By Rabbi Paul Kipnes
When confronted with the first of many “shelter at home” quarantine orders, many houses of worship struggled with a perplexing dilemma: Who are we if we couldn’t be together? The story of one synagogue’s journey to answer that question illustrates the power of perspective and the potential of pushing through uncertainty into the unknown.
Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, California), like so many other synagogues, has been facing the market forces of synagogue disruption with eyes open. We reflected on lessons learned in Disruptive Judaism: Will Your Synagogue Be Beit Blockbuster or Kehillat Netflix? Nonetheless, facing the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic, we fretted that our vision no longer illuminated the path forward.
Did our Vision Statement Still Hold Up?
Until recently, we envisioned that: Congregation Or Ami is a sanctuary of kindness, a safe Jewish community for today, your second home.
Yet now we worried:
If we were unable to gather in our synagogue, are we still a sanctuary?
If the coronavirus made personal contact impossible, where’s the sense of safety?
And if people couldn’t escape their first home, what good is a second home?
[View our answers in this video Walking on Sunshine: How Congregation Or Ami’s Shining during COVID-19. Or preferably, finish reading this article and then view it.]
What’s our Value Proposition?
The question of our quarantine-era value proposition vexed us. Or Ami’s clergy and staff struggled internally and in whispered conversations, trying to divine a vision statement to guide us into this uncertain future. So we engaged in a truncated process to revise it. We created an earlier somber video to introduce the question to our board.
Simultaneously, Congregation Or Ami is no stranger to disaster. Nearby mass shooting, raging fires, and the two deaths and a stroke in the rabbi’s family taught us to put our lives and our work within the congregation into perspective. We became increasingly strategic because we knew we had to do so.
Doing What We Do Best
As such, we kept doing what we do best. We pushed forward, embracing innovative technological solutions in partnership with LiveControl, our live-streaming partner. We communicated regularly, embracing the lessons taught to us by Joffe Emergency Services, our crisis management consultant during the devastating Woolsey Fire evacuations. We met regularly with our rabbinic coach/consultant, Diana Ho of Management Arts, Inc., to reflect, rethink and strategize.
Within 24 hours we were offering via Facebook, Zoom, and oramiLIVE.com a host of activities: online meditation, interactive Shabbat and healing services, challah making classes, streamed shiva minyanim, small group Kickbacks with the Clergy, and Parents Night Out.
Our youth program morphed quickly too. Mensch-ify, our biweekly parenting workshop and family program, quickly became a weekly energetic family Jewish touchpoint. Matzo Ball Boot Camp was created to offer active options during spring break. Our teens gathered online to plan and play, watching Netflix movies together online and preparing a teen-led Shabbat service. Our preteens played other games online, and we all did exercise together with the local Krav Maga studio.
We leaned into our community organizing efforts, developing a physically-distanced food drive in our parking lot to support the local food pantry and a Pastor friend who ministers to the unhoused. As always, with the help of volunteers, we called everyone in our synagogue multiple times to check in.
We just kept going as we tried to divine who we now were
We seek to embody a can-do attitude that embraced experimentation, imperfection, flexibility, and connection. We nurture a trust and partnership between staff, clergy, and board leadership that allows each of us to work to our core strengths. We view failure as the inevitable partner to risk. Fear and frustration were expected way stations on the journey of transformation.
All this still begged the question: What’s our vision of who we are, when we are not in our sanctuary space?
After multiple conversations with individuals, cohorts of rabbis, and robust breakout room conversations with our board, we discovered a new truth. Collectively our leaders responded:
Or Ami is still a sanctuary of kindness. It’s just that our sanctuary has moved online.
Or Ami is still a safe Jewish community for today. We are safe in that we provide small safe spaces for people to be raw and real, to unburden themselves of their fears, and to be inspired by beautiful music, meaningful stories, and authentic conversations. And
Or Ami is still our second home, where people can retreat from their responsibilities and flee their frustrations. If only for a moment.
Moving from “must do” to “Let’s try”
The first two months of quarantine taught us that we just may survive this if we maintain curiosity, accepting these new disruptions as opportunities, and freely flee from the “must do’s” to embrace the “let’s try.” At Or Ami, we continue to promulgate deep Jewish values even as the modalities for engaging with them change.
There’s an old saying, not quite Yiddish but it could be. It goes, “Be yourself. Unless you’re a shmuck. Then be someone else.”
We at Congregation Or Ami are not stuck being who we have always been or doing what we have always done, because we have baked disruption, innovation, and tolerance of failure into our essence.
We keenly are aware – to paraphrase Rabba Sara Hurwitz – that having moved from the triage phase through the chesed phase (caring for others) into the preparing for the long haul phase. We are now entering the next phase, defined by uncertainty and the need for scenario planning and increased flexibility. Individually and collectively, we are experiencing deeper realization of the magnitude of the pandemic and intense grief at what we have lost and what will not soon be renewed.
Creating a video to share our learning
And so, as the video witnesses, we have not rested on our laurels. We continue to check-in, reevaluate, and re-invent ourselves.
Check out how we are messaging all this in our new video: Walking on Sunshine: How Congregation Or Ami’s Shining during COVID-19.
Feel free to share, copy, or just rip it off. After all, we are all in this together (just at a distance).
Hope you enjoy it!
NOTE: We believe that synagogue transformation happens best when we mind the minds of colleagues and leaders across the denominational and interfaith spectrum, and when we are guided and pushed by change agents. Our thinking around this vision issue is informed by these gatherings:
“Supporting Rabbis at a Time of Crisis,” an interdenominational gathering of rabbis, led by Yavneh Bet: The Center for Rabbinic Innovation, which led us to explore what we really needed to lead during this pandemic.
“What Comes Next,” a series of zoom calls, led by the URJ’s innovation team, which is journeying deeply into the future of synagogues in a post-pandemic world.
A rabbinic brainstorming session with five Los Angeles rabbis, facilitated by rabbinic coach/consultant Diana Ho of Managements Arts, which led us to bare our souls and speak openly about problems and brainstorm possibilities.
The brainstorming process engendered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ PK-12 Innovation grants, which goaded us into transforming our synagogue’s educational programs multiple times and in very varied ways.
The creativity digital learning series, “Reclaiming Time, Self and Voice: Counting the Omer with the Creativity Braintrust,” a weekly series of explorations of themes of the omer led by Miriam Heller Stern and the artist-scholars of HUC-JIR’s Beit HaYotzer/The Creativity Braintrust where we are expanding our capacity for creativity.
The “Leading the Change” symposium, led by the Union for Reform Judaism, after its November Biennial convention, which encouraged us to be disruptive in a disruptive world.
Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.