Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Remembering Shimon Peres - The Coolest Nonagenarian

Back on September 13, 1993 I remember watching the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn and being in awe of both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. These two men, I recall thinking, were the old guard of Israeli statesman. They were fighters on the battlefield helping Israel gain statehood and then spent decades as political and diplomatic leaders as the Jewish state grew. I felt love and deep respect for both men, but there was something about Peres that was different from Rabin in my mind.



Rabin struck me as hard and very guarded. While he was willing to sign the peace accords and shake Arafat's hand, he still seemed hesitant and even distant on that sunny afternoon. Peres on the other hand had a cordial, softer side to him. A warm smile and a gentle demeanor. He reminded me very much of my grandfather. Later in his life, Peres displayed a playful, fun side as well. This was especially true when his term as Israeli President (a mostly honorific position) was about to come to an end. Peres and his staff published a very funny video in which the nonagenarian went looking for a job around Israel:





For me, I really appreciated that Peres was determined to stay in the public eye even after his seven decades in leadership roles for Israel. Despite his advanced age, he took advantage of social media to stay relevant and to connect with the younger generation of Israelis and Diaspora Jews. In 2012, I wrote a blog post about how Peres was looking for Facebook friends.






Monday, September 12, 2016

Flying High with Drones

Everyone seems to be talking about drones these days. Are drones the wave of the future? Are they dangerous? Do they cause an invasion of our privacy? Can they be used for great things or are they a waste of money? There have been news reports of people being injured by drones, airplane pilots reporting them as distractions and novice pilots crashing their new drones moments after unboxing.

My first drone was the Parrot Bebop and it sat in its box for months. I was excited to pilot it for the first time, but I was not sure where to fly it or what purpose it would serve. I am a big fan of new technology and gadgets of the future, but I like them to have some utility. What problem are these drones going to solve, I wondered.

I knew I didn't want to simply take this drone and fly it like it were a video game. I also was concerned about crashing this expensive gadget into a tree and breaking it. At the time, there were no specific laws governing personal drones, but I also did not want to violate the privacy rights of my neighbors.

When I finally started flying the Bebop it was an immediate love-hate relationship. It was thrilling to fly an aircraft with a video camera through the sky, but I still had concerns. Over the past year, I've begun flying other drones including the Parrot Bebop 2 and several mini drones, which my kids can also fly. During this time, I've found opportunities to use the drones safely to record video of happenings on the ground. I remain cautious about the safety and privacy implications, but have enjoyed capturing beautiful photos and videos from hundreds of feet in the sky.

Rabbi Jason Miller with the Parrot Disco FPV Drone

Last month I was invited by Parrot to fly the new Disco drone in the Palm Springs desert. With about thirty other drone enthusiasts we were taken to the famous Arnold Palmer designed SilverRock golf course in La Quinta where we would have some open space and breathtaking views of California's Santa Rosa Mountains. Unlike the Bebop models, which are quadcopters, the Parrot Disco is a fixed wing drone. While I haven't had much experience flying winged model airplanes, flying the Disco was very easy. Once the motor starts, you throw it like a paper airplane and it takes off. The controller is easy to use, but more advanced pilots can use an RC controller to have more control of the drone and perform tricks.

The Disco drone (Parrot names its drones after dance styles) is the first fixed wing drone for immersive flights, meaning you can use the virtual reality Cockpitglasses (they come with the unit) for a FPV (first person view) experience. Legally, a pilot's license is required to fly drones using virtual reality and a spotter (without VR glasses) must be onsite.


Thursday, September 08, 2016

Donald Trump Wears a Tallit

This past Saturday, Donald Trump visited a Baptist church in Detroit. It was another recent opportunity for him to get some face time with the African American community after polls showed he had virtually zero support within that demographic. An odd thing happened at the Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, however, when Bishop Wayne Jackson wrapped Trump's shoulders in a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) that the minister said was from Israel.

