Tag: Sabbatical

Ger Hayiti: Feel the Heart of the Stranger

Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Yom Kippur 5770/2009

[For full endnotes, textual references and lyrics of songs sung/quoted, see Rabbi’s writings on our Or Ami website.]

A story: In the year 120 CE, in the land of Israel, a horrible plague swept through the holy land. So many took ill. Thousands succumbed. The plague took beloved friends and co-workers. By the time it ended, 24,000 had died. Whole families were wiped out.

Devastated, people struggled to understand why this plague had come. In an age before the Centers for Disease Control, they turned to their rabbinic leaders for explanation and comfort. Following the best pre-scientific knowledge of their day, these ancient rabbis concluded that the plague must be punishment for some appalling sin they committed.

Which fit. Because it was a time of terrible partisanship in the halls of Torah study. Here they were talking Torah and their arguments were supposed to be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Yet as the disagreements intensified, words sharpened, and attacks by one study group on those who disagreed with them became vicious. Soon discussions about Jewish law became forums to destroy each others’ reputations, livelihoods, lives.

Then the great 2nd century scholar Rabbi Akiba figured it out. The plague’s cause to sinat chinam, the baseless hatred that the students had for each other. Searching for a cure, he turned to Torah. There in Leviticus, he read V’ahavta l’ray-a-cha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.

Having witnessed the way that so many students of Torah were engaged in the holiest of endeavors – the study of Torah – yet were still insensitive towards others, Akiva proclaimed that this great sin could only be remedied with gemilut chasadim, lovingkindness.

V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha set a high standard of behavior. It was not about feeling love. Rather, each action we take which affects others must pass a specific litmus test: Would we want to be on the receiving end of that action? Rabbi Akiva challenged: Loving yourself, you must take the needs and desires of others into account. Do so and the world will quickly be cleansed of hatred and violence. So he rallied his surviving students to this new cause, an aspiration for holy living which accompanied holy learning.

Cantor and Chorale sing the Chorus and Verse from Cantor Doug Cotler’s song, Amar Rabi Akiva

Accepting the plagues as the result of sinful behavior, Akiva’s 2nd century colleague Ben Azzai suggested another fundamental principle in Torah to guide us. Lifting up a verse from the Creation story in Genesis – b’tzelem Elohim, that we were created in the image of God – Ben Azzai taught that though we may seem different, act differently, speak different languages, we are connected by the miraculous process of our creation. B’tzelem Elohim, being created in God’s image, proclaims that each human being is equally blessed, because we all are born with intrinsic value and worth.

B’tzelem Elohim set a new standard for our actions: since God is neither white nor black, male nor female, Jew nor non-Jew, and since every human being is an image of God, there is no preferred image. Therefore all people should be well treated as equals. If each person harbors God’s image within, we have the responsibility to care for, protect, and embrace every person. Even those we do not know. We need to open our hearts to the strangers in our midst, and to create communities of inclusion, where prejudice and hate give way to love and respect.

What a wonderful world that would be!

Cantor and Chorale sing a Chorus and Verse from Sheryl Braunstein and Paul Kipnes’ song, B’tzelem Elohim

Another story. We all know Moses, our people’s greatest hero. He is one who wrestled with the challenges of being a stranger in a strange land. Saved at birth by a non-Israelite princess. Raised in Pharaoh’s home. Struggling for decades with the secret of his birth. Moses watched his people struggle under the whip and sword. Until one day, after witnessing the abuse heaped upon an Israelite slave by his Egyptian taskmaster, Moses became incensed. Furious, Moses killed the taskmaster. When the act became known, Moses fled into the wilderness. There, he met Yitro, a Midianite priest, and there he fell in love with Tzipporah, Yitro’s beautiful headstrong daughter. In this wilderness, Tzipporah gave birth to their first son. Moses aptly named his son, Gershom, which means Ger hayiti b’eretz nochriya. Gershom, meaning I was a stranger in a strange land.

