Tag: Tikkun Olam: Changing the World

Comfort Bags for Foster Kids Bring Comforting Meaning to Mitzvah Doers

Under the watchful eyes of Mitzvah Day chairs Laurie Tragen-Boykoff and Cathy Spencer and thirty volunteers, Congregation Or Ami’s Mitzvah Day created 325 Comfort Bags filled with new clothes, toiletries, books, games, journals, toys, a decorated “sweet dreams” pillowcase and a personalized card. The Comfort Bags have been given to social workers who will give them to children who would be going into foster care because of abuse or neglect in their families. Volunteers expected to help foster kids; little did they realize how much their lives would be touched by the Mitzvah Day experience.

Three Or Ami congregants share their experiences: A mother of two teenagers, a father of two younger children, and a newly married man.

Amy Pucker writes:

Sophie Barnes (center) with other VolunTEENS

On November 6, 2012, our family took part in Mitzvah Day. We have been participating since our now teenage girls were little and this is an event along with Child Spree that we look forward to each year!

Mitzvah Day is a chance for our family to focus on and participate hands on in Tikkun Olam (fixing the world). It is a concrete reminder for us and our children of the many kids and families out there that are less fortunate. For the past several years, the girls have donated part of their tzedakah (charitable donations), either shopping for items needed on the list or donating money. In 2010, as part of her Bat Mitzvah project, Sophie collected gently used backpacks that were also distributed to the foster kids as part of Mitzvah Day. 

This year, Abby had to miss as she was in Israel yet she was able, through Or Ami’s VolunTEENS group, to help plan the teen project. Sophie enjoyed working alongside the other VolunTEENS members cutting and making blankets to donate to animal shelters. My husband Brett filled extra bags for us.   

I had the ability this year to stand in the center of the sanctuary to direct other volunteers to the different areas on their list. I was thrilled to see so many familiar and new faces sharing in the event. It was amazing to watch as children as young as 3 years old, adults of all ages, and everyone in between, as they took such care and concern in making the right choices for their Comfort Bag, carefully decorated their pillowcases and designed caring cards to try and bring comfort for the kids that would receive them.

Although Mitzvah Day is just one day in the year, it is a reminder to our family of our need to help others less fortunate throughout the year.

Adam Wasserman writes: 

Aidan with his parents

Two weeks ago, my son’s journal assignment was to write about something meaningful to him. Aidan is 10 years old and in fourth grade. He wrote about Mitzvah Day at Congregation Or Ami, packing Comfort Bags for children that he did not know, and what the experience meant to him.  

In his essay, Aidan wrote that “there are troubled children in the world and he wants to help him.” I didn’t know it meant so much to him. Nor did I know he was thinking about Mitzvah Day a year later.

Today at Mitzvah Day 2012, I was able to watch him do it again. I saw his anticipation for the event; how excited he was to get there and pack another bag. From the way he was acting, this could of have been a day at Disneyland, another Halloween, or a trip to GameStop with his $100.00 gift card. Today, his excitement for Mitzvah Day exceeded all of these.

As a father, this means so much to me on many levels. A main concern I have for my young children is what they get excited about and what they look forward to in life. I thought I knew what was most meaningful to my ten year old: his Xbox, PG+ movies, iPhones, play dates, crazy birthday parties, and lots of sugar. I was wrong; it is Mitzvah day. He is more excited about helping people than anything our modern world offers him. My son, in the midst of everything that surrounds him, chose Mitzvah day. 

Such a happy feeling and comfort for me! I know in Aidan’s heart there is solid truth. Mitzvah day allows him to realize his truth and express it.

Aaron Koch writes:

Aaron Koch, the Body Wash and Deodorant Man

My wife Krista and I arrived at Congregation Or Ami on Sunday morning to a lot of energy in the room. It reminded me of something but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had been at the synagogue the day before, helping to sort and count, but it was different on Sunday; people seemed really excited.

I was paired with a father-son team in the hygiene area where I was working the “body wash and deodorant” station. Two minutes later, there were people everywhere, going every direction. I was tossing deodorant and body wash in bags, directing people to the hidden station in the back corner of the kitchen. All of a sudden, my inner “Yankee Stadium hotdog vendor” overwhelmed me and I shouted in my thickest New York accent, “Deodorant! Body wash! Getcha deodorant and body wash right here! Stay fresh all day! Get it while it’s hot!”

I know I amused several people; I may have frightened a few as well. But it was fun, extremely rewarding and, as it turns out, Mitzvah day brought out the NFTY kid in me. (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth, of which Or Ami’s LoMPTY youth group is a part.) I didn’t realize it at the time, but it makes me chuckle now, just thinking about it. I got downright silly on Sunday.  

I find it beautiful and amazing that we can get together to do something so profound, and, at the same time, have such a light hearted, silly time together doing it. One young man, about 12 years old, was packing a bag meant for a 14 to 17 year old girl and actually covered his eyes as he stuffed the feminine hygiene products into the Comfort Bag. I almost laughed out loud, LOL, but I managed to contain myself.  

I was really struck me by how much care everyone was putting into the process. Picking out the right game or book, even the deodorant, was a careful choice, each person making sure to choose the right one. The pillow case art was impressive; people really went the extra mile. It makes me feel good and very proud to be a part of this community.

