Monday, November 28, 2011

Anthony Castelow Also Taught Mitch Albom About Faith

Last night's premiere of Mitch Albom's "Have a Little Faith" was an emotional tribute to both Rabbi Albert Lewis and Pastor Henry Covington.

It was great to see that so much of the film had been shot at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan's largest congregation. Rabbi Harold Loss even made a small appearance in the background with Cantorial Soloist Neil Michaels.

Anthony "Cass" Castelow with his daughter and Mitch Albom

One of the most moving parts of the film was Mitch Albom sitting in the car and listening to Anthony Castelow's story. Every time Mitch came by the I Am My Brother's Keeper church, "Cass" would ask him when he was going to hear his story. Finally, Mitch took the time to listen to his life story which is about repentance. "Cass" was a junkie who stole ham sandwiches from the homeless shelter and was then invited to live in Pastor Henry Covington's home. Today he is a deacon of the church.

With Anthony Castelow, Deacon of the I Am My Brothers Keeper Church in Detroit

I had a chance to meet Anthony Castelow at an event to raise money for Albom's Hole in the Roof Foundation after his book Have a Little Faith was published. During the event I sat behind Castelow and then listened intently as he addressed the audience with his young daughter by his side. Mitch had already inscribed a hardcover copy for me, but I brought an advanced paperback copy that I received to the event and asked Cass to sign it. He seemed honored to have the chance to inscribe a book. The honor was all mine.

Should Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel Have Mattered More to Us?

I try to keep up with the current events of the worldwide Jewish community. I read all of the major Jewish newspapers (or at least their websites). Therefore, I knew when Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel died on November 8 in Jerusalem. And yet, I admit I had never heard of him before.

Rabbi Finkel was born in Chicago, Illinois and was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. While I'm sure he's included in the set of famous rabbi trading cards I occasionally receive as a gag gift, I had never read anything he had written or listened to any of his sermons on YouTube. I immediately knew he was a "tzaddik" (righteous man) and a "gadol hador" (an influential giant of his generation) because over 100,000 people attended his funeral. I will be the first to admit that his death didn't affect my life and after reading the headline of his death I said "baruch dayan ha'emet" and went on about my day.

The funeral of Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

It is Rabbi Danny Gordis who puts Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel's death into a broader context (he's good at doing that and he does it often). On his blog, Rabbi Gordis compares Rabbi Finkel's funeral to the funeral of Y.L. Peretz a century earlier. Over 100,000 people attended the famous Yiddish writer's funeral in Warsaw as well, but the difference has to do with who was in the crowd. While Peretz's funeral was attended by a large cross-section of the Jewish community, Rabbi Finkel's funeral was a homogeneous sea of black hat Haredi Jews. Gordis writes:

What a striking difference! How many secular Jews could be found at Rabbi Finkel’s funeral? How many observant Jews not in black? None of the former, I would imagine. And very, very few of the latter.
Which leads me to the following question: Who is there anywhere in the Jewish world whose passing would evoke the sense of shared loss that was felt when Peretz died? Is there anyone in the Jewish world – in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else – who would be mourned by secularists and religious Jews alike, conservatives and liberals, Zionists and those more dubious about the Jewish state?

And that got me thinking. Who is there who could die and be mourned by over 100,000 Jewish people representing every political and religious group? I immediately thought back to this month in 1995 when we mourned the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That might have been the death of the term "worldwide Jewish community." Rabin's assassination was carried out based on political and religious disagreements. The harsh reality is that the global Jewish community is more divided today than ever before and Gordis's use of these two funerals paints that picture in sharp detail.

Gordis has a strong message for us. He writes, "What matters, of course, is not really who mourns whom at funerals. What matters is who takes whom seriously during their lifetime. And increasingly, I fear, we take seriously those people who are more or less like us. We embrace (and then 'like' on Facebook, or forward to others) the views of those with whom we agree, and disparage (and don’t 'like' or Retweet, and never forward) the views of those whose views we don’t share." Gordis encourages us to read those individuals whose opinions we don't agree with. Perhaps the non-Haredi community would never have turned out en masse to mourn the passing of Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel earlier this month, but at least we should have known who he was and why he was such a notable figure among some of our brothers and sisters.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mitch Albom's Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame's annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had -- "Mitch Albom's Jewish?" they asked.

Mitch Albom's Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.
Apparently they hadn't read his most recent book "Have a Little Faith," in which Mitch Albom's childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom's sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn't a secret, but it also wasn't something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of "The Live Albom" (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball's Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.
Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn't until his autobiographical book "Tuesdays with Morrie" came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom's Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn't say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom's at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His "Have a Little Faith" book was Albom's first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn't belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom's Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of "Have a Little Faith," Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the "A World of Difference" institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.



Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of "Have a Little Faith") and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom's Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism's value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he's learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight's premier of "Have a Little Faith":

Friday, November 25, 2011

Finding Values in Detroit Sports: Tigers Fans, Lions Fans and Ndamukong Suh

As a rabbi blogger who writes about sports, I'm always interested in the values that can be learned from watching sports. There are many situations in which the players, coaches, management or fans will do something that leads us to discuss how the situation was values driven.

In Detroit, there are three situations that occurred here recently that I believe speak loudly about our values. One of these events makes Detroit look good. The other two? Well, not so much. The first occurred in mid-August at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers. It was an event that had little to do with Detroit's baseball team and much more to do with the Detroit fans. It was a scene that made me proud to live in Detroit.

When opposing player Jim Thome hit his 600th career home run against the Tigers, fans at Comerica Park gave Thome a thunderous ovation. The Detroit Tigers' faithful didn't simply stand and applaud as their team's opponent circled the bases. They maintained a long and lasting cheer for the future Hall of Famer who has had a career of hurting the Tigers. Thome has hit over 65 home runs against the Tigers (more than against any other club) and no matter which team Thome has played for (Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox or Minnesota Twins) he has always found success against the Tigers.

This strong demonstration of commendation for an opposing player led sportswriter Pat Caputo, writing in the Oakland Press, to ask if it was appropriate for Detroit fans to give Jim Thome such a thunderous standing ovation. He argues that while "on the surface, that's the way it should be, considering the magnitude of the moment. I mean only eight players in major league history have hit 600 or more career home runs... But it was a 3-run shot and turned a close 6-5 game into a bit of a rout. It was one of two home runs Thome hit Tuesday. The other was a 2-run blast that broke a 3-3 tie. The Tigers are in a pennant race. Those home runs were extremely damaging to their cause. Should fans really have been cheering Thome so lustily under the circumstances?" Caputo had no problem with the enduring standing ovation because he believes that "baseball lore trumps all," but many fans who called into his radio show and his co-host Dennis Fithian were really upset by the response of the fans inside Comerica Park and called them "dupes."

