Friday, August 01, 2014

The Kidnapping of Hadar Goldin

As Israel's war with Gaza continues, peace-loving people around the world become more agitated that a peaceful conclusion seems so far away, if attainable at all. Operation Protective Edge turned into a ground war over a week ago and that has meant more deaths on both sides. It is now the 25th day of the conflict and the death toll in the Israeli military has reached 56 with an additional three civilians.

The most disturbing news out of Gaza is that an Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin, has been kidnapped. Goldin is a member of the Givati Brigade. The Times of Israel reported earlier today that "The father of captured soldier 2nd-Lt. Hadar Goldin, Simha Goldin, says he's 'sure the army will not let up for a moment and will turn over every stone in Gaza to bring back Hadar safe and sound.'"

The Kidnapping of Hadar Goldin

At a press conference earlier today President Obama condemned the kidnapping of IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, saying, "We have unequivocally condemned Hamas and the Palestinian factions that were responsible for killing two soldiers, and abducting a third, almost minutes after a ceasefire was announced.  That soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible."

As Shabbat approaches here in the United States, I've written the following prayer for these difficult times in which a young man who was protecting the Jewish homeland is now missing:

"May the Lord our God protect captured Israeli soldier 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin (Hadar ben Chedva Leah) and safeguard him from all harm. May God's canopy of peace spread out among all of God's children to bring an end to this conflict. May we soon see peace in the land and security throughout the region."

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Startup Entrepreneurship at Summer Camp in the Rocky Mountains

After finally making my way up the mountain in Golden, Colorado (just outside of Boulder) the other night, I pulled my rental car into the parking lot of Camp Inc., the world's first Jewish specialty summer camp with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. My interest was piqued half a year ago when I met with the leadership team of Camp Inc. and heard about their lofty plans for their inaugural summer. It all seemed like a great idea conceptually, but I didn't know quite what to expect when I arrived.

Camp Inc. - Jewish Summer Camp for Startups

I stepped out of the car and walked into the "Ulam" (Hebrew for meeting hall) where the music was blaring and dozens of Jewish teenage boys and girls were dancing. I was greeted by Josh Pierce, the camp director, who yelled to me over the music, "Welcome to MJ's bat mitzvah party!" The campers and staff of Camp Inc. were holding a mock bat mitzvah party for one of the camp's counselors, complete with a bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony, a DJ playing the standard bar mitzvah music, and the hoisting of Jewish teens in a chair for the Hora dance. Meals at Camp Inc. start and end with Jewish blessings. Morning flagpole includes several Jewish prayers and Hebrew songs. Signs around camp are in both English and Hebrew. And a number of the counselors are Israeli, part of the Jewish Agency's Summer Shlichim (emissary) Program. I have been to countless Jewish overnight camps and, at first glance, Camp Inc. seemed no different from the rest. Until...

What I then saw was amazing. At the end of the evening's activity the campers begged their counselors to not make them go back to their bunks for "lights out." However, they didn't want to go on a night hike or stay up late playing card games in their cabin. Rather, these campers pleaded with the camp staff to let them stay up for another hour so they could work on their logos for their new startup companies. These Jewish campers, ranging in age from 12-17, morphed from your typical summer campers to CEO's, CFO's and Marketing Directors right in front of my eyes. They grabbed their black leather portfolios emblazoned with the Camp Inc. logo and fully charged notebook computers and headed to their workspace. There they met with their startup teams to put the finishing touches on their logos which will be printed on different colored t-shirts for them to wear at their pitches to business mentors and startup investors at the conclusion of the camp session.

Camp Inc. campers pitch DiabeTech at a practice pitch day in Boulder, Colorado
Camp Inc. campers pitch DiabeTech at a practice pitch day in Boulder, Colorado

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Celebrities For and Against Israel: Should We Care?

First, I stopped listening to all Pink Floyd music and even went so far as to change the channel when one of their songs came on the radio. Then, following Mick and Keith's concert in Israel, I fell in love with the music of The Rolling Stones all over again. Then my favorite late night TV talking head Jon Stewart broke my heart. But Hillary Clinton promptly put him in his place. And then I tried to defend my favorite singer Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, arguing it was just an alcohol-induced tirade against war in general, but to no avail. But there was Neil Young (the Eddie Vedder of a prior generation?) standing up for Israel, which seemed to counter Eddie's drunken rant.