"This is a prayer shawl straight from Israel," Bishop Wayne Jackson said. "Whenever you're flying from coast to coast -- I know you just came back from Mexico and you’ll be flying from city to city -- there is an anointing. And anointing is the power of God. It's going to be sometimes in your life that you're going to feel forsaken, you're going to feel down, but the anointing is going to lift you up. I prayed over this personally and I fasted over it, and I wanted to just put this on you."


The response from most in the Jewish community was quick and critical. Many argued that a gentile like Donald Trump wearing a tallit was a form of cultural appropriation. At the very least, many maintained, this act was inappropriate and certainly puzzling. My first inclination was to rush to blog about this as an offensive act because a tallit, contrary to a yarmulke (kippah), is a Jewish religious garb based on a mitzvah (commandment) that mandates only Jews are to wear it. After reflecting on the situation at Great Faith Ministries and reading other comments about it, however, I don't think Trump can be held accountable for this. I also don't think it can simply be chalked up as cultural appropriation.

On Sunday morning, I posted the photo above of Trump wearing the tallit and jokingly captioned it, "I lent my bar mitzvah tallis to a Baptist church in Detroit over the weekend. Hope it gets to the dry cleaners before it's returned." The discussion that ensued was actually helpful for me to understand what happened and how to characterize it. The bottom line is that Trump was surprised by the gift of the tallit and did what most people in his situation would have done. The headlines that proclaimed that Trump "donned a tallit" were inaccurate. He didn't place the tallit over his own shoulders and it appears obvious that he didn't choose to have it placed on his shoulders.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Back to School Tech Guide 2016

Summer, where have you gone? Yes, it's that time of the year again. Summer jobs and internships are coming to an end for college students and they're getting ready to pack their parent's minivan and move back to school. Lined paper notebooks and yellow highlighters aren't on the packing list for today's college students and grad students any more. Previous generations schlepped bulky desktops and tube TVs to campus. Students in 2016 are taking lightweight laptops and tablets along with 3D printers, high end 4K TVs and lightning fast routers.

This year's Back to School tech guide isn't your typical list of technology gadgets. The list includes some great values in addition to some products that require splurging. Some products will help college coeds be more productive, while others are helpful for unwinding after a day of classes and homework. After checking out these products most parents will wish they were able to turn back the clock and return to campus this fall.


Featured: Kenmore Elite 50" 4K UHDTV and Roku Streaming Stick - When it comes to ultra HD TVs, Kenmore isn't often on the list of the most impressive options. However, the Kenmore Elite 4K TV crushes the competition. It's the perfect TV for a college apartment, fraternity house or sorority house. Now available at Sears stores and at Sears online, the Kenmore Elite 4K UHDTVs are an amazing value for the quality and students can instantly stream with a Roku Streaming Stick (also available at Sears) to get over 1,000 channels with the most movies, music, sports and shows of any streaming player. The picture quality is excellent and there are enough HDMI ports on this model. $549.99 sears.com

Kenmore Elite 50" 4K UHDTV



Featured: LG Gram 15 Laptop - There's simply no lighter high-performance laptop on the market than the LG Gram 15. This super lightweight lapper (only 2.2 lbs.) comes with Windows 10 OS installed, a powerful 6th generation Intel Core processor, full HD picture quality and many connective options including a built-in HDMI port for easy connectivity straight into a TV. No college student would ever complain about having to carry around this computer, which is lighter than most tablets and feels as light as a pile of a dozen sheets of paper. The Intel Core i5 version ($1,099) comes with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage, while the  i7 ($1,199) has 512GB of storage. lg.com/us/laptops

LG Gram 15 Laptop



Intel Compute Stick - This computer the size of a stick of gum immediately became my favorite tech gadget for 2016! This little device transforms any HDMI TV or monitor into a fast computer running Windows 10 OS (or a Linux option). The quad-core Intel Atom processor delivers maximum performance, but it doesn't use a lot of power so it's energy efficient and ideal for student living. Simply plug the Compute Stick into a TV or monitor and you have a computer. It's perfect for communal living because roommates could have one TV for leisure time, but each student could plug in their own Compute Stick when it's time to do some school work. When the student returns home on a school break, they just throw the stick into their pocket and their "desktop" goes with them. Prices vary. intel.com