For me, I thought this was one of the highlights of the Tigers' memorable season. It was an emotional sight to see Detroit's hometown fans showing so much respect for an opposing player who accomplished such a momentous feat. Despite Jim Thome's 2-run home run that broke a 3-3 tie in that regular season game, the Tigers still won the division and made it to the American League Championship Series. That home run didn't change that, but it did make Thome feel good to have received such a rousing ovation in an opponent's ballpark. And it made me proud to be a Detroiter.



The other two events did not make me feel proud to be a Detroiter. And they both occurred yesterday on Thanksgiving day at the Detroit Lions game. The first has nothing to do with sports, but a lot to do with respect. The halftime show at the Lions Thanksgiving Day Classic always attracts big name recording artists like Kid Rock, the Allman Brothers Band, and Mariah Carey. This year Canadian rockers Nickelback was invited to perform at halftime. Some Detroiters disagreed with the decision to have a Canadian band perform on Thanksgiving Day. Others disagreed with the choice because they don't find Nickelback to be talented musicians and they don't care for their music. Thus, a petition was circulated on the Web by a University of Michigan student at change.com that ultimately had over 10,000 signatures urging that Nickelback be banned from performing in Detroit. The irony of this is that Detroit is one of the band's strongest markets.

Ultimately, the petition didn't do anything other than stir up some controversy, lead to Nickelback having some fun with the situation and making a FunnyOrDie parody video, and launch an alternative half-time show by Jewish musician Mayer Hawthorne (né Andrew Cohen) outside of his parents' home in Ann Arbor. When Nickelback took the stage at Ford Field, the Detroit fans should have applauded them. Even if they don't care for their music and even if they would have preferred American performers, it only makes Detroit look bad when the hometown fans booed the band. Detroit is working hard to improve its image and booing the halftime show performers on national TV is not a step in the right direction.

The third situation occurred not long after the Nickelback halftime show when Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was ejected from the Lions-Green Bay Packers game. Suh stomped on an opposing offensive lineman after pushing the player's head onto the turf twice. Suh was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game. This stuff happens on occasion in the rough and tumble game of football, but it happens when Suh is around much more often.


What actually occurred on the field is not what I look at for a lesson in values. Rather, it is Ndamukong Suh's post-game explanation that makes him look bad (and by extension his team and Detroit). In a press conference following the game (he probably shouldn't have participated in any interviews), Suh said, "I want to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game... What I did was remove myself from the situation the best way I felt, with me being held down." Suh then went on to try to defend himself, saying he was trying to keep his balance while freeing himself from the brief scuffle. His fabricated story went like this: "My intention was not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself. I was on top of a guy, being pulled down, and trying to get up off the ground -- and why you see me pushing his helmet down, because I'm trying to remove myself from the situation, and as I'm getting up, I'm getting pushed, so I'm getting myself on balance."

Suh is a professional athlete and represents his team. He is an adult. The story he tells to defend his unsportsmanlike antics sounds more like a defense that a child would concoct to prove his innocence. Suh shouldn't have pushed his opponent's head into the turf and he shouldn't have stepped on him while he was down. But what he should have down afterward was own up to his actions and apologize. That is not the image that Detroit wants to convey. Especially not on national television.

I'm a proud Detroiter and a proud Detroit sports fan. It's moments like the one in Comerica Park this past August when Jim Thome made history and the fans recognized that beautifully that make me even prouder to be a Detroiter. It's moments like the two that happened in Ford Field yesterday that should remind us that we can do better.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving is Part of the Jewish Experience

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It is certainly my favorite secular holiday. I love waking up on Thanksgiving morning knowing that it will be a relaxing day spent with family and friends. I will contemplate all the things for which I am thankful, including being an American.


This week one of my children asked if Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday or if it's a holiday that everyone celebrates. I explained that it was a holiday that everyone celebrates, but there are some Jewish people who do not celebrate it. Some observant Jews believe that Thanksgiving shouldn't be observed because it is a holiday invented by gentiles and has no basis in Jewish law. Heshy Fried ("Frum Satire") created an xtranormal video on the matter of why frum (religious) Jews don't celebrate Thanksgiving including some of the unspoken traditions of frum families eating turkey for the Shabbat dinner on the Friday evening following Thanksgiving (but no stuffing!).

Thanksgiving in my opinion should be a day for feeling grateful. Even if we give thanks to God on a daily basis in our prayers, it is essential to take a day out of our busy lives to be thankful for our country. I believe that the consumerism and materialism that is Black Friday have begun to infringe on the Thanksgiving holiday. Stores that encourage shoppers to wait on line for the best deals on the night of Thanksgiving are contributing to our society's loss of the ideals of Thanksgiving. A day that has long been set aside to be grateful has become corrupted by those willing to camp out on a sidewalk to save $100 on a substandard flat-screen television and the stores that are opening for those sales on Thanksgiving night.

Not all of my colleagues agree with me that Thanksgiving is a worthwhile secular holiday for the Jewish community to celebrate. My colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading Jewish activist who is passionate about fair wage, public housing, and homelessness, is not a fan of Thanksgiving. She writes:

Personally, I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving... My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur [forbidden], or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.
With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving Haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).

Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism. I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.

