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Sharing Cell Phones and Safe Space
Abiding Lessons from my Internship at Or Ami
By Rabbi Julie Bressler

At the end of my first teen retreat with Congregation Or Ami, Rabbis Paul Kipnes and Julia Weisz asked all the teens to take out their cell phones (which we had been asking them to put away all weekend) and to open a new contact. A bit confused, the teens did so and awaited further instructions. At that moment, both rabbis gave out their cell phone numbers to the 50+ teens gathered in the circle. The rabbis told the teens that if they were in trouble, or needed a safe adult to talk to, Rabbis Paul and Julia would be there as quickly as possible, with no questions asked. They explained that they trusted the teens to use these numbers sparingly and at appropriate hours, unless they really needed their rabbi. In that case, they should call or text immediately. I could tell by their tone that they meant it, and all of the teens did too. This act of connection blew me away. 

During my years working at Or Ami, I saw teens connect with Rabbis Paul and Julia in deep, meaningful, and powerful ways. The teens texted with them frequently – for silly moments and significant life experiences. These teens knew their rabbis cared about each and every one of them and it gave them a sense of calm and safety both within and outside of the walls of the synagogue. 

While I learned innumerable life lessons from my time at Or Ami as an education and rabbinic intern, the most powerful lesson centers around elevating depth of relationships in conjunction with depth of learning. At Or Ami, I learned that if individuals feel safe, they are willing to push themselves to be vulnerable and allow themselves to dive deep into experiences that may be outside of their comfort zones. 

For example, when at Friday night services and on teen retreats we experimented with T’fillah Graffiti (activities that invited people to write responses to personal questions in a graffiti-style on walls), participants of all ages willingly answered questions such as “What does the dark feel like and how do you find the light?” Their powerful responses about family challenges, experiences with mental illness, school/work concerns, and more showed me the poignancy of Jewish relational learning. For so many of these individuals, the light – their space of healing and support – was found at Or Ami or through connections forged at Or Ami. 

This is what a synagogue can be – a place of safety, opportunity, growth, and curiosity. Or Ami is a place where congregants young and old feel empowered to be vulnerable and brave, and to grow into their best selves. I am honored to be part of this enduring legacy.

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Rabbi Julie Bressler serves as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA. She worked as Mishpacha Coordinator and Rabbinic Intern at Or Ami from 2014-2018. Rabbi Bressler discovered her love of Judaism and sleeping under the stars at URJ Camp Newman and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. She enjoys telling everyone in New England about the superior weather and sports teams in her home state of California.