Intel Compute Stick



LG 21:9 UltraWide Full HD IPS LED Monitor - Most students aren't going to want to lug two monitors to school this fall even if they're used to using dual monitors at home. This full HD monitor from LG, however, is like having a dual monitor with one unit. The UltraWide 21:9 aspect ratio makes games and movies more immersive than ever before, while the clarity of the 1080p pixel Full HD resolution with IPS is a game-changer. Everything looks more crisp and detailed from any viewing angle. With a monitor this good, a separate TV is unnecessary making this a must-have for any college dorm room this year where space is at a premium. The sleek design with a smooth curve base brings a touch of elegance to the monitor too. $599.99 lg.com/us/ultrawide-monitors

LG 21:9 UltraWide Full HD IPS LED Monitor


Arris Surfboard Routers and Extenders - Today's college students don't remember a time of dial-up modems and wonky connections. They have come to expect lightning fast internet speeds and Arris products won't let them down. The Arris system of routers and extehttp://sears.comnders solves the common and persistent problem of Wi-Fi dead zones. Using a unique combination of next-generation networking technology and intelligent software, Arris tailors the Wi-Fi to the user's needs -- whether they're in a dorm room, old fraternity house or small apartment. The simple plug-and-play installation and iOS or Android app makes using Arris technology quick and easy. The routers range in price from $119.99 to $299.99 and the extenders are all under $100. arris.com

Arris Surfboard Routers and Extenders


3Doodler - While adult coloring books are the "new new thing" parents are doing after they send their kids off to college, the college students are doodling with 3D technology. Billed as the world's first 3D printing pen, the 3Doodler has won countless awards for tech innovation. This new form of art is taking the world by storm and it's become a fun collaborative activity for young people. On a rainy, lazy weekend college students are going to put away their homework, turn off the TV and create amazing little projects together with the 3Doodler. The pen comes in assorted colors and the plastic strands are inexpensive. There are several books available from 3Doodler to suggest fun projects and designs. $99 the3doodler.com

3Doodler



BEOPLAY H5 Wireless Earphones - The incoming class of freshmen on college campuses this year aren't impressed with wireless earphones because they are the generation that expects wireless everything. They also are different than students a decade ago who were content with the standard issue white earbuds that came with their Apple products. Today's students are going back to school with high quality, expensive music listening devices. Beoplay H5 provides an immersive listening experience around campus without having to carry bulky over-the-ear headphones. A bonus feature of the H5s is that you can customize presets on your iPhone and quickly access them from your Apple Watch. Ideal for fitness buffs, the H5 fits snugly in the ear and comes with several ear tips options including a Comply Sport version that has a membrane to prevent moisture interfering with the electronics. $249 beoplay.com

BEOPLAY H5 Wireless Earphones



Lumo Run - There's been a lot of talk about Lumo Run and it's finally available to the public. A limited pre-sale last fall impressed runners and the prediction is that this little device will fast become the must-have tech product for athletes. If you've ever visited a college campus you know that running is the most prevalent workout activity. Lumo Run determines key metrics for targeted form by wearing this smart sensor that combines the powerful data of a running lab with the personal attention of a coach. Lumo Run's features include real-time audio coaching, insights after the run, plus personal recommendations for drills and exercises for long-term improvement. $99 (or $199 for running shorts with the sensor built in) lumobodytech.com/lumo-run

Lumo Run


Naim Audio Mu-so Qb Wireless Music System - This extremely compact yet powerful wireless music system is the perfect size for a dorm room or small apartment. It provides amazing sound and connects to everything imaginable. While the price is high for college students at $999.95, it's well worth the cost for a group of roommates to go in together and enjoy the booming sound on a daily basis. The quality beats out any other small size speaker in its class and the design will surely turn the heads of impressed coeds. naimaudio.com

