Thursday, March 05, 2015

Best Purim Videos 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.)



VASHTI'S SONG (Meghan Trainor) - Felicia Sloin

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

SHOSHANAS YAAKOV - Lev Aryeh - Catwalk



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

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

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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Netanyahu Should Address Congress Next Month

When it comes to politics, I've always thought that it's fair game for rabbis to weigh in. After all, I have a pulpit and a blog and I'm not afraid to use them. However, the caveat I have always made is that I am not a political pundit. I have no more expertise in U.S. foreign policy than the next guy who reads the Wall Street Journal every day and gets weekly email briefings from AIPAC, my undergrad degree in International Relations notwithstanding.

So, when the whole brouhaha broke about Rep. John Boehner inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress without the blessings of the Obama Administration, I kept my opinion to myself. It certainly didn't seem like a controversy. Boehner's the Speaker of the House and is entitled to invite foreign dignitaries to speak there as he sees fit. I certainly wouldn't want the invitation to Netanyahu to compromise the unique relationship (or as AIPAC calls it, "The Friendship") between the United States and Israel to be tarnished, but that shouldn't happen I reasoned. Not to mention, Netanyahu is an intelligent and charismatic speaker who could certainly enlighten members of Congress about the situation with Iran's nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (WikiCommons)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (WikiCommons)
The day after the news broke that President Obama was not happy about Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu, I had the privilege of hearing WSJ columnist Bret Stephens speak at Adat Shalom Synagogue at a Michigan AIPAC event. When asked about the Boehner-Netanyahu-Obama turbulence, Stephens reminded everyone in attendance about what we learned back in 5th grade about the U.S. structure of governance. The system of checks and balances is such that Congress doesn't have to ask permission from the Executive Branch before inviting a foreign head of state to speak to its members. That makes sense.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

10 Years of YouTube Viral Videos

YouTube has revolutionized so many industries, not the least of which is education. We have the ability to learn so much thanks to our ability to upload videos to YouTube. Need to learn how to use a computer software application like Photoshop? Look on YouTube. Need to know how to change the oil in your car? There's a YouTube video for that. You can learn to play guitar, cricket or chess simply by watching a YouTube video. When it comes to religion, YouTube has removed the borders that once existed. I call this the globalization of the Internet and the YouTube video has played a monumental part. YouTube has certainly been one of the Internet's "killer apps" in the past decade.

As I learned firsthand in December 2011, YouTube videos can also be the format to express your opinion about social issues... or a particular politician. The YouTube video of my parody of Rick Perry's offensive campaign commercial has been viewed over 231,000 times. Some might say that it went viral, but it certainly didn't go as viral as some of the most popular YouTube videos of all time, with a couple of those being viewed over a billion times.

The Verge put together a compilation of the evolution of ten years of the YouTube viral video. Watch the video below:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Restoring Faith in Sports: The Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Like most of my friends, growing up I was a dedicated sports fan. Baseball was my favorite sport to watch, collecting baseball cards was a hobby that occupied much of my time, and memorizing player stats took precedence over any subject in school. All that changed the summer between high school graduation and my freshman year at college. The Major League Baseball player strike in 1994 was a watershed moment for me. It gave me a glimpse into the strong focus on money in professional sports. My favorite players went from being heroes to goats, who only cared about another million dollars or a signing bonus and getting their TV revenue share. I tuned out.

It took a few years until I returned to loving professional sports. I came to understand that the players were only fighting for what was rightfully theirs and the greed was part of the culture, mostly perpetuated by the franchise owners and sports agents. Over the years, as my own children have become avid sports fans there is nothing I enjoy more than heading to the ballpark, arena or stadium with them in tow to enjoy another exciting sports event. I now smile widely while watching a game on TV as I listen to my kids talk player stats just as I did with my friends a generation ago.

Nevertheless, I've been very critical of professional sports lately. From football's rampant concussion problem and off-season arrests to players using performance enhancement drugs and being abusive to the women in their lives, there are a lot of reasons to rule pro sports as inappropriate for today's youth. There have been stories of pro athletes making ungodly amounts of money during their playing careers only to file for bankruptcy a few years later. These millionaire sports stars charge their adoring young fans for each autograph and then quickly skip town when another team offers them more money. Fighting between players is no longer unique to hockey games as fights have increased in the NBA and NFL, in addition to more bench-clearing brawls in pro baseball. In my more pessimistic moments, I wonder if there are any role models for our kids in pro sports anymore.

