Thursday, July 02, 2015

All I Really Needed to Know I learned in Song Session

The insight took me by surprise. Hanging with our faculty cohort late at Friday night at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, I came to realize that so much of who I was, who our children are becoming, and how our family has prioritized our values derives from the songs we sang at summer camp. Growing up at URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY in my teen years and raising our kids each summer at URJ Camp Newman introduced me deep Jewish learning in the guise of fun camp song session. Who would have thought that the Jewish values my wife and I hold most dear, and the texts from which they arise, were embedded in our hearts at those Jewish summer camps.

Still Singing at Summer Camp
The realization crept up on me late one Friday night when - after an inspiring Shabbat - the rabbis, educators, cantorial soloists, artists, songleaders and nefesh staff retired to our cabin on Faculty Row. Squeezed into our mini-living room, the group of close to two dozen people (ranging in age from 18 to 67) began our late night adults-only Shabbat shira (singing). Four guitars - and Rabbi Rick Winer's (musical?) contraption made up of a washboard with bells and cymbals attached - provided the musical accompaniment.

We began with current Camp Newman favorites. Soon enough though, we jumped back to the future, singing rousing zemirot from the 60's, 70's and 80's. The online set list from the five album Songs NFTY Sings and the many URJ Camp Swig albums guided us on our musical journey. The atmosphere was joyful; the energy high. The last participants meandered back to their own cabins just before 2:00 am.

Singing Central Jewish Values
As we sang, I was transported back to the most wonderful seven years I spent at the Kutz Camp NFTY Leadership Academy. There, first as a teenage program participant and later as head resident advisor and program director, I spent many nights in the dining hall, singing Jewish music. The shiron (songbook) displayed both the words and the source of the songs.

I was fascinated by the diversity of sources. Later as a rabbinical student, I dug deeper, noticing that the texts represented in the songbook spanned the whole Jewish canon. We sang songs based on

  • Pirkei Avot - V'eizeh Hu
  • Biblical Psalms - Shiru Ladonai
  • The siddur (prayer book) - Yom Zeh L'yisrael
  • The Talmud - Nefesh Echad

I once taught a course at Kutz called the Songs NFTY Sings in which we studied the profound lessons contained within the texts of the songs.

Raising a Family with the Songs We Sing
Back at our Camp Newman faculty song session, it became clear that many of the values that became central to my life, values which later guided the way Michelle and I raised our children, grew out of the ideals we discovered in the songs we sang:
We taught our children to find contentment with what they had. Instead of getting caught in the endless cycle of trying to "keep up with the Joneses," we explain (and sing): Veizeh hu asher - who is wealthy? Hasamei-ach b'chelko - the one who is content with his or her portion.

We taught our children about their dual responsibilities: to themselves and to others. As a teen singing Hillel's famous aphorism, I repeatedly faced the need to find the balance between universalism and particularism. We taught our kids what we sang: Im ein ani li mi li - if I am not for myself, who will be for me? And uchsheani l'atzmi mah ani - and if I am only for myself, what am I? V'im lo achshav eimatai- And if not now, when? They know they must take care of both.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught us, through a song we sang, about facing our fears with courage and passion. Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod- the whole world is a very narrow bridge. V'haikar lo lifached klal- and the most important thing is not to be too afraid. Fear can shut us down. Reb Nachman reminded us to walk forward nonetheless. 
I learned about love and about devotion to a loved one from Song of Songs. Dodi li v'ani lo - I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine. As my wife and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we hope we have passed the lessons of committed relationship. Camp taught us the ideal of love.

B'tzelem Elohim (we all are created in the image of God) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) have become two favorite values embedded in our children's hearts through the contemporary Jewish music which harmonizes through these values. Our children know that we value each individual and we assume responsibility for repairing the world because they know these values. Where did they learn this most profoundly? In song sessions at camp, where the music in stills the lessons even more deeply than our most heartfelt conversations with them.

Reflecting on the Truths that Define our Lives
In an ethical will to our children, in a letter to our daughter as she went off to college, and in a letter to our sons about being a man, we detailed the emet (truth) we wanted to instill in their lives. Rereading these letters, now published in our book, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights), the influence of these song session Jewish lessons becomes so clear. The central values of my life came from foundational Jewish texts, many of which I learned at URJ Kutz Camp and which are being reinforced at Camp Newman.

