There’s So Much I Don’t Know about Women (Rabbis)

I get energized when I discover a key to unlocking the meaning of a significant text that previously had eluded me. Having realized how little I knew, I then cannot stop turning the text over and over in my mind to mine it for new insights. Now when the text is as central and poignant as the experience of women in the rabbinate and the key to understanding might be as simple as asking and listening, the insights are simultaneously painful and explosively poignant.

This week, four esteemed rabbinic colleague’s guided us through a program entitled Creating Cultural Change: Engaging with the Work of the Task Force on the  Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. It was the first of many opportunities to engage with this CCAR Task Force, express thoughts and concerns, and help guide the way forward. (Two webinars for non-attending rabbis to participate are scheduled in the coming months.) 

The session was eye-opening, disconcerting, and hopeful. Speaking about hopes for cultural change, one female colleague said she hoped that in five years she could serve as senior rabbi in a large congregation without having to do it like a man. I responded with my first reaction, that  I hoped that within two years I will understand all that you really mean by that statement. 

Sitting that morning around a table, and reflecting throughout the day with colleagues of all genders, ages, and orientations, I discovered the sad but energizing truth: that for all I hold myself in high esteem for my support of female colleagues, there is just so much abouttheir experience that I just do not understand.

So I did what I usually do when I realize I don’t understand. I asked questions. I listened. I learned:

About how often women rabbis are challenged about their competence and professionalism, leaving them to ponder “what really just happened”

About how regularly women rabbis experience denigration by male rabbis (beyond the harassment and abuse).

About the lengths some women must go to receive maternity leave or pay equity (that has been a mainstay of our congregation since we hired our first woman rabbi).

About the apparent blindness of male rabbis who don’t realize that if women receive equity, then the median compensation level rises, and with it, all our compensation levels.

Most poignantly, though, I discovered that there are so many challenges for women as rabbis that I cannot even begin to comprehend. If I really want to help right these wrongs (and I do), then I am going to have to ask a whole bunch of questions and be willing to listen to the answers.

Because beyond the big name Harvey Weinsteins we encounter in our rabbinates (yes, we do have our own), there are so many subtle (and not so subtle) ways that women rabbis face discrimination, delegitimization, harassment, abuse and more. 

So I declare:

I do not understand. 

I am trying to listen and learn. 

I approach this open heartedly and open mindedly. 

I thank my colleagues who share, make me aware, open up to declare, what I wondered and fear: that even those of us who consider ourselves the “good guys” are most probably blind to realities of your lives. 

And I thank the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate for helping me wake up. So, like with all texts, I keep discovering out that there is so so much I do not understand.  I am energized by the prospect of asking, listening, learning and advocating.

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


Shining a Light into the Darkness

As American life becomes darker for many, as hatred, bigotry, and anger gains an  historic foothold in public discourse and public interactions, we gathered – more than 550 Reform Jewish rabbis – seeking to comprehend this moment in history. At the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Atlanta, we discovered once again that the lessons of the past often offer insight into the present. Perhaps, as the teaching goes, this insight can help point the way for us into the uncertain future.

Thus we listened with rapt attention as one of this generations great prophets, Joseph J. Levin Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, gave us a peek into the background of some of the extremism and hatred that has claimed a place in American life. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the great watchtower of American life, based in Montgomery, Georgia, speaks truth to power, shining a light into the darkness.

Mr. Levin, a nice Jewish boy, told us his back story: about how as the grandchild of immigrants who fled the czar’s ethnic cleansing nationalistic movement, he was a young man who struggled through an American life buffeted by the winds of racial bias and bigotry. It was a time of poisonous hatred when the Ku Klux Klan was active and burning crosses, and when Jews had to have their separate country clubs. Back then  the ideal of purity and separation of the races permeated so much of American southern life; it found the voice among the predecessors of today’s alt-right, white supremacist groups. Back then, “states rights” was the acceptable code word for those who wanted to pursue anti-federal segregationist policies.

