Monday, April 21, 2014

Ford Motor Company Announces New Jewish CEO

Ford Motor Company has announced that Mark Fields will become the company's next CEO replacing Alan Mulally. Presumably Henry Ford is rolling in his grave since Fields, a Jewish man whose family changed the last name from Finkelman in a previous generation, will be running the company the notorious anti-Semite founded in June 1903.

Mark Fields will become CEO of Ford Motor Company
I first wrote about Mark Fields back in December 2012 when Fields was named COO of Ford Motor Company. As a native Detroiter, I was asked to write the article for JTA and I remember typing quickly as I sat in a Newark Airport terminal about to board a flight to Israel with other Conservative rabbis.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The White House Passover Seder Tradition (As Told By Eric Lesser)

I led a Birthright Israel trip in December 2004 with half of the college student participants on our bus from the University of Michigan and the other half from Harvard. Before the trip I was a little concerned as to how the two groups of students would get along on the ten day experience.

However, not only did the Harvard and Michigan undergrads get along great in Israel, but there were some lifelong friendships that were formed. I had a wonderful time co-leading the trip with Gabi Soble, a kindhearted, talented staff member from Harvard Hillel. I also got to know some really impressive young people from Harvard including Eric Lesser. It was clear to me that Eric would go on to do big things in his career and the former President Obama aide is currently on leave from Harvard Law School to run for State Senate in Massachusetts. Of course, he has my full endorsement.

Eric Lesser for State Senate - Rabbi Jason Miller (Israel)
On a Birthright Israel trip with Eric Lesser packing food for the homeless in Israel

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Make Passover 2014 Fun

I was inspired by a workshop I attended last Shabbat by the very talented Jewish educator Noam Zion. For well over a decade, I've been using his haggadah ("A Different Night") and his son Mishael Zion's haggadah ("A Night to Remember") to inspire my students to think about the Four Children in new and different ways through art.

Noam Zion, who teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is an advocate for making the Passover Seder more fun. I couldn't agree more. If we seder leaders make the experience more enjoyable and fun for the seder participants, they will get more out of it and look forward to the holiday more in the years to come. Some of the tried and true seder activities like "The Plagues Bag" will continue to work well for younger children, but after a few years of showing the little toys that represent each of the plagues, it will likely be time to try some new tricks. In that vein, I've put together a list of ways to make not just the seder, but the entire Passover holiday more fun.

Passover Seder Steps game from Holidays in a Box

Ellen Zimmerman of "Jewish Holidays in a Box" has come out with a new children's game for the seder called Passover Seder Steps Follow-Along. The new activity is designed to help families have more fun and keep everyone more engaged from beginning to end of the Passover Seder. The game comes with 5 gloss-coated boards, 5 game pawns and instructions for use. It's available from for $12.97 and can also be downloaded as a mobile app (the digital version is under $6). Inspired by her daughter's creation when she was 8-years-old, Zimmerman redesigned it to show the progression from step to step (using stone imagery) of the seder. The game is a great teaching tool and will help keep everyone at the table engaged.

Pop Haggadah for Passover
Artist Melissa Berg's Pop Haggadah for Passover

Each year I acquire a new Passover haggadah to add to my ever growing collection. This year's favorite is the Pop Haggadah by Melissa Berg. This bright and colorful haggadah is one of the best I've seen in years. The different fonts and artwork on every page make it an exciting haggadah to thumb through or use at the seder. It's honestly perfect for both of children and adults, which is odd when it comes to haggadot. Melissa Berg, who is an artist and has worked in the marketing and filmmaking industries, really hit a homerun with this haggadah. Each section of Berg's haggadah has the traditional Hebrew with English translations, but even these texts are considered artwork. Each vibrant page is a surprise with completely different colors and designs. To borrow a term from the graphic design world: The Pop Haggadah really pops! As a bonus, Berg has included many "extras" on the Pop Haggadah website that can be used for seder activities.

