Tag: Or Ami

A Formula for Engaging Jewish Teenagers

Working with teenagers is simply heartwarming. We experienced this yet again at our recent Havdala Under the Stars, Congregation Or Ami’s year-end gathering of our Triple T (Tracks for Temple Teens) youth program.

Picture this: a large group of teens – 7th to 12th grades – sitting around a campfire, singing songs, playing games, and grouping and regrouping in ever changing configurations of young people. Bucking trends in Jewish life – where so many teens drop out soon after B’nai Mitzvah – these teens showed up smiling. (Thanks to the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, we rethought our entire youth program.)

Rabbi Julie Weisz, the energetic visionary behind Congregation Or Ami’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, invited the teens to reflect upon what made their Triple T time so meaningful. The responses were heartwarming:

Making new friends
Being a madrich (counselor) at the 4th-6th grade retreat
Creating a movie short with my JEWTube track
Working with the younger atudents as a MIT (Madricha in training)
Leading sports days for the at risk kids in Future Coaches
Creating social action projects with VolunTEENS
Being part of LoMPTY
Going to regional NFTY SoCal events
Bonding with everyone here

It seems that our faculty and rabbis have hit upon what we believe is a formula for continued youth engagement:

Relationship building.
Leadership development.
Multiple pathways (we call them “tracks”) to participation.
Confirmation as the culmination for all tracks (including youth group)

And lots of listening, loving and patience.

Youth work is incredibly exciting, deeply rewarding, intensely frustrating, and ultimately so incredibly important. Just as teens are coming into themselves, we youth professionals get to love them, accept them unconditionally, and present Judaism to them as a healthy pathway to finding oneself. There are moments, so many moments, when the neural connections are fired up just right, and through their time in temple, they find the acceptance and love that they deeply crave.

Of course along the way they go through all the same struggles as everywhere else. And so they experience social anxiety, face cliquishness, lose elections, and feel slighted. Because it is all real life. Being a teen is frustrating and often painful. Being a teen’s parent is a lesson in powerlessness and oftentimes frustration as we sit on the sidelines unable to fix it all.

That’s why youth professionals often make a real difference. When we do it right – listen, love, eschew simple problem solving in favor of long-term growth and compassionate struggle – the synagogue becomes a safe place for young people to learn and grow.

As our teen songleader led us to close the evening with a sweet havdala ceremony, the teens enjoyed a group hug, evidencing with their physical closeness the reality that permeates their hearts. This diverse group of kids are finding a path forward – past B’nai Mitzvah and into young adulthood. The path is not always straight. The temple cannot shield them (or their parents) from heartache, but there is no question that the combined efforts of caring, engaging faculty and available, committed rabbis can provide a safe loving space for our teens.

Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor – the work with teens is a continuous, never-ending process. But when approached with an open mind and an open heart, it is even the exhaustion is exhilarating.

Turning 50: My Community Honors Me

I turned 50 today. 5-0. The big half century.

In honor of this simcha, my Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA)  sent out this letter to invite people to help celebrate my big birthday in a particularly meaningful way:

December 2013 | Kislev 5774  

Our beloved Rabbi Paul Kipnes turns the big 5-0 (yes, fifty) on December 23rd. Help us celebrate it in a way that will be inspiring and meaningful to him. Help us sustain the sacred work that he has made the center of his rabbinic life.

Rabbi Paul has not talked much about his birthday, so we asked his wife, Michelle, about how our Rabbi is planning to celebrate this milestone. Michelle noted that he has been surprisingly mellow about turning 50, saying that he feels happy and fulfilled in his life.

We wondered what we could do to help Rabbi Paul celebrate his half-century achievement. We know that next to his family (and his iPhone), it is Congregation Or Ami that truly brings him joy. The Jewish goodness that our synagogue brings into this world – deep Torah teaching, warm communal caring, meaningful social action work, and inspiring Jewish spirituality – goes a long way toward fulfilling the hopes and dreams that Rabbi Paul has made his life’s work.

Putting our heads together, we realized that no present would make Rabbi Paul feel more blessed on his 50th birthday than to know that we, the people whose lives he touches and guides spiritually, continue to partner with him to sustain the synagogue that he holds so dear.

Last June, Rabbi Paul and Michelle donated Or Ami $5,000 as their way of supporting the synagogue’s financial security.

Now, in honor of his 50th birthday, we are inviting the entire congregation to join together to donate $50,000 ($1,000 each for the 50 years) to support Congregation Or Ami. All the tzedakah will support Or Ami’s important work and groundbreaking programs.

Please think about all the incredibly meaningful ways that our Rabbi has touched our lives, guided our community, and ensured the continuation of our Jewish values.

Then join us in making a significant leadership gift, so that on December 23rd, we can present Rabbi Paul with the funds that will be an integral part of the synagogue’s future. You may donate online (www.orami.org/donate) or call Barbara Gordon at the synagogue (818-880-4880).

Rabbi Paul doesn’t want a car, vacation, or even a new iPhone for his birthday. But we know he will be thrilled that his congregation has stepped forward at year-end to preserve the financial security of our synagogue. 

We look forward to hearing from you soon. Wishing you a bright Chanukah and a healthy, joyful (secular) New Year.


President Hedi Gross
VP Heidi Friedman
Cantor Doug Cotler
Rabbi Julia Weisz

I think I’m going to have a whole bunch of thank you notes to write. I cannot wait!

