Thursday, January 29, 2015

Immunizations and Responsible Parenting

With the recent outbreak of Measles due to an unvaccinated child at Disneyland, everyone seems to be talking about the parents, known as anti-vaxxers, who choose to not have their children vaccinated for various reasons. Hillel Day School, the Jewish day school that I attended as a child and where my children now go to school, recently changed its policy about vaccinations -- a decision which I support wholeheartedly.

The Head of School, Steve Freedman, sent out an email to the school community outlining the new policy which he implemented. The bottom line is that no children without up-to-date vaccinations, unless they have a medical waiver from the child's physician, will be allowed to continue at the school. He wrote, "Hillel reserves the right to: Exclude any child whose family has refused immunization, exclude any child who is not immunized against measles or pertussis and has been potentially exposed, for the duration of the incubation period." Regarding students who are not immunized for non-medical reasons, such as on religious grounds or for a philosophical objection, he explained, "Hillel Day school will not accept religious grounds as an objection. On the contrary, Jewish values would insist on vaccinations based on the concept of pikuah nefesh – saving a life. Vaccines not only protect your children, they also protect the others in the community. If not enough people are immunized, others are put at risk, including young children, babies, the elderly, and pregnant women." (Waivers for philosophical objections will only be granted after parents take a required class from the county health department).

After the email from Hillel last week, I was contacted by the Detroit Jewish News for my opinion of this decision, both as a rabbi and as a parent in the school. Here's how I responded:

"A core ethic of Judaism is pikuach nefesh, the idea that preserving human life overrides virtually any other Jewish law. With modern medicine we understand that it is essential for good health that babies and young children receive vaccinations on the required schedule. Not receiving these vaccinations puts that individual's life at risk, as well as countless others. Therefore, I argue that refusing vaccinations for babies and children is antithetical to living in accordance with Jewish law."

"When I read the recent email from Steve Freedman at Hillel Day School, where my children attend, I was grateful for his tough stance on vaccinations. Just one child at a school who isn't vaccinated puts everyone else at risk and that is irresponsible."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Transparent, Transsexuals and the Former Hasidic Jewish Transgender

Like millions of others, Jeffrey Tambor's win at the Golden Globes propelled me to watch the Amazon Prime Video original series "Transparent." My wife and I spent a few hours watching it Saturday night and then finished our "binge watching" of the series on Sunday night. My three main initial impressions of "Transparent" are: 1) What a powerful way to introduce us to the life of a transsexual; 2) This might be the most Jewish television show of all time; and, 3) This is important television as much as it is entertaining television.

In an October 2014 episode of HuffPost Live, Amy Landeker, one of the stars of the show said, "Transparent can actually save people's lives." And she's correct. Not only is it an enjoyable, smart and funny TV show, it's also educational in the sense that it brings transsexuals into the mainstream and shows just how human they really are rather than "other." The transitional and transformational life of the transsexual takes its toll on their family and friends as well. "Transparent" is the type of show that simply hasn't been done before. When I was a young child I remember hearing my parents talk about Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie." I never saw that movie, but my sense is that it wasn't the authentic portrayal of an adult transsexual like Jeffrey Tambor brilliantly portrays in "Transparent."

Transparent on Amazon Prime - Jewish family's experience with Transsexual Father

Jill Soloway, whose own father is a transsexual, has brilliantly created story lines that demonstrate the ups and downs in the life of a transsexual. The confusion, curiosity and embarrassment that one feels during this journey is overwhelming. As Tambor shows the viewers, the mere act of taking out one's driver's license to checkout at a store or walking into the restroom at the mall can be a terrifyingly complicated ordeal. This is something that religious leaders and those who work with teens have to recognize in the 21st century as transsexualism is becoming more common among teens.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Rabbi Dovid Winiarz Exploited Facebook for Good

Just last week I blogged about the importance of Jewish leaders and teachers using social media to reach out to their following in the 21st century. One of the premier examples of a rabbi who exploited social media, and Facebook specifically, for good was Rabbi Dovid Winiarz.

