Tag: People who Inspire

The Disability Inclusion Hero Awards

Cross posted on Jews & Special Needs blog 
of the Jewish Journal

As the new calendar year begins, we are entertained by those Year in Review lists and Person of the Year awards, both inside and outside of the Jewish communities. Time magazine aptly chose the Pope Francis as its Person of the Year for his calling for a church of healing. T’ruah,The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, honors its T’ruah Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award including (deservingly) LA’s Rabbi Dara Frimmer (Temple Isaiah). Perhaps most uniquely, Jewrotica, the self-declared “hub for Jewish sexual expression,” listed the Sexiest Rabbis of 2013, in three categories: The Smarts, Getting Some (social) Action, and Bad Ass/Sex Appeal. (Blogger’s Confession: To ensure complete objectivity for this blogpost, I disallowed any consideration of myself for the Jewrotica lists.)

We can argue whether these lists or others (like Newsweek’s cynical Top Rabbi’s lists) are unnecessary and inappropriate. Ranking rabbis inserts the very same vapid values of power, prestige and self-importance that the rabbinic profession and religious pursuits strive to ameliorate.
Still, this time of year led me to wonder whether the Jewish community might create lists to shine light into important contributions to the inclusion world. Inclusion Awards might honor those who strive to include people with disabilities into our community. Too many Jewish institutions and organizations have dragged their feet either because of ignorance, tightfistedness or self-focus. Too many people with special needs and their families languish on the outskirts of the Jewish community, unable to break in because the randomness of life’s lottery that gave them or their child certain challenges that many others do not have to face. Jewish communities that embrace them deserve recognition and investment.
We could create as the highest honor, a special category of award, perhaps called The Inclusion Hero, which would be awarded to parents and grandparents who refocus their lives to embrace the challenge of a child with special needs. (Simultaneously, we might create an Exceptionally-Abled Person Honor to be awarded to Jews with special needs, who embrace their challenges and work extra hard to accomplish what others can do almost automatically. More on that in another Jews and Special Needs post.)
Parent and grandparents balance worry and wonder, frustration and far-sightedness, inspiration and incredible inner strength – all in the pursuit of giving their loved one the best chance possible. They may have argued with family members who did not believe that this “kid can do it.” They probably have battled repeatedly with school systems required by law to assist children with special needs but which in practice often stonewall, playing cynical games with children’s lives. They have sacrificed rejuvenating social time with spouses or partners, their other children and longtime friends because the needs of this one child cannot be ignored or postponed. Yet, when life dealt them a set of cards different than what they were expecting, they took it in stride – perhaps after some anguish and tears – and played the best way they knew how. Yes, they are the “rock stars” of our world!
On second thought, perhaps this is not really a good idea. Because the very process of choosing which individual or family deserves The Inclusion Hero honor creates a hierarchy of giving and sacrifice that demeans the loving work that every such parent or grandparent does.
Instead, let’s repurpose existing awards. All parents of people with special needs deserve to be named Person of the Year because they transform the lives of their loved ones. They all deserve to be T’ruah’s Human Rights Hero for ensuring the human rights of their special needs child are not trampled. And because caring for loved ones makes people really sexy – good looks may fade, but kindness endures – they each should be applauded by Jewrotica for their smarts, social activism, and Bad Ass/Sex Appeal.
Next time you read a Top 10 list honoring special people, think instead about the people who care for their children of any age with special needs. Then call or email them, praising them as your Inclusion Heroes. They undoubtedly deserve it and most assuredly will appreciate the recognition.

When Harriet Met Herman

Herman and his granddaughter Stacey

How Harriet and Herman Met
Harriet had nothing to do that evening, when her friends prepared to go out to a dance party. So she agreed to tag along.

It was toward the end of World War II; the dance hall was filled with servicemen of all types, handsome in their dress uniforms. Harriet and her friends danced and rested, then danced some more. As they left the dance floor to rest their tired feet, she noticed that all the chairs were taken.

With a clear sense of purpose but perhaps a twinkle in her eye, Harriet looked over all the servicemen sitting in their seats. She picked out one, the safest looking, who was handsome nonetheless. Approaching him, she asked if she could sit on his lap. Herman said, “Yes.”

They were married 3 months later.

People said it wouldn’t last. That was 46 years ago.

I buried Herman last week, on an overcast day, between drizzling and downpours. Though the day was dreary, the stories about Herman and Harriet were uplifting. Especially this one about how they met.

It is not hard to imagine Harriet approaching Herman or the romance that ensued. Harriet still has that twinkle in her eye, even amidst the sadness of mourning.

More than Just “Old People”
Like Harriet and Herman, in the stories of our own Bubies and Zaydes we are reminded that our current travails, challenges, joys and dreams are simultaneously intensely immediate and timelessly universal. More than just being “old people,” or the deceased being merely names on a page, they point to warm-blooded living, loving, struggling people. Like our Biblical ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, our loved ones sought good times, good fun, comfort in community, and perhaps meaning in a relationship with God.

They Were All Once Young
Sometimes we forget that our older relatives were once young, that those who anchor our families’ histories once laughed and played and were just plain silly. We seemingly ignore the fact that like each of us each of them enjoyed young love, recklessly pursued thrills, and defied the safe for the fun. Our Nanas and Papas, Zaydes and Bubies have seen so much of history and experienced as much and more than any of us have.