Former Foster Child Reflects Upon Receiving Mitzvah Day Comfort Bag

  Ever wonder how our Mitzvah Day “Comfort Bags” impact the lives of the kids who receive them. The 325 “Comfort Bags” we create are handed to children as they are removed from their homes to protect them from abuse or neglect. They enter the foster care system with little to nothing, except the “Comfort Bag” we fill with clothes, books, journals, toiletries, toys, a hand-decorated pillowcase, and a personalized greeting card.

Recently, at a Campfire Shabbat service, we heard from a young mother named “America,” who spoke about her journey into foster care, and what receiving a “Comfort Bag” would have meant to her. America was so touched by her experience of sharing her story with our congregation, that she sent this letter to the congregation:

A Letter from America
Dear Friends,

First of all I want to thank every single one of you for sharing with me that beautiful night full of joy. I also want to tell you a little bit more about myself, and a little about what I had in my heart to say but couldn’t because I was so nervous.

Congregation Or Ami’s Campfire service was my first time speaking before a group. For a few minutes I was only able to hear my heart beating in my chest, but I knew in my heart that I was in front of a group of great people. People who are willing to help innocent, helpless kids who are going through what could be the worst experience in their lives.

The kids don’t see it as the system is helping them. They see it as the system is taking them away from their families, and as everybody would agree FAMILY is by far the most important and real thing a human being can have. Family is what helps us survive in this world. If you lose that, you are left with nothing to live for. We feel unprotected, defenseless, and, to some degree, naked. That is why I believe in my heart that what you are doing for these kids is huge.

As for me, like I mentioned at the campfire service, the foster care system was the best thing that could have ever happened to me at that moment in my life. By then, I had already lost my family, meaning my mom. The aunt I was living with would abuse me all the time. So when I was taken to my new (foster) home, it was just perfect. I know that not all the kids end up in a good (foster) home but I was lucky enough to have taken to a beautiful family – a mom and her son. It was perfect for me.

After that, all the things that kept coming to my life were just blessing. Amazing people – just like you – that I encountered, changed my life forever. I was also blessed with Jessica Ambroz, who was my social worker at that time, and who is now my best friend, my mentor, my savior at times, and who I love deeply. It is because of people like you and her that my life changed to something good. To something closer to being a normal kid. It built my character; it healed my heart. Therefore, I want you to know that it is making a big difference in the lives of these kids because you are proving to them, letting them know, that out in the world there is someone who DOES care for their well being, who is not taking away something, but is providing for them. And if its something so personalized like the Mitzvah Day Comfort Bags, it’s even more powerful and more meaningful. It’s a positive seed of love and kindness that you are planting in their souls.

For sure it’s going to take their innocent minds off of that bitter moment they went through when they were taken away. And if it doesn’t at that moment, one day in their lives they’ll recognize and realize what a great gesture it was and maybe, just maybe, they will also want to support a good cause just like you are doing now.

I was a victim once but because of people like you, my life changed. Now, because of that, every time that I have the opportunity, I help others. I hope one day to be able to provide a loving family to one of those kids that need it. As for now, I’m looking for the opportunity to move forward everyday to provide for the beautiful family of my own. But I know that one day, God will provide for me and my family to help a few kids in this life. 

Thank you again. Don’t forget that you are changing a life!

Come Volunteer at Mitzvah Day
On Sunday, November 4th, we gather at Congregation Or Ami to fill Comfort Bags for young people. We remind ourselves of the Jewish imperative to “care for the stranger, the orphan and the poor.” We remember that each child, created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God, is valued and worthy. We move from the desire to help, to the act of helping. Join us on November 4th from 11:00 am-1:00 pm.

View pictures from previous Mitzvah Days.

The Protests (in Israel): Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, reflects upon the massive protests in Israel by people calling for social justice.  Focused on housing and more, these citizens of Israel are met not with bullets and firepower (like in many of the surrounding nations), but by conversation and hope. (See also the statement by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel regarding the Current Social Protest in Israel). Rabbi Yoffie’s article appeared on the JPost blog, Reform Voices:

We have said it a thousand times: Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. But citizens of democracies are often passive and apathetic. It is thrilling, therefore, to see so many young Israelis energized, engaged, and protesting for justice. These young people are bringing Israel’s democracy to life. 

The grievances must be very real because a passive citizenry is not easily aroused. Who is to blame for these grievances? Well, there is plenty of blame to go around. 

The political parties on the right have stressed the virtues of competition and the free market, but they have not delivered. Israel’s free market has not been free. A handful of “tycoons” have dominated the economy, and political paybacks to favored constituencies have hugely distorted the economic process. For example, invoking the sacred cow of “security,” the right has showered money on the settlements, but in fact, settlers have enjoyed government largesse to a degree that security concerns cannot possibly justify. 

Yet the left is hardly better. Those supposedly committed to social issues have allowed themselves to be distracted and co-opted by governments with no real social agenda. It is fine to believe in peace and the rights of others – and I do – but if you are not seriously devoted to the social welfare of your own people, you lack the credibility to accomplish anything. In the last quarter century, who are the major Israeli politicians who have been consistent advocates and true champions of justice and equality in Israeli society? Can you name five? Three? One?  