Some rabbis point to the naming of Gershom as one of the pivotal incidents in the onset of the Exodus. Before God could call Moses to service, before Moses could go down to Egypt to rescue the Israelites, he had to embrace an existential reality – that a fundamental part of his identity was the experience of being an outsider. To lead God’s people, to nurture the community toward holiness, Moses needed to feel in the very beating of his heart, the heart of the stranger.

We all know what it is like to feel like a stranger. You step into a room filled with people who look at you, and then return to their conversations, as if you were not there. You sit alone in class or in the office, and nobody turns to say hello. You enter a synagogue – somewhere else, of course – and no one makes you feel welcome. Though we all descended from one human, Adam, most of us have a tendency to categorize people as “like us” or “not like us” – by skin color, by race, by religion or sexual orientation, by socio-economic status. Most of the time, if we hang out with our own crowd, we feel secure that we are part of the group. But step outside the circle, and we feel the heart of the stranger. We feel misplaced, different.

Then at Mt. Sinai we received the Torah, and with it a moral imperative to remain keenly aware of people living at the margins. Did you know that the commandment to protect the defenseless in society from exploitation is the most often repeated injunction in the entire Torah, appearing more often than commandments to love God, keep kosher, or observe Shabbat? According to one count by the Talmud, no less than thirty-six times are we directed to protect the most vulnerable among us. In ancient Israel, it was understood that strangers, as outsiders with few support systems, were defenseless against injustice.

Later, we Jews saw Israel, our holy land, twice destroyed. Two times we experienced being scattered throughout the world, separated from our holy places, the source of our identity. Then in the Middle Ages, a sense of our own insecurity deepened, created by years of living at the whim of city-state rulers, who at a moment’s notice could expel us with just the knowledge in our heads and whatever we could carry on our backs. Those realities entered our hearts, pumping through our veins the blood of being the stranger.

Now, at every Passover seder, we eat bitter herbs and matzah and relive our flight from being a stranger. Every Sukkot, we re-experience wandering by living in sukkah booths. Every Shabbat, we sing Mi Chamocha, thanking God for bringing us out of Egypt. Again and again in the Bible and in our rituals, the memory of our slavery points us to one commandment: You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger… Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.

What does it really mean today to feel the heart of the stranger? Sometimes it just makes you sick.

A story: this summer Michelle, the boys and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Civil Rights Museum chronicles key episodes in the oppression of blacks and the subsequent struggle for civil rights. There, we learned in depth about the cynical machinations of racism that permeated our country’s legal, business and governmental system. There, we saw how nefarious forces over a short period of time had transformed forbidden slavery into a then acceptable system of brutal racial discrimination. The Museum’s depictions of the brave struggle for Arkansas school desegregation, of Rosa Parks’ sitting up front of the bus, of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and of Freedom Summer illuminated the radiant power of an organized caring community to roll back prejudice. There we learn how one inspired man, working with other insightful, motivated people, turned this country back on the road toward justice.

Yet walking through the museum was emotionally draining. The photos and news clippings, eyewitness accounts and whites-only signs, were startling. It defied sensibility that in America, in my lifetime, lawyers and preachers, judges and governors, bus drivers and businessmen, Jews among them – could wrap themselves in the cloak of Biblical morality to justify the subjugation, and later separation, of the races. I was ashamed at how our country treated its own citizens. How deadened do you have to be inside to ignore our biblical mandates of b’tzelem Elohim and love thy neighbor as yourself? How numb do you have to be to the heart of the stranger to lynch someone who is marching just so they can sit at the front of the bus?

The institutionalization of racial discrimination in America back then, and the continued marginalization and often exploitation of other groups of people – blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the physically and mentally disabled, gays and lesbians, the working poor – defies every fundamental principle Judaism holds dear: that we were created in God’s image, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, that we were strangers in a strange land. What is a Jew to do, when we hear of prejudice and discrimination, especially when the Bible is used to justify injustice?