While I feel strongly that part of being thankful for what we have should include being charitable, I don't think Rabbi Jacobs presents a fair picture of the American Thanksgiving holiday. I much prefer my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson's take on the Thanksgiving experience. He writes in the Huffington Post:
The Sukkot theory of Thanksgiving is really great. And it could even be true. The only challenge is that I couldn't find any colonial Puritan authors who made that claim. What is charming about it, nonetheless, is the resonance that so many Jews feel toward Thanksgiving. It is a very "Jewish" holiday, even if it wasn't a Jewish holiday to begin with: Great meal, great company, celebrating life and joy and resilience and freedom in community. All values embedded deeply in Jewish tradition. 
But I'd like to invite us to a more nuanced and complex vision of what we can celebrate in Thanksgiving and in what we can dedicate ourselves to for Thanksgivings yet to come. 
The term "Jew" comes from the Hebrew word Yehudah meaning thanks, joy, gratitude. At the core of the Jewish way is a resilient joy that directs our attention toward the blessings we already have, those we need to work toward to realize, and the need to share those blessings in community. 
Turns out that Native American traditions have such a tradition as well -- feasts of gratitude in which the abundance of the earth and community are shared, noticed and celebrated. So do most of the world's wisdom traditions. 
When I was a child, the Thanksgiving story was presented as early Americans (the Pilgrims) hosting a meal of gratitude that hosted Indians. The Indians were guests, the Americans were European. And we latter day Americans focused on the nascent democracy found among the Pilgrims. 
As I grew and read, the circle expanded. I learned that the "Indians" were First Americans. They are not outsiders to America's story, they have always been at its heart. So, Thanksgiving expanded to include two incompatible tellings -- the tale as told by Puritans and a very different perspective as recounted by Native Americans. There was a bittersweet quality that joined the older narrative, a tale of displacement, of blindness to the wisdom and depth of the culture of First Americans, of their generosity in reaching out to the newcomers, of opportunities for cooperation and learning missed, of sheer survival against overwhelming odds. 
But the expanding circles keep growing. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving Africans joined this continent as unwilling captives enslaved to serve European farmers and merchants. They too were seen as outsiders, and they too are now an irreplaceable component of the American story. Another layer of grief and tragedy, but also of extraordinary courage, caring, persistence and faith was added to our complicated national identity. 
And the list continues to expand. First seen as interlopers, outsiders, group after group, moved from perifery to core, from alien to American: evangelicals, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Mormons, Mexicans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims -- each community (and still others) contributed their stories, perspectives and traditions. These cacophanous tellings were first viewed as threats, eclipsing what it means to be American. Eventually we recognized each new tide as expanding, transforming and elevating what it means to be us. 
That process is by no means finished and is very much in process. Women made a claim to their own dignity and humanity -- gaining first the vote, then growing power and a recognition for the distinctive ways that women add to American culture and vitality. Gays, lesbians and transgendered people have started to make themselves heard as participants and contributors, no longer tolerating those who would banish them to the margins. People with special needs are gaining a slowly attentive hearing -- asking not for pity and charity but for access, dignity, partnership. 
Most recently, brave voices have started to speak on behalf of the rest of the biosphere and our beleaguered planet. Can one love America and rape the land? Is is possible to celebrate "from sea to shining sea" while depleting those oceans of diversity and life, while dumping so much carbon into the air that we are literally choking the plankton that helps our planet breathe?
As the circles expand to include those who used to be invisible, marginalized, despised, our tellings of Thanksgiving become more nuanced and layered, and they shimmer with flashes of color they previously lacked. We are all enriched to inhabit a world of raucous diversity and resilient inclusion. 
Our dinners may be less simplistic, and our giving thanks is now joined by taking responsibility. But as our telling swells to include many stories, we are made that much greater by the expansiveness of our humanity -- warts, joys and all. 
And for it all, let us breathe deeply, take it all in and give thanks. God bless us, everyone!
All holidays are complicated. Jewish holidays are complicated and so are our secular holidays. It's crazy that we Americans spend Memorial Day at the beach, on the boat, and at barbecues. It's crazy that some Americans spend their Thanksgiving Day camped out on a sidewalk waiting for deals on big-screen televisions. But that shouldn't dictate whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving. For me, it's a special day that includes spending meaningful time with family and friends, watching parades and football games, and eating a delicious meal. For all that I remain grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ryan Braun and Justin Verlander Win MVP Awards

Here in Detroit we couldn't be happier. Detroit Tigers' ace Justin Verlander won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award for the American League this year. Justin is the first starting pitcher to win the MVP Award in 25 years and the first Detroit Tigers player to win both awards since Willy Hernandez did so in the memorable 1984 season.


I am also thrilled that Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers won the National League MVP Award yesterday in a landslide. Braun, who is the third Jewish Major League Baseball player to go by the nickname "The Hebrew Hammer," joins Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen and Sandy Koufax who also won the MVP Award (Lou Bourdreau also won the award but didn't know he was Jewish at the time). He adds the MVP Award to his NL Rookie of the Year Award from 2007 (according to Ron Kaplan, Braun is the 13th player to win both). Since Braun recently signed a contract extension with Milwaukee which makes him a Brewer until at least the 2020 season, it's possible that he'll be remembered as "The HeBrewer Hammer."

Milwaukee Brewers' owner Mark Attanasio remarked yesterday that "Ryan Braun is going to have a statue outside Miller Park someday." If that happens there will be two statues of Jewish men outside that stadium since there is currently a statue of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I'm From Detroit Too: A Response to Toby Barlow

This is my first article for the new Huffington Post Detroit:

I was excited last week when the Huffington Post launched its new Detroit section. I clicked the link to take me to the new page dedicated to my hometown and the first article I read seemed to tell me that I wasn't really from Detroit after all. Toby Barlow's "Detroit, Meet Detroit" rant would have you believe that "many, if not most, of the people who identify themselves as being from 'Detroit' have really no idea what Detroit is like." What?!


I'm very happy that Barlow has fallen in love with Downtown Detroit and everything that it has to offer him -- from grocery stores no one in the suburbs think exist to the dry cleaners where he drops off his shirts. Whether Barlow realizes it or not, through his words he has brought the late Mayor Coleman A. Young back to life. Or at least the former mayor's sentiment. In his twenty years in office, Mayor Young successfully drew a sharp divide between the residents of the City of Detroit and the suburbanites. The race riots of the late 1960s forced middle class whites to flee the city, but it was Mayor Young who kept them away. The polarizing mayor made the Eight Mile border a dividing landmark between the races. I'm afraid Barlow isn't helping matters today.

When I'm out of town and someone asks me where I'm from, I tell them I'm from Detroit. If I told them I'm from West Bloomfield (the suburban city of my childhood) or Farmington Hills (where I currently reside) they wouldn't know if that was in Michigan or Minnesota. If they look at me confused, then I explain I'm from the suburbs outside of the city. I don't think that is any different than someone who lives in Skokie, Illinois telling people they live in Chicago, or someone who lives in Newton, Mass telling people they are from Boston.

I know Detroit well and I know what Detroit is like -- bruises and all. It is a great city full of much potential and I enjoy spending time downtown. In any given year I find myself heading downtown for Tigers baseball and Red Wings hockey and Lions football, concerts at the Fox Theater and Comerica Park, and shows at the Fisher Theater and the Detroit Opera House. In the past year I've spent more time in the city as more businesses have moved in. There is certainly a revival in the Motor City and we should all be excited about the possibilities. But I want to caution Toby Barlow and anyone else who believes that to really be part of the Detroit renaissance one has to pick up and relocate to Downtown Detroit.

The people who are paving the way for this renaissance do not live in the city. Yes, these business people are working hard to get young talent to move to Detroit and live affordably in Midtown or Downtown with attractive stipends. But at the end of the day these executives are driving back north to their homes in the suburbs. Even the current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, maintains his home in the wealthy suburb of Franklin for when he's not staying at the Manoogian Mansion on the Detroit River. And it's important for Barlow to know that these tycoons who are buying up real estate in the center of the city and relocating their companies didn't make their money in Detroit. The two mega companies now situated in Campus Martius were based in the suburbs (Compuware began in Southfield before moving its headquarters to Farmington Hills, and Quicken Loans had its headquarters in Livonia).