Well Herman has returned to the Source of All Life, so his memory carries on in the stories his family tells about him. And his beloved, now 90 years old, still has that same twinkle in her eye and perhaps even the chutzpahdik fire in her belly, that gave her the guts, 46 years ago, to sit down on that serviceman’s lap.

Thinking about Herman and Harriet
Maybe that’s why I keep thinking about Herman and Harriet. Because in the story of these two great grandparents, I see not old people but young vibrant individuals who grew up. May each of us retain those qualities which made us fun when we were young, even as we grow older. And may Herman’s memory be for a blessing, and the memory of their meeting serve as an inspiration.

At 103 Year Old, Lil is Still Learning (and Teaching)

I’ve known Lil for almost 14 years, a minuscule portion of her quite long life. Still, I have grown quite fond of her as our paths crossed and recrossed through vicissitudes of life: celebrations of B’nai Mitzvah, visits to her during a near death hospital stay, holy day services and the more mundane moments in between.

I remember being touched that she was the inspiration that led three of her great grandchildren (and her adult daughter) to become B’nai Mitzvah, and being inspired by her finesse at helping them craft each d’var Torah (speech). I am prepared each High Holy Day morning to find “Nana”, right after services, to give her a kiss and a few words of blessing.

Who Knew?
So when I was asked if I had time to visit Nana at the Convalescent Home, I just tossed a date out and recorded it in my iPhone. Who knew that the request to visit a congregant’s 103 year old mother would turn out to be one of the most meaningful, spiritual moments of the week?

Sightless but Insightful
Lil was waiting for me in the Sun Room at the end of the hallway. I approached; she offered me a seat. We held hands; I gave her a kiss. 
Lil may not be able to see, but she is very insightful. We talked about her grandkids (who call almost every day) and her family, about the convalescent home and her upcoming 104th birthday (not a big deal to her). Our conversations delved into the joys of family and the sometimes incomprehensible depression that temporarily descends (perhaps the result of being old?). 
Well Before its Time, A Girl Advocates for the Chance to Study Torah
Lil reminisced about her own Jewish upbringing. Hers was a very religious family; two older brothers were taught by a tutor – Mr. Yunefsky? – who came by every day. Although girls generally were not taught Torah and Hebrew back then, Lil very much wanted to learn. With the help of her brother, she convinced her father to let her learn.  “Why don’t you have a teacher for me? Because I’m a girl?” Her dad responded, “Is that what you’d like?” She responded “Yes, because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn.” So she started to absorb everything that the teacher would teach: Hebrew, Torah, and Bible.
Time and again Lil explained about how important it was that the next generations (her grandchildren) love being Jewish and are involved in the synagogue. Hers are! Her youngest is a Madricha (teaching assistant) in our schools and a leader on our LoMPTY youth group board; the two boys regularly stop by to visit me (their rabbi) when they are in town from school. Lil takes great pride in the fact that they are members of Congregation Or Ami and are bonded with Judaism. 
Learning Torah Together

During a lull in the conversation, I asked her if I could read her this week’s parasha (Torah portion).  She lit up. Opening the Tanach for All (Bible) app on my iPhone, I proceeded to read the portion in Hebrew; Lil surprised me by translating the words. Back and forth we went. Hebrew then English; me then she. I was moved in this moment. Separated by three generations, we nevertheless shared Torah, something that transcended the generations.
I needed to drash (interpret) the parasha for that Shabbat. So I asked her how to best interpret these words for our congregation. 103-year-old Nana was full of suggestions. I wondered just what was really happening here. To the casual observer, it might appear that I – the Rabbi – was teaching Torah to this older woman; in truth, Lil was passing the wisdom onto me.
A Moment when Blessings Overflowed 
Today I learned Torah from a 103-year-old woman. Her wisdom filled my soul; her love overflowed into my heart. On reflection, I keep coming back to the blessing one says upon seeing a Torah scholar (found in my iPhone CCAR Daily Blessings app):

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam, shchalak meichochmato lirei’av.Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe: You share Your wisdom with those who revere You. 

Yes, 103-year-old Lil was my Torah teacher.  Thank you God, for this moment of wisdom in the midst of everyday life.

7 Things about Israel All Reform Jews Should Be Able to Agree Upon

I have been thinking about Israel a lot, especially since the dust up (mostly manufactured) regarding President Obama’s speech and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speeches. It seems so easy to resort to slogans, to create controversy too, instead of facing the challenges and finding solutions.

Rabbi Fred Guttman, recently returning from AIPAC convention, suggests 7 things (I count 8) about Israel that all Reform Jews should be able to agree upon. His complete blogpost is worth the read; I excerpt much of it here:

