Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Israel's Yom Hazikaron Contrasted to America's Memorial Day

Today is Yom Hazikaron, Israel's memorial day, and it has me looking back to December 2002 when I had the opportunity to meet some new friends at the Dead Sea, where my wife and I spent a couple of days relaxing at the end of our vacation in London and Israel. There were hundreds of men at our hotel who became severely disabled while fighting for Israel’s continued existence. They risked their lives in protecting our Jewish homeland.

Yom Hazikaron - Israel Memorial Day


They are known as N’chei Tzahal – the disabled veterans of the IDF. Some could barely walk anymore, even with the aid of a cane or a walker. Others are amputees, missing an arm or a leg, and bound to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. Others still, were not injured while on active duty, but rather suffered life-long disabilities from a terrorist explosion while waiting at a bus stop just trying to get back to the base after a weekend off. They were at the Dead Sea to find some temporary relief from their disabling pain through the therapeutic powers of the Dead Sea.

The N’chei Tzahal come each year for two or three weeks, and most of the hotels are very accommodating to their needs, displaying a level of handicapped accessibility that is unmatched anywhere in the world. The Israeli Government pays for their much-deserved vacation, but if it is not taken by the end of the year, the opportunity is lost. Thus, many of them make their vacation to the Dead Sea at the end of every December; making the Dead Sea, in essence, the unofficial convention and reunion of Israel’s disabled veterans.


Thursday, April 02, 2015

I Always Rave About Technology, But Here are Some Rants

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and on The Huffington Post

As part of a recent panel discussion I was asked how technology has improved our lives in general and made us more productive and efficient in particular. I gave my typical response to such a question, responding that the Internet has vastly made our lives better and provided us with a wealth of information at our fingertips that previous generations could not have imagined. I talked about the communication revolution and some of the technology innovations that I cannot believe we ever lived without like GPS, text messaging and Google Search, not to mention the ability to pause live television.

After giving this response I decided that it would only be fair to rattle off a few rants about technology in the 21st century as well. I'm always raving about the latest innovation so I figured I should also present the other side of the coin. I stopped myself after naming four negative characteristics about technology, but I realized I could keep going. So, here are my 10 rants about technology. Do you agree with these and what would you add to the list?

Technology Rants - Rabbi Jason Miller 2015

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tip of the Hat to My College Professor, Ken Waltzer

Yesterday morning I found myself in a room with about 30 Jewish teens. I had spent Shabbat as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Phoenix, and was asked to talk about college life to these high school students.

I began by sharing with these teens -- some of whom will be off to college in the Fall -- what no one ever told me before I embarked on my college experience twenty years ago. I told them that as I headed off to college I didn't even understand what the differences would be between my future college professors and the school teachers I had encountered to that point. I didn't understand the concept of office hours or that many professors would treat their students as adults. No one told me that professors would invite students to have lunch with them in the cafeteria or actually be interested in your life outside of the classroom.

Rabbi Jason Miller with Prof. Ken Waltzer (2009)



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Do We Go Overboard Cleaning for Passover?

There are two funny images I like to circulate this time every year as we approach the Passover holiday. The first is a cartoon of a truck with large text on the side reading "Morty's Passover Cleaning." On the driver's side door is the word "chametz" inside a circle with line struck through it. Underneath the large "Morty's Passover Cleaning" text on the side of the truck it reads:
Orthodox $89.95, Conservative $49.95; Reform $19.95.


The second image is of a person's office cubicle and it's completely covered in aluminum foil. Even the desk chair, computer, keyboard and mouse are completely covered in aluminum foil. Most likely this photo was taken of the scene of an office prank, but I like to circulate this photo with the question, "Do we go overboard when it comes to Pesach cleaning?"

Let's look at the first photo. Is there some truth to this? I always maintain there has to be some truth to a joke for it to be funny, so let's say that on the whole, yes, Orthodox Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Conservative Jews and Conservative Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Reform Jews. Perhaps, this image strikes us as offensive, but we'll unpack that in a moment.