Naim Audio Mu-so Qb Wireless Music System


Tile and TrackR bravo - As Bluetooth has become more of a standard that allows devices to communicate wirelessly, more companies are developing devices with Bluetooth to solve everday problems. One of the most common problems people have (and the most frustrating) is losing things. Many products have been created using Bluetooth to help us locate these items. For example, for the past couple of years I've been using XY Findit (xyfindit.com) to locate my keys when I misplace them. Two companies have come up with some creative new devices that use Bluetooth to keep track of things like pets, bikes, mobile devices or anything else that could go missing. Students can place Tile or TrackR bravo Bluetooth devices inside expensive textbooks, on their laptop case or even in a friend's pocket (so they don't lose their friend at a crowded party). Both Tile and TrackR bravo have alert notifications and connect to iOS and Android devices. TrackR bravo also integrates with home Wi-Fi and Nest network to disable alerts from sounding when wandering around the house. Both are under $30 thetileapp.com or thetrackr.com

Tile and TrackR bravo



Dacuda PocketScan Wireless Scanner - While textbooks seem like they would be obsolete for the college student in 2016, they are not. Students are still lugging around heavy texts, but Dacuda’s PocketScan can be a lifesaver for them. This has quickly became one of the most popular tech gadgets of the year. It scans textbooks, documents and photos perfectly. PocketScan, which flawlessly connects to popular software programs like Microsoft Office, has a built-in OCR engine for recognition and editing of text and tables. It offers seamless Bluetooth connectivity and a rechargeable, long lasting battery (over 400 Scans). I've never found a portable scanner of this high quality. $149 thegrommet.com/dacuda

Dacuda PocketScan Wireless Scanner



Logitech CREATE Backlit Keyboard Case and Logi BASE Charging Stand for iPad Pro - I've long been a fan of Logitech and its newer Logi brand. It was difficult choosing only two of their new products to include for this Back to School rundown, but these two products will really add productivity to students. Earlier this month Logitech unveiled the CREATE Backlit Keyboard Case with Smart Connector for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and its already become the must-have add-on for iPad Pro users. It is compatible with the Smart Connector, eliminating the need to power on, connect or charge the keyboard. The backlit keyboard case comes with an Apple Pencil holder and is lightweight at under a pound, yet fully protective for the iPad. The Logi BASE Charging Stand also uses the Smart Connector. It provides the perfect viewing angle to turn the iPad into a monitor and as a bonus the tablet charges quickly. Keyboard: $129.99 Logi BASE: $99 logitech.com

Logitech iPad keyboard and Logi Base for iPad Pro



Swiftpoint GT Mouse - I first encountered the Swiftpoint mouse at CES a couple years ago and it immediately became my favorite mouse. While it's on the pricier side for a computer mouse, it's well worth the price. This ultra-portable wireless ergonomic mouse is perfect for small working environments. The same mouse that I always recommend to business travelers will be ideal for students working in classrooms and lecture halls where there's not a lot of extra desk space. The mouse combines natural touch gestures with the precision and convenience of a traditional mouse. Switfpoint works perfectly with Windows 7/8/10, Mac OS X and Android. I'm also excited for Swiftpoint's The Z gaming mouse, which comes out in December. $149 thegrommet.com/swiftpoint

Swiftpoint GT Mouse



Corentium Digital Radon Monitor - When the discussion arises of what technology parents should send with their kids back to college this year, the thought of a radon monitor likely doesn't make the list. That off campus apartment your daughter and her friends rented is likely very old and potentially has high levels of radon gas. The Corentium radon gas monitor is a state-of-the-art measuring instrument combining ease of use and performance. Its LCD screen displays the average daily, weekly and long term concentrations of radon. Powered by 3 standard AAA batteries, the monitor makes it easy to take measurements from one room to another in order to get an overview of the concentrations of radon. The unit requires no annual calibrations throughout its useful life and is estimated at over 10 years. $199 (pro models are more costly) corentium.com