Rabbi Winiarz was a popular outreach rabbi on Staten Island who had over 12,000 followers on his public Facebook page, which was called "The Facebuker Rebbe." Like Rabbi David Wolpe, who similarly has built up a massive following on Facebook to teach and inspire, Rabbi Winiarz posted his religious teachings to inspire more Jews to embrace an observant life.

Tragically, The Facebuker Rebbe Facebook page yesterday turned into a tribute page after Rabbi Winiarz was killed in an early Sunday morning car accident in Maryland while traveling to Baltimore for a kiruv (outreach) retreat. He was the father of ten children.

Rabbi Dovid Winiarz, The Facebuker Rebbe

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What Social Media Has Done to Religious Life

This summer I'll be teaching at Kenyon College's Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing program in Gambier, Ohio. This one-week writing intensive program will teach clergy and seminary students how to be a more expressive, authentic, and skilled writer. The focus will be on writing op-eds, blogs, personal essays and social media. Below is the essay I wrote that was published in the Beyond Walls monthly digital magazine, in which I look at how the Internet and social media have disrupted religion and broken borders:

Social Media as a Borders Breaker in Religion
How the internet has disrupted Religion for good. Not just intrafaith, but interfaith too.

With billions of users between Facebook and Twitter alone (not to mention the dozens of other popular social networks), religion is being discussed in a borderless environment like never before. It's fair to say that the internet in general and social media in particular have disrupted religion for good. This disruption has not only been intrafaith, but interfaith as well. Religious leaders around the globe have never before had this level of engagement with each other and that means that religious life for future generations will be shaped by this new form of dialogue.

As social media increasingly becomes part of our daily lives, people will find new ways to interact with religion and spirituality. For some, this may be interacting with like-minded people on a synagogue or church Facebook page. For others, it may be learning a different holy text each day through a Twitter feed. In the Digital Age, religion and spirituality are being disseminated virtually and that means that time and location are no longer limiting factors. Answers to religious questions -- no matter from where they emanate -- are responded to in a fraction of the time they once were.

Each year of the 21st century, we are also seeing dynamic growth in the new communities of people of faith who do not affiliate with a bricks and mortar religious institution. These people, throughout the world, are nevertheless engaged in many aspects of a faith community through social networking. Increasingly, people will say they are religious or spiritual or inspired by religious texts, but only because they have chosen to plug in and engage with social media.

internet and faith

Jennifer Preston, writing in the NY Times explains that "while it’s too early to say that social media have transformed the way people practice religion, the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year, according to company officials."

As a rabbi and a social media consultant for several synagogues around the country, I can report that congregational leaders (rabbis, educators and program directors) are noticing that large swaths of their membership are becoming more engaged in congregational programs, classes and discussion groups, but these folks are not walking into the synagogue building any more than they had previously.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Haredi Newspapers Again Scrub Women From Iconic Photos

The Haredi newspapers are at it again.  Back in 2011 I wrote several blog posts (here on this blog, in the Huffington Post, and in The Jewish Week) about how a couple of Haredi Jewish newspapers had used Photoshop to remove women from iconic photos. Back then it was the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish newspaper Der Tzitung removing Hillary Clinton from the famous photo of when Osama Bin Laden had been captured. My article in The Jewish Week was even shown on The Colbert Report when Stephen Colbert discussed the topic.

Now, the Haredi Israeli newspaper HaMevaser has digitally altered the now iconic photo of the 44 world leaders who marched in Paris on Sunday to express solidarity with France. The paper removed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and EU foreign affairs and security chief Frederica Mogherini. Another female leader, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, was cropped out of the photo (one of her hands remains visible in the photo). The Israeli news site first noticed the Photoshop job.

The iconic photo of world leaders at the march in Paris after being altered to remove the women
The iconic photo of world leaders at the march in Paris after being altered to remove the women.