Private First Class Eric Moraly Shares Jewish Pride at the Army & Navy Academy

Cadet Eric Moraly (center) standing in full uniform 

I love it when our Congregation Or Ami young people take pride in and share their commitment to being Jewish.

See the young man in uniform standing in the center of the group of cadets? That is Eric Moraly, a member of Congregation Or Ami, who attends Army & Navy Academy in Carlsbad, CA. A cadet, Eric is currently a Private First Class.

His mother Dana Moraly knew that they were going to be handing out Christmas stockings to all of the cadets at the December holiday party, so she sent Eric gelt and dreidels to give to everyone.

His mother recounted what happened next:

As the party got going, they asked Eric to come up and explain what Chanukah was. According all repots, Eric very eloquently told the story of Chanukah to the 340 other cadets. A fair number of foreign students from Asia, Africa, and elsewhere attend the Army & Navy Academy. Many of them have never even met a Jew before.  They especially appreciated learning about Judaism from him. 

Eric became a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Or Am and is an alum of URJ Camp Newman.  A quiet young man, Eric has blossomed in the Army & Navy Academy and has aspirations to be a leader in that program. His parents are so proud that while Eric is being exposed to many different cultures, he is not turning his back on his own. He lets everyone know that he is Jewish and is in no way embarrassed to be different from this largely Christian environment that he is living in.

At Congregation Or Ami, we take pride that Eric takes pride in being Jewish. And we are thrilled to hear about how our young people are going out into the world and bringing their Jewish values with them.

Do you have a story about how your children have embraced their Judaism? Do tell!

If I’m Freezing and I’m Worried

I am freezing.

Either global warming has finally transformed Southern California or winter has arrived. No matter the reason, just know that it is darned cold here.

No, we are not talking about Midwest cold, which today is hovering around 16 degrees. Nor are we talking about Eastern seaboard cold, which can mix below freezing temperatures with ice-y, slushy painful cold. Rather, I am kvetching (complaining) about the California cold, which occurs whenever the thermometer dips below 65 degrees.

(I know that I am engaging in a mostly meaningless West Coast kvetch (complaint). Usually, I try to downplay our awesome So Cal weather and quietly endure the cold spells. After all, the last time I gloated about our weather to my brother on Cape Cod, I awoke to the destructive shaking of the 1993 earthquake. So I no longer gloat about weather. I just enjoy it in silence.)

I am worried.
You shouldn’t worry. I will be fine. I have my warm jackets, insulated home, and plentiful heat. Yet, I think about all those families who don’t… especially those who live below the poverty line. And the kids who wear only hand me down clothes, and have to pile on sweatshirts to get through a cold night. And the older people who need government assistance just to heat their homes. I think about the 100 at-risk kids from New Directions for Youth, who just last week we took on a shopping spree through Kohl’s department store to provide them with new clothes and maybe even a new toy for the holiday approaching.

This morning, as I left the house, I was able to chose among three different coats to find the one that would both keep me warm and keep me stylish. Not so for those kids or those older adults, or the many who spend what little money they have on food and other subsistence items.

That’s why, when I get home tonight, my wife and I plan to go through our closets and those of our children, to pick out the extra coats that we don’t wear or don’t really need. We will bring those extra coats over to Congregation Or Ami and donate them to needy families through a kid-run organization, Jill’s Coats for Kids.

Imitating God

Sabrina and Chelsea Stone
with Jill’s Coats for Kids Bin

We have a chance to address these worries and Judaism goads us to do just that. Our Talmud (Sotah 14a) explains, “Just as the Eternal clothes the naked as God did with Adam, so you clothe the naked; just as the Eternal visits the sick as God did with Abraham, so you visit the sick; just as the Eternal comforts the bereaved as God did with Isaac, so you comfort the bereaved; just as the Eternal buries the dead as God did with Moses, so you bury the dead.” We are invited to be imitatio die (imitators of God), living out Jewish values by acting in ways that God has acted. Simply put, (as we learn in the Midrash), “Just as the Eternal One is gracious and compassionate, so you be gracious and compassionate.”

Jill’s Coats for Kids
Jill’s Coats for Kids was the creation five years ago of two Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) kids, 12-year-old Sabrina and 9-year-old Chelsea Stone, two Or Ami California kids, who collected over 150 coats last winter to bring warmth to needy children. According to their website,www.jillscoatsforkids.com, they created this organization in honor of their “grandmother, Jill Stone, who started a coat drive in Dallas, Texas. We thought it would a good idea to help children who need coats in our community, too.” Jill’s Coats for Kids emulates the Jewish values we work so diligently through our Or Ami Center for Tikkun Olam to instill in the hearts and minds of our children.

The girls’ dad Rob Stone explained:

This has been a fantastic experience for Sabrina and Chelsea and a great reminder that this time of year is about giving and helping others and not all about shopping and getting presents. They have personally distributed some of the coats to the children over the years and they loved seeing their faces light up when they get a new coat.

Jill’s Coats for Kids goads us to take a simple act – donating our old, used coats to people in need – and thereby be gracious and compassionate. In doing so, we raise up others and then our own lives toward holiness. As we declare whenever we say a blessing – asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotav – who makes us holy through sacred actions – when we do holiness, we become holy.

Please Act Now
So I invite you to emulate the Holy One and help clothe modern day Adams (and Eves and their descendants). Clean out your closets of old and used coats, and bring them to Congregation Or Ami by December 24th. Sabrina and Chelsea Stone and their parents with ensure that the coats get to people who need them. (If you cannot get over to Or Ami, contact Rob Stone and he will arrange to pick them up.)

