Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Another Rabbi Hijacked My Writer's Workshop Class Yesterday

This was my final post for the Rabbis Without Borders blog as I have chosen to focus my time on some of my other writing opportunities. For my final post I intended to write about how critical the Rabbis Without Borders program has been to my rabbinate and my thinking in general about the future of Jewish communities. I certainly could have written about that two days ago and I would have articulated how Clal's fellowship program has benefitted me in myriad ways and helped to expand my understanding of the "beyond borders" approach we religious leaders should be taking in 21st century Jewish life.

An experience that occurred yesterday, however, concretized the Rabbis Without Borders perspective even more for me. I've returned to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for the second year to serve on the faculty of Kenyon Institute's weeklong Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing workshop. My daily course focuses on using social media to further publicize ones writings on the internet. The class is made up of about 30 religious leaders (mostly clergy), of which about a quarter are rabbis.

In our second session yesterday I was discussing the benefits of blogging as a way to disseminate spiritual leaders' perspectives on the various issues of the day. I talked about how the medium of the blog gives us a borderless audience with which to share our "Torah" and bring comfort, inspiration and learning to a limitless amount of readers around the world. Immediately the hand of one of the rabbis went up and he began to challenge everything I had just said.

"This is a Ponzi scheme you're selling us," he said. The rest of the class just looked on in utter surprise. I questioned his use of the term, refusing to allow him to group me with a criminal like Bernie Madoff -- especially for the supposed "crime" of encouraging him to blog a few times a month and not bilking billions of dollars from innocent people. He went on to suggest that blogging would be a huge waste of his time because no one would read it. Furthermore, he argued that having a blog wouldn't get his congregation any additional members. He noted that he's already been watching his membership shrink over the years. Regrettably, I let him have the floor for a few more minutes as he criticized blogging and social media as a waste of time for rabbis.

Rabbi Jason Miller teaching at Kenyon College

I responded that the very nature of this writers' workshop, for which he applied, registered and is currently participating, is to take your writing beyond the walls of the brick and mortar congregation. I explained that if he's a good writer and has some meaningful perspectives to offer, he should try to extend his "Torah" beyond the reaches of his own synagogue and make it available to a larger audience. Moreover, I lamented his woeful perspective that his ultimate goal as a rabbi is to grow his congregation's membership rolls rather than to try to inspire more people -- potentially helping those in need with his enriching words. I then allowed some of the other rabbis in the room to refute his pessimistic perception.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Honoring Elie Wiesel

Jewish tradition tells us that Joseph, Moses and King David all died on Shabbat. Thus, it should be no surprise that the modern day prophet Elie Wiesel passed away on Shabbat as well. Wiesel, an educator, writer, humanitarian and visionary, died on Shabbat, July 2, 2016. He was the voice of the survivors of the Holocaust, as well as the voice for those who perished in the Shoah.

Like so many, I was fortunate to have the honor of meeting Elie Wiesel and hearing his words of wisdom on several occasions. He was an inspiration to millions around the globe. His books occupy a section of their own in my library because they seem to be their own genre. Wiesel was a leader, but more important he was a voice of reason in our fragile, broken world.

Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Jason Miller

Rather than trying to write a blog post to honor Wiesel, which feels impossible with everything he accomplished in his life and all of the deserving accolades he received, I'd rather share his own words below. What follows is Elie Wiesel's speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Price in 1996.

Monday, June 20, 2016

In Memory of Alan Weinkrantz

About 5 years ago I was in New York City to speak at a technology conference called #140edu. It was one of Jeff Pulver’s 2-day conferences sort of modeled after the TED Talks. On the evening before the conference was to start, Jeff hosted a meetup for the speakers and select guests. I arrived unfashionably on time and there were only a few others at this trendy NYC bar/lounge. A gentleman named Alan Weinkrantz walked up to me and said, “So, you’re the tech rabbi?” We talked to each other for most of the rest of the evening.

I was intrigued by the work Alan was doing in the tech world – both in the U.S. and in Israel. He tried to convince me to come out to Texas for SXSW later that year (and each year ever since). What I liked most about Alan was that in that first conversation, he seemed to get me. He thought it was just so cool that a rabbi was so entrenched in the technology world. He peppered me with all sorts of questions about how rabbis and other Jewish educators were using social media and mobile apps. He wanted to know which applications I used for Torah text and for reading other Hebrew documents. He asked which social networks I recommended to synagogues and how they should be using them.

Alan Weinkrantz

At the end of the evening, Alan told me he was creating YouTube videos of all of the speakers at the conference and asked if he could do a video interview of me the next morning. I explained that I was set to speak on the second day of the conference and actually had little idea about what I’d be saying. Somehow he still convinced me to do the interview… and I’m grateful he did.

Alan’s questions – both before he began recording and during the actual interview were essential to helping me construct my talk at the conference. Alan helped me frame my views of technology and social media that would allow me not only to deliver a more thoughtful speech at that conference, but Alan also helped me formulate the basis for my outlook regarding the intersection of Judaism and technology over the past few years.

