Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Blessing for Journeys, By Rabbi Sheryl Lewart (z"l)

A blessing by Rabbi Sheryl Lewart (z’’l):


May you be blessed on your journey,
Finding comfort and refuge as you travel.

As you step into the strange
And become a stranger,
May each traveler, wanderer, and seeker you meet
Offer wisdom and empathy.

As you step into the unknown journey of your life,
May you be protected from all harm.

May you learn and grow from encounters
With gentle teachers and sympathetic guides.

May you hold onto the awareness that
You have the courage to walk away from difficult situations.
You will move towards compassion and clarity,
Awareness, and appreciation.

You will find answers and more questions.
May you find what you seek.


Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, Blessings for Life’s Journey: Transformative Meditations and Readings (30-31)
Shared by: Part of my Omer counting learning with The Jewish Mindfulness Network

Sunday, March 29, 2015

College Student Jessa Cameron Reflects Upon AIPAC National Policy Conference

Jessa on left, with Congresswoman Wasserman Shultz
Jessa Cameron, a college student leader at University of Washington, recently attended the AIPAC National Policy Conference. Or Ami proudly included Jessa, and Santa Cruz student Daniel Kipnes, in Congregation Or Ami's delegation of 11. These college students participated with the 3000 college student delegation at this pro-Israel conference. Jessa wrote:

I attended my first AIPAC National Policy Conference in Washington DC. As one of 3,000 students, and 16,000 delegates overall, my first PC was truly a once a lifetime experience. I say first PC because I definitely plan on going back. This year at school, I have gotten involved in Washington Students for Israel at UW, a student organization dedicated to Israel advocacy both on campus and in the Seattle community. 
Going to a conference to not only expand my knowledge about Israel but also advocate on the national level gave me renewed hope in the work I am doing on campus. In addition, as a political science major, the general and breakout sessions taught me so much about both US and Israeli politics. From sessions about the upcoming Israeli elections and public opinion on the two state solution to talks with Congressmen and keynote addresses from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, I learned more about Israel, Iran, and the US than I could have imagined. 
I now feel more confident talking about Israel on campus, more informed about the current situation, and ready to continue my advocacy with AIPAC!
Or Ami's delegation to the 2016 AIPAC National Policy Conference has already grown to 19 confirmed participants. To attend as part of Or Ami's delegation, contact Rabbi Paul Kipnes.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Teens Lisa Friedman, Dawson Litt and Chase Rocker Lobby Congress for People with Disabilities and on Stem Cell Research

Rabbi Julia Weisz brought three teens from Congregation Or Ami to Washington DC for the L'takein Weekend of Learning and Lobbying, at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. After days of learning about the intersection between public policy issues and our Jewish values, our teens went to Capitol Hill to lobby their Congressional leaders. They prepared and delivered these lobbying presentations on Disability Rights and on Stem Cell Research. Article in the Acorn Newspaper.

Disability Rights, by Lisa Friedman and Chase Rocker

Hello my name is Chase Rocker, and I am from Calabasas, CA. Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with us today. We are in Washington with hundreds of other teens from the Reform Jewish Movement to participate in the L’Taken seminar an intensive four day program focused on Jewish values and social justice sponsored by the Religious Action Center which is the legislative office of the Union for Reform Judaism whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews and the Central Conference of American Rabbis whose membership includes over 2000 Reform Rabbis. We would like to discuss the issue of Disability Rights.

Hello once again, my name is Lisa Friedman. From just looking at me, you may not realize that I am disabled. In 5th grade my back started to hurt, so I went to a couple of doctors who told me to do physical therapy. I started doing physical therapy but my pain did not go away. After about half a year of physical therapy, I decided to stop. In 7th grade my back started hurting even more than before. My orthopedist found scoliosis and I started physical therapy to get rid of this condition. After about 6 months of physical therapy, we saw improvement. My physical therapists made my program more intense after seeing this improvement. Everything went downhill from this point on. All of a sudden, my knees started to hurt. I suddenly had issues running and even walking. I soon could not play sports and do things my friends could do. The focus shifted from my back to my knees at that point.