The other night I put aside this pessimism as my eyes opened to some truly amazing stories of humanity in sports. If you want to see what is still great about athletes, just attend a local Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Every state has its own Sports Hall of Fame into which it inducts the top athletes with connections to that state. On Thursday night I had the privilege of watching some truly wonderful sports stars become members of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. The focus was less on their career statistics or accolades as players or coaches and more on how they have given back to society and are leaders with ethics and integrity.

There was no doubt that these men and women will go down in history for their accomplishments on the field, but for those couple of hours as I listened to their philanthropic contributions off the field I felt very confident about the future of sports. In this year's extraordinary class, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame inducted NY Yankees all-star and Kalamazoo, Michigan native Derek Jeter (he was unable to attend at the last minute and will be formally inducted next year), Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer and University of Michigan standout Barry Larkin, Michigan State University's beloved basketball coach Tom Izzo, Detroit Red Wings great Sergei Federov, Detroit Lions All Pro defensive tackle Doug English, pro-bowler Aleta Sill and four-time Olympian swimmer Sheila Taormina.

Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony 2015
Michigan Sports HOF Inductees: Tom Izzo,Barry Larkin, Sheila Taormina, Aleta Sill, Sergei Federov & Doug English 

These former players, along with Coach Izzo, spoke about the philanthropic foundations they have set up to support the causes that are near and dear to them. (While Jeter wasn't able to be there in person, his own foundation has famously raised close to $20 million to help guide students toward leadership roles and educational opportunities.) These men and women spoke of the sacrifices they made throughout their careers -- often at their family's expense -- and how they always tried to put their fans first. They spoke about how they are fans themselves and never lost sight of how fortunate they were to have the opportunity to play a sport they love for so many years and be compensated well for it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Technology to Improve Kids' Physical Fitness

I arrived early to a recent National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball game and immediately noticed the oddity of players on both teams, in addition to the three referees, all wearing the same bright red t-shirts during their warm-up period in place of their regular pregame attire. I took out my phone and Googled "NBA FIT," which was emblazoned on the shirts, to learn that this was part of the NBA's Live Healthy Week presented by Kaiser Permanente. The goal of this special week dedicated to fitness and healthy living had three simple pillars: be active, eat healthy and play together.
NBA Fit t-shirts (NBA Cares)
What a great idea I thought. As a father, I find myself often lamenting that my children's generation doesn't play outside as much as we did as kids. There are, quite simply, too many distractions competing for their time. If they're not playing X-Box or Sony Playstation, their faces are staring at the glowing screens of their iPad or smartphone. I've long been thinking of a way to capitalize on the youngest generation's love affair with technology while also encouraging them to be more active.

This mashup of technology and fitness has been successfully generated by the newly formed sports and entertainment company Day 6 Sports Group, based in Los Angeles. This company is teaming up with the NBA to re-launch Backyard Sports, a series of digital games starring pro athletes as kid versions of themselves. After originally debuting in 1997 by Atari, the Backyard Sports brand will now be available in mobile game form for smartphones and tablets, making them even more accessible for today's generation of tech-savvy kids.
Backyard Sports Sonic NBA Basketball Game

Monday, February 09, 2015

Tablet Web Comments: Pay to Play?

Over the years I've written quite a bit on the topic of the comments section on the Web. I often refer to this section located under Web articles as "The Wild Wild West." In fact, after my first article was published on The Huffington Post about five years ago I become inundated reading the many comments from around the world. Very few of these comments were on topic and most were, quite frankly, of an anti-Semitic nature.

I remember asking my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe, who had already written several articles for The Huffington Post, how he managed to read and respond to all these comments -- and whether he was alarmed by the hateful nature of so many of them. He responded to my inquiry with something to the effect of: Just write, don't bother with the comments.

Tablet Magazine charges to comment on its articles - Blog - Rabbi Jason Miller

The ability to post comments anonymously was often thought to be the problem that allowed trolls to comment off topic on articles posted on the Web and so many websites changed their policies forcing users to sign in before leaving comments. That solution only goes so far since users can create dummy accounts and many of these trolls don't care about masking their identities. Over the years, many websites have come up with solutions to the problem of what I call "garbage comments" (e.g., 9/11 conspiracy theory comments on a cute YouTube video of my kid playing guitar). These solutions include the ability for users from within the "community" to be able to vote up or down comments and also to report violations of the terms of service or commenting policy. This is a good start and I think all Web media sites should employ this strategy, allowing users whose comments typically receive up votes to filter to the top and banning users whose comments are often reported for abuse.