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 Time.com, 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. [...]


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Attention Seinfeld Fans: Read This Book by Peter Mehlman

Peter Mehlman's new book was recommended to me by several people before I finally picked it up and read it over the course of a rainy weekend. You may have never heard of Peter Mehlman, but like me you probably were a fan of Seinfeld. And Peter Mehlman, like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, is one of the guys we have to thank for the wit, wisdom and shear brilliance that was the Seinfeld TV experience of the 1990s.

I must say that I was hooked on Mehlman's book, It Won't Always Be This Great (Bancroft Press, 2014), from the opening few lines. He writes:

When did being me become a full-time job? I know, it sounds unseemly to imply that you never considered yourself self-absorbed but, before the events I'm about to describe, I'd never given it any thought. So there you go, right? Maybe not. Either way, everything changed last December and it's important for you to know right off -- I haven't told this story to anyone, not even God.

Mehlman, a sports writer who used to write for the Washington Post, was a writer and producer for Seinfeld. After meeting Larry David in L.A. back in 1989, Mehlman gave him a sample script which ultimately became the Seinfeld episode "The Apartment." Over the next eight years of the Seinfeld show, Mehlman would coin such famous pop-culture phrases as "Yada Yada" and "shrinkage."

Seinfeld Writer Peter Mehlman's New Book

Monday, October 13, 2014

Luach has Launched: A Jewish Calendar App for iPhone

Back in the late 1990s I became a bit of a personal digital assistant (PDA) snob. I was enamored by the handheld gadgets that, all of a sudden, were able to do so much more than the simple electronic organizers of previous years. The early and mid-1990s saw the growth of these PDAs with the Sharp Wizard line that allowed the user to maintain a calendar and phone contact database along with some games, a memo pad for notes and a calculator. When the 3COM’s Palm Pilot came out, the PDA became a smaller, more powerful device. And I liked to get the latest one on the market.

I went through each generation of Palm device and then experimented with the Handspring Visor. No matter which device I was using at any given time, a requirement was that it had the Luach app installed. Luach, created by Penticon Technologies, was the most robust Jewish calendar for PDAs on the market. With a Hebrew font interface, it made the PDA with Luach an essential technology for everyone from rabbis and Jewish educators to Jewish funeral directors and rank-and-file observant Jews. One of the most difficult aspects for so many when transitioning from a Palm or Handspring PDA or smartphone to one of a newer iPhone, Blackberry or Android device in the last decade was sacrificing the Penticon Luach.

As an early adopter and supporter of Penticon and its Luach app twenty years ago, I became friendly with the developer, Howie Hirsch. Based in Israel, Hirsch would let me serve as a beta tester for future released versions of Luach and I would in turn give my advice – both from a technical perspective as well as from my vantage point as a rabbi. After making the switch to an Android device several years ago I began to pressure Hirsch to develop a compatible version for both Apple’s iOS as well as the Android platform.

Penticon Founder and Luach Developer Howie Hirsch in Jerusalem
Penticon Founder and Luach Developer Howie Hirsch in Jerusalem

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Why I Spoke About Sukkot in My Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The beginning of my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year had the congregants confused. I opened my sermon by wishing everyone "a very happy and healthy... Sukkot!" By the expressions on the faces of the people in the first few rows I could tell people were puzzled by my greeting. However, I didn't grab the wrong sermon by mistake. I didn't fall a few minutes earlier, hitting my head and then erroneously thought it was a different holiday.

I really did intend to wish everyone a Chag Sukkot Sameach - a happy Sukkot festival. Why did I choose to talk about Sukkot when that holiday is actually two weeks after Rosh Hashanah? I'll explain. I'm realistic about the fact that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there are the biggest crowds gathered together in the synagogue. However, when the Sukkot festival arrives a couple of weeks later there won't be nearly as many people gathered together. And that’s a shame.

