December 14, 2018

Laurie and Steve Keleman: Volunteerism, built for two

Given their parents’ connections to the Jewish community, it makes sense that Laurie and Steve Keleman of Woodland Hills would be active, as well. Laurie’s parents, Lester and Virginia Wagner, who are 94 and 88, still volunteer at the synagogue in which she grew up, Temple Akiba in Culver City. Steve’s late father, Myer, edited the now-defunct B’nai B’rith Messenger newspaper in Los Angeles; his mom, Helen, started the local chapter of Pioneer Women, a Zionist organization.

When Laurie and Steve were raising their two now adult children and both working full time — Laurie for the IRS and Steve as a business consultant — they let Judaism “take a back seat,” as Laurie recalled. But a trip to Israel a dozen years ago with members of their temple, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, rekindled something, and soon after returning, they began volunteering at the temple.

“You start with stuffing envelopes,” said Laurie, who is 64. Next was helping set up for various temple functions. Then, there was that moment during an Israeli dance at the temple nine years ago, around the time Laurie was about to retire, that Rabbi Paul Kipnes danced past her and mentioned he had the perfect volunteer gig for her. That’s how Laurie became chair of the Variance Committee, which makes decisions that enable families with limited resources to join the temple.

Steve, 68, began his volunteerism at Or Ami by creating a temple directory so members could network and seek out one another’s services. “That mushroomed into the rabbi asking me if I would be interested in managing the temple’s security and safety,” he said. Since then, he and Laurie have taken on more and more roles at Or Ami.

“I joke with them that they are going to start charging me rent,” Steve said. “Both me and Laurie are there two to three times a week, and not just for the cookies that are left over.” 

In addition to the security commitment, Steve chairs the Henaynu Caring Community Committee — Laurie also is a member — and the Inclusion Committee. Last February, he helped organize a special service celebrating differences, attended by 250 people. He is busy planning the second annual event for Feb. 3 to coincide with Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. In recent years, he also has helped rabbinic interns with their resumes, and interview skills, even setting up mock interviews. 

“Knock on wood, they have all gotten their first choice of synagogue,” he said. “I can’t take complete credit. But they come out a lot more polished.”

Laurie and Steve also have started to create programs at the temple for empty nesters and active adults who may be inclined to leave the temple, as many do, after their kids have a bar or bat mitzvah or head off to college.

Laurie volunteers outside the temple, as well. Twice a month, she spends a day at Tamar House, a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, operated by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. She was hoping to work directly with clients, but her skills were needed with reports. “Because I worked for the IRS, I know paperwork,” she said.

As meaningful as all of these efforts are, there is one act that stands out among the Kelemans’ giving. When their son Adam was a teenager, he was diagnosed with a kidney disease called IgA nephropathy and required a transplant. Laurie and Steve volunteered to donate one of theirs; Laurie was chosen.

“I’m his mother. It’s just something you do for your kid,” she said. “You give birth to them. You want them to be healthy and you fix them.”

At 30, Adam required a new kidney, and he got one from the cousin of a friend. And now, said Laurie, “He is doing great.”