Tag: what rabbis do

Rabbis Are Parents Too! Naming Noam Privately and Publicly

Picture by Michael Kaplan

I have officiated at more than 100 britot (brises) for newborn baby boys and girls (and plenty of older adopted children as well). None made me more nervous than the bris I recently led.

Ask anyone about my anxiousness. My office assistants would laugh as they shared how concerned I was that every synagogue room was clean, dusted, and set up properly. Our cantor would remark that I was doubly attentive about the choices and placement of music. The parents would note the abundance of calls and texts to ensure that every aspect of the ceremony detail was … perfect.

Why all the Nervous Energy and the Extra Detail Work?
Because we were naming Noam Daniel Weisz, son of my partner rabbi, Julia Weisz and her husband David. I was officiating at a ceremony for a colleague with whom I spend inordinate amounts of time visioning, problem-solving and planning. One for whom I have tremendous respect and appreciation. I was honored with great responsibility: balancing the communal need to welcome our “temple baby” with Julia and David’s own needs as parents. Yup, this bris had to be extra special.

Split Personalities: The Bifurcated Existence of Jewish Professionals
Communal leaders – rabbis, cantors, educators, Federation leaders and others – spend vast amounts of time building relationships, creating community, and designing meaningful Jewish moments for others. When our own s’machot (joyous moments) approach, we are pulled in two directions. On the one hand, with the communities in which we work, we want to share our joy, find consolation, or be role models of how to mark both experiences. On the other hand, Jewish professionals have the need and right to have a personal (non-rabbinic) life cycle experience.

Julia and David set a perfect tone of balance when they decided to divide the brit milah ceremony into two parts: the bris (circumcision) which would be held in a separate room for family only, and the naming which would take place in the sanctuary as a public ceremony. Such Solomonic wisdom from so young a couple!

The Bris: Blessings Between Family Members

Picture by Michael Kaplan

The bris was intimate, musical and moving. We were connected midor lador (from generation to generation) and mimedinah lamedinah (across state borders) as Noam’s out-of-state relatives, including Super Nana and Super Zayda (great grandparents), watched the live streaming webcast of the ceremony and as Noam’s Aunt Jo FaceTimed in from Texas, where she was required to participate in the first days of her graduate school nursing program. His three living grandparents schepped nachas (shared the joy) in person with the rest of us.

Mohel (urologist) Dr. Andy Shpall explained the ritual, led the ceremony, and, in 30 quick seconds, circumcised young Noam with calm and professionalism. Cantor Doug Cotler, master musician, played background music and added in appropriate Jewish songs to focus our attention on this transcendent, joyous moment.

Cantor Doug and I caught each other’s eyes, and together recognized the blossoming kedusha (holiness). We wordlessly agreed to extend this portion of the day’s festivities to encircle the sparks of holiness. An extra song added. Then family members each blessed baby Noam with words that completed the sentence, “May you be blessed with…”

Eyes welled up as Mom (Julia) and Dad (David) blessed their baby. Family gathered close together and we pulled Aunt Jo’s iPad picture closer. Touching, hugging, holding each other, they all embraced Birkat Kohanim blessing. Eyes welled up poured out tears, as family celebrated the simcha.

Transition Time: Returning to the Rabbi Role
As family members were ushered downstairs to the sanctuary (where our lay leaders ensured that front row seats awaited them), we gave the Mom and Dad transition time. They spoke with the mohel about care for their circumcised infant. They took moments to hug each other. They held little Noam. Breathe in the blessings; breathe out the pre-bris worries. Breathe in; breathe out. Breathe in; breathe out.

The Naming: Schepping Nachas (Sharing the Joy)
The naming gathered a substantially larger group, mixing Rabbi Julia’s and David’s colleagues, friends, Or Ami congregants and family. Cantor Doug bonded the group by teaching them Nachas, Nachas, his new, original song for celebrating any significant moment of meaning. Paired with Siman Tov uMazel Tov, Nachas, Nachas brought old world yiddishkeit to our decidedly new American Jewish ceremony.

Grandparents shared readings about the significance of a name. Following the tradition – part superstition, part practical – of waiting until the bris to announce the baby’s name, David and Julia shared Noam Daniel’s name and its derivation from his deceased great-grandfather Oscar/Naphtali and his deceased step-grandfather Daniel. The congregation ooo’ed and ahhh’ed as the baby slept and cuddled. Hebrew blessings confirmed his Hebrew name and our prayers for his speedy recovery from the circumcision.

