Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why We Must Take Voting for Judges Seriously

The Torah portion called Shoftim, the Hebrew word for judges, is always read at the beginning of the new month of Elul. The Torah portion begins with a mitzvah -- the commandment instructing us to "appoint judges." Although we still have some time before Elul, the month which commences the period of introspection before the autumn High Holidays, I've been reflecting a lot on the role judges play in our society and our responsibility to appoint them to uphold the law and to render sensible decisions.

Over the past week I've come to realize that electing judges can be even more important than voting for our state representatives and school board officials. In Oakland County, Michigan, where I live and work, Judge Lisa Gorcyca was first elected to the 6th Circuit Court back in 2008. Last November she ran unopposed and won another six-year term that began on January 1, 2015. I didn't know much about Judge Gorcyca, and like most citizens of Oakland County, I filled in the bubble with my pen in the voting booth and didn't think much of it. After all, I had no alternative but to vote for her.

Judge Lisa Gorcyca - Michigan Divorce Battle

As a judge in the Family Division, Judge Gorcyca has been dealing with a messy custody case for several years. The divorced couple -- both native Israeli Jews who immigrated to Michigan -- have been battling it out in court over the custody of their three young children. The ex-wife alleges domestic abuse and the children have refused to have any relationship with their father, who has been back in Israel lately for business matters together with his new wife and infant child. Last month, Judge Gorcyca sent the couple's three children to a juvenile detention facility (and ordered they must be kept separate from each other while there) after they refused her court order to have a loving relationship with their estranged father. In essence, the judge held three minors in contempt of court for choosing to not speak to their father, whom they claim was physically abusive to their mother.


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Jon Stewart and Jon Hamm Make a Minyan (or Minion)

Jon Hamm was the guest on last night's episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Hamm came on to plug his new movie "Minions" and things got about as Jewish as they ever have on The Daily Show.

Jon Stewart opened the dialogue by telling Jon Hamm what he assumed Minions is about: "Here's what I hope this movies about, okay? Nine Jewish men looking for a tenth so they they may celebrate Shabbos!"

Hamm then offers up that he knows the common English transliteration of the Hebrew is actually spelled "minyan."

The two go back and forth riffing on the minyan-minion pun, with Jon Stewart offering to be the designated "minyan maker" in a road movie saying that he'd go around to groups of nine Jewish men saying "What do you want some tefillin?" and "I'm the Minyan Man!"

The minyan pun on the animated characters called minions is nothing new. Back in January I was in Las Vegas outside Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino and took a photo with two minions, posting it on Facebook with the caption, "If you need to say Kaddish, it's not difficult to find minions in Vegas!"

minions minyan - jewish group of minions for prayer

With the Minions movie about to be released, there are a lot of other minyan-minions images circulating on the Web. Here are a few:

minions minyan - jewish group of minions for prayer

Jon Hamm is not Jewish, although his long time girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt is Jewish through her mother, meaning their children would be counted in a minyan along with Jon Stewart. So, if you're looking for a minyan (or minions), just ask Jon Hamm or Jon Stewart!

Watch Jon Stewart and Jon Hamm mix it up here:

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Positive Side of Social Media in High School

Social Media gets a bad name when it comes to teens. Countless stories exist of teens using social networks like Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter to bully, shame and insult their peers. We've heard of students shaming each other with unbelievably mean comments on each other's Facebook and Instagram photos. Even kids in middle school have been found to be "sexting" each other. All of these stories would lead adults to think that a complete ban of social networks is the only answer to end the negative effects of social media when it comes to our children and teens.

And then a wonderful story emerges that highlights the power of social media. A high school graduate named Konner Sauve found a way to exploit Instagram for good. During Konner's senior year at East Valley High School in Washington, he decided he would post photos of every student in his high school onto an anonymous Instagram account. In the caption of each photo Konner posted how he felt about the person.

Conner Sauve - Instragram
Conner Sauve, a high school senior in Washington used Instragram to praise his classmates

Konner wanted to give some encouragement to each teen at his high school. He wrote positive, uplifting and motivational messages. If he didn't know the student personally, he did some research in the yearbook to find out if they played a sport, were in theater or had other interests. In the end, Konner posted 657 photos to an anonymous Instagram account he called "thebenevolentone3."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Dads and Grads Technology Gift Guide 2015

As a father I can tell you that the typical Father's Day gifts of golf shirts and tools just don't do it for me. Most dads these days would prefer to get cool tech toys! There are so many great tech gadget ideas for both Father's Day and gifts for high school and college graduates. Below is the tech gift guide I put together for the Detroit Jewish News and Huffington Post:

Dads and Grads Tech Gift Guide 2015
Rabbi Jason Miller

We're already in graduation season and Father's Day is quickly approaching. That means everyone's looking for the perfect gifts for Dads and Grads. In the rapidly growing technology industry there are hundreds of wonderful options for gifts, finding the right one for the celebrant can be tricky since it's such a crowded field.