We may not succumb to frostbite in our 54 degree weather, but we do sense the discomfort. Let’s help others survive the frost that surrounds us by warming them with our coats and our compassion.

Whatcha Waiting For??
Head over to Jill’s Coats for Kids where your most pressing questions will be answered.
Or read about last year’s donation drive.

Parenting without a Manual OR 5 Pieces of Jewish Guidance (so you don’t kill ’em)

Joseph, the once-favored child of Jacob, rises up from slave and prisoner to become Pharaoh’s right hand. He assumes responsibility for a far-reaching 14-year business plan to ensure that after seven years of plenty, Egypt would be prepared to endure the seven years of famine. Once an egocentric young man who drew the enmity of his brothers, so much so that they almost killed him — literally — Joseph develops expertise necessary to successfully navigate complex managerial responsibilities. Ultimately, Egypt will thrive because of Joseph’s proficiency as a politically connected businessperson. Joseph was truly blessed.

Then more blessing comes Joseph’s way. Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath, bring two sons into the world.

We imagine Joseph being overjoyed as children enter his life. We dream about the nachas (pride) he feels. And, like so many parents back then and now, he also probably felt overwhelmed. Although Joseph was very successful as a businessman, he had little helpful guidance on how to be a good parent.

His father, Jacob, was a poor role model; Torah speaks frankly about Jacob’s lackluster parenting skills. When Joseph brags to his brothers and parents that they will all bow down to him, Jacob is silent in the face of Joseph’s egotism. Does this lead to the subsequent plan to sell Joseph into slavery? Following the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s inability to respond — again he was silent — might have allowed for the brothers’ overkill against the people of Shechem.

Yes, Joseph is extremely underprepared for his new role as a parent. Yet, Proverbs expresses the long-term significance of our actions as parents: “Train up a child in the way she should go and even when she is old she will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Thankfully, later generations find guidance in later Jewish texts.

Talmudic Wisdom on Raising Children

In the Talmud, our Rabbis delineate five (or six) central obligations incumbent upon all parents:

A parent has the following obligations towards a child — brit, to circumcise him [others add: or enter her into the brit/covenant], pidyon ha-ben, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach the child Torah, to find the child a spouse [others add: a partner], and to teach the child a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that a parent must also teach the child how to swim.  (Talmud, Kiddushin 29a)

Contemporary Jewish Wisdom on Parenting

Recently, parents gathered under the auspices of the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting to consider the role and responsibilities of parenthood. With children in nursery school through high school, these parents engaged the Kiddushin text to understand the wisdom of our ancient rabbis’ teachings.

Then, assuming the role of parenting coaches, they listed five essential responsibilities for parents today:

  1. Guiding, not befriending: Parents are guides, not friends or buddies. Eventually, our children will do what they choose, so parents are responsible to help guide our kids toward their own good decision-making. We do this by being loving, intentional, values-based and expansive as we guide our children.
  2. Remembering kids are kids: Children — teens especially — are hormonally driven, peer-pressured, biologically unfinished and emotionally evolving. Our children will face almost every challenge we can imagine and will be constantly seduced to try to follow their urges. We help set limits, because when parents treat their children as fully formed adults who can make their own decisions, we set them up for failure.
  3. Providing strength: Parents set expectations clearly and follow through on consequences because children need and most often (secretly) desire clarity and limits. Consequences should be clear, firm and situationally appropriate. Only then do parents provide the strength and excuse to keep kids from making decisions that are not in their best interests and/or are not what their higher selves really want to do.
  4. Truth-telling: Parents should always tell the truth to their children, because it ensures that they will know they can always trust us. Nonetheless, complete openness is not necessary as it is usually not age- and situationally appropriate. Sharing partial truth without lying, or not answering certain questions because they are private, is preferred to lying. (Think: Mom, did you ever smoke weed?)
  5. Upholding Jewish values: Judaism teaches age-appropriate moderation in most situations. Specific values guide parenting: b’tzelem Elohim (being created in the image of God) expresses the intrinsic value and worthiness of every person, emet (truth-telling), shmirat ha’guf (care of our body, mind and spirit), chesed (kindness), tzedek (do what is just or right), chaim (affirming life) and shalom (seeking wholeness).

So, like Joseph, manager extraordinaire, many of us become new dads and moms. Amid the joy and wonder, may we remember our parental responsibilities so that our children can grow into ethical, resilient, compassionate adults. Then we will truly be blessed.

Thanksgivukkah? ChanTHANKSukah? Tur-Lat-Key Day?

We each have moments when we step back and take stock. Opportunities afforded to us because the year has turned one full cycle and we, clay to touched by holiness, are allowed a glimpse into the essence of our lives.

A significant birthday.
An anniversary.
A Yahrzeit.

2 years of sobriety.
25 years since ordination.
3 years since you came out of the closet to your family.

Each of these moments transcend time, allowing us – like Adam haKadmon “in the beginning” – to see clearly the past and our present. They invite us to imagine the future.

Holy Days are for Accounting
Our Jewish holy days, set in the Torah or by rabbinic decree, invite a similar accounting. These holy days cycle back annually, calling us to recall who we were and who we are becoming now.