The iconic photo of world leaders at the march in Paris before being altered
The iconic photo of world leaders at the march in Paris before being altered.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Rabbi Jonathan Frankel's Nucleus Intercom

A few months ago I had the opportunity to interview Rabbi Jonathan Frankel, an tech startup entrepreneur who was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University. I had heard about his wireless intercom invention for the home and was intrigued. Earlier this week at CES in Las Vegas I had a chance to meet Yonatan in person as he and his business partner Isaac Levy were exhibiting in Eureka Park, the area for technology startups at the Sands Convention Center at CES.

Rabbi Jason Miller with Isaac Levy and Rabbi Jonathan Frankel of Nucleus at CES 2015
With Isaac Levy and Jonathan Frankel of Nucleus at CES 2015

Looking at his doll house as an example of how the Nucleus intercom works I was able to see how he can sit in his third floor office at his home while watching and listening to his baby sleeping on the first floor and interact with his Philadelphia office. With some significant additional funding, 2015 should be a pivotal year for Nucleus and Frankel. This is the article I published in the Huffington Post and the Detroit Jewish News (Renaissance Media) about Nucleus:

Orthodox Rabbi Invents Home Intercom for 21st Century

Rabbi Jonathan Frankel had no problem getting through rabbinical school at Yeshiva University or law school at Harvard. It was keeping track of his three young sons that had him running around his house losing his mind. The tech-savvy Frankel, 30, would often find himself yelling at the top of his lungs to try and get his kids to come to the dinner table. On the way to his job, he’d be unable to communicate with his wife because he didn’t know where she was – and there was usually a baby crying to add to the commotion.

Having grown up in a house with an intercom, Frankel had a feeling that it would be the answer to his family’s communication problem. After graduating from law school, Frankel took a job with Boston Consulting Group and it was there that the idea for a 21st century intercom first came to him. He and his wife were moving into a newly renovated home and he began taking bids for intercom installation. He figured that before all of the drywall was installed would be the perfect time to have professionals set up the intercom system throughout the house.

Rabbi Jonathan Frankel of Nucleus
Jonathan Frankel, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, is the inventor of the Nucleus intercom

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Unsung Jews of Baseball: Sy Berger, Greg Harris and Jeff Idelson

Here in Michigan, it's been the least snowy winter in 125 years. Temperatures have been unseasonably warm. It seems to be the polar opposite to last year's Snowpocalypse. This mild winter, however, hasn't made me miss baseball season any less than winters past. Like most baseball fans, I spend the winter counting down the days until pitchers and catchers have to report for Spring Training marking the annual end to the off-season.

In the interest of not having an off-season hiatus from blogging about baseball, I thought I'd take a look at three Jewish men who have contributed to Major League Baseball in big ways, but haven't received the attention they deserve. With a Jewish commissioner (Bud Selig) and three Jewish guys affiliated with my hometown team alone (the Detroit Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus, infielder Ian Kinsler and pitcher Josh Zeid), there seems to be more Jews in Major League Baseball then ever before. Yet, while there are Jewish players and managers, team owners and agents, these three Jewish men are the unsung contributors to the American pastime.

You might never have heard of Sy Berger, Greg Harris or Jeff Idelson, but let me tell you about them and their gifts to the game of baseball.

Sy Berger, who died two weeks ago on December 14 at 91, was a chewing gum executive at the Topps Company. Berger joined Topps in 1947, and in 1951 turned his attention to the company's baseball cards, which had been simple gray and white photographs of baseball players superimposed on cardboard and used as a sales gimmick to get more people to buy tobacco products. Berger added color, a facsimile of the player's autograph and statistics. His designs were then printed on playing-card-sized pieces of cardboard and sold with packages of gum.