For fathers and graduates who love music, you can't go wrong with outdoor Bluetooth speakers, but which ones? Maybe you're looking for the perfect cell phone, case or other mobile accessories? Or, maybe you're looking to improve the television viewing experience for the couch potato dad? I've researched dozens of options for tech gifts for Dads and Grads:

TiVo Roamio Pro - Ideal for the dad who enjoys watching TV or the college grad who loves streaming movies. This is TiVo's best DVR yet. Simply put a CableCARD in and there's no more need for a cable box. Great for mobile TV viewing with the Android and iOS mobile app. Six tuners to record six shows at once and phenomenal search capability within your cable guide and streaming networks. 450-hour HD recording capacity. Online content from Amazon, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora and YouTube.
Priced at $599.
Slingbox M1 - Another must have for the TV watching fan, the Slingbox M1 hooks up to your cable box so you can watch cable channels live or your DVR recordings anywhere with the SlingPlayer app. The quality is great (high definition video up to 1080p) so long as it's a strong Internet connection. SlingPlayer even works overseas so you'll never miss your favorite shows and can watch your cable TV's On Demand offerings from anywhere. You can also schedule DVR recordings while away from home and cast your SlingPlayer using Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Fire TV and Roku.
Priced at $149.99.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

New Reality TV Show Puts Needy Families in Moral Quandary

In my recent contribution to Time.com, I take a look at the ethical issues of a new reality TV show on CBS. It's often said that these reality TV shows are simply a magnifying glass on American society. Well, I certainly hope that our society is better than this!

Why ‘The Briefcase’ Is the Worst Reality TV Show Ever
CBS's new show "The Briefcase" takes advantage of desperate people and calls it entertainment
By Rabbi Jason Miller

This summer marks a milestone of sorts for the reality TV genre. It was 15 years ago that the television show “Survivor” became a breakout hit and gave birth to a new industry. Some of the most successful reality shows have helped talented individuals who may otherwise have gone unnoticed begin lucrative careers. But most of the reality TV productions tend to bring out parts of society that are unethical, exploitative, and just plain wrong.

The most extreme example of this aired its first episode two weeks ago on CBS. “The Briefcase” features financially struggling American families and showcases their many hardships. These are men and women who are down on their luck, out of work, and seem miserable. The premise of the show is that they are surprised with a gift of $101,000. Of course, there are strings attached.

CBS Reality TV Show The Briefcase

These impoverished, hard-working people are given an unfair decision to make upon receipt of the “fortune.” They are told that the rules of this game (and it appears to me to be a game of playing with people’s minds) are that they can either choose to keep the money, which they desperately need, or gift all or part of it to another family in need. They aren’t told the other family has also received a similar briefcase and instructions.

Reaction to the show has been very critical, and an online petition calling for CBS to cancel the show has more than 100 signatures.

The biggest problem of the show is that it’s meant as entertainment. Yet the families featured on the show aren’t actors—they truly are struggling. They have lost hope as they try to keep their homes, feed their children, and pay their medical bills. Putting them in front of television cameras and presenting them with a “Faustian bargain” is cruel and unusual.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers a Jewish Team?

I've always been of the opinion that one should, first and foremost, cheer for one's own hometown sports teams. For example, I've never understood how someone from Detroit could randomly choose another NFL team as "their team" instead of the local Detroit Lions (despite their lack of a single Super Bowl championship). However, when it comes to the playoffs, if one's own team isn't playing then it is acceptable to adopt a team and cheer for that team.

Here in Detroit, it's become the accepted practice to cheer for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA postseason when the Detroit Pistons are not playing. While the Cavaliers might be one of the Pistons' closest rivals, Detroiters feel a connection with the team and can't resist liking them. Such has certainly been the case with me.