Bronfman Haggadah App
Bronfman Haggadah App from the late Edgar Bronfman and his wife Jan Aronson

Last Passover, my favorite haggadah was the Bronfman Haggadah and this year I was excited to be able to download the Bronfman Haggadah App. The mobile app version of the haggadah has been available in the Apple App Store ($8.99) for about a month and is really a wonderful way to honor the life of the late Edgar Bronfman. The app, like the hardcover haggadah, is full of Bronfman's interpretations of the Egyptian exodus along with the beautiful artistic representations his wife, Jan Aronson, created. For those who won't feel comfortable using an iPad at the seder table, the mobile app version of the Bronfman Haggadah can be used to prepare the seder leader to lead a seder with the print version. Aronson said, "I am so delighted that the Bronfman Haggadah continues to have a life in the eBook format. It was a joy to bring this to life with my late husband Edgar." The app can be downloaded from the App Store.

Matzah iPhone Case (also available for Samsung Galaxy)
Sealed with a Case's matzah version of the iPhone case

For a fun way to show off your love of matzah (or just that you're excited that Passover is coming this Monday night), I think the Motzah iPhone case is great. My kids have all been showing off their matzah cases over the past couple of weeks and their friends want to know where they can get them too. Designed in her Massachusetts home studio by Amanda of Sealed with a Case and sold in her Etsy shop, she jokes that the iPhone cases are kosher for Passover. Melissa sells the Motzah cases, which are durable and lightweight, for the iPhone 4/4S and 5, as well as the Samsung Galaxy. They're available with black, clear or white sides.


I usually try to avoid the addictive games like Angry Birds, Flappy Birds and Candy Crush, but I tried playing the mobile app game called 2048 Puzzle just once and I was addicted. The numbers puzzle created by Gabriele Cirulli was created using open source code meaning others can create their own versions of "2048" and that is exactly what user ajmyk did with the Had Gadya version for Passover. Available online, the Had Gadya version attributes the puzzle pieces to the famous Passover song Chad Gadya sung toward the conclusion of the seder in place of the numbers. The creator adds a disclaimer to the bottom of the puzzle stating, "A complete ripoff of Gabriele Cirulli's MIT-licensed 2048, which was based on 1024 by Veewo Studio and conceptually similar to Threes by Asher Vollmer." Enjoy... and if you get addicted, I apologize!

Other fun ideas to make your 2014 Pesach more fun include downloading JDate's new haggadah (its 2nd annual) available from the App Store, getting together before the holiday to make your own DIY haggadah, drink some seder themed cocktails, sing some Passover song parodies at your seder, and of course watching dozens of groups of people create their own Passover video parodies to the same song from the movie frozen. Okay, here's the best one:


Monday, April 07, 2014

What Do We Think About When We Study Torah

When my eldest child turned 10-years-old earlier this year we began a weekly ritual of Torah study on Shabbat afternoons. These 30-minute learning sessions have quickly become my highlight of the week as they are an opportunity for me to teach my son Torah and also gain from the new insights that he shares from his own perspective.

This past Shabbat we delved into Parashat Metzora, the Torah portion that continues the ancient ritual of dealing with one who was afflicted with the skin disease known as tzara'at in the Israelite camp during our ancestors' sojourn in the desert. As we took turns reading the Hebrew verses and their English translations, I began thinking about my late grandfather, Dr. David Gudes. A well-respected dermatologist in Detroit, Michigan, my Papa was an expert on various skin ailments and I often think about him each year during the time we read the Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora.

Our little Torah study session provided me with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on my Papa's life for my son who never had the chance to meet him. He died almost twenty years ago on October 6, 1994 (Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan). Today, April 7, would have been his 94th birthday.

Rabbi Jason Miller and Papa, Dr. David Gudes
Leading the Passover Seder with my grandfather (early 1980s)

What do we think about when we study Torah? Yes, our thoughts very often transcend to a time long ago when our biblical ancestors lived. But oftentimes the text of the Torah takes us to other places. Reading of a biblical character may cause us to think of an individual who possessed similar character traits. The interaction between two characters in the Torah may set our minds adrift as we think about a similar interaction in our own time. And a theme of the Torah, like the leprosy-like skin ailment of tzara'at, may force us to reflect on a loved one who is no longer with us in the Land of the Living.

