Friday, December 31, 2010

A Tribute to My Teachers

As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, I thought I would pay tribute to the teachers who have influenced me most during these ten formative years of my life. Like many, I feel nostalgic on New Year's Eve as another year becomes history, and I feel especially nostalgic as the final hours of this decade pass.

I have learned a great deal from these teachers. Some have taught me in a classroom setting and some have provided valuable insight in a less formal way. Some of these teachers gave me experiential opportunities and others have guided me toward exciting endeavors and encouraged me to think differently. Friedrich Nietzsche said, "One repays a teacher badly if one only remains a pupil." I hope that in my current and future pursuits in the field of Jewish education and beyond I will be able to repay these influential teachers.

RABBI DANNY NEVINS - Every rabbi needs a rabbi. Danny came to Adat Shalom Synagogue, my hometown congregation, as the young junior rabbi in the summer of 1994 as I was preparing to leave for college. However, he played a pivotal role in my decision to become a rabbi and proved immensely helpful to me in the past decade. Whether for spiritual guidance, to answer a quick question, or to discuss challenging matters of Jewish law, Danny has always been there for me.

RABBI BILL LEBEAU - During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I immediately regarded the school's dean, Rabbi Lebeau, as a wise sage who was a great listener and always had practical advice. At the conclusion of that year, he announced that he was stepping down as the dean to focus on fundraising for the Seminary. I couldn't have been more disappointed. However, a couple years later he returned to the deanship and was a guiding light as I completed school and entered "the real world."

RABBI NEIL GILLMAN - The first time I thought seriously about theology was in the late 1990s as I prepared to apply to rabbinical school and wrote my admission essays about what I believed. One individual, through his writing and his courses, has helped me formulate and make better sense of my theology. Not only did Neil Gillman teach me about theology, he also helped me feel completely comfortable teaching the subject. Whether I'm teaching "Jewish Theology" to adults or teens, I draw on what I learned from his classes.

RABBI DAVID KRAEMER - Talmud study became fun for me the first time I sat in David Kraemer's class. Now the librarian of JTS, he drew me in to his discussions by telling stories to complement the Talmud text. His deep knowledge of the history of eating in the Jewish tradition and the foundation of the kosher laws has been invaluable to me as I launched my own kosher certification agency.

RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY - It's been said that to truly understand the world of midrash, one needs a teacher who can unlock the door to this collection of rabbinic literature. For me, the gatekeeper was Burt Visotzky. During my final years of rabbinical school, he encouraged me to explore the text deeper and write my own midrashim. In these exercises I discovered my love of writing and commenting homiletically on the richness of biblical narrative.

RABBI ALAN SILVERSTEIN - I learned to be a congregational rabbi while living in Caldwell, New Jersey and serving an internship under the tutelage of Rabbi Silverstein. Regarded as one of the most successful congregational rabbis in the Conservative Movement, he gave me countless opportunities to find my voice, teach, and counsel in this amazing community. I will forever be indebted for these opportunities.

MICHAEL BROOKS - While I had planned to serve as a congregational rabbi after being ordained, the best job opportunity presented itself in Michigan at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. Michael Brooks, the executive director, taught me the ins and outs of working with Jewish college students. My first year at the Hillel was Michael's 25th as the director and his experience and knowledge was legendary. Leaving important articles on my desk for me to read was a daily occurrence, as was forcing me to think differently on a whole host of subjects. Michael's perspective and connections were essential in my first "real world" job.

RABBI JOEL ROTH - I joke that Rabbi Roth is my "kosher hotline." As a Talmud scholar, his courses on Jewish law were captivating. As a kosher expert, he has been a beacon for me as a kosher supervisor. When I was hired by Tamarack Camps to serve as the year-round rabbi and kosher supervisor, I returned to the Seminary for one-on-one training from him and I am certain I couldn't work in the field of kosher certification without his guidance.

RABBI HAYIM HERRING - Hayim has found a niche as sort of a business coach for rabbis. The fact remains that the "rabbi as corporate executive" training does not exist in the rabbinical schools. Hayim created necessary programs to train rabbis as executives through the STAR Foundation, which ceased operations recently. Hayim has motivated me to focus on the entrepreneurial aspects of my rabbinate. He is a leading thinker when it comes to technology and our conversations have always been inspiring and stimulating.

RABBI IRWIN KULA - Irwin is my guru. Every time I read one of his articles, I find myself highlighting each word and shaking my head affirmatively. More than any rabbi today, Irwin gets it. I first worked with him during the first months of this past decade when I served an internship at Clal in New York City. So, it's only appropriate that I finished this decade in the same office learning at his feet. Irwin, together with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, has taken the organization that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg founded into several new directions and spread his wisdom wide into the global marketplace of ideas. Along with my colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, Irwin and Brad created a dynamic fellowship for rabbis called "Rabbis Without Borders." Participating in this new initiative was nothing less than life-changing. As the borders disappear in the global Jewish community of the 21st century, Irwin has inspired me to think about my rabbinate and my contributions to the Jewish people in new and creative ways. He has energized me to focus on the role of technology and social media in Jewish life, and invigorated me to write more. Our private conversations have been true blessings. Irwin is one of the most charismatic leaders in religion today and I am deeply honored to learn from him.

It has been a wonderful decade for me. One in which I have become a rabbi and a father. One in which I have worked passionately to contribute to society and the Jewish world. I pray that I will continue to be inspired by wonderful teachers in the future, and that I will come to be regarded as an inspirational teacher for others -- lighting the sparks for students just as my teachers have lit sparks for me.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy new decade.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is the Death Penalty an Ethical Option According to Jewish Values?

In the past couple weeks there have been a couple of high profile death penalty decisions in our country. These rulings were not handed down by a judge or jury, but by a former presidential candidate and a cable news talking head.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was caught on video at a book signing in California earlier this month saying that the person that leaked the documents to WikiLeaks should be executed. "Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason," Huckabee said. "I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty." Newt Gingrich even suggested that WikiLeak's founder Julian Assange deserves to be hunted and executed Sunday by calling him an "enemy combatant."

Political commentator Tucker Carlson, filling in for Fox News host Sean Hannity this past Tuesday, told a news panel that he believes football player Michael Vick, who was given a second chance after being convicted on dog fighting charges, deserves to die for his crimes. The panel had been discussing President Barack Obama's praise of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving Vick a second chance to start at quarterback. Apparently, Tucker Carlson disagrees with Obama because not only does he disagree with giving Vick a second chance, he believes he deserves the death penalty. He said, "Michael Vick killed dogs... And I think, personally, he should've been executed for that."

Admittedly, for many years I never gave much thought to the death penalty. Yes, it is a very serious and divisive topic, but it was not one of the hot button issues of most concern to me. The first time I researched the topic was in 2003 when I took a group of Jewish teens to Washington D.C. for the Panim program and I had to prepare them to debate the moral issues of capital punishment.

I had a cursory understanding of the basic ethical issues and knew the textual sources from the Torah about capital punishment, but it was not a core issue for me. In 2007, I led a family mission to Israel and the abolishment of capital punishment was the bailiwick of one of the adult participants. Before we left for Israel, someone told me that Abe Bonowitz was an abolishionist. I thought, "He's against slavery? Aren't we all?" But it turns out that there is a vast and strong death penalty abolishionist movement in this country. And as you can imagine, they weren't very fond of President George W. Bush's views on capital punishment.