Corentium Digital Radon Monitor

Blink Cameras - College students today have the ability to monitor their dorm room and apartment in an easy and cost efficient way. Blink has a trusted track record for being an ultra-affordable home security and video monitoring system that comes with free cloud storage. It is the ideal way for students to keep an eye on their possessions while they're at class or at a party. Blink is wireless, intuitive and easy to set up. It captures 720p HD video and includes a motion detector. $99 (1 camera and sync module) or $219 (3 cameras and sync module) blinkforhome.com

Blink Cameras


Max Flossolution - Oral hygiene might not be the first thing parents think of when sending their kids off to school this fall, but let's face it... we parents care about our kids' teeth and have a lot of our hard earned money invested in it (braces are expensive!). Max by Flossolution is the best oral hygiene technology on the market. It is the first of its kind flossing and brushing system utilizing patented Flossguard and Bite Bumper technology. The kit includes a charging base, a Sonic Motor, a Flossarm, and a cartridge of 14 reusable microflossers with a brush arm. Max comes with a rechargeable battery that lasts more than four weeks and provides five sonic power modes: Smart, Fresh, Bright, Happy and Healthy. I've been using Max for a few months now and my teeth are truly feeling healthier and cleaner. It's a really enjoyable teeth brushing experience. $99.99 flossolution.com
Max Flossolution teeth brushing technology



XYZ Printing da Vinci 3D Pen - XYZprinting is a world leader in desktop 3D printers and has now entered the 3D pen market with the versatile da Vinci 3D Pen. Lightweight and mobile, this 3D pen allows you to move freely along a surface and extend your creation upwards to easily add dimension to your drawings. No computer or software is needed to create fun and impressive 3D art with the da Vinci. I've been very impressed with XYZ Printing's line of 3D printers so it's no surprise that their first 3D pen is a huge success. Students will be able to create amazing art while taking a break from the daily grind of homework at college this fall. $49.95 http://us.xyzprinting.com

XYZ Printing da Vinci 3D Pen



BEZALEL Latitude iPhone Wireless Charging Case and Prelude Portable Charger - This Los Angeles startup develops and sells some very innovative wireless charging technology. Most college students use iPhones and know how frustrating it is at night after a busy day on the go when their phone has no juice left. BEZALEL's Prelude wireless charger renders charging cords, cables and Mophie packs obsolete. It's the first wireless charger that's also fully mobile (other chargers must be plugged into a power source to get juice). The Latitude fits iPhones like a glove and with the built-in Lightening cable connector it also makes it easy to sync and charge the old fashioned way. Prelude: $79.99; Latitude: $49.90 bezalel.co

Bezalel Latitude iPhone 6 Wireless Charging Case & Portable Wireless Charger


Satechi Headphones Stand - Satechi makes great products. I've been using their 7 port Mult-Charging Dock, which allows members of my family to charge up to seven devices at once in a well organized and convenient station. I also love their phone holders, battery packs and travel wall chargers that provide extra USB outlets. Now, they've released the amazing headphone stand that provides simple storage for headphones, allowing you to charge the headphones or listen to music through the stand. It comes in four brushed aluminum finishes. $27.99 satechi.net

Satechi Headphones Stand


Quirky Pivot Power Genius - Smart technology doesn't have to be expensive. With so many electric gadgets in college dorm rooms and apartments, extra electrical outlets are a must. This power strip has four total outlets, but two of them can be turned on or off remotely from an app on your mobile device (manually or scheduled automatically from anywhere). Another advantage of the Pivot Power Genius I like is that the outlets pivot to accommodate plugs and adapters of all shapes and sizes. $23.99 quirky.com
Quirky Pivot Power Genius




