Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kitschy and Tacky Hanukkah Gifts

This is the 1,200th post on this blog and somehow throughout the course of writing (well, technically typing) all of those posts I managed to survive without a pair of $50 "Shalom Y'all" socks from Neiman Marcus with Jewish stars emblazoned on them. That was not a typo! $50 socks! My grandmother, who is of sound mind at 93 (keinahora!), presented me with these tacky looking socks to wear at our annual family Hanukkah party.

Arthur George by Robert Kardashian-Shalom Y'all Men's Socks (Neiman Marcus)

The look on my face must have conveyed to her what I was thinking at the moment of said gift presentation, which was something to the effect of, "I wouldn't wear these socks if I were stuck in the freezing tundra and all my toes had frostbite; not to mention I can buy 20 pairs of socks at Costco for 50 bucks!"

She gave me the receipt from Neiman Marcus listing the purchase of the Arthur George by Robert Kardashian holiday star socks and told me I should feel free to exchange them if I wished. At that moment, I was thinking I couldn't get myself to the mall fast enough... but not before I blogged about these corny socks. And by the way, wasn't Robert Kardashian one of OJ Simpson's attorneys and I thought he died several years ago. That last part about Robert Kardashian I must have said aloud, because my grandmother (who incidentally stays quite current on pop culture) then began to explain that the socks were from designer Rob Karshashian, who is the son of OJ's deceased lawyer and the sister of the Kardashian sisters of reality TV fame. My head was already spinning by the time she mentioned something about the former Olympic star Bruce Jenner and Kanye West. Thanks Grandma!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah 2014 Tech Gift Guide

I've been writing the "Jews in the Digital Age" column in the Detroit Jewish News each month for several years, but this was the first year I was asked to come up with a Hanukkah Gift Guide of techie gadgets and toys. I also wrote a similar tech gift guide for The Huffington Post Technology.

I tried to cover the practical (fitness wearables and phone cases) as well as fun techie toys. With Hanukkah beginning this evening at sundown and lasting eight nights, and Christmas in a little more than a week, last minute shoppers will still have enough time to order just about anything online and have it gift wrapped and shipped in time for the holidays.

The most popular gifts during holiday time in the 21st century have been technology-related. From HD flat-screen TVs and smartphones to gaming systems and e-readers, we're all shopping for the latest, greatest tech gadgets each year. With tech wearables and drones soon delivering our orders, we seem to be getting closer to living like the Jetsons. As a techie with an addiction to the latest, greatest tech gadgets, I have put together a short list of the best tech gifts for holiday shoppers this season. These gifts range in price so there's something for everyone.


Just about everyone on your holiday gift list has a phone and they need a durable, yet fashionable protective case. I looked at dozens of options (there are thousands of phone cases on the market because they are cheap to produce) and narrowed it down to a few that are the most protective and useful. Some cases are ultra-sturdy, but feel bulky and heavy. Most of the companies that make strong cellphone cases also offer a line of protective wear for tablets too.

Otterbox (various prices) is the hands-down winner when it comes to durability and protection. Otterbox feels like the toughest case and it's made of higher quality materials than most other phone cases on the market. It comes in a variety of color combinations and is available for both iPhone and Android models. Otterbox's Symmetry Series is a slim, one-piece protective case. There is also a Defender Series for more rugged protection and Commuter Series for on-the-go protection. To protect the screen, Otterbox makes Alpha Glass, a fortified glass screen protector.

Otterbox Review

iLuv's Selfy (retail: $40) is a durable case with a built-in wireless camera shutter. The shutter makes it easier to take great photos and videos without straining your arms or worrying about a shaky camera. It's also much easier for group shots that don't leave anyone out. The shutter is integrated into the case itself, sliding out when it's time to take a quick selfie, then fitting securely back into the case after the photos have been taken. The selfy case uses a dual-layer, shock-absorbent design that protects the device from everyday drops and bumps, making it perfect for the on-the-go use. When the selfy shutter is out of the case, one of six accessories easily slides in to take its place including a mini tripod, car mount, navigation and hands-free calling, as well as various mounts for action movies.