Allowing “Julia, our Rabbi” to Be “Julia, his Mommy”
How do communities care for the caregiver? Just as some adults have difficulty parenting the parent, congregations do not naturally know how to care for their Jewish professionals. Without such tools in their toolbox, it rests upon the shoulders of the leaders – clergy and president/board chair – to set the expectations. So as part of this ceremony, we explained to the assembled that today – and for the weeks (and years) following – Rabbi Julia and David need to be able to be like any other parents. Today especially, we celebrate with them and allow them just to relax into the most sacred of roles – the parents of a child.

Therefore, as part of the naming ceremony, we shared the congregation’s vision for Rabbi Julia’s maternity plan. We reminded the community that for the next three months, while on maternity leave, “Rabbi Julia” becomes “Just Julia.” We who have been so lovingly and tirelessly cared for by our Rabbi Julia, will want to care for her by allowing David and her to focus solely for baby Noam and each other. So as we see her in the mall, out at dinner, up online, we will NOT discuss Temple issues or updates with her. All temple related issues or concerns can be shared with her assistant Nancy Acord or with Rabbi Paul Kipnes. Message delivered, we moved toward conclusion.

Birkat Kohanim: A Benediction for a Baby and Family
Since the blessings of the community are as significant as are those of the clergy, we asked everyone to stand up and form one complete, unbroken chain of hugs or hand-holds, reaching all the way forward to Noam’s grandparents and from them to Noam’s parents, and to him. Quickly the large gathering became even more intimate. The assembled repeated the words of Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction) to Noam.

It was a moment of kedusha (holiness). To purposely misquote our patriarch Jacob, Achen, yeish Adonai bamaqom hazeh vanochi ken yadati – Surely God was in this place, and we all knew it!

Throughout the service, we lovingly treated Rabbi Julia and David as just two parents (not a rabbi and her spouse). We articulated the hope and expectation that she gets to be mommy first for her child, rabbi next. You see, Rabbis and other Jewish professionals (as mommies and daddies) can have rich, deeply meaningful spiritual lives, if we just need to educate our communities, articulate the expectations, and pre-think a process to address issues that might arise.

How does your community work to care for your caretakers and leaders?

Breaking Down Walls of Silence

Our Biblical prophets worried about people who lived on the margins of society. With fiery exhortations, Isaiah, Amos and Micah implored ancient Israelites to take care of those who need help to take care of themselves. They spoke of God’s demand that we break down walls of silence and invite those on the margins into the center.

The orphan became the responsibility of the community, because who else would take care of parentless B’nai Yisrael, children of Israel? The widow, living when society did not legislate many rights for women, became the responsibility of her father, and by extension, the entire patriarchal community. The stranger – either an Israelite from another community or a righteous gentile who threw in his or her lot with the Israelites for times of plenty and scarcity – gained the community’s support just as did any of the B’nai Yisrael.

Were the Prophets Alive Today…

Biblical prophets, were they alive today, might be take note of how far we have come in our pursuit of economic justice – through social policy, legislation and changes in ideology – to help the stranger (the immigrant), the widow (and women in general) and the orphan (children in our midst). These very same prophets would cry out about many remaining injustices, including discrimination (and racism) against immigrants; inadequate care for victims of abuse, incest and rape; and poor conditions in our foster care systems.

I also suspect that were they alive today, these mouthpieces of the Divine would turn their bullhorns to condemn a whole different categories of social injustice. They would shine the light of social critique on communities of caring – like synagogues, churches, mosques, schools, professional organizations and bowling leagues – to observe how they treat people living on the social margins. And everyone, including those who style themselves as being the embodiment of the “Light of God’s People” (as Congregation Or Ami’s name claims), would find the light of Divine judgment illuminating their own actions.

But who are the people who today live on the margins of our society? Who among our Or Ami membership wonder, because of the character of their lives and struggles, whether they are truly accepted into our kehilla kedusha (our holy community)? As it turns out, many people, including people struggling with depression, mental illness, and addiction, and those who are living through the wrenching pain of divorce.

Welcome to the Hidden World of the Rabbi’s Office

Through its doors, protected by national laws guaranteeing the sanctity and privacy of “clergy-congregant privilege,” congregants walk daily to share the secrets of their souls. Assured that they can pour out their hearts without being judged, they acknowledge daily the worry that if people really knew what was happening in their lives, they would be shunned at worst, whispered about at best. Yet day after day, they turn to their rabbi (and their congregation, they hope) for support and acceptance.