Eddie Vedder's Tirade on Israel
Eddie Vedder (Photo by Jason Oxenham)

I was then quick to celebrate Bill Maher and Howard Stern for their steadfast support of Israel, but immediately found myself back on the defensive when Hollywood celebrities like Rihanna, Ryan Gosling, Selena Gomez and One Direction's Zayn Malik fired off tweets expressing their love and support for the "Free Palestine" movement. Then, like a Hollywood version of Iron Dome, Jewish celebs Scarlett Johansson, Dr. Ruth and Mayim Bialik fired back with level-headed Pro-Israel tweets. Joan Rivers ripped Selena Gomez as ignorant when ran into her at the airport and asked about the singer's pro-Palestinian tweet. NBA star Dwight Howard promptly removed his anti-Israel tweet, but Israeli pro basketball player Omri Casspi shot off a few quick tweets of his own with facts about the hundreds of Gazan missiles directed at Israel.

One anti-Israel Facebook page listed the many celebrities who have voiced support for Israel. The list, including such names as Adam Sandler, Amare Stoudemire, Annette Bening, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ashton Kutcher (and those are just the A's), appears to be more of a hastily thrown together list of who's who in Hollywood with over three hundred names. Today, it was announced that one hundred Spanish celebs, including Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, have signed on to a petition in support of Gaza in the ongoing crisis with Israel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Finding Humor in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict of Summer 2014

Regular readers of my blog will certainly notice that I've been silent since July 1 when I posted "There are no words for this tragedy" following the murder of three Israeli teens. With Israel in turmoil and its people under constant rocket attacks, it's a challenge to write about anything else. In the past two weeks I've been so consumed reading all of the thoughtful opinion pieces trying to make sense of the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that I haven't blogged about anything.

My Facebook news feed has been flooded with personal stories of my friends who live throughout Israel running for bomb shelters. And since this conflict is taking place in the summer -- the height of tourist season in Israel -- I'm reading the reflections of my friends from the United States who are visiting Israel this summer and finding their travel itinerary has been altered like they never expected. Rather than hiking in the South and touring Jerusalem's ancient sites, they are experiencing what it's like to have to grab the kids and make it to the shelter in 30 seconds as another errant bomb from Gaza descends overhead.

I'm also watching as the global Jewish community walks the tightrope between solidarity and security. Is now the time to travel to Israel to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters there? Is it time to bring Israeli children to Jewish summer camps in America to give them some respite from the daily conflict? At the same time as I'm being invited to travel to Israel for a three-day solidarity mission with the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis' central association), I'm also discussing whether the local Jewish Federation in Detroit should bring the Teen Mission back home for safety (they're cutting the trip short by two weeks and returning to Michigan today).

Rather than attempting to make sense out of yet another senseless and violent escalation in the no-end-in-sight Middle East conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I've been intrigued by the way humor is helping Israelis cope with the current situation.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach: No Words

There are no words for this tragedy.

May the memories of the murdered Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, be for blessings and may peace triumph over evil.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Jewish Calendar for the Digital Age

Besides the often told joke that the definition of a Jewish holiday is “they tried to kill us, we prevailed, now let’s eat,” there are not many jokes about the Jewish calendar.  You might be surprised to know that the only one I can ever remember was actually told by a non-Jewish late-night talk show host. In his opening monologue on The Late Show several years ago, David Letterman turned to his Jewish bandleader Paul Shaffer and wished him a “Happy New Year” since it was Rosh Hashanah. Letterman then asked Shaffer what the Jewish year was, to which he explained that it was now 5759. Letterman quickly deadpanned “Well, I’m sure I’ll still be writing 5758 on all my checks for a few weeks.”

