High Holy Days

In the Middle of the Night: A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

Can I be honest? In these past months, I have lost more sleep, wrestled with more anxiety, and endured new levels of second-guessing myself, all because the intersection of High Holy Days and the coronavirus pandemic has upended finely honed planning and practices. Where once many of my fellow rabbis and I felt pressure over sermon writing, now, like so many colleagues around the world, we are stressing out over megabytes needed and minutes to cut, and platforms to stream on, and prayers to preserve. And then one late night, this confession came forth. Perhaps it speaks of your truth too:

In the Middle of the Night:
A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

In the middle of the night 
I am feeling the fright
About how to do this right—
My High Holy Days COVID-19 rewrite

Can I be an inspiration?
Will I shine a comforting light?
Will the internet hold up
Providing sufficient megabytes?

Are my kavannot kosher?
Are my stories too trite?
Should we prerecord or livestream
At the temple or offsite

What passions can I convey
From my living room as I sit tight?
What comfort can I bring
Streaming from a distance satellite?

Will I uplift enough souls
To make my community unite?
Will my sermons make them think
Or will they just cause a dogfight?

Can my services really stem
The feared membership flight?
Will my appeal really raise Tzedakah
From each philanthropic socialite?

Did we think it all through
Was our preparation airtight?
Did I fail to strategically plan
Without sufficient foresight?

Will I fall to the virus
The thermometer’s rising Fahrenheit?
Or from something unexpectedly random
Like a West Nile virus mosquito bite?

Have I already ruined Yom Kippur
Like a wayward satellite? 
Will I watch it come crashing down 
Like a fiery meteorite?

Will I later kick myself
With 2020’s hindsight
After I quickly crash and burn-
Oy, I’m getting stage fright

Yes, I’m trying for homeostasis 
To be patient and polite
But my heart’s being attacked
By anxiety’s lymphocyte

So as I ride the rollercoaster
Like a frightened suburbanite
I’m trying to discern the future 
Like a soon-to-be extinct Canaanite

Worrying, when we gather together 
For Rosh Hashanah’s first candlelight
Will my rabbinate already be over
Before I step into the limelight

Like all my clergy friends
I’m trying to breath through the fright
Though the pressure’s overwhelming
For us clerical leading lights

I know our people have the desire 
And a massive spiritual appetite 
So I wonder what else can I bring
During this moment of irreligious blight

What else can I offer
That will make my community delight?
Oy, I’d better calm down
So I don’t seem so uptight

And I’d better get some sleep
Hours after midnight
So I can get up and get working
At the first morning’s light

Just one more thought…
What if… 

My sermons are ready
And the chanting seems right
And the Torah’s all rolled 
And my machzor’s in sight
Will it all be for naught
Even if I get it all right
Because I simply forgot to send
The congregational Zoom invite?

Anxiety, I hate you
But at least you’re my constant friend
I’ll see you every night
Until these High Holy Days end.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

member support News

Canceling In-Person URJ Reform Summer Camp and Programming: An Act of Collective Love

When news broke that the Union for Reform Judaism made the most difficult, scientifically-based, values-based decision not to hold in-person camp this summer, my heart broke. 

Yes, I was proud that like leaders should, URJ and camp leadership consulted widely with medical, government, and Jewish leaders, weighed the changing data and options, waited until a decision needed to be made, and then planned a compassionate roll-out to honor the soon-to-be broken hearts of the campers, staff, and their parents. This incredibly difficult decision was an act of love.

Yes, I was proud that the website offers age-differentiated advice to help parents talk to their children and that we can use as we provide pastoral care for them too. 

But I love camp. It helped form me. Camp Newman is my home away from home, where I rejuvenate every summer. 

Then, as our HUC-JIR pastoral counseling faculty taught me in rabbinic school, I looked around to figure out who else—camp professionals; URJ leadership; our rabbinic, cantorial, and educator colleagues; Jewish leaders, camp friends; and friends whose children were so looking forward to camp this summer—might be suffering, perhaps silently—and may be in need of pastoral care.

To my rabbinic colleagues and Jewish leaders everywhere, before sharing what I wrote, I ask: Would you join me to reach out and offer rachmanut (loving support) to our camp professionals, our URJ leadership, and of course to our camper and camp staff as they suffer through this heartbreak? 

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Camp Professionals and URJ Professionals

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Repeat after me:
I am compassionate.
(I am compassionate.)

I care about them so much.
(I care about them so much.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)

I am heartbroken.
(I am heartbroken.)

I can share my sadness.
(I can share my sadness.)

So I can hold their sadness too.
(So I can hold their sadness too.)

I am a role model.
(I am a role model.)

And I influence others.
(And I influence others.)

So I am teaching us all responsibility.
(So I am teaching us all responsibility.)

I am being strategic.
(I am being strategic.)

I am planning for the future.
(I am planning for the future.)

So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.
(So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.)

Because I am compassionate.
(Yes, I am compassionate.)

And I am heartbroken.
(And I am heartbroken.)

But I am responsible.
(But I am responsible.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)


Finally, to our Camp Professionals and URJ Leadership:

We too are heartbroken. But we are thankful for everything you considered and did to try to avoid this day.

Forgive us if we act out. We, too, are in pain.

But never forget that we appreciate that you were thinking about us and our safety when you and our camping world made one of the hardest decisions your career and all our lives.

Thank you for doing what you did every summer previously: making hard decisions to keep us all safe. You make us proud. And we love you.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Recently, he wrote about conducting a funeral in the time of COVID-19.


