So That’s What Rabbis Do: A Rabbinic Student Reflects on a Synagogue’s Fire Response

I dialed the phone number, not knowing exactly what I would say. They answered and I started talking: “Hello, my name is Elana Nemitoff, and I am one of the rabbinic interns at Congregation Or Ami. I am calling to see how you doing.”

I could guess how she was doing, given that she had just lost her house to the fires raging through Southern California. She probably was in something akin to shock, anger, frustration, confusion, denial, or some combination of these stages of grief. Still, I sat on my end of the phone and just listened.

After all, I was on a mission: I had to help convince this congregant to accept tzedakah, a gift of help from her synagogue and the rabbis who care about them. By the end of the conversation, she had opened up to the community’s chesed (kindness) and ahavah (love) and I had made sure an electronic Target gift card was on the way to her email inbox. After five more of these conversations, my own heart hurt and simultaneously felt very full. Having spoken to five individuals in varying stages of grief, I realized I was actively providing rabbinic pastoral care as I interacted with each of them.

Creating a Kids Camp and Adult Hangout

My week began as any other. I was preparing to teach religious school classes, plan retreat programs, and help mentor our teens through mental health and wellness exercises. By week’s end, I had spent many days in a row, morning to night, answering the call from Congregation Or Ami’s rabbis to help craft a compassionate, effective response to the fires raging through our part of Southern California. As the world seemed to be falling apart for so many in our community, and as the synagogue building itself was threatened with destruction, we pushed forward.

It began with a quiet comment. “There is a voluntary evacuation nearby,” I heard one parent tell another. Knowing the fires were less than twenty miles away, Rabbi Paul Kipnes conferred with Rabbi Julia Weisz and me. They decided, to evacuate both of the Torah scrolls from the building, as well as the computer server and other valuables. As their rabbinic intern, I watched, listened, and tried to offer another set of eyes and ears to ensure we had thought of everything. I asked questions, noticing what was occurring and wondering aloud to the rabbis: Had the tutoring students for later that night been called? What was our plan for tomorrow: did we have a place to set up a temporary office and a way to reach out to community members affected by these fires?

Once the synagogue was evacuated, instead of returning to my Los Angeles apartment, I spent the evening (and eventually the night) at the home of Rabbi Julia Weisz. It occurred to me: What about all these young people who won’t have a place to go because of school closures? Maybe we should set up a kids camp for them? Rabbi Kipnes began working his contacts to gain space at de Toledo High School in West Hills, while Rabbi Weisz and I began visioning what would become our community Kids Camp and Adult Hangout. Once we were clear on our mission, I spent the night planning, finding volunteers to staff the camp, making lists of supplies, and partnering with these amazing mentors.

Consulting with Colleagues

Over the next days, as the fires raged through our congregation’s backyard, I found myself growing into the rabbi and Jewish educator I hoped to become. Three years ago, I would have jumped immediately into action. Due to my training in the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I slowed down and assessed the situation. I asked questions based on what I noticed. I became more aware of my surroundings and the needs of those around me. I stepped into my role as a soon-to-be rabbi and Jewish educator, fully embodied.

We consulted with rabbis and educators from synagogues which experienced major disasters – fires in Santa Rosa, CA, floods in Houston, TX, and the mass shooting in Parkland, FL – to gain insights into what we might do and what we might expect. But to be honest, often we were making it up as the hours rushed by, combining gut instinct with necessary triaging of needs. I was amazed at the stamina of Rabbis Weisz and Kipnes, and learned how to value other staff members by their open embrace of my questions, suggestions and assistance.

Connecting with Federation Leaders

One afternoon, Rabbi Kipnes called me over and said: “Please walk these two leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles through our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout. Show them what we are doing.” Easy, I thought: just show them around. But as we walked and began to talk, I started to narrate our tour. I pointed out the snacks we had out and shared the process of finding volunteers to provide them. In the gym I narrated the experience of the kids: where they were from, who was supervising them, and where all the different toys had come from. Returning to de Toledo High School’s lobby, our guests turned to me and promised that they would gather as many resources as possible so that we could continue our camp. They assured me that they would ensure that those people received the best resources for their needs. I took a deep breath; we were changing lives by responding quickly. I was changing lives.

The “to do” list for our makeshift office kept growing exponentially. I asked Rabbi Weisz what I could do to take something off of her plate. “Kesher (Wednesday religious school) and Menschify (Sunday family program) need to be solidified,” she responded. It became clear to me that she was not inviting collaboration or consultation; rather Rabbi Weisz was trusting me to handle it. Since our synagogue was in the fire zone, we had to create pop up programs in donated space at the High School. With another intern, I went right to work, determining what staff were needed and how the programs were going to work. We developed the framework and organized volunteers to collect or purchase supplies. Given the intensely emotional nature of these gatherings in the midst of the fire evacuation, we wrote out both the educational session plan and the words to articulate the framing of what to say to each group of students.

Light Emanating from a Pop Up Chuppah

As Shabbat was departing, Rabbi Kipnes and I departed deToledo High School and drove to the Shutters Restaurant in Santa Monica for a wedding of two excited brides, whose ceremony and celebration had been relocated in less than twenty four hours from its intended Malibu location. As we sat in the lobby of the hotel, I listened in on a conversation with Federation leadership about how to coordinate support for the eight plus synagogues impacted by the fires. Then, we drafted an email to the outside world about how they can help (after being inundated with offers of assistance, we decided to detail just how people could help). We posted the information to our social media channels and shared it with our national Reform Movement offices.

Right before the ceremony, we went outside and at Rabbi Kipnes’ invitation, I joined him to walk down the aisle to the chuppah (wedding canopy). Standing at his side, I watched him officiate. I marveled at the fact that this wedding was a small tikkun, a small fixing of the brokenness in our world at the moment. For Jews, the chuppah, open on the four side, represents our homes and our community. This couple, unsure at that moment whether or not their apartment and all their possessions still stood or were destroyed by the raging fires in Malibu, nonetheless were welcoming all of us to witness their marriage. With their love, they brought positive light into the world and shined it onto all of us as we surrounded them. Their chuppah transformed into a vessel to both hold in their light and shine it out, demonstrating that even when their world is unsteady, the light and love permeating the world still exist and still shine forth.

So That’s What Rabbis Do

I learned many eye-opening lessons in the weeks immediately following the Woolsey and Hall fires. I gained first hand insight into the process of successfully helping others in the midst of a crisis. I discovered anew the power of rabbinic networks, of partnering with staff and community leaders, and of the utilizing our resources, both in the Federation and in the greater rabbinic community, to forge a path forward. I witnessed resilience in the face of fire, demonstrating the fortitude of community, love, and engagement. More than anything, I developed my own sense of groundedness in this new role – rabbi, and look forward to formally embarking on the journey with Ordination in May.

Elana Nemitoff is a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is the rabbinic intern at 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