Sukkah for Jewish Holiday of Sukkot

So, I decided that I'd use my main speaking opportunity during the first day of Rosh Hashanah to teach about Sukkot, explaining why it's my favorite holiday and encouraging families and individuals to return to the synagogue on Sukkot to experience a fun holiday (without sounding like I was giving a guilt trip). I won't know what type of impact my words had until Sukkot, but in most synagogues it's a culture that will take several years to change. Incidentally, I'm told that while the problem of Jewish people attending synagogue services in droves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but then not returning for Sukkot is not only a problem in the Conservative and Reform congregations. Modern Orthodox rabbis tell me that they see a drop off in numbers on Sukkot as well, albeit not nearly as drastic.

In my sermon I was careful to not sound like I was admonishing anyone for not embracing the Sukkot festival, but I also strongly encouraged everyone to try an aspect of Sukkot this year (i.e., buy a lulav and etrog set, build a sukkah, visit a neighbor's sukkah, etc.). I explained how I thought it was a shame that so many Jewish people haven’t fully experienced the joy and fun that is Sukkot. I shared that Sukkot is my favorite Jewish holiday and offered the many ways that Sukkot is similar to Thanksgiving, my favorite secular American holiday.

My sales pitch for Sukkot observance included the fact that building a sukkah is a physical task that many will embrace. Those who struggle to find the spiritual nourishment in Judaism might enjoy the act of building the sukkah -- a more hands-on, tactile endeavor. I talked about how I take great pride each year in building my family’s sukkah. I shared that it's a beautiful opportunity for a family activity as well. When my children were younger they were only able to watch me put up the sukkah walls and then I’d let them decorate it with their school projects, but as they have gotten older they have become useful building assistants. Having friends and family enjoy delicious meals in our sukkah under the stars is certainly a highlight of the holiday.

I closed my sermon with the following words that I hope others will take to heart as well:

If you haven’t fully experienced Sukkot I think you should give it a try. Do it in steps at first. Buy a lulav and etrog so you can come to shul and fulfill the mitzvah of taking the four species. Go to one of the many websites where you can buy a pre-fabricated sukkah. Or, if you’re a little more daring, go to a local Home Depot or Lowes hardware store and buy the materials to build your own sukkah. Let your kids or grandkids or the kids in the neighborhood decorate it. If you’re not quite ready to build your own sukkah, attend a meal at a friend's sukkah. I think you might find what I have found – Sukkot is a really fun holiday. Sukkot truly is the Thanksgiving of the Jewish year. It’s a time when we can find joy and comfort in our history and in our ancestors’ agricultural way of life. It’s an opportunity for us to feel grateful for what we have and to get a sense of the fragility of other people’s living situations. It’s a time for us to embrace the hospitality of Judaism and for us to seek out the spiritual.

I wish everyone a G'mar Chatimah Tovah -- may we all be signed and sealed for another year of health and contentment in the Book of Life. And may those who have never truly experienced the joy of Sukkot, begin to embrace the festival this year and find happiness in its rituals.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Mobile App to Scapegoat Your Sins

As Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Mark Miller has settled into his new job at the Bloomfield Township, Michigan Reform congregation, he has been looking for innovative ways to cause both excitement and a renaissance in Jewish learning for his congregants. Back at Beth Israel, Miller’s previous congregation in Houston, Texas, the rabbi became a fan of G-dcast.com.

Temple Beth El member, Cindy Bolokofsky using eScapegoat

G-dcast is an online nonprofit new media studio and Internet organization based in San Francisco that provides Jewish children and adults with the chance to learn the basics of Jewish education with no barriers to entry. Over the years, G-dcast has produced more than a hundred animated shorts and mobile apps that make Jewish stories come to life. In its effort to build Jewish literacy, G-dcast works with educators and rabbis to create innovative curriculum, interactive workshops and inspiring leadership in new media

Last year, G-dcast launched a mobile app called eScapegoat, which encouraged users to engage in deeper Jewish learning and to prepare for Yom Kippur by offloading their sins to a virtual goat. The idea was to create a very modern (mobile app) way to copy the ancient repentance ritual (scapegoat). In anticipation of this year’s Yom Kippur holiday, G-dcast brought the app back along with Mini Goats. These are local mini-apps that let smaller communities virtually re-enact this ritual for a new, high-tech learning and community connection.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Paying for High Holiday Tickets

Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall pray for free and who needs to buy?