Prayer for Rising Waters: Getting Through Covid-19

We, who strive to illuminate for others the blessings that surround us, seek guidance for our ancient teachers. The Torah is replete with heroes forced to adjust and adapt to their new realities. This prayer invokes the Source of Life to guide us to learn from their examples and imbue us with courage, flexibility, and faith. 

Source of our Wonder and Life,
Please guide us with chesed
So that
With planning and love,
And laughter and hope,
We will find a way to cope,
And we will find a way through.

One of Blessing,
Who once blessed our ancestors,
Shine for us
A light forward,
To illumine
The unknown ahead.

Grant us resilience,
Like those who came before us:
And hope amidst the worry,
And promise amidst the fear.


Guide us
Like You guided,
Noah and Naamah,
Partners who planned quickly
for unanticipated days-
Building an ark,
And gathering the animals,
And collecting the seeds
To seed a future unknown.

Help us to hear,
That in spite of our fear,
We must plan together,
Anticipating unsettling weather,
So that our small arks will float above rising waters,
And through raging storms yet to come.


And please hold our children,
Like You held
Isaac the assaulted,
Who struggled to find meaning
After his life was torn apart.

Don’t let this
Childhood trauma
Close up their hearts.
Rather grant us the smarts,
And a love
Deep like Rebekah’s,
To get them through this era
By teaching them a lesson:

That by loving each other,
And by sharing our hearts,
We can overcome
Even the most debilitating
Worry, anxiety, and fear.


And uplift each of us too
Like You uplifted
Sarai the soulful,
Who dug deep amidst her despair,
To discover strength
Hidden within.

Like she who fed the others,
Those three stranger-wanderers
Who arrived from a distance
So far, far away.
May we feed each other,
With manna from our souls,
Shrinking the distance between us
With words we text, tweet, or say.

Send us hope for the future –
Like her child to be born! –
So that we too may laugh,
As we telegraph,
Amidst the greatest of fear
Now sitting with us here,
That amongst all of the oys,
We will still find great joy,
And simchas so deep.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Recently, he wrote about conducting a funeral in the time of COVID-19.

Death News

A First Funeral During the COVID-19 Pandemic: What We Did

To my colleagues and community,

I officiated at the funeral of a wonderful man who, while fighting cancer, was felled by COVID-19. This appears to have been the first COVID-19 death at the cemetery where this funeral was held. Preparing for this funeral was intensely complex as the mortuary/cemetery and I were creating a protocol ex nihilo, as we went along. I fully expect that the cemetery and my personal practices will evolve as we learn more about this disease and as the numbers of dead increase dramatically. I am documenting what we did with colleagues to help you think through how to navigate this challenging situation.

I am a Reform rabbi—married, heterosexual, with children—working in a synagogue. I share this because these realities inform how I engage with tradition/minhag/halachah and how I make my rabbinic decisions. I recognize that the compromises and decisions I made will not speak to some.

What did we do?

  1. We had a burial.
  2. We held a community minyan service over Zoom and the livestream (over 400+ people attended).
  3. Per the family’s wishes, we will hold an in-person memorial service once people can be together. 
  4. I offered to accompany the aveilim to the grave for another ritual, after their tests come back negative.

Who can attend the burial of a deceased who had COVID-19?

We decided that family members who were in his presence, and thus at risk of infection, would not be able to attend until they tested negative. This included his wife, children, parents, and in-laws. (I do not believe I would have officiated if they insisted on attending.) They considered these options:

  1. Holding his body with a shomeir present, testing family members and waiting for results, and then burying later.
  2. Burying with a rabbi with or without other family members.
  3. Cremating, holding cremains until family could gather for burial.
  4. Livestreaming (FaceTime, Google hangouts, etc.) the graveside burial for the family only.
  5. Livestreaming the graveside burial for the community.

Ultimately, the rabbi and a few other family members attended. At the last minute, the wife/children decided to use Facetime to participate.

How We Maintained Safe Distancing

We made it clear to all—mortuary personnel, family attending—that we would maintain a strict policy of six to 10 feet of physical distancing. Sometimes it took repeated reminders to get everyone to stay at a distance; this is expected in a culture of caring through close presence and touch. My agreement with myself, the family, and most importantly, my wife, was that I would be exceedingly machmir (strict) about this.

  1. For this first funeral, my wife attended to be my monitor. While machmir about distancing, there were moments when my desire to comfort had me almost let down my guard. With a gesture and sometimes a loving pull, she reminded me to stay back.
  2. Mortuary personnel were instructed not to approach close to cars or people. A hand up in a “stop” gesture.
  3. Siddurim: I prepared prayer sheets and emailed them to attendees. That way they did not need to accept the siddurim from the personnel. (The cemetery says they wipe them down after each use.)
  4. Family attendees brought their own shovels, borrowed from neighbors, and personally wiped down. (The cemetery says they wipe them down after each use.) Attendees completely covered the casket before leaving.
  5. Family attendees remained at one side of the grave, appropriately spread out, I was at the other.
  6. K’riah: No direct aveilim (mourners) were present. I had the aveilim cut up a black shirt and pin it to their clothes; over FaceTime I led them in the blessing and instructed them to tear.
  7. Washing: I brought a reusable bottle of tap water to wash my hands before leaving.
  8. Kaddish/Minyan: Between the attendees, my wife, myself, Jewish personnel, and the family at home, we had a minyan for Kaddish. In truth, had we not had the Minyan, I would have had them recite Kaddish anyway. 

How Did We Prepare the Body?