Rabbi Jason Miller and Grandfather, Dr. David Gudes
Talking with my grandfather, Dr. David Gudes, the day before my bar mitzvah (1989)

It is a tradition to begin the Torah education of children with the third book of the Torah, Leviticus. Many have theorized that we initiate children with Torah study using this book rather than with Genesis, the first of the Five Books of Moses, because Leviticus is so complex with its minutiae of priestly laws. Whatever the rationale, I'm grateful to have studied from Leviticus this past Shabbat with my son because it allowed my Papa to join our weekly Shabbat Torah study. You never know what you're going to think about when you study Torah. For me, the details of a biblical skin disease brought my beloved grandfather back to life for the generation he never met.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Jewish Camp for Teen Entrepreneurs Launches in Boulder

You know it's a good idea when parents lament that they wish there was something like this when they were teens. That seems to be the general consensus among adults when they hear about Camp Inc., the new Jewish summer camp in Colorado with a focus on grooming the next successful business entrepreneurs.

Many of today's startup founders grew up attending camp, but they didn't have an opportunity to hone their entrepreneurial skills or learn how to pitch a new business idea to venture capitalists at those overnight summer camps. All that will change this summer as the first cohort of young campers descend on a beautiful camp in Boulder, Colo., prepared to start their journey as entrepreneurs. At the recent Leaders Assembly, the Foundation for Jewish Camp's biennial conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey, three of the leaders of this new venture seemed excited about the promise of such an endeavor.

Camp Inc. seeks to provide 7th through 12th graders with a unique Jewish summer camp experience that will spur creativity and invention through entrepreneurship. The ultimate goal of this camp for budding business leaders is to promote confidence, independence, leadership and philanthropy, all the while encouraging Jewish values in a dynamic Jewish summer camp community.

Camp Inc. gears up for its first summer in search of the next Mark Zuckerberg

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Summer Camps Use Technology to Operate More Effectively

As Jewish camp leaders once again convened at Leaders Assembly, the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s biennial conference here in New Brunswick, there was a lot of networking taking place – both in person and via social media. The dozens of ad hoc camp reunions taking place in the hallways of the hotel also materialized into an exchange of best practices for these Jewish camp professionals. The hot topic this year was the use of technology, both in the back office of the camp operations and front and center for campers, their parents and alumni.

What role all of this new technology plays for the Jewish summer camp industry was hashed out in breakout sessions at the camp confab in what were termed “Hot Topics” and also discussed in the “Shuk” where the companies that provide this new technology were camped out. “Do you keep your camper registrations and medical forms in the cloud?”, “Who manages your alumni Facebook page?”, “Have you started Instagram or Pinterest accounts,” and “Which online service do you use for staff background checks” were just some of the questions overheard at the conference.

Summer Camp Software - CampMinder

While many don’t typically associate high tech with the camp world, which for generations was thought of as a low tech industry, there’s no question that camps have come to depend on the latest support applications in the technology world to run their camps efficiently, effectively and safely in the 21st century. After all, while one of the core missions of the overnight summer camp experience may continue to be allowing our youth to unplug from their electronic gadgets for several weeks each summer, the camps charged with that mission must be run like businesses. And that means using the best technology to manage everything from security, registration, financials and medical information to social network engagement, summertime communication and alumni relations.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why Synagogues and Jewish Nonprofits Need to Update Their Communications in the Digital Age

"Because that's how we've always done things!" I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a professional in a synagogue or Jewish nonprofit utter those words. For some reason, synagogues and Jewish nonprofits are very late adopters to new technology. Even synagogues that have invested in expensive, dynamic websites are still sending out hard copy flyers in the mail, which is not economically prudent, effective or efficient.

Donors to synagogues and Jewish nonprofits have become more focused in the past several years on how much of their donation goes to overhead costs and how much is allocated to fulfilling the organization's actual mission. Websites like Charity Navigator and Guidestar provide the percentages making it easier for us to know just how far our charitable gifts will go. This leads many to wonder how much of that $18 donation to your favorite local organization or congregation in tribute to your friend's beloved mother goes to sending out the tribute card informing them of your generosity.

In some cases, it might be as much as 10% of that small donation going to overhead, and with today’s high tech communications it’s quite unnecessary too. In the technology age when most charitable organizations make it possible to donate online, the next step in the process is very low-tech. Rather than sending a nice automated e-mail to the recipient of your charitable tribute, most organizations allocate a lot of resources to the process -- spending an employee's time preparing a tribute card, printing out the card and envelope, and then paying for the postage to mail it out. The funds used in that low-tech processing could have gone directly to the cause. So why don't these nonprofits and synagogues adapt to the new technology? "Because that's how we've always done things," they'll explain.