Okay, so maybe those aren't the exact words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on the High Holidays, but "pay to pray" is once again the big conversation as the High Holy Day season approaches with Rosh Hashanah beginning tomorrow evening.

High Holiday Tickets - Pay to Pray

Many synagogues require membership for attendance during the High Holidays or they charge a fee (or suggest a minimum donation). An increasing number of congregations, however, are offering free services and hope that attendees will generously contribute a donation after the holiday. Just about no synagogue will intentionally turn anyone away who wishes to pray during these Days of Awe. The famous Jewish joke comes to mind:

A Jewish man comes to the door of a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah without a ticket and explains to the usher that he doesn't want to stay, he just wants to give a message to someone inside. After a tense confrontation, the synagogue usher finally agrees to let the guy in, but he warns him sternly: "I better not catch you praying in there."

There is a certain misnomer about the tradition of synagogues requiring tickets on the High Holidays. It is not that synagogues are trying to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services like a sporting event (although some synagogues do have assigned seating). Rather, synagogues are trying to stay in business and be able to collect membership dues. For many Jewish people, the High Holiday services are the only "service" they find themselves using at the synagogue. Therefore, if congregations didn't require membership to attend those services, they wouldn't collect enough membership dues to balance the annual budget. Thus, High Holiday tickets are really just a way for congregations to collect dues. For many synagogues, the fiscal year begins over the summer so getting congregants to pay dues payments during the first quarter of the fiscal year is highly advantageous as they set the annual budget.

Free High Holiday tickets is also a misnomer because just about any congregation offering complimentary attendance at their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services is expecting donations in return for their generosity. In other words, in exchange for not charging a fee you will likely receive an empty self-addressed envelope with an expectation.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Birdhouse for Autism: Mobile App for Parents of Autistic Kids

Dani Gillman was a single mom with an autistic daughter, Brodie, who ran a popular blog detailing her daughter’s challenges and successes as a way to help other parents of autistic children. Using a pencil and paper, she vigilantly kept track of her daughter’s daily regimen, including diet, medications and vitamins, sleeping patterns, bathroom usage and doctor visits. These notes were then organized in a 3-ring binder, but the data Dani recorded was difficult to process in order to adapt Brodie’s daily routine – and it was easy to misplace the binder.

Screenshot of Birdhouse for Autism Mobile App
Screenshot of Birdhouse for Autism Mobile App
Enter Ben Chutz. In 2011, when Brodie was six-years-old, Ben and Dani began dating. The tech-savvy, entrepreneur with strong organizational skills took one look at the methods Dani employed to keep track and analyze Brodie’s complicated life and was immediately puzzled. “He said there must be a better way of doing this,” Dani recalled. “Ben wanted to know why I wasn’t using newer and better technology for this daily practice.” She explained to him that she had searched and there simply wasn’t any better option available.

Ben, 29, came up with the idea for “Birdhouse for Autism” not only so the two could raise Brodie using the data of her daily patterns, but also to help other parents of autistic children find the answers they need. Just as Dani, 36, has been a salvation for tens of thousands of parents with her mommy blog, “I’m Just That Way,” now the West Bloomfield couple, who belong to Temple Shir Shalom and also have an infant son Julian, are helping thousands of parents across North America with the Birdhouse website and mobile application. The name “Birdhouse” is derived from the anonymous nickname Dani uses for Brodie on the blog and because, as Dani explains, “It sounds like a warm, safe place for a bird.”

As participants in the Bizdom Startup Accelerator (part of the Rock Ventures' Family of Companies), Birdhouse has free office space in downtown Detroit next to Grand Circus Park and receives consulting from startup mentors. The couple has made great strides since Ben first questioned Dani’s pencil and notebook system in 2011. Today, Birdhouse has a robust website as well as Android and Apple iOS mobile apps – both free – that have been downloaded thousands of times.