A friendship with Alan Weinkrantz was formed at that conference in NYC that allowed us both to challenge each other and think deeper about the world of technology, social media and startups -- especially in the Jewish world and in Israel. The best part of meeting Alan for me was that he totally got me. When I explain to some people that I am both a rabbi and a technologist, they just look at me quizzically. Alan, however, just seemed to understand what that entailed and he thought it was so interesting how I managed to intersect those two worlds.

Alan would interview me again a couple years after that initial conference. We were both in Las Vegas for CES and Alan asked if we could meet up so he could ask me some questions about the Israeli startup companies that were exhibiting at CES. It isn't easy finding a mutually convenient time to meet anyone at CES and it isn't very easy to coordinate meeting locations because of the throngs of people in attendance. However, Alan and I were able to find some time (and find each other) so he could interview me for a Times of Israel video series he was doing on technology. It was great to see him and catch up. That was the last time I would see Alan although we corresponded by email and through social networks all the time.

On Saturday night as I was about to go to sleep in a hotel room, I got word of Alan's untimely death. He had been at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv (where he was spending more time lately) when a driver had a heart attack and drove full speed into the diners at the cafe. Alan and two others were killed. I immediately went to Alan's social networks to see recent photos of him. It was eerie to see the photo of his final meal that he had posted on Instagram, likely only moments before his demise. A friend of his posted that he had called her to join him for dinner that night, but she said she was too busy. As I perused the early responses on social media from friends who had just heard of Alan's tragic death, I was feeling intense grief, but I was also intrigued by the way we mourned this sudden loss through social media. And then I realized, that this was exactly a discussion that Alan I would have had.

I will forever miss Alan Weinkrantz, a visionary who was so amazed by technology. More than anything, Alan was a mensch. I'm grateful I got to become his friend, even if it was only for a handful of years. Yehi zichrono baruch, may the memory of Alan Weinkrantz be for blessings for all who knew him.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Don't Forget About the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot

Shavuot has become the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays. It gets no respect. Maybe even worse than not getting the respect this holiday deserves, it is often completely ignored by the Jewish community.

While Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals along with Passover and Sukkot, it seems to take a back seat in importance of many Jewish people's lives. While no American Jewish family would allow Memorial Day or Father's Day to go by without a proper observance, Shavuot just doesn't seem to factor in the lives of many non-Orthodox Jewish families. This year, Shavuot came late on the calendar, occurring just this past weekend after many Jewish day schools and synagogue Hebrew schools had already concluded the year. Even in leap years, such as the current Jewish calendar year, Shavuot arrives too early to get proper treatment at Jewish summer camps, which have historically taught Jewish youth to observe Tisha B'Av.

Ask most Jewish people to identify which holiday is the one with matzah and they'll all say "Passover." Ask them which is the one when we build temporary huts in the backyard to eat in for a week and they will correctly identify "Sukkot." Ask them which is the holiday when we celebrate receiving the Torah and some might respond "Simchat Torah," the second day of Shemini Atzeret when we return to the beginning of the weekly Torah readings again (in Israel, Simchat Torah is Shemini Atzeret). Even the Jewish holidays of less importance like Hanukkah and Purim receive heaps more of attention than Shavuot.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Father's Day Gift Guide - Technology Edition 2016

In the Digital Age, there are two types of dads. The first is the dad who would love to get any technology-related gift on Father's Day. The second dad doesn't realize he would love to get anything techie, but when he does he's excited and eager to open the box to set it up. As Father's Day 2016 approaches, the amount of eye popping tech gadgets is overwhelming. This year will be Dad's best Father's Day ever because of the cool tech products on the market.

From security cameras, smartphone controlled drones, and audio products to fitness trackers, smart appliances, and computers, this Father's Day will be Dad's lucky day. I put together a list of some of the most impressive tech gifts for this year. In addition to high end headphones and super fast routers, I tried to include some new products that will let Dad upgrade the home to a smart home. Not only will your father or grandfather appreciate a deadbolt lock that is controlled with his smartphone or a smart kitty litter contraption, but he'll love the chance to tinker with them during setup. All of these products are available on and at local stores. Many of these products are discounted during the Father's Day shopping season so check the Web for the best prices.

Here is this year's tech gift guide for Father's Day:

Raumfeld Stereo M and Raumfeld SoundBar - The German company Raumfeld only makes serious audio equipment for the true audiofile. These elegantly designed speakers deliver the only wireless multi-room streaming solution to fill any home with true wireless high fidelity sound. I set up the Stereo M in my living room and every member of my house can stream their own music selections to these beautiful speakers. The Soundbar hangs from my mounted flat screen TV in the family room and has transformed this room into a home theater with the most impressive sound imaginable. Raumfeld's free iOS and Android apps allow Dad's smartphone or tablet to control the speakers, toggle between his personal music collection, USB, internet radio, or one of the popular streaming services that Raumfeld supports, such as Spotify.

Netgear Nighthawk X4S Gaming Router - There's a reason this was ranked #1 for Best Router Performance this year. It boasts the fastest gaming performance of any comparable router with its 160MHz, MU-MIMO and Quad Stream technology, which delivers WiFi to multiple devices simultaneously for faster speeds. Dad will enjoy ultimate WiFi speeds up to 2.53Gbps. Plus with features such as NETGEAR genie remote access and ReadyCLOUD, Dad will be able to easily manage the network, have access to a secure personal cloud, access home network remotely, and share photos stored on the storage from anywhere. Dad will love this router and the rest of the family will benefit too!