Through my doors walk men and women – alone, in couples, or with children – seeking solace and compassion. In my mind’s eye I see faces of wonderful people in turmoil. They seek to exorcize the demons from their souls; they receive instead a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a promise to try to create within our congregation, a community of openness and acceptance. As open and supportive a congregation as we have (our Henaynu Caring Community Committee helps see to that), many still live within walls of silence. Consider a few examples:

Vast Numbers Struggle with Mental Illness

Mental illness touches our children, our parents, and us. Members of our congregation are dealing with clinical depression, with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, with psychological imbalance, with Asperger’s syndrome and autism, with anger management issues, with ADD and ADHD, and with a host of other conditions. Some share their struggles with a few friends; many would be horrified to speak about the reality of their lives with a larger group.

At Or Ami we mention during the Mi Shebayrach the names and conditions of those struggling with physical illnesses. We even speak about those preparing to die. Yet the emotionally draining, physically exhausting reality of mental illness remains shrouded, for the most part, behind a wall of silence. The prophets of old would exhort us to pierce this wall carefully but resolutely.

Addiction and Dependency Touches So Many

Addiction and dependency pulls apart lives and families. While many congregants who struggle with addiction attend services for spiritual support, most also attend 12 Step meetings several times a week to help them walk the path of recovery. The stories of these Or Ami congregants – of their descent to rock-bottom and, in some cases, their ascent to recovery – move me deeply. Into my office have walked so many, nearly ten percent of our congregation, each struggling with challenges ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to gambling, overeating and sexual addictions. And those are only the ones with whom I have had discussions. Experience in other synagogue communities has taught me that even larger numbers of congregants’ families are touched by addiction. Yet, for the most part, our community has failed to recognize that these are congregational issues, demanding congregational openness and rabbinic time and attention.

Moreover, the wall of silence surrounding issues of addiction – demanded in part by the stipulation in the 12 Step program for anonymity (“what is said in this room must remain in this room”) – remains in force even in our congregation. Yet what would happen if we created a community where discussions of addictions could take place alongside discussions about other illnesses?

The Turmoil of Divorce Scares Us into Silence

The pain, anxiety and vitriol that often accompany separation and divorce are overwhelming for those experiencing it. Divorce brings discomfort also to friends and family who care about the couple and their children. Rarely are the problems one-sided. How can our congregation remain a haven of calmness amidst the sea of turmoil? Congregations tend to go silent, either ignoring the situation or declining the responsibility to care for these demoralized individuals. Yet the cry of the prophets awakens within us our social responsibility to offer support, even when it makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

Or Ami is Breaking Down Walls of Silence

I am proud of all that Congregation Or Ami has done through our Henaynu Caring Community Committee to reach out and offer love and support. We have broken down the walls of silence surrounding a multitude of issues – illnesses like Alzheimer’s, cancer and leukemia, the hope of healing and the process of dying. Yet still we inadvertently support a Berlin Wall in terms of our openness to those struggling with mental illness, fighting the scourge of addiction or dealing daily with the bitterly acidic realities of marital separation and divorce.

We have heard the cries of others and have responded. Now we – individually and as a congregation – must also hear the cries of those with problems that cause us great discomfort. These problems are not punishments from the Divine; I suspect they bring tears to God’s eyes, too. Let us hear the call of the prophets, to break down walls, to open up arms, to restore the oneness that our God demands.

As always, my doors and my heart are always open. Please call (email, tweet, Facebook) me if I, or if the congregation, can offer support, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on.

When Rabbis Disagree, Can They Do So Respectfully?

It is easy to condemn the views of others. We Jews particularly need not be afraid or enraged when someone makes theological claims that challenge our views. Unlike extremists in other religious groups, Jews allow for every argument about and with God.

I faced just that situation when a rabbi I did not know called a recent Torah commentary I wrote a “chillul Hashem” (an action that disgraces, harms or shames God).

On March 1st, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles printed God’s Road Rage, my Torah commentary on Ki Tisa. Arguably edgy, with a few lines that I would edit out in the future (“There God goes again, getting pissed off!”), the commentary makes a theological claim that was sure to make traditionalists uncomfortable: that God is not perfect, but learns and grows and changes.

In response, Conservative Rabbi Robert Elias (Knesset Israel of Hollywood) wrote:

Describing the Almighty as a terrible tot, throwing temper tantrums and much worse, is shocking and unworthy for the author and the publisher. If this is the God [Rabbi] Kipnes believes in, why become a rabbi? Why bother to pray? Why stand up for the Torah?

If you were in my shoes, would you dismiss the critique as theological fundamentalism? Or would you want to defend your position?

Here’s what I did:

Upon receiving the comments of Rabbis Elias, whom I did not know, I did what any thinking person should do when confronted by those who seem offended by my comments: I picked up the phone and called. Then I met for coffee with Rabbi Elias.

