Congregation Or Ami

Calabasas, California, USA

Areas of Inclusion: Advocacy & Community Partnerships, Architectural & Physical Accommodations and Transportation, B’nai Mitzvah, General Inclusion, Mental Health, Religious School, Worship, and Youth Group, High School, and College Programming

About the Congregation

Congregation Or Ami

26115 Mureau Road, Suite B

Calabasas, CA 91302

Number of Congregants: 320

Contact Information

Rabbi Paul Kipnes


Inclusion Programming

Does this congregation have an inclusion committee?


Developing Our Program

Access to Judaism for all people (and especially children) with special needs has been a hallmark of Congregation Or Ami since Rabbi Paul Kipnes first joined our congregation in our second year of existence. Three months after he became our rabbi, the first policy Rabbi Kipnes asked the Board to pass was clear and simple: "Any child of a member who works to the best of his/her ability has the right to a Jewish educational experience. Also, any child of a member who works to the best of his/her ability has the right and privilege to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Or Ami." The discussion took five minutes; the vote was unanimous.

We ensured that our B’nai Mitzvah tutor had training to work with children with special needs, created an alternative religious school (Mishpacha) in part to be more inclusive of children with special needs, and guided our staff and lay leaders on how to actively explain our openness. We created a webpage, which explains it clearly: “No one is more welcome at Or Ami than you!”

Our youth group does special outreach to teens with special needs; our clergy bring such children with them to URJ Camp Newman.

In recent years, we created the Inclusion Committee to deepen our work.

Program Development Links

Number of people involved in the effort: 320

Involving People with Disabilities

The program continues to be developed by Steve Keleman, Chair of the Inclusion Committee, at the encouragement of Rabbi Paul Kipnes. Steve and Laurie Keleman have an adult nephew with Tourette Syndrome. Steve has a doctorate in Educational Psychology and a California State Credential in School Psychology. Linda Blumenfeld, with a background in special education, also has an adult son with Tourette Syndrome. Nina Treiman, M.A. Educational Psychology and Counseling, is a professional interpreter for the Deaf, having worked as a counselor for the Deaf and disabled at California State University, Northridge, including the National Center on Deafness. Michael and Dina Kaplan who have a child with special needs continue to serve children with special needs and are responsible for the creation of Brandon's Village. Gerry Dicker is the Program Coordinator of Chaverim, part of Los Angeles Jewish Family Service. Laurie Keleman is the founder and one of the leaders in our Active Adults committee for empty nesters.

Our Mishpacha Alternative Religious School was developed by a committee of six, including parents of two children with disabilities. Our embrace of Chaverim began because of the requests of developmentally disabled adults, and it has been shaped through the desires and requests of the Chaverim participants. Our partnership (membership) policy – people in Chaverim can become congregants for $5-$36/year – was developed on their suggestion.

Funding This Effort

As an integrated approach in every function of Congregation Or Ami, funding comes out of General Funds. Teen Madrichim are buddies in the educational programs, for community service hours.

Helpful Agencies & Organizations

While the program started in the earlier years with Rabbi Kipnes, of late efforts have been to learn from and coordinate with a number of agencies/organizations.

Joseph Robbins, URJ, provided us with a definition of Inclusion and resources, pointing us to the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center. He continues to encourage our efforts.

Miriam Maya, Director, Caring for Jews in Need at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is a partner in our design and implementation of programming. Miriam has connected us to community resources, and has provided input to our plans.

Gerry Dicker, Program Coordinator, Chaverim at Jewish Family Services, Los Angeles, organizes and coordinates events for developmentally disabled adults. Congregation Or Ami and Chaverim have had a partnership for several years, including Chaverim’s use of our facility for events and their “home.” We plan to increase the participation of Chaverim members in our synagogue life, while our members grow from our interactions with them.

Other programs and organizations we partner with include:

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Ezra Network, which provides social work and job search support for our congregants.

URJ Camps, which provide lifelong spiritual, educational and social experiences for our children, while NFTY and its affiliates continue to grow our youth into Leaders with the belief in tikun olam. Mitzvah projects engage our B’nai Mitzvah students in tikun olam as well. Rabbi Paul enables children with special needs to participate in the camping experience, while non-special needs children benefit from their inclusion.

Daily, we are learning from these organizations:
URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, Ruderman Family Foundation, Yachad.

Spreading Awareness About Our Work

As we approach Inclusion leaders in the community, they tell us they so are proud of the work that Congregation Or Ami has been doing. Communications within Congregation Or Ami focus on the leadership provided by our clergy.

We conduct hundreds of B’nai mitzvah for children with special needs ­ begins with “yes we can” then figure out how (see link below).

We support Brandon’s Village, one of the few universally accessible playgrounds in the country designed for children with special needs. We provide youth volunteers and their families, called Brandon’s Buddies, to run fun days for all children together. Started by one of our families, Michael and Dina Kaplan on behalf of their son Brandon who had his Bar Mitzvah at Or Ami. The parents told their story at High Holy Days.

We discuss inclusion with our Board of Directors
, and in Friday night sermons. 
Sought to create further inclusion programs/efforts, 
Bima has ramp to support wheel chairs, including Rabbi Paul’s mother-in-law with MS, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Or Ami at age 76 as part of the Adult B’nai Mitzvah class.

Further, the Inclusion Chair is holding separate meetings with Board of Director leaders to introduce them to Inclusion, and continue to build on their ideas and participation. He has engaged committee chairs in how Inclusion and their committees intersect. You see, at Or Ami, Inclusion is more than the actions of our Inclusion Committee as it is woven into our fabric. It is not enough to create programs. We continue to refresh and invigorate the mindset of caring for each other.