  1. As American Reform Jews we support the Foreign Aid bill which contains more than 3 billion dollars in needed security assistance for Israel. This money is critical in helping Israel maintain its qualitative military edge. Much of this money is spent on military hardware in the United States and thus helps the American economy. We also support foreign aid to the other countries because we view it as a good investment for our country. Building schools and health clinics is good for America because it reflects the highest of humanitarian values.
  2. As American Jews, we are very concerned about Iran’s continued push towards the development of nuclear weapons. Therefore we support any act in Congress which will increase and strengthen the international sanctions again the regime in Teheran. We also would support measures directed especially at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps which has been so brutal in quashing all resistance to Ahmadinijad and the mullahs. Currently in both houses of Congress, there are bills which would do what I have just mentioned and we as American Jews support such efforts.
  3. We as American Reform Jews believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be achieved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Therefore we call upon the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table with Israel. We feel that while Mahmoud Abbas the Palestinian leader has been traveling all over the world talking with others about the future of the Palestinian nation, it has been tragic that he has not spoken directly to Israel.
  4. We also feel that unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and agrees to abide by all previous agreements, Hamas has no place in these negotiations. Hamas currently seeks the total destruction of Israel. Of all the liberation movements in the world today, Hamas is alone in demanding the total annihilation of another country. Other national libration movements envision living side by side in peaceful coexistence with their foes, but not Hamas. As American Reform Jews, we feel that should an unrepentant Hamas become part of the Palestinian government, the United States should reexamine its relationship with the Palestinian Authority and suspend aid to it. As a matter of fact, such a suspension of aid is mandated by US law.
  5. We as American Reform Jews while passionately concerned about the security of Israel are also concerned and critical about decisions made by the Israeli government. We are opposed to building in settlements that clearly will be evacuated in some future peace deal. We are also concerned about elements of civil society in Israel. We feel that Israel can do more to advance the opportunities of Israel’s religious and ethnic minorities to be able to participate fully in all aspects of Israeli society. As American Reform Jews, we are deeply concerned about the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. Therefore particularly on these matters, we will not hesitate to be critical of Israel.
  6. As American Jews, we support ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, because ARZA is our way of supporting the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. In a recent article, Rabbi Daniel Allen, ARZA’s Executive Director wrote: “We must work to expand liberal Jewish religion. We can build an ever more inclusive democratic Israeli society if we marshal the human and financial resources. Israelis physically built a country, with significant assistance from world Jewry that most of us believe is here to stay. It was done through times of war while bringing in our exiles in massive numbers. Israel was built by people many of whom had broken lives before they arrived on its shores. Israel was assisted in physically building the state by a Jewish community that was not as affluent and capable of participating in building the soul of the society as it is today.” Rabbi Allen calls for increased support from American Reform Jews for the liberal or Reform congregations in Israel. He feels that such support could make a significant impact from within on the state of Israel and would strengthen the ties between Reform Jews and their brothers and sisters in Israel.
  7. We need to visit Israel. We need to encourage our congregations to take trips to Israel, to send their kids to Israel, to keep abreast of events happening in Israel and to make Israel part of our consciousness as Reform Jews. Too many of our members have never been to Israel. Too many have never seen a country which is so very different than they way it is portrayed in the media. Too many of our teens have never been in Israel, never had the opportunity to love it and appreciate it and as a result, are ill prepared to speak about Israel when they go to college. Perhaps the worst part of this is that too many young Reform Jews feel alienated from Israel, not in my opinion because they disagree with the policies of its government, but rather the only Israel which they know is that portrayed in the often sensationalist media. The chief cause of the alienation of young Reform Jews from Israel is due to the fact that so few of them have been there and as a result have no appreciation of a narrative as to why Israel is so important and precious to the Jewish people.
  8. My seventh and final point is that as American Reform Jews, we will not hesitate to express and teach our love for Israel; its land, people and its right of national determination. Yes, Israel has much wrong with it. There are many things which need to be improved in Israel. However, when teaching Israel, I want to teach first the narrative of love. I want to teach the story of the importance of Israel as a place for persecuted Jewry throughout the world and as the only place wherein the Jewish people have the right of self determination. I want to teach about the miracle of Jewish self defense in Israel and how Israel in 1976 flew 2500 miles to Entebbe to rescue Jews of various nationalities who had been on a hijacked plane. I want to teach to stories of commitment and heroism of people like Yoni Netanyahu, Alex Singer, Avigdor Kahalani and Michael Levin who make me so proud and inspire me so much. If you do not recognize these names, that it part of the problem! And I, as a rabbi, Zionist and Jewish educator, view it as my holy task to teach you about these heroes. Yes, I want to first teach you about the love of Israel. Once I have done this, I will teach you about all of the imperfections she has and the challenges she faces in making a more just society and in bringing peace to that part of the world. When we fall in love, we tend only to see the good aspects of our spouses. My feeling is that if we focused upon the imperfections of our spouses only, we would have never fallen in love in the first place. So I will teach you the narrative of love before the narrative of imperfection.

Rabbi Guttman concludes:

Yes, you may point out twenty five things wrong with Israel, but I will still love her. Israel is a part of my very neshamah, my very soul. It is a tremendous part of how I as a Jew define my Jewish identity.

So what do YOU think? Can we all agree on this? Is there more? Are some beyond the reach of agreement?

Can you share it without name-calling? Without resorting to sloganeering?

If so, I look forward to your thoughts.

Money-Money: Can There Ever Be Enough?

Like many, I keep a stack of “must read” books, journals and articles. I finally got around to reading a special issue of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, dedicated to Jewish Perspectives on Finances and the Marketplace (Spring 2010). Ably edited by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (Deerfield, IL), the journal issue offers a Jewish take on current topics including bankruptcy, lending, tzedakah and social policy.

In her Introduction, Rabbi Karyn Kedar writes eloquently about money, the acquisition of material wealth and when is enough enough? Her words, so beautifully written, have remained with me as I speak with people whose lives have changed drastically during this economic depression.

Rabbi Kedar challenges us:

Prosperity comes from hard work, though hard work does not guarantee prosperity. Wealth comes from a good job, though a good job does not guarantee wealth. Riches come from success, though success does not necessarily make us rich. The equation simply does not work consistently. Be smart, work hard, play the political game, be honest and loyal and savvy, and you still may lose your financial footing. We have lost our focus when we think that the endgame is acquisition of material wealth. 