Fizzics Beer Maker - Sure, most college and grad school apartments have a fridge well stocked with beer, but today's 21+ students have more refined tastes than previous generations of coeds. Enter Fizzics. This company sought to answer the age old question of why beer tastes so good fresh from the brewer's tap, but not from a can or bottle. The Fizzics Technology Platform improves the flavor, taste and mouth-feel of any carbonated beer. It's portable (4 AA batteries) and doesn't require CO2 or Nitro cartriges. $169.99 fizzics.com

Fizzics Beer Maker



SodaStream Fizzi - What parent doesn't want their college student well hydrated throughout the day? Cans of carbonated beverages are unhealthy and tap water gets boring after a while. SodaStream's new Fizzi actually brings some excitement to water drinking with sparking water and flavoring that isn't bad for you. Fizzi Sparking Water Maker makes carbonating water easy with a quick snap-lock bottle insertion, making it ideal for the busy, on-the-go college student. It doesn't require electricity and it’s new slim design makes it ideal for any dorm space. $79.99 sodastream.com

SodaStream Fizzi


Stringify App with Amazon Echo or Amazon Tap - Just when I thought I couldn't love my Amazon Tap any more along comes the Stringify app. It actually makes your smart things smarter and it's a really cool way to integrate IoT (Internet of Things) into your daily life. Parents (and certainly grandparents) won't recognize the college dorm or apartment of the 21st century. Everything is connected. Stringify takes that connectivity to the next level by making everything connected through an Amazon Tap, Echo or Echo Dot. Integration of such things as alarm systems, thermostats, light bulbs and speakers is only the half of it. Using Stringify's Flow Ideas, students can have a weather sensor send a notification to their phone to bring an umbrella when there's rain in the forecast or keep the side door unlocked when a roommate's Fitbit alerts it that she's on a run. The app is currently iOS only with Android coming this fall. Free download. stringify.com

Stringify App with Amazon Tap


TomTom Spark Cardio + Music Fitness Tracker - I've long been a fan of Fitbit trackers and the Microsoft Band, so it takes a lot to get me excited about yet another activity tracker on the market. TomTom's Spark Cardio is extremely impressive and certainly got me excited. It's ideal for today's active student in that it's water resistant (up to 50 meters), has strong GPS and stores over 500 songs. The eight multi-sport modes cover a range of fitness activities including outdoor runs, outdoor cycle, swim, treadmill, freestyle, stopwatch, as well as the newly introduced indoor cycle and gym. $249.99 tomtom.com
TomTom Spark Cardio + Music Fitness Tracker



Cassia Hub - Think about how many Bluetooth devices there will be in the typical college dorm room or apartment this school year. Cassia Networks new Cassia Hub allows them all to be controlled from one iOS device. The hub extends the range of all Bluetooth devices on the network. Users can set the mood using an iPhone -- that means study time will automatically brighten lights and put on some inspirational music, while party mood will dim lights and automatically setup the playlist for the night. The range is about 1000 feet which alleviates dead spots and multiple devices can be set up. $99.99 ($239.99 for the audio kit with 2 wireless speakers) en.cassianetworks.com

Cassia Hub

booq Daypack - College students will love any of booq's products. They are stylish, versatile and comfortable. booq's new Booqpad is an impressive and protective case for the iPad Pro. The booq product that really excited me this fall, however, is the Daypack. For years I've been lugging around a heavy Tumi computer case that has not been friendly to my lower back. I've since switched to the booq Daypack for both comfort and versatility. booq's comfortably cool backpacks provide a surprising amount of interior storage for everyday carrying. It has a slim profile and an interior that touts a large main compartment with multiple pockets including a slip pocket for a tablet and compartment for a 17” laptop. Daypack is available in four colors: blue-aqua, black-tarp, brown canvas and gray-red. It comes with booq’s Terralinq lost and found service and a five-year warranty. $90 booqbags.com

booq daypack computer carrying bag
Originally published at the Huffington Post

Friday, August 12, 2016

Anti-Israel Actions Tarnish Goals of Olympics

Every four years I surprise myself by how engaged I am with the Summer Olympics. While I don't plan to sit in front of the TV watching the swimming, volleyball, gymnastics or track and field events, that is exactly where I wind up. Together with my family, I'm passionately cheering on the American Olympic competitors, fascinated by the personal stories of many athletes from all countries, and embracing the principle goal of the Olympic Games -- to bring athletes from around the world together.

