mother. I gave birth to him and no, you simply can’t take him.

What I want…is to call him and make sure he is where I put him, where he told me he was yesterday. Not in the north, where Hizbollah is promising to burn the ground and open a second front and not in the south, where dozens of rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel, where a man was killed and dozens were wounded.

That’s what I want…

And what I’ll do, is sit here at my desk and keep editing this document for my client. I’ll update the copyright statements and change the installation information to reflect the new platforms the product now supports. I’ll answer the phone and I’ll talk to my accountant.

And what I’ll do, is tell my heart to settle. I’ll tell my eyes to take a moment and look at the next beautiful wave of clouds rolling in over Jerusalem. I’ll sign the papers I need to sign; type the words I need to type. I’ll tell my younger daughter to clean her room and my younger son that he has to study for his test NOW. I’ll tell my middle son he can borrow the car like we agreed, but he has to drive carefully. I won’t talk to my daughter because she’s old enough to see the cracks in my smile and know that outside, it’s all a front.

What I’ll do is answer the phone if Elie calls and I’ll talk to him calmly. I’ll listen if he tells me he’s staying where he is. I’ll listen if he tells me they are moving him up north. I’ll listen if he tells me they are moving him down south near Gaza. I’ll listen, I’ll tell him to be careful, and call me when he can. I won’t for a single moment, tell him that I’m scared, that I have no real experience with this war thing and that I don’t really want him to have any experience with it either. Read on

Incidentally, with a niece in Israel somewhere on a base preparing for some action, I share many of her concerns…

A Soldier’s Mother blog explains its blogging purpose:

From the time our children are born, we accept that our identity has changed. We were so many things, and continue to be. But in the moments after we give birth, and in the years that follow, we become something so much more. I have been a mother for more than 20 years, seeing my children through their baby years, their school years, into their teenage years. And now, as I see my oldest son enter the army of Israel, I become a soldier’s mother.

#3: Be the Shamash

Chanukah Candle #3. Shalosh, tres, three. Happy Third Night of Chanukah (a special one for me because it is also my birthday!)

Blog Tzedakah:
The nine of you who left comments yesterday ensured that collectively, we donated $27 of my money to the Brandon Kaplan Special Needs program which ensures that kids with special needs and their families receive the support they need within the Jewish community. Learn more about the program here and here. If you want, donate yourself there.
It’s my birthday today (1963 I’m 45). In honor of that birthday, I invite you to help shine the light of my special community Congregation Or Ami. There are three ways of honoring my birthday:

  1. Now leave a comment (below) today and I make a tzedakah donation to the Or Ami Matching Grant program, which ensures that the light of this special community – my congregation – shine brightly for those in need. Or Ami reaches out to people dealing with cancer and other illnesses, struggling to recover from drug and alcohol abuse, finding joy in the face of disabilities, living in foster families, seeking the light of spiritual wholeness and more. Through the generosity of two families, all donations to the Or Ami Matching Grant Fund will double in value. So if you leave a comment, my tzedakah donations are doubled.
  2. If you want, you can donate yourself. If you donate $18, it is worth $36. If you donate $100, it is worth $100. We have until December 31st to raise $61,000 to receive the full matching grants. We are over $43,541.00 toward that goal. If you want to donate, click here.
  3. Do both. Leave a comment AND make your own Matching Grant tzedakah donation. Remember, though, for every comment made today, I’ll make my own tzedakah donation to help shine the light of Or Ami. So just make a comment below.

Chanukah Blog Thots:

Ever wonder why we had to have that ninth candle, the Shamash? Couldn’t we just use a match or use the newest candle to light the others? Actually, the Shamash (Hebrew for “helper” or “server”) is a role model for us all.

The Purpose of the Shamash
Since these lights commemorate a holy miraculous event, they are not to be used for normal household needs. Obviously keeping this restriction was more of a challenge before the availability of electric light. Since not one of the eight chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) lights may be used for the pedestrian task of lighting another candle, how do the Chanukah candles get lit? That’s where the shamash comes in. It is lit to do the lighting work. To prevent onlookers from assuming the shamash is part of the chanukiyah candle count, the shamash is set apart from the others on the chanukiyah. It is placed either higher or lower than the rest.