Rebalancing is not just a portfolio strategy; it is also a religious concept. Rebalance. How much of our focus is on the stuff of life and how much on the substance? How much time is spent earning and acquiring and how much time is spent giving and loving? How much thinking is spent figuring out finances and how much thinking is spent figuring out relationships? How open are our wallets; how open are our hearts?

We learn from the prophet Isaiah (1:6–10):  Their land is filled with silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is also filled with idols; they worship the work of their own hands. Enter into the rock; and hide in the dust . . . majesty is in the greatness of God. 

Enter into the rock, says the prophet. Go into the cave that hides the treasures of life, and then hide in the dust for the earth reveals its secrets. True greatness is eternal. Wealth has both tangible and intangible indicators. Love and generosity carry us through the tough times. Nobody stands at your grave and reads the details of your portfolio. Life is judged by giving, loving, faith, and the ability to rebalance when we have lost our focus. 

Our attitude about money is so rarely about money. It is more complicated than our bank statements, checkbooks, and portfolios. Money provides for us those things that sustain our living. Beyond that, money is a symbol. It can be a symbol for power, for love, for graciousness, for worthiness. When we enter the symbolic world of money we must do so with a great deal of caution and self-awareness. I believe that it all comes down to a spiritual and psychological attitude toward abundance and scarcity. Do you believe that ultimately, at the core of the universe, there is enough? Or do you believe that there will never be enough? Enough what? Enough love. This simple equation is perhaps the most complicated correlation we have. When there is enough, when we believe in the soul of our soul that we are supported, and have faith in something larger than what we can perceive, and when we can tap in to the love that abounds in the world, then we live abundantly.

And when we live abundantly, then all things fall into place, including our attitude toward money. When we are young we are led to believe that our legacy lies in our successes and our failures. And so life becomes a game, a sort of tally, of victory and failures. We keep score of triumphant moments and try to minimize, leverage, and rebrand the not-so successful moments. All the while we hope and often pray that the endgame will be to our advantage and we will be proclaimed a great success.

But that is only partially true. Our most abiding legacy lies within the strength of our character. And it may just be an ironic twist of fate that character is best built and measured when we experience failure. Not that success is without its test of courage and integrity. But when we fail—and we all do—we experience a profound moment of loss that is layered and nuanced. In failure we may lose the game we are playing, our work, our livelihood, a relationship, a power struggle. And even more crippling, we may lose confidence, a positive self-image, optimism, stability, or good cheer, which knocks us off balance, off our mark. 

Herein lies the test of character: in the effort to regain composure, balance, direction, our footing. How we react, respond, and rebound is a measure of our inner strength, our character, our fortitude, our inner vision of what is possible despite the outer collapse of what was. It is in the motion of regaining balance that the strength of our character is formed and forged and molded. This current financial crisis, for many, has been the ultimate test of character. And this crisis, financial and otherwise, can also be a great teacher.

Pirkei Avot teaches: V’eizeh hu asher? HaSamei-ach b’Chelko.  Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his/her portion.   As we struggle to climb out of the economic pit, may we remember that there is never “enough”, that the Jones’ always will have more, but that love and character and integrity will last a lifetime.

An Inspired Staff Inspires Others

Last Friday, the synagogue office was closed so that our entire staff could gather together for a day-long retreat. We focused on the intersection of two phrases in our Or Ami Vision and Values: We travel together down Jewish paths which inspire our hearts and souls and [these paths] transform us to seek justice and nurture compassion in the world. Our interns, program and office staff, youth advisor and clergy considered how our time at Or Ami inspires us, and therefore influences our ability to deepen the sense of community in the congregation.

We studied Jewish texts from different visions of Jewish community to tease out the many “Jewish paths” that lead people to authentic Jewish living. Answering the question, “besides giving to your family and friends, if you had $100,000 to give out, what would you do with it?” led us into a discussion about the centrality of tikun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charitable giving) in our community.

I learned three things from this day of talking and tasting:

  • We have an inspired, talented, compassionate staff who believe in and live the Vision and Values of Or Ami.
  • Our staff sees themselves as working in sacred partnership to nurture caring, spirituality and community.
  • Because we take such good care of our staff, they in turn are authentically able to take such good care of us.

Next time you are at the synagogue (or if you have a moment when you are at your computer), send a note of appreciation to individual staff members who have made your Or Ami experience particularly meaningful.

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.

Thanks May Be Kosher Even If Swine is Not

My family is up here at Camp Newman still as the camp moves forward, caring for those with the flu (at most 20 to date, of which only 2 have tested positive for Influenza A).
Though the word on the street is that there is swine flu here (H1N1), we know that only the 2 exhibited symptoms. The actions of the camp – postponing the arrival of the younger kids, isolating those exhibiting symptoms, and separating staff from the CITs/Avodahniks who arrived at camp later – are intended to be prudent, conservative and responsible.