Even if the majority of employees who work in Detroit head back home north of Eight Mile at the end of the day, Barlow should be grateful to them. They're paying income taxes to the City of Detroit where he lives but doesn’t work (a simple Internet search shows that Barlow works for an organization that is based in Dearborn, not within the city limits). For many energetic young people like Barlow Detroit seems like a euphoric metropolis now, but will they continue to reside Downtown when their kids are ready for school? The fact is that Detroit still has a high crime rate. How will that impact these enthusiastic Detroiters' decisions to stay put as their kids get older?

In his article, Barlow cynically writes that it's great that suburbanites might know the Faygo song but they probably don't know about "the College of Creative Studies' massively incredible new Taubman Center." Hold on one second. How does Barlow think the CCS got that massively incredible new Taubman Center? Let me explain. From the generosity of Al Taubman. And I wonder if Barlow knows where Mr. Taubman got the money to support such a center that he finds to be massively incredible? He made that money owning malls. Big malls. In suburbs. In fact, since Novi is the first suburban city (of many) Barlow condescendingly mentions in his article, it’s ironic that without Twelve Oaks, the massively incredible mall that Taubman built in Novi, there probably wouldn't be a Taubman Center at the CCS in Detroit. Barlow writes, "Nothing good ever came out of suburbia." Perhaps he wants to rethink that one.

Both of my parents grew up in Detroit. They both graduated from Mumford High. Their families left the city, but not because the big homes with big yards in the suburbs were so appealing. They left the city because the city was changing for the worse. They left reluctantly, but who wouldn't? There was increased crime and race riots that were bad enough the National Guard was called in. I sat with my parents last year as we watched the stage production of "Palmer Park," which accurately portrayed the tense race relations in that Detroit neighborhood in 1967. My parents had tears in their eyes (and so did every other native Detroiter of their generation who sat in the theater) because this production brought back the emotionally jarring, difficult times of that period.

My grandparents' generation didn't turn their backs on the City of Detroit. They continued to work in the city and support its culture. They were saddened that they had to move out because they didn't have a choice. In fact they always spoke nostalgically and lovingly about the City of Detroit. And my parents' generation didn't turn their backs on the city either. When you live in the suburbs you're just not going to head downtown every Saturday night for dinner. It’s just not realistic. That doesn't mean that suburbanites are forsaking the city. It also doesn't mean that we're ignorant of the city's offerings. I never doubted that people who live Downtown like Barlow are able to get their dry cleaning done close to home and go food shopping. I'm thrilled that there are new restaurants and jazz clubs opening up. I'm thrilled that Eastern Market is booming. I love that Detroit has hosted a Superbowl and a World Series and a Final Four. That makes me proud because I'm a Detroiter.

It is wonderful that more young people are considering Midtown and Downtown as viable places to live. I really think that's great. Unfortunately, the young people choosing to move into fancy lofts in Midtown instead of Royal Oak, Ferndale or Downtown Birmingham will not save the city. The City of Detroit is 144 square miles of land that is too big to manage. The solution to this problem will not be young suburbanites reclaiming the city blocks once inhabited by their parents and grandparents. It also won’t help the crime rate or the corruption that stains the city’s political arena. The old mentality that the City of Detroit doesn’t need or want white suburbanites coming into to “our City” is unfortunately still alive and well (just ask business leaders how difficult it is for them to get city contracts).

Rather than criticizing the suburbanites who choose to stay in their suburban homes, Barlow would make more sense if he thanked the suburbanites who work in the City of Detroit and come to the city for sports events, casinos, dining, and entertainment. It’s the money coming from the suburbs that's going to spurn the renaissance for the City of Detroit. No matter how much grocery shopping and dry cleaning Barlow does in the city, suburbanites like Dan Gilbert and Peter Karmanos are the ones turning the city around. And even if they head north on the Lodge Freeway to go home after work each day, they are Detroiters. And so am I.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rahm Emanuel Just Says "Lo"

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be stumping for his old boss, President Obama, in Iowa this weekend. In an interview with NBC's Harry Smith, Rahm Emanuel explicitly said he will never run for president and even went so far as to state it in Hebrew.

“No, not,” he told NBC’s Harry Smith. “I’ll say it Hebrew: ‘Lo.’”


What is Glatt Kosher

As a panelist for Jewish Values Online, I am asked to weigh in on various values-based questions from the perspective of a Conservative rabbi. A recent question I was asked to respond to was odd in that it wasn't a question that had to do with values. I was asked to answer the difference between "glatt kosher" and "kosher". This struck me as having to do less with values and more with a general misunderstanding.

Here is my response from the Jewish Values Online website:

Literally speaking, the term "glatt" is a Yiddish word that means smooth (it is called "chalak" in Hebrew). It is used most commonly as a kosher designation referring to the lungs of an animal. If the animal's lungs were smooth and free of any adhesion that would render it non-kosher, the animal is designated as "glatt." The term only applies to kosher animals whose meat can be eaten (not fowl or fish). Therefore, kosher food like chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy products can never be "glatt."

The term has come to mean "kosher to a higher level" leading many people to erroneously think that non-beef food items can be "glatt." In fact, I have been asked if pizza that I certify as kosher is "glatt" to which I responded that if they're concerned about the melted cheese atop the pizza being smooth, they should be fine.

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky wrote an insightful explanation of why the "glatt" designation is important. He explains, "In colloquial discourse treif refers to anything that is not kosher. The technical definition of treifa is based on Exodus 22:30 (Do not eat meat from an animal torn [treifa] in the field) and refers to an animal with any of a specific group of physical defects that are detailed in the Talmud. Examples of these "defects," which often go far beyond the health inspection of the USDA, include certain lesions, lacerations, broken limbs, missing or punctured organs, or the result of an attack by a larger animal. Such defects can occur in and thereby render both animals and fowl treif. Because most of these defects are uncommon, it may be assumed that most animals are healthy and hence there is no requirement to inspect every animal for them. An exception is the lung of an animal, on which adhesions and other problems may develop. While these problems are not common, they do occur more frequently than other treifot. Their relative prevalence led the rabbis to mandate that the lungs of every animal be examined, both manually while still in its natural position in the animal, and visually following its removal from the thoracic cavity."

Most types of adhesion on the animal would make the animal a treifa and therefore forbidden to be eaten by a Jewish person. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Ramah) allows for a method of peeling and testing many types of adhesions, which results in many more animals being designated as kosher. This leniency allows kosher observant individuals to eat meat that is not from a "glatt" animal, but one whose adhesions had been checked through peeling and testing. Isserles ruled only for Ashkenazi Jews, but Rabbi Yosef Karo did not rule that this was acceptable practice and therefore his Sephardic followers only eat "glatt" kosher meat.