The more I listened to Bonowitz's views on capital punishment, the more I was convinced that it cannot possibly be an ethical option for punishment in the 21st century. I'm not sure if Huckabee or Carlson were really serious about executing the Wikileaks source or Michael Vick or if they were speaking in hyperbole like most politicians and political commentators do today. However, it piqued my interest in the ethical issues of capital punishment and my teacher's thoughtful commentary on the subject came at the perfect time.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of Clal published "The Jewish Precedent for a Moral Death Penalty" on his Beliefnet blog and on The Huffington Post. He wrote,
The rabbis teach that a unanimous court cannot impose the death penalty. Contrary to the law in Illinois and the safety we seek in unanimity, Jewish tradition teaches that the only court absolutely prohibited from carrying out a death sentence is the one most of us assume should -- i.e., one in which all judges agree that it's the right thing to do.

The rabbis accept that there may be times when it has to happen, but they cannot accept that any decision so momentous and complex should be seen the same way by everybody. If that happens, the rabbis tell us, we must be missing something and therefore cannot execute the offender.

Some of that thinking is what created the lengthy and hugely expensive process demanded by a system which still entertains the death penalty even if it rarely imposes it. That system would end with passage of SB 3539, making the world a better place by redirecting funds earmarked for death penalty litigation to murder victims' families and enhanced law enforcement.

Ultimately, Jewish tradition values the idea of the death penalty as a moral statement, but hates its imposition on ethical grounds. Interestingly, that is where it seems many Americans stand when it comes to the issue as well. Perhaps now is the time to go back to the future when it comes to thinking about the death penalty.

The past president of my synagogue, Harold Gurewitz, is an experienced and well respected criminal defense attorney here in Michigan. This summer in a highly publicized federal death penalty case he successfully kept his client, Timothy O'Reilly, from being executed (Michigan banned capital punishment in the 1800s, but a death sentence is still possible for certain federal crimes.). Gurewitz spoke to our congregation about his experiences in the months-long trial. He explained that capital punishment in Jewish law requires the prosecutors to advocate for the taking of another life. The evidence offered to support the penalty – as distinguished from the decision of guilt– proved lingering or residual doubts about the defendant’s personal role in the specific acts causing death. It required the judge and/or jury to engage in a very personal decision-making process and to individually agree that another human being should be put to death.

When considering capital punishment in the Torah, it must be viewed in its historical context, Gurewitz explained. There are fundamental values in Jewish sources, the Bible and commentaries that provide meaningful references for how we should view capital punishment today.

While the Torah lists numerous transgressions for which the death penalty is prescribed, Hirschfield points out that there is only actually "one instance in the Five Books of Moses in which someone is executed by the court. In fact, later rabbinic tradition teaches that if the death penalty is imposed once in 70 years, the court which imposes it is called a terrorist court. While having the death penalty on the books has merit as a moral statement, actually imposing it seems to be quite to the contrary."

Stoning, pushing the convict off a ledge to a stone floor, burning, strangulation, and decapitation are all forms of capital punishment in the Torah and Talmud. However, these were intended to represent an advancement over the cruelty and lack of restraint in earlier times and by other cultures. Gurewitz said that, "According to an Amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States by a prominent lawyer, Nathan Lewin, supporting an argument against the use of electrocution as capital punishment in Florida should be banned as a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, these practices exemplified respect for 'human dignity' in the means by which the penalty was to be carried out and restraint in its use."

Judge Jack B. Weinstein, a United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York, spoke at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck in New York. He noted that "Conditions change. Our view of what is required of a humane and caring people should change with the times. What was required and permitted in biblical times is not necessarily what decent people should approve of today. The argument that “ the Torah says it, therefore its is right for us: is no excuse for unnecessary cruelty and inhumanity. We can and should reject capital punishment."

Gurewitz quoted Judge Weinstein, but explained that what the judge did not explicitly mention was that when we focus on the “values” that obviously informed the “humane practices” of capital punishment, they support the view that it should not be practiced at all.

In Israel, capital punishment is only used for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people and treason in wartime. The only execution in Israel has been Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann by hanging.

Capital punishment is as nuanced and complex as an ethical issue can be. Perhaps that is why Mike Huckabee's and Tucker Carlson's rhetoric calling for execution makes headlines. There might have been a time generations ago when capital punishment was accepted, however, in today's world it is clearly not an ethical option for punishment.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Justin Bieber Jewish?

Is Justin Bieber Jewish? Is Natalie Portman's fiancee, Benjamin Millepied, Jewish? Based on my Web research, neither one is Jewish. However, there are many people wondering these questions and doing what curious people do in the Digital Age -- turning to Google.

There are two components to blogging I enjoy most. First, I love writing. Second, I love looking at the analytics to see through which portals visitors have arrived at my blog. Looking at the referral statistics, there is an overwhelming number of Web surfers who are referred to my blog after inquiring about a celebrity's faith; specifically, whether they are Jewish.

While Jewish people may only account for less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, we have provided society with a vastly disproportionate number of celebrities -- from actors and musicians to authors, producers and directors. No, Jews don't own Hollywood in the antisemitic canard conspiracy theory way, but there are certainly a lot of "Members of the Tribe" in Hollywood.

When celebrities do the things that only Jewish people have traditionally done, everyone wants to know if they are Jewish or just playing the part. For instance, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) has been embraced by Madonna, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, and Brittany Spears, but none of them were born Jewish or have converted to the faith. Robin Williams does a great Yiddish accent on stage while telling Jewish jokes, but he's an Episcopalian. The former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson has announced plans to open a kosher restaurant, but converted to Islam. The French dance choreographer Benjamin Millepied will marry the Israeli Natalie Portman, with Israeli roots, but he doesn't appear to be of the Jewish faith.


And though the teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is not Jewish, he has a ritual of saying the most important statement to the Jewish people before each of his concerts. It turns out that his agent, Scott "Scooter" Braun, taught Bieber the "Shema Yisrael" and now the 16-year-old says those Hebrew words (in addition to a Christian prayer) before taking the stage.

It's human nature to try and know as much as we can about our celebrities. So, it should come as no surprise that fans are curious as to whether Bieber's Jewish or if Natalie Portman is marrying within the Jewish faith. After all, a person's faith can be a private matter and as the National Enquirer has always said when it comes to celebrities, "Inquiring minds want to know."

Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?

Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish? That seems to be the question of the day. Natalie Portman, who starred in “Black Swan” along with three other Jewish actresses all playing ballerinas (Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey), will marry Benjamin Millepied and have his baby.


Perez Hilton broke the news earlier today that not only is Natalie Portman now engaged to marry her choreographer from “Black Swan,” but that she is also pregnant. Now, Googlers the world over want to know if the Jewish/Israeli actress is marrying within the faith. Turns out that the French Benjamin Millepied is not an MOT.

According to the Israeli online paper Ha’aretz, the 29-year-old Israeli-born actress and Millepied, a well-regarded ballet dancer and choreographer, met during the making of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller that stars Portman as a ballet dancer. Portman has been nominated for best actress by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. Millepied played a small on-screen role in the film as a dancer.

UPDATE #1: While Cyberspace is buzzing about whether Natalie Portman's beau is a "Member of the Tribe" or not (ABC News reports his faith is unknown), New York City-based writer Marla Garfield is working the conspiracy theory angle. She wrote on Facebook: "I doubt that Millepied is even that guy's real last name. In French, it means 'a thousand feet,' and the dude plays a dancer in 'Black Swan.' That's just too ridiculous to be real. I bet his last name is Schwartzenbergerfeldowitz or something."

UPDATE #2: On January 29, 2014 JTA.org posted the following news about Benjamin Millepied:

French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, the husband of Jewish actress Natalie Portman, told an Israeli newspaper that he is converting to Judaism.

Millepied told the Hebrew-language Yediot Acharonot in an article published Wednesday that he is “in the middle of the conversion process.” He added that he hopes the process will “come to an end soon and I will become a Jew.”

Becoming Jewish is “very important for me,” Millepied told the newspaper.

The couple is in Israel through March as Portman casts the movie that she is directing based on “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a book by Israeli author Amos Oz.