And where are the Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox parties that profess to speak in the name of the Jewish tradition? Religious voices should be at the center of this maelstrom, but instead they are silent. Torah, after all, has much to say about the nitty-gritty matters of economic fairness in the everyday lives of Jews and their neighbors. And the rabbi’s role, according to the great Talmudist R. Hayyim of Brisk, is “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” The problem is that Israel’s religious establishment obsesses about its own institutions and the minutiae of conversion laws but pays little attention to everyone else.  

(A word of praise for Ariel Atias of Shas, Minister of Housing, who said that what distresses him most about the protests, is that “they have forgotten the weakest strata of Israeli society, those whose problem isn’t finishing the month but beginning it.” Shas, it should be said, began as a movement of social protest, but – Atias notwithstanding – long ago lost its way.)  

And by the way, where is the American Jewish community – myself included – which talks of its commitment to Israel while saying little or nothing about the great social issues that will shape its future no less than security concerns? 

But there is no reason for despair. A new generation of Israelis is looking squarely at these problems and affirming the need for mutual responsibility, fairness, and social justice in the Jewish state. And what they do is a blessing for us all.

Let’s Pass the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)

Today I signed on as a co-sponsor of a letter by the Faith Coalition for the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). The UAFA legislation ends the long-standing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrant families. The letter, with the support of the Union for Reform Judaism, our national synagogue organization, says:

Dear Honorable Senators and Members of Congress:

We, the undersigned faith-based leaders and organizations, join together to call upon President Obama and our elected officials in Congress to enact inclusive, comprehensive immigration reform legislation that ends the long-standing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrant families.

Our diverse faith traditions teach us to welcome and care for our neighbors with love and compassion. Of the many great injustices in this broken immigration system, family separation is one of the most egregious. Family is the bedrock of any society and is critical in the development of healthy individuals and strong communities. Immigration policies should make expeditious family reunification a top priority and should include all families as part of that foundation. For us, this is a clear matter of simple justice.

Under current immigration law, gay and lesbian people cannot sponsor their foreign-born partner for an immigration visa, no matter how long they have been together or how committed their relationship. With no ability to sponsor their partners, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are being forced to live abroad, disrupting their careers, uprooting their children, and breaking ties with family, local communities and places of worship. No one should be forced to choose between their country and the person they love. It is time that U.S. immigration laws kept families together instead of tearing them apart.

There are over twenty countries — including strong allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Israel and South Africa — that recognize the permanent partnerships of lesbian and gay couples within their immigration laws. The United States should also be a leader in protecting the equal rights of its citizens and should not continue this discriminatory treatment in its immigration laws.

The Uniting American Families Act would end the long-standing discrimination lesbian and gay binational couples face under current immigration law. This bill would allow lesbian and gay binational couples to petition in the same way – and with the same rigorous process of documentation – as straight couples. We endorse the Uniting American Families Act which upholds the fundamental value of keeping families together. We urge Congress to pass this critically important legislation as part of any comprehensive immigration reform measure.

We call on President Obama, and Members of Congress, to provide the leadership and moral courage to pass inclusive and comprehensive immigration reform legislation. No reform can truly be called comprehensive unless it includes LGBT immigrant families as well. We are committed to working together for this long overdue and much-needed reform.

We must all work to honor our country’s commitment to families and its rich history as a nation of immigrants.

Learn more about the Uniting American Families Act.
If you are a major business, consider supporting the legislation along with these corporate supporters.

Top 9 Benefits of Taking Jewish Teens To A Pride Parade

Today at the San Francisco Pride Parade, we couldn’t have been more proud!

42 teens from the URJ Camp Newman‘s Avodah session ventured into San Francisco to walk and celebrate. Adorned in their purple camp t-shirts, and led ably by Avodah Director Aaron Bandler (a future rabbi??), our 16-year olds danced Israeli folk dances up Market Street. As they carried a tye-dyed chuppah complete with glass to break, they exhibited additional pride as they marched on the heels of the New York State vote to legalize marriage equality.

We went to San Francisco to live out the values of Torah:

  • B’tzelem Elohim – that we all are created in God’s image (Gen. 1)
  • K’shoshim T’hiyu – that we are all holy (Lev. 19)
  • Ahavat HaGer – love the stranger (36 times in the Torah).

Wonder why we brought our teens to the Pride Parade?  
Because participation in the Pride Parade…

  1. Instills pride in themselves no matter what their differences.
  2. Offers chance to be boisterously joyful in public about being Jewish.
  3. For teens who are questioning their own sexual orientation, it makes them feel safer and more accepted, a major goal of NFTY’s GLBTQ Teen Inclusion priorities.
  4. Learn about and live out longstanding Reform Jewish positions on marriage equality and gay rights.
  5. Teaches them how to stand up for something significant.
  6. Bonds them together as a group.
  7. Provides a chance to meet lots of different people of all sorts of shaped and sizes and color and religions.
  8. Allows them to really let go and have unrestrained fun and joy in a safe and sober way in a public place.
  9. Gives the opportunity to wear their sillier clothes including green fishnet stockings, pink tutus and Mardi Gras beads.