Rabbi Elias and I spent over an hour, talking, getting to know each other, speaking about our families, our lives and careers. We talked about the ideas, which he found so offensive – mostly the theological claim that God is not perfect – but equally the way I couched the idea within the article. We shared the fact that we both believe deeply in God, and that we love the multifaceted nature of Torah. We agreed to disagree on this God concept.

As I hoped, the conversation became a learning opportunity to bridge the theological gap, explain perspectives, and perhaps build a connection Jew to Jew, rabbi to rabbi. That’s how Jews disagree and yet remain one community.

I thanked Rabbi Elias for agreeing to meet. He said he was surprised to hear from me, and thanked me for picking up the phone to talk about his concerns.

I apologized that my words so offended him. He suggested that I include those words in my response to the Jewish Journal. And so I did.

As I concluded my response to the Jewish Journal:

We encounter [those who disagree with us] with thoughtfulness to discern where there might be truth that we overlooked. I believe in God with all my heart, soul and might. And I humbly apologize to those for whom my words offended their understanding of God.

3 Rabbis in a Minivan

Rabbis Paul Kipnes (Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas), Rick Winer (Temple Beth Israel, Fresno) and Laura Novak Winer (Jewish Educational consultant) drove in minivan for the ride back from the Pacific Area Reform Rabbis (PARR) conference. Rick’s driving, Laura’s navigating and Paul’s typing. 
We all reflected on what we gained from 4 days with 160 rabbis plus spouses/partners. We enjoyed:
Studying with scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed of Israel’s Hartman Institute. We explored applications of Kabbalah’s Zohar text to Jewish healing for individuals, rabbis and congregations. It sounds really esoteric but rabbis get into that stuff. 

Meeting with Israel’s Consul General David Siegel who updated us on the latest behind the scenes news from Israel, including issues of religious pluralism, women’s equality, and the security situation with surrounding countries. 

Dialoguing with new president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, whose presence underlined the importance to the URJ of connecting with West Coast Reform leadership. Rabbi Jacobs spoke eloquently about the far-reaching moves to transform our national organization into a nimble, flexible, responsive and effective movement. 

Organizing Reform Rabbis (and congregations) into Reform CA, a unified Jewish religious voice on issues of concern in California. We energized each other as we recognized that our values should have a voice in the public sphere. 

Kvelling about the continued growth and efficacy of our Movement’s Camp Newman which engages over 1,400 Jewish kids each summer. We reviewed the master plan for the transformation of the physical space to deepen our educational and religious program. 

Sharing collegiality where we could pray, support and laugh with others whose experiences can offer wisdom and guidance as we continually deepen our rabbinates. 

Benefitting from private one-on-one consultations with rabbinic coaches, CCAR Chief Executive Steve Fox, an our URJ District Rabbi, Point of Contact, and Specialists. 

Studying with Hebrew Union College Dean and Professors as well as student, which provided insights ini best practices and new ideas. 

Finally, hiking through Indian Canyon Indian Reservation provided gorgeous vistas, healthy exercize and meaning conversations with close friends. 
Jason Gwasdoff, Lindy Passer, Michelle and me, Laura Novak Winer and Rick Winer 
When rabbis go off to conferences, we welcome the opportunity for reflection and rejuvenation. and we thank our communities for supporting an encouraging our participation. 
See you next year, PARR colleagues. 

How a Rabbi Celebrates Mother’s Day

My mom, my dad and our kids
A card to my wife. A call to my mother. Plans for an early dinner with my wife’s family. And then…
As I drive to a downtown temple to watch our former intern Ilana Mills be ordained rabbi, my thoughts turn again to the congregation. I remember…
Mother’s Day is bittersweet when illness and brokenness touch the family.
This one just learned she has breast cancer. 
That one prepares to care for her husband as he begins chemotherapy. 
Each of them faced Mothers Day with might have been complex emotions as the joy of being a parent was tempered by the challenges brought forth by the vicissitudes of life. As they seek balance between brokenness and wholeness, each resides within my heart; their pain is our community’s pain. This is what it means to be part of a community; this is what it means to be a rabbi. 
So before the ordination ceremony and after, I call. 
This one visits her husband at the convalescent home. 
That one mourns the recent death of her life partner. 

Lots of messages are left; sometimes we actually speak in real time. I say that I was thinking of her, that I thought that this Mother’s Day might be bittersweet, and that I wanted her to know that we at Congregation Or Ami were holding her in our hearts. In those times our conversation is thick with appreciation. 
Dinner is with my wife’s side of the family; bagels and lox and a delicious spread. Halfway through I change into a suit to head over to a reception for our Mishpacha Coordinators Sarah Lauing and Lisa Berney, as they prepare to graduate with Master’s degrees in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education. There I present them with words of thanks from our congregation; I make it a point to pull aside their mothers so we can kvell privately about each daughter’s unique gifts and talents.  
More calls on the way; more people to say henaynu (that we are here with them, for them) during these bittersweet times. This one spends Mothers Day still recovering from surgery. 
That one breathes with relief as her child recovers from surgery. 