Another Shamash Role
Another shamash role Should the chanukiah light accidentally come to be used to read the fine-print directions on a newly acquired battery-operated toy, for example, don’t feel bad. One might excuse the mistake with the thought that the shamash’s light, not the rest of the chanukiah flames, was utilized.

A Chassidic Lesson
Chassidim found inspiration by looking at the shamash’s usual placement above the rest of the Chanukah candles. The shamash is the candle that serves the others. In a chasidic court, the shamash was the person who attended to the personal needs of the rebbe. A glance at the chanukiah’s configuration tells of the rewards that doing for others brings. Because the shamash lowers itself to serve the others it ends up with an exalted position on the chanukiah.

This Chanukah, be the Shamash
We just came back from watching the movie, Seven Pounds. It inspired me and may inspire you, although there are better ways of dealing with pain and other ways to drink l’chaim.

Let’s all strive to find a way to rise above the commercialization of this American holiday season. Find a way to become the one who serves other, who lifts them up, and who helps them. Not just the twice a year, Thanksgiving-time and Christmas-time, do a good deed. Not just the “random acts of kindness” model of helping others. Rather, systematically transform your way of living so you become the one who helps others. Spend time each day planning on how you can transform the lives of other people.

We are taught that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, Avodah (worship or serving the Divine) and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). Be the Shamash and you are doing all three: using your wisdom to imitate the Divine by doing goodness.

So this Chanukah, commit yourself to Be the Shamash. Like any flame that kindles the light of others, your flame will not be diminished. You will continue to throw off the same amount of light. But I promise you, you will feel warmer.

Happy Chanukah!

#1: A Candle of Hope

#1, one, uno, echad, harishon, un, first night, now
it all starts with one who hopes.

Welcome to the Rabbipaul’s 8 Blogs for 8 Nights of Chanukah, the first of eight awesome blogs to brighten your Chanukah celebration. [All the Chanukah celebration resources you want are here.]

Blog Tzedakah: Leave a comment (below) on this blog to shine the light. For every comment made today, I’ll make a tzedakah donation to help foster kids seeking a brighter future.

Tonight is dedicated to remembering what it is all about. Chanukah, I mean. Sure, you have the story here which you have to retell (Rule #1 of Chanukah: no storytelling, holiday observance not completed). But beyond the oil and Maccabees and the evil King Antiochus and the miracle, was an amazing sense of “yes we can”.

What was going through the mind of that unnamed young kohen (priest) when he realized he only had enough oil to last for one night? Did he think he should save it for a special occasion, perhaps the first Shabbat, hoarding it to celebrate that significant holy day?

No, thinking “yes we can,” he had faith and hope and poured that oil into the menorah, lighting it in the face of all claims it would burn out. Like Nachshon before him, the early Zionists after him, he sensed that im tirtzu ein zo aggadah – if you will it/hope it/if you work for it, then it is no dream.

What would our lives be like if we lived with that as a mantra? That we can move toward new realities even when others discourage us. Realists among us will scoff at the idea. And the flighty will dance about it. But the rest of us will need to work at it – holding onto hope in the face of darkness. We know, for example, that to turn our country’s economic situation around, we will all, at some point, need to believe in it again. Not perhaps at this very moment, but sometime, soon. We know with our children that we have to take educated risks, watching carefully, but allowing them to take risks, drive off with the car, stay out later, climb a bit higher. Even love is about calculated risk, opening your heart for another to love.

  • So if you are tired after a long day, light the candle.
  • If you are concerned about the future, light the candle.
  • If you are worried about your portfolio, light the candle.
  • If you can’t figure out what to do about your challenging children, light the light.
  • If you can’t decide what to do about your aging parents, light that light.
  • If your love has gone sour, shine that light of hope.
  • If you business is going south, shine a beacon of possibility.
  • If your love life is brightening your heart, light a light to shine for others.
  • If your social activism is changing the world for the better, shine that beacon into other’s darkness.
  • If you are lonely or alone, light that light into your darkness.
  • Remember, we are all lighting lights in these days ahead.

It only takes one candle to brighten the darkness. So start today.

This Chanukah, be that unnamed kohen/priest. Take a chance for a better future. Kindle a lamp to shine the way ahead. Be your own hero. Yes you can!