Rabbi Jason Miller With Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and former player Zydrunas Ilgauskas
With Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and former player Zydrunas Ilgauskas at a Friends of the IDF Event in Cleveland

Owned by Jewish philanthropist Dan Gilbert, the Cavs have become something of a first cousin to the Detroit Pistons. One might find it odd to enter the Downtown Detroit headquarters of Quicken Loans, the company Gilbert owns, and see a basketball court bedecked in Cleveland Cavaliers colors and logos. For Detroiters, however, this seems natural. In both Detroit and Cleveland, we've found a mutual appreciation for Gilbert, who has used his philanthropy and business savvy to bring a dual renaissance to Detroit and Cleveland, two major U.S. cities that have struggled financially in the past several decades. (Gilbert owns a casino in both cities, the Quicken Loans Arena ("The Q") in Cleveland, the Lake Erie Monsters hockey team, the Cleveland Gladiators arena football team, a large Downtown Cleveland office for Quicken Loans employees there, dozens of Detroit-based companies, and has bought over 75 buildings in Downtown Detroit).

Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt
With my son and Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt

Not only have the Cavs become the adopted team during the NBA playoffs for Detroit Pistons fans, but recent articles have called the Cavs "Israel's Team." Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even phoned Head Coach David Blatt, who has Israeli citizenship, to wish him luck and tell him that the entire State of Israel was behind him. Almost a decade before the Cavs hired an Israeli coach, my first experience with Dan Gilbert's Cavs had a connection to Israel. I was invited to Quicken Loans Arena in 2006 to watch the Cavaliers take on Maccabi Tel Aviv in a pre-season game. The night before I attended a dinner at a synagogue in the Cleveland suburbs where Dan Gilbert was honored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The two teams competed again before this season, but this time around it was more personal because Blatt used to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv.

My son and his friends with Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt

I would argue that the Cavs are a Jewish team too. If they win the NBA championship this year (the series begins tonight), they wouldn't be the first team with a Jewish owner and Jewish coach -- the Detroit Pistons won in 2004 with Larry Brown as coach and Bill Davidson as the majority owner. But there's a very Jewish feel to this team in which Gilbert and star player LeBron James had to perform teshuva before the season to repair their fractured relationship. When LeBron returned to Cleveland after his sojourn in Miami he had to apologize to Cleveland fans for his undignified exit a few years back and Gilbert had to make amends to LeBron for his unprofessional public letter. There's certainly a Yom Kippur sermon in there about healing relationships.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Sheryl Sandberg's Wise Words in the Face of Tragedy

One of the most challenging aspects of being a rabbi, in my opinion, is finding the right words to bring comfort to those mourning following the tragic death of a loved one. Aside from the traditional Hebrew phrase we offer mourners, I often find myself left with only four words to offer to those grieving: "There are no words."

After my infant nephew died and people were at a loss for words, I simply uttered, "There are no words." Truthfully though, there are words. And the words aren't necessary from those who are offering comfort. Sometimes the most meaningful words are from the mourners themselves. Those who are in pain from grief can actually find tremendous comfort in their own words.

This was not the case in the Torah following one of the biggest tragedies. After the sudden death of two of Aaron's sons, the Torah explains how the father handled his grief. Using only two words, we are told "Vayidom Aharon," Aaron was silent. So often, silence is the most natural way for mourners to deal with the shock of a sudden death of a loved one. However, after time ones own words may bring comfort.

Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg
Credit: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Such was the case today with Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive whose husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly last month. In a Facebook post today on the occasion of the completion of the sheloshim (30-day) period, Sheryl posted a beautiful and inspirational message on her public Facebook account. Her aim was to give back some of the words that were most helpful to her during her period of immense grief. She writes that she received wisdom and advice from close friends and strangers alike. She specifically singles out her close friend and Detroit native Adam Grant, who taught her three things essential to resilience. Sometimes rather than try to come up with the right words to offer to a mourner, we should just listen.

Sheryl's Facebook post has already been shared close to 40,000 times and major media outlets have helped circulate it. Mark Zuckerberg, Robert Scoble, Randi Zuckerberg and many other leading technology executives have commented on her post as well. Sheryl's words are too important and impactful not to share:

Sheryl Sandberg:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rabbi Vs. Ice Cube in Detroit Casino

Over the past day I've been answering my cellphone like this: "No, I have never heard of a rabbi here in Detroit named Taras!" News reports all over the internet are saying that a Rabbi P. Taras is suing rapper Ice Cube for $2 million after he was attacked by the Hip Hop star at the MGM Grand casino in Downtown Detroit, about twenty minutes from my home in Michigan.