  • Rosh Hashana, as the new year begins, invites us to count our blessings.
  • Yom Kippur calls us to balance the accounting of our ma’asim (good deeds) and averot (errors/sins).
  • Pesach, a new beginning, invites us to recount the freedom which we once had, then lost, then with God’s help, reclaimed anew.

Each of these holy days turn us inward to the essence of our lives, and then subtly force our gaze and focus outward to the needs and concerns of our people.

The Unique Convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving

Even this “once in a lifetime” holiday – Thanksgivukkah… ChanTHANKSukah… Tur-Lat-key Day – moves us through the same eternal cycle.

For many, the beauty of the Chanukah-Thanksgiving pairing is that it leads us away from the prevalent (narcissistic) “gimme-gimme” culture (gimme presents, gimme food) instead turns our focus outward. We find ourselves being especially thankful for the food, the family surrounding us and the blessings that uplift our lives.

Now if only we could harness those warm fuzzy feelings and transform them into a force for tikkun (repair).

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the relatively new venture called #GivingTuesday.

You know about Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two days designated in American retail culture for conspicuous consumption and for getting deals. #GivingTuesday — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the Tuesday in the middle of Chanukah — is a day when we are invited to give to others to act to create a better brighter world.

We will light the lights of Chanukah. We will offer our thanks on Thanksgiving. Let’s also transform our warm feelings into real action by supporting organizations which truly transform the world.

Who I Think about for #GivingTuesday
On #GivingTuesday, I will be supporting two favorite “do good” organizations – my own Congregation Or Ami and the CCAR: Central Conference of American Rabbis. I will be donating to them to help Jews and rabbis bring light into the world.

CCAR’s #GivingTuesday and Congregation Or Ami’s #GivingTuesday brighten our world. Please be a force for good. Visit and support them.

Happy Tur-Lat-Key Day!

About Congregation Or Ami
I’m pleased that Congregation Or Ami is inviting you to share your blessings – and tzedakah – on #GivingTuesday. At Or Ami, people matter. Congregation Or Ami is home to a warm and welcoming, innovative, musical Jewish community. We deepen relationships with each other, while immersing in Torah, Israel and the Source of All Life. We travel together down Jewish paths which inspire our hearts and souls, and transform us to seek justice and nurture compassion in the world.

About the CCAR
I am pleased that the Central Conference of American Rabbis is inviting you to share your blessings – and tzedakah – on #GivingTuesday. The CCAR strengthens and enriches the entire Jewish community and plays a critical leadership role in the Reform Movement through its work by fostering excellence in Reform Rabbis, unifying the Reform Jewish community through the publication of liturgy, providing essential support to rabbis – professionally and personally, and offering important resources to congregations and community organizations. Services to the Reform Rabbinate, in-turn, enhance connectedness among Reform Jews by applying Jewish values to the world in which we live and help create a compelling and accessible Judaism for today and the future.

Changing the Conversation about God: A How To

I am getting tired of this conversation:

Jewish Person: But rabbi, I don’t believe in God.
Rabbi: That’s okay, but what kind of God don’t you believe in?

So many God conversations seem to include this refrain.

It’s time to change the conversation. I yearn to hear this conversation:

Rabbi: So what do you believe about God?
Jew: While I don’t believe in the God of “reward and punishment,” I am drawn to the God-concepts of Martin Buber’s I-Thou and Milton Steinberg’s Limited Theism.

Setting aside the Pew Research study’s conclusions about the religiosity and spirituality of American Jews (my take here), there is no doubt that we Jewish leaders can and should spend more time talking about God. Only when our congregants hear about the wide variety of perspectives, theologies and experiences of God will they open themselves up to more Jewish conversations about God. At Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we are facing the challenge head on. This year, God-talk purposely permeates all aspects of congregational life. We hope to change the conversation by reframing the issue.

Talking Frankly about God, our Beliefs and Our Doubts at the High Holy Days
During the High Holy Days, our clergy spoke personally and passionately about their beliefs and struggles regarding God. On Rosh Hashana, I preached on 18 Different Ways to Believe in God (a.k.a. 18 Different Jewish God-Concepts). On Kol Nidre all three clergy shared their understanding of B’tzelem Elohim: Cantor Doug Colter preached a home-made multimedia sermon, new mother Rabbi Julia Weisz spoke about how while everyone talks about which parent her newborn son resembles while no one talks about how he is in God’s image, and I addressed the very essence of tzelem – that God is unseen yet ever present within us.

God-Talk Theme Permeates Our Learning Programs
Our Educational team selected B’tzelem Elohim (Creation in God’s Image) as the thread that binds together our tapestry of learning programs. In Kesher, our camp-like drop-off learning program, our teachers regularly lead students to explore how they are created in God’s image. Rap with the Rabbis time allows open discussions about different ways to think about and believe in the Holy One. In Mishpacha, our family alternative learning program, we focus this year on God, Belief and Disbelief, which has been so successful that we have adults without children in the program who are studying with us. Finally, our Adult Learning programs include multiple options for engaging God-talk.

Board Meetings Transformed into Spiritual Journeys
Our president Hedi Gross identified a return to the Jewish spiritual search as the central focus of the first term of her presidency. During her Rosh Hashana presidential message, she shared her own Jewish spiritual path and her belief in God. She then transformed our Board meetings so that almost half of our meeting time is now God-focused. The meeting opens as one board member shares and explains a short quote that inspires her, after which another recounts his Jewish spiritual journey in a 5-10 minutes prepared talk. Next, one of our rabbis leads the board in analyzing then praying a prayer, and following a discussion of congregants and family members who are in need of healing, the cantor leads a spiritual singing of the Mi Shebeirach healing prayer.

