Thursday, February 11, 2016

Natan Sharansky's 30th Anniversary of Freedom

Natan Sharansky was freed as a Prisoner of Zion 30 years ago today. Sharansky is one of the most famous former Soviet refusniks and should be treated as a hero of the Jewish people. In the 30 years since he gained his freedom Sharansky has become a devoted Israeli politician.

In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was refused on “security” grounds. Following this denial, Sharansky became more involved with the refusnik movement and became an activist for Soviet Jews. On March 15, 1977, he was arrested by the KGB, accused of treason and espionage. I remember marching at the Rally to Free Soviet Jews in D.C. with my mother. Somewhere in the crowd with her own mother, was a 14-year-old girl, who would become my wife 11-and-a-half years later.



The human rights activist arrived in Israel on February 11, 1986, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. In 1988, he was elected President of the newly created Zionist Forum, the umbrella organization of former Soviet activists. He also served as an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report. In November 2006, Sharansky resigned from the Knesset and assumed the position of Chairman of the then newly-established Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In June 2009, he was elected and sworn in as Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, a post he holds today. He is credited with creating a space at the Western Wall for men and women to pray together. This plan for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, which Sharansky worked on for several years, took effect late last month.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Gun Loving Ted Nugent's Jewish Problem

Whenever Mitch Albom launches a new book, he throws a big event in Detroit and invites some of his celebrity friends to join him on stage. I've been to a few of these and was surprised to see Ted Nugent at the most recent event. Nugent, the ultra-right wing Rocker, was invited along with his wife Shemane because of the couple's Freedom’s Angels Foundation, which helps wounded soldiers and their loved ones. Apparently, he and Albom have become friendly over the years and bonded over their love of music.

Ted Nugent, his wife Shemane, and Mitch Albom with Michael Bolton and musician Olivia Millerschin
(Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press)


I must say that in my brief discussion with Ted Nugent at this event, I began to reconsider my preconceived notions about him. Nugent has a reputation for being an offensive, abrasive, loud mouth who is equal parts racist and misogynistic. However, he actually seemed like a nice guy at this event (he was still loud) and I enjoyed watching Mitch Albom interview him in a fireside chat style. Before the event began Nugent was even gracious enough to join my list of celebrities who have offered "Shabbat Shalom" greetings on video.

With Ted Nugent in Detroit last year. I always add the disclaimer that a photo with someone does not constitute my agreement with their opinions. Never has that been truer than with this photo!


But then yesterday afternoon a friend told me to go look at Ted Nugent's Facebook page in which Nugent posted a very an anti-Semitic image. In the post, Nugent blames prominent Jewish people for pushing gun control by overlaying Israeli flag icons on each Jewish person's photo. The image is titled "So who is really behind gun control?" and Nugent made a photo grid of 12 Jews (Senators Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, former Senator Carl Levin, Michael Bloomberg, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alan Dershowitz, etc.). The graphic wasn't created by Nugent, but it has appeared on anti-Semitic websites in the past.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Conservative Rabbi Asks Hillary Clinton "What's in Your Pocket?"

In last night's Democratic Town Hall in New Hampshire, hosted by CNN, Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett of the Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua made headlines with his question to Hillary Clinton.

Hillary-Clinton_Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett (Salon.com)

Rabbi Spira-Savett, a Harvard graduate who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, beautifully phrased his question about humility to Mrs. Clinton:

Another rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Bunem taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes. And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Getting Marco Rubio to Say Shabbat Shalom

Can Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speak Yiddish? Marc Daniels of "Weed Out Hate" has made yarmulkes with all the presidential candidates' names on them. He was in Iowa earlier this week and tried to get Rubio to say Gut Shabbes! on video while wearing a Marco Rubio kippah. Fortunately Lauren Selsky, who covers the Rubio campaign for CNN, was right there to video his three attempts. The first thing Rubio had to do was learn that it's Gut as in "good" and not Boot Shabbes. Here's Selsky's tweeted video:



Maybe it's becoming more popular to get famous people to say Shabbat Shalom. After writing about my friend Lisa Lis, who collects video Shabbat Shalom greetings from celebs, I decided to try it myself. I've found it's much easier to get celebrities or politicians to say the much easier "Shabbat Shalom" on video rather than the Yiddish expression of Gut Shabbes. Too bad Marco Rubio didn't have that option! Here are some famous Shabbat Shalom greetings from the past couple of years:

Shaquille O'Neal Says Shabbat Shalom:


Tina Fey Says Shabbat Shalom:


Charles Barkley Says Shabbat Shalom:


Michael Bolton Says Shabbat Shalom:


Russell Simmons Says Shabbat Shalom:


Bill Cosby Says Shabbat Shalom (Not really!):


Kevin Pollack Says Shabbat Shalom:


Conan O'Brien Says Shabbat Shalom:


J.B. Smoove Says Shabbat Shalom:


Joe Torre Says Shabbat Shalom:


Henry Winkler Says Shabbat Shalom:




Best Tech Gadgets at CES 2016

When I returned from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) a few weeks ago, everyone wanted to know what was hot this year. I get that same question every year following CES and once again I rattled off the usual hot categories of virtual reality, 3D printing, robotics, and drones. This year, however, I feel like everything was taken up a notch. The tech gadgets of the future have finally arrived, they're available to consumers and they are quickly becoming mainstream.

This year, the connected home became more of a reality as well with smart technologies now available in all our home appliances -- think smart fridges, washing machines and garage doors. Looking around CES, it was clear that drones and VR headsets are becoming ubiquitous. And just like in previous years, everyone was excited about the high-quality audio and video gadgets.

I've put together a list of some of the coolest things I saw at CES. Of course this list isn't exhaustive and it's impossible to see everything CES has to offer in just a few days. It's also too time consuming to try to demo all the cool gadgets that are in the tech market now. I have tried to feature gadgets in differently categories and have included affordable items so cost will not be a barrier for new technology. The future is definitely accessible to us and changing our lives quickly.

Friday, January 29, 2016

How This Jewish Teen Invited Bernie Sanders to BBYO International Convention

Sometimes if you just look like you are supposed to be somewhere, no one will ask any questions. That was the case for me earlier this month when I heard Kevin Spacey speak at the AT&T Developer Summit at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas. About a half hour after the conclusion of his speech I casually walked to a service elevator behind the stage and found myself riding a few floors in an elevator with Kevin Spacey after he had made an elevator metaphor in his speech. I suppose it's fair to say this will be the only time in my life I'll share an elevator ride with a sitting American president!

House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey delivers the keynote address at the 2016 AT&T Developer Summit


I thought of my Kevin Spacey experience the other day when I read about seventeen-year-old Louis Shenker. The Jewish teen from Massachusetts managed to sneak into the Democratic debate Charleston, South Carolina. Not only did Shenker sit in Bill Clinton's assigned seat at the debate and get on live television shmoozing with Hillary Clinton, but he also invited Bernie Sanders to come to the upcoming BBYO International Convention and serve as a keynote speaker.

In an interview with attn.com, Shenker acknowledged that he wasn't "qualified to [invite the candidate to speak at the convention], but I figured if they said 'yes' I would bring it to the attention of someone who was."

In a blog post, Shenker explained how he not only got past the entrance of the presidential debate without a ticket and gained VIP access into the debate. He writes, "One particular staffer asked if I was Martin O’Malley’s son and I said yes. He went and told some of the other staff that I was the former Governor’s son and I gained recognition based on my [unique and very loud] jacket."

Louis Shenker, a Jewish teen from Massachusetts, at the Democratic presidential debate


"I then continued to Hillary Clinton and introduced myself. I told her that she debated very well and that I wished her the best of luck and shook her hand. She said that it was a pleasure meeting me and commented that she thought I was dressed very sharp. It was at this point that the debate came back from commercial and there I was front and center on national television shaking hands with Hillary."

Of course Shenker didn't even realize he achieved his 15 seconds of fame until his cellphone began ringing with friends and family watching him live on television. His ability to sneak into the debate and then gain access backstage certainly means the Secret Service missed something, but it also goes to show that sometimes if you just look like you are supposed to be somewhere, no one will ask any questions. Whether Bernie Sanders actually shows up at BBYO Internation Convention in Baltimore in a couple weeks remains to be seen. If he does, I think Shenker will become the most popular Jewish teen in BBYO.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Coach David Blatt's Firing Makes You Go Hmmm

For Jewish and pro-Israel sports fans Coach David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers was a bit of a novelty. Sure, there have been Jewish coaches in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the past -- the legendary Red Auerbach, Red Holzman and Larry Brown to name a few. But David Blatt was the first Israeli head coach in the NBA and to Jewish basketball fans that was a source of pride.

On Friday, David Blatt became the first coach to be fired when his team had the best record in a conference since conference play started in the NBA back in 1970-71. That's not something Jewish basketball fans will be proud of. In fact, it's a statistic that has left people scratching their heads.