Rabbi Shy Zeldin once taught on Mother’s Day that a mother is at her root a woman. The Hebrew word for woman is isha – written aleph-shin-hey. The word isha (aleph-shin-hey) combines the word eish (aleph-shin) or fire with Hashem (hey-shin) meaning the Divine Name. Women, and mothers particularly, he said, weave their passion of nurturing into the holiness of everyday life. To this, we add the teaching of the RiPiK, who explains that the last two letters of woman (shin-hey) combine into Sha!, the universal sound meaning “be quiet, listen, in Hebrew, sheket“. A mother is one who quiets herself to hear the yearnings of her children and family.
A Mom is Divine Passion Focused on the Yearnings of Her Family
Today, around the country, families celebrated their unique personification of motherhood, the woman/women who bore (or adopted), nurtured and raised them.
And it becomes the unique responsibility of a rabbi to reach out religiously, to mark the most difficult days with a call. That’s what it means to be part of a community; this is what it means to be a rabbi on Mother’s Day. 

How a Rabbi Survives 54 B’nai Mitzvah Services a Year

“Rabbi,” the mother asked, “You officiate at so many Bar and Bat Mitzvah services each year. How are you still able to make each one feel special and the most important at the moment?” I smiled at the question, which I am asked at least a dozen times a year.

Motioning her to step closer, I whispered my secret: It’s not about surviving 54 services, but about kvelling for each kid. While meeting with each student for 5-7 sessions, I seek out the unique path she is on, and try – with meaningful Jewish assistance – to ease her journey toward positive Jewish identity and maturation. Said more plainly, Having gotten to know each kid, I schepp nachas (fill up with love and pride) as the child grows up and shines forth on the bimah.

They Grow Up Right Before My Eyes
The parents and grandparents think they alone are going to burst with unique joy and pride, when their kinderlach (children) lead services, chant from Torah and teach us through their d’var Torah (speech). Here’s the truth: There is such joy in watching a young person grow up right before my eyes, shining from the bimah as he/she takes these first steps into Jewish adulthood.

It happens every time – with the confident students and the nervous ones, with those whose voices crack and those who could be in musical theater, with darshanim (speakers) whose divrei Torah (speeches) are simply heartfelt and with darshanim whose divrei Torah I file under “things I wish I wrote.”

Recent Bat Mitzvah Speaks Confidently about Taboo Torah Topics
Rachel Harris, a confident, thoughtful young woman, stood up on our bimah before a sanctuary filled with her relatives and friends. She delivered her d’var Torah on topics which most thirteen year olds wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Speaking on Tazria (Lev. 12:1-8 and 13:1-5), Rachel spoke about ritual purity, childbirth and menstruation. She tackles the intersection of Torah and tradition with women’s bodies and their health.

Rachel writes:

My Torah portion discusses the responsibilities women have once they give birth. In the ancient world, at childbirth, women were considered ritually unclean. Therefore she had to be separated from her family and group for a certain period of time until she became ritually pure again. A woman who gave birth to a boy was separated for 40 days, while one who gave birth to a girl was separated for 80 days. 

Rabbi Kipnes and I discussed why women were separated for double the time after the birth of a girl. We concluded that because baby girls would eventually would undergo the same circumstances as their mother, namely menstruating and giving birth, maybe the women had more time to become ritually pure again.

I do not think that the separation of women is right. Childbirth and menstruation should not be looked down upon or consider “dirty” or “unnatural.” All life reproduces. These body actions are something that all living species go through. The Jewish tradition should have consideration for the difficult biological processes that women go through. Women should receive help to go through the process. Instead, we should help them through childbirth and help them cherish this moment of birthing.

My Torah portion relates to my life because someday I will go through the certain natural biological processes that almost every woman goes through. Through these experiences I will gain more responsibility and will wrestle with the new challenges that come my way. The Torah also teaches that we Jews and the much of the world as a whole have come a long way because now giving birth is not seen as disgusting but as a joyous moment. We celebrate when another human being is brought into the world and when someone is becoming a woman.