Eleven James Membership Club - Known as the Netflix of watches, Eleven James is an annual membership club that gives Dad or Grandpa unprecedented access to hundreds of the world's most exquisite watch brands and styles. A membership to Eleven James will allow your father to pick his new luxurious timepiece and enjoy it for a few months at a time. Then he'll simply return the watch and a new one will be shipped right to his door. Their Concierge Team will help complete his personal profile building upon the favorites he's selected. Eleven James members are given preferential access to a multitude of member services and events, and also build points towards a watch purchase as they continue to rotate timepieces.

Kwikset Kevo and SmartCode 915 Touchscreen Electronic Deadbolts - For Father's Day this year, consider giving Dad an upgrade to some basic household devices. The traditional lock and key has probably not changed since Dad moved into his house. Kwikset has brought door locks into the 21st century with electronic deadbolts. With Kevo, there's no more fumbling for keys. Dad can use his smartphone to unlock the door and can even keep it in his pocket. The Kevo app is available for both Apple iOS and Android devices. Installing Kevo and setting up the app take less than 30 minutes and the instructions are very clear. If there are multiple people living in the home and you don't want everyone to have to use the mobile app or have a FOB with them, the SmartCode 915 is the best touchscreen electronic deadbolt on the market. It's easy to program and looks nice. It's available in polished brass, satin nickel or venetian bronze.

Litter-Robot III Open Air  - When it comes to litter boxes for cats, the traditional model comes to mind. However, modern technology has been used to create automatic self-cleaning litter boxes. The Litter-Robot III uses a patented sifting system to automatically separate waste from clean litter, so Dad will never have to scoop litter again and it helps remove odor too.  With an expansive litter chamber and larger, upward-facing entryway, this newer model of the Litter-Robot is more comfortable for large cats. A self-adjusting weight sensor easily detects small and larger cats. An automatic night light is a nice added bonus for elderly cats

BeoPlay A1 - Give Dad this BeoPlay portable Bluetooth speaker for Father's Day and he'll thank you immediately and then again every time he provides the music at the tailgate, family BBQ, beach party or by the pool. Beoplay A1 is small, but it has ambient True 360 sound. The rounded aluminium grill is beautiful like all BeoPlay products and this lightweight speaker will be something Dad cherishes. BeoPlay is an affordable offshoot of Bang & Olufsen, who have been known as a leader in the audio industry for decades.

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2045 Projector - We used to think of projectors only in terms of giving presentations at work, but Epson's Home Cinema 2045 wireless projector is designed to be a home entertainment hub. This powerful projector delivers full HD 1080p content from most devices. With 2200 lumens of color brightness and 2200 lumens of white brightness, Dad will be able to show HD movies to friends and family. He'll also be able to wirelessly stream content via Miracast and Intel WiDi or use his Blu-ray layer, gaming console, streaming device, tablet or smartphone and project up to 300".  Imagine how thrilled your father or husband will be to get this cinema projector and be able to show outdoor movies in the backyard this summer.

Aurvana Noise Canceling Headphones - There are so many high-end noise canceling headpones on the market, but many of these are over $200. Aurvana's version is under $150 and they are so lightweight that Dad will forget he's even wearing headphones. The soft leatherette earpads are very comfortable, they look stylish and the headband mirrors the contours of the head. No matter if your father is a frequent traveler or just wants to listen to his music without all of the extraneous sounds, he'll really appreciate these great headphones.

Maximus Smart Security Light - It might be your father's job to protect the family, but that doesn't mean you can't you can't give him a Father's Day gift to help him keep an eye on the house. Maximus isn't your typical porch light because it boasts an integrated 720p video camera enabling Dad to stream live surveillance video from the house to his smartphone. The mobile app receives real-time alerts when motion is detected at the door or around the house wherever the light is installed. The light also has a built-in speaker and microphone for conversations with the visitor or delivery person. The light also has a 100dB alarm that can be activated remotely using the app.

Logitech Harmony Elite - Let's face it... dads love remote controls. Even if many TVs and stereos can be controled by mobile devices these days, a powerful remote control is still the best. Logitech's Harmony Elite is an all-in-one remote control on steroids! It will control up to 15 home entertainment and connected home devices. With a full color touch screen, your father will simply swipe and tap to control channels, movies, volume, 50 favorite channels and smart home devices like Philips Hue lights. There are programmable one-touch activities like "Watch a Movie" to automatically power on and switch devices to the right settings. A nice feature is that the Harmony Hub lets you control devices in closed cabinets, or even when away from home. Best of all it works with over 270,000 devices including satellite or cable boxes, Apple TV, Roku, TiVo, Blu-ray players, game consoles, door locks, thermostats, sensors and more.