Mr. Levin reminded us that bigotry and hate, even the ascendent anti-Semitism of today, that we thought had been relegated to the far edges of American life, grow out of the olden days of his upbringing. He drew lines between the toolkit of the Jim Crow era and the overt bigotry in today’s discourse.

We shook our heads in disbelief as he recounted recent public statements of today’s hate groups, easily located through links on the SPLC’s website, which might have well have come from yesterday’s racist hate groups. We shook our heads in agreement as he urged us to consider that questions about whether this national leader or that might actually be a racist is not the point. Rather he suggested, such discussions serve only hide the deeper, more dangerous problem: that the hatred of today being articulated today, publicly and openly, is eroding the pluralistic, all embracing, open society that Jewish values imagine and which should characterize America life.

The nechemta (the solace and hope) came in the firm of a rousing combines chorale concert of singers from the Temple and the Ebenezer Church, whose integrated singing and music reminded us that when good people reach out and work together, the harmony and melody are sweet, healing and hopeful.

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

Holiday Reform Judaism spirituality Torah

When Torah Becomes “Mine”

That look in their eyes when, for the first time in their lives, Torah is placed in their arms, is precious.

In that moment, they realize that they are cradling the Jewish story. They recognize that what was once at arm’s length, is now quite literally in their arms. They become Moses or Miriam, or Michael or Mandy, standing again at Mt. Sinai, receiving Judaism’s most sacred text.

Each year on Simchat Torah, it happens.

After we unroll the entire Torah scroll around the sanctuary.

After we read the end of Deuteronomy.

After we review the five books of our people, highlighting the most poignant stories and Torah’s most abiding Jewish values.

After we return to the beginning again to read the opening words of Genesis.

Then, the celebration of Torah leads to Kabbalat Torah, the receiving of the gift of Torah: Those priceless moments when someone holds Torah from the first time and finds herself right there in shalshelet hakabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah.

Sometimes it is an older woman whose synagogue back then did not allow girls to become bat mitzvah. Or an Israeli secularist who once saw Torah as the province of only an entrenched Orthodox political establishment. Or a college student coming back to Judaism after dropping out too early. Or poignantly a Holocaust survivor who missed out on receiving Torah before the world darkened around him. Or a Jew by choice choosing to embrace a new people. Or a ger toshav, a non-Jew who has dedicated her life to raising their children in the Jewish faith. Or the multicultural Jew whose skin color once made her feel unwelcome in the synagogue. Or the older gay man who for the longest time thought he was written out of the story.

For each of them, the progression – so delicious – is similar. Always, it reaffirms the power and poignancy of our most sacred Jewish text.

First comes the worry, a split second of terror: Am I holding it right? Will I be the one to drop it? What happens if I drop it?

Then comes a reassuring sense of calm: I’ve got this. I can hold this. I am doing this.

Then the amazement: I have Torah in my arms. I am holding Torah. Me.

Then the dancing: Look at me. Torah and me. Together. As one. I am part of its story. And it’s story is part of me.

Round and round the Torah goes, in and out of the circle of dancers. In and out of the arms of the community. In and out of the lives of its adherents.

Some might come back for Torah study. Some might disappear until next Simchat Torah. But all leave refreshed and renewed, having once again stood at Sinai and received the Torah.

Some love the unrolling of Torah. Others value the return to the beginning. But me? I love those moments when the public becomes the personal and for yet another person Torah becomes “mine.”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Passover Pesach

Seder on the Dining Room Floor

Years ago, unplanned repair work on our house in early spring devastated our kitchen and dining room, ripped up our living room carpet, and threatened to destroy our plans for a comfortable, traditional Passover Seder. Add to it that more than half the guests were under 6 years old and could barely sit still long enough to dip the karpas in the salt water and we quickly realized that our Passover celebration needed to be creatively re-imagined.

We wondered: how were we going to make a Seder experience that taught our multi-generational gathering about the holiday’s central messages? That we journeyed from slavery to freedom, and that we must help others do the same. Sitting around a traditionally set table was just not in the cards.

We discovered that with creative and open minds, a willingness to merge tradition and innovation, and an accessible flexible Haggadah, an engaging Passover Seder can be had.