I remain impressed with our senior staff. I sent the following email to the senior camp Newman leadership this afternoon. I hope it captures the amazement and comfort we feel with the actions, transparency and compassion of this group:

Dear Directors, gezah team, senior administrators, medical team, office staff (and other camp newman leadership),Being up here on faculty allows me to be both a participant and an observer of the goings on at camp. I have witnessed so much that amazes me. I see so many caring people – you! – rising up to act in ways that evidence the depth of your compassion and the fullest of your ability to care for others, I see so many courageous people – you – who are facing so many unknowns, so much not in your control, yet are moving forward thoughtfully to manage the camp and care for the staff, CITs and Avodahniks who are here, I see so many tireless people, who are working endless hours, moving thru the moments of exhaustion to plan and respond,I see people who evidence bikur cholim, caring for the infirmed, as you take care of those few who have the flu, those who are well on the way to recovery, and each other (ensuring that you do not burn out), I see so many people with endless patience, who are calmly answering questions, sharing information, exhibiting the quiet reassurance that lets the rest of us move thru our days without worry. Thank you for taking such good care of all of us at camp, for working endless hours to address that which is beyond our control and for making sure that wisdom and caution prevails amidst the pressures of opening camp. My whole family – a CIT, 2 soon to be teenage campers, and 2 adults – is up at camp right now. We feel safe, cared for, informed. I am so proud to be part of this amazing community. Thank you for all you are doing.

Swine Aint' Kosher at Jewish Summer Camp

D’var Acher
(Alternate Title): Porky Pig, Superman and Other Comics

translation: swine flu, super staff and the theater of the absurd

D’var Acher (Alternate Title): “I Know it is 1:00 am, and I’m Sorry to Wake You, but…”

Team Crisis Management. From midnight, Wednesday, June 17, 2009 thru lunchtime, June 18, 2009, Michelle and I joined the URJ Camp Newman’s Team Crisis Management as the camp responded to a few cases of Influenza A (presumed to be H1N1 – swine flu) and another dozen cases of the regular flu.

[We just read that the Sacramento newspaper reported: 15 swine flu cases close Santa Rosa religious youth camp

Camp Newman-Swig, a sprawling 500-acre complex on Porter Creek Road, had two probable and 13 highly suspect cases of the H1N1 virus among members of its adult staff, said Dr. Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, Sonoma County’s public health officer.

The Camp experience began as expected. We had arrived at Camp Newman at about 5:30 pm and enjoyed the traditional pre-camp faculty dinner out at Dafna’s Greek. A fabulous faculty meeting followed where we learned about many exciting camp intiatives, and where I was introduced as Faculty Dean and Michelle as a member of the Nefesh Team (“nefesh” = soul = the camp’s psychosocial support team). We were dazzled by the efforts of Or Ami Rabbinic (and Rabb/Ed) intern, now Camp Education Director Sara Mason-Barkin.

Not ten minutes after the meeting let out, the faculty was called back into session and informed that camp, facing a number of staff with flu-like symptoms, had determined that we were facing a few cases of presumed H1N1, swine flu. With a decision immanent to postpone the arrival of the younger campers (Avodah, CIT and Staff were already at camp), we were being drafted into Team Crisis Management and asked to call all camper parents tonight to inform them of the decision.

By 10:15 pm, a calling script was being written, call lists divided up (rabbis/educators began by calling our own congregants), and, with Michelle’s guidance, a list of responses to anticipated questions was being developed (when will camp invite the younger campers up? Still to early to say).

By 11:00 pm, we were spread out all over camp, manning phones, spreading the calm but clear message:

Dear Parent,

We are in the process of calling all of our camper parents with the important announcement…

In the last 48 hours a number of our staff members have come into the infirmary not feeling well, some with fever. In order to be very cautious and responsible, we tested some of our staff and the results came back positive for Influenza A. Our county public health department has informed us that this is mostly likely the H1N1 virus – swine flu. Therefore after consulting with medical professionals and the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism we have determined that is wise to delay the opening camp and to demonstrate an abundance of caution. While we know that this will be tremendously inconvenient, we take our responsibility for the health and safety of children entrusted to our care as our foremost priority.

We will be in touch again by email late Thursday with an update. We hope by then to be able to make a determination as to when the session will begin. Again we are very sorry for calling so late and we certainly understand that our campers will be disappointed.

Thank you for your understanding and support. (Email addresses were provided for those with questions.)

From 11:00 pm until 2:00 am, Michelle and I joined a dozen other faculty, waking parents and sharing the news. It was a fascinating and overwhelming experience. Fascinating because here we were, telling parents that their child’s camp experience and long planned family plans were being changed, yet with the exception of a handful, most parents were appreciative and complimentary about our proactive decision. Overwhelming, because a good many offered to help in a multiplicity of ways. Even better, of 200+ campers, only one (one!) camper showed up for camp. In just 3 short hours, we successfully reached the entire camper population!

Though we were dragging by 2:00 am, we were reassured by the experience of being part of a Jewish community dedicated to emet (truth/honesty), chochma (wisdom/wise decisions), and responsiveness. Just before we passed out in our bed, Michelle and I chatted about how impressed we were with the quick, patient leadership of Director Ruben Arquilevich, Associate Director Phil Hankin, and their senior staff. They consulted with the top notch camp doctors, coordinated with the local Department of Public Health, conferenced by senior URJ leaders in New York (waking them as the concern mounted), and made appropriately conservative decisions in the best interests of the staff/CITs/Avodahniks currently in camp, and those who will come up in the future.

Those staff who are sick have been segregated (isolated/quarantined is the medical term), and many of those who had flu symptoms are currently on the mend. As the flu has an incubation peried of about 7 days, the camp is being proactively responsible in waiting to see if the flu will spread. Our daughter is hanging with her CIT (counselor in training) friends, observing the camp separation between CITs/Avodahniks and the staff (the latter who were together during the incubation period).

