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Dodgers Honor Or Ami & Me on Disability Awareness Night

On Thursday, June 4th on the Dodger’s Stadium field, I will receive the EP Maxwell J. Schleifer Distinguished Service Award for Or Ami’s support of people with disabilities. The ceremony will take place sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 pm before the game. Come cheer on the Dodgers, Or Ami and the important work we do!

Our Congregation Or Ami believes that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image) and so we welcome all, including those with disabilities. We are extremely proud of our support of families with children with disabilities. Come cheer on the Dodgers, Rabbi Kipnes and Or Ami. Read our webpage welcoming people/couples/families with disabilities. (More nachas/joy: Congregant Dina Kaplan won the award last year.)

Brad Gore nominated me, writing:

It is my pleasure to nominate Rabbi Paul Kipnes for the EP Maxwell J. Schleifer Distinguished Service Award.

Rabbi Kipnes is by profession a community rabbi committed to opening up the Jewish community to people with disabilities, by avocation a tireless supporter of families with children with disabilities, and by familial ties, the brother of a man with Asperger’s. Rabbi Kipnes has touched the lives of thousands of families and inspired countless others to seek openness and equal access for people with disabilities.

In 1992, Rabbi Paul Kipnes convinced his then congregation, 900-family Temple Beth Hillel, Studio City, CA, to hire a Special Needs Coordinator to ensure that every child with special needs receives the support and attention he or she needs to grow spiritually, emotionally and intellectually as a member of the Jewish community. In 1998, the first policy Rabbi Kipnes asked his new community, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA, to enact was that “any child of a member who worked to the best of his/her ability had the right to a Jewish educational experience… and the privilege of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” With that simply worded policy, Rabbi Kipnes ensured that families of children with disabilities – physical, mental, emotional or any combination – would find acceptance and a home in the Jewish community of the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys. Rabbi Kipnes has spoken at national Jewish conventions on equal access, and consults with rabbis and congregations locally and throughout California on creating religious openness for Jewish families with disabilities. Whether in High Holy Day sermons or on his blog, Rabbi Kipnes is a tireless advocate for warmly welcoming people with disabilities into temples and the Jewish community.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes teaches that “There is a sense that children with special needs, physically, emotionally, mentally, don’t have a place in the synagogue, in the Jewish community. That’s just not true, particularly here at Congregation Or Ami. We have celebrated B’nai Mitzvah services with children with autism, emotional developmental problems, intense dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome… The Bible and Judaism are available for all of us.”

Rabbi Kipnes and his community emphasize that no matter what a child’s needs are, it’s never a question of if a child can become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, it’s when the ceremony will take place. Rabbi Kipnes explains, “With special needs children, there are two values being played out, simultaneously. Working with Brandon Kaplan (one special needs teen), for instance, we saw that Brandon is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. But Brandon is also a special kid and there is an honor and joy to the congregation that he participates to the fullness of his abilities. So he’s normal and special, but here’s the secret: so is every other kid.”

Rabbi Kipnes and Congregation Or Ami created the Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Program to support the creation of Jewish educational, communal, and spiritual experiences for special needs children and their families within the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys, irrespective of whether they are members of Congregation Or Ami. Oftentimes children with intellectual, learning or physical disabilities, and special health care needs and their families lack the Jewish spiritual support and educational opportunities available to able-bodied children. The Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Program helps to provide a safe, secure, enriching experience for these children, and in doing so we contribute to the overall quality of the entire family’s life. These families are already over-burdened by the extraordinary costs of providing specially trained teachers and aides, specialized educational tools and materials, therapies, and facilities. It is currently one of the few Jewish organizations in the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys actively offering support to non-member families who are struggling to create Jewish experiences for their special needs students.

Rabbi Kipnes opened the doors of Congregation Or Ami to host a twice monthly Special Needs Support Group including no cost specialized childcare, which provided support, information and resources to parents of children with special needs. The Support Group is co-sponsored by local and county Jewish organizations including the Union for Reform Judaism, HaMercaz (the Jewish Federation’s Special Needs program), Heschel West Day School and Kadima Heschel West Middle School, among others. Members of the Los Angeles Jewish community who received support included families with a son moved to a specialized facility, a profoundly disabled teen (who signs, but does not speak), 20+ year old young men, children with autism, and children with epilepsy-induced learning disabilities.