The deceased was received from the hospital morgue in a special bag that protects against spread of disease.

  1. I consulted with knowledgeable infectious disease and emergency room doctors about whether a body can transmit disease. They told me that there would not be the spray like from a cough or sneeze, but the body can hold onto disease like an inanimate object. The length of time of infection from a deceased with COVID-19 was as yet unclear. However, they strongly suggested we refrain from touching the body or washing it.
  2. Keeping bag closed: To minimize infection, we decided not to open the body bag (I do not know if the mourners knew this). The brother-in-law of the deceased approved that identification using the hospital tag would be sufficient.
  3. Tahara (preparing/washing the body): With mourners and family members, we decided not to do tahara because, (a) we did not want to endanger those who do the ritual (if medical personnel do not have sufficient personal protection equipment/PPE, surely those doing the ritual would not), (b) we did not want to take PPE away from the lifesaving work of medical personnel, (c) medical advice was that while washing, splatters or droplets might be dangerous.
  4. Tachrichim (dressing the body): The mourners initially wanted him buried with special clothes from home. Deciding that transporting and disinfecting these clothes represented an added risk, we agreed to do a modified tachrichim. The deceased was kept in the sealed bag, and the bagged body was wrapped in linen shrouds. A tallit, provided by the mortuary (purchased by family), was appropriately placed around the shoulder part of the deceased, with tzitzit cut as traditional . The necklace the family wanted him buried in—transferred from the hospital with his other personal items—was laid on the wrapped body in the coffin.

How did we care for the deceased community?

It became very clear that this death affected people in multiple ways and on multiple levels. The needs of the community felt similar to certain tragic deaths in Israel: it involved the whole community in multiple ways (forgive the imperfect comparison). 

  1. Like after most deaths, they lost a dear friend, family member, co-worker;
  2. This was the first deceased they knew of this pandemic. This death made the pandemic more real and personal;
  3. They were horrified though understanding that the aveilim were unable to attend their loved one’s burial (many were worried about this happening to them in the future);
  4. They recognized this is just the first of many, many more deaths to come;
  5. They were struggling with their inability to offer condolences and support in usual ways—with hugs, attending minyanim, sending food, visiting the aveilim, etc.

What we did:

  1. We held a community minyan service over Zoom and the livestream (over 400+ people attended). While called a minyan, we understood this would also be an unofficial community memorial service as well as a moment of group therapy.
  2. Cantor Doug Cotler and I led the minyan.
  3. We invited six people to speak for three minutes only. We interspersed with prayers and songs. We said Kaddish.
  4. I spent time betwixt and between counseling people through the complex emotions. Consulting with congregant-therapists helped me prepare for this.
  5. Also: I took care of myself. Sleeping in, taking time off, prescheduling therapy, and exercise.

Finally, I thank the leadership of the cemetery I worked with and our local clergy colleagues for working diligently to create, revise, and re-revise the protocols for preparation and burial for this evolving pandemic.

 Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Death Healing

I Never Knew

I never knew. 

I never knew what this felt like. 
I really never knew. 

27 years as a rabbi, caring for others and yet,
I never knew. 

After all those sermons about death and dying, about loss and living on, 
I never knew. 

Through the innumerable condolence calls, leading countless shiva minyanim, in fact
I never knew. 

Over years of checking in on others, 
In late night calls and texts 
Just so they would know 
They were not alone, 
That we hadn’t forgotten, Still
I never knew. 

Even after officiating at funeral after funeral after funeral, 
Until the losses piled up so high that 
They became part of the cycle of life 
Yet each one representing a precious moment of memory, a unique life, 
For some reason
I never knew. 

He was old
And yes 
He was ill
And yes 
He was ready
And yet, still

While my loss is no greater, and 
My pain is no sharper, while
My sadness is no deeper
Than those of countless others. 

This sadness, this sorrow
Is like no other
Because although I have counseled many others
Through the valley of the shadow of death, 

Today this death is mine

And I am starting to realize:
The emptiness of loss
The sadness of what isn’t anymore
The foreverness of it all. 

You see
My dad is dead. 
And what is that like? 

I think 
I wish 
I never knew.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.


Rabbi in Crisis: How a Community Conspires to Care

Imagine having to make this decision: to fly home to hold your wife’s hand as she buries her mom on the West Coast or to remain on the East Coast to oversee the diagnosis and care of your mother who just had a major stroke. What would you do?

Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional tumult of having to decide whether to skip my mother-in-law’s funeral to remain at my mother’s bedside. Nothing.

Not five years co-teaching rabbinic pastoral counseling at HUC-JIR. Not 28 years as a rabbi, holding countless congregants hands and broken hearts as they navigated through their own pain. I am the rabbi, a human being regularly called to care for others; but I am also a husband, son, and son-in-law, struggling to figure out how to keep my head above the rising waters.

An Impossible Choice

This impossible choice, at the unfortunate intersection of two painful events, pushed me to my emotional edge. For the first time I was the one needing a community to help me through. Our communal values – henaynu (being there for one another) – were again being put to the test. Was the community really up to the task of caring for the caretaker?

Thank God that our synagogue, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas), had for years been practicing the art of Henaynu. Thank God for the healthy relationships between our lay leadership and clergy that allowed us to see each other as partners and humans. Thank God for the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (CCAR) deep commitment to caring for rabbis and teaching us how to care for each other.

When I, a community leader, was adrift, they all stepped in.