ALLie Home 360 Degree Interactive Camera - The ALLie camera will give any father or grandfather peace of mind because because he'll never miss those important moments in life. There's no more fumbling for a camera or smartphone to capture a child’s first steps or a pet's funny bloopers. ALLie isn't a security camera. Rather, it's meant to capture events in fully immersive 360° x 360° and then share them on YouTube or Facebook. He can also view what’s happening live in 4K hi-res. The cloud recordings will help your favorite guy go back in time and see what happened while you were away in the most immersive way possible.

Beastgrip Pro Wide Angle Lens and Fisheye Lens - There was a time when every Dad showed up at dance recitals, sporting events and graduations armed with an actual camera. In the modern days of phoneography, he's likely relying on the smartphone in his pocket to capture the memories. Beastgrip's products help the smartphone photographer by providing a better lens for higher resolution photography. The Beastgrip Pro is compatible with just about any smartphone and with the included Beastgrip DOF adapter, it's easy for Dad to mount SLR lenses to achieve a shallow depth-of-field and create unique photographs and videos with his camera phone. The included Beastgrip Wide angle lens lets him capture approximately 2x more of the picture in the frame than a just using a camera phone lens. The Beastgrip Fisheye lens has a 180° field-of-view allowing him to achieve unique visual effects for fun. Both lenses have a removable macro attachment that can be used separately for extreme close-up shots. Now all Dad needs for those important events are his phone and his Beastgrip Pro lens.

Parrot Jumping Race Jett MiniDrone - Drones have really come down in price over the past year, but if getting Dad a Parrot Bebop 2 is still too pricey, consider the less costly Jumping Race MiniDrone from Parrot. This agile and lightweight drone comes with an embedded mini camera that sends photos and videos directly to his smartphone or tablet plus a microphone and speaker capture and broadcast audio. This minidrone is Adapted for high speed with large racing tires and can be used both indoors and outdoors. It reaches speeds of up to 8 mph and jumps up to 2.4 feet high, always landing right back on its wheels to avoid damage. Dad will love the fact that he can record videos from the family picnic directly onto the internal memory.

DLink AC3200 Ultra WiFi Router - With so many tech gadgets in our homes, today’s families require an extremely fast router to support laptops, tablets, phones, Smart TVs and game consoles that are often all connected at the same time. DLink's AC3200 has Tri-Band technology and boasts speeds up to 3.2Gbps. There's no question this is the router to handle high-bandwidth activities like HD streaming and gaming. The best part about this router is that the entire family will be connected to high speeds even in the farthest corners of the house. Using Smart Connect Technology, the router chooses from the 3 Wi-Fi bands and automatically connects each device on your network to the best, clearest band available for the best connection every time.

Logi ZeroTouch Dashboard and ZeroTouch Air Vent - It might have only been a few years back that you taught your dad to text, but now he's a text messaging machine and that means you want him to put safety first when he's driving. These two gadgets from Logitech together give any driver a true hands-free, in-car experience that can provide the best features of a connected car. The mobile app is automatically triggered when Dad docks his phone to the magnetic air vent or dashboard mount, allowing him to use voice controls to text back and forth, place phone calls, and share his location with friends and family in real-time with Glympse. He can also stream his music using Spotify and navigate with Google Maps or Waze.

Audeze SINE Headphones - If your father or grandpa is an audiophile, you'll definitely make this a Father's Day to remember with a pair of Audeze Sine headphones. These are a high end, premium pair of headphones with serious sound quality. Planar magnetic headphones, like the SINE, combine acoustic engineering with beautiful craftsmanship. They are light, comfortable and will transform Dad's listening experience for music and movies. There's very low distortion, good bass, a seductive mid-range and crisp extended high frequencies. At $499 these are not inexpensive headphones, but if siblings are pooling their money for an extravagant gift, you'll want to order a pair of the SINE headphones before Father's Day.

Lima - What started as a Kickstarter project is now one of the best Father's Day gifts for under $100. Lima lets Dad build a personal cloud in just seconds. He'll install the Lima device by plugging it to his router and to an external hard drive. In the blink of an eye, it will enable him to access all of his files from any device. He'll never complain that there's no more space on his computer or smartphone to take photos or download big files. If he's worried about security, Lima uses Military-grade privacy, it syncs quickly and there are never any fees.

Ballistic Case - So, Dad finally came around and got a new smartphone. Now, he needs a sturdy and fashionable case to protect it. Ballistic makes some of the best phone cases around. They offer inexpensive models like the Jewel for iPhones, which are under $20, and they also sell more durable options like their Hard Core Tactical which retail for $100 and have even better drop test certification. All of Ballistic's cases have reinforced corner and six-sided drop protection, but for the most protective option go for a case with screen protection too.

HUDWAY Glass HeadsUp Display -
 Driving has certainly become more dangerous as drivers are moving their eyes from the road to their GPS device, in-dash navigation or a smartphone running Google Maps or Waze. In an effort to bring more safety to drivers by freeing them from these navigational distractions, HUDWAY has created a new HeadsUp Display. It projects navigation information off of a smartphone screen directly in the driver’s line of sight, so that drivers can focus on the road ahead without being distracted.  The glass is semi-transparent and allows the driver to see both the navigation information and the actual road at the same time, just like the HUD screen in luxury vehicles. After installation, your dad would need to download any HUD-based app of his choice. A Kickstarter project, HUDWAY Glass will be released on the market this August, but a pre-order would make a wonderful Father's Day gift, plus pre-orders are still available at the discounted price of $49 instead of the eventual retail price of $79.95.