Sy Berger, creator of the modern baseball card
Sy Berger, creator of the modern baseball card

Sy Berger helped transform the baseball card into a pop-culture phenomenon that became a multi-million dollar business. As he liked to point out, they went from being a novel item that kids could buy with a few cents from doing their chores to entire collections that kids could sell and use the funds to pay for their college education. The baseball cards Sy Berger designed were collected and traded by kids and adults. Like any other collectible in the supply and demand market (coins, stamps, antiques, etc.) they each had a value and could be bought, sold and traded. In fact, it was that "value appreciation" that Berger said was the greatest change that had taken place in the baseball card industry because of the skyrocketing worth of many of the old cards. The bonus for Berger was schmoozing with the players while getting their authorization for Topps to use their names and pictures on its baseball cards. Berger retired from Topps in 1997, but stayed on as a consultant to the company for five years.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Call for Light During Our Nation's Dark Period

Today is the final day of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which means that last night Jewish families around the globe kindled the eighth and final candle of the menorah allowing it to burn at its brightest. Tonight Christian families will celebrate Christmas Eve as their Christmas trees will similarly be aglow. The idea of the shared ritual of light was on my mind as I considered the need to bring light into the darkness as our nation sadly seems to be afflicted by racial division on par with the situation of the late 1960s. This was the theme of my holiday message I was asked to write by an editor at

It is no coincidence that lights are a core component of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. The most famous debates of Jewish law throughout history occurred between the students of Hillel the sage and the students of Shammai the sage. And of those famous debates, the one most often discussed case involves the lighting of the Hanukkah candles.


The students of Shammai argued that the first night of the eight day festival Jewish people are commanded to light all eight candles of the menorah and then remove one additional candle with each successive night. This, they reasoned, would show that our joy is diminished as the festival goes on. The students of Hillel, on the other hand, argued that we begin lighting one candle and then add an additional candle each night until the menorah is burning bright with eight candles on the final night. This shows that our joy increases throughout the holiday.

The Jewish tradition of lighting Hanukkah candles follows the school of Hillel. And I’m glad my ancestors ruled the way they did. The increase of light is a beautiful metaphor not only for this dark time of year, but for these dark days in our nation. The warm glow of the menorah we place in our windows for all to see demonstrates our determination to bring much needed light into our communities despite the unrest among us. For this reason, another name of Hanukkah is the “Festival of Lights” and Judaism is not the only religion seeking to bring light into this dark world.

It is no coincidence that lights are a core component of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. Each of these three religious holidays occurs around the winter solstice when the days are the shortest and our nights become darker earlier. Like the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, the lighting of the Kwanzaa candle also seeks to bring light into a dark world. Streets are brighter during this winter holiday season as those celebrating Christmas light Advent candles and string bright, colorful lights atop their trees and houses. The dedication to light as a metaphor during the cold, dark months is not even limited to only those observing Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, was celebrated this past October by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. Additionally, the Zoroastrians celebrate the winter solstice with their holiday of Yalda.

Why do so many of the world’s religions mark the darkest season with festivals of light? The kindling of fire brings much needed light into our lives and it also symbolizes hope. That message is needed now more than ever. I look around me at the state of our country today and I’m scared and angry. I’m scared because it’s full of the darkness of distrust and racial disharmony. I’m angry because I had imagined a brighter America for my young children as they grow older. I’m scared because I’m seeing race relations move quickly in retrograde motion and I’m angry because so many decades of progress appear to be for naught. [...]


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kitschy and Tacky Hanukkah Gifts

Somehow throughout the course of writing (well, technically typing) all of these blog posts, I managed to survive without a pair of $50 "Shalom Y'all" socks from Neiman Marcus with Jewish stars emblazoned on them. That was not a typo! $50 socks! My grandmother, who is of sound mind at 93 (keinahora!), presented me with these tacky looking socks to wear at our annual family Hanukkah party.

Arthur George by Robert Kardashian-Shalom Y'all Men's Socks (Neiman Marcus)

The look on my face must have conveyed to her what I was thinking at the moment of said gift presentation, which was something to the effect of, "I wouldn't wear these socks if I were stuck in the freezing tundra and all my toes had frostbite; not to mention I can buy 20 pairs of socks at Costco for 50 bucks!"

