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What Does a Vibrant Jewish Community Look Like?

This past Friday to Sunday, the light of Or Ami was shining brightly.  Just thinking about how so many people participated in so many programs, projects and simchas energizes me. 

Dealing with Difficult People: Friday 11:00 am-2:00 pm
I often say that the reason Or Ami is so warm and welcoming is, first and foremost, because our staff embodies the values of Henaynu (we are here for each other).  It is all about the warm way they answer the phones, the caring way they help people through crises, and the humane way we deal with financial or educational issues.  How does a synagogue staff deepen its ability to embody our most cherished values?  Friday, our entire office and program staff gathered at Cantor Doug Cotler’s home to reflect upon how we deal with challenging issues or challenging people. It is not enough to say “this is the policy” or “you are being mean” or “that’s just the way it is.”  A caring community responds with caring even with people who are not being caring, because we recognize that personal pain can cause people to lash out.  So we studied Jewish texts on Tochecha (how to respond to those who are rebuking/yelling); we reflected upon case studies from synagogues and camps around the country.  We created Ten Commandments of Dealing with Challenging People.  How wonderful to take the time to reflect, so that the caring can deepen and the congregation can benefit.

Remembering Biggie: Friday, 4:00-5:00 pm
We memorialized Grandpa Biggie, the larger than life storytelling father of our congregant.  Stories about him were enthralling.  The Cantor’s music was comforting.  Being with the Or Ami community during this time of sadness offered comfort and strength.  May his memory be for a blessing.

Rethinking the Rape of Dina: Friday, 7:30-9:00 pm
Someone once said that Reality TV must have been created by Jews since the beauty and brilliance of Torah is that it discloses both the perfection AND the blemishes of our ancestors.  At Adult Study Shabbat services, we studied the Rape of Dinah, from the WRJ’s Women’s Torah Commentary. It is a horrifying, often skipped-over story describing the rape and silencing of Jacob and Leah’s daughter and the subsequent rampage of retribution and death that followed.  How important it felt to give voice to Dinah whose voice is not heard in Torah! Dinah, like so many other raped women around the world, need their stories to be told. We announced the new Save Congo project of Jewish World Watch, which focuses in part on helping vast villages of women who are being raped as part of a concerted effort by the guerrillas and militia. 

First Steps on the Road to Jewish Adulthood: Saturday, 10:00-11:45 am and 4:00-5:45 pm
If you have not attended one of Or Ami’s B’nai Mitzvah services, you are missing an inspiring experience. I am constantly impressed by how Cantor Cotler finds ways of getting everyone to sing and smile.  Our young people, so well prepared by our B’nai Mitzvah teacher Diane Townsend, lead with confidence and excitement.  Their divray Torah (speeches) expressed important and relevant lessons from the Torah. Guests talk about the warm personal feeling of the services; they compliment how much of the service (most of it) our Reform Jewish teens lead.

Brandon’s Buddies: Saturday, 10:30 am-1:00 pm
Opening the community to all people, regardless of a person’s challenges or disabilities, is a core value at Or Ami. That’s why we support Brandon’s Buddies,a program of The K.E.N. Project, a non-profit organization run by Dina Kaplan.  Brandon’s Buddies is a free play date on the first Saturday of every month at Brandon’s Village (a universally accessible playground) at Gates Canyon Park in Calabasas.  It offers children with and without disabilities the opportunity to play together.  Congregation Or Ami sponsors the playdate four times per year.  As sponsor, we provided arts and crafts activities, face painting, snacks, and other activities like basketball or singing for the kids to enjoy.  As Dina Kaplan wrote, Or Ami coordinator Helayne Sharon and all the other volunteers were fantastic!  We had a huge turnout and it was lots of fun for all the kids.  Even the teenagers (especially the boys) said that they had a really good time.

Building Friendships while Running All Over the Mall: Saturday, 12:30-4:00 pm

Our teen youth group gathered at the Topanga Mall for socializing, fun and group building.  As they followed clues that led them from one end of the mall to the other, the participants deepened friendships.  As significant were the activities that occurred behind the scenes, under the nurturing guidance of LoMPTY advisor Michelle Westmiller.  Our youth board – mostly sophomores in high school – brainstormed, planned and facilitated programs for their peers.  Our Union for Reform Judaism has discovered that future Jewish leadership gain many of the most important leadership skills during program planning in Temple youth groups. 

Shopping for 50 Kids with Someone Else’s Money: Saturday, 4:00-6:30 pm

Or Ami arranges two Childspree Shopping sprees during the year, one for Back to School supplies and clothes in the summer and one for the Holidays in December. These events take place at Kohl’s department store. In the early years, Meryvn’s has donated $100 gift cards for the Back to School event. These days, congregants donated $100 per child. Or Ami adults and children, organized by chairperson Kim Gubner, volunteer their time by chaperoning the 50 foster children through the store and helping them shop. For some of these foster children, this shopping trip represents the only time in the year that they can go shopping for themselves.  The beauty of Childspree is that it difficult to know who is helping who. The smiles on the volunteers’ faces are as bright as those of the children picking out new things. We met 20 year olds raising young boys following the death of their mother, new moms who did not even own a stroller, and a 9 year old boy who had a great time buying shoes, a necklace for his mother and a remote control helicopter for him to play with his father in the park.

Re-Building a Golden Calf: Sunday, 9:00-11:30 am

When the Israelites built and worshipped the Golden Calf, they broke trust with God (and Moses) in so devastating a way as if they were a bridegroom who engaged in adultery on the eve of his marriage.  After reliving the Golden Calf debacle, our students and their parents explored the Torah story to see how God, after getting very angry, worked with Moses to rebuild the relationship with the Israelites.  Adults viewed the G-dcast video.  We all discussed apology and forgiveness, about confession and restitution, and about how one rebuilds broken trust. 

1,480 Jelly Donuts: Sunday, 11:30 am-1:00 pm
The day ended with deliveries of sufganiot (fried jelly donuts), delivered by volunteers to all Or Ami congregants and faculty.  In Celebration of Chanukah, the Festival of Rededication, Or Ami sends sweetness to our extended family.  In Israel, Jews eat jelly-filled dough, friend in oil, in remembrance of Chanukah’s miracle of oil.  We offer hope that during this darkest season of the year, we all find ways of illuminating the good and caring in the world.  Attached to each box of sufaniot is a multicolored brochure offering links to our online resources to light up their Chanukah celebrations. 

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