Our Jewish hearts, like those of the Biblical prophets of Israel before us, must become incensed by this twisting of our values to support a status quo. Our responsibility is to speak out and act up to ensure those pushed to the margins are embraced and cared for.

We feel the heart of the stranger. That’s why Jews have been at the forefront of every significant social movement then and now: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-apartheid, ending genocide in Darfur, end of sanctioned torture, and more. We feel the heart of the stranger. It’s why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. The heart of the stranger. It is why so many Or Ami congregants step forward in droves to support children in foster care, kids they never even met. The heart of the stranger.

I’m proud that Congregation Or Ami strives to live up to the standards set by Akiva, Ben Azzai and Moses. Nothing makes me kvell – beam with more pride – than when people speak about Or Ami as the place where people previously felt like they were on the margins of the community are welcomed back into the center. Our sanctuary is filled with people who “are young and old; able-bodied and have special needs; single and couples, divorced and blended families; people of various sexual orientations; multiracial people and multiethnic families; people whose lives range from whole to broken, and from struggling to wealthy.” We are a mosaic of Moses’ people.

So this year, let’s continue to cultivate within the heart of the stranger.

Perhaps next time you see a person with a different color skin than yours – perhaps black or brown, white, reddish or yellow – you will look first beneath their skin color to honor the image of God that resides within.

Maybe when a client or co-worker walks into the office – the Persian or Israeli, the Muslim woman wearing the head covering, we will withhold that knee-jerk prejudging – and try to will love that neighbor as ourselves.

Perhaps when we see someone walking down the street, or bussing our plates at a restaurant, and we start to wonder if he is an illegal immigrant, we will remember that we too were often strangers in a strange land.

And when we see the poorest of the poor, sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping under a park bench, we will shine them a smile. And then when we go home, let’s call our city councilors or write our congress people, to tell them that we feel shame that God’s children are living in the gutters. And then we will write a check to a hunger organization, and volunteer at the SOVA food pantry, and vote for people who will help erase homelessness and poverty from our streets once and for all.

And when we listen to cable news and hear tirades about why we cannot, should not, enact serious reform of our inexcusably deficient healthcare and health insurance system, remember that the stranger sitting in the row right in front of us might be someone whose mother or father, or cousin or friend, or they themselves, cannot get the care they need because our current system, that might serve you and me well enough, stands idly by while our neighbors bleed. Hopefully our hearts will do more than bleed for them. Hopefully we will stand up and advocate for them.

And next time we think about the men and women, who share love, but cannot marry, because they happen to be of the same gender, we will remember our Torah, which sees the b’tzelem Elohim in all people, would bless monogamous, consensual, gay or lesbian marriages, and you will honor and bless them too, as do I, your rabbi.

It is Yom Kippur, and we stand together to ask forgiveness for our sins. For the ways we have harmed others by our actions, and by our inactions as well. For standing idly by while our neighbors bleed, suffer, or struggle. For numbing ourselves to the heart of the stranger, and pretending that we weren’t once strangers too.

Because we are all neighbors, commanded to treat each other with love. Because we all are created in the image of God, making each of us valued and worthy. Because we remember what it is like to be marginalized, oppressed and ignored.

On this day especially, may God grant us the courage:

To break the chains that bind us
And make oppression disappear.
To help the stranger find a bed.
To remember that [we] must share our daily bread.

Torah teaches Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. May we remember Justice, justice, I will pursue you.

Cantor Cotler sings his song, “Justice, Justice”

The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory

M’lo Chol Ha’aretz K’vodo: The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory
A Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Rosh Hashana 5770/2009

[for citations of rabbinic and modern sources, see the sermon on the Or Ami website]

Lead in: Sheryl Braunstein and Or Ami Chorale sing “B’tzelem Elohim”

Sheryl’s beautiful song reminds me that we all were created in God’s image and therefore can “see” God’s face in our encounters with other people. This summer, I encountered another face of the Holy One. And it moved me deeply.