This led to the "glatt" designation being considered a stringency that the pious would uphold. The misconception is that if meat is not "glatt" then it is not kosher. In truth, non-glatt meat that has been thoroughly inspected is considered fully kosher for Ashkenazic Jews.

There are kosher certification agencies that only certify meat that is "glatt". Those who only eat "glatt" meat are known as mehadrin, meaning "embellished." Maintaining a kosher diet leaves room for leniencies and stringencies. One who follows a more stringent level of kosher observance is considered to have embellished God's commandments and thus is said to be keeping kosher l'mehadrin. The terms "glatt" and "mehadrin" have come to describe a higher level of kosher status, but has also been misapplied to such things as water.

These terms can colloquially mean "extra strict supervision," but it is important that the actual definition is lost along the way. Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Jerusalem has written about the fact that this stringency of the pious seems to apply to kosher food, but seldom to matters of ethics. He writes, "If people want to be extra strict with themselves, that is their right, but I often wonder why this extra strictness seems to be confined to ritual mitzvot rather than to ethical ones. Whenever I hear about Glatt I am reminded of [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel's comment that we need a mashgiah [kosher supervisor] not just for food for other things such as lashon ha-ra – gossip – as well.

So, the bottom line is that "glatt" means smooth and refers to the lungs of animals like cows. When its applied to other food it is being misapplied, but colloquially means "kosher to a higher standard."

Sarah Silverman on Being Jewish

This year I've given a handful of presentations on the topic of Jewish Humor. I talk about the Jewish comedians who have been making people laugh over the past sixty plus years. I show video clips of the legends of Jewish comedy from Sid Caesar, Jack Benny and Milton Berle to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman. I also talk about more modern Jewish comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Richard Lewis and Seth Rogen.

There aren't many female Jewish comedians in my presentation. I mention Sophie Tucker as the first major Jewish comic for her vaudeville performances. Of course I talk about the legendary Gilda Radner, who grew up in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before becoming famous on Saturday Night Live. I also mention that over the years there have been several female Jewish comedians like Joan Rivers, Elaine Boosler, Rita Rudner, Roseanne Barr, Fran Drescher, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, and Sandra Bernhard. None of these female comedians however elicit the response I get when I talk about Sarah Silverman. People love Sarah Silverman (even if they're uncomfortable when they laugh at her jokes).

With Rita Rudner after a performance in Las Vegas
Last week's NY Times article by Jason Zinoman hit the nail on the head when it highlighted Sarah Silverman's comedy as following in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Silverman's willingness to break the taste-taboo ceiling, as Zinoman put it, has led to her finding stand-up success in ways her female comedian forebears never did. Zinoman writes,

Comics like Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard were trailblazers, but if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” When I saw Sarah Silverman deliver that signature one-liner in a downtown theater almost a decade ago, the audience exploded with laughter followed by groans. Then came the anxious chuckles whose subtext seemed to be: I can’t believe I laughed at that joke. 

Sarah Silverman's comedy is very Jewish and she pushes the boundaries like no other female comedian today (Whitney Cummings comes close, but she's been heavily influenced by Silverman). Not since Lenny Bruce's shtick about the difference between the Jewish God (in a mezuzah on the doorpost) and the Christian God (on a cross and in movies) has a stand-up comic been able to make theology so funny in such a provocative way. Her movie "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" riffed on religion in a way that oddly seemed to be both offensive and hilarious at the same time.


Sarah Silverman with ex-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel and
her sister Rabbi Susan Silverman and brother-in-law Yossi Abramowitz

Sarah Silverman's influence in the 2008 presidential election with "The Great Schlep" video was nothing short of brilliant when she encouraged young Jewish liberals to travel to Florida to convince their grandparents that it was okay to vote for Barack Obama even though he's black. She has also promoted social justice work and eradicating worldwide hunger with her contribution to the American Jewish World Service video and her own "Sell the Vatican, Feed the World" video. And of course her famous video with Matt Damon was well... you have to watch that one for yourself.

Sarah Silverman and her sister Rabbi Susan Silverman discuss their Jewish identity

I've always wanted to hear Sarah Silverman talk about her Jewish identity, or as she calls it her "Jewy-ness." A couple weeks ago Sarah and her sister, Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman, were interviewed together at an event at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. Here's the video of the interview (the first 7 minutes are introduction):

Watch this video on YouTube

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Branding Israel Through Technology

This is my recent "Jews in the Digital Age" column for the Detroit Jewish News:

Sally Whittle is a blogger in Lancashire, England. Her blog “Who’s the Mummy?” is one of approximately 4 million “mommy blogs” on the Web. Like many other young mothers she journals about her life as a mother and provides advice for other mothers around the world. With over 30,000 visitors a month, Whittle is used to receiving comments on her blog but she was surprised when she was offered a free trip to Israel with a handful of other popular mommy bloggers.

The group of mommy bloggers visited Israel this past July as part of VibeIsrael, a program of the apolitical non-profit Kinetis. The social startup seeks to generate domestic and global awareness of Israel as the capital of creative energy. Its founder and executive director Joanna Landau was recently in Metro Detroit to share her vision of how to brand Israel for the 21st century and how to market that brand as widely as possible.


Landau, a lawyer and start-up entrepreneur made aliyah with her family when she was five-years-old. Raised in a well-to-do philanthropic and Zionist home, she actively sought out a way to transition from her for-profit work into a non-profit passion. Her interest was piqued in 2004 when Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched the Brand Israel Project, which aimed to improve the country’s image abroad by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians. Landau incorporated Kinetis in November 2009 seeding it with some of her own money and got to work on her re-branding Israel project.

While in Metro Detroit, Landau was eager to learn how the state’s “Pure Michigan” campaign was working to improve its image. She quickly noticed the similarities between Metro Detroit’s desire to retain talent by keeping its young people local after college and Israel’s desire to have its children choose to remain in Israel following army service. “Brazil is known for ‘fun’ and Paris is about ‘romance’ and America is connected to ‘freedom.’ When people around the world hear ‘Israel,’ they automatically think about politics and the conflict with the Palestinians,” Landau explains. Israel is all about ‘Creative Energy.’ This is what differentiates Israel as a country and Israelis as a nation. It represents the essence of Israel’s offering and encompasses the nation’s relative advantages in the fields of art and culture, technology and science, lifestyle, heritage and the environment.

Landau argues there is a misguided belief among Israelis that if they can only convince the rest of the world of the legitimacy of its political policies, then the tide will turn and there will be increased travel, investment and love of the Jewish State. “People are not interested in Israel beyond the conflict because we haven’t given them a reason to be interested. Whenever Israel gets a chance to say something, all we ever talk about is this conflict.”