Google's Calendar now includes Hebrew dates
Google's Calendar now includes Hebrew dates

The joke struck a chord for so many Jews because we all know we don’t use the Jewish year or the Jewish calendar very much in our everyday lives. Even most Israelis write the secular year on their checks and on contracts and celebrate the Gregorian date for birthdays and anniversaries. The Jewish calendar, however, does play a significant role our lives. We need to know when to observe our departed relatives’ yahrzeits dates. We need to schedule our events and travel plans around the Jewish holidays. We need to schedule our children’s bar and bat mitzvahs according to their Jewish birthdays.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jewish Themes in Michael Jackson's Songs

Today is the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson's sudden death. He died on June 25, 2009 and like the notable deaths of other big name celebrities, I remember exactly where I was at the time. As a child I was a big fan of Michael Jackson's music. I recall listening to the cassette tape of Thriller on the way to and from Hillel Day School in the Fall of 1982. When I discovered MJ's "Off the Wall" cassette in my parents' music collection I listened to it until it just broke. Today, my oldest son loves listening to Michael Jackson, which is certainly a good sign that his music will outlive him.

In Michael Jackson's memory I've gone through his entire song catalog to find the "Jewish themes" in his music. Thanks for reading and sharing... Enjoy!

Michael Jackson wearing a kippah (yarmulke)

ABC – Learning the alef-bet in cheder

A Brand New Day Havdallah

Another Part of Me  Neshama Yiterah (our second soul on Shabbat)

[I’m] Bad – The Vidui (Confessional)

Baby Be Mine – Pidyon Haben

Beat It – Hoshanah Rabbah theme

Beautiful Girl  – King Ahashverosh's serenade of Queen Esther

Ben – Hebrew for “son”

Black or White – How some describe Jewish law

Break of Dawn – Hashkama Minyan (early risers' prayer group)

Can't Get Outta the Rain – Mashiv haruach u'morid hageshem (prayer for rain)

Can't Let Her Get Away – Agunah (chained woman without a bill of divorce)

Cheater – Ryan Braun

Come Together – Minyan

Dancing Machine – There’s one at every Jewish wedding

Dirty Diana – The Princess of Wales in niddah (sorry!)

Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough – What you don’t say to a mohel

Earth Song – "Kol Ha-olam Kulo"

Fly Away  – Shiluah Haken (shooing away the mother bird)

Free  – Yovel (Jubilee year when all slaves and prisoners go free)

The Girl Is Mine – Kinyan at a Jewish wedding "Harei at mekudeshet lee b’taba’at zo…"

Got to Be There – That guilty inner monologue before holiday dinners with the family

Heal the World – Mi-Sheberach prayer for the Ill

I Want You Back – Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born)

I'll Be There – Elijah says this before every bris

In the Back – Where everyone sits in shul

Jam – Goes nice on a bagel

Keep the Faith – Ani Ma'amin (b'emunah shleyma)

Leave Me Alone – Lonely Man of Faith (Soloveitchik)

Man in the Mirror – Cheshbon Nefesh (personal accounting before High Holidays)

Night Time Lover – Mikvah Night

Off the Wall – What happens to your kvittel (note) if you don't stick it deep enough into the cracks of the Kotel (Western Wall)

Privacy – Yichud

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with Q)

Remember the Time – Kiddush (Remember the Sabbath day...)

Rock with You – Palestinians said this to Israelis during Intifada

Save Me – Hoshiah Na!

She’s out of My Life – Get (Bill of Divorce)

Somebody's Watching Me – God's omnipresence

Someone in the Dark – Pharaoh during the 9th plague

Speechless – Vayidom Aharon (Aaron was speechless - Lev. 9)

Take Me Back – Ba'al Teshuva

Unbreakable – The groom can't smash the glass at his wedding

Up Again – T'chiyat Hametim (resurrection of the dead)

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with V)

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ – Simchat Torah

We Are Here to Change the World – Tikkun Olam

We’ve Had Enough – Dayeinu!

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with X)

You Are Not Alone – Hashem is everywhere

You Can’t Win – Trying to convince Bubbie you're not hungry

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with Z)

Friday, June 20, 2014

12-Year-Old Howard Stern with a Yarmulke

Have you seen the 12-year-old stand-up comic who seems to have channeled his inner Howard Stern?  Josh Orlian is a pre-bar mitzvah modern Orthodox kid from New York who told some racy jokes on "America's Got Talent" the other night. His stage presence and delivery need some polishing, but he had Howie Mandel and Howard Stern -- two of the four judges -- in stitches.