The couple will relocate to Paris, where Millepied will work as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet
Portman said in September in an interview with the French magazine Madame Figaro that she is interested in becoming a French citizen.

“I don’t have the French nationality, but I would be love to get it. But I don’t know if it’s possible because I already have an American and an Israeli passport,” she said.

Portman and Millepied, who have a son named Aleph, were married in a Jewish wedding ceremony last year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rabbi Forbids Participating in Talkbacks and Website Comments Sections

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

The more I blog, the thicker my skin gets. Overtime, I've learned to prepare myself before reading the comment section at the bottom of my posts. With great inventions, we have to take the bad with the good. It's been wonderful that newspapers and magazines make their articles available to us on the Web, but it also means that individuals can post outrageous, defaming, and insulting comments underneath each article -- opinions that would never be published in a print edition. And blogs are great, but with them comes a countless number of off-subject comments that only express hate and ignorance.

No matter what I publish on the Huffington Post website, I know that the atheists are going to be commenting in full force. Their comments often won't have anything to do with the subject I wrote about, rather they will be self-serving statements about their viewpoint. I recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the importance of giving equal significance to the celebration of the birth of a baby girl in Judaism and the discussion in the comments section turned into a polemic against ritual circumcision. And of course any blog or article on the Web that even mentions Israel will soon have the page littered with hundreds of inflammatory anti-Israel and anti-Semitic diatribes accusing Israel of the occupation of Palestinian land.

Earlier this year, Ron Kampeas quoted the American Jewish Committee's David Harris in an article on the JTA.org website about the nature of Web commenting. Harris, an avid blogger for Huffington Post, said, "To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach -- it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic and dripping." Nevertheless, Harris believes that it's important to continue blogging and responding to his critics, whether on Huffington Post or the Jerusalem Post, which has a notoriously controversial talkback section. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League feels differently. He said, "It's a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters. I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering."

Now, an Orthodox rabbi has ruled that his students are forbidden from responding to articles on websites and blogs as it may lead to religious and moral transgressions. yNetnews.com interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of Religious Zionism's leading rabbis, who "stressed that this isn't a halachic decree or a comprehensive ban from a higher rabbinic authority, it is a ruling he gave to his students after receiving a question via text message which asked: 'After reading a 'kosher' article is it all right to take a look at the talkbacks?'"

Rabbi Aviner's responded "No" to his questioner on the grounds that it would lead to lashon hara (gossip), humiliation and valueless time consumption. In Aviner's opinion, the ability to respond to articles and publications and to hold debates should have promoted "clarification and reformation of ideas and opinions" which is why "it could have been a wonderful thing", but instead it is used for diatribes and gossip under assumed identities which the Torah sees as "cursed be he that smiteth his neighbor secretly."

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, issued a call for greater civility in discourse before Rosh Hashanah this year. He wrote, "Name a contentious issue, and the two sides line up to spew their vitriol, each convinced the other’s policies would bring disaster. There is a great deal of anger, fear and contempt expressed. But no real dialogue, little if any appreciation for the other side, and less and less willingness to hear another point of view in the hopes of reaching common ground. One practical concern is the missed opportunity for meaningful discussion in... the comments area on our website."

As we enter the new year of 2011, my hope and prayer is that there is increased civility on the Web. Cyberspace is a big place and anyone with an internet connection can post their opinion, no matter how extreme or offensive it may be. But perhaps everyone can exercise some restraint and make the comments sections a more enjoyable place to engage, learn, and share ideas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pastor Henry Covington Dies

Mitch Albom has been writing more eulogies lately than most rabbis. I was deeply moved Sunday after reading Albom's beautiful memorial for his sister (technically his wife's sister, but he lovingly removed the "in-law" title), who died after battling breast cancer recently.

Yesterday, Albom traveled to New York City with Reverend Henry Covington to appear on NBC's "Today Show" together. Covington, the pastor of Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother's Keeper ministries in Detroit, was featured prominently in Albom's best-selling book last year, "Have a Little Faith."


Sadly, Henry Covington passed away Tuesday night at 53 in New York, his hometown. Covington's church was well-known for the giant hole in its roof, which led Albom to create the Hole in the Roof foundation. As the driving force behind the fundraising efforts, Albom was able to help have the hole in the church roof repaired.


I had the great opportunity to meet Henry in October 2009 at the Fox Theater in Detroit when Mitch Albom brought many of his friends together to raise money for the I Am My Brother's Keeper ministries in Detroit. While it was great to meet such celebrities as Dave Barry, Anita Baker and the late Ernie Harwell, the biggest treat was talking to Rev. Covington who truly became a local hero in Detroit.

Mitch Albom posted a statement on his Web site, announcing Henry Covington's death: "Henry was a dear friend, an inspiring pastor, and a very kind soul. He took care of those who were ignored by others. He opened his home and his church to those who needed him most. And he gave thanks each day for the opportunity to do so." Covington is survived by his wife, Annette, and their four children.

UPDATE: Mitch Albom has published his obituary for Henry Covington on the Detroit Free Press website.

Curling Up With an E-Book on Shabbat?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Tech gadgets have changed our lives. And they will change our lives even more in the future.

For Sabbath observant Jews, tech gadgets pose some lingering questions about their usage on Shabbat. My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards -- the body that decides matters of Halakhah (Jewish law) for the Conservative movement. Rabbi Nevins has been working on a teshuvah (legal response) regarding the use of an e-book on Shabbat and was quoted on the matter in Uri Friedman's recent article in The Atlantic, "People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age."

I remember back in the 1990's when CD-Roms containing entire collections of Jewish texts were first on the market. I saw a cartoon that in the first frame showed a Jewish library with hundreds of sets books -- Bibles, Talmuds, rabbinic commentaries, etc. Each shelf was overfilled with Jewish books from the ancient to the modern. In the second frame, labeled modern Jewish library, was an entire library with empty shelves and one CD-Rom sitting on the shelf. At that time, the common response to the Jewish library becoming digital was that while it's great to have the Talmud or Midrash on the computer six days of the week, on Shabbat we still want our traditional books.

Today, we've moved beyond having to load a CD into our computer to read Jewish books, study Torah, or look up reference material. We can now download the entire corpus of Jewish literature onto a mobile device like an e-reader. But the Shabbat issue is still relevant. Will technology trump the culture and experience of curling up with an actual book on Shabbat? As Menachem Wecker asked in his Forward article a few years ago, "Shabbat in the Age of Technology," "Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?"

Even for Jews who do not hold by the electricity restrictions on Shabbat (namely that electricity is in the category of lighting a fire or building), reading a book or newspaper on an e-reader seems to be the antithesis of the Shabbat experience. As the print media industry continues to move in the digital direction (US News & World Report is adopting a "digital first" strategy), there may have to be some adaption.


Uri Friedman writes in The Atlantic, "E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath."

Friedman quotes rabbis from all over the denominational spectrum on the use of e-books on Shabbat. Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat, says, "There's real value in embracing technology. It's just about knowing when to turn it off." And the leader of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, explained that "since the Reform movement doesn't consider Jewish law binding, 'The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.'"

Rabbi Danny Nevins, who reasons that the use of electricity on Shabbat is not inherently forbidden, as the circuitry connection is neither creating a fire nor building something new, nevertheless regards many types of electrical and electronic appliances as violating either the formal or informal goals of Shabbat. He says, "E-readers like the Kindle are problematic both in that they create a durable image and encourage readers to go online to shop for additional content. It is conceivable that future versions may work better with Shabbat values, but the iPad demonstrates a tendency towards multi-functionality, indicating continued challenges for Shabbat use." In The Atlantic article, he also explains this theory that using an e-reader may violate the Shabbat laws of t'chum, or boundaries.

The Torah says you shouldn't leave your place on the seventh day. You can say Judaism is creating a local ideal that you experience Shabbat in a place with people and don't go out of those boundaries... The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience.