Finally, as the real life follow up to the previous evening’s program on self-acceptance, this experience allowed each teen the opportunity to verbalized to themselves and out loud to their community, “I’m proud to be me.”

This blogpost was cowritten on the bus back to Camp Newman by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Camp Newman Faculty Dean & Rabbi, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA; Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, URJ Director of Teen Engagement; Michelle November, Associate Director of Admissions, New Community Jewish High School, West Hills, CA; Alissa Robinow, Youth Advisor, Congregation Rodef Shalom, San Rafael, CA; Aaron Bandler, Camp Newman Avodah Director.

Beyond Kvetching and Handwringing: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

There are those who look out at our country and our world, kvetch and complain, and then turn back inward, content that their kvetching was enough. 

There are those who see injustice, wring their hands and worry in silence about the effects of this action or that, and then compartmentalize the anxiety and go back to a good book. 

And then there is the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), the Washington DC address of our Jewish values, which daily moves beyond the handwringing and kvetching to ensure the world tips in the direction of tzedek (justice), rachamim (compassion) and emet (truth). This small group of people, led by the indefatigable  Rabbi David Saperstein and the tireless Mark Pelavin, take  talmudic Rabbi Tarfon’s dictum (lo alecha – yours is not to complete the task but neither can you desist from it), and run in so many holy directions that it is hard to keep up. 

Directing an army of 20-something year old Legislative Assistants, their bare bones staff take on more issues than any of us can count. They stay up on the current legislation, meet with high-powered congressional aides and communal lobbyists, and move forward an agenda growing out of the values of Torah. Masters of the crucial art of coalition building, they make friends from across the political spectrum to ensure that our Jewish values do make a difference in the world. They move upstream, always searching for causes instead of just responding to effects. Then, with finesse, they turn to rabbis and lay leaders around the country – through their Chai Action networks – to teach and pressure our legislators to vote for moderate Jewish values of decency and justice. 

I experienced all this once when, in 1985-86, I served as an Eisendrath Fellow, metaphorically chained to a desk, seeking every opportunity to effect bracha (blessing) in our world. Superfund Cleanup, Economic Justice, Shabbat HaGadol and The Sanctuary movement for Central American Refugees were in my portfolio. I helped organize the first Tzedek Society fundraising drive. I debated the Sanctuary movement opposite the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central American. Those were heady times for a 22 year old. 

Ani v’atah nishaneh et haolam – you and I will change the world. So we sang in NFTY. The Religious Action Center taught me how. 

So this week, as I rabbi out on the far West Coast, I returned home, to the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience, to learn, and argue and come to understand new perspectives on current challenges. To remember that kol dracheha shalom – that all the ways of Torah should lead to peace. we heard from VP Al Gore, Rep. Howard Berman, John Prendergast of Enough Project, Jacob Lew of the White House OMB, and Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood. And more and more. 

If my parents Linda and Ken Kipnes nurtured me on social action, and NFTY and Kutz camp strengthened the Jewish underpinnings and contemporary impetus to act, then Rabbi David Saperstein and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism transformed and transforms me with the perspectives and skills to be a Jewish agent of change in my community, country and world. 

 We came here with 6 Congregation Or Ami members (plus our kid, your press Secretary Eric Harris). We will go home, change the world for the better, and come back at the next Consultation with double the number. Happy 50th anniversary Religious Action Center.

Omer Day #10: Responding to the Anti-Semitic and Racist Graffiti at Calabasas High School

Today is Day 10 of the Omer. I also invite you to read my daily reflections as we count the Omer

RABBI’S NOTE: Our community has been following the discovery and investigation of anti-Semitic and racist graffiti with great concern, pain, and anger. Who could believe that here in Calabasas, an enlightened and open community, we would be subjected to the use of such heinous slurs?

I have spoken to the Calabasas High School principal CJ Foss and the Assistant Principal Eric Anhalt. Additionally, I have had multiple conversations with the Anti-Defamation League(ADL). In each discussion, all participants did not mince words: they offered a condemnation of the actions, an intent to take this situation very, very seriously, an openness to suggestions as to how to respond, and a desire to educate and bring healing. I was pleased to hear that Calabasas High School has already been involved, through it’s many clubs, in holding awareness days for a variety of sometimes marginalized groups.