In case you forget how possible it is to really make the lights sing and dance for you, click here. Each Chanukah candle will sing to you its own tune. Click the shamash (central helper candle) and they sing forth together. (Seriously, try it… but then come back and leave a comment, so we can send more tzedakah to the foster kids. Or donate your own to our ACAC/Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker program at www.orami.org/donate.

The lyrics to the song you will hear are about spiritual and physical victory over the darkness (in case you forgot):

Mi yimalel givurot Yisrael
Otan mi yimne
Hen b’khol dor yakum hagibor
Goel ha-am.

Shma! Ba-yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’zeh.
Macabim moshia u’phodeh
U’vyameinu kol Am Yisrael
Yitakhed yakum lehigael.

Shma! Ba-yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’zeh.
Macabim moshia u’phodeh
U’vyameinu kol Am Yisrael
Yitakhed yakum lehigael.

Who can retell the things that befell us?
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Arose to our aid.

Hark! In days of yore in Israel’s ancient land
Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band
But now all Israel must as one arise
Redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.

The Most Important Man in the Torah?

My colleague David Vorspan, Rabbi in Residence at New Community Jewish High School, provided me with my most meaningful Torah insight on vayeshev this morning. On his blog, he writes:

The Most Important Man in the Torah?

Who is the most important person? Perhaps it is the unidentified man in this week’s torah portion, Vayeshev (see Genesis 37:15). Joseph is in search of his brothers who are tending to their flocks. Joseph was told by his father they were in Shechem, but when he arrives, they are not to be found.

A man (unidentified) comes to Joseph as he is wandering about and asks who he is looking for. When Joseph replies that he needs to find his brothers and had this man seen them, the stranger says, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.”

Had this man not directed Joseph to the correct location, Joseph would have returned to his home, unable to complete his mission. And the rest of Jewish history would have been entirely different!

Joseph would not be sold into slavery. He would not become second to Pharoah. His family would not have come to Egypt in search of food. And remained in Egypt living the good life in Goshen. And been eventually enslaved. And freed by Moses. And. And….

It doesn’t take much to change history or have an impact on another’s life. Giving someone good (or even incorrect) directions. A gentle criticism. A timely smile. A supportive shoulder. A caring phone call.

Our rabbis tell us not to believe that fulfilling a big mitzvah will get us a bigger reward than for fulfilling a less significant mitzvah. We don’t know this to be true. And therefore, every act we do, big or small, is important.

Even something as simple as pointing and saying, “They went that-a-way.”

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.

Holiday Childspree: Shop with Foster Kids

Or Ami is again in the news, when our Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker program took to the mall to chaperone 40 foster kids through Kohl’s Department store in our annual Foster Childspree. View more pictures here.

In full, the article in the Acorn newspaper was written by Coordinator Debbie Echt-Moxness, reporting:

Seventy Or Ami volunteers gathered at Kohl’s Department Store on Sunday, December 7th for the annual Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker Holiday Shopping Childspree. Participants chaperoned foster kids throughout Kohl’s, helping them pick out new clothes and toys for the holidays. Or Ami means Light of our People, and this “light” was definitely shining on the faces of these kids and the volunteers who had the honor of being with them. When Mervyn’s Department store could no longer participate, Kohl’s enthusiastically stepped forward. When prior sponsors were unable to provide the gift cards, Or Ami members jumped in with new sponsorships. Grants from the Gogian Foundation, secured by Calabasas resident Kim Gubner, and the Department of Child and Family Services, allowed the congregation to expand Childspree to 40 children!

As Thousand Oaks resident and Congregation Or Ami social action chair Debbie Echt-Moxness recounts, “Miraculously, as I walked through the store and I saw the previously scared looks on the faces of the foster kids transformed by kindness (and new toys) into ear to ear smiles. It was so heart-warming. Spirit-warming, really, if there is such a word!”

One Oak Park resident, face alight with a smile, commented, “We get to go shopping, on someone else’s dime, to help kids in need. How much better can it get?”

When the Bible teaches that we are to care for those least able to care for themselves, it mentions orphans specifically. Judaism teaches that our Biblical ancestors understood that children without parents to care for them deserve special attention and support. These winter holidays (and for Jews, most all holidays) provide important opportunities for giving to others less fortunate than we are. There is no better way to teach it to our kids than to participate in the mitzvah of giving together.