Rabbi Kipnes believes that the key to gaining full equal access in the Jewish community for people with disabilities entails raising up a new generation of leaders committed to equal access. For the past four years, Rabbi Kipnes, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles (HUC-JIR), has mentored rabbinic and education students, usually in their 3rd or 4th year of a 5 year Masters degree program, on how to support special needs students and families. Each intern engages in regular phone calls to special needs families to gauge their experiences and develop plans to better integrate them into Jewish learning. With their mentor, Rabbi Kipnes, they explore pastoral counseling issues related to families with children with disabilities. They apprentice during decisions about whether and how to mainstream students for education. They learn to utilize a team approach to Jewish Special Needs Education bringing rabbi, educator, Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor, classroom teacher, temple administrator and parents together to develop a synagogue IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) for special needs students and to work with educators and teachers to create classroom lesson plans appropriate for both special needs and able bodied students. This internship with Rabbi Kipnes is a much sought after placement for students at HUC-JIR.

Rabbi Kipnes has presented at national Jewish conventions on the use of new technology to teach and offer support. He has pioneered the use of temple webpages to trumpet the message of openness. Congregation Or Ami is one of the first congregations to have a webpage devoted to individuals and families with special needs. He ensured that the message of access appears in prominent places on the webpage, including on the temple’s home page. Review the Special Needs Webpage. His blog is provides insights, reflections and inspiration, with special focus on concerns of special needs families. Commenting upon Jewish issues, communal endeavors and poignant moments with special needs students, the blog garnered the attention of members of the local community and Jews all over the country. Review the blog.

Whenever asked if a child with this or that special need could become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the central Jewish “coming of age” ceremony, Rabbi Kipnes’ answer is always an emphatic “yes!” The Congregation has celebrated B’nai Mitzvah services with children with autism, emotional developmental problems, intense dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome and more. Young Brandon Kaplan’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony, reminded everyone that children with special needs can and should have access to all aspects of religious life. When 20 year old Matthew participated in a Sabbath service, the entire community celebrated but none more than the young man with Fragile X Syndrome. As his mother reflected, “Nervous though he was, he rose to the occasion and sang the blessings beautifully, with the flair of his personality shining through. I was so touched by your attention to him, allowing him to be himself.” Read about his participation.

Congregation Or Ami hosts an annual Shabbat (Sabbath) service, led by students with profound disabilities. The service was designed around their needs. The Temple engages a sign language interpreter. Worshippers come from all over Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, from the Chaverim program of Jewish Family Service, and from local synagogues. Parents of children with special needs receive special blessings from the rabbi, and expressed deep appreciation for the support. Other worshippers described the being deeply moved by the experience. In addition, the rabbi’s sermon at High Holy Day Community Family services focused on Special Needs children. Moreover, Rabbi Kipnes ensure that members of his congregation regularly volunteer to support Brandon’s Buddies, which brings together children (special needs and others) for fun, sports and other activities. They sponsor a team in the Shane’s Inspiration walk. They bring a group each year to Game Day at Dodger Stadium for Special Needs Families.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes has touched the lives of thousands of families with children with special needs throughout the Greater Los Angeles County. Because of his efforts, they have greater access to the Jewish community, special needs advocacy and education support. Because of his enthusiasm, families with special needs feel welcomed in the Jewish community. Because of his dedication, their children have reached religious maturity. Because of his inspiration, they have an open invitation to become more deeply involved in religious life. Through his many projects and efforts, Rabbi Paul Kipnes has demonstrated inspirational leadership in an effort to expand awareness about how people with disabilities can be productive citizens in our society. As such, I wholeheartedly encourage you to award Rabbi Paul Kipnes with the EP Maxwell J. Schleifer Distinguished Service Award.

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