She gave me the receipt from Neiman Marcus listing the purchase of the Arthur George by Robert Kardashian holiday star socks and told me I should feel free to exchange them if I wished. At that moment, I was thinking I couldn't get myself to the mall fast enough... but not before I blogged about these corny socks. And by the way, wasn't Robert Kardashian one of OJ Simpson's attorneys and I thought he died several years ago. That last part about Robert Kardashian I must have said aloud, because my grandmother (who incidentally stays quite current on pop culture) then began to explain that the socks were from designer Rob Karshashian, who is the son of OJ's deceased lawyer and the sister of the Kardashian sisters of reality TV fame. My head was already spinning by the time she mentioned something about the former Olympic star Bruce Jenner and Kanye West. Thanks Grandma!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah 2014 Tech Gift Guide

I've been writing the "Jews in the Digital Age" column in the Detroit Jewish News each month for several years, but this was the first year I was asked to come up with a Hanukkah Gift Guide of techie gadgets and toys. I also wrote a similar tech gift guide for The Huffington Post Technology.

I tried to cover the practical (fitness wearables and phone cases) as well as fun techie toys. With Hanukkah beginning this evening at sundown and lasting eight nights, and Christmas in a little more than a week, last minute shoppers will still have enough time to order just about anything online and have it gift wrapped and shipped in time for the holidays.

The most popular gifts during holiday time in the 21st century have been technology-related. From HD flat-screen TVs and smartphones to gaming systems and e-readers, we're all shopping for the latest, greatest tech gadgets each year. With tech wearables and drones soon delivering our orders, we seem to be getting closer to living like the Jetsons. As a techie with an addiction to the latest, greatest tech gadgets, I have put together a short list of the best tech gifts for holiday shoppers this season. These gifts range in price so there's something for everyone.


Just about everyone on your holiday gift list has a phone and they need a durable, yet fashionable protective case. I looked at dozens of options (there are thousands of phone cases on the market because they are cheap to produce) and narrowed it down to a few that are the most protective and useful. Some cases are ultra-sturdy, but feel bulky and heavy. Most of the companies that make strong cellphone cases also offer a line of protective wear for tablets too.

Otterbox (various prices) is the hands-down winner when it comes to durability and protection. Otterbox feels like the toughest case and it's made of higher quality materials than most other phone cases on the market. It comes in a variety of color combinations and is available for both iPhone and Android models. Otterbox's Symmetry Series is a slim, one-piece protective case. There is also a Defender Series for more rugged protection and Commuter Series for on-the-go protection. To protect the screen, Otterbox makes Alpha Glass, a fortified glass screen protector.

Otterbox Review

iLuv's Selfy (retail: $40) is a durable case with a built-in wireless camera shutter. The shutter makes it easier to take great photos and videos without straining your arms or worrying about a shaky camera. It's also much easier for group shots that don't leave anyone out. The shutter is integrated into the case itself, sliding out when it's time to take a quick selfie, then fitting securely back into the case after the photos have been taken. The selfy case uses a dual-layer, shock-absorbent design that protects the device from everyday drops and bumps, making it perfect for the on-the-go use. When the selfy shutter is out of the case, one of six accessories easily slides in to take its place including a mini tripod, car mount, navigation and hands-free calling, as well as various mounts for action movies.

Amzer Crusta (retail: $35) - the world's first tempered glass embedded case. Its 4­ layer construction provides a rugged casing to combat any drops or spills and resists dust and dirt to preserve the smartphone. It uses a Kristal Edge2Edge Tempered Glass Screen Protector for high definition clarity and maximum touch sensitivity.


iLuv's FitActive Run (retail: $27.99) These earphones feature an ergonomic design with an in-ear brace so that they not only feel comfortable, but also stay in the user's ears no matter what the activity. These earphones were creatively designed to suit the needs of active people who enjoy being outdoors. These also have a convenient built-in microphone and remote to make it easy to answer calls and control music while on the move.

AfterShokz Sportz 2 Headphones (retail: $46.67) – I love these impressive headphones because they're not ear-buds so there's no problem with them ever falling out because they don't go inside your ear. This makes them safer too. They feature military special ops bone conduction technology, meaning they sit comfortably in front of the ear, keeping your ears open, while delivering stereophonic sound through the listener's cheekbones to the inner ear, permitting users to hear ambient noises such as oncoming traffic, car horns, ambulances or other warning noises. These come with a microphone that actually works well and they recharge through USB.