I remember as a kid before we got granite counter tops watching my mother cover all the counter tops in aluminum foil and then redoing this process each morning of the holiday because some of the aluminum foil had ripped the night before causing little sections of the white Formica counter to be revealed. This was done despite the fact that our house was completely spotless after having been thoroughly cleaned for the holiday. The thinking was that the counter is of a porous material and would have retained some of the chametz from the year which would contaminate our Passover food.


Do we go overboard cleaning for Passover?

Monday, March 23, 2015

My Favorite New Tech Gadgets from CES

Apple Watch, Apple Watch, Apple Watch. Everyone's talking about the Apple Watch. And I'm just tuning out. While I love tech gadgets, I just can't get excited about this large watch that allows you to use your iPhone without having to reach into your pocket. There are just too many things that it doesn't do; not to mention that it will be one more way that users are never able to unplug from the tether of their technology. I'm a fan of tech with a purpose. If it doesn't improve my life, make it easier or quicker to do tasks, and make me more productive I'm not interested.

It's been a little more than two months since the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and I've had a chance to test out several impressive and useful tech gadgets. CES is the world's biggest tech show and that means there's a lot of technology innovation throughout the convention halls. There's also tons of duplication and many things that look cool, but really have no usefulness. Here's a rundown of a few of my favorite tech gadgets I picked up at CES along with links on how to obtain one for yourself:

SWIFTPOINT GTTM MOUSE - Swiftpoint, a New Zealand company that distributes this impressive ultra-portable wireless ergonomic mouse from Georgia, won innovation awards at CES for both the computer accessories and computer peripherals categories -- and deservedly so. After using this mouse for a couple months, I can see why they won these awards and why everyone at CES was talking about this little mouse that makes using a laptop on an airplane so hassle-free. Swiftpoint boasts that this is the world’s first mouse with truly natural touch gestures. Some might not like it for everyday use because of its size, but I've been enjoying it on a daily basis. The mouse combines natural touch gestures with the precision and convenience of a traditional mouse. It uses a full range of touch gestures with a natural finger and wrist action for swiping, flicking, zooming (think of holding a pen to multitask). There really isn't a more comfortable mouse on the market. It's multiple times more costly than other wireless mouse options, but it's worth it.

$139 at http://ap.swiftpoint.com/



Thursday, March 05, 2015

Best Purim Videos on YouTube 2015

Jewish parents have always had very high expectations for their children. In fact, just the other day I was reading a birth announcement in my local Jewish newspaper that proudly stated, "Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Rosenbloom are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jonathan Rosenbloom."

I love that joke and I thought of it last week when I received not one, but two emails from people who had just made funny Purim videos and wanted me to include them in my annual list of the year's best Purim videos. Both of these emails stated that I should check out the "new viral video" they just created. Well, if you just created it, how do you know it's going to go viral? So, just as Jewish parents can announce the birth of their son the doctor, I guess aspiring Purim video creators can announce the launch of their viral video.

So, here's my annual list of the Best Purim Videos of the year... (some might even go viral!):


SHUSHAN FUNK - Ronn "Markson" featuring Jewno Mars (Erez Cohen)



(This video isn't technically a Purim video, but I think it's funny and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu made the connection between Iran (Persia) and the Purim story in his speech to Congress the other day.)

STAND! DOWN! IRAN (BIBI TECHNO DANCE SPEECH) - Noy Alooshe Remix





PURIM 2015 IN THE ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES (IDF)




VASHTI'S SONG (Meghan Trainor) - Felicia Sloin




SHUSHAN FUNK - Rosenblum Shaloch-E-Manos (Lyrics: Crazy Daddy)




SHOSHANAS YAAKOV - Lev Aryeh - Catwalk




JEWBELLISH PURIM DANCE MIX




V'NAHAFOCH HU - NY Boys Choir




CHAG PURIM 2015 - Ross M. Levy

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Summer Camp's Expensive. Is Crowdfunding the Answer?

I was talking recently about Camp Inc., the Jewish summer camp in Colorado for kids interested in business and entrepreneurship. The conversation turned to the high cost of tuition for summer camp and how some kids are choosing to work all summer long so they can pay for their summer camp experience or trip to Israel the following year. The problem with that of course is that they miss out on an entire summer of camp memories.