I spent the summer on sabbatical, dedicated as a Shabbat, an opportunity to retreat, reflect, refresh. While our daughter was a CIT at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa all summer, Michelle, the boys and I “mini-vanned” across America. We stayed at 3 Jewish Summer Camps; visited 9 Baseball Parks; boated in 6 waterways; danced at 5 amazing concerts; meandered through 10 American history museums; wine-tasted throughout the Northwest; and snapped over 3,000 digital photos. During our summer odyssey, we drove over 6,000 miles, visiting 20 States in 31 days in our own Odyssey minivan.

Most memorable of all were the 14 amazing National Parks. There, we were overwhelmed by America’s natural beauty. Its spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Its purple mountains, majestic; those low-lying, fruited plains. Wherever we drove, from the mountains (in Colorado) to the prairies (in South Dakota) to Oregon’s oceans white with foam, I kept encountering… HaMakom.

Of the 70 names for God referred to in Torah, HaMakom, meaning “The Place”, stayed with me during the sabbatical. Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe.”

My heart first opened to HaMakom, “God as Everywhere”, as Michelle and I meandered for two days up the gorgeous Oregon Coast. Each scenic overlook brought us to a view more breath-taking than the last. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature surrounding you that you lost track of time, of priorities, of yourself? Every inch of the Oregon coast was so darned beautiful. It was God’s country. It is God. HaMakom.

I felt a little like Adam in that first week following his creation. After the work of naming the animals, and the fun of dallying with Eve, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century collection of rabbinic stories, tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator!

Imagine that! The first human being, Adam, the first to behold God’s creation, was so inspired that he became Creation’s first poet. Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One.

Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world.

The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.

Like Adam did, so often this summer I perceived signs of HaMakom, God’s Presence: in the ocean, in the mountains and the sky. My ears began to hear the praise-songs of nature. My heart, inspired beyond its usual capacity, began to burst.

Often we, who live closed off in cities, drive around in climate-controlled cars, work in climate-controlled offices, forget to take notice of the glorious splendor which surrounds us: California mountains and Pacific seashores, desert palm trees and picturesque sunsets? We make ourselves too busy, too stressed, too worried about money, or time, or our jobs, to see the wonder. We use every excuse to remain in our homes, walled off in our cars.

That was me. For most of my life. As many of you remember, I used to live with my gaze firmly locked on my CrackBerry. I used to walk around with my head down. Then I finally understood just what the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, was trying to say all those years ago: M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo, the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic creations, yet we humans take our hands and cover our eyes. Except during isolated moments, my hands blinded me to the beauty around us.

And then we visited the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. And then my eyes were truly opened wide.

And then I was awed into silence by the grandeur of Creation. It was like I was seeing clearly for the first time.

We were driving north by Jackson Lake, planning to scout out Yellowstone in the north. (Anyone been up there? Gorgeous, no?!) I had to pull off to the side of the road because I could not catch my breath. My family thought I wanted to take pictures. My son wondered if I was praying. Like Adam, I was just overwhelmed by the beauty. I needed to stop moving, and just take it in. I needed to find words to express the inspiration I felt.

This time the blackberry served a holy purpose. I took it out and wrote about my experience of wonder. I had to write something. The yearning was so powerful. The need to praise brought tears to my eyes.

In Torah, we read that when the Biblical scouts returned from scouting out the Holy Land, argue as they might about the Israelites’ ability to take possession of the land, they nonetheless wholeheartedly agreed in their praise of the land. They called it eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, a land flowing with milk and honey. I imagine how they must have welled up with emotion as they recounted discovering Israel’s beauty.

In the Grand Tetons, in the Louisiana Bayous, and all across this beautiful country of ours, I too welled up with intense emotion. America, every inch of it, is flowing with its own flavors of milk and honey. Some of us see it. Many of us miss it. The eighth century prophet Isaiah said it best: m’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s magnificence. God created. God sustains. God is. Here. In this place. The Place. HaMakom. This is God.

