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Rabbi Paul’s book, co-authored with his wife Michelle November:
https://www.amazon.com/Jewish-Spiritual-Parenting-Activities-Emotional/dp/1580238211

Jeff:

Hello everyone, welcome to the miracle makers podcast by JNP.  Today we are honored and lucky to have with us Rabbi Paul Kipnes from Congregation Or Ami, affectionately known as Rabbi Paul. 

Rabbi:

Hi, hi.

Jeff:

Welcome.  Rabbi Paul Kipnes is a spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. He has served as Vice President and former Convention Chairperson for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a rabbinic mentor to dozens of young rabbis and volunteers on the CCAR Rabbinic Task Force on addictions in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle, Michelle November, co-wrote ‘Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness’ (https://www.amazon.com/Jewish-Spiritual-Parenting-Activities-Emotional/dp/1580238211). Under his leadership Congregation Or Ami has won a National Award for Social Justice Programming, for Innovative Worship Programming, for Outreach to Interfaith Families, for Engaging Family Education, and for best overall use of technology in a synagogue. Or Ami also wins the hearts of its families for its caring community, which reaches out during times of need.

Welcome Rabbi. One last note the Rabbi blogs avidly, reads science fiction, listens to a jazz and blues, visits National and State Parks, and takes walks on the California Wilds. 

I wanted to start out with a couple of big questions before we got into some of the nitty-gritty. Let me start with this: 

Why should people care about religion and what does it offer modern folks? 

Rabbi: 

Wow you start with a small question, with an easy answer! Answer is 7. I’m kidding. Why should people care about religion? Because when religion is done right, it’s about recognizing that we are all children of a creator. That we each have a responsibility to every other creation, every other human being and every other animal and the world and the environment. To be part of a religion is to recognize that it’s All About Love. And about ‘chesed’ [חסד]- loving kindness. When people use religion wrong they kill others, and say we’re right and you’re wrong. But when religion is done right it brings people together, diverse from all over the world, for the common good of justice and compassion.

Jeff: 

Thank you. Thank you. We’re living in a time right now where people are mean-spirited and you gave a sermon on how to how you thought we should act a couple years ago. I believe during the high holidays, a very powerful sermon. So I wanted to know from you, what’s the antidote or what do you suggest and how we get along in these times?

Rabbi:

Thank you for remembering the sermon. You know that at Congregation Or Ami, one of the highest values is the value of ‘chesed’. Chesed means kindness or loving-kindness. But more it’s a recognition that this whole of the universe was created with chesed kindness as its base value. What’s the antidote mean spiritedness? Not descending into that. Not using crassness and meanness in the way we relate to others we disagree with. But to see the common humanity in other people. And to reach out with that.

You know most problems can be solved if I stop seeing you as a competitor. I just look at you as another person, whoever the ‘you’ us. Just another person with needs and desires and I have a responsibility to help you and you to help me. We can lift each other up.

Jeff:

How do people find that sermon. I know you posted it at some point.

Rabbi:

Most of my sermon’s are on my blog – paulkipnes.com. Also, some of it is on our YouTube channel (look up Congregation Or Ami), and we have old high holiday services going back.

Jeff: 

Fantastic. Okay let’s move away from some of the bigger questions into some other questions that are, I think, more fun questions here. How’s your summer going? You, I know, take a couple trips. I was on a trip to Israel with a wonderful group of 40 or so congregants, my daughter had her Bat Mitzvah there.

Rabbi: 

It was amazing.

Jeff:

And you’ve been to Italy. You’re always involved or you’re a big part of Camp Newman. Can you tell us about what you do during the summer and how it’s going?

Rabbi: 

In the summer I try to travel. We live in a glorious world and every time I get out of my office and I love Congregation Or Ami, but every time I get out and I see the world out there I am filled with awe and wonder and it helps me in my spiritual life. So this year we took a group of adults to Italy where there was once a big Jewish community, visited those sites. We went to Israel with really six multi-generational families, including your own, we are we celebrating 3 B’nai Mitzvah up in an 18-hundred year old synagogue, the ruins of it. Your daughter, all of those kids, brought us to tears with the power of that incredible place. And then I’m going out to Camp Newman where I raise my kids, to where you kids went and were raised, to see how we can use outdoors in nature and creativity to share ancient values in a modern effective way.

Jeff:

What’s happening with Camp Newman because that was affected by the fires a couple years ago?