That's when I learned about an 11-year-old kid from the Bay Area named (ironically) Cash, who in true entrepreneurial fashion, has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for his Camp Inc. tuition. As soon as he launched his fundraising page I reached out to his mother to learn more about this innovative young man who just might be on to something here. Will we see more kids take to the internet to make their case on crowdfunding websites and solicit funds for their summer camp experience? What about Spring Break vacations or college tuition?



I look at the concept of crowdfunding for summer camp in my recent article on Time.com:

The Next Mark Zuckerberg? Meet the Kid Crowdfunding His Way to Summer Camp

It’s a known fact that many Jewish kids head out to overnight camp each summer. In fact, Jeremy J. Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, believes that in any one summer, as many as 11% of the approximately 700,000 Jewish kids ages 7-17 in North America are enrolled in a Jewish camp. These are no longer simply the traditional overnight summer camps of previous generations in which campers and counselors swim, sail, and sing Jewish songs by the campfire while roasting s’mores.

Today’s listing of Jewish summer camps includes dozens of “specialty camps” that focus on specific interest groups like science and technology, the culinary arts, health and wellness, and sports. These camps, which run anywhere from one to eight-week sessions, require a significant financial investment from parents who want their children to enjoy meaningful experiences over the summer vacation. Financial scholarships and significant subsidy programs like the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s BunkConnect help defray a portion of the tuition costs, but money is still an impediment for many families.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What Color IS That Dress?

After last week's big debate over the color of a dress, a lot of my colleagues were trying to use the story of #TheDress in sermons. It wasn't so difficult this past Shabbat as many rabbis looked at Parshat Tetzaveh and the intricate details of the garb of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), including the specific colors.

Other rabbis opted to use the color debate of #TheDress to teach that we don't all see things the same way -- certainly a good lesson. I saw it as white and gold; not blue and black. However, after a couple glasses of wine the blue became visible to me. Interesting!

The discussions at my family's Shabbat dinner on Friday evening included interpretations of how humans see color (my father-in-law's a retired ophthalmologist) and the metaphysical questions of what color an object actually is if humans see it differently. These arguments, er, I mean discussions, continued at Sunday brunch. I don't remember the last time I found myself talking about rods, cones, neural connections to the visual cortex, and the philosophy of color perception with my cousins. Dare I say, that was both the first time and likely the last.

Will the blue and black Roman Originals dress be a Purim costume
#TheDress


With Purim beginning tomorrow night, I'm sure that lace body-con dress made by the UK store Roman Originals will be the Purim costume of choice for many women (and likely a few men too). I especially like the way my friend and teacher, Rabbi Danny Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary, uses #TheDress as a hook to teach about the color of Queen Esther's royal dress in the Purim Story:

Purim is our festival of contradictions and hidden meanings. This year I suddenly noticed one detail that has been hiding in plain sight—the color of Esther’s royal dress? Was it blue, or gold? The Megillah itself is maddeningly ambiguous. We read in Chapter 5, “On the third day, Esther was garbed in royalty.” The ancient rabbis noticed something strange about the verse. It should have said that she was dressed in “royal garments” (בגדי מלכות מיבעי ליה), but instead says that she wore “royalty” (וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת). What does that mean? What does that look like? In Esther Rabba 9:1 we are told that she was accompanied by two maidens, resting her arm on one of them, while the other walked behind and held up her golden train. This would imply that her dress was gold.

But read ahead in the Megillah to chapter 8, verse 15. There we are told that Mordecai wore “royal garments of blue” (בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת), with white trim and a great golden crown. This implies that to wear royal garments in the Megillah is to wear blue. So what color was Esther’s dress—blue, or gold?

There is something strange going on here, something hard to pin down. In fact, the Talmud acknowledges this at B. Megillah 15a, where Rabbi Elazar, citing Rabbi Hanina, concludes that Esther “wore,” not a simple garment, but the holy spirit. Later midrash adds that King Ahaseurus couldn’t figure out what he was looking at—he tried to look away, but angels compelled him to look at Esther, and seeing her cloaked in the holy spirit itself, he could not resist her plea. Who has ever seen a garment like that?