Rowkin Mini - The Rowkin Mini is the world's smallest, wireless earbud on the market making it easy to fit into the ear. If your dad loves listening to music, but hates the cord or even having a band connecting the left from the right earbud, he'll love the Rowkin Mini. They look and feel like two small dots in your ears and are virtually invisible. Using Bluetooth 4.1 technology the Rowkin Mini connects to any smart device and the tiny earbud has a built-in mic to easily make phone calls. They come with a portable charging case. If your father is the type who loves the latest technology available, he'll go crazy when he unwraps his new Rowkin Mini earbuds.

Vitrima VR Lens - If Dad got a GoPro for last Father's Day, you'll want to up his game this year. Vitrima's VR Lens transforms his GoPro. It's a 3D action camera lens that requires no additional processing to capture 3D video. After shooting video with Vitrima, it can be viewed in immersive 3D using a virtual reality headset or viewer like Google Cardboard. A waterproof is pre-attached to a standard housing so it's ready to be mounted to standard accessories. A lightweight version quickly snaps onto the front of the GoPro camera for easy filming of video without a housing. The price is $129 for the waterproof version and $99 for the lightweight version. I couldn't believe how easy it became to shoot 3D video with Vitrima and I'm sure your dad will love this inexpensive upgrade to his GoPro.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Honoring a Homeless Woman Who Died in a Hit and Run

In Judaism, one of our most important mitzvot (commandments) is what is known in Hebrew as chesed shel emet. Loosely translated as dignity for the deceased, we Jews believe that every human being deserves to be buried back in the earth with respect and honor.

In my twelve years as an ordained rabbi I have had the chance to fulfill this commandment countless times by officiating at funerals. This past week was the most unique funeral I have ever been a part of and it was also one of the most meaningful examples of chesed shel emet.

Over a month ago I received a phone call from a Christian funeral home in Mount Clemens, Michigan. While Mount Clemens had a Jewish community a couple of generations ago, I don't believe there any Jewish people living there now. The funeral director, Michael Kolb, told me that he had an unusual case of a Jewish woman who died and asked if I would officiate at the funeral in Port Huron. I knew this was an odd situation because according to Jewish custom, we bury our deceased immediately after death meaning that most funerals I officiate take place a day or two after I'm called. In this situation, Mr. Kolb asked me if I was available for a funeral a month later.

He then explained the situation to me. It turned out that a homeless woman named Eleanor Denise Smith was killed in a hit and run accident in Port Huron last year. She had identification in her belongings, but without confirmation from a family member, investigators couldn't positively identify her. After someone mentioned that they knew her from San Francisco, a chest X-ray from there was found in late November, providing a positive identification.

Kolb did some research and found that Smith's mother was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Port Huron. Port Huron also once had a small Jewish community, but now there are only a handful of Jews left and the cemetery doesn't even sell burial plots anymore. Kolb wanted to do the right thing and bury Smith beside her mother at the Jewish cemetery in Port Huron.

Before Smith was positively identified as a Jewish woman, her body was given to Kolb's funeral home in January and cremated there. Kolb then launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign in February to raise the funds to bury Smith with her mother. After a few days there wasn't much money raised, however, following an article in the Times Herald donations began pouring in and finally reached $2,880.

The funeral services for Eleanor Denise Smith were held this past Wednesday at Mount Sinai Cemetery in Port Huron. Close to twenty people, all of them strangers to Smith, gathered around the grave site for the burial. Since there were no relatives in attendance, I began the eulogy by explaining that our community and everyone gathered around the graveside are the family of Eleanor Denise Smith. I explained how we were each fulfilling the commandment of chesed shel emet and ensuring that one of God's children returned to the earth with dignity. I feel honored to have been able to have a small part in ensuring that Eleanor Denise Smith had the funeral that she deserved.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Holocaust Survivor Sings National Anthem at Detroit Tigers Game

It's not unusual for a big name celebrity to sing the National Anthem at a Detroit Tigers' home game at Comerica Park if it's the Postseason. I've heard the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Zooey Deschanel, Demi Lovato and several others during the playoffs. However, when it's a regular season game, the National Anthem is usually sung by someone local who has a good voice. This can be a military veteran, a local cantor, a school choir or even the cast of a local stage performance (the cast of Mitch Albom's "Hockey, the Musical" sang the National Anthem before a Tigers home game last week.

Across town at Joe Louis Arena, the Detroit Red Wings don't invite anyone to sing the National Anthem. Singer Karen Newman has had a lock on that job at Red Wings games for over 20 years. The fans love Karen Newman's rendition and the players consider it a good luck charm before games.

Perhaps the most famous rendition of the National Anthem was by Jose Feliciano, who set off a firestorm when he performed his own soulful arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner at Detroit's Tiger Stadium before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. He had been invited by Tigers' broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell and many around the nation were outraged by his rendition. Harwell stood up for Feliciano and the two became lifelong friends.