Rabbi:

Camp Newman is one of three camps that burned down.  This year camp Hess Kramer and Hilltop in Malibu and also JC Shalom burned down. These insidious fires. This year we’re holding Camp Newman instead of at our Santa Rosa site, we’re holding it at the Cal Maritime Academy in Vallejo, and we’re taking every day a unit of kids up to the Port Creek site in Santa Rosa where they are spending a full day out at our kibbutz in our green area out on the Adventure Course, the ropes course, and our hope is within the next few years we will be rebuilt in a new way more connected to the land and our kids will be going up there and experiencing the joys of Summer outside 

Jeff:

it’s a great thing my daughter loves it, my son attended, my daughter after next year will be going, I’m sure she wants to be a counselor and on and on. Let’s talk about you a little bit and your childhood. One question I had doing my research, was there a moment or moments in your life that hit you where you said I want to be a rabbi or what was that process like?

Rabbi:

My parents were members of a small synagogue. We were probably congregant family #7 at Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford Mass, northeast of Boston. And you went because if you didn’t go things didn’t happen. Once we moved to Worcester, Massachusetts we became involved in two synagogues there, and I had two rabbis. Rabbi Stanley Davids who now lives out here in Santa Monica and Rabbi Gary Glickstein who’s down in Miami, Florida. They were engaged, they took us teens seriously, they talked about big issues of God of social justice, they took us to the camps and on Retreats, and they showed me that I had a second home at the synagogue. My folks sent me to summer camps like Camp Newman, but it was Kutz Camp back east, where I met with young rabbis and educators and song leaders who helped me think about the big issues in the small issues and cared about me. When did I think I was going to be a Rabbi? Funny story, when I was like eight or nine we went to the Purim party at our synagogue, Purim is a holiday where people dress up, and I wore my dad’s white bathrobe and hisTallit prayer shawl. I had to white kippah, yarmulke and I had a Bible and I was supposed to be Mordecai, or what I thought was Mordecai, in the Purim story. But then everyone came up to me and said Paul, you look like a Rabbi. That put it in my mind. But everywhere I went from then on I met these rabbis you help me understand life myself my family the world and I want to do that for other people, so just became the thing I was doing.

 Jeff:

You are known or one of the things you’re known for in your service is dressing up and bringing a lot of creativity to it. I was thinking about that because I’ve been to all those services, and use technology a lot in your services. I’m sure you got some feedback from that and so how do you use it? What’s the future of the way you use it? And what are the effects of that on the bigger picture of Judaism in general for the country, since you are a leader in this field.

Rabbi:

The Orthodox fundamentalists in Judaism say you should have no electricity on the Sabbath. You shouldn’t use technology, phones, any of that. We’re reform Jews. I think Judaism is always reforming and we think that we’ve one foot in the modern world, and one foot in the Jewish world and they go together. So I’m using ancient values and teachings, but I have to convey them in ways that modern people understand. So if I blog, I blog because more people are going to read those blogs then show up at Services. If I use social media… someone said to me, if a tree falls in the forest and no one blogs about it or puts it on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, who cares? So we get to tell the story of what we’re doing by using social media. On Shabbat Services, sometimes I ask a question before the beginning of a service and say — before you shut off your phones, text me your answer to it. What do you think when you hear the shofar on the high holidays? Or when have you felt left out? or the like. And they text that to me and then in my sermon I leave a part where I can integrate the things that people text me. So we use technology to connect with people and then to convey new ideas. 

Jeff:

People seem to be embracing it in our Congregation. Do you find that throughout the rest of the reform movement? 

Rabbi:

People are trying hard to figure out how to use technology in positive ways to bring people together. All of us have connected with a friend from high school or from grade school we haven’t seen in years and it’s great to share that and post pictures and the like. How can we do that in the community to show a Jew and a Muslim sitting together and talking. How can we show a person of dark-skinned and light-skinned working together on a project? You put that on Facebook [and] Instagram, all of a sudden you’re telling the story. Every synagogue wants to do that. The reason Or Ami could jump into that quickly was firstly, I was interested in it, and secondly we’re not afraid of pushing the ends of the envelope.

Jeff:

Speaking about the Congregation a little differently. I’m a member of the Congregation. It’s a very special place. It’s a second home. The kids grow up here, it’s, well, not for me to speak about. But about you talking about it. Can you tell us what makes it so special in your mind and what are you focusing on in the Congregation to make it even more of a special place?