More Milk – An Israeli View

Ha’aretz wrote a profile on the Harvey Milk movie. (My previous comments here.) Entitled Gay activism with a Yiddish inflection, the article explores some of the Jewish elements to gay activism:

At the same time that Milk was pushing for people to come out of the closet and publicly embrace their gay identities, there was subset of gay San Francisco Jews who were embracing their Jewish identities. A group known as the Lost Tribe formed in 1978, after fundamentalist Christian Anita Bryant’s crusade to enact anti-gay legislation came to California in the form of Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative.

The Briggs Initiative, which Milk helped to roundly defeat, would have barred gay and lesbian teachers from teaching in the public school system. The Lost Tribe, comprising dozens of activist gay Jews, worked within the Jewish community to drum up opposition to the initiative.

“It was a powerful and bonding time, and people made relationships personally and politically that have continued to this day,” says Avi Rose, a former member of the Lost Tribe. Rose is now executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. Rose, who also coedited the 1989 anthology “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish,” which draws a direct connection between being Jewish and being gay. “As Jews, there are things we know about stigma and discrimination, and the importance of being visible,” he says. “I think for a lot of gay Jews, that translated from our Jewish experience to our gay experience. That’s what brought so many of us into the movement in prominent ways.”

Indeed, as with the feminist movement, Jews played leading roles in the early days of the gay rights movement. Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, was Jewish. And in New York, where the movement took shape following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, such leaders as Marty Robinson and Marc Rubin rose to prominence.

These days, Milk’s legacy continues with a new crop of gay Jewish political leaders. The first gay congressman to win election was Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. And last month, Mark Leno became the first openly gay male in the California State Senate. Leno, a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco gay and lesbian synagogue, studied for two years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Cohen-Cutler Considers Hyphenation Clash

There I am, surfing the web, early in the morning with my youngest, when I stumble upon a posting on RJ.org by Or Ami’s Donnie Cohen-Cutler (and his intended Abby), chatting about how to choose a new family last name when one of the parties is hyphenated already. Donnie, as many know, is an Or Ami graduate, who went onto greatness as a macher in the Union for Reform Judaism, before getting hired out by some important company. (That’s Donnie on the right, circa 2000, still youthified.) This is a great post, reflective of a challenge for children of hyphenation. It also serves as a tribute to, among other things, his tradition busting parents who, ahead of their time, hyphenated.

by dcc (and az)
First some background: Once upon a time, in a magical land known as Newton, Massachusetts a boy named Andy Cutler fell in love with a “feminist in law school” named Olivia Cohen. After years of courtship and these two high school sweethearts tied the knot at Temple Ohabei Shalom in June of 1977. Like in all fairy tales, the two lived happily ever after in a wonder-world of pluralism and progress as Andy and Olivia Cohen-Cutler. These two tradition bashing creating newlyweds went on to bring Donnie and his very smart and funny sister Sally into the world with this new family title. Thus the Cohen-Cutler family was created. Jump to present day. Read on.

A Jew Dare Not Live with Absolute Certainty

Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, past Chancellor of New York’s Yeshiva University and President Emeritus of Bar Ilan University in Israel, died in early December, 2008, at age 98. Rabbi Rackman was also the spiritual leader of the prominent Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan and an outspoken advocate of a more inclusive, intellectually open Orthodox Judaism.

What I know about Rabbi Rackman impressed me so. One colleague said that his great strength – particularly in a Jewish world that is increasingly polarized – was his assertion that Jewish pluralism was a Torah-True perspective even for the Orthodox. Here is a quote from a 1966 article:

Perhaps, like Socrates, I corrupt youth, but I teach that Judaism encourages doubt, even as it enjoins faith and commitment. A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic and Judaism abhors fanaticism, but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential ultimately to discover its Creator.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Recovering Addicts are Our Teachers

Choose Life That You Should Live:

Recovering Addicts are Our Teachers

By Lydia Bloom Medwin
Former Rabbinic/Education Intern (pictured at left)
Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA

“Acquire for yourself a teacher…” This passage from the Mishnah encourages us to seek out those more knowledgeable than ourselves and to become their students. After meeting with four Or Ami congregants, each recovering from alcoholism or an addiction in one form or another, I have found for myself some wonderful teachers.