Only this week a clue to the mystery emerged at a wedding on the Scottish island of Colonsay, where the mother of the bride wore a dress that has confounded millions. Some see it as gold and white, others as blue and black, and some, like me, have seen it both ways. Has this dress replicated the mystery of Esther’s royal garment? It was blue, it was gold, and ultimately, it transcended normal senses. Nonsense? Or, the holy spirit?

Happy Purim!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Live Long and Prosper: Remembering Leonard Nimoy

It was no surprise that the world lost Leonard Nimoy today. He had been very sick for some time. There will no doubt be many reflections written about him in the coming days and some will of course mention the "Live Long and Prosper" hand symbol from Star Trek.

Leonard Nimoy wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and showing the Vulcan salute
Leonard Nimoy wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and showing the Vulcan salute


Playing Spock in both television and movie versions of Star Trek, Nimoy's character used the hand gesture used by kohanim (Jewish priests) for his Vulcan salute. Leonard Nimoy created the Vulcan sign from his childhood memories of the kohen blessing the congregation in synagogue.

The following video by the Yiddish Book Center is a wonderful, in depth perspective of the Jewish life of Leonard Nimoy and he explains the background for the famous Vulcan salute:


Learning to Not Take Tech for Granted

In my recent "Jews in the Digital Age" column for the Detroit Jewish News I showed how much we have come to take technology for granted. We become frustrated when our GPS doesn't correctly reroute us because of construction, forgetting how much this little device has changed our traveling experience. We curse the iPad when we're talking to relatives on vacation in Australia using Skype, Google Chat or FaceTime and the connection becomes wonky, without realizing how revolutionary it is that we can video chat in real time for free with someone on the other side of the world. The idea for this article came to me after introducing my grandmother (she's almost 94) to the online music app Pandora and seeing the magic of this technology through her eyes.


Appreciating Technology Through the Eyes of the Golden Generation

A few weeks ago I found myself quite agitated. I was in the Jewish Community Center's fitness center on a stationary bicycle when the WiFi signal became too weak for me to continue watching a television show on my cell phone that I had recorded on the DVR at my home the night before. I was connected to a SlingBox at my house through the SlingPlayer mobile app on my phone. My annoyance only lasted for a few seconds as I just switched to the Netflix app, began watching an old episode of "How I Met Your Mother," and continued with my workout.

It wasn't until later that day that I realized how ridiculous it was that I was aggravated by this minor technical glitch and had become so indifferent to the amazement of this 21st century technology. I ordered my grandmother a new desktop computer from Amazon and took it over to her West Bloomfield home to install it. She watched in awe as I quickly assembled her new computer, connected the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and installed the Windows 8 operating system. This wasn't her first computer, but it was her first brand new computer. In the past she would graciously accept any of the older models her children or grandchildren weren't using anymore.

Adele Gudes and Rabbi Jason Miller Using Computer 2001
Teaching my grandmother, Adele Gudes, how to use a notebook computer in 2001
After setting up the Internet connection I asked her if she had ever heard of Pandora. She had not. I swiftly installed the app, set up a new account for her and created a few stations of music I knew she would enjoy. When she realized that she could simply type in any song, artist or genre and listen to it for free, she was amazed. Her eyes lit up like she had just seen fire for the first time. And that's when it hit me. I have completely taken technology for granted.

To truly appreciate the modern innovations we enjoy on a daily basis, we need to see technology through the perspective of an octogenarian or a nonagenarian. My children's generation can't be blamed for not appreciating technology for they were born into the digital age. The way I don't remember a time before power windows and answering machines, my children don't remember a time before smartphones, GPS, DVRs and digital cameras. My 93-year-old grandmother, Adele Gudes, on the other hand remembers when there was no FM radio and now she can have an algorithm select songs for her based on her musical taste. Her sense of amazement was a wake-up call for me.