Clip of a Constant Contact newsletter from Adat Shalom Synagogue in Metro Detroit, Michigan

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jewish Teens and Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Inappropriate

In the early 1990s I was an active leader in my synagogue’s high school youth group. Even as a young teen I appreciated the importance of communication in cultivating new members to the congregation’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and for keeping current members abreast of upcoming events. This membership communication came in the form of photocopied flyers on colored Xerox paper, phone messages left on the family’s answering machine, and hand drawn posters attached to cork boards with push pins in the synagogue lobby. Once every two months we assembled a cut-and-paste newsletter to be photocopied, stapled and sent to members’ homes.

social networking and teens
Teens and Social Media -

Much has changed in the past twenty years when it comes to teens and communication. Everything is now instant. Those mailed event flyers often took as much as a week to arrive in teens’ mailboxes, but today’s texts and tweets arrive in the blink of an eye. Direct communication, of course, has become easier as we’re almost always available to chat. No more leaving messages on answering machines as teens can connect virtually anytime using Skype, FaceTime or text messaging. Parents, however, are often out of the communications process in the 21st century. Each teen has her own cellphone to talk, text and video chat so parents often don’t know what their teens are doing or where they’re going unless they ask (or snoop).

For the most part, the growth of instant communication and social media has been a positive for teens in general and the success of Jewish teenage youth groups in particular. But despite the ways social networks like Facebook and instant messaging services have made it easier for teens to communicate with each other and for Jewish teen leaders to promote their group’s programs in more efficient ways, there are some very scary consequences that come with this high tech communication and social sharing.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Top Purim Videos for 2014

Purim is here! In preparing for my annual rundown of the top videos for Purim this year a few thoughts emerged: First, nothing really impressed me this year. Second, there wasn't a lot of creativity (did a memo go out limiting people to only use Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" and "Let It Go" -- the theme from the movie Frozen?). Third, where's this year's contribution from the Maccabeats? Maybe they're too busy touring around the world and appearing on TV with Katie Couric?

I'm hopeful that the creative geniuses out there will get working on next year's Purim spoofs and parodies and come up with some fun videos that are more creative than the t-shirt above. It's actually easier for me to choose the best Purim videos when there's more to choose from. While it was slim pickens this year, there are some fun ones below. So Happy Purim... and here are 2014's top Purim videos:

HAPPY Purim (by Pharrell)

The Haman Remembrance - Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan

Megillas Lester Official Trailer

Kinderlach - Purim Chagiga

Miracle - Gad Elbaz and Naftali Kalfa featuring Ari Lesser

"What Does Haman Say" by A.K.A. Pella

Star Wars Lego Movie Purim Trailer

Let it Go Frozen - It's a Purim Song

Michelle Citrin - Shake Your Grogger (A Purim Song)

Bob Dylan Purim Shpiel (Robert Zimmerman)

What Does Purim Say? (What Does the Fox Say?)

Everything Is Purim (from the Lego Movie)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jason Bateman Schools Jon Stewart in Yiddish

The great Yiddishist Leo Rosten was hopefully rolling (with laughter) in his grave last night. The late author of the book "The Joy of Yiddish" worked very hard during his lifetime to bring the dying Yiddish language into the mainstream.

Last night's five minute dialogue between actor Jason Bateman and Jon Stewart included more Yiddish words than we typically hear on television. It was as if Bateman wanted to drop some of his well-rehearsed Yiddishisms during his interview on The Daily Show. As soon as Jason Bateman sat down he told Jon Stewart that his "It's nice when nice happens to nice" opening comment sounded very Yiddish. And from there it became a Yiddish word competition between the two men.

Jon Stewart and Jason Bateman Speak Yiddish on the Daily Show

Jason Bateman explained that he recently learned the Yiddish word "chazerai" which seemed to confuse the Jewish host of The Daily Show (the former Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) who mistakenly said the word means a guy who's a bit of a chazer (pig). Bateman correctly defined chazerai as garbage, but Stewart disagreed. At the end of the show Stewart actually returned to publicly apologize to Bateman for correcting his Yiddish since chazerai indeed does mean garbage.

Bateman then threw out mishegas and Stewart responded with meshugena. The conversation then turned to Bateman's self-identification as a goy (gentile) and his experience at a friend's Passover seder. Here's the video of them shmoozing on the show last night:


Zei gezunt to Jason Bateman and Jon Stewart... and thanks for the early freilich Purim gift!