I can understand ruling that reading an e-book on a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, etc. is a forbidden act on Shabbat because it is not within the spirit of Shabbat. That is to say, that things not in keeping with the spirit of the Sabbath day can pull us out of that state and back to the realities of the weekday. However, I don't agree with the rationale that it shouldn't be allowed based on the principle that we shouldn't leave our place on Shabbat. Any good book, whether read from traditional paper or on a tech gadget has the potential to transcend us, breaking the boundaries of space and time. Even a good story-tale that I tell my children at bedtime on a Friday night can be a virtual experience that magically takes them away from the boundaries of space and time. In fact, on Shabbat we are even supposed to be virtually transported to get a taste of the World to Come through our prayer and Torah study experiences.

There is an informal litmus test when it comes to Shabbat activity that in Hebrew is known as "ruach shel shabbat" (the spirit of Shabbat). Thus, there are certain activities that may be permitted according to Halakhah, but don't pass the test when it comes to the spirit of Shabbat. So, it may very well be that using an e-reader on Shabbat isn't in the category of "Shabbosdik activities" simply because it doesn't feel like an appropriate Sabbath activity. Or, perhaps because it can lead to activities that are forbidden like accidentally ordering a new book on the device during Shabbat.

No matter how one ultimately rules about the use of an e-reader to read e-books on Shabbat, one thing is certainly clear: Technology is here to stay and we have to figure out how to "make Shabbos" in this new and emergent Digital World.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bubbie and Zaydie Enter the Social Media Cloud

Here's my recent post for the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week


When I first logged on to Facebook in 2004 none of my real life friends had accounts yet. At that stage in the social networking site's development, a Facebook account was only for university students (or at least anyone with a university email account). I was working at a campus Hillel and my .edu email address gave me access to Facebook so I could interface with the Jewish students on campus.

At that time it was mostly undergrads who were poking each other, updating their status, and uploading photos to Facebook. As the years went by, Facebook welcomed young adults and then high school students. The non-student users seemed to get older and older until one Baby Boomer must have finally unlocked the Facebook door and told a few friends about it. Before you knew it -- urgh! -- Mom and Dad were uploading profile pics and stalking the neighbors' pages.


You can't blame Mark Zuckerberg for transitioning the site from Ivy Leaguer college kids to anyone in the free world with a pulse. After all, you can't get to 550 million users without welcoming the Gen X'ers, emptynesters, and Medicare recipients, right?

So, it was only a matter of time until the generation that actually remembers Prohibition started getting Facebook accounts. Over the past few years I've gotten used to the "friend" requests from my parents' cadre of friends. But when I was "friended" by my wife's 90-year-old grandmother's friend last week, I did a double-take. This 80-year-old woman didn't just set up a Facebook page; she's a power user. She's uploaded dozens of photo albums (something my parents' friends haven't figured out yet), joined groups, and commented on everything. She's even got a blog and a website ("The Bubbinator.com" -- I'm not kidding!) with embedded YouTube videos of her telling Jewish jokes.


Based on the latest stats, I shouldn't be surprised about this. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project "Generations 2010" study, the fastest growth in social networking usage "has come from internet users 74 and older: social network site usage for this oldest cohort has quadrupled since 2008, from 4% to 16%." These great-grandparents, many of whom spent the majority of their lives without a home computer, are now using the Internet to seek health information, reconnect with friends and family, and purchase products. Facebook has even had to adjust to this new demographic storming the site. "Widowed" was certainly not a relationship option when Facebook first launched; and "It's Complicated" just doesn't fully describe when your husband of 55 years has passed away.

It could be that Granny realized the best way to stay connected to her children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren was to meet them where they are -- in Cyberspace. So don't be surprised if your News Feed lets you know that Zaydie likes Big Band Music or your Bubbie just blogged her favorite quiche recipe. The senior citizens have entered the cloud!

Reposted to eJewishPhilanthropy.com

Saying Kaddish Over "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

During the presidential race of 2000, an email was being sent around that showed a photo of Al Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman. In large letters under their photo was the name "Gore." And next to that photo was a photo of their opponent George W. Bush above the Yiddish word "Gornisht" (loosely translated as good for nothing).

Much has changed since that dramatic election and many in the Jewish community would now label Lieberman as gornisht. For some, however, Lieberman's energetic lead in championing the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell might catapult him back into the good graces of politically liberal Jews. Many news organizations noted that Lieberman, a Sabbath observant Jew, made some exceptions in order to help pass this legislation. JTA wrote, "A number of gay activists noted in blogs that Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, thought the measure important enough to devote the Sabbath to shepherding it through." And according to an article on the Daily Beast website, Andrew Sullivan, the gay Atlantic blogger who has championed repeal of DADT, dubbed Lieberman a "civil rights hero."

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was quoted in a JTA.org article. He said, "With today’s vote, Americans may serve without being forced to choose between their commitment to our country and their integrity."

A couple months ago, I was asked to respond to a question about DADT on the Jewish Values Online website. A Reform and Orthodox rabbi had already given their response and I was asked for my opinion as a Conservative rabbi. My answer was quoted on several websites including The Jewish Week. Now that DADT will be repealed it will be interesting to see how the Jewish community's general feeling toward Joe Lieberman will shift.

Here is the Jewish Values Online question and my response:

QUESTION: What is the Jewish view on "don't ask, don't tell" and gays serving openly in the U.S. military?

RESPONSE: The U.S. military's policy of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" might have actually been the best policy at the time. However, the level of public inclusion for the GLBT community in our country has changed since Don't Ask Don't Tell was instituted under President Clinton. Like other groups that have been treated unfairly in our country (Blacks, women, the handicapped, etc.), over time the public has changed its treatment and its laws.

Don't Ask Don't Tell was a "safe" way for the military to acknowledge that there were gays and lesbians in its ranks, but not to make too much "noise" about the situation. Today, in 2010, our nation is much more accepting of the GLBT community and I believe the military will follow suit.

From a Jewish perspective as well, GLBT inclusion has taken great strides in the past two decades. As a value, it is imperative that the military update its policy to allow gays and lesbians to be as honest with their comrades as they are with themselves.

Policies change over time. Our society, like our religion, is not stagnate -- it is ever evolving. When I studied at the Conservative Movement's academic institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians were not allowed to matriculate there. If a student came out as gay, they were asked to leave the school. I guess you could say that JTS operated like the U.S. military -- Don't Ask Don't Tell. However, a ruling in December 2006 changed the Seminary's position and granted admission to avowed gays and lesbians.

The times change. Our values change. Rules change.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jimmy Kimmel Against the Rabbi

What's the deal with Jimmy Kimmel and rabbis? This year alone, ABC's late night talk show host has featured three rabbis (or almost rabbis) on his show. Kimmel used to date comedian Sarah Silverman whose sister Susan is a Reform rabbi living on a kibbutz in Israel.

Back in April, Yuri Foreman was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The WBA super welterweight champion was introduced by Kimmel as a future rabbi who studies Talmud. The video of the future rabbi's interview with Kimmel can be seen here.

Last week, Jimmy Kimmel explained the Hanukkah story to his millions of viewers and then showed the video of Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of California with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kimmel wished a "Happy first night of Hanukkah to our Jewish viewers. Tonight is the first night of eight nights of celebrating and misspelling hanukkah. Or maybe there is no correct way to spell it." He even suggested that the Jewish holiday could be spelled Chaka Khan. The video is of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin and Governor Schwarzenegger at the 17th annual menorah lighting at the State Capitol in Sacramento.