We threw borrowed gym mats over the living room concrete, placed Seder symbol-laden coffee tables around the room, and let the kids roll around while we told stories, read interesting tidbits from the Haggadah, and experienced the tactile sensations of the rituals. We realized that like for any other meaningful celebration – a birthday party, for example – the key to memorable success was to intermix food, family, songs and stories, ritual and readings in a meaningful way. We discovered that tradition and innovation needed to go hand and hand.

STJCoverWe also realized that our Seder needed a Haggadah that was filled rich and varied readings, colorful interpretations, easily accessible instructions, and enticing visualization from which we could sample. We have become enamored with Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family (written by Alan S. Yoffie, illustrations by Mark Podwal) published by the CCAR Press. This rabbi-approved Haggadah is as accessible and creative as our personally cut-and-pasted booklets of our younger years with a few fantastic differences: Adults and children alike always seem to discover age appropriate material that uplifts and inspires. Teens and college students appreciate its ability to challenge contemporary understandings, while the grandparents like that it has enough traditionalism to recall their Seders of old. We like the fact that we can use it both at one night’s creative and another evening’s more traditional sit down Seder.

Over the years our Seders have changed. Our guests still enjoy the unique touches that invite contemplation: the football on the Seder plate, (suggesting that just as the Angel passed over the Israelites, perhaps we need to ensure that we hit our intended moral target), and history books strewn around the room (sparking a great discussion of whether the Exodus is historical or not and whether that matters). We just schepp nachas (are bursting the pride) that to this day our kids, relatives and friends enjoy these longer and deeper annual opportunities to explore the abiding lessons of Passover.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Paul also co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness.

Convention Reform Judaism

Reform Rabbis Worldwide Renew and Recommit to a Jewish Democratic Pluralistic Israel

Over 300 Reform Rabbis – North American, Israeli, European, Australian, Russian and from elsewhere – gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the CCAR Israel convention. With renewed vigor, we speak in a clear voice, about our commitment to Israel, Judaism, Israeli democracy, Jewish pluralism and peace. Our resolutions expressing love and support for Israel and condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, make it clear that we are ohavei Yisrael (lovers of Israel), Zionist, passionate and pluralistic, realist pursuers of peace.FullSizeRender-6-1-300x151

As Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I arrived in Israel with an expansive mission:  To paraphrase the words of the Ahavah Rabbahprayer, we Reform Rabbis gathered in Israel l’havin ul’haskil, lishmo-a, lilmod ul’lameid, lishmor v’laasot ul’kayeim – to understand and discern, to heed, learn, and teach, and, lovingly, to observe, perform, and fulfill our eternal commitment to this Jewish state.

egalitarian_kotelTogether and in smaller groups, we traveled yamah v’kedmah tzafonah v’negbah (west, east, north and south) to explore, understand and advocate. We prayed together – men and women, in tallit, kipah and for some, with tefillin – at the Kotel’s newly designated Ezrat Yisrael, an egalitarian space. We studied together with some of Israel’s greatest thinkers. We marched in support of a tolerance, embracing the gifts of each religion. We spoke with Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious and secular Israelis. With the disenfranchised and the disillusioned. With people of all political persuasions, who live all over Israel and on both sides of the Green line. With Palestinians whose messages were sharp and unwavering.

Our hearts were filled with Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel), and with Tikvah (hope) for Israel’s vibrant future.

Beyond the listening and learning, we shared clear messages:

We are ohavei Yisrael (lovers of Israel) and our support for Israel is unconditioned and unconditional.

We are Zionists, committed to nurturing a vibrant, Jewish democratic state that lives up to the highest ideals of democracy and social justice.

We are passionate Jews, staking out claim to a pluralistic vision of an Israel where there is more than one way of being Jewish.

We are politically active Jews, prepared to open our mouths, flex out muscles, and commit our money to further the dream of a democratic Jewish pluralistic socially just state for all its citizens.

We are realists, recognizing that a strong secure Israel, while living in a very dangerous neighborhood, can nonetheless work diligently and forthrightly toward helping effectuate the dream of Palestinians for a separate state alongside the Jewish state.