After a few hours sleep (I woke at 7:30 am Wednesday), we gathered down in the Chadar Ochel (dining room) to evaluate and begin the process of deciding next steps. Communication with the national URJ office, with the Health Department, with our medical staff, with the region’s rabbis/cantors/educators and with parents continues on the highest, most open level.

How are we Kipnes/Novembers?
Understand that our Kipnes/November family is healthy and safe, as are the vast, vast majority of the camp community. Though we told our two sons to wash hands regularly, to eat at tables away from the rest of the staff, and to refrain from hugging anyone (a challenge in the loving camp community), they are enjoying the run of the camp with only minimal supervision.

Reflections on our Camp Newman Leadership: You take the measure of an institution, and the measure of a man, by the way they respond in the most challenging of situations. That’s why, in the end, I remain a fan of the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and of its leadership (from Senior Director Ruben Arquilevich). They are being prudent, responsible, consultative, caring, tireless and more…

Mothers Face Tough Challenges in Raising Children with Disabilities

Mother’s Day. A celebration of those special people in our lives. I love my mother and my wife, the mother of my children. They were/are amazing. We will celebrate them, and hopefully give them a bit of a break today.

Here’s my “inspiring mother of the moment” who is uplifting others: Or Ami congregant Diane Simon Smith. Diane, a Woodland Hills therapist and mother of two children with disabilities, helped special moms raising special children with disabilities take a break and celebrate. As Sandy Banks in the LATimes (May 9, 2009)writes:

These moms know true love

Deedra Williams doesn’t need breakfast in bed or a spa massage to celebrate Mother’s Day tomorrow.

She received her gift last weekend at a quiet Montecito retreat from 15 women who, like her, are mothers of children with disabilities.

They hiked eucalyptus-shaded hills, listened to music and made collages with pictures cut from magazines. They talked for hours about the challenges of mothering children who may never be able to walk or speak, to go off to college or get married.

And everyone knew better than to interrupt, criticize or offer advice.

“No one tried to fix it here,” explained Williams, a mother of two sons — a “developmentally typical” 7-year-old, and a 14-month-old whose newborn jaundice left him with brain damage, hearing loss and cerebral palsy.

“We can relate to what each one is going through because we’re all in the same boat,” Williams said as we sat at table at La Casa de Maria Retreat with four other mothers.

“What I took away from this weekend,” Williams said, “is acceptance.”

And what I took away was a new appreciation for the unconditional mother-love that many of us give lip service to, as we continually push our children to improve themselves, carrying around our mental check-list of all their shortcomings.


Raising a disabled child requires a sort of hyper- vigilance. “Motherhood amplified,” Nina Loh called it, describing life with her 7-year-old twins — a “typical” daughter and a son with spina bifida, who has had 13 surgeries and may need more. “The stakes are so high. And there’s really no end in sight.”

Woodland Hills therapist Diane Simon Smith knows the feeling well. The mother of two disabled sons, she began offering “Healing the Mother’s Heart” retreats six years ago, to give women a safe place to vent “the anger, the guilt, the joy . . . all the feelings.”

Smith’s first child was born weighing less than 2 pounds. He was blind, mentally retarded and was never able to “walk, talk, sit, use his hands or feed himself,” she said. He died of pneumonia at 17. His brother, two years younger and now 21, was born with Fragile X Syndrome, an inherited disorder that causes severe cognitive and behavioral problems.

I asked Smith if she felt cheated, robbed of some of the joys of motherhood.

Not cheated, she said, with its implied resentment and bitterness. Just sad, sometimes, “when I hear my friends talking about what their kids are doing . . . going off to college, getting married.”

Every woman around the table talked of feeling isolated, separated from the larger sisterhood of mothers.

“I never wanted to be different,” said Eileen Sunderland, whose 7-year-old son has autism. “I wanted to fit in. . . . But you can’t go to lunch with all the moms at preschool. You can’t meet them in the park, because you always have a therapy appointment or a doctor visit to get to.”

And what do you talk about, anyway, with a mom who complains that her daughter wants pricey True Religion jeans, when you’re trying to get your son to stop flapping his hands like wings.

Still, some said their children’s diagnosis provided an odd sort of relief — a validation of a mother’s instinct that something was wrong, or a vindication of their parenting.

“I thought I was an inadequate mother,” recalled Lisa Hannifin, whose 4 1/2 -year-old son was diagnosed with autism. “I wondered ‘Why am I so stressed out? Why can’t I take my boy to the market?’ Other kids sit in the cart and behave. There must be something very wrong with me.”

For others, the verdict triggered fear, panic and disbelief.

When her daughter, now 5, was diagnosed with autism three years ago, Julia Gosnell “was hyperventilating into a paper bag for 10 minutes.”

Gosnell had every prenatal test her doctor offered during her pregnancy, “because I did not want a child with a disability,” she said. “I really considered myself too selfish. . . . I was a workaholic . . . not really cut out for raising kids.”

But children can stretch a mother’s boundaries.

Since November, when Gosnell was laid off, she has been a stay-at-home mom. Last week, the child she once feared might not speak said, “Mommy, I want to teach you a magic trick.”

Tears spilled down Gosnell’s cheeks as she shared the story. “Her progress has been so astounding in the last seven months, and everybody agrees it’s because I’m home working with her. . . . I’ve learned about patience and love and how to give myself to someone else.”

And about how important a mother is to her child.


I had to admit on my drive home that I had visited the retreat to turn those moms into an object lesson. I envisioned this column as a reality check for mothers like me — a “see, it could be worse” reminder to count your blessings this Mother’s Day.