I am exceedingly satisfied that the school district is partnering with the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department and the ADL to educate toward tolerance and pluralism.     
But let’s be clear, Jews are not endangered in Calabasas. We are present in all levels of civic and communal life. We have multiple synagogues and our own Congregation Or Ami sanctuary off Las Virgenes. We have good relations with other Calabasas groups, institutions, and organizations.
So while we condemn these acts, and want them to be taken seriously and responded to with teaching and justice, we take comfort that law enforcement acted so quickly and has now asked for the most serious of punishments, indictment on felony vandalism charges coupled with the hate crime enhancement.  We feel confident that the school did the same with its confidential recommendations to the superintendent and the school board.
And so three 11th graders spewed hate and anger, spray-painting anti-Semitic and racist graffiti all over Calabasas High School. They were non-discriminatory with their discrimination, shooting their poisonous arrows at a wide swath of minorities. They were non-prejudicial with their prejudice, naming individuals – reportedly a mix of Jews, African-Americans, and other people – students, teachers and administrators. Their actions have been roundly condemned.    
Now that the three have been caught, confessed in writing, they are learning quickly that – whatever the motives – their graffiti smut is neither tolerated nor acceptable. Still, we are unable to make sense of it all.How could our innocent, accepting city harbor such hate? Many will look for meaning in this madness, hoping to point our fingers in blame at an absentee parent or worse, an abusive upbringing.  
We should also ask ourselves why these acts are so distressing. Like most vicious attacks, these use symbols, which conjure up a whole history of hatred and violence.
Writing “whites only” on a water fountain recalls America’s shameful, painful past when the color of one’s skin was used to deny the worth of one’s soul. Daily rejections of human equality were enshrined in law; random beatings and lynchings were rampant. To scrawl those words is to paint a target on every person of color. It is particularly offensive to see our children use such language to harm others.   
The use of the swastika and the words “let’s triple 6 million” recall the horrific genocide of 6 million Jews and 5 million others including children, homosexuals, gypsies, and others. The swastika remains one of the most powerful and enduring emblems of religious and ethnic hatred. It recalls the time of nationalist systematic murder, and of widespread international indifference.Few anti-Semitic acts more deeply strike pain into the heart of a Jew. 
Occurring during the holy days of Passover and near the holy week of Easter, and naming at least 6 individuals of diverse backgrounds and religions, this act of graffiti takes a particular type of hatred to pointedly attack others.
Why in the world did these three youth feel it was acceptable to use such dehumanizing language? Is this behavior an anomaly or, frightfully, might they be particularly egregious examples of attitudes that pervade a society that finds spewing pointedly painful words tolerable?
It is easy to condemn the graffiti which uses words and symbols that we agree upon to be historically language of hate. But what about words about which society has not yet agreed to roundly condemn? The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of chasidism, taught that often we rebuke in others what we find and hate in ourselves. Thus he challenges us, when anger fills us up, turn inward and fix our own failures.   
So we ask ourselves:
  • Have we ever tolerated hate against others or dehumanized whole categories of human beings?
  • Have we, for instance, stood idly by while Muslims were stereotyped as a group for the terrible actions of the few, or have we spread or given credence to unfounded fears that all Arabs are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers?  
  • Have we nodded in agreement as the birther movement permeated what amounts to a subtle though most heinous form of racism against African Americans? 
  • Have we allowed laws and attitudes to continue even as they marginalize gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals, couples and families? 
  • Have we, children of immigrants, stood aside while people of Hispanic origin – citizens, permanent residents and undocumented workers alike – are forced to face daily the humiliations of prejudice?
It is easy to rise up and condemn others when we have been harmed. It is another thing – greatly more difficult – to move off the couch or look up from our texting to recognize the humanity of the other. Thirty six times in the Bible we are told to treat the stranger as we treat the citizen; 36 times we are reminded how dear to the Holy One are the most vulnerable.    
As a community, Jew are making our way from the exodus from Egypt to the celebration of receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. From the holy days of Passover to Shavuot.  
Like our Biblical ancestors, we have a choice: Embrace the fear that kept our biblical ancestors cowering as oppressed slaves in Egypt. Or embrace the Torah, a gift of God which delineates a whole system of ethics to guide our steps.  
So we thank our law enforcement and Justice systems, with whom we have very good relations, for vigorously responding to these heinous acts. We thank the school and the district for utilizing this as another opportunity to educate about pluralism and tolerance. 
Simultaneously, let us expect of ourselves, at our deepest levels, that we do curb our collective inactions that do wrong to others, either through our deeds or more likely through the attitudes we harbor.
Calabasas, CA is one of the best places to live in America. We as a community need to use this abomination to teach ourselves and our children that we love our neighbors as ourselves, even the ones who look different, pray differently, and those we just don’t know.

Omer Day #9: Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk… of Kadosh-Holiness

Today is the 9th day of the Omer, that is one week and two days.  We are on the journey still, to Mt. Sinai.  When we arrive at the 49th/50th day, we experience Matan Torah, receiving the gift of Torah.

Among the most distinguishing features of Torah are its imperatives to live an ethical life. We are commanded both to talk the talk, and walk the walk. In this week’s parasha, we read Kedoshim Tehiyu – You shall be holy.  
What is holiness?
For Jews, holiness is not spirituality based on sitting on a mountaintop, meditating or doing yoga (although I, and many other Jews, do both). Rather being kadosh – holy in Judaism is to act in ethical ways toward one another. 
Well intentioned, yes, but how do we make this happen?
At Congregation Or Ami, our nascent Center for Tikkun Olam (social action) hosts a Mitzvah Fair for our youngest students.  The brainchild of congregant Debby Pattiz, the Mitzvah Fair gets kindergarten through 6th grade students thinking about how they can act ethically and live kadosh.  
As we read in the Acorn, Calabasas’ local newspaper: 

A big question on the mind of every 12-year-old at Congregation Or Ami is “What will I do for my mitzvah project?” 

In Judaism, the completion of a mitzvah project as part of the process of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah symbolizes acceptance of the “mitzvah” or “duty” to actively work to engage in “tikkun olam” or “healing the world.” 