Amzer Crusta (retail: $35) - the world's first tempered glass embedded case. Its 4­ layer construction provides a rugged casing to combat any drops or spills and resists dust and dirt to preserve the smartphone. It uses a Kristal Edge2Edge Tempered Glass Screen Protector for high definition clarity and maximum touch sensitivity.


iLuv's FitActive Run (retail: $27.99) These earphones feature an ergonomic design with an in-ear brace so that they not only feel comfortable, but also stay in the user's ears no matter what the activity. These earphones were creatively designed to suit the needs of active people who enjoy being outdoors. These also have a convenient built-in microphone and remote to make it easy to answer calls and control music while on the move.

AfterShokz Sportz 2 Headphones (retail: $46.67) – I love these impressive headphones because they're not ear-buds so there's no problem with them ever falling out because they don't go inside your ear. This makes them safer too. They feature military special ops bone conduction technology, meaning they sit comfortably in front of the ear, keeping your ears open, while delivering stereophonic sound through the listener's cheekbones to the inner ear, permitting users to hear ambient noises such as oncoming traffic, car horns, ambulances or other warning noises. These come with a microphone that actually works well and they recharge through USB.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Best Hanukkah Videos for 2014

Each year I put together a list of the best Hanukkah videos for the year and this year I've really narrowed the list to only the best of the best. What makes a great Hanukkah video? Is it the music? Is it the quality of the video? Both?

The best Hanukkah videos are usually song parodies of currently popular songs, but just because you come up with the idea for a Hanukkah song parody changing Ariana Grande's "Love Me Harder" to a song about a Hanukkah menorah called "Light Me Longer" doesn't mean you can write the lyrics, sing it well, and produce a video that will garner a million views on YouTube. Some of these videos aren't song parodies about Hanukkah, but original songs or mashups of several Hanukkah songs. So here are the best new Hanukkah videos for this year (and scroll to the bottom for a surprise from one of my favorite comedians, JB Smoove):

Eric Schwartz (Smooth E) - 8 Hanukkah Song Parodies

Six13 - Chanukah - Shake It Off (Taylor Swift)

Maccabeats - All About That Neis (All About that Bass by Meghan Trainor)

Hanukkah Song Mashup - Elliot Dvorin and Key Tov Orchestra

Ari Goldwag - Chanukah Light

Dreidel (a capella) - Shir Soul

Lights featuring Shtar (by Brian K. Spector)

Shake It Off Hanukkah Edition - Adam Karol (Taylor Swift)

Glee - Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah

And here's the bonus Hanukkah video from the very funny JB Smoove, who has a wonderful performance in Chris Rock's new movie "Top Five," which I think will be one of the year's best movies. It turns out that Larry David's friend JB Smoove, who wished me "Shabbat Shalom" last year, has some questions about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah:

Happy Hanukkah everyone!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Michigan's Religious Freedom Act is Dangerous

Imagine a Jewish man speeding his car at dangerous speeds down a residential street. The police officer pulls him over for reckless driving, but the man explains that he was breaking the civil law because his religion demanded he get home before the Jewish Sabbath begins. He cites the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act as his defense and demands the officer let him be on his way. Of course, such a case would be ridiculous, but that is the slippery slope that we could face in my home state should this bill pass the State Senate and then be signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

While I am a rabbi and an observant Jewish person, I am opposed to this bill, known as Michigan HB 5958. Opponents of this legislation recognize that such a law would give people the ability to discriminate and use their religious tenets as a legal defense. Our country shouldn't let people use their religion as an excuse to break the law or discriminate against others. And that is precisely what this bill has the potential to do as I wrote in an op-ed published today on

Freedom of Religion Shouldn’t Be Unconditional

Have you ever heard of a rabbi who was against religious freedom? I certainly hadn’t until last week when I became one. Well, I’m not really against religious freedom per se, but I am against the “Religious Freedom and Restoration Act” (RFRA). That bill, known as HB 5958, was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives on December 4 and could soon be passed by Michigan’s Senate and then signed into law by the Governor. I am concerned.