In our lives today, unlike during the time of the ancient Israelite people, we believe that everyone is equal. People should not be separated for how they look or what is going on with them. Nothing should cause someone to be secluded from the people they care about; not one’s race, sexuality, religious preference, biological processes, or interests. It is important to teach my understanding about this Torah portion because it is necessary to show how we Jews and how we human beings have changed over time. It is also important because I feel that while some may think that this portion could only be thought of in one way, there are many different valid interpretations. 

I feel that my Torah portion connects to me in that it says that I need to be responsible. Now that I am a Bat Mitzvah, I have new responsibilities and obligations in becoming a woman. I have to take care of my own things and look out for my belongings. I have to be responsible for my own actions, what I do, and what I say.

Quite impressive for a 13 year old young woman. Quite courageous for a teen standing before a crowd of her classmates. 

Moments like these – and I find one at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah with every student – fill me with hope for the Jewish future. Mazel tov to Rachel and her mom Jill, and to our entire Congregation Or Ami community.

Hearing from the Coaches: Most Anxiety-Provoking Moments of the whole High Holy Days

Sometimes the most anxiety-provoking moment of the High Holy Days arrives well ahead of when I actually deliver my sermon. The anxiety bursts forth between the time I send a draft of the sermon off to my respected reviewers and the moment when I receive their suggestions/edits/critique.

A recent article shed light on the value of professional coaches. Top surgeon Atul Gawande wrote Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better? in this week’s The New Yorker magazine.  He explore the question: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? 

I have long been a believer that all professionals, even rabbi – especially rabbis, can benefit from personal coaching. In fact, by the time I arrive on the bimah and begin speaking, I have already subjected myself to the critiques of at least a half dozen people. In fact, their opinions make the difference between an adequate sermon and one which has the potential to inspire and motivate. In a good year, I will have practiced delivering my sermon before a few different colleagues or friends to ensure it is “listen-able”.

In a sense, these reviewers are my sermon-writing coaches. Their help, like the yoga instructor that pushes me, often causes me much discomfort. (But out of comfort, they say, comes wisdom.)  My coaches help me say what I need to say in a way that makes sense and can be heard. They help me cut away the fat (some of which I had originally thought were gems); they push me away from frontal “preaching” toward engaging “storytelling” or “teaching.”

They remind me to envision 5-7 different listeners and to consider ahead of time how they might hear the sermon. Humbling as that exercise often is, it regularly forces me to widen my comments to minimize the number of people who are left behind. I long ago became a firm believer that good writing and good preaching emerges from the collaboration and coaching by thoughtful people.

I make a special point of thanking these people in the first endnote on my final publishable copy of the sermon. For my recent sermon, A Letter to My Sons: On Being a Man, I thanked them thusly:

This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to a series of people whose input, comments and edits enhanced this sermon. Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Los Angeles, CA), Dr. David Rubin (Sherman Oaks, CA), and Rabbi Julia Weisz (of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA) each offered important insights. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz (of Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA) has long been teaching Jewish men how to be “good men”; he opened his treasure trove of resources via www.Dropbox.com. By far the greatest assistance comes from my wife Michelle November (Associate Director of Admissions, New Community Jewish High School, West Hills, CA), who as usual helped me translate good ideas into comprehensible sermons. This sermon also draws upon knowledge gained as a “social sermon.” On Facebook and Twitter, I asked a series of questions, including, “What should I tell my kids about being a man?” and “What should I tell my kids about sex?” More than two dozen responses from congregants, friends and colleagues influenced this sermon.

Yes, this sermon received intense going over by:

  • One colleague who currently teaches Homiletics (sermon writing/preaching) in the Rabbinical School of HUC-JIR;
  • Another colleague is one of the emerging experts on my chosen topic (the American Jewish male);
  • A third colleague is a newly ordained colleague at our synagogue; I believe that through coaching each other, we develop a learning relationship that makes each of us a better rabbi;
  • A psychologist doctor who has long been providing me with insights for sermons and on how to handle pastoral issues when they arise;
  • My wife Michelle who is a master editor, a merciless surgeon of unnecessary or toxic words, and a compassionate yet unforgiving truth-teller.

Over the years I have received coaching help from a Roundtable group of rabbis and social workers, a Spiritual Director, an executive coach, a Hebrew teacher, various yoga instructors, and a series of chevruta partners.

How about you? Where do you receive personal or professional coaching?

Finding Balance Again: 7 Balancing Strategies

As I walked into Trader Joe’s for my weekly shopping, a sadness descended. I realized that I would no longer bump into our congregant as I did most weeks. She had died suddenly last week, leaving a husband and two teens. Funny, we didn’t speak much at Trader Joe’s. Just a “hello” and an inquiry about each other’s spouses and kids. A sweet, caring woman. May her memory be for a blessing.

