Sunday, May 01, 2016

Mother's Day Gift Guide - Tech Edition 2016

Mother's Day is coming up soon and if you're like me, you're thinking that mom, grandma and your wife are tired of getting flowers and massage gift certificates each year. It's 2016 and that means the women in your life will appreciate getting technology gifts just as much as your dad on Father's Day.

From tablets and fitness tracking watches to smart home appliances and high quality headphones, there are so many impressive tech gadgets to choose from this year for Mother's Day. Mom might not be craving a drone yet, but she'd appreciate a security camera or a smart scale to track her daily health. Most of these products are easy to use right out of the box so you won't have to spend a lot of time helping mom with the setup or teaching her how to use them. Whether you're shopping for an elderly mother this Mother's Day or you want to show your wife how much you appreciate all she does for your kids, you can't go wrong with any of these cool tech products -- and of course you'll find yourself wanting to borrow them too!

Here's a rundown of some quality tech products Mom will appreciate this Mother's Day:

LivSecure Home Security System - This is the best Do-It-Yourself home security kit on the market because it offers a 24/7 monitoring services in addition to being easy to install. The kit comes with an easy-to-use control panel, door/window sensors, a motion sensor, a smoke detector and a key fob. Users can add more sensors in addition to connecting smart thermostats, smart electrical sockets, garage doors, and indoor or outdoor security cameras. LivSecure uses for mobile monitoring, which means you can keep track of your home's security all day and night with your phone or tablet. If you want mom to feel safe, give her the gift of security. Use code MOMSDAY for free equipment. Prices vary based on plan and equipment.

Onanoff iPad Air Sound Cover - Imagine Mom's frustration when she's in her kitchen trying to follow a recipe on YouTube, but the sound of the hand mixer makes it impossible to hear the chef give the next instruction. Onanoff's Sound Cover solves that problem. It is a unique iPad Air smart cover with built-in flat NXT stereo speakers, offering powerful and high quality sound, boosting the iPad's volume by up to 400%. The covers come in gold, grey and tactical black and it is ultra-thin and lightweight. On sale for $129.99

Blink Security Cameras - Blink is a completely wireless, battery-operated system that delivers instant monitoring from any location through the Blink app. More homeowners are turning to security cameras to protect and monitor their homes and the majority of these rely on more than one camera. Blink is affordable and and it's easy to add more cameras. Blink is ideal for a new mom looking for cameras to keep an eye on the baby or for an elderly mother you want to keep safe. Comparable to Netgear's Arlo security cameras, Blink offers motion detection, 720p HD video capture, instant alerts and live on-demand streaming. 5-camera system $299 (add cameras $60)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Planting Trees for Future Generations

A few weeks ago one of the directors of Michigan BBYO (B'nai Brith Youth Organization) contacted me. She explained that as part of an upcoming retreat, the Jewish teens in BBYO were interested in planting trees near their BBYO Bittker Retreat Center and then dedicating each tree in a ceremony. She had heard that I used to lead such activities for Camp Tamarack in Ortonville, Michigan and asked if I would share my resources. Of course, I sent her my files from several years of these tree planting ceremonies and told her how meaningful they were. 

A week later I was asked to contribute a piece for "The People & The Book" section of the Jerusalem Report magazine that drew inspiration from the Torah portion Kedoshim. Knowing that mitzvot (commandments) for planting trees are given in this parashah, I began writing about my own tree planting experiences, discussing those ceremonies at Camp Tamarack. What follows is my contribution to the Jerusalem Report:

Trees for Grandchildren

The joy of planting for future generations

If I had to guess the first time I ever planted a tree, it was likely as a young preschool child on the playground behind Adat Shalom synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I don’t really recall planting that tree, but I know that it was an annual tradition for the little five-year-olds at the shul’s nursery school in the early 1980s.

The next time I was supposed to plant a tree was at a tree planting ceremony outside of Jerusalem during a teen tour following my graduation from high school. However, rather than actually planting trees, we instead donated money for trees to be planted on our behalf the following year since that year was a shmita year, meaning the soil of Israel was being left fallow in a seven-year cycle.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Passover

After Passover in the year 2000 I remember driving back from New Jersey to Manhattan after teaching a Hebrew School class. My classmate, Faith Friedman, was sitting next to me in the car telling me about how a fellow rabbinical school student had just had Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at his family's Passover seder. I listened intently to this second-hand story that David Fine had told Faith.