Forward to the Past at Kutz Camp
As my youngest son remains at Camp Newman as a first year counselor, I am crossing the country to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the URJ Kutz Camp. I look forward to seeing old friends, honoring the directors Smitty and PJR who gave Kutz meaning, and recommitting myself to the engaging our Jewish youth in deep Jewish life and learning.

In the midst of it all, I will also find time to sit again in the dining hall, to flip through the songbooks, and to reflect once again upon the profound influence of these Jewish texts on my life, family and rabbinate. May the song sessions that gave meaning to my life continue to inspire and mold the Jewish future.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

URJ Camp Newman's KAQ (Kids Asking Questions) are the Antidote to the Pew Study's JNR (Jewish No Religion)

Invite 6th and 7th graders to get real about God and spirituality, and the depth of their questions and their unceasing quest for understanding will astound you! In a world increasingly populated by people designated by the Pew study as JNR (Jewish No Religion), these KAQ (Kids Asking Questions) kept peppering us with profound questions about Judaism, belief, agnosticism and peoplehood.

I just returned from the URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA where my wife Michelle and I were heading up a delegation of forty Reform Jews from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA). In between leading services, planning programs, and schmoozing with fascinating young people, I served as faculty member for Shomrim, the sixth and seventh grade eidah (unit).

The camp leadership challenged the rabbinic and education faculty to create prayer services which were musical, creative and deeply relevant. So we took up the challenge during the first tefillah. Reflecting upon the v’ahavta prayer, which instructs us v’shinantam livanecha (parents should teach Jewish tradition to their children), we challenged our campers to become their own guides of their own Jewish spiritual quest. We asked, “At the end of your four week session at camp, we questions about Judaism, God and spirituality would you like to have explored?”

Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was like this was the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish or worse. They said,

  • If I'm not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?
  • If I don't believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?
  • The Romans had so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?
  • My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?
  • Can I be spiritual but not religious?

These 6th and 7th graders shared a unquenched thirst for real Jewish conversations. We promised each other to continue to ask even the hardest questions and urged the campers to push – unceasingly here at camp and then at home - for answers that make sense.

The next two weeks were full of spiritual searching to begin to address the questions:

A mindfulness meditation service to find eternality in the present moment – spirituality without fixed prayers.

An engaging conversation about why the Avot v'Imahot prayer - about the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel and God of Leah - mentions “God of” so many times. Because each of our ancestors had different relationships with God than the others did. And because while there is but one God, there are infinite ways of connecting with God.
A God-shopping program that introduced campers to 8+ unique Jewish God-concepts. 
A scavenger hunt around camp to connect texts on Jewish spirituality with multiple religious and non-religious locations, thus experiencing the holiness inherent in … everywhere.

A yoga service during which we embodied the themes of the prayers. 
A discussion before Shema about why Jews say there is one God when the Romans and others posit many gods.

My two weeks at camp ended too early. We were just scratching the surface of possible answers to their many questions. Campers’ evaluations at the end of this period evidenced that the campers were engaged and intrigued.

That’s the beauty of Camp Newman: that as our young people are clearly thirsting for real God-talk, camp opens up opportunities to wrestle with deeply profound questions about the existence and nature of the Holy One. That’s why they keep coming back for more. And their enthusiasm and thirst keeps me coming back too!

For ideas on how to engage your own kids as spiritual searchers, check out our new book, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Coming Out in a Jewish Community: Warmly Embracing a Teenager

In his Confirmation Class picture,
Sean Cooper is third from the right
On the bimah during his Confirmation, twelfth grader Sean Cooper recounted his coming out experience:
When I came out as a homosexual, I posted a picture to Facebook with my father, with the caption “….”. While some may have previously inferred my sexual orientation, that post was my first official public coming out.

