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.

Friday, September 19, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You: Sitting Shiva in the 21st Century

Jonathan Tropper's "This Is Where I Leave You" was one of my favorite books. I found it hard to put down and several parts were laugh-out-loud funny. As I read Tropper's book, I remember hoping that it would one day be made into a movie. Well, the movie version of Tropper's book opens today and I cannot wait to go see it.

The story focuses on the Altman family who are sitting shiva after the family patriarch dies. It was his final wish that the entire family sit shiva for him for an entire week (the traditional observance period). The film has some of my favorite actors in it, including Jason Bateman ("Arrested Development"), Tina Fey ("30 Rock"), Adam Driver ("Girls"), Dax Shepard ("Parenthood") and Corey Stoll ("House of Cards"). I'm hopeful that it will be an accurate portrayal of the modern shiva experience for the mass audience, but also hopeful that it will prompt learning opportunities for rabbis and other Jewish educators to inform about the ingredients of a traditional shiva observance.

This Is Where I Leave You focuses on a Jewish family sitting shiva
This Is Where I Leave You focuses on a Jewish family sitting shiva


Part of the reason I enjoyed the book so much (aside from Tropper's writing) was that I could relate to the shiva experience -- both as a Jewish person who has sat shiva for deceased relatives as well as a rabbi who has visited hundreds of shiva homes in a professional role. Shiva is an interesting ritual and one that non-Jews often point to as something that really impresses them about the Jewish faith. In fact, last October I had the opportunity to meet Tina Fey in New York City not long after she finished filming "This Is Where I Leave You" and she remarked to me how touching and meaningful it was to sit shiva (even if it was in a fictional movie).

Shiva has many long-standing traditions, but it is also interesting to see how it has evolved over the generations. Sitting shiva in the 21st century is different from previous centuries. Many non-observant families opt to satisfy the more traditional requirements of shiva, while some observant families find themselves settling for a less traditional shiva experience. This is often due to the wishes of the deceased or to keep the peace with other mourners. While "shiva" literally means seven, reflecting the seven days the immediate mourners are required to officially mourn at home following the burial of their loved one, many Jewish families are opting for shorter shiva periods. I've also noticed more emphasis being placed on specific rules for visiting the shiva house -- what one might call "articulated etiquette." That is to say, families are including instructions in the death notice or in announcements at the funeral home that those who wish to pay their condolences to the shiva home may do so only between certain hours of the day in order to give the family their privacy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

This Detroit Highway Sign Lists Holocaust Museum With Video Arcade Centers

I am not usually one to complain about how my local tax dollars are allocated. However, as I was driving along the I-696 West highway this morning in Farmington Hills, Michigan (outside of Detroit), I saw a new sign that almost made me drive off the road. I'm guessing that there was not a lot of consultation before this new sign was produced. It is a highway exit sign that lists local lodging and attractions in the area.

The top half of the sign has three logos of hotels just off the highway, while the lower half of the sign bears the heading "ATTRACTION EXIT 5" and then displays the logos of a well-known local video arcade, Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, and Zap Zone, which has mini-golf, go-karts, video games and Laser Tag. In between those two logos is the logo for the Holocaust Memorial Center, which is the nation's first Holocaust museum. What?! I couldn't believe my eyes. This immediately struck me as tacky and distasteful. A museum that stands in memory of the six million who perished in the Shoah shouldn't be in the same "attraction" category as places where little kids have their birthday parties.

In Metro Detroit, a new highway sign puts the Holocaust Museum between two video arcade centers
In Metro Detroit, a new highway sign puts the Holocaust Museum between two video arcade centers

Sitting in traffic waiting to exit, I grabbed my phone and quickly shot a photo out of the passenger side window of my car. And then I drove on and saw a second sign. This one -- a vertical sign -- again listed the three "attractions" with the Holocaust Museum in between Marvin's and Zap Zone. I pulled to the side of the road to take another photo. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

NFL: You Have a Problem

I love watching and playing sports. However, there's one sport that I just never got into as either a spectator or as a player and that is football. I'm glued to the screen for baseball, basketball and hockey games, tennis matches and even golf tournaments, but I couldn't name more than five players on my hometown team, the Detroit Lions, right now. So, when the Ray Rice scandal broke, I only looked at it from the perspective of a human being rather than as a football fan with any allegiance to the NFL.