Yes, with undying devotion, we Reform Jews love Israel. We oppose BDS. We support the right of women to pray and practice in a non-coercive Judaism. We oppose the coercive control of the Rabbinate over Jewish life. We discern that Jewish democracy is the way forward. We embrace the humanity of Palestinians and believe in peace.

We return home – until our next trip – passionately rejuvenated in our passion for this beautiful Jewish homeland.

And we pray:

Oseh shalom bimromav hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel, v’imru amen. 

May the One who brings peace to the High Heavens, bring peace to us, to all Israel, to all who dwell on this earth. And let us say… Amen. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Convention Israel

Hebron, a City of Conflicting Narratives and Religious Passions

The Explore Israel track option enticed me immediately: “Hebron, a City of Conflicting Narratives and Religious Passions.”  Because of the complexity of the security situation, it has been a few decades since I last visited this Biblically significant site. So I jumped at the chance to visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah (Cave of Machpelah), the traditional burial site of our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Anticipation and slight anxiousness vied for ascendancy as I contemplated visiting the place where the Bible says Abraham first purchased a piece of land in Eretz Yisrael. Of course seriousness quickly set in as we passed through the Etzion Interchange, a checkpoint where moments before an attempted stabbing took place; which sadly ended with an IDF solider being mistakenly shot and killed in friendly fire.

We were forty Reform Rabbis from North America who chose to explore the complexity and nuance. As the Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which hosted this gathering as part of our Israel Convention, and an oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel, making my 14th trip to Israel), I felt particularly compelled to explore multiple perspectives and to hear – really listen to – some of the complex conflicting narratives which make up people’s connection to the city.12742359_10153307620422051_6095529456574002465_n

We met with two guides: Ishai, spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron, a community which asserts its biblical right to live in this holy historical city, and Nadav, a guide from Shovrim Hashtika (Breaking the Silence), a group of veterans who are exposing the indignities of everyday life under the occupation. Mixing humor and seriousness, they wove their narrative in compelling but measured tones.

This one says Jews are only in 3% of Hebron; Palestinians control the rest. The issue is blown out of proportion.

That one says that 48% of the homes in Hebron are now empty as Palestinians could not live there or sustain life there under the security regime.

That one says the randomness of army control in Hebron over the lives of the Palestinians is untenable and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing anything especially nice or moral.

This one says Hebron is my history and/or my religious inheritance and in either case we are causing minor dislocation on its own and especially compared to what happened to us under Jordanian control and before.

The competing indignities are vivid:

Imagine not being able to walk out your front door, or open your business in its long established location, as some Hebron Palestinians cannot.

Imagine being locked out of parts of a city that is central to your religious/historical past as Hebron Jews are.

Imagine being responsible for creating a separation between two peoples, lowering the friction, as the soldiers are, which leads you to have to “lord” over tens of thousands for the safety of a thousand. 

The bottom lines are parallel and poignant:

This one says this is my country. I love my country and we are here to stay. 

That one says this is my country. I love my country and the occupation cannot continue. 

And these don’t even include the perspectives of Palestinians who live there.

It is easy to form opinions from afar, especially when we listen only to news and perspectives that reinforce our own biases. But in a world of conflicting narratives, we strive to retrain our ears to hear multiple perspectives. Only then can we see the humanity, wrestle with the nuance, and open ourselves to possibilities and hope.

Most everyone agree that the occupation needs to end. Yet how to get from here to there, and where “there” is, is complex. There are no limit to the creative solutions being floated – some enticing, some offensive. Is there a will? The complexity of this situation defies easily identifying the way.

To paraphrase the Talmudic passage, eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim – these and these are the (narratives of people who aspire to understand the will) of the living God. But who knows what God really wants from us?! Clearly though, we leaders necessarily must listen the stories from everyone.

So the day ended. The complexity persists. Our heads are spinning. The status quo remains untenable. And we return home with much to process.

Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami of Calabasas, California.  Paul also serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Note from Paul: Thanks to Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Rye, New York for his insights and collaboration on this post.

CCAR Convention

Why Rabbis Need Rabbinic Conventions

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

I’m just back from the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention, a gathering of 600 Reform Rabbis from all over the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe, South America and elsewhere. Four fabulous days of inspiring worship, thought-provoking speakers, pastoral skill-building sessions, and insightful study of our Jewish texts.

I return home with Evernote (books) filled with ideas and insights for the many roles I live as an American Reform Jewish congregational rabbi. In fact, each day was so packed with large plenary gatherings and small group meetings that my mind was working in overdrive from 7:00 am through 11:00 pm.

One of the most poignant events occurred at a location twenty-minutes away from the Convention Hotel. That night, eleven people gathered at a local restaurant in a private room for dinner.

The dinner took place during intentionally set time for “dinner with friends and colleagues.” Along with other sessions and the plenaries, this dinner allowed us to address one of the most significant reasons we rabbis need to attend rabbinic conventions: to find solace and strength in the company of colleagues.

Over dinner, we laughed, joked, kvetched, kvelled, commiserated and counseled each other. We reflected upon the distinctive role and responsibility of being a rabbi in our contemporary Jewish community.

As we played musical chairs – switching places between courses – we shared triumphs and tribulations. This one sought advice on how to deal with a particularly thorny pastoral problem, while that one teased out new approaches for a difficult issue of organizational governance. These two compared notes on the challenges of youth engagement as those two shared strategies for keeping our own young ones from becoming too encumbered by the challenges of living in the Jewish public eye. These four discussed new ways to think about the congregational rabbinate, while those four debated the perspective on Israel in Avi Shavit’s book, My Promised Land. From the personal to the professional, the macro to the micro, we wove memories of our past through the realities of the present and into the hopes for the future.

I left dinner sated: full of delicious food, helpful advice, meaningful insights and a clear sense that the shared challenges we face are surmountable because we have others to guide and support us.

Why do rabbis need rabbinic conventions?

KipnisWhile being a rabbi is an especially rewarding profession, it can be challenging, exhausting and emotionally depleting. Only in gatherings of rabbinic colleagues can we let our metaphoric hair down – of course, I have none left because I shaved my hair to raise money and awareness to fight pediatric cancer (but that’s another blogpost). In this safe space among people who know and understand can we find sessions and support to rejuvenate ourselves and lift each other up spiritually.

So four days away is both a short time and a lifetime, because in those brief moments away from the 24/7 responsibilities of leading a sacred community of our holy people we regain perspective and gain new perspectives to dive back in and lead and partner anew.

So to my dinner companions – my friends – I say thank you for rejuvenating me.

To our CCAR leadership and the Convention Program Committee, I say Todah Rabbah (thank you so much) for creating moments to find new meaning.

And to my synagogue – Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) – I offer my profound appreciation for making it possible to leave and come back. I and we will benefit greatly from this experience.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. This post was originally published on his blog, Or Am I?


Chanukah: The Miracle of Giving (Tuesday)

We each have moments when we step back and take stock. Opportunities afforded to us because the year has turned one full cycle and we, clay touched by holiness, are allowed a glimpse into the essence of our lives.

A significant birthday.
An anniversary.
A Yahrzeit.

2 years of sobriety.
25 years since ordination.
3 years since I came out to my family.

Each of these moments transcends time, allowing us – like Adam HaKadmon “in the beginning” – to see clearly the past and our present. They invite us to imagine the future.

Our Jewish holy days, set in the Torah or by rabbinic decree, invite a similar accounting. These holy days cycle back annually, calling us to recall who we were and who we are becoming now.

Rosh Hashana, as the New Year begins, invites us to count our blessings.
Yom Kippur calls us to balance the accounting of our ma’asim and averot.
Pesach, a new beginning, invites us to recount the freedom which we once had, then lost, then with God’s help, reclaimed anew.

Each of these holy days turn us inward to the essence of our lives, and then subtly force our gaze and focus outward to the needs and concerns of our people.