Michigan's Religious Freedom and Restoration Act would mean more hardships and discrimination

It would seem that any congressional bill that advocated for religious freedom would be a good thing. After all, I believe that one of the most cherished benefits of living in a democracy like the United States is that we all have the right to practice our own faith. However, this bill, if signed into law, would have many negative consequences. (A similar bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor in Arizona.)

HB 5958 seeks to “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” which includes “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.” This language would allow individuals to choose not to service other individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Imagine if a bakery owner was asked to produce a wedding cake for two homosexual men who were getting married. Claiming that his deeply held religious beliefs forbid homosexuality and therefore gay marriage, the bakery owner would be able to legally refuse to sell this couple a cake. In other words, his bigotry would be upheld by state law.

Another example would be a Jewish pharmacist who refuses to fill a medicine prescription for a fellow Jew with gelatin capsules on the basis that selling non-kosher pills to another Jew violates a religious law he follows. Perhaps a Catholic pharmacist would refuse to fill a prescription for birth control pills or an abortion pill. How about a Muslim shopkeeper who could, under HB 5958, refuse to sell a bottle of wine to a fellow Muslim, citing his own Islamic beliefs.

A few years ago I debated this topic while leading a seminar for second-year medical students. The question posed to the group was whether it was ethical for a Jehovah’s Witness health care worker to refuse to perform blood transfusions based on religious belief. Could they simply request that another health care worker perform such a procedure, or might this lead to a situation in which each medical employee of a hospital would have the ability to refuse certain procedures based on their own religious affiliation, causing chaos and confusion, not to mention risking the patients’ health?

The intent of HB 5958 is to protect the religious rights of Michigan’s citizens. But it would actually allow for religious tenets to be used for discrimination against individuals. [...]


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Are Rabbis Getting Trained In Entrepreneurship?

About a year ago, my teacher and friend Rabbi Hayim Herring asked me to submit a guest post for his blog about how well I think rabbinical school programs prepared us rabbis for the rabbinate and what was missing from that experience. I was honored he asked me to submit this essay, but too busy at the time to sit down and contemplate what was absent from my rabbinical school program.

Finally, I gave it some thought and realized that many of the "tasks" I perform today as a rabbi draw upon skills I honed during my years at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but others are what I attribute to having an entrepreneurial spirit. While I personally enjoyed a wonderful experience while a rabbinical student and feel indebted to my teachers for helping to shape me as a rabbi, I realized that entrepreneurship as a subject was not something I remember being part of the curriculum at the Seminary during my time there.

In fact, during my final year of rabbinical school at JTS (2003-2004) I served as president of the Rabbinical School Student Organization and found myself, together with faculty members, my peers, and the school's deans, on a committee to begin the process of reshaping the rabbinical school curriculum. My contribution to this process was in proposing to offer an option for rabbinical students to take a few classes at the business school down the street at Columbia University. The problem that we faced on that committee was that there were only so many courses to put into the rabbinical school curriculum along with the requisite fieldwork, rotations and internships. Further, the faculty members were all protective of their courses and their individual department's role within the curriculum.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Buddy Bench in Memory of My Nephew

Today is a difficult day for my family. We should be celebrating the first birthday of my nephew, Rylan Foster Gelb, but sadly his brief life was cut short on his eleventh day from a rare genetic disease called Galactosemia. I never had a chance to meet Rylan or to hold him and that makes the grieving process all the more challenging for me. So today, instead of eating cake and opening birthday presents, we are mourning this baby boy.

However, as much as Rylan's death has been cause for grief and despair, it has also been the impetus for kindness. In the months following his death, my sister-in-law Stephanie and her husband Hylton, while deep in their own grief, desperately searched for ways to keep Rylan's memory alive. They came up with a few wonderful ways for people to perform acts of loving kindness and then pay those good deeds forward. They have used the tragic death of their newborn son to improve the lives of thousands of others in such a short time.