Those rabbinic appearances seemed to go okay, but now Jimmy Kimmel is in some trouble for a video shtick he did in August. Kimmel is being sued by Rabbi Dovid Sandek, the flamboyant ultra-Orthodox rabbi who goes by the "Flying Rabbi" and whose YouTube videos have become popular. Rabbi Sondik claims his image was used without his consent when Kimmel used a YouTube video segment on the show that poked fun at basketball superstar LeBron James' free agency decision this past summer.

Yahoo! News reports that, "According to a complaint filed in New York Supreme Court on December 10, Kimmel in August was trying to make a joke about reports that LeBron James had met with Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto for business advice. Kimmel claimed that he himself had met with Rabbi Pinto for advice and showed the audience a video of the exchange. The rabbi shown speaking to Kimmel appears to be Rabbi Sandek, not Rabbi Pinto."

Rabbi Dovid Sandek The Flying Rabbi

Sandek claims he was made to "look foolish" and presented as a "laughingstock." While the late night show did get permission to use the TMZ owned footage of LeBron James with Rabbi Pinto, it never licensed the YouTube clips of Rabbi Sandek. Oops! Now the video of Jimmy Kimmel getting advice from the rabbi (Sandek) has been removed from the Web as the lawsuit is pending.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tefillin Bomber Strikes Again

Back in January 2010 a US Airways flight was diverted for the security concerns raised by a Jewish teenage boy putting on tefillin (phylacteries). I blogged about the Kentucky-bound airplane from New York that had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia because the 17-year-old was wrapping his arm and head with the black leather straps and boxes used by Jews during the morning prayers.

The incident was actually quite humorous once it was determined that it was a misunderstanding and not an actual threat. My Dr. Seuss-inspired poem ("Oh, the Planes Gonna' Blow") about the tefillin take down of the plane was circulated widely around the Web during the days following the incident.


Now, it appears that tefillin has the capability to not only divert airplanes but also boats. The JTA.org reports that "an Israeli putting on tefillin set off a bomb scare on a New Zealand ferry. The captain of the inter-island ferry, who believed the boxes and leather straps looked like a bomb, reported his concerns to police during Sunday's voyage between Wellington and Picton, New Zealand's two main islands. Police detained the Israeli and his three fellow travelers when the ferry docked in Picton, where they were questioned and released."

I wonder what the next mode of transportation will be that reports a security threat when a Jewish person starts to pray. Truthfully, this can be avoided with some education. Security personnel should be briefed about tefillin, which have been around for thousands of years, so they are no longer mistaken for bombs.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bringing Light to Humanity on Hanukkah

Here is my Hanukkah message that was published on the Read the Spirit website. Read the Spirit's editor David Crumm introduced my message by connecting it to the Retik family. Ben Retik, who lost his father in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, lit the White House menorah last week. Crumm wrote:
Ben’s mother Susan might have retreated from the world in her grief. Instead, she and another 9/11 widow founded BeyondThe11th, a nonprofit group that works with widows in Afghanistan whose lives have been devastated by war and terrorism. Talk about shining one’s light to the whole world! Despite their loss, the Retik family has made the planet a better and safer place through their charitable work in helping widows half a world away rebuild their families’ lives.

Hanukkah: From Darkness to Light

A Chasidic story is told of a man entering a dark room. He is overwhelmed by the darkness.

“Don’t worry,” said his friend. “The darkness hits only at first. Soon your eyes will grow accustomed to it, and you will hardly notice the dark.”

“My friend,” replied the man, “that is our problem. Judaism teaches us to distinguish between lightness and darkness. But unfortunately, by becoming too accustomed to the situation, we begin to think of the darkness as light!”

Distinguishing between lightness and darkness is so much a part of who we are as the Jewish people. Each Saturday night, we bid farewell to Shabbat by distinguishing between lightness and darkness. But we make other distinctions as well. We acknowledge the separation between holy and secular, and between the six regular days of the week and the holiness of the Sabbath. We also proclaim that God has separated the Jewish people from all other peoples. For we have been chosen by God to be a holy people.

But what does this “chosenness” really mean? After all, it might even make some of us feel uncomfortable being the “chosen people” around our non-Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I’m reminded of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye calls out to God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

Jewish people shouldn’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable with the notion that we are chosen. After all, it’s not about superiority or status, but rather responsibility. Jewish people have the responsibility to seek out justice in the world. We have to help repair our fractured world. The man in the Chasidic story wasn’t comforted by the fact that his eyes would eventually adjust to the dark—and he was on to something. It is our responsibility, as individuals and as a community, to see the darkness in the world and to create light.

This is what it means to be a people chosen by God. And this, I strongly believe, is the message of Hanukkah. Each night, we commemorate the miracle by increasing the light in this dark world. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that we increase the holiness; we don’t diminish it. Each night of Hanukkah, we increase the holiness in the world—and that is why God holds the Jewish people accountable. Why God has chosen us to be God’s people—responsible stewards of the earth, partners in fixing a broken world, and pursuers of shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice).

Jewish people have the responsibility to bring light to humanity through social justice. As a light unto the nations, we are obligated to think of ourselves and our actions as an example for the entire human race, outside of our own community. We must live our lives according to the words of God as articulated in our holy Torah: I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will protect you, and make for you a covenant, to be a light unto the nations.

To be a “light unto the nations” means that when there is darkness in our world, we must be the guiding light, the symbol of leadership, the beacon of hope, and the impetus for change. We must lead the way out of the darkness and into the light. We do this by realizing that our efforts at both justice and righteousness must extend beyond our own people.

SPEAKING OUT; REACHING OUT
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out, and to take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the people being victimized. We have experienced horrific darkness, but we have always persevered and found the light. If “Never Again” is to be our watchword, reminding us of our persecution, then we must remain true to it. We must live up to that phrase, and when we see darkness engulfing other humans, we must not stand idly by and be passive. We must act.

My teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches the following about Hanukkah: “Pessimists and assimilationists have more than once informed Jews that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night. The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” If all peoples light a candle, our world will be a much brighter place for all of us.

8th Night of Hanukkah

Last night was the final candle lighting of the eight-day Hanukkah holiday. It was also the only night that I didn't have a chance to light the menorah with my children. I went straight from a private tutoring session to teach an adult education class, grabbing a quick bite to eat in between.


When I returned home at 9:30 p.m., my wife joined me to light the candles together. It reminded me of the Hanukkahs we celebrated together before children ("B.C."). There was something quite spiritual about watching the flickering light of the fully lit menorah reflecting in the window.

We often think of Hanukkah as a children's holiday with the dreidel games and gifts each night, but for just one night of this eight day Festival of Lights this year I really enjoyed being able to focus on the glowing candles without worrying if one of my kids was going to accidentally get burned while lighting the flames. It was nice to not immediately transition from the candle lighting to the materialistic gift giving, worrying that my children would enjoy and appreciate the presents we bought them. While I love sharing in the ritual menorah lighting with my children, the eighth night this year was a special gift.

Ending Kosher Nostra: How to Bring Sanity to the Kosher Certification Industry

Here is my recent post on The Detroit Jewish News blog:

There’s a joke I often tell about a conversation regarding the kosher laws between Moses and God. God dictates the Jewish dietary laws to the Israelite leader in easy to understand terms, but Moses repeatedly complicates these statutes. Finally, frustrated, God gives up and tells Moses to just do whatever he wants.

From the commandments to not cook a calf in its mother’s milk and the prohibition on eating certain animals, the kosher laws have become a very complex system of eating restrictions. To ensure the compliance of the kosher standards from the farm to the factory to the grocery store to the restaurant, an entire industry of supervision and certification was been established. In recent years, I’ve found myself entrenched in this world of hashgacha.