LeBron James and Coach David Blatt


Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, himself Jewish and a supporter of Israel, fired Coach Blatt late last week. No one questioned that Blatt's termination was motivated by his Israeli connection. Many, in fact, speculated that LeBron James wanted Tyronn Lue, an assistant coach, to lead the team. Regardless of the rationale for terminating Blatt, there's no question that the timing was odd. At the time of his firing, the Cavs were in first place with a .732 winning percentage and there were still a few weeks to go until the All Star break. Many in the league (including Tyronn Lue, the new head coach of the Cavs) are insisting that Blatt still be allowed to coach the East team in the All Star Game in mid-February.

Blatt’s sophomore season as Cleveland's head coach (he had only coached in Israel and Europe previously) was going even better than his first year when the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals. While no one suggests that the decision to fire Blatt was at all related to his Israeli background (he was born in the U.S., but has called Israel home since making aliyah in 1981), there was a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the comment sections of the stories in the press that broke Friday after the news of his termination.

Commenting on Blatt's firing, Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy ranted, "It’s embarrassing for the league... we all get into this no matter what happens. You’re supposed to win. He did. He did, and now he’s still getting fired... That one – to me – elevated all of the coach firings totally into the theater of the absurd... I don’t know if anybody knows what the expectations of coaches are anymore."

USA Today ran a story right after Blatt's firing about the response in Israel. The opening line of the article was, "The Cleveland Cavaliers suddenly have far fewer fans in Israel after the firing of David Blatt." It said that news of the firing topped all Israeli newscasts Saturday, knocking Middle East violence off the headlines. One Israeli lamented, "Finally I can go back to hating LeBron without feeling guilty. Hope he never sees a title in his life." Israelis rallied around Cleveland for one reason: their beloved Coach Blatt. Now, those same fans are left questioning why he was fired.


On a personal note, I met Coach David Blatt following a Cavaliers-Pistons game one year ago and found him to be extremely friendly and kind. He took the time to talk to my son in Hebrew, wish him a happy birthday and then offered a "Shabbat Shalom" greeting together with my son, Josh, and the friends he brought to the game.



I for one will miss having David Blatt in the NBA and hope that another team will soon hire him as a head coach. He's got a smart basketball IQ and deserves to have another shot at coaching in the NBA.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Technology for Good: Mobile Apps that Help Us

As we look around the technology landscape at the beginning of 2016, I think it's fair to say that the pace of innovation is quite impressive. Driverless cars, drones, connected homes and 3-D virtual reality have arrived and today's youth don't even know of a time without social media or mobile apps.

We are certainly living in exciting times thanks to tech innovation. However, I like to consider that there are three separate categories of innovation. We can and should be excited about all three categories because the technology is impressive in each. One category consists of technology that ranges from the fun to the mindless. This includes technology without a higher purpose -- think gaming mobile apps like Angry Birds. Sure, it helps preoccupy your kids by handing them the iPad while in the doctor's waiting room, but it doesn't advance society. The second category includes technology that improves our lives, but doesn't solve our most pressing issues. Here, I would include such innovations as drones, Uber/Lyft transportation, socialized TV viewing and advanced GPS technology. They have made our lives easier, but we could also continue living without them.

The third category is the most critical. I argue that this is the technology about which we should really be passionate and enthusiastic. Not only does this technology have a utility,  but it is revolutionary. This is the technology that will solve the greatest ills of the 21st century.

Beacon of Hope

Sex slavery is the fastest growing crime in the world and less than 1% of the victims (half of whom are under 12-years-old) are identified. That problem has led 25-year-old twin sisters America and Penelope Lopez to develop Beacon of Hope. Last year, the sisters won a top prize at the AT&T Developer Summit and Hackathon in Las Vegas for their "Body Camera Hack," a prototype camera with face-tracking technology that can be worn by law enforcement officers to record their actions in the field. This year, the Lopez sisters returned to the AT&T Developer Summit to spend the 36 straight hours of the Hackathon creating their potential solution to the sex slavery problem.

