Rabbi’s Disaster To Do List: 10 Community-Restoring Actions from the SoCal Fires

Southern California’s Woolsey and Hall fires were not the first, and assuredly won’t be the last disasters that synagogues face. But they were ours, coming on the heels of the devastating mass shooting in nearby Thousand Oaks’ Borderline country western dance bar. As the devastation grew, and more than 70% of our congregants evacuated, we quickly became aware of our responsibility as a communal organization to respond to the immediate needs of our community, our congregants, and our evacuated synagogue.

Here’s our Disaster To Do List, based on what we did, and the advice of colleagues who faced them before us. Of course, partnership with other synagogue and community professionals ensure the greatest success in meeting overwhelming needs. Our success in responding correlated directly with our ability to mobilize our staff and HUC-JIR interns (Elana Nemitoff, Meir Bargeron, Tammy Cohen, and Julie Bressler), to quickly set up a working office offsite, and to partner with others (especially Rabbi Ben Goldstein of Temple Aliyah).

10 Community-Restoring Actions from the SoCal Fires

When disaster is on the horizon, download a complete roster (with cell phones, email and kids names). Prepare ahead by putting your data and files safely online (we use Shulcloud). Because of this pre-planning (thanks, Or Ami President, Fred Gruber), we were able to set up a complete office in a remote location the very next morning.

1. Call: Call your congregants ASAP. Multiple times. To accomplish this, engage your own congregants, or invite trusted Facebook and Instagram friends to help call. Choose an offsite professional (thanks, Mike Mason) to organize, and share with them your synagogue contacts. Write a calling script, create a google form to collect info, and invite callers. Make sure to text people before calling them so they know the new call is coming on behalf of Rabbi XX. The collected information helps you triage which congregants most need your personal outreach. The warmth of calls from people all over the country inspires both the caller and recipient.

2. Organize Offers of Help: People will offer help. You won’t even know what you need. In a google doc – shareable and accessible from everywhere – compile a list of those offering help to return to as needs arise. And the needs will keep increasing even though it appears to the outside world that the crisis period has concluded. Don’t be shy about asking days or weeks after the initial offer.

3. Coordinate: Bring together the affected synagogues or religious organizations. Try to meet at a safe location or by conference call to pool resources and discover needs. Set up twice daily calls immediately (we met at 6am and 6pm) and then continue daily or less frequently later. Partner with Jewish Federation which can draw on national experience with disasters and bring other partners like Jewish Family Service and Jewish Free Loan Associations to the table. After discussing larger issues, spend time inviting each leader to check in personally – you will become each other’s support. End with a prayer led by a different participant.

5. Hire a Crisis Manager: Make your first order of business to engage an experienced crisis manager, someone trained to know how to help you lead your community through the crisis (thanks, Chris Joffe of Joffe Emergency Services). You will come to value their expertise with communications (they drafted twice daily emails and phone calls), setting up offsite locations to get synagogues and organizations up and running (every synagogue was able to reconstitute and office and hold services that Shabbat), contacting insurance (never to early to call your insurance carrier), and engaging the professionals to evaluate the safety of your building. Most importantly, an experienced crisis manager will guide you to ask the questions you hadn’t considered.

6. Fundraise: Set up a fundraising link on your own website or gofundme ( – Fire Response Fund). People want to help now so give them an option. Decide what you do not need or want. We decided to not be a distribution center and directed all material donations elsewhere, except for gift cards, tzedakah, and Judaica. Identify specific useful gift cards but clarify that cash gives maximum flexibility. Communal organizations will promise money but it may take them time – sometimes days or weeks – before funds are available to give to individuals. Inform National Jewish organizations of your needs and links so they can publicize (thanks, Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis). We succeeded in helping people within the first 24 hours because of this.

7. Network with Crisis Veterans: Call Rabbinic colleagues who have been through crises for advice. Again and again. (Thanks, Rabbi Stephanie Kramer from the Santa Rosa, CA fires, Rabbi Marci Bloch and Rabbi Melissa Stollman of the Parkland, FL shootings, and Rabbi Oren Hayon of the Houston, TX floods.) Their unique wisdom on all aspects of the communal trauma and response, and the way to endure the longer term change in our rabbinates, was invaluable. Ask them to check back in on you.

8. Open a Meeting Place: If you build it, they will come. Our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout (thanks, de Toledo High School in West Hills) became a meeting place for everyone, including leaders from other synagogues, Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, and volunteer social workers. Initially the childcare held only a few children but as people returned from evacuation and schools were closed it became invaluable. Social workers showed up and approached adults to check in. Volunteers came by ostensibly to help but we quickly realized they needed pastoral counseling and support themselves. Publicize “come on by to give or get a hug.”

9. Communicate, Post, Connect: Become a hopeful presence during a scary time. Use all communication channels – email, social media, robbocalls, and live videos (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) – to spread the message that you are here, you are aware, and you care. Live stream Shabbat services and/or Havdala to offer inspiration and provide an anchor. Email twice daily. Joffe Emergency Services taught us that during a crisis, people need more communication, not less.

10. Face Your Trauma: Don’t underestimate the drain on the leaders’ inner strength. Make yourself an appointment with a therapist or trauma specialist within the first week. We each hit the wall by day 7, if not before. The pressure is overwhelming. The CCAR, our national rabbinic organization provided confidential crisis counseling, as did Jewish Family Service. We also held Zoom conference calls with my Rabbinic Coach (thanks, Diana Ho of Management Arts) to help the Rabbinic staff process and plan a way forward.