When asked if Landau’s Kinetis is a new type of Israeli hasbara (public relations) organization, she laughs. “Hasbara is what you do when you feel you need to explain yourself? Only when you have done something wrong or if you’re unclear," Landau clarifies. "In Israel we have been so consumed by crisis-management and self-defense that we have been unable to think of a long-term strategy."

Landau wants a paradigm shift that will change the conversation. She believes that Creative Energy is in the DNA of Israelis. She wants to highlight her country’s high global appeal through a hi-tech, arts and culture, lifestyle, and extreme sports. “The Jewish religion is a very creative religion. Curiosity is encouraged and conventions are challenged,” she says. . "What we want to do is celebrate the things that Israel has to offer that are interesting on a global level," she says. "Branding is about giving people something to relate to and connect to on an emotional level."

It is Israel’s imperative to tell her own story and under Landau’s direction Kinetis has taken full advantage of modern technology to control the message. Its Facebook page features a video of Warren Buffet praising Israel as a place in the Middle East that might not have much oil, but it has an abundance in brains, energy, integrity and imagination. At the top of the Facebook page, there is a message that anyone can submit “an inspiring image or video that encapsulates "Creative Energy" about Israel and it will be posted on the page.

In addition to the cutting edge and attractive Facebook page, Kinetis boasts an impressive website available in both Hebrew and English that outlines its many programs all with the goal of place branding Israel in the most positive ways. Drawing upon the success of the book “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Kinetis offers an academic program for Israeli students and international students from around the globe. These students in the Start-Up Nation Awareness Program (SNAP) will investigate the sources of Israel's creative and entrepreneurial spirit across numerous spheres. Ultimately, their connection to Israel will help develop Israel as a model to be taught in leading universities worldwide.

The VibeIsrael program provides an all-expenses-paid personalized experience of Israel like the one set up for the mommy bloggers. These groups of opinion leaders include bird watchers, digital photographers, women entrepreneurs, extreme sports enthusiasts, archeologists, members of the fashion industry, technologists, and gourmet chefs. Participants are offered a glimpse into real Israeli life by connecting them with their Israeli counterparts. Rather than spend a week touring all of the typical tourist locations, VibeIsrael participants travel the country with locals who show them places relevant to their interests. These thought leaders then return home where they publish a critical mass of posts, blogs and articles in the printed media and on the Internet which convey an authentic, unadulterated “buzz” about what Israel truly offers.

Israel is a thriving nation made up of citizens who are proud of its accomplishments and offerings. Landau is working to highlight Israel’s best assets to the rest of the world. Through place branding and exploiting new media, every day she is raising the awareness of Israel as the creative energy capital of the world. With the help of technology and drawing on the clout of those with loud voices in the digital age, Kinetis is quickly positioning Israel as a center of excellence in the fields of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

After returning from her visit to Israel with VibeIsrael, Whittle blogged “What I saw in Israel was an irrepressible sense of possibility. And going forward that means I will always approach any political story about Israel with that memory in mind – the memory of the people we met, the experiences we had, and the fun we shared.”

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Prayer in Sports - Part 2

Last week I blogged about the role of public prayer in sports. What prompted me to blog about the subject was a Detroit Free Press article in which I was quoted that dealt with the trend of major league baseball players praying and performing various religious-related activities on the sports field like drawing crosses in the dirt and blowing kisses to heaven after a home run.


Professional and collegiate players giving thanks to God in the locker room after a game is nothing new and neither is a player crossing himself after a touchdown. Lately however, this has gone to a new level and that is probably thanks in large measure to Tim Tebow, the NFL player who started the "Tebowing" craze. The Denver Broncos quarterback, who stencils biblical verses into his eye black, drops to one knee in silent devotion in the middle of his games. This act of public prayer has led to people everywhere to start "Tebowing."

As a rabbi, I don't have a problem with the Tebowing craze but I think it's funny that it has restarted the debate over public prayer. If a player simply closes his eyes and gives thanks to God no one will notice, but as soon as he drops to one knee it becomes a national obsession.

Today's college game between Penn State and Nebraska will only add fuel to this debate. Before the game in Beaver Stadium, the crowd watched as both teams joined together in the middle of the field for group prayer. This prayer service was preceded by a moment of silence for the entire stadium asking for healing for those affected by child molestation. The Penn State campus was already emotionally charged following the forced resignation of its long time coach Joe Paterno for not doing more to stop the child molestation that took place at a youth football camp held on campus several years earlier. No doubt, people will be weighing in on whether it was appropriate for both teams to join in public prayer before the game. After all, this is something that is usually done in the privacy of the locker room.


For those who criticize Tim Tebow for praying on the football field for such trivial things as a touchdown pass, perhaps the Penn State-Nebraska prayer service will raise the question of whether its appropriate to pray for serious things on the football field (victims of child molestation, our troops oversees, those battling cancer, etc.). Most likely, athletes are going to continue to publicly pray on the sports field and demonstrate their religious beliefs. And the debate over whether its appropriate or not will continue as well.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day. It is time for us to think about how we can reach out to our Jewish servicemen and women, and show them how appreciative we are for all that they do for our country and to ensure our freedoms.


One of the most active organizers of Veterans Day activities is the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), the oldest veterans group in the country, founded in 1896 for veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars. This past Monday evening at the annual induction gala of the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, in addition to the induction of several local Jewish sports figures, the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation also honored Jewish War Veterans of Joseph Bale Post #474.

A special plaque will soon hang in the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame to honor and celebrate the contributions to athletics by those who were lost or maimed in war and never had a chance to fulfill their athletic dreams. The Pfc. Joseph L. Bale Post #474 of the Jewish War Veterans was dedicated in memory of Joseph Louis "Little Joe" Bale who was born in Detroit in January 1924. It eventually grew to become the largest post in the Department of Michigan. Little Joe's cousin, "Big Joe" served as Post Commander, as well as Department of Michigan Commander.


Throughout Jewish texts and our history, we see that we have always been a nation that has fought for freedom. Our biblical ancestors like Moses, Miriam, and the Maccabees believed in service above self. We owe our lives to those who gave their lives for our freedom, not only our freedom as Jews, but also as Americans, and as individuals. Thus when we reach out to our Jewish brothers and sisters in the military we are making the statement that we too believe in the importance of freedom and the importance of people regardless of our politics. For regardless of what our political persuasion may be, our Jewish servicemen and women need us to stand with them and support them.

So, what can we do? We may not be able to serve as chaplains or convince others to serve as chaplains, but we can create personal connections with Jewish soldiers and show them that we care. We can do this by writing letters and sending emails of support and appreciation. We can help meet the religious needs of Jewish soldiers, by collecting and sending them supplies for living a Jewish life in a foreign country. The Jewish Welfare Board does their best to get Jewish ritual items and even holiday food items to our Jewish soldiers, but their support can only provide so much and there is always more that is needed.

