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Honoring an Inspiration: My Mentor Rabbi Jim Kaufman Retires

My wife and I spent last evening at my previous pulpit, Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA), for a dinner and Havdala service honoring Rabbi Jim Kaufman and Sue Kaufman on the occasion of his retirement.  Rabbi Jim stands apart as one of the greatest influences on my congregational rabbinate.

Dinner was delicious; the program heartwarming.  I had the opportunity to share a few words about my experience with Rabbi Jim. I said:

A story… I came to Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA) in 1994 in my third year of the rabbinate, and left in 1999 as what I thought was as a seasoned rabbi. I owe that growth to the nurturing I received under the mentorship of Rabbi Jim Kaufman.

For five years I served as Rabbi Jim’s Associate Rabbi and Director of Education. I left to become the solo rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. Over the intervening eleven years, as my congregation has grown considerably, I have come to realize that much of that vibrancy can be directly attributed to the lessons I learned from Rabbi Jim. He taught me:

  • Make your synagogue a warm, haimische home.
  • Since Jewish values have meaning only when turned outward to fix the world, make social justice central to your mission.
  • Behind every great rabbi is an even greater spouse. My wife Michelle and I knew, from the moment we walked into the scrumptious Sukkot new member dinner Sue Kaufman hosted in their backyard, that Sue and her family knew how to create a welcoming environment.
  • Make sure people with disabilities know that the synagogue doors open wide to them.
  • If you can, grow a goatee. The grayer the better. For some reason, it makes people think you are wise.
  • Spend time at Camp Newman – it will inspire temple members to send their kids and it will keep you young.
  • When someone is sick, call once, twice or more. Even if they tell you not to call, call anyway or stop by. It will be deeply felt.
  • Make your family your first priority – at home, around the synagogue, in your office. In the end, they are your legacy, your support, your most precious possessions.
  • Treat each person as an individual. Don’t hide behind policies, but thrive with the personal pastoral touch.

Rabbi Jim treated me always as a partner, even inviting me disagree whenever the ideas warranted it. But mostly, I learned from Rabbi Jim how to be a congregational rabbi. Naively, I thought that after 5 years, I had learned all I could from this rabbi.

But, at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, I daily faced challenging issues, more complex and nuanced than I ever could have imagined. The congregation had put its trust in me to deal with these issues. But I confess, often I didn’t have a clue. So what did I do? I developed a problem-solving routine…

A congregant would call me up with a problem. I would listen, perhaps take notes. I would offer comfort and assure them that together we could get through this. I told them that I took their concerns so seriously that I wanted a day to think it through. Then I would hang up the phone.

Now was the time to figure it out. After counting to ten to make sure I didn’t freak out, I turned to my main source of wisdom. I picked up the phone and called my mentor. Rabbi Jim listened to the issue, paused thoughtfully, and patiently guided me to the solution. When I needed, he even told me what to do. Then I would pick up the phone, call back my congregant, and be able to offer his words of wisdom, giving them comfort and giving them confidence in their Rabbi Kipnes. I recall this happening about every other week. And although by the end of my second year I stopped calling him, it was only because Rabbi Jim’s way of being a rabbi was by then deeply ingrained in my heart and soul.

There are a host of rabbis out there who learned from Rabbi Jim at camp and from his shining example in the Pacific Area Reform Rabbis organization and in the community.

Personally, I have had many rabbinic teachers over the years, but without a doubt – and my wife Michelle and I agree on this –the man who told me at my interview that he wasn’t really interested in being a mentor – he only wanted a rabbinic partner – had been the greatest influence on my rabbinate. Rabbi Jim, thank you for being the mentor par excellance. Thank you for making me into a rabbi.

So to you Rabbi Jim, and to you Sue, mazel tov on wonderful 37 years at Temple Beth Hillel. Thank you for transforming me into the rabbi I am today. Mazel tov

Other tidbits I would have added had there been time: 

  • Rabbi Jim taught me also to love of great red wine. Following his lead, I used days off from Camp Newman to go wine tasting in Napa, and have since learned to request a taste before ordering a glass when out to dinner. Because of Rabbi Jim, I have the early makings of a wine snob. Rabbi Jim taught me to appreciate the nose, the legs, to savor the taste of red wine. I still have far to go to gain Jim’s appreciation of the better bottles.
  • Rabbi Jim taught Michelle and me early on that our precious children are part of our lives and should have a place in our synagogue. From the earliest days, my children were a fixture in my office, running up and down the ramp, being held in my arms during services, growing up in our Early childhood center. Our children love being Jewish and seem to appreciate their father’s role as a rabbi. We attribute that in large part to Rabbi Jim’s insistence that the rabbi embrace and never forget his role as a father too.

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