Mitzvah projects can benefit children, the elderly, animals, the hungry, the environment, refugees, the poor, or any other group or cause that needs help. 

Despite so many people and places needing healing in our world, finding a mitzvah project that fits the individual interests and abilities of each pre-teen can prove challenging. That’s why Congregation Or Ami hosted its inaugural Mitzvah Project Fair on April 4 and 6 during its Kesher learning program. 

Or Ami teens who completed their mitzvah projects in the past year presented their volunteer projects to the younger children in the temple’s Religious School program. The presenters used posters and handouts and talked with curious first- through fifth-graders about their experiences. The younger children were amazed by the wide variety of projects.
Some of the projects were training a seeing eye dog, teaching inner city children about managing money, sending handmade notes to military personnel posted overseas, playing with disabled children, caring for orphaned animals, and collecting food for the hungry and basic supplies for the homeless. 

Calabasas resident Rachel, a fourth-grader, said, “My mitzvah project can be helping animals, not only people.” 

Agoura Hills resident Ryan, a first-grader, said, “I can do my mitzvah project in the park.”
“By doing a mitzvah project, you are being a super mensch,” (Yiddish for “a really good person”) said Oak Park resident Jonathan, a third-grader. 

In addition to showing the younger children the many handson projects they can accomplish, the Mitzvah Project Fair showcased the accomplishments of the temple’s teen members. 

“The Mitzvah Project Fair also provided an opportunity for our congregation to acknowledge the great pride we feel at the important work our teens are undertaking to ‘heal the world’ and to celebrate their acceptance of tikkun olam as a lifelong pursuit,” said Debby Pattiz, mitzvah project coordinator. 

Organizations that are interested in helping children “heal the world” by providing pre-teens with bar/bat mitzvah volunteer projects should leave a message for Pattiz through the Temple.  (This Mitzvah Project Fair article was written by Helayne Sharon, who resides in Agoura Hills.)

May these days trekking through the wilderness provide you with plenty of time to think about how you can both talk the talk and walk the walk … of kadosh – holiness.

April Fools… If Only

I presume that back in the 1930’s and ’40’s many people – Europeans, Americans, Jews particularly – thought that the whispers about concentration camps were someone’s ideas of a bad April Fools joke. After all, who could imagine that while they were sitting comfortably in their homes, people “out there” somewhere were planning and facilitating the genocide of a whole people. One person’s humorless joke is another people’s death sentence.

Talmud teaches us – Al tifrosh min hatzibur – don’t separate yourself from the community (Pirkei Avot 2:4). What does that mean?  For Purim’s Queen Esther, it meant realizing her responsibility when Mordechai warned her that she could not escape the evil that had befallen the kingdom. For us, it means realizing, when we try listening for the punchline and thus allow people to perpetrate large scale, systematic acts of violence, especially during a time of global economic malaise, the evil can quickly spread… and perhaps in our direction. If we separate ourselves from the world community, we give permission to others to expand their violence “to a loved one nearer to you.”

That’s why I believe every Jew and Jewish family (including every Or Ami member) should rearrange their plans and show up on Sunday morning, April 10th, for Jewish World Watch’s “Walk to End Genocide”.  A few hours of time to combat evil will not only fulfill Torah’s edict Lo taamod al dam rei-acha – don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Lev. 19:16), but it will declare unambiguously to the world that evil, rape, violence, and genocide have no place in our world.

(If I can be so bold…) neither kids’ baseball games, nor homework projects, nor previous commitments should keep us from walking.

  • Think genocide in Darfur. 
  • Think organized mass rapes in Congo (by the hundreds of thousands). 
  • Remember Hotel Rwanda, Cambodia’s Pol Pot and Nazi Germany’s “labor – concentration – camps”.
So please, sign up at www.WalktoEndGenocide.org. Join Team Congregation Or Ami if you don’t have another favorite.

If you absolutely cannot make the time, sponsor a walker. Or you can sponsor me here.

Let’s awake next year without the need to Walk to End Genocide. On that new day, the whispers of renewed genocide could really be just a bad dream (not a really bad joke).  

Israel first to set up field hospital in Japan

Or Ami congregant Robert Grossman passed along this news of Israel’s continued humanitarian aid worldwide:

The JERUSALEM POST reports (3/21/2011) that surgery has been established at Minamisanriko, a fishing city devastated by quake; Israel is also providing aid for the homeless.

The field hospital Israel is establishing in Japan is the first to be set up by any nation offering outside assistance, Israel’s Ambassador to Japan Nissim Ben Shitrit said Monday, and the Japanese are extremely appreciative.

Ben Shitrit said the hospital was being established at Minamisanriko, a fishing city 290 miles north of Tokyo, that was utterly overwhelmed by the quake and tsunami and where some 10,000 people are dead or missing. A five-strong Israeli team “is setting up the surgery right now,” the ambassador said. “They are evaluating the needs today, so that a larger team can be dispatched.”

He confirmed Israel was also providing tons of aid assistance – including mattresses, blankets, coats, gloves and chemical toilets — for some of the half-a-million people who are homeless, many of whom are now living in public facilities.

“I don’t know how or why it is that our field hospital is the first,” the ambassador said. “Maybe we moved faster. Maybe it’s because of our experience.” 