I wrote last week about how the ping-pong effect – bouncing between the sadness of her death and funeral, and many simchas (joyous moments) – began to overwhelm me. Many readers were fascinated and supportive to learn about When the Responsibilities of the Rabbi Begin to Overwhelm. They wondered aloud how rabbis find balance again. Here are my secrets. (Perhaps you will share yours in a comment…)

Finding Balance Again: 7 Balancing Strategies

Here’s what I did and do when it begins to overwhelm me:

  1. Recognize what I am going through. Sometimes I can name the feelings quickly. Sometimes I need someone from outside my head and heart to point them out. My wife Michelle and my friend Rabbi Ron Stern are the best at quickly identifying and name for me such feelings. I always know that when my wife starts texting me multiple times during the day just to check in, that I must be going through something challenging and/or difficult. Once I can grasp the kinds of feelings and the roots of the challenges, I find it becomes easier to deal with them.  
  2. Exercise. Whenever I used to call my mother Linda Kipnes to unload sadness, frustration or overwhelming feelings, she often suggested that I go for a long walk. As a graduate student and as a young husband and father, I used to laugh off this advice. Today I understand the wisdom: exercising gets me out of my head/heart and allows me to work through the excess energy. Walking, practicing yoga, or running on the treadmill are my favorite forms of exercise.
  3. Meditation. At the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, I learned Jewish meditation. To get out of my head, or more specifically, to be so mindfully aware of how my mind is working that I can let it go for a bit. Focusing on the breath – instead of the stories my mind tells me – allows me to just “be.”  Sometimes in the midst of Shabbat services, while the Cantor is leading the prayers, I will close my eyes, focus on the breath, and just meditate.  
  4. Reading. Nothing transports me more quickly from one place to another than reading a good book. With my iPad and my Kindle (the latter was recently kidnapped by my wife), I always have a few good books to take me away.  Just 15 minutes reading a good book provides me with some relief.
  5. Colleagues to talk with. I have a few colleagues – rabbis, Jewish Family Service social workers, my wife, and the therapist to whom I refer many congregants. Each of them provides me with a wonderful sounding board, off which I can talk through the pressures, stresses and sadness.
  6. Count my blessings. I have gotten into the habit each day of trying to count 3 experiences that brought blessing or goodness into my life. When frustration or sadness threaten to overwhelm, I can step back and recount these blessings. (Sometimes I just turn on the news which reminds me that there are so many people who have such tsuris/problems.) It puts it all into perspective.
  7. Take a break, a mini-Shabbat. Sometimes I just have to turn myself off. Sometimes I just need to step away. Sharing the responsibilities with a compassionate cantor and a newly ordained second rabbi, we each now have the opportunity to take a moment to breath. A walk with my wife. A lazy lunch the next day. A good read. 
So this week, I feel good as new. 
What do you do to regain your balance when sadness, frustration or other feelings threaten to overwhelm you?

When the Responsibilities of Being a Rabbi Begin to Overwhelm

On Monday, I felt the weight of it all begin to seep under my skin. It happens sometimes when the responsibilities of being a rabbi begin to overwhelm. Perhaps that’s just what happens after exhausting weekends like this. Maybe it was the great number of simchas (joyous occasions) to celebrate… Of course it might just have been the sadness of preparing to bury a loving, compassionate 54-year-old woman who left her husband (of 27 years) and two teenagers.

As the weekend began, it promised to be a joyous opportunity to schepp nachas (share the joy) as Congregation Or Ami enjoyed one simcha (joyous moment) after the other. Friday morning I welcomed our two new interns from HUC-JIR who would lead our award-winning Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program in the coming year. Vivacious, creative and energetic, these grad students overflowed with ideas of how to make the learning engaging and multigenerational. That night, the congregation welcomed Shabbat as we gathered Or Ami’s new officers and board under the chuppah (marriage canopy), symbolically bonding them through marriage to God and God’s gift of Torah. Dreaming about new initiatives for the coming year and excited about the weekend’s other simchas, I fell into a deep sleep.

When the phone rang at 6:15am, I knew it could not be good news. He said, “Its Barry. Felicia’s gone.” Uncharacteristically, I responded, “You’re kidding me! What? Say it again.” “Yes, she had a massive seizure. She died this morning. Tell me what should I do?”

Thus began forty eight hours of mental ping-pong: bouncing between multiple celebrations and walking our dear congregant, step by step, through the process of preparing for the funeral and shiva (the 7-day mourning period) afterward.