But it was their spirit, as much as their stories, that took me down a different path.

The way every description of a child’s disabilities also included the strengths their mothers see: The beautiful smile, the sense of humor, the determination, the innocence.

The way they never labeled their other children “normal,” just “developing typically.”

How much freer would we all be to love if we could let go of our preconceived notions of what our children should do or be? If I worried less about my daughter’s tattoo and appreciated her sense of humor more. Or focused less on the “C” in statistics class and more on the hard work she put in to earn even that.

These women are not saints or martyrs. But they see gifts where others might see only hardships.

“Write this column for them,” Smith told me, as the mothers packed their cars to head back to their families. They are not looking for pity or praise, just acceptance of their challenges.

“We’re not special,” she said. “We’re just human beings, doing what we do with love.”

Just like every other mother.

[email protected]

The Best Part of My Rabbinic School Experience

It is that time again and I don’t like it!

Time to say goodbye to our interns from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) as they conclude their year-long internship with us. Each will move on to new internship experiences as they prepare for eventual careers as rabbis and educators. So by May’s end, Congregation Or Ami will say l’hitra’ot (“see you later”) to (Mishpacha program Coordinators) Education Intern Laura Siegel and Rabbinic-Education Intern Rebekah Stern, and to Rabbinic Interns Sara Mason-Barkin and Jordana Chernow-Reader. These incredibly talented young Jewish professionals, like their predecessors, have created and developed more curricula and programs at Or Ami than I could ever list here. We will miss them. (You may share your appreciation and well wishes with them through the embedded email links.)

Saying goodbye to each intern is heart-wrenching. We sit together at a coffee shop for an inspiring but bittersweet few hours reflecting upon insights gained and lessons learned. These “closing meetings” also transport me back in time to my six years as a student at HUC-JIR. They remind me about the best part of Rabbinical School: the year spent studying for my Master of Arts in Jewish Education (MAJE) at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education.

The Best Part of My Rabbinic School Experience
The Rabbinic-Education (“Rabb-Ed”) year at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch was the most transformative part of my rabbinical studies. Like most colleagues who earned an MAJE degrees at RHSOE, I explain to anyone who will listen that of my six years of Rabbinical school (year 1 in Jerusalem, years 2 and 3 in NY, year 4 as Rabb-Ed, years 5 and 6 in LA), the Rabb-Ed year was the most transformational.

My decision 22 years ago to leave my East Coast upbringing after my third year rabbinical studies in New York to travel to the Rhea Hirsch School of Education to study for the MAJE was the most significant, best and long lasting positive decision of my rabbinical career. It provided me with the tools to become the successful rabbi I am today.

The importance of the Rhea Hirsch School goes beyond the fact that the Los Angeles campus has gathered together an amazing Education faculty: past directors Sara Lee and Rabbi Bill Cutter, current director Michael Zeldin, and professors Isa Aron and Rabbi Tali Hyman. Rather, this faculty has created a web of HUC-JIR, communal institutions and Jewish professionals which are tightly interwoven to nurture future Jewish educators and Rabbi-Educators. This Education faculty has been purposely trained to bring together the academic study of Jewish education (research, pedagogy, best practices, etc.) with the mentoring of students toward reflective practice and personal growth. They work extensively and closely with the local clinical faculty (internship mentors) to challenge and guide students to become reflective practitioners.

Everything Was Seamlessly Integrated
During that year, everything seemed so seamlessly integrated. The ideas I was grappling with in readings and class related directly the challenges I was struggling with in my internship which related perfectly with the issues I was facing on my path to become a Jewish professional. That year pushed me farther and made me think more deeply about Judaism and Jewish education, about the synagogue as a system, and about organizational transformation. How did that happen?

Incredible Mentoring
The RHSOE ensures that the clinical faculty (mentors of interns) themselves study and reflect – individually and as a group – upon their roles as mentors and educators. (I have sat on the clinical faculty for 14 years.) The RHSOE clinical faculty consults regularly with the RHSOE Director and with the students’ RHSOE academic advisors to reflect upon the students’ progress and to partner in guiding growth. Thus, as an intern, more than merely “doing my job” at my RHSOE internship (at Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, CA, under the mentorship of Rabbi Barry Lutz), I was guided to grow in this internship as an educator and a rabbi through focused learning and reflective practice. I was encouraged pointedly and directly to examine systematically all aspects of what I was thinking and doing as a student, an intern and a future Jewish professional. Each partner in my growth process – academic advisor, school director, internship mentor – was trained extensively and repeatedly toward the goal of reflective practice.

Thus, the RHSOE has become an integral part of the Jewish community here, uniquely training future leaders, deepening the practice of its alumni, and expecting the commitment to and guiding the continued self-reflection and growth of the internship mentors. At no other time did I receive such intensive mentoring. It has become the model for my own continued professional growth.

Who Benefits Today? My Congregation, My Staff, and Me
My experience at the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education now serves as the model for how I as a senior rabbi mentor my education and rabbinic interns, my office staff, my faculty and some of my lay leaders. During these past 13 years at Congregation Or Ami, the RHSOE faculty repeatedly has helped me analyze and re-envision our program and structure. Our successes can be directly linked to my RHSOE education and to continued consultation with this amazing faculty.