Even the unique convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving – Thanksgivukkah? ChanTHANKSukah? Tur-Lat-Key Day? – moves us through the same eternal cycle.

For many, the beauty of the Chanukah-Thanksgiving pairing is that it moves us away from the popular narcissistic “gimme-gimme” culture (gimme presents, gimme food) instead turns our focus outward. We find ourselves being especially thankful for the food, the family surrounding us and the blessings that uplift our lives. If only we could harness those warm fuzzy feelings and transform them into a force for tikkun.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the relatively new venture called #GivingTuesday.

You know about Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two days, designated in American retail culture for conspicuous consumption and for getting deals. Giving Tuesday — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the Tuesday in the middle of Chanukah — is a day when we are invited to give to others to act to create a better brighter world.

I am pleased that the Central Conference of American Rabbis is inviting you to share your blessings – and tzedakah – on #GivingTuesday. The CCAR strengthens and enriches the entire Jewish community and plays a critical leadership role in the Reform Movement through its work by fostering excellence in Reform Rabbis, unifying the Reform Jewish community through the publication of liturgy, providing essential support to rabbis – professionally and personally, and offering important resources to congregations and community organizations. Services to the Reform Rabbinate, in-turn, enhance connectedness among Reform Jews by applying Jewish values to the world in which we live and help create a compelling and accessible Judaism for today and the future.

We will light the lights of Chanukah. We will offer our thanks on Thanksgiving. Let’s transform our warm feelings into real action by supporting an organization which helps us rabbis bring light into the world.

You can make a donation here.

Happy Tur-Lat-key Day!


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

General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

13 Ways a Rabbi Can Help Jews Recovering from Addictions, and their Loved Ones

I have just co-lead a class at HUC-JIR in their Pastoral Counseling Course on addictions and how Rabbis and congregations can be helpful to Jewish addicts, alcoholics and co-dependents. For eighteen years, I have been blessed to work with Jews with addictions.  I have learned so much from people in recovery about spirituality, perseverance, healing and hope, about God and t’shuvah (repentance).

Through self-study of addictions and recovery literature, running retreats for Jews recovering from addictions, study sessions around holy days, mentoring rabbinic interns on how to support Jews in recovery, and from a CCAR-sponsored week of addictions counseling and spiritual care training at Minnesota’s Hazelden Addictions Treatment Center, these 13 guidelines/suggestions for Rabbis became apparent:

  1. Be Comfortable with 12 Steps: 12 Steps and Judaism are fully compatible. The 12-Steps parallel Rambam’s Laws of Repentance and Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona’s Gates of Repentance. One can work the 12 steps as a believing Jew!
  2. Show parallels between 12 Steps Spirituality and Judaism: Jewish D’veikut (clinging to God): Jews CAN turn themselves over to a Higher Power. Some Rabbis question the “Jewishness” of the 12-Steps because of the latter’s call that addicts “turn themselves over to the Higher Power” (e.g., to become a servant to God’s Will).  To some, this seems to clash with Reform Judaism’s historical opposition to blind faith. Yet it is not so! To quote Lawrence Kushner’s Perush on Likkutei Yehudah’s citing of the Sefas Emes, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger:
    • To be a servant is more than being servile; it is carrying out the will of an ‘Other.’ It is being the agent, the instrument through which what is supposed to happen, happens.  A good servant is always aware of the importance of his [her] act, and this gives heightened meaning to his [her] life…  Everything we do, and everything we do it with, and everywhere we do it is filled with the Presence of God.   We are free to choose whether or not we will be aware of it, whether we will be servants.  That is Jewish spirituality.
  3. Help remove the Busha (Shame): Each morning a Jew rises to say, Elohai, neshama sheh-natata bi, t’hora hee! – My God, the soul that you have given me, it is pure!  Judaism, when applied correctly, helps lift the shame connected with being in recovery.  We remind ourselves that though as addicts/codependents we may do, or may have done, terrible things with our bodies and minds, our essence (our neshama, soul) remains pure.  This is true, because how else could we rise each morning after a day filled with terrible acts and still say “Elohai, neshama she-natata bi, t’hora hi!”?
  4. Be Amazed at the Spiritual Power of 12 Steps: People who are in recovery are amazing in their spirituality.  They know that they have to turn it over to a Higher Power to recover. God is not a metaphor; the Higher Power is reality in their life.  They know that their Higher Power is saving them from certain death! Wow! Soak in their belief and spirituality.  Learn from it how to speak to others.
  5. Don’t Try to Fix the Addict: If he is in recovery, chances are he got there without your (or the Jewish community’s) help.  If she is an addict, you cannot make her recover.  Rather, listen, and be non-judgmental.  The 12 Steps teach the three C’s: You didn’t Cause it. You cannot Control it.  You cannot Cure it.  The addict has to do the work.  You can be there to be open, listen and accepting.
  6. Welcome them into (or back into) the Jewish community: Many addicts and their families live with shame (see #3 above). Provide them with Jewish resources, including prayers, and Twersky or Olitzky books (Jewish Lights Publishing).  Invite them to study with you.
  7. Buy the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: Display it prominently over your shoulder. Read it to see how real people find spirituality and God’s help.
  8. Refer to Addiction Recovery and Codependency Help: During Mi Shebeirach d’var refu’ah (words prior to Healing prayer), mention the category of people struggling with addiction and codependency (by category, unless they give specific permission to say their answers) among those for whom you ask for healing.
  9. Open your Synagogue to 12 Step Meetings: Publicize widely, attend if it is an open meeting.
  10. Remember that people in Recovery often “fall off the wagon” multiple times: Be aware of this. Be open to this reality. Don’t be angry when they do; don’t be too hopeful when they are in recovery.  Be non-judgmental.
  11. Know that Addicts lie.
  12. Write a sermon and bulletin article about addiction and recovery every few years.
  13. Read and become familiar with, the website of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.
Do you have other suggestions?  Please share them.

Rabbi Paul Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This post originally appeared on his blog, Or Am I?


Spiritual but Not Religious: How Religion Lets Us Down

141_spiritualnotreligious_wideThe Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, its survey and analysis of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs, has emerged as THE topic of conversation in the Jewish world. Some celebrate the survey; some wring their hands over what it says about us Jewish Americans.

The Union for Reform Judaism released a preliminary analysis for the Reform Movement.

Jewish Religiosity or Lack Thereof

Most fascinating are questions about the religiosity or lack thereof of our Jewish brothers and sister. According to the study, only a slim majority of U.S. Jews say religion is very important (26%) or somewhat important (29%) in their lives. We might surmise that almost half of the Jews do not consider themselves religious.

In a related category, we see that Jews are not significant worship service attenders. Roughly one-third of Jews (35%) say they attend religious services a few times a year, such as for the High Holidays (including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). And four-in-ten say they seldom (19%) or never (22%) attend Jewish religious services.

Similarly, those Jewish practices defined by the study – beyond the popular Passover Seder and, for some, fasting on Yom Kippur – do not attract significant adherents. Only a quarter of Jews (23%) say they always or usually light Sabbath candles, and a similar number say they keep kosher in their home (22%).

Yes, it seems that a vast majority of U.S. Jews consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Just what does this mean?

What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?

I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.

Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore.

Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.

Religion Sometimes Spoils Spirituality

So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.

I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us to separate out our women, to eschew the non-Jew, or to extend our power over others for so-called holy purposes. Of course, when religious leaders – rabbis, teachers, communal leaders – speak such nonsense in God’s name, they further alienate Jews from the religious part of Judaism that could be strengthening their spirituality.

religionAndSpiritualityDiagramWhat do we do?

Rituals find meaning when they point us back to the holy, the spiritual. Rituals are significant when they inspire our spiritual core.

It becomes the responsibility of religion – and religious leaders – then, to return to Judaism’s roots, to rethink/reform/renew Judaism’s ritual components, and to embrace the holy in the midst of the rest.

How do we do that?

Let us know what you think…

Rabbi Paul Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This post originally appeared on his blog, Or Am I?