It's unusual for the National Anthem at a sporting event to get much media attention unless something goes horribly wrong like the singer is off key, forgets a line, inserts a different word or trips on the way out to the field or court. Whitney Houston's Super Bowl rendition garnered national attention because it was so beautiful, but that is unique. This past Saturday afternoon's rendition of the National Anthem before a Detroit Tigers' home game at Comerica Park has been covered by CNN, People Magazine and a host of other media outlets -- and for good reason.

Hermina Hirsch with Detroit Tigers mascot "Paws"
Hermina Hirsch with Detroit Tigers mascot "Paws"

Holocaust survivor Hermina Hirsch, age 89, had singing the National Anthem before a Detroit Tigers game on her bucket list for many years. She's a native of Czechoslovakia and has been a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. When Hermina was was only 17-years-old, her family members were sent to different concentration camps. She and her older sister were shuffled between five concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before finally being liberated in January 1945. Hermina has lived in Metro Detroit for over 60 years and currently lives in Southfield.

Before the Tigers' season began in April, Hermina's family, including her granddaughter Stacey Hirsch, with whom I attended Bloomfield Hills Andover High School, began a social media campaign to get the Detroit Tigers organization to invite Hermina to sing the National Anthem before a home game. A few people, including Stacey's cousin Amy Gantz Gers, asked me for help and I was glad to get the word out on my social networks and also suggested the names of two executives in the Tigers organization who might be able to expedite the request. After the local Detroit news media picked up on the story, as well as a few national media outlets, the Tigers acted quickly to invite Hermina to sing the National Anthem.

Hermina was escorted to the game this past Saturday at Comerica Park against the Tampa Bay Rays by her husband Bernard Hirsch of 69 years (who is also a big Tigers fan) and other members of her family. She did a wonderful job singing the National Anthem and the Tigers got a big win, beating the Rays 5-4 with home runs by Cameron Maybin, James McCann and J.D. Martinez. After the game Hermina told CBS Detroit News, "At my age, I figure that this would do it. I don’t want to die before I sing at a baseball game."

Hermina Hirsch sings the National Anthem before Detroit Tigers game

Even People Magazine picked up the story and included a photo of Hermina by my friend Jorge Lemus. Unfortunately no one at People Magazine caught the error in the magazine stating it was a Detroit Lions game rather than a Tigers game! Oh well, the bottom line is that Hermina Hirsch can cross this momentous experience off her bucket list.

Friday, May 20, 2016

LL Cool J is a Good Friend to the Jews

I just read an article in the Jewish Journal about a recent appearance that rap legend LL Cool J made at a benefit for The Ulmer Institute. The article, titled "LL Cool J discusses his Jewish friends, Israel and more," includes an interview LL Cool J gave at the event.

Rap Legend LL Cool J with Rabbi Jason Miller
LL Cool J with Rabbi Jason Miller

The event Wednesday night supported TUI, which focuses on treating, researching and training around trauma relief for using methodologies developed by Israeli psychiatrists. Its founder, Faith Central Bible Church Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, is a friend of LL Cool J, who served as an honorary host of the event.

I'm not at all surprised that LL has been getting more involved with the Jewish community, Black-Jewish relations, and that he expressed interest in visiting Israel soon. I had the chance to shmooze with him a few years ago and he told me then that he was hoping to get to Israel soon.

LL Cool J even offered a "L'chayim" greeting to me on video:

Here is the complete interview with the Jewish Journal:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Advice for Rabbis Giving Advice to Bar and Bat Mitzvah Teens

The first time I officiated at a bar mitzvah was when I was the visiting rabbi at a young congregation in Virginia during my senior year of rabbinical school. I was a 27-year-old without children and not quite sure what to say to a 13-year-old Jewish teen. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was tirelessly trying to determine what advice I'd have for this yet-to-be-born child, let alone come up with some meaningful words of a wisdom for a teenager. I tried to channel what my own rabbi had said to countless bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls over the years as I sat in that congregation.

I don't recall exactly what I said to that young man in Virginia, but it was likely a trite bar mitzvah charge in which I said he's the future of the Jewish people, and I encouraged him to continue his Jewish education and the performance of God's mitzvot (commandments) as he walks humbly in God's presence... or something uber-rabbinic like that.

Rabbi Jason Miller giving words of advice to a bar mitzvah boy in January 2004

I reflected on that moment last week after seeing a question that came through one of the rabbi discussion groups to which I'm subscribed. A first-time congregational rabbi asked what other rabbis like to say when they have that special moment to speak personally to the bar or bat mitzvah toward the end of Shabbat services. Some rabbis chimed in that they try to focus on what a wonderful job the bat mitzvah did of preparing for the day and how well she performed. Other rabbis suggested praising the bar mitzvah for his mitzvah project and congratulating them for taking the time to perform this act of charity. These are all kind and meaningful sentiments to offer to these Jewish teens on the biggest day of their lives thus far, but the more I thought about it the more I considered that we rabbis should take a different approach to speaking to the bar and bat mitzvah teens who stand in front of us during what might be the most impressionable period in their lives.