In the past six years, our young synagogue has earned four of the Union for Reform Judaism’s top five congregational awards – including its Nachshon award for significant steps toward Lifelong Jewish Learning – because of education and mentoring I receive through the RHSOE. These awards, my leadership of this congregation, my three years as chairperson the work of the CCAR Convention Committee, and currently my participation on the CCAR Task Force grappling with interfaith marriage, is informed and deepened by the education and mentoring I received at the RHSOE. My Rabb-Ed year in the RHSOE was the most profoundly transformational part of my Rabbinic training, and continues to have the most significant continued influence on the sacred work I do as a rabbi.

Saying Shalom…
So now, as I say goodbye to our interns and prepare to welcome new ones, I can only hope that we – Congregation Or Ami, the Rhea Hirsch School of Education and me as mentor – provided them with the deeply transformational experience that my year at RHSOE did for me.

Inspired at the Grand Canyon

While Or Ami was at Malibu Creek State Park for Seder in the Wilderness, past president took his son Brandon Kaplan (who signs, but speaks only sporadically) to the Grand Canyon.

Michael wrote me:

I often wonder what goes through Brandon’s mind at various times. When we approached the rim of the Grand Canyon, Brandon took his first look at the Canyon. He immediately signed “America the Beautiful.”

Any questions?

Top 50 Rabbis List: Not as Statistically Accurate or Methodologically Sound as mine!

A year ago, when Newsweek’s Top 50 Rabbis list came out, I commented upon how statistically inaccurate and methodologically unsound it was. Having taken two sessions of statistics during a grad school course more than 15 years ago, I am better suited to critique. Moreover, I have already done the research.

So here’s my response to the Top 50 Rabbi’s List.

Read it and weep, you self-serving amateur pollsters, you.

By the way, #1 Rabbi, David Saperstein, was a mentor of mine and was and is amazing!

Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package

These are difficult times. As our financial markets continue to nosedive, we are forced to find new resources of strength to pull ourselves up out of the abyss. In a world of individuals, we might expect to do this alone. Circle the wagons and protect your own. Survival of the fittest.

But Judaism teaches a different way. We hold each other up like we hold up Torah.

Two teachings, actually. First Talmud teaches Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another, reminding us that we will never be alone. Because we are responsible for helping each other. Since communal ties are stronger than individual pain, we are commanded to hold each other up through the most stressful of times. Then we learn from Torah, tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue. The doubling of the word tzedek (justice) reminds us that pursuing justice is paramount. We seek social justice when times are good AND we seek social justice when times are bad. A difficult economy provides no excuse to shirk our responsibilities. We care because we care. Both for for those we know and for those we do not.

Thus Congregation Or Ami has been enacting our own Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package, a comprehensive plan to reach out to congregants. Supported by our Board of Directors, this Stimulus Package includes no pork. Rather our Stimulus Package addresses three goals: (1) to provide real resources for job acquisition, financial relief and mental/physical health; (2) to offer low/no cost activities for individuals and families to break the isolation brought on by crisis; and (3) to utilize all forms of communication (high tech internet and low tech one-on-one conversations) to reach out, check in and take care of our congregant community.

For a community that values B’tzelem Elohim (we are created in God’s image), that we are each valued, and in Petucha (openness), where we courageously talk about the difficult truths in life, this Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package answers the call of Henaynu, that we are there for each other through both joyous and difficult times. May we weather the storm together. Remember, I am always here to listen and help.

In response to this article, I received an email:

I wanted to thank you for your inspiring article this month. I always find your words meaningful and empowering but this month really touched a chord.

We also so appreciated getting a call from a congregation member asking how we were doing. It meant a great deal.

As you are so aware, this is hard times for everyone. It is wonderful to know that there is a caring community there to help and to listen.

I wish you and your family a wonderful Pesach and Shabbat Shalom.

I forwarded this email, anonymously, to Or Ami’s Board and Staff with the following message:

She is specifically referring to my article in the bulletin. But understand this…

After 16 years in the rabbinate, I have learned that the rabbi often comes to personify the community/institution. While this congregant is thanking ME for MY article, she is also thanking this congregation, its leadership and staff for all of our efforts to reach out to people during these hard times.

She is thanking:

  • The people who made calls for/with Kim Gubner to check on people
  • The people who have hosted hikes, and adult gatherings, job search assistance, and no cost childcare and…
  • The people who have caringly dealt with those who cannot pay their commitments
  • The people who warmly welcome others coming into services, to programs, on the phone
  • The people who take the occasional abuse from others because the stress is so great, it must spill over somewhere
  • The people who wrote articles, blurbs, announcements which communicate our caring and outreach.
  • The people who … are you!

Thank you for all you are doing to make sure our Jewish Spiritual Stimulus package is successful in touching people’s lives during these difficult times.

You all – staff, board, clergy, interns – and everyone in between. You are amazing, and I am proud to be part of this community.

To which Or Ami’s Board and Staff members responded with the following comments:

  • I feel such a sense of pride for Or Ami as we all do and it shows in all that we are and what we do!
  • Everyone is so very supportive and caring for each other. We have such a wonderful home at Or Ami.
  • It is truly an HONOR to be part of this amazing community! Let’s keep this feeling forever, no matter how large Or Ami grows!
  • Thanks for great leadership, to the Or Ami Team, all of you are great which is the reason we joined, got involved and have stayed. We don’t just say we are a warm loving community we show it in our actions day to day. A nicer group of people you could not find anywhere. My life has been enriched through our membership at Or Ami and most importantly building friendships and relationships with so many of you.

How enriching that a Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package has touched many: those who are receiving its assistance, those who are watching from the sidelines, and those who are responsible for delivering the assistance!