I skipped the funeral. My wife made the decision easy by making it for me. With the enthusiastic though saddened agreement of her father, whose wife died on the same day that my mom had the stroke, my wife and our family decided that I needed to remain in Florida to care for my ailing mother and help direct her treatment. It was the right decision for us.

Yet in my mind’s eye, I kept seeing my wife’s hand, the one I’ve held for almost thirty years, whose every freckle and fine line I have memorized to the touch. There was that hand, at the funeral, hanging there unheld. I imagined her sitting at the funeral, needing the hug that I couldn’t give her. This thought almost destroyed me. 

What got me through?

Even Rabbis Need A Rabbi (Part 1)

To survive, I had to reach out and let go, falling into the arms of my Rabbinic community.

Four rabbis separately conspired to take care of me. This one walked through the hospital doors, wrapped his arms around me, and held me as I cried like a baby. That one held onto my hand as tears ran down my face and gave me the space to talk through the tortuous journey of the last few days. A third one took over our pulpit, no questions asked, thus allowing me to get lost in the incomprehensible. The fourth sent a text, then took my call, and walked me through the painful process of accepting the choice I had no choice but to make.

The first two are former Rabbinic interns of mine, now full grown rabbis themselves. They sensed my need and just showed up. The third pair are my rabbinic and cantorial  partners at the synagogue, who immediately became caregivers and rabbi to my family who haven’t had one beside me for years. The fourth, an older colleague, is a rabbi’s rabbi who instantly became my rabbi, helping me figure it through.

In unspoken partnership, these four rabbis – each a gift from the Divine – along with so many other colleagues who phoned and texted – carried me through this particularly difficult period.

Fortunately I had known enough to reach out by myself. But if I didn’t or couldn’t, the CCAR, my rabbinic organization, was prepared to find me some rabbis to care for me. Rabbi Betsy Torop, the CCAR’s Director of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth, called and offered.

As Rabbi Torop and other CCAR leaders explain, according to a professionally administered self-study of our Conference, we rabbis experience a unique and deep sense of isolation and stress that is compounded during times of crisis. The CCAR is addressing these challenges of being a rabbi during crisis.

Thanks to my colleagues and the CCAR leadership’s continued intentionality and caring, I made it through the first week of crisis. With their help, I shall endure. (Among the greatest investments in rabbinic excellence would be to endow the CCAR’s Department of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth, so that all rabbis will always have a rabbi to help them through.)

Can the Synagogue Care for its Caregiver? (Part 2)

To be a clergyperson is to make oneself available 24/7 to meet the unending pastoral needs of the community. Rabbis show up when people are in need, no matter how it hard affects our own families. We are born to be caretakers. But what happens when we rabbis are the ones in crisis?

From its earliest days, Congregation Or Ami embraced the Jewish value of henaynu(radically being there for each other) and placed it at the center of our community. We believe this fulfills the vision of what God and Torah expects of us: to be a community that cares. Integral to that vision is a commitment to extend that same communal caring to the clergy who cared for us.

We have all heard horror stories of congregations and clergy, locked in battle over finances and failure, roles and responsibility. At Or Ami we focus instead on intentionally building up trust and practicing partnership. Hard as it sometimes is, the rabbis and cantor practice vulnerability, sharing our stresses big and small with our leadership in order to teach them how to help and support us. The community has learned to accept the humanness of their clergy and to intentionally allow us have moments of fragility.

Just as the clergy care for others compassionately, the congregation has long practiced caring for clergy through a variety of challenges: when a family member is struggling, a spouse has the flu, caring for older parents, and multiple periods of parental leave. Along with deep conversations about congregants who are struggling, we talk openly during our board and staff meetings about the rabbis’ struggles, most recently with trauma and burnout following the devastating SoCal fires and a mass shooting not far from the synagogue. We teach that compassion is a muscle that must be exercised.

So when, on the same day, my mother-in-law died in California and my mother had the stroke in Florida, I leaned on our time-tested partnership and made just four calls:

  1. To my clergy partners – a rabbi and cantor, telling them I was wasn’t coming home and I was stepping aside
  2. To our synagogue president sharing the tsuris (problems) so he could inform our leadership and partner with our clergy to envision the way ahead
  3. To our Shabbat dinner coordinator asking her to take over arranging the communal seudat aveilut (shiva meal) and meals for my family
  4. To two communal leader friends, asking them to “be me,” watching over my wife and family since I could not.

They all took over and played their parts. They supervised staff and made decisions. They checked in with me only on the most important issues. They arranged for the funeral to be live-streamed and for graveside to be FaceTimed so I could witness it from afar.

They took care of my family and me, insisting, in the most compassionate way, that I release control. And I did. Mostly.

Then they endured my moments of wanting to micromanage, listening patiently to my concerns, responding with openness, and then holding me metaphorically as they moved me once again to release control.

My partner rabbi and cantor sometimes channeled me – asking WWPD (what would Paul do) – and other times doing whatever they deemed appropriate. I trusted them as they sent explanatory emails to the congregation, sharing with them first about the death of my wife’s family’s matriarch, and later about my mom’s stroke and the reasons why I would be absenting myself from the funeral.

Our synagogue president and Shabbat dinner coordinator ensured that meals were delivered, that the large communal shiva meal was taken care of by the community, and that the staff and clergy understood that volunteers were prepared to do everything and anything to help.

One community leader texted me throughout the funeral service, narrating whatever the video would not pick up, ensuring that I felt the unseeable sense of the room. My rabbinic friend walked my wife into the chapel, holding her up, and he read my eulogy of sadness and loss.