Finally, Eat well. Exercise. Face Mental Health and Wellness: Take care of yourself. Regarding your self-care, partner with a trusted friend/partner/spouse, or perhaps hand over the responsibility for it, ensuring your ability to go the distance. Meet regularly by phone or in person with a therapist, because the ripple effects of leading others through trauma are intense. And breathe…

We are not the first synagogue or community to experience a disaster, and assuredly we will not be the last. But we found these aforementioned steps, gleaned from the collective wisdom of others, allowed us quickly to be present and responsive to the needs of our community, to partner with other communal organizations, and provide a beacon of hope in the midst of the flames. It helped let the light and warmth of the synagogue and community envelop a community burned by the fires.

May you be blessed with the fortitude, courage, self-awareness and patience to rise up to the challenges ahead. And we are always here to listen and/or help.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz both serve Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on Rabbi Kipnes’s blog


Watching Adulthood Emerge on Capitol Hill

Back in the day, thirteen-year-old Jewish boys and girls became adults. Their parents were invited to recite the blessing: Baruch shep’tarnu mei-ha-onsho shel zeh – Blessed is the One who has freed us from the responsibility for this child. Parents marked the moment that they were no longer responsible for the (potentially sinful) actions of their adult children.

Today, anyone paying attention knows that the journey into adulthood unfolds for many young people well into their late twenties. In fact, as rabbis of Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we have edited more than our share of Bar/Bar Mitzvah divrei Torah (speeches) away from saying “now I am a man/woman.” We guide students instead to say “today I am taking the first steps on the path to adulthood.”

But when really does adulthood begin?

Adulthood arrives later than when we were kids. When young people take more real responsibility not only for their own lives, but also for those around them, and for their community, country and world, they begin to manifest a level of maturity that evidences approaching adulthood.

Recently, we glimpsed twenty high school students inching closer to adulthood as we chaperoned them to the L’Taken social justice seminar led by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC). And it took our breath away.

With the RAC’s staff, our teens explored current issues before Congress and our country and enjoyed a crash course on how concerned citizens can lobby our leaders.

But L’Taken is more than a kid-friendly version of real-life citizen engagement. L’Taken is the next step in the adultification of our youth.

Invited into the halls of Congress to urge their elected leaders to effectuate Jewish values, these soon-to-be voters take personal responsibility for their future. They choose issues they are most passionate about and research them with seriousness. (Our delegation focused on healthcare, LGBTQ rights, immigration, reproductive rights, and campaign finance, and issues related to Israel.) They reviewed briefing papers and studied relevant Jewish texts. They debated potential positions on pending legislation.

Then as we adults sat back, the teens entered a junk-food-fueled late night of writing their own lobbying speeches and editing them under the mentorship of the talented RAC staff. Witnessing this moment – they take their responsibility very seriously – gave us hope.

Citizen-Lobbyists ascending Capitol Hill

On Monday morning these newly minted citizen-lobbyists boarded the buses to Capitol Hill, dressed in their power suits, carrying folders filled with their speeches. Sure, their youthfulness still required some further guidance: this one needed help tying his tie; that one sought instructions on how to shake hands in a way that projected strength and assertiveness. But they understood – more clearly in our divided country and broken world than at any previous time in their short lives – that as the prophet Joel said in the Bible, “while the old shall dream dreams, the youth shall see visions.” The future was theirs for the taking… and the shaping. They planned to bend the arc toward justice.

Entering the offices of our California senators and representatives, our delegates shook hands, introduced themselves, and got right down to business. These young lobbyists described current legislation by name and number, articulated the Jewish and American values underlying their position on the legislation, personalized the issue with a motivating story from their lives, and respectfully but firmly urged the leaders to uphold their opinions.

We met with the Legislative Directors who we could sense knew – and they knew that the teens knew – that our teens would be voting in just a few years time. So their opinions were taken seriously and their questions addressed forthrightly.

When do young people begin inching to adulthood?

We rabbis (like their parents) remember them as kids, who we alternatively coddled and cajoled through their Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. Some were barely able to gaze over the bimah. Others had wrestled with voices starting to crack or self-identities struggling to emerge. Still, we placed them before family and friends and hoped they would lead in the way we had practiced together. Then, with our hearts swelling, we blessed them before the ark, propelling them forward on a path toward adulthood. We charged them to embrace Torah values to repair the brokenness in our world. But we knew they were still kids in adult-like clothing.

Then in Washington DC, our nation’s Capitol, these same teens moved closer to adulthood by taking charge of their future. They spoke with the confidence their future necessitated, expecting (and kindly demanding) that their values – rachamim(compassion), b’tzelem Elohim (the intrinsic worth of each person) and tzedek (justice for all) – would prevail.

Between snapping pictures for parents back home, we two rabbis smiled knowingly at each other. We were witnessing adulthood starting to emerge. In our nation’s Capitol, our youngsters really took the next step forward.

Our hearts were bursting with pride. And so, for their parents back home who could only experience this through the social media videos and our constant texts, for our Congregation Or Ami community and for ourselves, we whispered the ancient blessing, transformed anew:

Baruch Ata Adonai, shebrachtanu eem ha-brachot shel zeh – Blessed are You, Eternal One, who has blessed us with these blessings. Amen.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz both serve Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on Rabbi Kipnes’s blog