The Bar Mitzvah boy Zachary Oschin was impressive; he delivered his d’var Torah from notecards while walking around the room. At some point I had to bifurcate my attention as I stepped out to confirm funeral arrangements with the mortuary. Barry and I spoke regularly on the phone that afternoon between the Bar Mitzvah service and my parenting responsibilities. Emails back and forth with Paul and Shirley, our Henaynu Caring Community chairpeople, confirmed that the Or Ami community was prepared and volunteers lined up to step in for any eventuality – to order shiva food, to prepare the house for the 100s of guests, or to lay out the food trays. After driving my kids to their temple youth group event, I confirmed the shiva arrangements.

I made one last call that night to Barry between my two evening obligations – a Havdala service and dinner to celebrate the upcoming ordination of our second Rabbi Julia Weisz, and a party at which I offered a blessing for Julia Fingleson who is off to Kenya to volunteer at a school for disabled African kids.

Sunday morning, Barry confirmed that the shiva meals were coming together and that he would have a list of funeral eulogizers later that day. Answering his questions, I headed into Wilshire Blvd. Temple to celebrate as six former Or Ami interns and faculty were ordained rabbi. There was special joy as I presented for ordination Rebekah Stern and as my dear friend presented his congregant Julia Weisz. Then driving to new Community Jewish High School’s gala at the Ford Theater provided the empty space to call back David, who reported his father had died but had questions about how a Jew mourns Jewishly in an interfaith remarriage situation.

One more call to Barry, before entering the pre-graduation dessert reception honoring our soon to graduate education interns, allowed me to confirm the time to meet and discuss the funeral. It felt bittersweet speaking glowingly about Joel Abramovitz and Greg Weisman, who after devoting so much energy to Mishpacha this past year, are graduating and moving onto new endeavors. Particularly enjoyable were the moments I spent with their parents, kvelling (joyously boasting) about how talented their children are.

By 9pm, I was on the road to Barry’s home (first checking in by phone with David) to listen, to plan, and to begin the process of counseling toward the future. I learned so much about Felicia that night, about her warm heart and devotion to her husband, about the arduous process that ended as they adopted their two wonderful children and how she lived to love them. Barry talked; I listened. He questioned; I counseled. I made a mental note to retask our Henaynu Caring Community from Shiva meal set up to the next week’s carpool coverage and meal delivery. Notes taken, plans confirmed, I headed home, collapsing into my bed well after midnight.

Sometimes I am not fully aware of how the rabbinic ping-pong plays with my mind and emotions. Usually I can keep it compartmentalized. But every so often, it just seeps in. I usually know that is happening because I receive a multitude of text messages from my wife checking in on me (somehow she knows I am struggling, even before I do).

So how does a rabbi keep the overwhelming emotions at bay? How did I deal with the reality that this weekend’s ping-pong was too intense and this weekend’s death cut too close to home? Stay tuned for the next post…

18 Lessons from 18 Years as a Rabbi

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As I celebrate my 18th year since I was ordained Rabbi, I take stock of lessons learned along the way:

  1. Jewish spirituality without social justice can become narcissism.
  2. Social justice without Jewish spirituality might feel good but might not compel future activism.
  3. The role of the rabbi is to passionately comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.   
  4. The role of the rabbi is to quietly point in a direction and then get out of the way. 
  5. A healthy, organic Jewish community is not afraid to experiment.
  6. A healthy, organic Jewish community is not afraid of failure, because failure is inevitable when experimenting and innovating.
  7. People who really feel warmly welcomed when they walk through the doors of the synagogue will be more likely to come back to celebrate and learn.
  8. People who answer the telephones are more important than the person standing up on the bimah; a community feels warm and welcoming when the receptionist and bookkeeper exude that warmth.
  9. Dysfunction comes easily; warm, respectful partnerships between clergy and lay leaders require patience, vulnerability, and openness. 
  10. Judaism has many things to say about every thing; no issue it was or is too controversial, personal, or political to escape the moral lens of Torah and Jewish tradition.
  11. How a rabbi teaches is as important as what a rabbi teaches. Difficult lessons and controversial teachings are more easily heard when alternative perspectives are respected. 
  12. God exists. God loves. God cares.
  13. The lights can be on, but if we close our eyes, we think it is dark. 
  14. Jewish music has the power to touch hearts and souls more deeply than any sermon.
  15. Torah teachings and Jewish music, when combined artfully, have the potential to transform lives and touch eternity.
  16. Fear not social media or technology; like the printing press, telephone, and two stone tablets from the mountaintop, they are merely tools for spreading Torah teachings. 
  17. Israel is at once ancient and modern, historic and mythic, spiritual and bricks-and-mortar. Walking its streets and alleys transforms the soul.
  18. A community that takes care of its rabbi and his family ensures that the rabbi has deep sources of strength and love to care for the community.