Surviving Crisis and Trauma

We know that most clergy will experience intense crisis, trauma, or burnout a few times in their careers.

Pastor Wayne Cordeiro, in his book Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion, describes how he overcame his struggle with crisis, burnout, and depression by facing it honestly and by engaging his leadership and church. By allowing them to step up, he allowed himself to step away and face his struggles. When they do it compassionately, without stigma or retribution, the healing comes quickly and recovery is possible. Pastor Cordeiro encourages all religious communities and clergy to prepare for these eventualities.

I am proud and appreciative that Congregation Or Ami accepted the challenge and embraced it fully. I am so thankful that my rabbinic colleagues reached out and continue to do so

They all held on. And we survived. My family. My synagogue. And me.

[Note: Once his mother was stabilized, the author returned home for the last few nights of shiva (memorial services). As his wife embraced the true sadness that surrounds her mother’s death, he skipped the CCAR national convention, and headed east again to settle into a few weeks of caretaking. But that’s another story.]

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on


Hero or Imposter? As a Rabbi Struggles with Post-Fire Trauma

Another week passed, and with it, the ups and downs of caring for a community traumatized by the triple devastations: a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the mass shooting in the local Borderline (country western dance) Bar 12 miles away in Thousand Oaks, CA, and a once raging fire – now extinguished – that forced the evacuation of about 80% of our congregation.

Now most people are back in their homes. Now the synagogue is cleaned up (we rededicated the shul on Shabbat Chanukah). Now the news cycle has moved onto the next tragedy. So,

Why do I sometimes still feel drained and despondent?

One Shabbat, in the midst of our Pop Up Teen retreat, I stepped aside with our community social worker, a longtime friend, for a preplanned session to explore the nuances of the continuing trauma. She attended the teen retreat as part of a corps of social workers invited to support the teens. Focusing on Where is the blessing?, the retreat was intentionally designed as both an escape from, and a processing opportunity about, the past weeks of devastation. Unexpectedly yet importantly, most of the social workers found themselves supporting the staff as much as the teens.

We sat under a tree in Simi Valley’s Camp Alonim; she patiently awaited my sharing. I began quietly, controlled, well-aware of my inner stuff. Soon enough, warm tears again were running down my cheeks.

I confessed that I felt like an imposter.

Like we were not doing enough. Although my congregants were for the most part back in their homes, many are not. And I worried about them all.

Our congregants and their neighbors were:

Fighting with insurance companies.
Dealing with the trauma of evacuation.
Dealing with the trauma of the mass shootings.
Worrying about mudslides down the denuded hillsides.
Realizing that although their houses survived, the damage was severe.
Discovering upon return home that the mix of smoke and toxic soot has caused in some homes the walls to dangerously pucker, and elsewhere, piping melted causing internal flooding.
Struggling still to get things back together, even feeling guilty that their homes survived while neighbors’ homes did not.

Even those who made it through ostensibly unscathed were struggling. This child was wearing oversized socks that turn out to be the father’s because everything still needed to be cleaned. That child shed tears as she confessed she felt she looked foolish in these donated clothes. That mom was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls to banks, credit card companies, and the like. This dad was frustrated that the road ahead is so long and arduous.

And I worry about all those I don’t even know about.

In truth, even after the multiple calls the previous week to the whole congregation, I could not assemble a true picture of the needs of my flock. After weeks of trying to be there for them, after partnering to organize the Jewish community, after raising money and gift cards to help them, and trying to be out there as a calming and hopeful presence, I felt unable to get a handle on the situation.

Hero or Imposter?

I said that if one more person called me a hero, I just may lose it. Because I felt less like a hero and more like an imposter,  or like a former star quarterback, standing on the sidelines unable to figure out how to move the team forward.

I confessed how I relished a day last week – finally a blessedly normal day – spent helping a young Bat Mitzvah student see her parasha in a new light, counseling an older woman through challenging life changes, and walking a couple toward the end stages as the cancer ravages his body.

My social worker friend smiled at my statement, understanding how ironic it was that sitting with someone with cancer would feel like a “blessedly normal day.”

She asked me, “What are your expectations for yourself?” I looked at her incredulously and said, “Well, of course, to seek out my congregants and others, to ascertain their needs – immediate and longer term – and to help fulfill them. After all, I have gift cards and volunteers who want to help and I have… myself. My expectations are to do the work we started.”

“And what might be a slightly more realistic expectation?” she asked.
I stuttered, struggling to fully comprehend the question, “M-m-maybe to have others call and triage the needs for us, and then for me to respond to those.”

“And slightly more realistic?”

I just look at her with incredulity. “Lower my expectations of what we need to accomplish? How can I do that? People are in need. In crisis. I am a caregiver. How can I stop?”

She told me about her decades’ long work with rabbis and congregations, about how when people talked about how their rabbis were there for them, it was rarely about the rabbi providing a specific thing. It was not a car payment or new clothes or a new way to solve an insurance problem. There were other organizations, leaders, and professionals who do that, and do it a lot better. People who talked about their rabbis being there for them, she said, most often talked about the comfort and solace the rabbi offers, a spiritual support unique to the rabbinic role and persona. They relished the knowledge that their rabbis were there when they needed them. As a listening ear. With a supportive shoulder. As someone to turn to when they feel lost and alone.

She said, “After all the amazing work you and your team did, being there 24/7 during the crises, maybe it’s okay to slow down and breathe for a bit. Maybe you might entertain a more appropriate (or realistic) expectation: to let people know you are here and available, and to respond to the needs that arise.”