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics are a feel good moment for everyone around the globe. The delegations proudly march into the stadium behind their nation's flag. The flame is displayed and we all understand the symbolism behind the intersecting rings of the Olympic emblem. Yes, we all know there are horrific conflicts in the world, but for these two weeks of Olympic competition we like to think that we can put these disputes behind us and enthusiastically embrace the core mission of the Olympics.

Unfortunately, a handful of athletes are tarnishing the goals of the Olympics with the dishonorable and reprehensible way they are treating members of the Israeli Olympic delegation. The tone was set before the opening ceremonies when Israeli athletes were blocked from boarding a stadium-bound bus packed with the Lebanon team. The Israeli sailing coach who first publicized the incident, posted, "How can it be that something like this occurs on the eve of the Olympic opening ceremony? Does this not directly oppose what the Olympics represent and stand for...I cannot begin to express my feelings, I'm in shock from the incident." This hostile act by the Lebanese caused their delegation head, Salim al-Haj Nakoula, to be reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee who said they would not accept any further instances like this.

However, further incidents have been occurring often at the Rio Olympics. There has been much animosity toward the Israel competitors and members of their delegation. Today, after losing to Israeli Or Sasson in a judo competition, Islam El Shehaby of Egypt refused the traditional bow to his opponent and then declined a handshake when Sasson extended his hand. Not only was this a significant breach of judo etiquette, it was a disgusting display of a lack of sportsmanship. El Shehaby should be disciplined for this gesture.




Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mitzvah Tools: Virtual Learning for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Students

Scrolling through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago, I noticed that the young woman whose bat mitzvah I officiated just weeks after being ordained as a rabbi a dozen years ago had walked down the aisle as a bride. That, combined with the realization that my oldest child will become a bar mitzvah early next year, caused me to feel nostalgic and also to consider how the bar and bat mitzvah training process has changed over the years.

While the bar mitzvah ceremony is a relatively new institution in Judaism, it hasn’t changed much in terms of what the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl actually does in the synagogue service. Of course, the ceremony differs from synagogue to synagogue, and what a girl is allowed to do for her bat mitzvah ceremony varies in Orthodox congregations and in some Conservative congregations.

What has certainly changed in recent years is how these Jewish teens are trained for their coming of age ceremony and how the synagogues handle the process. During my final year of rabbinical school I was serving a fledgling synagogue community in Northern Virginia while attending classes in New York City and living in News Jersey. The few b’nai mitzvah students I had to train that year met with me mostly over a speaker phone. I remember that when I had the opportunity to meet with these teens in person during one of my weekend visits to the congregation I realized how much of the important interaction I was missing because I couldn’t see their faces during our tutoring sessions. The technology to tutor them virtually through video conferencing was not yet available.

Today, many bar and bat mitvah tutors are training Jewish teens who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away thanks to the advent of such video conferencing apps as Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom and Apple FaceTime. Even beyond these communication apps, there are other technological tools being used to allow for a more interactive bar mitzvah training experience. Many online tutors use the Trope Trainer application, a computer software that has lessons, blessings and full readings for students. There is no shortage of online options for the parents looking for virtual training for their child’s bar mitzvah preparations. In many cases, it is the family that is unaffiliated with a congregation that is looking to use technology for training. However, with busy extracurricular schedules for the teens and hectic work responsibilities for their parents, it is oftentimes easier for teens to be trained at home in front of a screen.

Online training websites and virtual tutors for bat mitzvah



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.