The next day, I came to my temple, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), for a LoMPTY meeting (our NFTY youth group). I was greeted at the door by Cantor Doug Cotler, the man I have known my whole life, with a warm hug and friendly “I’m proud of you,” and by Rabbi Julia Weisz with a smile and great warmth. Rabbi Paul Kipnes was even more accepting than anyone. Rabbi Kipnes’ kind and heart-felt acceptance expressed not only his embracing personal views, but also the wide-open arms of the Jewish community. 
I don’t need to compare Judaism to other, not-so-accepting religions, because their’s is not the standard for the people of our Jewish religion. We Jews hold ourselves to an expectation of ahavah rabba, unconditional love. It is this love that greets sexual minorities, racial minorities, and oppressed people whom others have turned away, with those same open arms that I felt at our synagogue doors.

I am fortunate enough to have an identity that does not conflict, but instead that bonds the pieces of two strong communities together. I am a homosexual, Jewish man, and I could not be more proud to be in this amazing Jewish community.

Being Open about Being Inclusive

At Congregation Or Ami, we are proud of Sean – a NFTY leader, URJ Camp Newman alum, and passionate advocate for Israel – for his courage and honesty. We hope he found confidence to come out, in part, because we have worked tirelessly to convey an unequivocal message:

That at Congregation Or Ami, we welcome with open arms all people of all genders and orientations.
The clergy teach and blog about inclusiveness. We proudly display through our website’s homepage, our openness to and embrace of LGBTQ individuals and couples. We have been vocal about our support for marriage equality. Our partnership forms for new congregants provide spaces for Adult 1, and where appropriate, Adult 2, instead of the Male and Female. We invite gay and lesbian couples and individuals to participate fully on the bimah on High Holy Days and at other services. In each of these ways, we convey our warm embrace.

Speaking Out with Clarity

We also actively speak out to counter the rejection of LGBTQ people that some individuals (and some religious groups) espouse, and we decry the violence that this engenders. Our message is clear and consistent. We say, “Torah teaches Kedoshim Tehiyu, that you are holy and valued (Leviticus 19). We accept you and want you to feel welcomed and valued and respected and loved.”

Back in 2010, when Tyler Clementi took his life in the face of being bullied for being gay, Or Ami’s clergy team – Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Cantor Doug Cotler and Rabbi Julia Weisz – sent a letter to every young person in our congregation (and their parents). Inspired by a missive from Rabbis Andy Bachman and Alan Cook, we wrote,

We want to speak to you, whoever you may be. Whether you are gay, straight, bi or transgender or just plain confused, Judaism teaches that each individual is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It does not matter what other people think about you as you struggle to figure out what you think about yourself. What does matter is that you feel comfortable being who you are – at Congregation Or Ami, at school, in your community, and in your home – and you learn how to deal with those who do not accept you….

…We have been blessed with friends and relatives, rabbinic and cantorial colleagues and other coworkers, and beloved and involved congregants who are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, or questioning. If we examine our relationships, we believe all of us would find the same to be true. Some come out easily; others struggle with their identity; still others remain “in the closet.” One day, perhaps we will be able to say, “Who cares what an individual’s sexual orientation is?” And until that day comes, so long as such prejudice and bigotry remain, we cannot remain silent. The Jewish tradition teaches that we are all responsible for one another…. 
Always remember that you have a rabbi and cantor and a community that care about you deeply and accept you for who you are. No matter what.

Coming Out: A Shehecheyanu Moment

We celebrate Sean’s coming out as a shehecheyanu moment, a sacred holy blessed experience. May Sean’s experience be another illustration that Judaism and the Jewish community are changing, are open, and are warmly welcoming.

Learn more about Congregation Or Ami’s commitment to inclusivity and openness, especially with LGBTQ individuals and families, through what we say and what we do.

Discover how Reform Judaism embraces LGBTQ individuals and families as a Jewish value, a matter of principle, and a blessed reality in our Jewish community.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

College Student Jessa Cameron Reflects Upon AIPAC National Policy Conference

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

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

Saturday, March 28, 2015

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

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

Disability Rights, by Lisa Friedman and Chase Rocker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem Cell Research by Dawson Litt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Meditation for Spiritual Renewal

From the amazing psalmist Alden Solovy​.

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


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

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

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

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

© 2015 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.