I couldn't believe what a great story this was. To have the First Lady and Chelsea Clinton sit at your family's Seder and participate must have made for a very impressive evening. President Bill Clinton didn't attend the Fine Family seder because he was meeting with Yasser Arafat at the time.

A few years ago I was in Berlin on a trip with fellow Conservative Rabbis and Rabbi David Fine was one of the participants. On the first night in Berlin, David offered to give me a guided walking tour of the city. After a two-hour walk he asked if I had any questions. I said, "Yes, tell me about that time the Clintons came to your parents' home for the Pesach seder."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Conservative Rabbis Are Missing an Opportunity with Kitniyot Ruling

Passover hasn't even begun, and I'm already frustrated with so much talk about food. Well, this year it's not hametz that is at the root of so many debates in the Jewish community, but rather kitniyot. Kitniyot is the Hebrew term for non-hametz food products like corn, rice, beans, and legumes, such as soybeans, peas, lentils, and peanuts that Ashkenazi Jews traditionally have not eaten on Passover for the past 700 years.

The Conservative Movement, of which I affiliate, announced a major change this past fall with regard to the permissibility of consuming kitniyot on Passover. Throughout the holiday, we are forbidden from eating (or even possessing) the five grains designated as hametz -- wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. While Sephardic Jews have always eaten kitniyot, Ashkenazic Jews have regarded them in the category of forbidden Passover foods for a few reasons that don't make sense anymore. The recent teshuvah (responsum) approved by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards really isn't as monumental as it sounds, because in 1989 Conservative Rabbi David Golinkin, in Israel, essentially overturned the ban on kitniyot with his own teshuvah.

Conservative Movement of Judaism Approves Kitniyot on Passover
The Conservative Movement of Judaism has approved eating kitniyot (legumes) on Passover.

While there has been so much debate over the past several weeks on the issue of eating kitniyot, that is actually not my concern. With the crazy political nature of the kosher certification world, I'm actually cautious about expressing my own opinion on the kitniyot debate as it would have significant ramifications for the kosher certification agency I founded eight years ago. My concern is not whether we should be eating rice cakes with peanut butter and corn tortillas with refried beans on Pesach (Passover). My focus is on the nature of these debates taking place this spring in Conservative synagogues throughout North America.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Maintenance Men: The Unsung Heroes of the Jewish Community

Like many who grew up in a synagogue, I can probably say that I had more opportunities to hang out with the custodian than the rabbi. As a 4-year-old preschooler at my synagogue in the early 1980s I just assumed that Earl Winfrey was the most important person in the congregation. As a young kid I knew that he was the guy who kept the place clean, made sure there were treats for Kiddush after services, and he had what seemed like a thousand keys hanging from his belt loop.

Mr. Earl, as I still address him to this day, would put his large hand on my shoulder and wish me "Shabbat Shalom" when I would come to shul with my grandfather in elementary school. He would tell me stories about my mother when she was a Hebrew school kid at the old shul building in the old neighborhood. He was there at my bar mitzvah and he was made sure the building was clean for my wedding too. When I think of those who had a major impact on me, I would include Mr. Earl along with the handful of rabbis and teachers in my life.

The summer before my bar mitzvah I worked at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit assisting the building manager. The federation building was still in downtown Detroit then (it later moved to suburban Bloomfield Hills), and my father, the federation's CFO, got me a job working maintenance with Earlie Butler. Earlie was an older African-American man who was so beloved at the Jewish federation that they were sending him on an all-expense paid trip to Israel that fall to show their appreciation. That summer was an important opportunity for me.

Earlie showed me what it took to keep a large building clean and operational on a daily basis. As a spoiled kid from the suburbs I spent that summer learning how to unclog toilets, polish brass doorknobs and get on my knees and use Murphy's Oil Soap (Earlie's favorite cleaning product) to make an old wood floor look new again. While the Jewish federation moved uptown the following year, the iconic Fred M. Butzel Building remains at 163 Madison Ave. in Detroit. It stands just beyond the center field wall of Comerica Park where the Detroit Tigers play. Each game I attend I look into the outfield at that building and reminisce about that pivotal summer when I began to appreciate the role of the custodian.