Perhaps with Hanukkah approaching as the next Jewish holiday we should consider collecting supplies to send to a military base abroad. Items that perhaps we take for granted, such as grape juice, candles, dreidles, and even chocolate gelt.

Source: Jewish Telegraphic Agency Archives - August, 28 1962

Today, we are grateful for the many Jewish Americans who serve in our military. Their efforts and example help advance the cause of freedom and provide hope for people around the world. We, as Jews, can stand tall and proud of our Jewish soldiers’ accomplishments, as veterans of past service and as current participants in our country’s Armed Forces.

It is our sacred duty to honor and remember those who try to bring God’s sheltering presence to the world through their service to our country. May we feel called to help bring the light of Judaism to our brothers and sisters in the military, and may God’s presence continue to be with all who have given of themselves to serve in our country’s armed forces. Today is a wonderful day to make a donation to the Jewish War Veterans. The video below introduces the new memorial that honors Jewish chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery.



Todah Rabbah to all of our men and women in uniform – present and past.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Celebrity Shabbat Shalom Greetings

Sending out a weekly e-mail newsletter to friends has become a passion for Lisa Mark Lis.

Lis, a suburban Detroit-based community activist and philanthropist, in her Friday morning e-mail posts to friends and family not only wishes her readers a “Shabbat Shalom,” but she often has a celebrity extend their wishes, too.

Lisa Mark Lis videos U.S. Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Gary Peters.

Lis has videotaped such notable performers as James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, Neil Sedaka and David Broza sending Shabbat best. Politicians as far up as President Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama, have offered “Shabbat Shalom” wishes on camera for Lis, as have U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Other celebs who have participated include "Millionaire Matchmaker" Patti Stanger and actor Wallace Shawn, who perhaps is best known for his role in “The Princess Bride.”

Lis isn't shy about asking for a quick “Shabbat Shalom” greeting when running into a celebrity. When she told Marvin Hamlisch about some of the famous people who had recorded messages, the composer raised a glass of champagne to Lis’ camera phone and said, “I’m not Paul Simon and I’m not James Taylor. I’m Marvin Hamlisch and yes, I know how to say 'Shabbat Shalom.' "

She's been sending her weekly greeting every Friday for nearly 2 1/2 years. She isn’t sure how many people are on her distribution list, but it includes friends and family from around the world, including a large contingent in Israel (her husband, Hannan, is a native Israeli).

Lis says she sends out the messages to wish as many people as possible a good weekend and to stay in touch with her connections.

“I do it to say 'Shabbat Shalom,' and then anything else I add is my soapbox,” Lis said. “I started to include the video messages of famous people saying 'Shabbat Shalom' as a fun addition to the e-mails. It makes people smile. Now people have come to expect them.”

Political views are included in some of her weekly messages. So are reminders to attend local fundraising events for causes she supports. A paragraph encouraging her readers to remember Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during his captivity was a staple of each week’s e-mail message until his release last month. Every message includes wishes of “Happy Birthday” and “Mazel Tov” to her friends and family celebrating milestones in the upcoming week.

Lis plans to continue finding the chutzpah to ask celebs and politicians to utter those two Hebrew words for her camera phone. After all, it’s not every Friday that an e-mail arrives with a video of the leader of the free world wishing you a “Shabbat Shalom.”

President Barack Obama's "Shabbat Shalom" Greeting


David Hasselhoff's "Shabbat Shalom" Greeting


Cross-posted to JTA.org

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner's project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled "Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu," in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not "kosher."

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner's published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn't attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner's teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner's congregation, there was never a question about a "virtual participant" reciting Kaddish in that minyan.


Based on Rabbi Reisner's conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that "a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted." He goes on to explain, "Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner's Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that "a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner's Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner's Kaddish on their own." Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner's Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. "Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype." He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, "This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Athletes' Public Displays of Religion

This past Friday evening I sat with my family at Adat Shalom Synagogue as we watched a performance by Storahtelling, which is known for its innovative and arts-focused take on the Torah. The Storahtelling performers interpret the themes from the Torah in new ways, acting out a theatrical midrash. In "Like a Prayer," Storahtelling veterans Jake Goodman and Emily Warshaw presented a creative exploration of the power of prayer by invoking the stories of our biblical ancestors Aaron the High Priest, Hannah, Sarah and Hagar.

Each of these biblical characters prays in a unique way. Jake and Emily got the audience to consider that a synagogue might be the most traditional place for prayer, but our prayer can take place virtually anywhere. I immediately thought of the recent controversy when Israeli Knesset Minister Meshulam Nahari of the Shas party harshly criticized Gilad Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat of his freedom from Hamas captivity instead of going to the synagogue for prayer as I had blogged about just a day prior. If Gilad Shalit chose to be thankful to God on a beach instead of a synagogue, then who are we to judge?

Watching the Storahtelling production also led to me to consider athletes' public displays of prayer on the playing field. There are those who are critical of athletes (from professional on down to the high school level) openly giving thanks to God after a good play or a victory. I've also noticed an increase in the public displays of religion among the fans at sporting events as well. Sure, fans holding signs proclaiming the John 3:16 verse from the New Testament is nothing new, but lately the TV cameras at sporting events have caught fans visibly praying for their team. This was certainly the case in the recent Major League Baseball playoffs.


In fact, I was contacted by a reporter from the Detroit Free Press last month during the playoffs as my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers. She told me she was writing an article about baseball players and religion. Her first question caught me off guard when she asked me if I thought God was a Tigers fan. We then discussed whether religion should have a role in spectator sports. I explained to the reporter that I appreciate when athletes give it their all and are so intent on winning that they don't hide their religious convictions.

Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan, said he took no offense at Christian displays of faith on the field.
"In America, we take our sports seriously and baseball as the American pastime has been elevated to almost the level of religion," said Miller of Farmington Hills. "When I see a player like Jose Valverde of the Tigers pointing to heaven or crossing himself, I can tell my children that he is a religious person and is grateful to God for his successful performance and God-given abilities."

Later that night as I sat in the stands at Comerica Park in Detroit watching the Tigers beat the Rangers in Game 3 of the ALCS, I thought more about athletes publicly displaying their gratefulness to God during the game. Watching the players take a moment to pray and thank God was quite meaningful. They are so grateful to be in the position of playing a fun game in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions more on television that they recognize the importance of giving thanks.