Stephanie and Hylton Gelb with their newborn son Rylan

In addition to creating the Kounting Kindness website in memory of Rylan and setting up a scholarship fund at The Galactosemia Association of Midwest America (GAMA), Stephanie and Hylton, together with our family and their friends, have dedicated a Buddy Bench at the elementary school behind our home. This Buddy Bench sits prominently on the playground of Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan (the same school that both Stephanie and my wife, Elissa, attended as children) and helps to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship among the young children.

Stephanie Lorfel Gelb stands behind the Buddy Bench, dedicated in loving memory of her son Rylan

The Buddy Bench helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness, allowing Rylan's memory to be kept alive through the increased joy of young children. What's so special for me about this Buddy Bench is that it can be seen from the windows of my home. Already in the few short weeks since it was dedicated, I have stood in my kitchen and looked outside to see many children taking advantage of the Buddy Bench. A child sitting alone on the Buddy Bench signals to others that he is lonely and needs a friend to play with. It also encourages children to perform a good deed by including others in their activities at school recess.

Children at Forest Elementary School sit on the Buddy Bench, dedicated in memory of Rylan Gelb

The Buddy Bench has the opposite effect of bullying because it strongly encourages children to be inclusive and kind to others. Just this past Shabbat, a six-year-old girl approached my wife and I to let us know that she found a new friend by going over to the Buddy Bench when she saw a little girl sitting there waiting for someone to approach her. What a significant way to bring more kindness into the world.

It's remarkable how the tragedy of an infant's death can bring about mitzvot. These acts of kindness have helped to bring a touch of joy to the memory of my nephew Rylan. It's a challenge to find ways to turn such a negative event into many positive initiatives -- especially during the grieving process -- but I give my sister-in-law and brother-in-law tremendous credit for what they have done. The kindness that Rylan has brought into this world is exponential and will only continue to grow. May the short life of Rylan Gelb continue to bring blessings into our world and make it a kinder place for everyone.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2014

    Senseless: Terrorism During Prayer

    I really didn't want to write this blog post.

    This morning, I thought about writing something about the tragedy in Jerusalem, but my stomach told me "no." I just didn't have the energy to do it. I awoke this morning feeling better than I had in the past couple of days as I was "down for the count" with the stomach flu. When my eyes opened at 6 AM, I thought about how I didn't feel nauseous. But then I grabbed for my phone, took one look at the "Breaking News Alert" on the screen, and then my stomach immediately returned to that queasy feeling I thought I had beaten.

    Through still sleepy eyes, I read something about a terrorist attack in a Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers. And then I read the words "gun, knives and axes." It was a bloody mess in the Har Nof synagogue. Miraculously there were only five murders. It could have been a lot worse. No doubt, the terrorists were planning a massacre.

    I didn't want to write about this. As David Horovitz expressed today, "Nobody wants to write on a terrible day like this, but there are some points that have to be made, nevertheless.

    Associated Press
    Today's terrorist attack really hit home. Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, one of the four rabbis who was brutally murdered while davenen (praying) had Detroit roots. He grew up a dozen miles from me in Oak Park, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit). He was a student at Akiva Hebrew Day School, the Orthodox cousin to Hillel Day School, the Conservative day school that I attended. No doubt we had mutual friends growing up. No one could have ever imagined that his life would be cut short in such a gruesome way. (3 of the 4 rabbis were American, including Rabbi Moshe Twersky, grandson of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.)

    Thursday, November 13, 2014

    Where Would I Be Without Rabbi Mort Hoffman?

    Every rabbi has a rabbi to whom they can point as the reason they are a rabbi today. Mine was Rabbi Mort Hoffman. Let me explain.