(If you do love football and are looking for a positive football story involving a young woman this week, check out this article about North Farmington High School in Metro Detroit, Michigan, which has a 14-year-old girl as their kicker and she won their last game for them.)

I hadn't heard of Ray Rice before he physically assaulted his wife (then fiance) in the elevator and I still couldn't tell you what position he plays or for which team. That being the case, I know enough about football to say that the NFL has a very serious problem. A "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to domestic violence means just that. From the initial two-game suspension to allegedly covering up that the full elevator surveillance footage hadn't been seen by the league (as if that mattered), this entire ordeal has been mishandled. The incidents of illegal acts by NFL football players are overwhelming and there is enough of a violence problem that league commissioner Roger Goodell should immediately launch a league-wide program to eradicate it.

I plan to use some of my time in front of the congregation on Rosh Hashanah to speak about domestic violence in one of my sermons. It is a very important topic to bring to light since so many people in abusive relationships remain silent rather than telling their personal stories. One such woman who has decided to end her silence is Tamara Warren. I got to know Tamara during our undergraduate years in James Madison College at Michigan State University. We took several of the same courses and the class size at Madison College was small enough to really get to know each other.

Tamara Warren was a victim of domestic abuse
Tamara Warren


I only learned of Tamara's ordeal as the victim in an abusive relationship when she revealed her story in the Detroit Free Press on Sunday and shared the article in her Facebook feed. In her captivating article, Tamara explains how she got into the relationship with her ex-husband and how she got out. Surviving the horrific years in between those two periods in her life make her the hero that she is. Tamara writes:

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Cousin, the Life Saver

In the Talmud it says, "Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world" (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a). That text immediately came to mind after I heard the news that my cousin, Dr. Jeffrey Gudes, brought a man back to life a couple weeks ago.

Jeff, 27, was playing hockey in the Troy Sports Complex when a player on the opposing team collapsed and had a heart attack. Jeff's a surgery resident at St. John Macomb Hospital in Michigan. His teammate immediately called him to the other team's bench where Jeff performed chest compressions and used the automated external defibrillator (AED) to revive the man before he was taken to the hospital.

The man was unconscious while Jeff was working on him, but Fox 2 News Detroit brought the two men together to meet now that he's out of the hospital and feeling better (he won't be playing hockey for a while).

Dr. Jeff Gudes

As we approach the Days of Awe in the Jewish faith, we consider the haunting words from our liturgy's famous prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef: "Who will live and who will die?" I know our grandfather, Dr. David Gudes, would be extremely proud that the young Dr. Gudes saved a man's life, granting him more years on this earth. I too am very proud of my cousin Jeff, he acted quickly and responsibly, performing the greatest mitzvah possible.

Watch the news segment below:

Fox 2 News Headlines

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Jewish Baseball Players' Yom Kippur Dilemma

The Detroit Tigers are currently in a pennant race for the American League Central Division, where they currently have a razor thin half game lead on the Kansas City Royals. 80 years ago the Detroit Tigers were similarly in a pennant race for their division. That was the September that the team's star, Hank Greenberg, famously sat out the game on Yom Kippur. It was September 20, 1934 and the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game late in the pennant race. While his participation was sorely needed, Hank Greenberg stayed true to his Jewish religion and attended synagogue instead at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit. The Tigers lost the game, but went on to win the 1934 American League pennant (the Tigers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the '34 World Series).

Rabbi Jason Miller and Hank Greenberg's son Steve Greenberg
With Hall of Famer Lou Brock, Willie Horton's son Al and Hank Greenberg's son Steve Greenberg


It is interesting to note that Hank Greenberg had in fact played in a game ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah, in which he led the Detroit Tigers to victory with two home runs. A local Detroit rabbi gave him permission to play on Rosh Hashanah and the Detroit News ran the headline on the front page, "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play." The day following the Rosh Hashanah victory, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that read simply, "Happy New Year, Hank."

Tickets for the Hank Greenberg Commemorative Hall of Fame Plaque
Hank Greenberg Hall of Fame plaques will be given out before today's game at Comerica Park


In commemoration of the day Hank Greenberg chose to sit out the game on Yom Kippur, the Detroit Tigers and local Jewish community organizations like the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation will celebrate Jewish Heritage Day at the Detroit Tigers game today. It will also be a chance to honor Hank Greenberg, who was the first Jewish player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.