We should appreciate when players publicly demonstrate their faith, whether by asking God to help them achieve success and not get injured during the game or by thanking God for their triumph. If we are going to teach our children that God is accessible anywhere and that we don't have to be in a church or synagogue to pray, then let us embrace the notion that a sports field is an appropriate place for players and fans to welcome in God.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Technology in Jewish Schools

I still remember the time in 1st grade when my father brought our Apple II Plus into the classroom in an effort to show my classmates the wonders of Turtle Graphics. It was 1982 and each little 1st grader waited in line to get a chance to touch the odd looking keyboard and try to make the little turtle move. My father beamed with pride as he watched each child get their three-minute opportunity to try to program the blinking green turtle cursor to move across the black screen.


That day was the only day that entire school year that we students would touch a computer at Hillel Day School in Metropolitan Detroit. Today, thirty years later my own children attend Hillel and the Head of School, Steve Freedman, has just announced a new technology plan he hopes to implement for the 550-student Jewish day school, which will include a 1:1 technology program.

Today’s students have more technology in their pockets than entire school districts once owned. In fact, a few generations ago, one would never have imagined the possibility of students bringing battery-powered graphing calculators into math class. Today, the Texas Instruments graphing calculators are still being used by students, but they are the least technologically impressive gadgets in the students’ arsenal.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Iran Hiker Josh Fattal vs. Gilad Shalit

At the end of September following the release of the American hikers who were being held by Iran, reports came out that one of the hikers was Jewish. While the whole world knew that Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were taken prisoner in Iran and accused of espionage, what most people didn't know was that Josh Fattal's father is Jewish and that he identifies as a Jew.


Fattal's father, Jacob, emigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, and after serving in the Israeli army moved to the United States. Jacob Fattal’s siblings still live in Israel. The media did a great job of keeping Fattal's Jewish connection a secret during the two years of his imprisonment in Iran. Only after his release from prison and return to American soil has Fattal's Jewish story been told. The Jewish Exponent revealed that Josh Fattal became a Bar Mitzvah at Philadelphia's Rodeph Shalom's suburban campus and that he has traveled to Israel several times where he still has relatives.

I was thinking about the reaction to Josh Fattal's release from prison and safe return home to the U.S. as I read a report this morning about an Israeli Knesset member's outrage that Gilad Shalit traveled to a beach on his first Shabbat of freedom rather than to synagogue.

Photo Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
ynetNews.com reports that "Shas Minister Meshulam Nahari slammed the formerly captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat after his return instead of going to the synagogue for prayer. Nahari claimed that Shalit and his father should have utilized the first Saturday after he was freed from Hamas captivity to say the [Gomel] benediction of deliverance – a Jewish prayer of thanks traditionally said by those who survived an adversity or were released from prison."

Apparently this ultra-religious member of Israeli Parliament is taking his orders from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party who has charged him with the task of bringing Shalit closer to Judaism. While it would have been great had Josh Fattal gone to a synagogue on the first Shabbat following his release from Iranian captivity, it was his prerogative not to. And so too with Gilad Shalit.

This is the problem with Israel's political system. Nahari is a member of the Israeli government and is speaking out against a citizen's decision to go to the beach with his father rather than to synagogue. Yes, I think it would have been great had Gilad given thanks to God with the traditional Gomel blessing in a synagogue close to his home in Mitzpe Hila, but he is a free man in a democratic nation and can be thankful anyway he chooses. No rabbi and certainly no politician here in America slammed Josh Fattal for not going to a synagogue or temple to praise God for his freedom on the first Shabbat after arriving home.

Perhaps the most important message of both Josh Fattal's freedom from Iran and Gilad Shalit's freedom from Hamas is that they returned to their respective free and democratic home countries where they each had the freedom of choice to decide how they would spend their first Saturday of freedom. Synagogue or not, they were grateful to be home.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Yiddish Everywhere and Late Night TV Goes For the Jewish Triple Play

I've always maintained that if an alien from Outer Space arrived in the United States and spent just a short period of time here, he would conclude that Jews make up much more than the measly 2% of the population that we actually do. Jewish people are influential in many areas of society and somehow Jewish themes and words seem to always creep into pop culture.

Take the Yiddish language for instance, which has long been considered the dying language of the Jewish people. Many Yiddish words have crept into popular parlance as I blogged about this summer when presidential candidate Michele Bachmann mispronounced the word chutzpah. Just a few weeks ago another candidate for president, Mitt Romney, attempted to say the same Yiddish word in a televised debate. "I like your chutzpah on this, Herman," Romney said to Herman Cain. Romney's pronunciation was much better than Bachmann's, though he still wasn't able to get that throat-clearing hard "ch" sound.

And it's not only Mormon politicians who are casually tossing out Yiddish words and expressions. I've begun to notice more Yiddish words being used by non-Jews recently. Last month I was playing a round of golf with an Indian businessman. On this rainy afternoon, he drove the ball into a patch of wet mud. When we arrived at his ball I heard him express his dissatisfaction as he exclaimed that his ball landed in the schmutz. I guess he plays golf with a lot of Jews.

And then earlier this week Canon Kevin George a pastor friend of mine from Windsor, Ontario emailed to ask if I could speak at his church on the Sunday following Thanksgiving in an interfaith service. I responded to his email explaining that I had already committed to officiating at a wedding that afternoon, to which he replied simply: "Oy vey!"

My new Greek friend Nick Raftis, the owner of The Inn Season Cafe (a delicious vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan certified by Kosher Michigan), is always asking me if I want to come in to his restaurant to have a nosh.

These Yiddish phrases have even found their way into social media. I received an email from the social media analytics website Klout informing me I had a new notification. When I logged into my Klout account, there was a message that said, "Mazel tov! You received 1 +K for doing something awesome." Amazing.

And then of course there's late night TV. Saturday Night Live is singularly responsible for bringing such Yiddish words as "verklempt" and "shpilkis" into the mainstream through Mike Myers' "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman". Last night, I noticed what I would call the Late Night Triple Play when it comes to Jewish references.

First, at the end of The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart gave a very heartfelt tribute to the late Gil Cates, producer of the Academy Awards. Introducing the "Moment of Zen" dedicated to Gil Cates' memory, Jon said that the man who produced the two Oscar shows that he hosted was "in layman terms, a mensch." The next Jewish reference came on Tosh.0 when Daniel Tosh (who is not Jewish) encouraged his viewers to come to his stand-up tour taking place over the holidays and then said, "I mean the Jewish holidays". The third Jewish reference came from the Irish Conan O'Brien who is hosting his late night show from New York City this week. Joking that he couldn't see the small signs held by audience members in the back of the theater, Conan asked how he was supposed to be able to read these small signs that look like they're written in Hebrew.

With all of these references to Jewish themes, from the political arena to late night television and in regular everyday conversation, it really is amazing that we Jews are such a minority in America. In fact, even that topic made it into The Daily Show episode last night. John Hodgman told Jon Stewart how surprised he was that Jews only made up 2-3% of the population because "You (Jews) seem to be everywhere!"