The last time we saw a Jewish teen wearing a kippah (yarmulke) on "America's Got Talent," there was no controversy... just a lot of kvelling (pride) for the Jewish people. Edon Pinchot was the fourteen-year-old singing piano player who quickly became the big story in the Jewish media two summers ago during his performance on "America's Got Talent." Fast forward to this summer and Josh Orlian, another cute Jewish boy with a yarmulke, has advanced to the next round of the reality TV show. This time around, there is some question in the Jewish community as to the nature of the performance. Have a look:

Friday, June 06, 2014

Why Shep Gordon is the SuperMensch

A few months back I received a voicemail from a publicist in Los Angeles. She told me that she stumbled upon my blog on the web, read some of my posts, and thought I'd enjoy watching a movie she was promoting. I returned the call and we talked a little about Hollywood icon Shep Gordon and the film about him that Mike Myers directed.

I quickly agreed to screen an advance of the movie and within a week I received a copy of "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon". I put the film on one of my monitors and continued to do some work on the other. Well that lasted for about 30 seconds until my full attention was directed to the very Jewish looking guy on the screen who sounded a little like Larry David with a nasal infection.

Shep Gordon and Mike Myers
Shep Gordon and Mike Myers (

I was hooked. The film has interviews from some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities talking about why Shep Gordon is such a great guy (read: mensch). This biography documentary could easily have felt like a bar mitzvah tribute video, albeit to a seventy-year-old Hollywood agent, but Myers succeeded in making this a truly touching film that shows the best parts of Hollywood.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rabbi for a Decade, Macklemore and Jonah Pesner

Today marks my first decade of being a rabbi. Rather than wax nostalgic about the past ten years of my rabbinate in which I still had my rabbi training wheels on, I'd rather use that significant day in my life to comment on two events in the news this week.

First, Jonah Pesner, a Reform rabbi, traveled to London to be a guest of honor at the Liberal Judaism biennial there. What happened to him at the airport, however, is something that has happened to many non-Orthodox rabbis in the past. The Jewish Chronicle reported yesterday that after Rabbi Pesner told an immigration officer at the airport that he is a rabbi, she looked at Rabbi Pesner and remarked, "You don't look like a rabbi." Perhaps, this comment could just be written off as ignorance, but comments like that are too problematic to just ignore.

Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School Class of 2004 - Rabbi Jason Miller
Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School/Cantorial School Class of 2004

It would be highly offensive if I looked at a female police officer (or a female airport immigration officer for that matter) and said, "You don't look like a police officer" because she's not a man. The comment made to Rabbi Pesner was made because he is clean-shaven and doesn't wear a black hat. What's interesting is that there are thousands of clean-shaven, non-black-hat-wearing rabbis in this world. In fact, the majority of rabbis represented in movies and on television are non-Orthodox rabbis. Look above at the photo of my classmates at the Jewish Theological Seminary. These are rabbis and cantors who graduated on May 20, 2004. While these men and women don't look like the stereotypical rabbi, we are the leaders of the Jewish community today.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Before making her offensive comment to Rabbi Pesner, the female immigration officer at London's Heathrow Airport should have considered that she doesn't have the traditional look of a law enforcement officer. Rather than make a snide remark to Rabbi Pesner, she could have engaged him in a conversation by explaining that the image of a rabbi that she has in her mind is a different representation than how he looks.

And that brings me to Macklemore. I'm a fan of Ben Haggerty's rap music. Better known by his stage name "Macklemore," the 30-year-old has gained fame in the past couple of years for his chart topping songs. In the past, I've praised Macklemore for his gutsy song "Same Love" that advocates for gays and lesbians, and is the first prominent rap song to condemn homophobia in hip-hop and in pop culture in general. This past January I was a guest at a private concert in Las Vegas featuring Macklemore and Ryan Lewis where I was very impressed with Macklemore's performance, humor and stage presence (after his first song of the show, Macklemore looked out at all the cellphone cameras pointed at him and commented that he hadn't seen that many cellphone cameras at a concert since the bat mitzvah he performed at the week before).

Macklemore in anti-Semitic Jewish costume at concert in Seattle
Macklemore wearing an anti-Semitic Jewish costume at concert in Seattle