After about 15 doctors appointments, multiple MRS’s, blood tests, x-rays, land and water therapy, and more, no doctor could find any sign of anything wrong with me. I then was recommended to go see a doctor who specializes in biomechanics and had a large grant from USC for lots of High Tech equipment. At the lab, they put many sensors all on my body and videotaped me walking, running, and doing many other exercises. The doctor and his team also tested my hip and leg strength. After the testing was done, the doctor concluded that I have significant strength deficits in my hip extensors and hip abductors. On a basic level of concept, I have 35% hip strength. From looking at the walking analysis done at the lab, we concluded that my physical therapists retaught me how to walk the wrong way, so now I had no strength where strength is really needed.

My life changed that day. I was put into a very intense physical therapy program that was focused on strengthening my hips. In the middle of that process, my back got worse and worse. After many tests and no issues found, a very bright rheumatologist at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles diagnosed me with Fibromyalgia. To this day, I am in pain every second of every day, and I am still doing physical therapy six days a week. This makes it very difficult to function as a normal human being without a disability and also as a normal teenager would. It is sometimes very difficult to do different things than everyone else is doing and have limitations and not have much flexibility.

Hello once again, my name is Chase. If The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or CRPD is ratified by the Senate it would put America in a leadership position globally to help support people with disabilities. An estimated one billion people in this world and 56 million in America live with some form of a disability, like Lisa does. In developing countries, 90% of children who have disabilities do not attend school. In the US, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is nearly twice the national average. The CRPD represents an international effort to bring the world closer to achieving the goals of equality, full participation and independent living and self sufficiency for people with disabilities. The CRPD will also provide benefits here in the US as well. It would make traveling and working abroad much easier for persons with disabilities in America, especially those who do so frequently such as, Veterans with disabilities and military family members with disabilities.

Lisa: My Jewish faith teaches the importance of respecting those living with disabilities. One of the main texts that Jews study is: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind,” from Leviticus chapter 19 verse 14. Stumbling blocks come in many forms, from less-than-accessible buildings, services on the Sabbath, prayer books and web pages to health care that is harder to access or isn’t sufficient for people with disabilities. Helen Keller once said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” The Union for Reform Judaism does as much as possible to help Jews gain this vision. As Jews, we are obligated to remove all of these stumbling blocks. This is why Reform Judaism cares so deeply for the rights of people with disabilities.

Chase: One hundred and fifty one countries have already ratified the CRPD. Regarding this information many people outside the US believe that this topic is important to be ratified.

We would like to thank you for your support and encourage you to vote for the ratification of CRPD.

Stem Cell Research by Dawson Litt

Hello, my name is Dawson Litt, and this is Chase Rocker and Lisa Friedman. We are part of Congregation Or Ami from Calabasas, California. Thank you very much for making time in your schedule for us today. This weekend, Chase, Lisa and I have been staying in Washington with hundreds of other teens from the Reform Jewish Movement to participate in the L’Takein seminar, in an intensive four-day program, focused on Jewish values and social justice. This program is sponsored by the Religious Action Center, which is the legislative office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The Religious Action Center consists of 900 congregations across North America, which ultimately encompasses 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. We would like to discuss several different issues with you today. Chase and Lisa will be sharing information with you on why disability rights in this world are important. My topic is about why Stem Cell Research should be further funded.

I know that you have been a supporter of Stem Cell Research in the past, and I would like to thank you. In my opinion, Stem Cell Research could affect my life, and other American families. Several of my cousins have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The process my cousins go through at every family meal devastates me. I have to sit there acting as if they have a small cold that will eventually go away. But its not like that; after reading the effects stem cells could potentially have on diabetes, I was astounded. I knew this topic could change many families in America.

As a Jew, I believe human beings are charged with doing everything possible to save another person’s life. Our tradition requires this and that we utilize all of our knowledge and abilities in order to heal the sick. (Shulchan Arukh Yore De’ah 336:1).

Stem Cells are a revolutionary piece of science that can potentially develop into any kind of cell, tissue or organ in the body. As of now, Scientists are experimenting with ways to prompt the stem cells into becoming whatever type of cell is needed to fix or replace damaged cells. Many patients who need treatments for different ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and certain types of cancer along with other serious conditions could potentially be cured with Stem Cells. The power Stem Cells will have in today’s medical services would revolutionize treatments and cures, causing millions of people with drastic diseases to again be considered as a normal human being.

Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is vital to advancing this research and ensuring it is used for the public good. President Obama has allowed embryonic stem cell research to proceed by Executive Order, which does not allow for permanent research and funding of Stem Cells. Yet a law passed by Congress can ensure the research can continue over the long term, and as presidents change. With research and money funded for an extensive amount of time on stem cell research, we can potentially revolutionize humankind.

As this act could potentially further evolve science and strengthen human immunity to disease I urge you to co-sponsor H.R. 2433—the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2013. Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Meditation for Spiritual Renewal

From the amazing psalmist Alden Solovy​.

This simple meditation is a reminder that making space for spiritual renewal is vital to a life of love and service.


Make for yourself
A quiet place,
Beyond the noise and chaos,
A place of refuge and retreat
To renew your mind.

Make for yourself
A prayer place,
Beyond the fear and doubt,
A place of comfort and calm
To renew your heart.

Make for yourself
A healing space,
Beyond the shadows and grief,
A place of hope and love
To renew your soul.

Teach me to use my moments and days
As acts of renewal,
Drawing your divine energy
Into my life
So that I may serve You
And Your creation
With the fullness of my being.

© 2015 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Boy Scouts Worship at Or Ami - Why We Welcomed them and How We Respond to Their National Policy

Recently the clergy at Congregation Or Ami responded to a request from a congregant who is a Boy Scout Assistant Scoutmaster, and extended the requested invitation that local scouts be welcomed at a Shabbat service in honor of national Scout Sabbath on February 13.

After consulting with our officers, and various members of the congregation including LGBT congregants, we sent this email to the whole congregation:

Dear Congregant

Recently the clergy at Congregation Or Ami responded to a request from a congregant who is a Boy Scout Assistant Scoutmaster, and extended the requested invitation that local scouts be welcomed at a Shabbat service in honor of national Scout Sabbath on February 13.

We did so because of the good that these students are doing, even in light of a problematic national Boy Scouts of America (BSA) policy. We applaud that the BSA took a first step by lifting its ban on gay youth. However, we are aware and concerned that the Boy Scouts of America has maintained a policy that excludes LGBT scout leaders from its ranks.

As your rabbis and cantor, we want to add our voices to the call for the Boy Scouts of America to end the ban on gay scout leaders. We strongly believe that every individual - youth and adult - is created b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) and we oppose the BSA's discriminatory policy that excludes LGBT scout leaders.

The BSA ban causes real harm to gay youths, adults and their families around the country. LGBT youth, and often the children of LGBT parents as well, face alarming amounts of bullying, harassment, discrimination, and - most distressingly - LGBT youth experience significantly higher rates of suicide. These children and their families must not be denied the opportunities to achieve and the structures of support that the Boy Scouts already provide to so many, and the policy of excluding LGBT individuals from being scout leaders directly creates an atmosphere of discrimination and non-acceptance.

The book of Proverbs tells us, Train up a child in the way the child should go, and even when the child is old, they will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). For many children across America the Boy Scouts has proven an excellent way of sharing such life lessons and building character. Like the Boy Scouts, our Jewish tradition emphasizes the values of personal responsibility, service to the community and a broader commitment to justice. These values apply equally to heterosexual and LGBT individuals. Indeed, how can we teach service to a community when that community excludes our friends, family members and neighbors?

So even as we will welcome these Jewish scouts to our synagogue this year, because they strive to do the kind of repairing the world (Tikkun Olam) work that we value in our Jewish tradition we:

  • Plan to articulate in a welcoming but clear way on Shabbat our rejection of the national policy (BTW, the local adult scout leaders, who do not support that policy, already know what we will say);
  • Wrote to the Boy Scouts of America national leadership, to urge them, in no uncertain terms, to fully lift the BSA's policy of discrimination against LGBT adults; and
  • Reaffirm unequivocally that Congregation Or Ami, and we as clergy, welcome with open arms all Jews and all people - regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

May this continued education help guide the Boy Scouts of America to become the morally straight organization it strives to be.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Cantor Doug Cotler
Rabbi Julia Weisz

Monday, February 09, 2015

Keeping Israeli Families Together... An IRAC Petition

Today, I signed a petition to the Gilad Erdan, Israel's Interior Minister. On the request of our Israel Religious Action Center, I wanted to help send to him a strong message that we should support Israeli families by keeping them together, not by tearing them apart.