I try to sit with that.

Ratcheting down the level of “being there” is challenging.

It violated my self sense of what the Biblical henini (“here I am”) demands. And yet my body (exhausted), my heart (aching and spent), and my mind (well aware of the dangers of continuing at this pace) all were asking me to agree with her.

Yes, I was (at times) spent. I was (at times) lost amidst the overwhelming needs that keep arising. My inbox was (still is) backed up. My programmatic responsibilities were about to resume. And (at the time of this meeting) we were not even back in our building.

She asked how things were with my family. I confess that my wife and I had an argument, which became something much bigger than the issue deserved. We had to figure out this issue, but in no way did it require the intensity I brought to it. We talked about other family concerns that needed my attention. She reminded me that after weeks of outward focus, it was okay to turn inward for a bit.

Tears rolled down my cheeks some more.

I wanted to be the hero for those who need one.

I am constitutionally wired that way, to help others. But I was worn down.

I talked about the list I carry around in my head – of all the people I should call, text, or check in on.
For them.
For their families.
For the good of the congregation.

That list haunted me.
It weighed me down.
Because I just couldn’t get to them all.

I recall that my colleagues who have faced crises before me shared how they too felt this way, that they just try to keep slogging through.

My friend reminded me of our work years ago teaching pastoral counseling together at the Rabbinic school. When we taught about the need for the rabbi to set boundaries. About the importance of taking time to rejuvenate. About the limits of our effectiveness in the face of burnout.

I smiled knowingly. How ironic! I delivered those lessons to our Rabbinic students many, many times. Could I listen to them now for myself?

She pushed forward, like only a trusted confidant can:

Can I find a way to do something for myself?
Can I get away – for a few hours, for a day – for some fun?
Can I stop for a moment with all the social media?
Can I cease for a moment answering my phone and texts?

I laughed, thinking she was asking me to cease being me.

Yet I know she was right.

That night my wife took me out to a movie about an aging rock star who finds love, nurtures another, yet becomes spent and self-destructive.

I loved the music and the love story. I identified with the sense of exhaustion. My wife worried that the ending might upset me. I was not bothered by it, as I was just glad to have turned off my phone, to enjoy a night out holding my wife’s hand.

The next night my wife took me to Come From Away, a play about the heroic efforts of the Newfoundlanders, who care for 7000+ “plane people” who are forced to land when 9/11 closed US airspace. I identified with the Islanders’ sense of responsibility for others. My heart was warmed by their organizing acumen and their overflowing sense of compassionate action. My heart broke a little as some of the joy was tempered by sadness. I too felt the letdown when the crisis ends and things begin to return to normal (whatever that is). My wife and I both saw ourselves in those Newfoundlanders.

As we walked back to our cars, I remarked at how wonderful it was to smile and laugh. It’s been weeks.

How am I taking care of myself?

  1. I participated in a webinar about caring for teens in times of crisis, more to listen to and learn from the wisdom of the JCC professional from Pittsburgh and our colleague Rabbi Melissa Stollman from Parkland, as to share my own learning.
  2. I met for Spiritual Direction by phone with the CCAR’s Rex Perlmeter to continue to mine these weeks for lessons of transcendent holiness.
  3. I met by Zoom with my Rabbinic Coach Diana Ho who guides my partner rabbi and me toward self-care, and realistic expectations.
  4. I talk in person with my therapist, and my social worker friend.
  5. I regularly consult with rabbinic colleagues (Marci Bloch, Stephanie Kramer, Oren Hayon, David Lyon) who have been through crises ahead of me, who kindly drop everything to listen to and teach me. They probably have little idea how much our conversations have carried me through a particularly difficult moment. Nonetheless I am grateful.
  6. I try to eat well, sleep a lot, walk daily, and attend to the forgotten parts of my life.
  7. And I write. Because writing helps me consolidate and clarify the thoughts and prayers and emotions running unchecked through my brain and heart.

And I will be okay because I am doing what I must to again become okay.

And I bless:

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovim she-g’malani kol tuv.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guide of the universe, Who nurtures within the undeserving goodness, and Who – through these blessedly caring souls – has reminded me of my goodness within.


[Author’s note: I wrote this a few weeks ago to help reflect upon this journey for my own edification and to illuminate the journey for other caretakers who might find themselves on a similar journey. I am consciously pulling back the curtain. I am able to do so because what I share has ceased to be [as] raw, though it is still very real. I am able to write because while reflecting upon this, I am fully engaged in my own healing process and am not using the writing to deflect or skirt the feelings and challenges. I am able to share this now because I know that I am fully functioning, yet sad and at times fragile. This is some of my story. Here’s some from earlier.]

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on


When the Rabbi Feels Trauma: Lessons from the SoCal Fires

We jumped into the fire, but many of us feel fortunate like we have come out relatively unscathed. Or at least that’s how it might appear at first.

I worry that we have forgotten, in the course of escaping these ever spreading flames, that just a short while ago our entire community experienced two other intense events: the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, a country-western bar frequented by college students in Thousand Oaks, CA and the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Our community has faced three major traumatic events coming at us in just a two week period. How do we process these fires, and the flames of hatred, directed at us?

I want to tell you a story, a true story, about trauma. My trauma. I share my personal story with you because I want to help us all, as we all face the fallout from these three traumatic events.