There once was a time when we Jews were inextricably tied to the land. Back in biblical times, we farmed and we harvested. Our holy days – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot – were dedicated to celebrating the agricultural cycle- planting, reaping, harvesting. Following Israel’s 20th century rebirth, the poignancy was that we were once again reconnected with the earth. But for most of us here in America – few of us farmers – the distance between our lives and any land is vast and growing. But it wasn’t always that way.

I discovered, for example, that the humans, who have inhabited southern Utah for over 10,000 years, were integrally connected to a mysterious canyon, we now call Zion Canyon National Park. Originally it wasn’t to hike or take pictures, like we do. Or to rock climb or rest. They came for food and water… it was as simple as that. Human survival meant gleaning from the land its scant harvests. Archaic peoples, Ancestral Native Americans – Pueblo Dwellers and Southern Paiutes – had extensive and intuitive knowledge of the plants, animals, and seasons. They would hunt, fish, and gather. They grew modest crops, and, like Jews do on Sukkot, would harvest only after they offered thanks for the generous bounty.

Of course, this ancient way of life is gone now. Today, when most of us travel on vacation, our temporary home isn’t a brush shelter, but a hotel. Our water source comes from a tap, not the natural springs in the rocks. We don’t need to forage in order to live. Still, we turn to the land to harvest its gifts. What might our harvests be? For many National Park travelers, we come to collect not things but knowledge, not resources but memories, not trophies but satisfaction.

And so it was for us when we hiked through Zion Canyon National Park. The sun warmed the earth. Buds blossomed and birds soared. A quiet liveliness rustled through the park. And I encountered something else. In the sound of the song of a river, as a canyon wren scolded us, amidst the giant cliffs that made me think big and feel small. I stood silent, mouth agape; eyes open wide at the astonishing landscape. Despite unsettling changes in our world, while standing there and gazing deep into the soul of that canyon, I found contentment, a place of peace.

That, my friends, is the encounter with holiness, with kedusha. That is what our ancestor Jacob experienced when he sensed a ladder rising up to the heavens and sensed God standing beside it. In the middle of nowhere, he realized, Achen yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh vanochi lo yadati – Wow, God is in this place and I did not know it. He identified where he stood: Mah norah haMakom hazeh – How awesome is HaMakom, this place. Ein zeh ki im beit Elohim v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim – This is a house of God, a gateway to the heavens. HaMakom. God. In this place. Everyplace. A gateway to heavens. Everywhere. Yeish. God’s here. There. Everywhere.

Of course, this contentment and peace so often eludes us. Whether driving around the city, journeying through the High Holy Days, or stumbling through our lives, we easily miss the serenity within our reach. So how can we encounter HaMakom, the Divine right here?

My story: It was a hot, August Sunday, just before our cross country travels were to come to an end. Michelle, Daniel, Noah and I set out to hike up the Virgin River, a beautiful, flowing tributary that bisects Utah’s Zion Canyon National Park. Two hours into the hike, we entered the Narrows, so called because of the narrow space created by the towering canyon walls as they leaned in. Though awesome sights encircled us, rocky obstacles lurking beneath the water’s surface sought to trip us up. Walking sticks were needed to probe the path ahead for underwater holes.

Here one must tread carefully. Too much attention focused on the surrounding beauty, and a foot misplaced on the slippery upcropping of underwater rocks sends you splashing into the river. This is a lesson of everyday life. Pay attention or you might get tripped up.

At the same time, don’t miss out on what’s right before your eyes. The Narrows also taught us that when we spend too much attention focused on each individual step – so afraid of stumbling and getting soaked – we might miss the grandeur of creation: cascading waterfalls, multicolored rock shelves, turquoise blue skies. We might walk right past Jacob’s ladder, sha’ar shamayim, the gateway to heavenly inspiration.

It’s right there. And here. And everywhere. HaMakom. We work hard to maintain balance and find equilibrium. Sometimes we have to play it safe and walk with conservative care.