What is Beacon of Hope? Together with a couple other developers, the dynamic sisters have used Gimbal's iBeacon technology to alert law enforcement when a woman is being taken as a sex slave. The small beacons are hidden in tampons and sanitary napkins that will be available in women's restrooms at such places as gas stations, highway rest stops, stadiums and casinos because survivors report the only place they were ever alone was in a public restroom. A woman will be able to easily hide the beacon in her purse or pocket to be tracked by local law enforcement. The beacon immediately sends a signal to the police so they can trace her location. The sisters have taken advantage of AT&T's Smart Cities technology to ensure the tracking beacon is monitored as it travels as sex slavery victims are often moved from city to city against their will. It also utilizes the technologies of IBM Watson, Intel Edison and AT&T Flow Designer. The next version of Beacon of Hope will allow a victim to simply make a hand gesture in front of the beacon dispensary to alert law enforcement.

America and Penelope Lopez of Beacon of Hope


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Debbie Friedman and the Healing Power of Music

On Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook page this past September, the Facebook founder and CEO posted that he was "celebrating Rosh Hashanah." In his Facebook post, Zuckerberg offered the following blessing to his millions of followers:

I want to wish L'Shana Tova to everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish new year and a moment to reflect on our limited time here so we may live more meaningfully. My favorite Jewish prayer is called Mi Shebeirach. It has a line that has always touched me and that I reflect on when I face challenges: "Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing." I hope you all have a wonderful year ahead and that you find the courage to make a positive and meaningful change in the world this year.

There was something beautiful about Zuckerberg's Rosh Hashanah greeting, but I also took notice that his favorite Jewish prayer is called "Mi Shebeirach." There are actually several Mi Shebeirach prayers, but of course the one Zuckerberg was referencing is the popular prayer for healing. Thirty years ago, when Zuckerberg was a year old, it would be unlikely for someone to cite the prayer for healing as ones favorite prayer. The reason that Zuckerberg, like so many others, considers the "Mi Shebeirach" as their favorite prayer is thanks to one woman.



This past Shabbat marked five years since the well known singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman passed away following a long battle with cancer. Her contributions to Jewish prayer and spirituality have endured since her passing and whenever I hear someone mention the Mi Sheberach for healing, as Zuckerberg did, I'll think of Debbie Friedman and her beautiful rendition of this prayer that brought it to the level of mass appeal.

A couple weeks from now we will observe Shabbat Shira when we chant the Song of the Sea from Chapter 15 of Exodus. It is an appropriate time to reflect on both the power of music in prayer and on Debbie Friedman's immense contributions to synagogue spirituality through her powerful music.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Remembering CES Maven Neil Gandler

I usually spend the Sunday following the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas reflecting on all of the amazing new tech products I saw over the previous week. Of course I have a lot on my mind as this was the best CES I've experienced yet, but today I will put those reflections on hold because the tragedy of Neil Gandler's murder takes precedence.

Neil Gandler - Vegas Tech Shows
Neil Gandler, founder of VegasTechShows.com


Ever since I began attending CES, like thousands of other attendees I came to depend upon a website of resources called VegasTechShows.com. This website was created by software engineer Neil Gandler as a labor of love. It was a roughly built site that more closely resembled a bulletin board (BBS), but even without a flashy, modern look provided detailed information for CES attendees. Neil offered a place on the Web for attendees, media and exhibitors to post helpful tips about travel to Vegas for CES, which hotels to stay at, meetups, dining options and parties. While the site is called Vegas Tech Shows, its function is only for the one week of CES. As the "senior editor and platform developer" of VegasTechShows.com, Neil was always granted a complimentary media pass to CES each year and 2016 would have been his 15th show.

A few years ago as I was preparing my yearly travel plans for CES I consulted Neil's website and had a specific question so I emailed him. I received an immediate response from Neil informing me that we already knew each other. Little did I know that Neil had attended the University of Michigan for graduate school and was active in the Jewish grad student and professionals group at U-M Hillel, where I served as the campus rabbi and associate director. Neil reminded me that he had attended a "Torah on Tap" program for grad students I led at a local bar in Ann Arbor. It was great to reconnect with him, and over the past couple of years we continued to keep in touch about interesting events surrounding CES.

This past October during the Sukkot holiday I received an email from Neil on a Friday afternoon. The subject was "Shabbat Shalom from Michigan" and Neil let me know he was in Ann Arbor and would love to see me over the weekend. I immediately wrote back, inviting him to our home the following day to have Shabbat lunch in our sukkah. He was excited to join us. Over lunch, Neil spoke about his experience in Silicon Valley, the prohibitively high cost of housing there, his plans to invest in tech startups and his love of food. A true foodie, he told us how much he enjoys trying new restaurants and remembers every meal he'd ever had. While in the Detroit area, he asked for suggestions of local kosher restaurants he should try in addition to some of the well known Detroit area restaurants he'd heard about.