In her recently published book, Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff provides the reader with an insider’s perspective about what goes on in the kosher food industry on a daily basis. Each chapter details another aspect of the Jewish dietary ethic – how kosher food has conquered the U.S. market, the business of kosher certification, the rise and fall of the Jewish deli, the kashering of a hotel for a wedding, and the often scandalous production of kosher slaughtered meat. Fishkoff circles the country to explain the subtle nuances of “keeping kosher” in the 21st century. She travels as far as China to shadow a kosher supervisor checking for compliance in several factories. Fishkoff provides insight into the sometimes dirty politics in which the kosher certification agencies have notoriously engaged. From extortion and price gouging to fraud and general dishonesty, kosher certification has gotten a bad name.

My journey to the kosher certification profession was not planned. In 2008, I was hired as the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, with my main focus to supervise of the agency’s kosher kitchens. To adequately prepare for this new role, I returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where I was ordained. Though I had served as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in the cafeteria as a rabbinical student, I required detailed instruction to oversee the large camping agency’s many industrial kitchens as a rav hamachshir (certifying rabbi).

This new position led to my private certification of a few bakeries, bagel stores, and a vegetarian restaurant with the eventual formation of my own kosher certification agency – Kosher Michigan. This experience has been nothing less than fascinating. I now certify a paper mill that makes paraffin wax paper for kosher foods, olive oil bottling at a spice company, a gourmet chocolate factory, a foodservice corporation that provides shelf-stable meals to areas hit by natural disasters, as well as several other businesses. I’m frequently called upon to kasher industrial and residential kitchens, consult Jewish organizations on kosher matters, and speak about the kosher food industry.

I have become accustomed to fielding many questions about my kosher certification. People want to know if “the Orthodox” (as if it’s a monolithic group) accepts my imprimatur. They want to know if “Conservative kosher” (their phrase) is really legitimate. I’m frequently asked to articulate my standards and demonstrate my knowledge. Without even understanding the term, they want to know if all of the food I certify is glatt (even the bagels!). Some are surprised that I conduct unannounced spot checks more often than many of my Orthodox colleagues.

As Fishkoff demonstrates in Kosher Nation, the kosher business has changed drastically over the past several years. She writes, “Kosher has become one of the country’s hottest food trends… A generation ago, kosher was a niche industry, the business of the country’s small minority of observant Jews… Today one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is kosher certified.” Not bad for a religious tribe that accounts for less than 2% of the U.S. population.

And it’s not just that there’s more kosher food out there. The rules of the game have radically changed as well. So many proverbial fences have been erected around the kosher laws that no 19th century rabbi would recognize them. Rabbis today can make a modest living washing leafy vegetables and checking them for miniscule bug infestations. The ultra-Orthodox have ruled that such innocuous items as strawberries, Romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, smoked salmon, and water cannot be consumed because of either insects or microscopic copepods. Non-observant Jewish owners of kosher grocery stores, meat markets, and restaurants are no longer trusted to hold the keys to their own businesses.

A Mafia-like reputation (“Kosher Nostra”) has been attributed to the kosher certification industry. Fishkoff tells stories of strong-arm tactics and extortion when it came to kosher meat. “Corruption and scandal also plagued the processed food industry,” she writes. “Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but giving kosher certification is a business. And that means money, politics, and all the other unpleasant temptations that can distract a Jew from fulfilling God’s commandments.” There’s a sordid history of lax supervision of kosher-for-Passover food, substitution of cheaper treif meat in butcher shops, and rabbis selling high priced kosher certifications with no oversight in exchange. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the head of the OK kosher agency was interviewed by Fishkoff. He told her, “Kashrus today is power and money. And unfortunately, it’s extremely competitive. Instead of people working together to improve kashrus, everybody tries to get business away from the other one.” Levy even blames kosher politics for his father’s death. He attributes the 1986 scandal that included death threats against the state inspectors to be the cause of his father’s demise.

I am frequently called by local business owners who have been interested in acquiring kosher certification for years, but have been turned off by the methods of the established agencies. I recently met with a store owner to discuss certifying her food market, which had previously been under kosher certification. When I told her that I wouldn’t confiscate her set of keys to her store even though she is not an observant Jew and that I donate the majority of my profits to local charities, she told me that I was “a breath of fresh air.”

Positive change, however, is afoot in the kosher world. Today, more people are increasingly concerned about the food they eat, where it comes from, and who is making it. They want to be assured that it is clean, fresh, safe, and healthy. More people have specialized diets because of lifestyle choices, health reasons, or religious values. Kosher is just another option in a category that includes vegan, organic, gluten-free, and heart smart. There is a growing non-Jewish demographic that is maintaining some form of a kosher diet. And the leaders of Reform Judaism, which once shunned kashrut, are now promoting adherence to the kosher laws on some level.

Like me, other Conservative rabbis around the country are launching kosher certification agencies. There may be four major agencies, but there are close to a thousand smaller ones. Getting rid of the monopoly enjoyed by some kosher agencies in communities will only help reduce the price of kosher food. Kosher certification, I maintain, is about trust. When dirty politics and corruption are allowed to enter, they only diminish the holiness that kosher observance intends. Ending “Kosher Nostra” will add sanity to the kosher industry.

We have become so far removed from the kosher laws of the Torah and Talmud that we focus less on why we keep kosher and more on how punctilious we can be, only to “out frum” the next person. We have become so concerned about everyone else’s kosher standards that the same laws enacted to keep our community united are being used to keep us from ever being able to eat together. I’m reminded of the joke about the ultra-pious man who dies and goes to heaven. When a colossal feast of the choicest, most expensive foods is laid out in front of him, he inquires with the ministering angel about the kosher certification there in heaven. When he’s told it is the Holy One, God himself, who has sanctioned the kashrut of the food he decides to play it safe and just orders a fruit plate.

My goals for Kosher Michigan are simple. I want to help create more options for the kosher consumer without exorbitant prices. I want to shift the focus of kosher certification to trust and the compliance of sensible standards, regardless of denominational affiliation. It does not necessarily follow that a restaurant owner who does not observe the Sabbath cannot therefore be trusted to maintain the strictures of the kosher laws in his establishment. And just because a non-Jew has looked at a bottle of wine does not mean it is no longer suitable for Jewish consumption. I want to help people ask educated, thoughtful questions about kosher certification, rather than resort to pejorative comments that seek to divide our people.

I consider it a great honor to have the responsibility of keeping my eye on food production and preparation to ensure proper compliance of our kosher laws. No matter why people choose to eat kosher, I want them to feel confident trusting my certification. I’m only one person, but if I can help make the kosher industry more “kosher,” it’s an important start.

Give Babs a Hand: Barbra Streisand Buys Three Torah Yads

Here's my recent post on the "Rabbi J in the D" blog for Community Next:

After a decade-long $150 million campaign, the National Museum of American Jewish History officially opened November 14 in Philadelphia. The 100,000 square foot museum is on Philly's Independence Mall.


The new museum's gala grand opening had hundreds of donors who paid between $1,500 and $5,000 to be part of the celebration with Vice President Joe Biden, Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler.

I did a double take when I read what Barbra Streisand, who didn't perform at the gala event, bought in the museum gift shop. According to JTA, "One of 18 individuals highlighted in the museum’s Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame, which greets visitors on the first floor, Streisand made time to stop in the museum’s shop, where she spent $800 on three yads (Torah pointers) and silver candlesticks."

Is Babs a regular Torah reader (I'd pay to hear that!) or are the yads gifts for friends? If Streisand wants to use her yad to read Torah in an Orthodox synagogue, I'd advise she first dresses up like a man. Here's what that would look like:

Florida Panthers Fans Angry with Kippah Giveaway at Hockey Game

I saw this one coming. I originally blogged last week about the decision by the NHL's Florida Panthers to give out yarmulkes (kippahs) to the fans at its Hanukkah game this past Tuesday night. One of the team's representatives left a comment on my blog explaining that not every fan in attendance at the game would be receiving the free blue leather kippah embroidered with the Florida Panthers' logo. Rather, only those who had purchased the Hanukkah game package would get the kippah. I suppose that's still a better idea than "the first 5,000 Jews who enter the arena."