Yet other times, we can take a risk. Look up and around, open up to the splendor. As the mystics remind us, Ein Sof, there is no end to God’s Holy space.

So remember that HaMakom, The Place, God’s Place, is right here. At the Agoura Hills-Calabasas Community Center. This afternoon, at Paradise Cover in Malibu. And on Sukkot, around a campfire in Old Agoura. Yes, HaMakom is up top of Big Bear. In Malibu Creek State Park. On the hiking trail out behind your back gate.

In these difficult times, life’s pressures threaten to push us over the edge. But we can still go find the Holy One. There you just might find that contentment and peace you seek. On a walk with a friend around Calabasas Lake, watching the stars with your kid up on Mulholland, sharing a cup of coffee with a loved one in the back yard. It’s a tried and true path to spirituality. As Naturalist John Muir said: “…break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend [time] in the woods. [You will] Wash your spirit clean.”

That’s the secret to finding God. Remembering that it’s all HaMakom, a sacred place. This whole world is Kadosh, holy. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed it. The psalmist Doug Cotler sings it: M’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s glory. “[And] Even when it’s hard to hear, Surely God is always near For everywhere we stand is holy ground.” Kadosh.

Song: Cantor Doug Cotler and Or Ami Chorale sing Cantor Cotler’s Kadosh

Beginning Sabbatical Phase 2

Our congregation announces my upcoming sabbatical:

After serving us faithfully for eleven years, Rabbi Kipnes will begin the second part of his rabbinical sabbatical from May 17 through late August. (The first part took place in January 2008.) The term “sabbatical,” related to the word Shabbat (time of rest), refers to a leave from normal responsibilities. Its roots come from the Torah when God instructs Moses on Mount Sinai that the Israelites are to work the fields for six years and on the seventh year the land will have a Shabbat, a complete rest. Typically taken by rabbis around the world after each seven years of service to the community, a rabbinical sabbatical allows a rabbi to rest, study and experience new facets of Jewish spirituality and learning. It serves to rejuvenate a rabbi’s internal resources for the dual purposes of providing more knowledge for sermons and synagogue activities and creating an invaluable period of spiritual rejuvenation and professional rabbinic renewal.

Rabbi Kipnes is taking his sabbatical in three parts over three years. He will begin the second part (May 17 through August 19) following Shabbat services on May 15 (and the B’nai Mitzvah services on May 16).

How will our rabbi renew himself? Rabbi Kipnes will be studying early Chasidic commentaries on Torah and will also be tutored in conversational Hebrew. He will explore synagogue renewal through an extensive reading list and tours of synagogues of excellence around the country. He will lead a delegation to Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and visit Jewish summer camps in Washington State and Mississippi. He will volunteer to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He will expand his personal spiritual practice by rediscovering the beauty of the Holy One in National Parks around America.

Although we will miss our rabbi during his weeks away, we understand that this sabbatical is essential to both his vibrancy and longevity. To ensure that our rabbi has the ability to retreat, reflect and renew, we have developed the following sabbatical coverage plans. Our competent and compassionate Student Rabbi Ari Margolis (contact him through Or Ami at 818-880-4880 or, beginning May 17th at [email protected]) will take a leading role in responding to the pastoral needs of our congregants. Where needed, he will make pastorals calls, arrange for funerals, make hospital visits and take care of the spiritual needs of our congregants. He will be supported by Cantor Cotler and other community Rabbis. Services will be led by Cantor Cotler, Student Rabbi Margolis, Sheryl Braunstein, Darryl Lieberstein, Aaron Meyer, Kim Gubner or some combination thereof. Our talented educators will continue to lead our excellent educational programs. Our fabulous office staff, led by Susie Stark, looks forward to assisting you ([email protected] or 818-880-4880). Of course, our president Susan Gould ([email protected]) is always ready to listen and help.