Board Member Gary Kaplan
Shares his Jewish Journey

We balance the time devoted to Jewish spirituality and God-talk with fiscal responsibility by instituting new procedures for the board meetings: all presentations must be written out beforehand and must be limited in time and scope. Those items that can instead be shared by email are shared that way. Board members no longer leave the temple frustrated by arguments and divisiveness. They leave inspired, and often tears now flow as heartache and hope are shared in equal measures. They then can guide their families and other congregants toward these same central values of God-talk and spirituality.

Ever Wonder What Your Mom and Dad Believe about God?
During their B’nai Mitzvah speeches, our students discuss what they believe and do not believe about God. After capturing those ideas, often with the rabbi’s help, the students return home to record three statements from each parents (or one or three or four parents, as the case may be) about what the parent(s) believe about God. A most amazing thing happens: mom, dad and B’nai Mitzvah student (or mom and mom, or just dad or…) share a discussion about who and what God is. Some students incorporate the statements with which they agree into their own D’var Torah God statement, writing “Like my mother, I believe…”. This process allows the rabbi with a chance to share his or her own thoughts about and relationship with God, thus providing additional in depth adult modeling of God talk.

God Shopping: Choosing from 18 Jewish God Ideas Dramatically Changes the Conversation
Most exciting are the sessions of the Mishpacha Family Alternative learning program. Revising a curriculum written originally by then HUC-JIR interns, now Rabbis Sara Mason-Barkin and Dan Medwin, current Mishpacha Coordinator rabbinic/education student Dusty Klass leads the families to pray, play, engage in age specific learning, and spend time doing family-focused God-talk.

Recently, we used Rabbis Medwin and Mason-Barkin’s God Shopping lesson plan, an adaption of a NFTY program, which in our version introduces participants to the plethora of Jewish God-concepts and modern Jewish theologies. Each participant – young and not so young – received a blank “God Shopping Grid.” As families, they traveled through the “God Shopping Mall,” visiting six different “God Stores.” Each God Store presented one category for understanding God: What is God like?; God and the world; What does God want?; How do I get to “know” God?; God and me; and Big questions I have about God. Each God Store offered up to 18 different responses, based on the ideas of twelve different Jewish theologians.

Participants read the responses, chose as many responses as they agreed with or connected to, and pasted the chosen responses into the corresponding square in their God Shopping Grid. Those who could not find a response that reflected their ideas could write in their own statements.

Reassembling in the sanctuary, family members compared their God Shopping Grids. Since same color responses represented the thinking of one specific Jewish theologian, a quick look at the colors of the God Shopping Grids showed how parents and children shared similar or different God-concepts.

Faculty Hikers Prepare to Ascend
their own Paths to Finding God

During same age-learning, small groups of students continued to explore the God-concepts, utilizing the metaphor of different paths up the mountain to God. Older students met the theologians themselves through their writings and biographies. In each group, participants created/decorated/illustrated their own individual “path” up the mountain to God. Adults, meeting with a rabbi, discussed a color-coded “God Concept Grid” which delineated the thinking of each theologian across the six categories for understanding God. Adults were encouraged to identify intriguing God-concepts and to continue learning about them at home by first googling the theologian, and then exploring other secondary and primary sources.

Wow, I Might Actually Believe In God…
Toward the end of the God Shopping session, we asked the adults to raise their hands if they arrived thinking that they did not, or were not sure whether they, believed in God. The same group was asked if this activity enticed them with new God-concepts so that they might actually be able to believe in God. Almost half of the people kept their hands raised. Over the next weeks, adult participants, and their children, remarked at how they found the session to be both eye-opening and belief altering.

Danielle, her husband David
and one son Aidan

As participant-parent Danielle Waldsmith reported:

A few weeks ago when we began our Mishpacha study of “God: Belief and Disbelief,” I was definitely one of the participants who was unsure that I believed in God. But while shopping for God last Sunday, it became very clear to me that I do in fact believe in God – it’s just that I haven’t been sure what that means to me. As we visited the stores around the God Shopping Mall, a picture of MY God – my own belief in God – began to emerge. 

I am inspired that I now know that I am on my path to realizing what God means to me. And it is a wonderful experience for our family to be able to find our paths together. Certainly God means something different to each of us, but exploring it together is strengthening our ties to each other. We are looking forward to learning more about the ideas of Isaac Luria and Martin Buber, and to discovering more about God through nature, our connections and Tikkun Olam (social justice).

6 Lessons Learned about God-Talk
We have so much more to accomplish if we want to fully alter the God-conversations. Yet through these immediate steps we learned a number of lessons:

  1. Adults, teens and children do want to talk about God, especially when a variety of Jewish options are presented.
  2. Vast numbers of Jews do not believe in the “God rewards the good and punishes the bad” Torah-literal theology.
  3. So many Jews, even those very involved in synagogues and Jewish life, do not realize that there are a plethora of alternative modern Jewish theologies.
  4. When introduced creatively to multiple God-concepts, Jews of all ages are intrigued by the possibilities for belief.
  5. More work needs to be done to publicize newer God theologies, including those of female Jewish thinkers.
  6. Jews of every age can and should engage in God talk, especially in the synagogue.