He said the medical crisis would take a long time to resolve, but that he believed the Japanese government would bring the situation under control in the coming weeks. Appreciation for Israel’s help, he said, was clear in the reporting in the Japanese media and in the grateful response of people in the field. 

Asked whether Israel had provided any assistance in grappling with the difficulties affecting Japanese nuclear facilities, Ben Shitrit said no. “That’s an issue for the Japanese and the Americans only,” he said.

Welcoming Chaverim, for Developmentally Disabled Adults

Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The RiPiK, a twentieth century commentator, suggested that beyond refraining from placing blocks, we should actively remove stumbling blocks. To what might this be compared?

A story…

Even as the Director of Chaverim, a local program for developmentally disabled adults asked the question, his discomfort was evident: “How do you feel about opening your congregation to a local group for developmentally disabled adults?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.

“We’ve been to other synagogues that have opened their doors, only to feel slowly push us out, after their members became uncomfortable with the presence of our members,” he responded.

The conversation continued. “What’s the worst that might happen?” I asked.

“We have one member who can sing loudly, and sometimes off-key.” He paused, “And you might have someone read slowly, completing a communal reading after others have already finished.”

“Sounds like some of our current members.”

“However, they will usually be accompanied by the Chaverim program director or program rabbi, either of whom will help direct our members if necessary. Would you like to come by one of our events to check out the Chaverim members?”

“Why? Give me a heads up when you think there might be an issue. Make sure that in the early months you attend services only when I am leading them. That way I can witness and deal with any issues that might arise.”

So We Welcomed Chaverim
“Yes, we would love to welcome you,” I said. “Let me speak to our Board in two weeks, when I know they will openly embrace the idea and your members. We will extend to any of your members full membership at our synagogue. Two High Holy Day tickets per Chaverim member – one for the member, one for his/her driver or guest. We will make you, as Director of Chaverim, a complimentary synagogue member, so that we can give you access to our synagogue afterhours for use during your scheduled programs and classes. We ask only that your members fill out a synagogue membership form so we can get them into our system.”

“They should pay membership dues,” he said. “So that they have a sense of commitment. How much should they need to pay?”

“We won’t care. Whatever you think is appropriate. No more than $50; no less than $10. We only ask that they pay it in one lump sum, to ease the work on our bookkeeper. To make it easier, you collect the forms and information, and pass them onto my assistant, who will oversee the processing of the forms.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to meet them first?” he inquired.

“Listen, we pride ourselves on being a congregation that is open and welcoming. And we have families with developmentally disabled children and relatives. So no, I don’t need to approve them. They are Jews. Let them come home.”

Not a Mitzvah (good deed), but a Mitzvah (religious obligation)
It saddens me when I hear kvelling about how this synagogue or that is especially accessible to people with disabilities. This is no mitzvah (colloquially, a good deed); it is a mitzvah (literally, a religious obligation). It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family. We strive to remove stumbling blocks from before all Jews – including those with disabilities.

As expected, the Board discussion lasted less than five minutes. The motion to welcome Chaverim was a “no-brainer.” Our CFO and his wife volunteered to be the liaisons with the program; our Program Director was tasked with smoothing the process from the staff side. We created a new membership category called ‘Chaverim,’ though we were aware that it would be a few months before anyone would officially sign up.

The next week, we designated a few Friday nights as Shabbatot when they would officially come worship with us. As I had been informed, only a few Chaverim regulars showed up at the first services to check us out and to make sure we were welcoming. Based on guidance from the Chaverim Director, early in the service when we welcome others, I just said, “We welcome our members who are connected to Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, ages 18-88.” We did not ask them to identify themselves at that time; we let them just be Jews at services.

A Service Honoring Exceptional People
We are now close to a year into our relationship. I am told that Chaverim members have attended services regularly and appreciate NOT being singled out. They hang out at the oneg like everyone else; last week I enjoyed watching our president chatting up a few Chaverim members, just like she does ever other non-regular who shows up at services. A few read prayers in our annual Service Honoring Exceptional People (our annual “Special Needs” service); others sang along and just felt like they belonged.

All because of one 20-minute phone call, one email from the Rabbi, five minutes in a board meeting, and a few calls by the Program Director. All in the span of a month.

That, and because we took seriously the Torah teaching, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It should be that easy. Please tell us your story.

And the Next Genocide Will Be In… (Top Ten List)

As this secular year rolls into the next, we will be besieged by Top Ten lists chronicling the year gone by. Top 10 movies. Top 10 Electronic Gadgets. Ten most newsworthy events. Will anyone compile a list of the Top Conflicts Most Likely to Become the Next Genocide?

Though it won’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, Jewish World Watch (JWW) did compile such a list. JWW reviewed and collected material from an array of human rights reports and news sources, creating a genocide risk assessment that did place Congo among the ignominious top ten. The atrocities in Congo just keep escalating; like during Egyptian slavery, the violence and death are almost incomprehensible. Yet according to JWW and the aid agency International Rescue Committee:

  • 5.4 million civilians have been killed by war-related violence, hunger and disease since 1998.
  • Up to 45,000 continue to die each month.
  • Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have reportedly been raped in a systematic campaign to destroy entire communities by using women’s bodies as battlegrounds.
  • 75% of all rapes reported to Doctors Without Borders worldwide occur in the Eastern Congo, considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.
  • 2 million have been internally displaced, often uprooted several times by various warring factions
  • 900,000 civilians have been newly displaced just since January 2009.