    I arrived on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, in late August 1994. I had returned from my first visit to Israel only weeks prior and was now frustratingly trying to figure out how to get back to Israel as soon as possible. The term "Gap Year" wasn't as popular twenty years ago as it is today, but I was regretting not registering for a freshman year program like USY's Nativ. I had fallen in love with Israel and was not excited about commencing my four year experience at MSU.

    During "Welcome Week," I received a call on my dorm room land line phone (remember, this was 1994!). The voice on the other end introduced himself as Rabbi Morton Hoffman of the local Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

    He told me that he had gotten my name from someone at the Michigan State Hillel house who said I could teach Hebrew at his congregation's religious school. I acknowledged that I had a Jewish day school education, spoke and understood Hebrew, but had no teaching experience. Rabbi Hoffman said that he didn't expect I would have had any teaching experience since I was a college freshman. He then went on to explain that his wife, Aviva, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be unable to teach her 4th grade class while she was undergoing aggressive treatment. Hebrew school was about to begin in a week and he was now scrambling to find a temporary replacement for her.

    Rabbi Mort Hoffman and Jason Miller (April 1998) at Michigan State University

    Sunday, November 09, 2014

    25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. All over Germany, this day is marked by somber and hopeful ceremonies. While it's a day to be celebrated in the name of freedom, it is also a difficult day for family members who had a relative killed while trying to cross from East Berlin into West Berlin.

    For me, I always associate the fall of European communism with my bar mitzvah which took place just over a month before the Berlin Wall came down. On October 7, 1989 I became a bar mitzvah at Adat Shalom Synagogue and pledged that was also celebrating that day in honor of my Soviet Twin, Alexander Proekt of Leningrad. It wasn't long after Alexander and I "shared" my bar mitzvah that his family was able to emigrate from the Soviet Union. While I was never able to connect with Alexander over the phone prior to my bar mitzvah date, I did send him a couple of letters. Last year I found him through the social network LinkedIn and we finally connected. Today, Dr. Alex Proekt, MD, PhD is an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he is part of a team uncovering new insights into how the brain recovers from anesthesia. Imagine, how much research, innovation and new technology the Western World would be missing out on had that wall not come down twenty-five years ago.

    A few years ago I had the chance to tour Berlin with other Conservative rabbis as part of a Germany Close Up program. After the conclusion of the formal program, I spent an entire afternoon with a private guide as we walked through what was East Berlin before the fall of German communism. Below are some photographs I took of remnants from the Berlin Wall and the surrounding area:

    Berlin Wall (Photo by Rabbi Jason Miller)

    Wednesday, November 05, 2014

    Rabbi Barry Freundel's Arrest and the Negative Light it Casts on Jewish Conversion

    In my first contribution to, I looked at the recent case in Washington D.C. of a well known Orthodox rabbi's arrest for voyeurism in the mikvah. This rabbi has been outspoken about only having the conversions overseen by select Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel considered valid. Here's the first two paragraphs and then the link to the full article:

    Conversion to Judaism is a tricky subject. To begin with, we Jews are never quite sure if we should be defined as a religion or a race – or both. If we’re a religion, conversion seems like a plausible concept, much like gaining membership to a private club with sets of rules and regulations to adopt. If we’re defined as a race – a peoplehood – then admission would seem only possible through birthright. The topic is also tricky because there are those who believe that conversion to Judaism should be a challenging endeavor and highly discouraged at the outset (hence the myth that potential converts should be rejected thrice before being accepted). Others, however, take a more welcoming stance, encouraging potential converts along their journey – without outright proselytizing.

    Mikvah (WikiCommons)

    Back in the summer of 2003, millions of Sex and the City fans watched as character Charlotte York – a prototypical WASP – explored conversion to the Jewish faith before marrying Harry Goldenblatt. The HBO series did a fairly accurate portrayal of conversion, even if it was lampooned in some areas for the sake of humor. Charlotte’s conversion process began with rabbis rudely rejecting her, but she ultimately found a rabbi who welcomed her into a course of learning that concluded with a ceremony at the mikvah – immersing herself in the ritual bath to complete the conversion. [...]