I thought back to my childhood at Adat Shalom Synagogue with Mr. Earl Winfrey and that memorable summer with Mr. Earlie Butler this past week. The cover story of the Detroit Jewish News paid tribute to synagogue custodians. The article began, "They are often the first to open up the building in the morning and the last ones to lock up at night. They work hard to make sure the furnace runs in the winter and the air conditioning is cool — but not too cold — in the summer. Because of them, the floors shine and the carpets are fresh right before the High Holidays and the start of Hebrew school."

It's so true that these mostly non-Jewish men have grown so connected to the synagogues where they work. These days, clergy and synagogue staff come and go every few years, but the men who maintain the synagogue's infrastructure become part of the fabric of the congregation. They are the caretakers of the facilities, but they are also part of the community.

Marvin Brown flanked by Rabbi Rachel Shere & Rabbi Jason Miller at Adat Shalom Synagogue

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Best Purim Videos 2016

Purim couldn't have come at a better time this year. With all of the horrible news in the world and a presidential race in the U.S. that's ruining friendships, we all need to take a deep breath and enjoy the celebration of Purim. This year's Purim videos will make you smile and maybe even dance. Many of this year's choices for the Best Purim Videos of the Year are from new contributors. Enjoy and Purim Sameach!

Esther's a Jew - Erez Cohen Music

"Purim at My House" - Rosenblum Shaloch-E-Manos

Purim 2016 #GMYMM - Meir Landau ft. Lipa Steinmetz

Chag Purim - Percapella Purim Grogger Mash-Up - Shir Soul

"Hello" Purim Parody from TBALA - Hillary Chorny

Bernie Sanders A Jewish Lip Reading

Esther vs. Haman: A Modern-Day Purim

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rabbis Must Double Down on Pop Culture

Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.

I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?

Pop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.

Rabbis and Pop Culture

So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Now Hear This

Talking to Jonathan Levine, the founder of Master & Dynamic, about crystal clear sound, gorgeous product design and his appreciation for high quality audio products begins to sound like a symphony playing in peak performance mode. Levine isn't your typical audio company head. He can talk endlessly about his collection of vintage headphones and the impressive sound studio he built at the headquarters of Master & Dynamic.

While there are a lot of expensive headphones on the market that look cool, a lot of times the sound quality is lacking for true audiophiles. Levine, a man obsessed with quality, is on a mission to only prioritize sound and style in his products. Master & Dynamic is finding tremendous success by sticking to Levine's commitment at a time when an increasing number of companies, musicians and celebrities are churning out costly headphones for listening to music on airplanes or at the gym, or simply to wear as a fashion accessory.

I'm not a very musical person (you don't want to hear me sing), but I have a good ear for high quality audio and appreciate listening to music emanate through a speaker or headphones that makes me get the chills when the sounds is superior. One of my favorite things to do at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is to sample the different over-the-ear headphones and try to determine which companies have successfully figured out how to get the richest sound quality from different audio devices. I also enjoy being invited into private rooms to listen to great music be played flawlessly through high end speakers from companies like Bang & Olufsen, Thonet &Vander and Bose.

The legendary Neil Young famously laments that it's impossible to get truly high fidelity sound quality from MP3s in our post-vinyl music age, but audiophiles don't need Young's Pono player to be fulfilled today. There are countless options available for anyone looking for higher quality than the free white  earbuds packaged with all Apple products, but for those with discriminating taste in audio quality and willing to pay premium prices there are some truly impressive audio products on the market -- from wireless headphones to Bluetooth  earbuds and from dynamic sound bars to high powered sound systems.

Here are some high end products I had a chance to sample (check the Web for pricing).

Earin - If you appreciate the clear sound of music, but don't want to deal with the wires (even wireless Bluetooth headphones have a small wire) you will love Earin. The extraordinary high fidelity quality of these Swedish-made  earbuds will excite every audiophile. These earbuds are placed in your ears like ear plugs and are comfortable with a surprisingly high quality sound. The design is beautiful -- even the packaging -- and Earn won the 2016 iF Design Award. In terms of battery power, I was able to get a full 10 hours of use from a single charge. A bass boost is available by downloading the companion app for iOS or Android.