Dear Minister Erdan, 
We are supporters of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). We petition you, as Israel's Interior Minister, to grant residency status to Valentina Gofer, so that she and her two Israeli children, David (14) and Michal (8), can continue living together in Israel. 
David and Michal's father Gershon died unexpectedly from a brain tumor in 2007 while waiting for his wife's naturalization process to be finalized. His dying wish was for his wife to raise their children in Israel together. The Interior Ministry has since denied even temporary residency status to Valentina, and has directed her to leave the country. The practical effect of this decision is that, in order to stay with their mother, David and Michal will be forced to leave their homeland and their extended family. 
As you know, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the Interior Ministry must write and implement rules allowing widows with children to seek residency in Israel. 
Children should not be punished by the mere accident of their father’s tragic and untimely death. David and Michal are Israeli citizens. Valentina would have been naturalized as a citizen if her husband had not died. David and Michal deserve to live in this country together with their mother, their grandmother, their half-siblings, and the other family members who love and support them. 
It is in Israel's interest to keep its citizens' families together, not to tear them apart. Please take immediate action to grant residency status to Valentina so that Gershon's dying wish can be granted. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Read the full tragic story yourself. Then, if you are so moved, sign the petition in your own name.

Israel is a gloriously wonderful country. Let's help her stay focused on social justice.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Revealing What Others Want to Hide Away: Special Needs and Judaism

What do we do with the verses in Torah that seem to explicitly exclude people with physical disabilities? Need they be read literally, as an illustration of how we might intentionally marginalize such members of our communities?

Teaching parashat hashavuah (weekly Torah portion) to a group of young people, I stumbled upon Leviticus verses which offended the sensibilities of that generation of youth raised to envision full inclusion of people with disabilities.

We read the curious prohibition in Torah forbade kohanim (Israelite priests) with a moom (blemish) from serving in the priesthood and precluded them from approaching the altar to offer the fire-offerings. Leviticus 21:16-23 enumerated the specific disqualifying blemishes: blindness, injured thigh, sunken nose, hands or feet of unequal length, broken arm or leg, bone deformities, hunchback, cataracts, certain skin diseases and crushed testicle.

The subsequent verses and a related Mishnah sharpened the exclusion: Such kohanim were permitted to carry out only Temple functions not involving actual service at the altar, since “they were not standing before the Eternal.” The Torah forbade a kohen (priest) who had been blemished to approach the veil (Lev. 21:23), and as a result he was forbidden during the Second Temple period not only to enter the Temple but even to step between the altar and the sanctuary (Mishnah Kelim 1:9).

My students were horrified. Weren’t we all considered "a kingdom of priests to Me, a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). How could the Torah, which teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), summarily disqualify certain people who merely had some physical differences?

We explored some of the responses offered by some “traditionalists”: That back in Torah times, physical deformities were considered punishments from God, which sometimes reflected moral sins. That just as the Honor Guard for a king must consist of the most good looking and strong soldiers, so too the kohanim who worked in the Holy Temple had a special immaculate uniform, and physically, would need certain uniformity in appearance. That priestly behavior personified dedication, proficiency, and efficiency and similarly their perfection in physical appearance stood as a quick and constant reminder that in our service to the Holy One, we must aim for perfection as well.

These explanations did not pacify our study group. Soon, the indignant young people exploded with righteous indignation at the Torah teaching. No one could make sense of the words.

I noticed one young person patiently raising his hand. He said this,

Nothing really can make this make sense. It just doesn’t feel right. But I wonder if there is an important lesson in here.

How many societies hide away people with disabilities, secreting them within the walls of their homes or putting them away into institutions? The Torah could have hidden these people behind the curtains in the center of the mishkan (Tabernacle), where the Israelite community could have easily pretended they did not exist.

Rather, Jewish tradition insisted that these leaders remain directly in the line of sight of the entire Israelite community, so that everyone would need to recognize and embrace the reality: that people with physical differences are people just like everyone else. Thus, the kohen was permitted to go everywhere else, into the other parts of the Temple area, and to "eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy" (Lev. 21:22).

I learned a lot that day from this young person.

That when they sat down with the rest of the kohanim to eat, the message of inclusion would be directly in the eyesight of all the people.

That God accepts everyone, including and especially people with physical (or emotional) differences, as part of am kadosh, the holy people.

And that it takes an open mind and a loving heart to see through the righteous indignation to find inclusion at the heart of our community.

Cross Posted on Zehlezeh