Congo is one country where our voices can be heard. We are unwitting participants in this war, implicated by the phones in our pockets and computers on our desks. The armed groups perpetrating the rapes and violence are funded by an estimated $144 million annual trade in tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. These minerals go directly into the components of electronic products that we use every day, from our iPods to our BlackBerrys.

How do we – children and grandchildren of the post-Holocaust generation, descendants of Egyptian slaves – respond to this conflict? Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches “To be Jewish is to care for the world. Torah does not say ‘love thy Jewish neighbor’; it says ‘love thy neighbor’ (Lev. 19:18).” Similarly, Torah does not allow us to stand idly by while our non-Jewish neighbor bleeds, because we are commanded to stand up whenever any neighbor bleeds (Lev. 19:16).

The 21 largest electronic companies are poised to accept a campaign committing them to source their minerals to the mine of origin. Jewish World Watch is part of a coalition of stakeholders influencing and directing the Conflict-Free Minerals designation and the international oversight process. Our community must demand an end to the use of “conflict minerals.”

Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha – Don’t stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. How will you answer your descendents? Take a moment to remember the generations of Israelites who died in service of Pharaoh’s bloody war machine. Then be like Shifrah and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives who refused to stand idly by. Go to JewishWorldWatch to take the Conflict-Free Minerals Pledge. Then leave a comment so I know you signed.

Dressing Kids, Petting Cows and Other Ways We Changed the World Today

Guest Written By Karin Pofsky

As a new member of Congregation or Ami, I was excited to begin participating in the many social action opportunities organized by the congregation. As it happened, two projects fell on the same day. Both were so exciting and worthwhile that my kids and I couldn’t pass them up … even when the first one started on a Sunday at 6:00 am!

We drove in the dark to Kohl’s Department Store in Woodland Hills for the Calabasas synagogue’s Foster Kid Childspree, a morning of chaperoned shopping for children in foster care and needy students from a nearby public school. On the ride over, my kids Samantha and Jacob were talking non-stop about meeting their “new friend” and helping her shop at Kohl’s with a $100 gift card donated by the temple. We were met by a well-organized team and quickly checked in, ate bagels and were matched up with our new friend, 11-year-old Kattia. My 5- and 8-year-olds immediately made friends with Kattia, and were pushing the shopping cart through the store, making suggestions on things she might like. We quickly learned that she loved anything sparkly and purple, which made it easy to help her pick things out. The kids had a great time learning about all the things they had in common, from sparkly things to baseball to math. Our whole family helped out, with my youngest pushing the cart and my oldest adding up our purchases in his head. Once we had everything Kattia wanted and then picked out a gift for her mom and her teacher, we went upstairs and had snack together. The kids realized once again how much they had in common, as they all chose the same healthy snacks.

I was so pleased that being with Kattia was like being with just another friend, who had the same likes and dislikes that we did, who loved math and the color purple. My kids realized that she wasn’t different. Kattia was just a kid, and that was a great way for her to feel and a great lesson for my kids to learn.

From Kohl’s, we drove straight to The Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita, a farm which adopts and heals animals who were abused or neglected. Visiting The Gentle Barn, a social action priority of Congregation Or Ami, as part of Congregation Or Ami’s Jewish values and Social Justice curriculum, the entire Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program of 73 participants gathered to learn about our responsibility to care for animals. We met Ellie, the founder of The Gentle Barn, and heard about how visits by children who had experienced abuse brought healing to both the kids and the animals. My own kids were unable to contain their excitement about getting to hug the cows and pet the sheep. We got pictures of Rabbi Kipnes and a group of children hugging the cows. The experience was unbelievable. Both of my kids, usually afraid of large animals, fell in love with the horses and the cows. We went back for a second turn to both of those areas.

Thanks to the Mishpacha Coordinators Greg Weisman and Joel Abramovitz, we learned how Judaism teaches that we must care for all of the creatures of the earth. We explored how people and animals are not so different, that they often have similar stories and maybe even similar feelings. Interestingly, this was a similar lesson to the one we learned at Childspree earlier in the day.

After hearing her daughter Sarah say, “This is the best Sunday school I’ve ever been too!”, her mom Karen Brownlee said, “Between helping out at Childspree and attending Mishpacha at The Gentle Barn, I was intellectually-challenged, gave back to the community, and was able to spend a meaningful day with my children.”

I was reminded, and my kids began learning today, how even a small gesture, whether it’s shopping with a child who does not normally get that opportunity or hugging a cow which was rescued from abuse, can make a big difference in the world. I want my children to grow up understanding how lucky they are to have what they have and feeling responsible for giving back in some way. If they can do this in a warm and welcoming community, like at Congregation Or Ami, where they feel safe and part of something bigger than themselves, I think they have the best possible chance to grow up to be good, caring, compassionate human beings. If I can accomplish that, then I have not only achieved my own personal goal, but I have helped the world in another small way, by sending two more human beings out there, who will continue to make a difference long into the future.