Tanzanian Doctor, Trained in Israel by Save a Child’s Life, Returns to Build a Heart Clinic

Dr. Godfrey Godwin, a Tanzanian doctor, spoke at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas this past Friday. Dr. Godwin has been training in Israel for the past 5 years at Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) in Holon, Israel. 
The only pediatric cardiac surgeon in Tanzania, he is now returning to Tanzania to establish his own heart clinic. This will be quite a challenge for third world medicine, and he will certainly need the promised support of the government of Tanzania.  
Currently, Save a Child’s Life has saved 3300 children from 46 countries since the medical organization was created in 1995.  All of the children who have been treated (primarily through open heart surgery) are from third world countries.  
Last year 60 % of the children treated by SACH in Israel were Palestinian.  Every Tuesday there is a clinic for Palestinian kids.   SACH also operates a home for the children where they typically stay for three months before and after their surgery.  SACH is also training doctors and medical staff from many countries and organizes medical missions.  The treatment is free to all of these families thanks to private donations and grants from a variety of international sources including USAID and the European Union.  Because all of the Israeli medical personnel volunteer their time, the estimated cost of treatment and care is only $10,000.  This probably one tenth or even less of what this care would cost in the United States.
There are lots of individual stories to tell, including the story of Lilu who is a Chinese orphan who is leaving SACH on Monday after two successful surgeries.  Lilu is returning to China and then has been adopted by a Christian family in San Diego.  This whole project was funded and sponsored by an evangelical family who live just “up the block” in Moorpark.
SACH is probably right now Israel’s largest international humanitarian project.  Recently two children came from war ravaged Syria and were successfully treated.  CNN is planning to follow him when he returns to Tanzania next month to participate in a SACH medical mission. 
For more information about Save a Child’s Life, speak to Or Ami congregant Jack Mayer

Hedi Gross’ Presidential Speech on Yom Kippur: A Spiritual Journey

Hedi Gross 
Congregation Or Ami Presidential Speech on Yom Kippur 2013/5774
A Spiritual Journey

Hedi Gross and family

I believe in G-d; I think I always did. I have vivid memories of being a little girl and talking to G-d, feeling that he was always with me, around me, a part of my life…

I remember times when I doubted G-d, even questioned his decisions, but I clearly believed he existed.

I was 14 years old, my Grandfather was dying of cancer, and I was angry at G-d. I refused to go to services during the High Holy Days, and I remember my parents pleading with me, urging me! I was taking a stand! I was angry at G-d, but ultimately I believed he existed.

Matt and I struggled to conceive on our own; we needed in-vitro fertilization to have our 3 children but I remember (even then) questioning G-d’s decisions. Why did we have to struggle?

But you deliver that baby…

That little miracle that they put in your arms, and for me there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that a G-d MUST exist!

Installation of Hedi Gross
as President of Congregation Or Ami

Today, yes, I am a synagogue President, and from the outside it appears that my commitment and faith in Judaism is (and always has been) strong; but believe me I have shown up for many High Holy Days where my silent prayers sounded something like this, “Hi, it’s me Hedi…” First the introduction and then the begging would begin. “Please G-d watch over my family. Keep us healthy. PLEASE G-d keep my children safe”

We get older, life gets a little more complicated, our parents begin to get a little older, people get sick, and I began again a time of self-exploration…

I believed in G-d, but did I have a relationship with G-d? Was it a two way street?

There I was standing at the Kotel (the Wailing Wall in Israel) for the 1st time, and if I were completely honest, I could admit that I felt a little humiliated. At that time, my father had recently recovered from cancer. I was so filled with gratitude as I arrived at the wall but when I got there all I could do was cry from embarrassment. Had I ever really said, “Thank you?” Had I truly been “of service” to give back for all the good fortune I feel so blessed with? So, I began to take stock of what my relationship looked like until that moment:

I always saw myself as a Jew, a good Jew. A person that did community service, participated in social action, was “active” in my shul, had always belonged to a synagogue, our children were enrolled in religious school, we attended sporadic Shabbat services on Friday nights… And yet, as I took pause and looked back at my own reflection I saw that yes- I have always had an on-going dialogue with G-d, but a “relationship”? A relationship as I now know doesn’t exist by constantly asking for things, and then making promises in return. “Please G-d, if YOU… then I will…”

I am 45 years old. I am old enough to know the difference that a Holy Day shouldn’t be a time where I arrive at services, and need to reintroduce myself to G-d, and begin my list of how G-d could help ME – let alone, asking (begging), to be inscribe in the “Book of Life” for another year!??

I remember when our daughter Molly was old enough to begin asking questions about religion, and faith- she must have been 4 when she asked me, “Mommy, What is G-d?” The advice I was given through my synagogue (at the time) was to not explain the “WHAT” but the “WHEN”….

WHEN is G-d? So, Matt and I began pointing out the miracles to our children: the sunrise, the moon, the breeze in our hair, the rays of sunlight shining out from behind a cloud, the hug and safety in an embrace from a grandparent, the color of the leaves changing, and in all of those moments and millions more. We simply say, “THAT’S G-D”. We point out the when and not the what, and our children now find G-d in moments of their own. They’ll say, “Look at the beautiful ocean, and the horizon… THAT’S G-d”.