Rabbi: 

Congregation Or Ami strives to be a sanctuary of kindness, a safe Jewish Community for today, as you said, we try to be your second home. So that means when you walk in the store you need to be welcomed with a smile. The rabbi’s doors need to be open. If you need to come in and talk to the Rabbi it shouldn’t be because you gave a million dollars, but because you have a need – and I might be meeting with someone and might have to wait a little bit when you get there. It should be a place where there is always cookies from the Oneg, the Friday night dessert, in the freezer so you can come in and get something to eat. It should be a place where we talk about real and raw stuff, so we don’t shy away from the difficult issues. So what are we working on? We’re just completing two years of transforming the synagogue into really a safe space for teens. We talked about mental health we have a kid who got up on the stage on the high holidays in front of 1,200 people and talked about how she was so depressed when she thought about killing herself, and how she reached out. Because we have to open those conversations. Today we just had a group of people from six different religious groups, Baha’is, Catholic Church, Episcopalians, Jews, a couple of others gathered together. The clergy and the lay leaders. To build relationships. To help deal with the challenge of homelessness in our city and our state and also to work towards Interfaith understanding, to lift us all up into a place with kindness. Those are a couple of my most exciting things. Homelessness and the fact that the numbers keep going up here in La just drives me crazy. And I’m glad we have a team led by Rabbi Julia Weisz, who are dealing with it. And of course, once a month because of your two children Jacob Pofsky and Samantha, we feed the hungry at a church out in Thousand Oaks. And we have different parts of the Congregation doing it. So social justice is a big thing.

Jeff:

Speaking about addiction, that’s one of your big focuses. I think I have this right, I think you had mentioned in one of our talks that two or three children a year are involved in some kind of addictive behavior, which is pretty startling for congregation this size. How are you or what are you working on with that specifically? Or what can we do as a community to do a better job?

Rabbi:

Fantastic. So there are a lot of kids involved with addiction and drugs, alcohol, cutting, a level of promiscuity that is dangerous, online porn, and the like. Each year there are 2 to 3 people, anywhere from from 13, 14, to 22 connected to the Congregation to go off on Wilderness programs or have to be sent away to therapeutic boarding schools to deal with it. That it becomes beyond the ability of the family and the parents and the kid to handle the situation. And sadly every couple four or five years we lose someone to heroin or or something else. With the help of the Jewish Federation we got a grant some years ago to have conversations about talking openly about drugs and alcohol here at the Congregation and other synagogues, camps, and youth movements. What we learn from that is the kids know all about drugs. They learn about it in the schools, they can learn about it on TV, they learn about in their magazines online, but what they don’t know is that when they start using it beyond moderation it’s because this hole within. A brokenness inside and they’re trying to cover it over as opposed to deal with it. So what can we do is start getting kids to be able to talk about that brokenness, distress, anxiety, the sense of not being loved, and more. And give them a place to talk about it. Julia and I give our cell phone numbers to the kids from I think fourth grade [and] up. And we invite them to put it in their phones and say, “text us.” And every year three to four times to get texts from kids who are on the edge, and I could tell you because of these programs — the drug and alcohol addiction awareness education and the mental health stuff — I can point to two to three kids a year that are still alive because of the training we’ve all gone through.

Jeff:

Which is remarkable. Keeping along the lines of bringing up kids, you and your wife Michelle wrote a book about spiritual parenting, you can give me the title. 

Rabbi:

Jewish Spiritual Parenting.

Jeff:

Okay! Again in my research it talks a little bit or you talk about how to use this book as a resource for parents, or maybe you can talk a little bit about how you and Michelle started to write the book, what the book’s about, and how to use it. Just as a kind of a recap of that special thing.

Rabbi:

We have three kids now they are ages 27 to 22 and we’re proud of them all. And raising kids is a joy and the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. Every so often one of our kids will look at us when they’re upset with us on how we dealt with something or how we responded to them, they say, “You? You were the one they asked to write a book about parenting?”

Jeff:

Ha. That’s funny.

Rabbi:

Because of my blogging we were approached by a publisher Jewish Lights Publishing, to write a book on Jewish Spiritual Parenting. Michelle and I do all sorts of work together, we raised the kids together, so we wrote. The ‘chiddish’ for me, the ‘new idea’ from me, is that in almost everything else we do there’s an intentionality to it. You open a business, you write a business plan. It has a mission statement and vision statement and then you do goals, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years. When you have kids, what do you do? You have kids and maybe we’ve read these books, but have we really sat down and said what’s the vision for who this kid is? What are the major ways were going to deal with stuff. You don’t know how to run a business, but you write a business plan because you do your research. You don’t know how to raise a kid, but if you spend your time and do the research you know what the big topic areas are and you can start talking about it. Now, it changes because the kids turn out differently than we imagined. And each kid you raise, one kid one way, the other kid has different needs and different desires, different intentions, or energy level and then you have to do something slightly different. But our book has 13 Jewish values that we use with a combination of personal stories about child-raising, the values and how they inform the process, and there’s like 50 ‘try this’ activities for a parent or parents to do with your child or themselves, to think about what are the important values and to find ways of growing together. To deal with the challenges of growing up and of raising a child. It was a great process and the book was born the year that our last kid went off to college. 