Now, for the record, I don't believe there is such a rabbi named Taras here in Detroit. Of course, there could have been a rabbi visiting over the Memorial Day weekend, but I'm skeptical that a rabbi would be at a Detroit casino this past weekend since Shabbat went right into the 2-day holiday of Shavuot. This would have made it highly unlikely that a rabbi was in Downtown Detroit at a casino.

Ice Cube is accused of beating up a rabbi at the MGM Grand Casino in Detroit

The celebrity gossip website, TMZ.com, reports that this Rabbi P. Taras guy says he was attacked by Ice Cube because he was wearing a yarmulke (kippah) on Sunday, May 24. Well, again, I highly doubt any Jewish person wearing a yarmulke would have been at the MGM Grand on the Shavuot holiday, when going to a casino would be forbidden. I'll continue asking around myself, but my best guess is that this person was not a rabbi and as far as I know there was no Shavuot retreat being held at the MGM Grand Detroit.

While I personally do not gamble, I do enjoy walking around casinos and on one such visit to Las Vegas (I was in town for CES) in January 2013 I actually did happen upon a fight involving a famous rap star. I was not involved in this altercation at the Bellagio of course, but from a safe position about 20 yards away I watched as a drunk man was giving the rapper Tyga a hard time. This quickly escalated into a fight between when Tyga's bodyguard stepped in and gave the guy a pretty good beating until casino security stepped in. It's a good thing the police weren't called in because Tyga had just been released from a Las Vegas jail a few hours earlier for a minor traffic violation.

Rabbi Jason Miller with the rapper Tyga at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas

Update: On the TMZ.com website it looks like this P. Taras left a comment as "Rev Taras," so maybe he's actually a reverend (although that wouldn't explain the yarmulke). He posted the following comment: "This incident occurred in the HOTEL part, and their [sic] is video which is already in my possession. I am not releasing any videos due to the fact that Mr. Jackson has a right to defend this suit, and he has not yet been served with the complaint. When same happens, at the apporpriate [sic] time I will release such material. -P. Taras"

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Very Jewish Jeopardy!

I'm a big fan of Jeopardy! and try to watch every episode of the long running TV game show. I rarely watch an episode of Jeopardy! live, but make it a point to tune in to the episodes I recorded on my TiVo Roamio Pro.

Since Monday was the second day of the Shavuot holiday, I didn't watch that evening's episode until today. I started off doing very well getting the first dozen questions correct, but that's not what led me to blog about this episode of Jeopardy!

One question made me curoius as to whether they intentionally used this question on the episode that aired on Shavuot. The answer was the famous quote from The Book of Ruth in which Ruth says to Naomi, "Wherever you go I will go..." to which one of the contestants correctly provided the question, "Who was Ruth?" I thought to myself, I can't believe Jeopardy! used a question from The Book of Ruth on Shavuot.

I Gave "Kosher Soul" a Second Chance

A friend tipped me off to a new reality TV show that was about to begin publicizing its pilot episode. I was immediately intrigued. The show, Kosher Soul, is about a pretty Jewish woman and a Black comedian who fall in love. I clicked the link to find the trailer from the Lifetime network and was immediately disappointed. Oy, I thought to myself, this is not going to be "good for the Jews."

I posted the link to the trailer in a few rabbi discussion groups I'm part of and encouraged my colleagues to check out this video and give their own opinion. It was unanimous that we all cringed when we saw the typical, run-of-the-mill Jewish jokes interspersed with sub-par humor about African-Americans. One of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues suggested we have a conference call right after the first episode airs so we can discuss and determine the best way to articulate our dismay of this farcical portrayal of everything from interdating to conversion to Black/Jewish relations.

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

I helped coordinate the conference call, and we all seemed to have the same impressions about the show. It was a car wreck! I explained how I too was uncomfortable with the show, but that generally I detest reality television because it's almost as unreal as any other television sitcom. The actors are performing for the cameras, each episode has a theme, and the editors are going to cut the raw footage down to a bunch of sound bites for the 20 or so minutes of the final cut. It seemed to me, I explained, that O'Neal McKnight, the Black comedian, was trying to hard to market his comedy routines by offering one-liners that made me yawn rather than laugh out loud. The Jewish partner, Miriam Sternoff, came off as a snob who never seemed to feel comfortable having her private life aired to the masses. I didn't learn anything new from the conference call, but my sentiments about the show seemed to be the party line among my colleagues. I watched the first episode so I could have a coherent dialogue with my fellow rabbis and then, I reasoned, I'd never watch another episode of this filth again.