I have always been a person that says the prayer of Shema each and every day. I used to say it while in the shower, alone with my thoughts, and in the utter quiet I would say it inside my own head. But, about a year ago, I made a change. I now wake my children every day to the prayer of Shema. I kiss them good morning, and whisper in their ear, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Echad Eloheinu, gadol Adoneiynu kadosh shemo.” I say it out loud because NOW I am having a constant dialogue with G-d.  I am saying thank you, I am acknowledging that my G-d is in this moment; my children waking up healthy each and every day is a reason to say thank you OUT LOUD. And I now share my dialogue, my on-going relationship, (and my gratitude) in front of my children. I want them to know that G-d is a part of me, our family, and YES, G-d in that moment with us.

I enter these Holy Days feeling so differently than I used to and I share this with you in hopes of inspiring you, too, to begin a new, deeper relationship with G-d; one that is two sided. Filled with as much giving as it is in the asking. In the past I would come to services on Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur hoping to leave inspired. I wanted the services to elevate me, force me to into self-reflection, or at the very least open a world of deeper connection to G-d. The onus was all on the Rabbi’ sermon, the Cantor’s singing… NOW it’s on ME.

I remember thinking about the role of the “Rabbi”; always giving, counseling, listening, inspiring- leading services (WORKING). He couldn’t possibly wait for a day like Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur to pray. On the other hand, he must arrive at these days of worship so “full,” so secure in his relationship with G-d. I wanted that feeling. For me, working during a service – being a greeter, or an usher, working at the membership table – it feels good now. I am not missing out on my opportunity to pray, or strengthen my relationship with G-d because NOW I do that each and every day.

Being “of service” is a reminder that I am in a relationship with G-d. And like all other relationships in my life, I have to give without asking (or expecting) things in return.

It is my hope in the coming year to encourage each and every one of you to attend one more thing than you did last year – find something that interests you (or your family) and to be a part of what brings about change for our temple – or maybe even the world. Create your own moments of the WHEN and not the WHAT, so that G-d-willing next year we will all take our seats together for worship on the highest of Holy Days as a stronger community. Hopefully filled with more gratitude, more giving, and deeper connections. I wear a circle necklace to remind my myself (and my children) that the world is round. Relationships are what WE make of them. Life is circular – the more you give, the more you get.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as President. Wishing all of you an easy and meaningful fast. Happy New Year.

View Hedi Gross’ Speech at 02:34:32

Hedi Gross’ speech on Yom Kippur capped off a Jewish-TED-talk/HHD-social-sermon during which three other Congregation Or Ami members shared sermonettes throughout the service on Lessons They Learned Living Through Hardship. These sermonettes were each moving individually and very inspiring as a whole. Read about How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon.

Teens Take Over High Holy Day Services

In the midst of inspiring and emotionally charged Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur), an utterly unexpected yet totally welcome reality set in as our Congregation Or Ami teens all but took over our High Holy Day services.

For years synagogues and Jewish denominations have been seeking models of successful teen engagement. Ever since the Union for Reform Judaism challenged communities to prioritize teen engagement, the clergy and lay leadership teams at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) have been experimenting with teen engagement strategies. We seemed to have stumbled into a successful strategy: invite them in, set clear goals, and get out of the way. Recently, we have applied that strategy to the most sacred of synagogue rituals: the High Holy Days.

Teens Sing and Inspire
It began a few years back when our Cantor Doug Cotler invited four teens to sing Sim Shalom at Yom Kippur morning services. Their sweet voices lit up the sanctuary; worshippers literally leaned forward in their seats to take it all in. Since that service, Cantor Cotler has continued inviting a handful of teens each year to sing, and added in others who share poignant poetry which speaks to the service’s theme. We set high expectations: The teens have only two rehearsals – a week before the service and the day of. Participants are sent sheet music and an MP3 of the song and are expected to practice at home. Each has risen up to the task; their sacred performances have been stellar.

Simultaneously we turned to teens to webcast our services and to serve as Visual Accompanist for our Visual T’filah. With minimal rehearsal and preparation, each technology leader performed very well and has since been tasked with training their successors.

Creating a Cadre of Levites, a Teen Musical Liturgy Team 
Last year, Cantor Cotler and Or Ami’s Rabbi Julia Weisz schemed to create youth High Holy Day service leaders. Recruiting a newish guitar player, a pre-teen violinist, and a talented teen singer, they taught the trio the basic prayers and songs. Their initial task was to accompany Rabbi Julia as she led services for three youth services: Pre-K through 2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade, and 6th-8th grade.

Teens Rehearsing for Youth Services
Not pictured: Olivia Sharon and Annie Reznick

Deputizing Teens to Plan and Lead the Entire Youth Services
This year, prior to taking maternity leave, Rabbi Weisz engaged another group of teens and deputized them as service leaders. This group of 5 teens – each actively involved in either the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY youth movement, URJ Camp Newman or both – created a schedule for the three youth programs, developed age-appropriate activities and services, and coordinated with the adult leaders of the youth programs. The teens ran their work by me for input and advice. They coordinated with the teen music leaders.

On the morning of the High Holy Day services, I wished them good luck and then headed off to lead adult services. Youth participants and their parents kvelled like never before, calling these “the coolest services and activities ever.” The secret to our success: being clear about goals and expectations, checking in and supervising, and then getting out of the way.

Are We Crazy? Inviting the Teens to Lead the Neilah Concluding Service
Two days before Yom Kippur, someone approached me suggesting we let the teens lead the Neila service. (Talk about waiting until the last minute!) The idea had such merit. What better way to trumpet our commitment to youth engagement than to have teens lead the congregation through the final moments of the High Holy Days.