Seeking Advice to Understand How to Respond

Since last Wednesday, after the mass shootings, as the fires began to rage across the Conejo Valley, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I got in touch with our rabbinic colleagues from communities in Santa Rosa, CA which was decimated by fires a year ago, Houston, TX which endured horrible floods, and Parkland, FL which faced a murderous mass shooter in the high school. We called them because we needed to understand what we might expect and what we might do to help heal our community.

Most of us do understand that the process of repair for those who lost houses or were wounded or had loved ones murdered is long and arduous. But Rabbis Stephanie Kramer, Oren Hayon, and Marci Bloch who guided us well also cautioned us that our experience does not end when we return to our homes, find new homes, or when the dead are buried. They taught us that the process of healing would also be long and arduous for all of us. We will need to come to terms with the fact that these fires – and increased mass shootings – are now the new normal. They are going to happen, again and again, and they are going to get worse before they get better. Repair of our broken hearts and broken world takes time.

Recognizing our Trauma

We need to recognize our trauma. My rabbinic colleagues told us that those who survive, those who evacuated, even returned to their houses and saw how close the fires came – sometimes all the way up to backyards – or those who saw their friends’ homes burnt down, also will face trauma. Meaning most of us.

The story that I want to tell you tonight is about my day one week after the fires began. I want to open your eyes to what can happen. I have done advanced pastoral counseling work, studied about the traumatic effects of such experiences, and was warned by all those rabbis who told me what was going to happen to many of you. Well, it happened to me too.

One week after the fires began, I had to take a day off. Because after dealing with these events 24/7 for a week, I hit the wall. I am not sharing this for sympathy or caring: I’m good and with continued support from my team, I will be even stronger.

As the Tears Began to Flow.. And Not Stop

My story began at about six o’clock, when I began crying. I was talking to my kids about what was going on with the fires and our work to be there for our community. Sitting safely in my home, far enough away from the fires to be assuredly safe, I recounted our work organizing the community. And the tears began to flow. Initially I figured I was just exhausted.

But then I woke in the middle of the night and while watching an episode of the TV show Parenthood – about a dad who couldn’t find time for himself, but finally broke away and went surfing – and all of a sudden I found myself bawling again. At four thirty in the morning.

That morning I participated in an early conference call but had to break away numerous times because I kept shedding tears.

Calling my Therapist

My very next call was to my therapist, who I see sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. He opened up an appointment for me at 5:00 pm. I then texted Sally Weber, a social worker and friend from Jewish Family Services, who earlier in the week “kidnapped me” from the relief work to encourage me begin to process. She could talk at two thirty.

Then I contacted the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to get in touch with Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the CCAR’s crisis counselor, who said he would call me back in twenty minutes.

Rex and I talked for an hour. Sally and I spoke for an hour. My therapist and I spent an hour together. And you know what I discovered in those three hours of therapy? That although I thought I was not directly touched by any of this, I actually was traumatized by all that has happened. It was partly exhaustion, but not just that.

Shaken Up by the Shootings

What I discovered was the intense effect on me, especially of these double shootings. I was experiencing the shootings as deeply personal attacks. First they came after us at a synagogue (I’m Jewish. I work in a synagogue. It could easily have been my synagogue.). And then, over at the Borderline Bar, that country western dance bar, one of our young people, 23 year old dear to me, had been in there dancing and ran for his life. I’m glad that he is physically unharmed. Yet, just five days earlier I had been sitting with him, commiserating over the synagogue shooting and all those shootings at churches, schools, concerts, malls, and elsewhere. I cautioned him that as terrible as it is, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I assured him though that the chances of his getting shot at is about as likely as his stepping off the curb and getting hit by a bus (I buried someone from that only once, very early in my rabbinate). Then just five days later, that young man was in the Borderline Bar shooting.

In those counseling sessions, I realized that I didn’t know how to keep my kids safe, or my congregant kids safe, or my congregation safe, or the school safe. I discovered that was frustrated and so sad. I realized that I couldn’t sit back anymore.

Survivor’s Guilt

And then I realized that I had a form of survivor’s guilt. I was feeling guilty that we were here in this gorgeous part of the country and while many were evacuated, most escaped with only smoke damage to their homes. Yes, in fact, the fires raged all the way up to peoples’ homes, workplaces, and backyards, but I and most of our congregants were safe.

As we dug deeper, the counselors helped me discover the intensity of the repetitious nature of these fires. What now was happening to people I love had happened in nearby Ventura, CA a year ago, and to a lesser degree, we faced fires two years ago in Calabasas. In fact back then, I rescued our two Torah scrolls from the approaching fires, carrying them across the freeway bridge to safety. Since then we post in the synagogue lists of items to take if we are evacuated.

Personal Sense of Loss

Amidst my tears, I also remembered that of the three Jewish camps destroyed, I had personal connections to each. I had been a director of Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp for four years. It was so long ago, I forget about it. And most of our temple teens go to Camp JCA Shalom for NFTY retreats. These camps are their home away from home. They were part of my life.

Then I realized that just one year ago, our Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where our family spent every summer for twenty years, had burned down. My therapy team helped me realize that I had trauma on top of trauma, compounded trauma.

And then I became aware of the self-growth I needed to undertake: that if I really wanted to do something to stop these annual fires from happening, and if I want to do something to stop these constant shootings, we all have to stand up. And I had to become a leader in a different way than I had been before. That’s is intense and a little bit scary too.

If it Could Happen to Me, It Could Happen to You Too

Finally, I learned that if I can become overwhelmed and traumatized by this, then, they tell me, it can happen to you too. Remember, I am trained to handle this and I train interns every year about just these types of situations. If it could happen to me, it can happen to you.