During the past month, I met with three alcoholics or addicts and one spouse of an addict. Each had a unique history with their own addiction – the first time she drank, the transformation of his alcoholism into a heroine addiction, her sifting through the credit card bills to find her husband’s unknown charges – yet all four had so much in common. The most important commonality emerged in discussions around a twelve-step program. Each day they surrender their lives and their will to God – their lives depend on it.

My teachers are some of the most spiritually centered people that I have ever met. They have all developed close relationships with God, however they define their Higher Power. They know that when the world becomes overwhelming or when something makes them fuming mad, there is only one solution: give it over to God. These moments of prayer and meditation, both spontaneously spoken and ritually observed, anchor them in the truth on which their lives depend. This truth is comprised of the first three steps in a twelve-step program: 1. I can’t do it. 2. God can. 3. I think I’ll let Him.

But these are only the first few steps on the journey toward recovery. Even in recovery, the addict (and even the spouse of an addict) can find that he or she becomes consumed by the fear and pain that pushed him or her towards addiction in the first place. They are forced to learn completely new ways of dealing with their problems, because they cannot turn to the bottle or the pills or whatever addiction used to dull their pain. They know that if they ignore these fears, the disease of addiction can progress on. If the alcoholic stops drinking but does not deal with his or her fears, the addiction continues to intensify. When the addict returns to the addictive substance, the abuse of that substance is far more serious, as if they had been drinking and getting progressively worse during the entire period of sobriety. Talking about their fear and pain is just as much a part of recovery as abstaining from the substance itself.

My teachers taught me that they can only find the power to face their fears by constantly refocusing on “giving over one’s problems to God.” This is the only path that can lead to recovery and healing. I was amazed by the incredible strength they evidenced as they moved from addiction to recovery. Imagine truly believing that “I will not survive unless I continually remind myself that I must give my life over to God.” Would you have the strength to surrender to your Higher Power? But it is only this surrender that helps the alcoholic/addict choose to abstain from using. In the Torah, we are commanded to choose life that we may live. An alcoholic actually chooses life every day.

“Only a drunk can help another drunk.” This quote from the movie The Story of Bill W. completely baffled me when I first heard it. How could two people with such a disease help one another get sober? What does this mean for me, a rabbinic/education intern who wanted to be of service to the recovering alcoholics in our congregation? Once we realize that the only way to stop the addictive behavior is to continually find fellowship with others who understand, we can embrace the truth: No one can understand the internal life of an alcoholic like another alcoholic. No matter how much the person’s loved ones care and want to help, only a community of people who have the same disease can speak the language with and feel the empathy for the alcoholic or addicted person.

It was this seemingly simple discovery that led Bill Wilson, an alcoholic himself, to develop the first twelve-step program, a system of recovery, lifetime support, and anonymity for people with addictions of all kinds. It remains the only known way of helping people who struggle with addiction. Presently, there are over two thousand Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery meetings each week in the greater Los Angeles area, including many in the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys. AA has a rich, proud, and private history; its members are protective of their meetings and the organization because of its incredible healing power in their lives.

As a rabbinic intern, I thought that through these discussions, I would be able to better to talk to the Jewish alcoholics or addicts that exist in every Jewish community. I learned instead that it was my role to listen: to their stories of pain, of hitting rock bottom, of survival. Then it was my responsibility to educate others about the disease of addiction and to the program of recovery, about the ones who don’t make it and the ones who do, and the ones who thrive despite all of the odds against them. I would like to thank those people who shared their experiences and their lives so openly with me for the sake of our communal learning. I deeply respect their incredible journeys. It also means a lot to me on a professional level, as their stories will certainly inform my rabbinate for years to come. You are four really great teachers. One of you said to me, “In seeking God, I find relief.” I pray that you all find many moments of relief.

We can all learn from the addicts in our lives and in our community. They have so much to teach us in terms of hope, personal change, strength, and spirituality. Or Ami is a place that strives to better understand addiction and the Twelve Step program. We are a place to come for understanding, acceptance, and spiritual support. We welcome all those struggling with these issues to contact Rabbi Paul Kipnes (rabbipaul@orami.org) or Rabbinic Intern Sara Mason-Barkin (Sara@orami.org) for support or Jewish resources regarding addiction and recovery.