With Facebook and texting we quickly gathered teen volunteers; moments later, service parts were distributed along with dress code and bimah sitting instructions. Excited and prepared, the teens led with a real sense of sacred responsibility.

One of our veteran members, a woman in her late 80’s wrote that seeing the teens lead services for the community provided her with assurance that the congregation was healthy, forward looking and stable. Another noted that our integration of the teens into all parts of congregational life was the primary reason that they remain members of Or Ami.

So What Did We Learn about Youth Engagement?

  • Clear goal and high expectations present teens with a clear path toward success. 
  • Personal invitations to teens – especially from clergy – propels them toward active involvement. 
  • More than being a novelty, full teen participation in even the most sacred of moments of congregational life inspires others to continue involvement and support. 
  • Rather than leading to the congregation running amuck, deep teen integration and participation in all aspects of synagogue life can invigorate and energize a community. 

Where Might We Go from Here?
Imagine the positive response that might ensue if we…

  • Invited teens to deliver a collaborative sermon on one of the Holy Days. 
  • Asked the youth group LoMPTY to lead an interactive multigenerational study program during the time between the Morning and Yizkor services on Yom Kippur. 
  • Paired teens with older members of the congregation and tasked them with researching and brainstorming engaging, creative innovations – in music, prose, prose and multimedia – to enhance our High Holy Day experience.
  • Other suggestions???

At Congregation Or Ami, We Look Forward to Exploring These and Other Avenues 
How have you succeeded in integrating teens into the most sacred and central places of congregational life?

Spiritual Calisthenics: Selichot as the Warm Up to Rosh Hashana

You can’t go for a run without stretching first.

You can’t just suit up for baseball, step up to the plate, and hit a home run. (You gotta take some practice swings.)

You can’t teach a lesson, deliver a presentation, make a pitch, without preparing and practicing.

So why do we think we can just walk on into High Holy Day services and have a meaningful, spiritual experience?

Prayer, like almost everything of significance, requires that we limber up and practice before we can expect to hit a spiritual home run.

At Congregation Or Ami, we stretch our spiritual selves and engage in some reflective moral calisthenics during Selichot, a Hebrew word meaning “forgiveness,” which refers to special prayer service on the Saturday night just prior to Rosh HaShanah. (At Congregation Or Ami, our Selichot service takes place on August 31, 2013 at 8:30 pm. We have a pot luck dessert at 7:30 pm.)

Candle lit, musical and stirring, this moving service calls us to reflect on the year that is ending. We begin with Havdala service on the bimah to bring Shabbat to a close. With strains of the High Holiday melodies as a backdrop, we utter our first confession of the season, as well as Sh’ma Koleinu, asking God to hear our voices. Finally, we change the mantle (covers) of our Sifrei Torah (scrolls) from blue to white, symbolizing the purity we hope to bring into our lives. Selichot is a solemn and fitting preparation for 10 days of reflection and self-examination.

Whether you come to Selichot services or not, make time to turn inward, and consider deeply who you are, who you could be, and how you will move from who you are to who you could be. That’s the work of the High Holy Days.

What I Love about Camp Newman: Or Ami Campers Respond

My wife Michelle and I gathered our Congregation Or Ami campers together for another of our summer “Torah study meetings” in our cabin. These young people had been at Camp Newman for two weeks. We looked forward to the opportunity to see them all (and to eat delicious junk food). 

I asked our teens to share what the love about Camp Newman. Between bites of Oreos, Kit Kats, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups, Watermelon Sour Patch Kids, Chips Ahoy cookies, soda, Kettle Corn, humus and crackers, dried bananas and more, they each typed a few sentences:

Zachary Oschin, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because of the incredible friendships I make and the way in which they grow and blossom. The loving and caring community enables me to have a fantastic home at Camp Newman.

Jenna Morris, Maccabiah, Age 13: I love camp because I get to be away from home and make incredible friendships that last a lifetime. Camp Newman is like my 2nd home.

Marlena De Castro, Maccabiah, Age 13: I love camp because it is the only place where every moment is shaped to be a lifelong memory. Camp has an accepting atmosphere that allows everyone to find their Jewish identity and be their best self. I also believe that the friendships I’ve made at camp are the most real, beautiful relationships made during my teenage years.

Hillary Delin, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because it is my escape from reality; everything is so calm and serene at camp, and I love taking it all in. My fondest memories are all from Camp Newman.

Lauren Perlmutter, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because it is my home away from home and a place where I can be my best self. Camp is an accepting place where everyone is himself or herself and incredible bonds are created amongst our peers.

Lauren Cohen, Hevrah, Age 15: I love camp because it is truly my favorite place in the entire world. It has become my home away from home, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it.

Ashley November, Counselor/Art Room, Age 17: I love being at camp and being surrounded by nature, and my friends, and just people who have similar loves. Everybody is really connected to each other and to their Judaism. It is just great.

Jacqueline Oschin, Maccabiah, Age 13: I love camp because everyone immediately becomes so close. Everyone is so accepting so you are able to be yourself, which makes it so much fun.

Sophie Barnes, Avodah, Age 16: The reason I love camp is because it is a complete escape from home life. Being away from home for such a long time and really connecting to Judaism and friends is the greatest feeling. The fact that everyone is so open and accepting makes the experience even better.

Noah Kipnes, Avodah, Age 16: SMILE!

More Camp Newman pictures on Facebook.