Jeff:

How long did it take you to write it together?

Rabbi:

It took about 9-10 months, I mean the time it takes to have a baby. And most of it, over half of it, was written with thumbs on an iPhone. Michelle and I will go for a ride or we would talk and I would thumb text it into my phone, and then we edited it. We had great editors, we edited it, and that’s how the book was born.

Jeff:

And that’s how you wrote the book. We could talk to you forever. Of course, you got so much to say and we are so thankful. Let me ask you one other question and then end. In terms of the community, what are the biggest priorities to – you kind of touched on it earlier – but what would be the biggest priorities that you see in the community that we’re facing, that we have to contend with and work on together.

Rabbi:

So, I told you about homelessness, and we talked already about mental health for teens and for our young people, and for adults too. I think the other modern problem is the problem of crassness, of meanness. We live in a society where there’s enough resources for everybody to have everything they need. The only difference is how we use those resources, so I can live well and still work for society, where you can do the same. It’s not socialism. In America it’s still capitalism, but capitalism in a thoughtful way. I think that we have to learn how to talk to each other, recognizing the shared humanity. Because we can’t become a nation of racists, of anti-semites, of islamophobes, of sexist, of misogynists. We need to be a community that lifts everybody up. Someone once said the best defense is a good offense. I say no, the best defense is to open your arms and share the love around.

Jeff:

Appreciate that. Let me ask you a few last questions – a quick round here. What are you reading these days?

Rabbi:

I’m really bad at remembering the names of the books, so I have to just look up, I’m opening my Kindle now to tell you. It’s a book by a guy named Robert Sawyer who’s a Sci-Fi writer from Canada, I’m reading one of his old books called ‘Starplex.’ That’s a great Sci-Fi thing. I also just read Dan Brown’s ‘Origin’, which is a fabulous book. And the other book that’s powerful for everybody to read, there’s a book by a guy named Yossi Klein Halevi called letters to my Palestinian neighbor. And he imagines is Palestinian neighbor on the other side of the fence or this Wall in Jerusalem, not in Jerusalem, in Israel. And he writes a letter that says here’s where I’m coming from and invites them to write back. And some people wrote some nasty stuff, but some people wrote some very powerful things explaining their side and he’s starting the conversation.

Jeff:

Awesome. What’s your favorite movie ever?

Rabbi:

I’m a Star Trek guy. I was actually on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, the episode ‘Strange Bedfellows.’ The executive producer, my friend Ira Steven Behr, got me on an episode, so anything Star Trek I love. Star Wars too.

Jeff:

You love to hike, we know that, in the outdoors. Where would you like to hike that you have not yet been?

Rabbi:

So first of all, any national park anywhere. I would love to do it. My favorite was hiking up the Virgin River in Zion National Park in Utah. I want to do some hiking in the Badlands when it’s cool enough to do it, I haven’t gone to Arches National Park, that’s on my list also.

Jeff:

What’s your favorite food?

Rabbi:

I’d like to say brisket, a good brisket. But my doctor says I shouldn’t eat as much red meat. So I’ll, say pizza.

Jeff:

Really? Okay. Favorite musician or group?

Rabbi:

Bruce Springstein.

Jeff: 

Really?

Rabbi:

The boss, grew up on him.

Jeff: 

Well you’re an east coast guy.

Rabbi:

He knows how to take the world and make it understandable. I also like the Grateful Dead. My first concert when I was about 15 with the Grateful Dead in Rhode Island, Pantucket? I can’t remember. But the album Streetlife Serenade, Love it.

Jeff:

Listen to the Rabbi. And last question, if you had three wishes what would they be?

Rabbi:

Number one. My wife and I were able to live long enough to see our children find love, if they so desire to raise our grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren, and then to go at the same time within seconds of each other. And I’d go first… no, my wife can go first because I wouldn’t want her to have to live with the pain of losing a loved one. I’ll deal with that pain.

The second thing is I wish people could find meaning in their lives. That would… If there were a way to help people find that meaning and purpose. 

And lastly, I know it’s crazy, but I love Israel and I recognise that it is a land that is complex and there are Palestinians that live there too. I’d like Israel and Palestinians to make peace. Find a way to share this beautiful land. 

And I had a fourth one, I want to spend one to three months a year in Israel because I love it!

Jeff:

I’m with you on that one. Thank you very, very much. We could speak with you forever, but thank you for giving us the time and we appreciate it.

Rabbi:

It’s my pleasure, thank you.

Jeff Pofsky

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