So even when you go back to your house and at first all seems fine, take your pulse. If you can’t sleep as well as you used to (or as well as you used to not sleep), or if you can’t relax, or if your child’s grades start to change, or if you witness significant behavioral changes in the kids or the adults or yourself, or if something else seems off, please call Rabbi Julia, call Cantor Doug, call me, or call the Jewish Federation crisis hotline, or call Jewish Family Services, or call a therapist, or call a friend. Because you too might be dealing with intense trauma or PTSD.

I was lucky; because of my training I quickly could tell that something was wrong. And I quickly reached out for help. But I’m not over it.

To remain in track, I have given control over my eating over to my wife Michelle; I said I would eat whatever she tell me to eat. I would go to sleep whenever she told me to go to bed. I have arranged with trusted friends who know me well to check in regularly.

And I have additional counseling appointments scheduled.

I’m Going to Be Okay… Are You?

So I’m okay, because I did and am doing the therapy work. But many of us may have to do it too. It’s not over when we are back in our homes. The fires are not over. These insidious shootings are not over. We are going to have to deal with the trauma from them and come to terms with the new normal. Because this new normal is insidious and can easily overwhelm.

Each week we light Shabbat candles, and we take the same element, the fire that destroyed, and use it to create light and hope, for today and for the future. We are going to light Shabbat candles to bring in Shabbat light so that we can do what we did this whole horrible week since the shooting happened and the fires started: Kindle more light, not of destruction, but of love, hope, and healing. Amen.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on



As the fires still raged, I took a break to marry Lindsey Cooper and Laura Berman down on the Santa Monica beach (leaving our Fire Response Efforts in the able hands of my partner, Rabbi Julia Atlas Weisz, and her amazing team).

Under the beautiful setting sun, with the Santa Monica Pier roller coaster lit up nearby (reminding us that life by definition is a roller coaster of ups, downs, and spinnings round and round), the two brides, made beautiful by the LOVE that burns within them, celebrated joyously in their relocated ceremony (originally planned for Malibu but moved 24 hours before). Looking at their love-drunk faces as she broke the glass–a reminder of the destruction our people endured–I was inspired by these lessons:

  1. That love will triumph over hate (and may this love motivate us to stop the cynical turning back the clock now underway on marriage equality and LGBTQ2 rights)
  2. That with LOVE, we can endure the most disappointing destruction (of our homes, our sense of safety, the loss of life, and the intentional, purposeful, and insensitive comments of the one who should be Healer in Chief)
  3. That a LOVING community transcends distance (thanks to all who helped call and check up on our congregants). May we continue to turn that LOVING energy toward reaching out and helping all affected by the fires and shootings, regardless of where they live, how much they make, their skin color, national origin, religion, etc.
  4. That an embrace of LOVE, like that of de Toledo High School, helps us endure the loss of homes, the evacuation of sister congregations, the burning of buildings (at camp JCA Shalom Camp, Hess Kramer, Ilan Ramon Day School, and elsewhere), and the burning loss of our sense of security
  5. That LOVE burning brightly can motivate us to face down and ultimately stop hate-honed shootings, like those at the country western dance bar, Badlands, the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, at Kroger’s in Kentucky (because the shooter couldn’t get into the predominantly black Church), and at the churches and concerts and schools and malls and <insert latest location of mass shooting here>. LOVE can triumph over this kind of violence-producing hate, even if it has been honed by those in power.

So Mazel Tov, Laura and Lindsey:

May your passion for each other burn brightly for 120 years, inspiring us to reach out with LOVE to the evacuated, the shot-at, and the downtrodden, dispossessed, unloved, and everyone else, who like you and me are deserving of living with LOVE in safety and hope.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on


A Poem about Then(?)

Comparisons between the Holocaust and contemporary issues are difficult to assess.

We maintain that the Shoah was unique in its purpose, scope, and cynical systematic organization. We argue that to label each injustice as a forerunner to a new genocidal move by evil people cheapens the memory of the 6 million and fails to recognize that complexity and nuance through which evil enters our world.

Yet we also maintain that the sacred pledge of “Never again” maintains its meaning only if we are willing to assess each act of injustice to determine whether it might be part of a systematic, strategic move against another group of people. We easily remember the end result of the Holocaust – the murder of 6 million Jews and another 5 million other people. But we want to remember also that the Holocaust did not arise ex nihilo (out of nothingness). It was a slow piling on of one injustice after another, one act after another to dehumanize the victims and desensitize the rest of the population.

A Poem about Then(?)
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

They say it started slowly
One injustice at a time
They desensitized us quite deliberately
‘Til we became partners in their crime

They preyed upon our prejudice
Against those “outsiders” in our land
Whom they depicted as foreign parasites
In a conniving sleights of hand

They moved from the rapists and the criminals
To judges, the rule of law, and the independent press
Hammering upon our dissatisfaction
Until we also were ready to disposses

We ignored the times they slandered us
Because they flattered with such skill
We forgave the times they marginalized us
Because our brethren were part of it, still

We forgot that we were once like them
Hated immigrants, blackballed outsiders
We forget how much we suffered then
Because we’re now comfortable insiders

Are we discounting the values we professed,
Those messages we should amplify?
Take care of the children, they’re our future
Love the stranger, Don’t stand idly by

When we declared “Never again would we let it happen”
Was that just the killing or the xenophobic mindset too?
Was it the systematic undermining of morality?
Or just that they came for me… the Jew?

They say it started slowly
That the killing came much later
After the soil of our souls had been fertilized
By a master manipulator

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.