Something told me that the majority of the fans at the game did not know that they had to buy the Hanukkah package to get the kippah. Before the game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (a brother of the Jewish AEPi fraternity by the way!) even referred to the giveaway, saying "If there’s a hat trick tonight the fans will throw yarmulkes like they're Frisbees."

Frank Reinstein, a local Detroit-area CPA who went to elementary and middle school with me, thought everyone at the game (man, woman and child) would be receiving a kippah and it was Frank's boss who was the one who came up with the Hanukkah promotion.

Sure enough, not everything went as planned as the Sun Sentinel's blog "The Business of Sports" explained. Blogger Sarah Talalay writes:

The news release sent out last Tuesday said the yarmulkes would be “given to all ticket-buyers.” What the release apparently didn’t make clear was that should have said “Panthers yarmulke given to those who buy a special ticket pack.” That’s how the Panthers amended the news item on floridapanthers.com, but only after the news release had been sent to the media. The media did not receive a corrected release.

Fans found out the hard way when they arrived at the game expecting the sweet dark blue yarmulke with the Panthers logo. “Two friends and I decided to check out the game because one of them loves to collect the crazy giveaways that hockey teams tend to promo,” Panthers fan Caity Kauffman said. Kauffman tweeted about her experience trying to get to the bottom of “yarmulke-gate” during last night’s game.

When Kauffman and her friends didn’t see arena employees handing out yarmulkes at the arena’s entrance, they asked around. They were told it was a group sales item and were unaware of the release that said “all ticket buyers.” Kauffman saw yarmulkes being given out a few seats away, but again was told they were for group sales.

With curiosity in full swing, Kauffman went to client services, where she gave her name and phone number, after being told the team would send out some yarmulkes. She ran into at least one other fan, who was irate, and they were far from the only ones.

“All in all, we just wanted to check out the yarmulke giveaway because it was a pretty unique promo,” Kauffman said. “We only pursued it because no one at the BAC [BankAtlantic Center] seemed like they knew what was going on, and couldn't get solid answers. I'm not offended, just annoyed. It was just a promo that was falsely advertised, poorly carried out and then they didn't own up to the poor execution.”

Panthers spokesman Matt Sacco said about 1,500 yarmulkes were given to group ticket buyers, who were pleased with the promotion.

“It was for people who bought the tickets for Jewish Heritage Night group night,” Sacco said. He said he could understand the confusion, but the team quickly changed the item on the team’s website.

Panthers President Michael Yormark issued this statement: "Based on the success of the biggest Hanukkah Party in South Florida last night during the Panthers-Avalanche game at the BankAtlantic Center, we are definitely considering expanding the program in years to come. Also, any fans that were at the game but did not get a Panthers yarmulke, I'd urge you to call our ticket sales department and speak to one of our sales representatives."

Sounds to me like what was a well intentioned gimmick is now worthy of the penalty box!

Kosher Restaurant in NYC Gets Shot Down by New York Jets

The Vos Iz Neias blog reports that a New York Jets team official discovered that Prime KO Japanese Steakhouse, a popular kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was serving menu items with a New York Jets theme. She ordered them to pull the “Green on Green Jets Salad” and “Jets Dragon Roll” off the menu.

Jets spokeswoman Jessica Ciccone called the Kosher Japanese Steakhouse a few weeks ago to complain that the restaurant's items were not authorized by the team.

The dishes were created by Jets fan and restaurant chef Makoto Kameyama, who grew up in Tokyo playing football on his high-school team, the Mean Elephants (no word about any mean elephant entrĂ©es on the menu). On Sundays, Kameyama would watch NFL games on a big screen at the Sony Building in Ginza. The Jets' decision to kill the salad and sushi roll might have brought some bad karma to the team -- they lost to the Patriots 45-3 this past Sunday!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Florida Panthers Hanukkah Hockey Night

As I blogged about last Thursday, the Florida Panthers hockey team hosted its first Hanukkah Night tonight at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. It turns out that the black Panthers yarmulkes will be given out to the fans who pre-purchased the Hanukkah package, but the team will not discriminate between men and women.

Sunrise Sports & Entertainment listed all the special offerings for the celebration and encouraged fans to "join the biggest Hanukkah party in South Florida."

On the list of what's in store for the special Hanukkah game, I couldn't figure out the last one's connection to Hanukkah. Here's the list:

  • A giant menorah lighting on the JetBlue Tarmac at 6:45 p.m.
  • Jewish music provided by Avimagic Entertainment
  • Kosher food available throughout the game in select locations
  • Panthers yarmulke given to all ticket-buyers
  • Postgame on-ice slap shots

My Ugandan National Parliament Endorsement

As a rabbi, I'm hesitant to publicly endorse any political candidates. First, I try to keep my politics private; and second, I don't want to jeopardize the tax-exempt status of any non-profit organizations which I represent. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and endorse my friend and rabbinic colleague for Uganda's National Parliament.


Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who was recently ordained at the American Jewish University, is running for National Parliament of Uganda. When Gershom is elected, he'll be the first Jew ever elected to any national office in Uganda. What's more is that he will be the first rabbi to be seated in nationally elected government outside of Israel. Very impressive!

The Be'chol Lashon website quotes Gershom explaining that his political mission is directly connected to his religious vision. He says, "It is important that local and national government officials be tolerant and foster a climate of understanding between religious groups." Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, of Be'chol Lashon, explains that "his vision of religious tolerance runs counter to the discrimination he experienced growing up during the rule of Idi Amin Dada. Under Amin, Judaism was banned and the native Jewish community, called the Abayudaya, was persecuted."

I first met Gershom Sizomu when he came with J.J. Keki on a speaking tour to the U.S. I found him to be a mensch who is only concerned with the best interests of his people. I hope that the Ugandan people will vote for Rabbi Gershom Sizoum in the February 18, 2011 National Parliament elections.

Best Jewish Apps for iPhone & Android

My list of the Best Jewish Apps of 2010 at The Jewish Week has generated a lot of attention. The list of thirty-three apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android phones has been reposted on several blogs around the Web. With over 300,000 apps available and over 7 billion downloads to date, there are quite a few Jewish apps to choose from. I separated the utilities from the novelties, and made sure to include the Jewish apps for the Android (full disclosure: I'm a Droid user).

My list includes Jewish texts and luachs (calendars), kosher restaurant databases and recipes, and a few kitschy but fun apps. Of course, after The Jewish Week published my picks I began receiving email messages from app developers around the country (and from down the street) complaining that I didn't include their apps. Well, I couldn't include all of them.

For Hanukkah alone there are dozens of apps that let users do everything from sing the blessings (Behrman House's (iHanukkah) and light virtual menorah candles (iMenorah) to spin dreidels on the iPad (Captain Moustache's Dreidel HD), catch jelly donuts (Catch the Sufgania), and learn the rules of the dreidel game (iDreidel).

As I wrote in the introduction to the list of the best Jewish apps, "As more Jewish people acquire the latest in handheld technology, there will be more Jewish-themed applications available for download. Some of these apps will be utilities for checking the Hebrew date or learning about the weekly Torah portion. Other apps will be novelties like making shofar sounds for Rosh HaShanah and grogger sounds on Purim. With many Jewish developers around the world, you can be certain there will be no dearth of Jewish apps in the coming year."

Here's the link to the list. And as aways, check out www.jewishiphonecommunity.org for a comprehensive listing of Jewish apps as they are released.

Leonardo DiCaprio Converting to Judaism?

Here's my recent post on the "Rabbi J in the D" blog on Community Next:

If Leo becomes Jewish, I can imagine him being hoisted on a chair during the Hora dance at his bar mitzvah as he yells “I’m the King of the World!”