Bose SoundTouch 10 - At a time when everyone in the family has their own personal music player with headphones, I've begun to miss the sound of beautiful music throughout the house. Bose will bring that magic back with its wireless music system. The SoundTouch 10 is small, but able to stream millions of songs from music services including Spotify, which has partnered with Bose. Using your home Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth devices, you'll be able to play any sound imaginable and introduce your kids to new music. Your smartphone becomes the remote control with the mobile app.

Master & Dynamic MW60 - These are the headphones that sit next to my bed and make bedtime something to really look forward to. Listening to music through the MW60 headphones will honestly make you hear music differently. The sound quality is in a class by itself. When I recently walked around New York City wearing these I was stopped a couple times with inquiries. I gently explained that Master & Dynamic's headphones were the major leagues to Dre's minor league Beats. These wireless Bluetooth headphones are built with only the finest materials and provide a rich, warm sound with a beautiful stainless steel componentry. They are durable, stylish and worth every dollar.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Judaism Now More Post-Denominational

The Jewish day school I attended for grade school and middle school was affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism. It was a member of the Solomon Schechter Day School Network, its headmaster was a Conservative rabbi, its curriculum was based on Conservative Jewish principles, and the rules that governed the school (e.g., kashrut) were predicated on Conservative Jewish doctrine. The vast majority of the approximately 500 students that made up the school were from families affiliated with Conservative synagogues. Only a couple handfuls of my peers at the Metro Detroit school came from Reform or Orthodox homes.

This all changed in 2008 when the school chose to disaffiliate from the Solomon Schechter network and become a community school. There were strong feelings about this decision on both sides, but ultimately the transition began and this school joined many other Jewish day schools around the country by shedding its Conservative movement ties. While the student body didn't grow much following this decision (although that had been the projection), the diversity of its student body has certainly been altered. There are now hundreds more Reform affiliated students in the school in addition to an influx of Modern Orthodox families.

At the time, I was surprised that the school made the decision to break with the Conservative movement because it had been a core part of the school's identity while I was a student there in the 1980s. I did, however, understand that this was just another move toward a post-denominational Judaism. Why would a day school limit itself by branding itself with one denomination when it could cast a wider net and attract more students? Waving the banner of post-denominational Judaism, day schools could also use the "Community School" appellation to explain away controversial policy practices.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Pope Francis Wrong to Criticize Trump's Faith

A few years ago I was a first-time guest on a news radio show on Detroit's National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate. Following the show, the host asked me if I'd like to be invited back for other topics that might concern me. I told him I enjoyed the discussion and would be interested. Not long after that, I received a call to return as a guest. When I asked what the program would be about, I was surprised that I had been invited. The topic for the full hour of the radio broadcast would be a review of the year in religion, but the focus would be on the new pope. Uh oh, I thought to myself, I better go read up on Catholicism in general and Pope Francis in particular.

It turned out that the host of the NPR show, Craig Fahle, was intrigued by the wide praise the new pope was getting from all faith traditions and wanted to hear from various local religious leaders what we thought of Pope Francis during his first year. Like the other faith leaders sitting to either side of me, I explained how Pope Francis seemed wonderful and charismatic. I talked about refreshing it was to see a pope break from tradition and put human rights ahead of doctrine. We discussed the pope's views on homosexuality and abortion, in addition to his close relationship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and his embrace of interfaith relations. When the discussion turned to the question of Papal Infallibility, a dogma of the Catholic Church, I explained that as a Jew I cannot say that any human being is free from error. No one is infallible because we all make mistakes.


That point was made last week when Pope Francis misspoke about Donald Trump's faith. While in Mexico, the pope was asked his views on presidential candidate Donald Trump. He said, "A person, who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian." My ears perked up when I heard the pope saying this on television. It didn't sound much different than ultra-Orthodox rabbis saying that liberal Jews aren't really Jewish.

I don't have a problem with Pope Francis making political statements, although he claimed his comments weren't intended to give any indication of how he thought American Catholics should vote in the upcoming election. My issue was that a religious leader saying that a man's views nullify him from considering himself part of a faith tradition are problematic. The pope can say he disagrees with Trump's stated immigration policies, but to say he's not Christian is a slippery slope. I remain impressed by Pope Francis and applaud his efforts in the realm of human rights and interfaith relations, but saying Donald Trump is not Christian warrants a papal apology.

Cross-posted to Rabbis Without Borders blog at