Since we want our Rabbi to focus on his own renewal and spiritual growth, with his consent, we have instructed Rabbi Kipnes that during his sabbatical, he will not be reading his email, blog, facebook, or twitter, nor will he be accepting congregant phone calls. Although you might see him around town, please respectfully do not engage him in synagogue-related issues. We are proud of how well we take care of our Rabbi and we want him refreshed when he returns!

Rabbi Kipnes will return to our community at Shabbat services on Friday night, August 21. There, interspersed with the beautiful music of our Or Ami Chorale, Rabbi Kipnes will share reflections on the first part of his sabbatical. We wish him well and hope to see you there.

Baruch B’vo’echa * Baruch B’tzay-techa
Blessed may our Rabbi be as he goes off to learn * Blessed may he be as he returns to us renewed.

Lessons From the Sabbatical #1

I have just returned from a month-long Sabbatical. I spent time in Israel with a congregational adult trip and the balance at home in Calabasas, CA. Highlights included Onion Soup and tei eem nana (tea with mint) with Michelle at a Jerusalem restaurant, the study of Mekhilta de Rabi Ishmael (5th-8th century Midrash) with my friend Rabbi Ron Stern under the guidance of Dr. Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University, and weekly Hebrew tutoring sessions with a private teacher. What did I gain from the experience? Some initial thoughts.

1. Disengaging: My sabbatical began when I disengaged. Technologically. I revised my cell phone message to say something like, “I’m on Sabbatical. For Or Ami business, please call the synagogue. Family and friends, please leave a message here.” Two minutes into my sabbatical, I also removed my Temple email from my Outlook, disengaged the same from my blackberry, and turned off my pager. Someone once said, “I think, therefore I am.” I say, “I disengage electronically, therefore I am not.”

2. Email #1. If no one emails me, do I truly exist? I went from receiving over 150 emails a day to less than a half dozen. Exclude the daily four from my wife (“did you hear that…” or items for the “honey-do” list) and you have one disengaged rabbi. Who am I if I am not my email? That, according to my wife, was the central question for my Sabbatical.

3. Email #2. At Or Ami, we say, people matter. Email, however, is more insistent. Email says, “Read me. Consider me. Respond to me. Now!” It knows no boundaries of time (the Blackberry places YOUR immediate needs in the holster at MY hip) nor space (no matter where I am, there you and your email are). If people truly matter, does that necessitate an immediate reply to each person’s email? Surely we can care about people without becoming enslaved to the constant pull of the constant contact?
4. Simple Pleasures #1: Sitting with a Book. I read a thick spy novel in just two days. I read from morning until night, doing little else of value. I read at night in bed. I read when I awoke. I read while making dinner. I read between meals. I read while the kids watched games on tv. There was nothing of value in the book I read, except for the thrill of reading the thriller. For a man who ruminates about significant issues in life, there is something simplistically pleasing as just sitting and spacing out with a book.
5. Sabbatical Struggles: What happens when you take the rabbi out of the rabbi? When you take the doing out of the doer? Can we be happy just “being”? I confess that the last weeks of the Sabbatical were filled with struggle, trying to find joy in just being. Driving carpool and schlepping kids was wonderful, but still it was not sufficient to keep my mind going and my heart content. I love my kids and enjoy the opportunity, but it is not sufficient. Walking with my wife was divine, but watching the world go on around me, left me, at times, feeling left behind. Hmmm… Should I have volunteered somewhere? Should I have scheduled more studying or doing?
6. Carpool Conundrum: What does one do with the extra time while sitting in carpool? Before I was on sabbatical, I would sit in my car, making Henaynu (caring community) calls, speaking with potential congregants, even counseling people in need. Being disengaged removes the need to “make good use of time” because I have fewer people (read: no one) who I need to call. Plus my friends are working and I often made phone calls to my family in the early morning after morning drop off. While sitting in the carpool line can be a pain, it can also provide plenty of extra time. So how did I spend my precious moments while waiting in line? I am not sure I ACCOMPLISHED anything in that time. Perhaps that in itself is the point: sometimes “just being” can be a gift unto itself.