Friday, May 13, 2016

2016 Graduation Gift Guide - Tech Edition

For the past several years at this time of the year I've put together technology gift guides for "Grads and Dads." It made sense since "dads" rhymes with "grads" and, after all, Father's Day does always fall around graduation time. This year I've realized that the tech gifts that an 18-year-old high school graduate or a college grad might like are not necessarily the same that your 60-something-year-old dad would want for Father's Day. So, I've gone through hundreds of offerings and put together two separate lists of amazing gifts -- one for the grads and one for our dads.

Today's high school and college graduates are difficult to buy tech gifts for. This is the generation that has grown up with their own smartphones and tablets. They don't know what it's like to ride in a car without GPS and texting their friends from their Apple Watch has become second nature. There are some ideal gifts for this cohort when you consider they care about style, enjoy listening to their music everywhere and they love taking and sharing photos.

Featured: HP Envy Curved All-in-One - This is the ideal all-in-one computer for the incoming college student or the recent college grad. There's not enough space in this article to fully explain how cool this product is, but I'm guessing that HP named it the Envy because the graduate who gets one of these as a graduation gift will be the envy of her friends. This model is the world's widest curved all-in-one PC and its 34-inch diagonal curved display will truly impress. As if the display isn't enough, the state-of-the-art audio by Bang & Olufsen turns this all-in-one into a rockin' entertainment system with dynamic sound. With a 6th generation Intel Core processor, up to 16GB of RAM, the Intel RealSense 3D Camera and NVIDIA GeForce 960A graphics, this is a powerful computer for a dorm room or first home. Available with Intel Core i5 or i7.  $1,649.99 (i5)

Hurom HK Slow Juicer - There was a time when college students survived on Ramen noodles and soda. Today's students are more health conscious and eating healthy is a priority. This hi-tech slow juicer from Hurom would be a valued addition to any dorm room or sorority house. The Hurom has a patented Slow Squeezing Technology that operates at only 43 rotations per minute, which allows it to cold-press raw foods, extracting the smoothest, most delicious juice that is full of nutrients. The Hurom has a compact footprint and an elegant design. Available in Wine and Ivory colors. $439

Parrot Bebop Drone 2 - College campuses are the ultimate places to capture beautiful video footage from the skies with a new drone. The Parrot Bebop Drone 2 would make a wonderful gift for the high school graduate looking to impress his friends at college this fall. I loved flying my original Bebop drone, but my only gripe was the short battery life. This second iteration of Bebop is the first leisure drone in the 500 gram category with a 25 minute battery life giving it almost twice the amount of flying time as its predecessor. With a reinforced structure and flexible propellers, Bebop 2 is sturdier too. It boasts a 14 megapixels camera and shoots 30 frames per second of video. Too bad they didn't have drones when I graduated high school! $499.99

Behmor Connected Coffee Brew System - While a coffee maker has long been a staple gift at graduation time, it's the 21st century and that means young people should have a smart coffee maker with an Internet of Things (IoT) platform. This allows the college student or recent grad to customize her cup of joe and control it from her smartphone with accuracy. From anywhere on campus, the student can use the app to connect to the Behmor Brew System and make a personalized cup of coffee. $299

STM Haven Laptop Backpack - STM makes the most stylish computer laptop backpacks around and they rolled out their new Velocity Collection earlier this year. Students schlep their laptops everywhere and that means across campus on a bike or on foot rushing to class. The STM Haven is a 15" backpack that comes in four colors, offers ample space and most important -- superior protection for the computer. It features STM's patented CableReady Organization and Air Channel Comfort technology to provide extra ventilation and comfort. I receive compliments all the time for my Haven backpack, especially at the airport. $99.95

Polaroid Cube+ HD Action Camera - Have a graduate on your shopping list who is active and loves sharing videos of their activities? The Polaroid Cube would be a fitting gift for them. With 1080p HD video, a 124 degree wide-angle lens and a long lasting battery with 90 minutes of life, a 128 GB Micro SD, and bumper case this is the ideal action camera. The magnet on the bottom of the Cube lets the user stick it to a helmet, skateboard or any metal surface for amazing video results. Accessories include a helmet mount, waterproof case and bike mount. This new model looks basically the same as the original Cube, but has some major improvements in its features like Wi-Fi. $149.99

Ronin Element Phone Case by ElementCase - Not all phone cases are created equally. A nice graduation gift would be a sturdy and stylish smartphone case and these can be purchased for around $50. ElementCase, however, has designed a high-end case with highly refined style that is much more expensive than your average case, but worth every penny. The Ronin Element case is available in Bamboo, Walnut and features impact resistant Precision Modular Chassis, CNC machined wood side rails, a genuine top grain leather wrapped back plate and a matching top grain leather pouch included. Anyone fortunate enough to receive this case as a graduation gift will appreciate its design and craftsmanship. $199.95

weboost eqo Phone Signal Booster – Every high school and college grad has their own cellphone. It is 2016 after all! The biggest complaint these young people have is when they can’t get a good cellular signal for their phone. This could be their campus apartment building with old walls or a fraternity house with poor connectivity to local cellular towers. The eqo booster from Weboost solves this problem. With a 1500 square foot coverage area, urban gain strength and the fastest network speeds, this device will be a godsend for young people. It’s set up for multi-user so it will vastly improve cellphone quality for many individuals in the same house or apartment – everyone’s phone gets boosted automatically and it works with all devices. Setup is simple and quick (minutes). $349.99.