A teen with autism Spoke to peers and then at Shabbat services (see link below).

Our Cantor Doug Cotler performs a prayer for High Holy Days called “Faces of God” (see link below). Written by Cantor Kyle Cotler and Julie Silver, with a video montage of pictures of our congregants by Michael Kaplan, this prayer reflects all our faces of Or Ami. It brings to life the Faces of our Or Ami wall in our synagogue along with the continuously playing video on the same wall. Our website further shows our diverse faces and events in our Picture Gallery.

We are enlightened and inspired by Rabbi Paul’s Inclusion message from High Holy Days 5776:
“How good it feels to feel connected, to feel the warmth of a handshake or hug, to join hands in prayer and song. We are different from each other but in God's eyes, B'Tzelem Elohim. I have the love of all people in my heart, and I am an advocate who believes in the worth of all. Yes, different but need each other and learn from each other. A show of hands: how many of us know of people who have struggled this past year? How many of us know of interfaith families? Of multi-ethnic or multi-racial families? Of families with special needs? Of different sexual orientations? Of age differences? Of people who have struggled with being accepted by others? Some cry silently from fear and hurt. Some withdraw into the shelter of their communities where life is safer. It takes someone to offer a hand they can trust. Some step out into the light. Here at Or Ami we open our doors. We seek out opportunities to engage. And ultimately we advocate for Inclusion. How difficult and challenging this can be because it asks us to stretch our humanity. It asks how all of us can grow stronger in our perspective during 5776 and future years.”

To the outside community, our webpage illustrates our commitment to Inclusion. We created a Special Needs webpage with tagline “No one is more welcome than you” to clearly state that we support inclusion. Our Shul Shopping webpage includes clear link to Special Needs webpage

Rabbi Paul Kipnes was honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers for his inclusion efforts (see tribute below.)

We ensure that teens with special needs are invited and active in NFTY youth group, where they have been board members.

We utilize teen madrichim (assistants) as “buddies” to help mainstream the children who can be mainstreamed. Makes sanctuary a safe place so teens and pre­teens may be dropped off by their parents for services, giving parents a quiet night off from the pressures.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes blogs about inclusion. He has also guest blogged at Ruderman Foundation/Zehlezeh blog, eJewishPhilanthropy,,

Process & Sharing

Marketing Documents Indicating Our Commitment to Inclusion

Evidence of Successful Inclusion Efforts

The stories parents tell reflect that Congregation Or Ami is their home. The stories are available in the links below.

Michael and Dina Kaplan during a High Holy Day presentation on the Bima described how Or Ami came to be their home - for them and their child with special needs, ultimately strengthening their family’s ties to our community. Michael continues to serve on the Board of Directors. He previously served as the President and CFO of the congregation.

Jill Epstein gave a sermonette on Yom Kippur morning about parenting a child with special needs.

Bar Mitzvah Boy Brennan Ratican spoke about his experience at Or Ami.

Evidence of Changing Attitudes

Congregation Or Ami provides a welcoming home and attitudes are changing as we engage our congregants. Families participate in Brandon's Village activities, such as face painting, playing on the bars, etc. The interaction of families with children with special needs and children who do not have special needs benefits everyone. Further, Brandon in particular is welcomed at services and members visit with him. Ethan Epstein attends most services and Rabbis Paul and Julia integrate him into the services, too.

How We're Using and Sharing the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center

We are working on these plans currently.

Future Inclusion Efforts

Create a Welcome Home brochure.

Sustain All the Terrific Current Communications/ Programs/Activities: Rabbi Paul, Rabbi Julia and Cantor Doug’s involvement with “Inclusion” themes and community, work with children with special needs, B’nai Mitzvah projects, Social Action Projects, such as Brandon’s Buddies, Fall & Spring Mitzvah Days, Child’s Spree, SOVA, Shoes that Fit and Green Bag, etc., and physical plant accommodations, such as ramps and rails, Membership Chair new member welcoming (adjusted for interfaith families, etc.).

Education: Mishpacha: inclusion speakers, movies, topics. Introduction to Jewish Prayer and Services for those with Mental/Emotional/Social Disabilities.

All school-age children: stories with multidimensional characters; national holidays related to inclusion incorporated into curriculum. Teacher in-service about inclusion.

Board + Communications and Program Committee: facilitated discussion of opportunities for Inclusion activities/ programming.

Event handouts/ materials: definition of inclusion.

Ritual: Occasional dedicated service with invitations and community announcements; sermons by or for “focus” groups (the groups of individuals, couples, and families as part of Inclusion). High Holy Days message.

Membership/Partnership: Modify President letter. Partnership (Membership) packet wording, check forms to use terms appropriate to “focus” groups. New member brunch inclusion message (At Or Ami, people matter! – all people based on definition of inclusion); announce Inclusion Committee seeking volunteers.

Youth group events with occasional inclusion theme.

Disabled adults: continue to be a home to Chaverim (JFS).

Website: more inclusive picture banner; About Us & Community descriptions of Or Ami partners – definition of inclusion – easier access to information.

Print Communications:
Ha Chodesh calendar: add definition of inclusion, national holidays related to inclusion.

Graphic of flame representing “focus” groups for inclusion on website, written materials, etc.

Ads in local magazines, newspapers, and ads in “focus” group publications and other media: more inclusive statements -definition of inclusion

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