Here’s the 411 from the JTA (the Jewish version of the AP):


Leonardo DiCaprio is rumored to be considering converting to Judaism for his longtime girlfriend, Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli.

The possible conversion by DiCaprio, a non-practicing Catholic, is a sign that the popular American actor and Refaeli will marry, the Daily Mail reported Sunday.

“Leo’s sudden intense interest in Israel, its culture and religion is the clearest sign yet that he intends to marry Bar,” said an anonymous source quoted in the London newspaper.

DiCaprio has visited Refaeli in Israel several times, most recently in November. It has been rumored for months that the couple are engaged.

Let's Ham It Up On Hanukkah (Again!)

Here's my recent post on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week)

Just like the return of the clothing fashion styles of yesteryear, many things on the Web tend to make a comeback too. It seems like every few years the same hoaxes, urban legends, videos, jokes and funny photos get recycled around Cyberspace.

I noticed that this is the case with a photo of ham -- yes, ham! Through Facebook, hundreds of users are recirculating the photo of the boneless spiral ham on sale at a store with the sign "Delicious for Chanukah."

It appears however, that someone decided to write their own midrash about the photo by including the caption: "Dear Walmart, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. Love, The Jews." Based on the name on most of the reposted photos on Facebook, it appears that Kathy Ohsman Hoffman of Scottsdale, Arizona is the one who penned the Walmart statement.


The photo is actually from 2007 and it had nothing to do with Walmart. It was taken at Balducci's, a specialty food store in New York City (of all places... shouldn't they know better?). I blogged about this FAIL marketing idea at Balducci's back in December 2007 and even included some faux holiday sale signs from other stores in my post. A quick search for "Hanukkah Ham" on snopes.com will also let you know that this poor choice in advertising occurred not at Walmart, but at Balducci's.

In my Facebook news feed I noticed that Shir Yakov Feinstein Feit, the musical director at NYC's Romemu, posted the Walmart/Ham accusation to which Jay Michaelson responded with a link to an article on the satire site The Onion from 1997 explaining that the 6,000 year old Jewish ban on ham has been lifted by the Jewish elders.

One of my Facebook friends added this comment to the Hanukkah Ham posting: "Nothing like a good sprial sliced smoked ham to go with latkes and applesauce....and a good glass of whole white milk. Yum".

I suppose that just like the old holiday fruitcake, we can expect that the Hanukkah Ham photo will get passed around yet again during future Hanukkahs.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Helen Thomas Strikes Again; Wayne State University Ends Award

When I watched the HBO documentary about Helen Thomas, "Thank You Mr. President," I remember being impressed about what a long, successful career this woman had. But that entire career was soured this past summer when her true colors were displayed. David Nesenoff, a Conservative rabbi, filmed Helen Thomas outside the White House saying that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine." The 90-year-old Lebanese news correspondent was promptly fired by Hearst Communications.


Last week, at a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Michigan, Helen Thomas uttered more anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic statements. She said, "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is... We’re being pushed into a wrong direction in every way."

While Detroit's Wayne State University, from where Thomas graduated in 1942, chose to maintain its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award following her outrageous remarks this summer, her most recent comments forced the university to act. Wayne State announced on December 3rd that it would no longer present the award. In a statement, the university said, that it "strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas."

The Anti-Defamation League issued a short statement saying Thomas "clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite."

Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit was quoted in today's Detroit Free Press. He said, "When she said … that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists, Ms. Thomas repeated the anti-Semitic stereotypes that have been used for more than a century to incite hatred of Jews. Her comments should be condemned by all people who oppose bigotry in any form."

In an interview, Helen Thomas said that she stands by the comments she made to Rabbi Nesenoff outside the White House during a Jewish Heritage Month event. She also criticized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan during an interview this past Thursday in Dearborn. She said the Iraq war "was built on all lies." She continued, "Thousands are dead, with no reason explained yet. There has been no truthful reason for going into Iraq." Asked what she thought was the reason for U.S. policies, Thomas replied: "Because they own the ink. They also own the airwaves," adding that she was referring to "Zionists."

Detroit Free Press religion editor Niraj Warikoo interviewed Helen Thomas yesterday and asked her about Wayne State University ending the annual diversity award in her name. She told him that "the leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press."

My Family's Dancing Hanukkah Video

With the help of JibJab.com and Adam Sandler's voice, I made this video to wish our friends a Happy Hanukkah. Enjoy!


Sunday, December 05, 2010

How Do You Spell Hanukkah?

The #1 question during Hanukkah is: What is the correct way to spell the name of this holiday? Since it's a Hebrew word that is transliterated into English, there are several acceptable spellings. But people still want to know if there is a consensus.

A non-profit theater company in California, the North Coast Repertory Theatre, even performed a show this past weekend entitled "How Do You Spell Chanukah??- The Stage Show." Their website described the performance as "What is Hanukkah... or Chanukah? How do you really spell it, anyway? What's it ever done for me and why should I care? Hash it out (a nice lean kosher hash) with our hosts Marc Silver and Doug Dickerman for a unique evening of fun and music and story telling. We'll share, we'll kibitz, we'll have a little something to eat! What can I tell you, even if we don't solve any baffling Jewish mysteries...we'll have a lot of fun not getting anywhere together. Oy! Did we mention that we'll have a little nosh?"


Melissa Bell, writing on the Washington Post's blog, recalls that NPR's "All Things Considered" addressed this very question back in 2005. They quoted Rabbi Daniel Zemel of the Temple Micah in Washington who said, "There's no uniformity in transliteration." Rabbi Zemel ordered a steering committee at his synagogue to come up with a uniform spelling. They decided on: Chanukkah. But then Bell noticed that this year, Zemel's synagogue website was using "Hanukkah." When she asked him what ever happened to his resolute steering committee's decision, he explained that he was overruled and "an editor in the congregation made the convincing push to adopt the spelling used by the Reform Jewish movement in North America. Transliteration is an art, not a science."

I've been using the "Hanukkah" spelling and I believe that this has become the most accepted option based on Twitter. While some might do a Google search to determine which spelling of Hanukkah appears the most, I just looked at Twitter where #Hanukkah was one of the trending terms this past week.

I was thinking about this Hanukkah spelling debate today while listening to the Sirius-XM Satellite Radio Hanukkah station. I had to laugh at this song by The Leevees which makes the confusion surrounding the ambiguous spelling of Hanukkah very funny. Check out "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?":


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Best Hanukkah Videos for 2010

Here's my latest post on the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week

If you haven't received an email or Facebook message in the past week with the link to the Maccabeats video of "Candlelight", you might want to check that your computer is actually plugged in.

The Yeshiva University a capella group's video parody of Taio Cruz's song "Dynamite" (based on Mike Thompkins' a capella version) has gone viral surpassing 1.5 million views on YouTube and even landed them an appearance on NBC's Today Show. Now, the group is campaigning to get an invitation to the Colbert Show (add your voice here).

If you're looking for additional fun videos besides the "Candlelight" video, check out these Hanukkah videos:

MATISYAHU ON ICE ("MIRACLE")


HONIKA ELECTRONIKA (BY SMOOTH-E)


ERRAN BARON COHEN (SACHA'S BROTHER) SINGS "DREIDEL"


HOMEBOY HANUKKAH
(Warning: Strong language and references give this video a PG-13 rating)


NBA PLAYERS WISH FANS A HAPPY HANUKKAH (BY ELIE SECKBACH)


NEFESH B'NEFESH HANUKKAH ("8 DAYS" TO MATISYAHU'S "ONE DAY")


ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS JEWS
(Warning: Contains Jewish stereotypes that may be offensive to some)


ELMO LEARNS ABOUT HANUKKAH


TELLY MONSTER PLAYS DREIDEL ON SESAME STREET


Happy Hanukkah!