BlackRapid Sport R-Strap – There’s no better gift for the photography aficionado who is graduating this spring than high quality accessories. Photography is an expensive hobby and lugging around a heavy SLR camera can get tiring. BlackRapid makes these best photography accessories because they keep both comfort and style in mind. The Sport R-Strap is perfect for the active photographer as it has an ergonomic fit and a “Brad” (underarm stabilizing strap) to keep the camera close during extreme adventures. $73.95

Leef iAccess iOS microSD Reader – Young people love shooting videos and photos with their phone, often maximizing the amount of space. Rather than having to move all this data to a computer, the cloud or a storage device, Leef came up with the iAccess iOS microSD Reader. This memory solution is expandable in nature, allowing you to never be limited by the quality or quantity of footage you want to view or edit on your iPhone or iPad. Simply attach the reader to the iPhone or iPad and insert a mobile memory card.  Leef also sells iBridge Mobile Memory, a storage solution for iOS or Android that adds up to 256 GB to your device. $49.99


Master & Dynamic ME05 - A true music lover would really appreciate these high end earphones from Master & Dynamic. The company has developed a reputation for sound, durability, and style in only two short years in business. These beautifully designed earphones come with extra pairs of silicone ear tips, replacement acoustic filters, a leather storage box and a cable clip. Sure the price tag seems high for earbuds, but after the graduate listens to one song with the ME05s, trust me you’ll see the price was just right. Comes in brass metal, palladium, black metal and gunmetal. $199.99

BeoPlay H7 - After four or more years of hard work in college, your favorite graduate deserves premium headphones. This over-ear model from BeoPlay will cause any young music lover to realize that Beats by Dre might be the popular headphone choice, but it’s not the quality choice. These wireless headphones are comfortable and produce the most amazing sound quality you’ll ever hear. One charge and they’ll last an entire day. An intelligent battery-saving feature will turn the headphones off after 15 minutes of idle time. To control the headphones, simple finger gestures on the side will answer calls, switch music tracks and adjust the volume. $449

RIVA Turbo X Portable Speaker - Portable Bluetooth speakers are very hot right now. The ability to connect a phone to a portable speaker and let your friends enjoy your music is key for young students and grads. RIVA's Turbo X is a personal entertainment system that is compact, stylish and boasts beautiful sound quality. With RIVA’s ADX Trillium technology for truly immersive sound, Trillium Surround for an enhanced movie & gaming experience and a turbo mode to boost music up to 100 dB, this model is at the top of its industry. $299

3D Sound One Audio Headphones - These wireless headphones are priced more affordably than the BeoPlay model, but still offer high quality drivers (40mm) and a strong battery life (18 hours). They charge with a micro-USB connector and are lightweight enough to forget you’re even wearing them. These headphones are ideal for the gamer or graduate who loves watching movies with some audio privacy. $249

AfterShokz Trekz Titanium - I’ve been a big fan of AfterShokz headphones for years and for good reason. They are comfortable, boast high sound quality and have a unique design. They make a great graduation gift for anyone who is active. These headphones don’t go into the ear or even over the eart. They sit comfortably close to the ear using bone conduction technology so you can still hear your surroundings for safety. Trekz Titanium are lightweight, deliver premium music play and are designed with athletes in mind – sweatproof and secure. $129.99

BlueParrott B350-XT Noise Canceling Bluetooth Headset – Hands down this is the best noise cancelling headset product based on both quality and comfort. VXI won a CES innovation award in 2015 for this headset. A special Parrott Button can be set to mute, speed dial and or several other options. When it’s noisy in a classroom, dorm room or apartment, these are ideal noise canceling headset that will cancel up to 96% of ambient noise. It’s easy to stream music or GPS directions to the headset and connecting to a phone is simple with NFC pairing. Battery life is 24 hours and the headset recharges with micro USB. $129.99

Creative iRoar Sound Blaster Speaker - This has been billed as “the Most Intelligent Speaker on the Planet.” The Creative iRoar is designed to provide the best audio performance despite its small size. The sounds is clean and accurate, making this a definite favorite gift this graduation season. The best characteristic of this speaker is its ability to be personalized with a platform that allows for value-added third-party add-ons. With a huge 20-hour battery life, Creative iRoar is one of the best portable Bluetooth speakers on the market. No surprise it was honored with a 2016 innovation award at CES. $369.99

CordCruncher Tangle Free Earbuds - For those looking for a much less expensive option for the graduate, have a look at CordCruncher’s array of fashionable and colorful tangle-free earbuds. Using their patented tangle free cord management system, these earbuds are designed and engineered to never get tangled. No one enjoys taking the time to untangle earphones so this will make a practical gift. They are available in 4 colors: cobalt blue, glo green, poppin pink and gun metal gray. $20.99