Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Nostalgically Making it a Blockbuster Night

I’d characterize myself as a nostalgic person. I have every ticket stub from every sporting event, concert, theater performance, and even movie that I’ve attended going all the way back to the 1984 World Series. Every once in a while, I like to go through these tickets, recall the friends and family members I went with and see what I can recall from our experience together.

I also have a hard time throwing out things like membership cards. That would explain why many years after all Blockbuster video stores in the State of Michigan closed their doors, I still have my Blockbuster membership card. For years, this Blockbuster card was just sitting in my desk drawer with no purpose. If only I had an opportunity to use it one last time.

Over the summer, I was scrolling through the virtually endless options on Netflix when I found perhaps the most delightful and ironic choice among the 36,000 hours of content available: The Last Blockbuster. The documentary tells of the meteoric rise and rapid decline of Blockbuster Video, as symbolized by the very last Blockbuster Video, in Bend, Oregon.

Then — like a copy of The Matrix in the return bin just before closing time — it struck me. I realized why the place sounded so familiar. I had begun working with a bar mitzvah student in Bend and would be heading to Oregon in just a few months to officiate his service at Smith Rock, about 30 minutes from there. I immediately put a reminder on my calendar for my brief trip: Visit the last Blockbuster Video on Earth.

So, a couple of weeks ago I grabbed my Blockbuster card and headed for Central Oregon. After the bar mitzvah ceremony (he did great), I looked up the Blockbuster in Google Maps — the first and last time I ever put a Blockbuster location into GPS — and excitedly hurried over to see (Wow) what a difference there was about this lonely outpost and its departed family of franchisees.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Genetic Genealogy for the Digital Age

Several years ago, I was contacted by a representative at who offered me the opportunity to submit my DNA using a saliva collection kit. I figured I would be able to get the results and then complete my family tree going back many generations. I set up an account and started to add relatives to my family tree. When I received the DNA test results back, they did not yield any surprises (99% Ashkenazi Jewish), and, unfortunately, there were not any matches of my close relatives or ancestors. This is because there were not enough people paying for and submitting the saliva DNA to the website. 

Fast forward to this past summer when I received an email alert from I had actually forgotten I ever set this account up. The alert told me that my first cousin was a DNA match and was likely my first or second cousin. This was not earth-shattering news to me since I already knew my first cousin was related to me, and I also knew how she was related. However, this piqued my interest yet again in my genealogy. 

I returned to the website, and sure enough, more DNA matches showed up for potential cousins. I began looking through other family trees that distant cousins had set up as well as 100-year-old documents that gave me hints about my long-lost relatives.

I immediately got lost in the genealogy black hole, spending hours researching my family tree and sharing my findings with my family members. I was amazed to see photographs of my great-great-grandparents. I located photographs of my ancestors’ grave monuments, which provided details including their Hebrew names, when they were born and when they died. 

I discovered an account belonging to my mother’s first cousin, who had already spent a lot of time adding relatives’ vital information and photographs to his family tree. In his collection, I was amazed to see photos of my grandparents (his aunt and uncle) I had never seen before. I started connecting the genealogy dots that led me to extend my family tree back several generations, and I was able to do this for my wife’s family tree as well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Bar Mitzvah that Felt Like a Shiva

 Zachary’s family had hoped to celebrate his bar mitzvah in Israel. Instead, they opted to host local and out-of-town guests in their hometown of Atlanta in July. I had worked with Zachary over Zoom to prepare for his bar mitzvah and was getting ready to travel to Atlanta to officiate his service when I received an email from his mom.

She wrote that Zachary’s uncle (her ex-husband’s brother-in-law) had been visiting his brother in Miami the prior week. They were home at his condo in Surfside when the building collapsed. Both men were unaccounted for and presumed dead.

She said the bar mitzvah would go on as planned, albeit with a very different mood.

I called her right away and offered my deepest sympathies for what the entire family must have been going through at that time. I knew that this would no longer be just another bar mitzvah that I would officiate. I suspected that I would now be called upon in a pastoral role to offer comfort and to try to help the grieving family that had not yet received confirmation of their loved one's death.

Surfside Miami Florida Condo Collapse 2021 (ABC News)
Surfside Miami Florida Condo Collapse 2021 (ABC News)

Thursday, August 12, 2021

I Knew Jack - Remembering Jack Aronson

 I found it very telling when I received a phone call from a contributing writer at the Detroit Jewish News the day after Jack Aronson passed away. She said she was working on an obituary for Jack but was confused. I asked what she was confused about and she told me that she was having trouble verifying if Jack was Jewish. I started to laugh.

Jack Aronson was not Jewish. But I immediately understood why she was confused. The man was so beloved throughout the Jewish community and he received loving tributes from notable Jewish leaders in the immediate hours after his death that it was not surprising this Jewish News writer had begun working on his obituary before realizing that he wasn’t a member of the Jewish community — at least not officially.

Jack Aronson of Garden Fresh Gourmet with Rabbi Jason Miller in Taylor, Michigan
Jack Aronson of Garden Fresh Gourmet with Rabbi Jason Miller in Taylor, Michigan

I looked up to Jack Aronson. Both literally and figuratively. Jack was a big man. He was tall, but he loomed even larger when it came to business. And to the community. And to philanthropy. In the food industry, he was legendary.

The first time I met Jack, I told him about my kosher certification agency. He said he wasn't happy with the agency that Garden Fresh was using and so I jokingly told him to have his people give me a call. Not long after that, I received a call from his manager to set up a meeting. Before that meeting ever took place, Jack had sold Garden Fresh to Campbell's for almost a quarter billion dollars. What stuck with me is not that Jack actually followed through and had someone contact me, but that several people told me that he had contacted them to learn more about me and Kosher Michigan. Jack did his research.

Monday, April 26, 2021

CES 2021 - A Much Different CES Experience

The year 2020 was so full of changes and disappointments that it is no wonder we began 2021 eager for things to return to normal. That certainly was not the case for my CES experience in January. The annual international electronics show has become a regular activity on my calendar at the start of each year and I was especially looking forward to this year’s convention for several reasons. First, it would be my tenth CES in Las Vegas. Second, I had to miss the 2020 event because I had to travel to Phoenix to officiate a bar mitzvah. 

 While I was able to attend this year’s CES, it was certainly a change from past experiences. The Consumer Technology Association, which produces CES, made the difficult decision of making this year’s show fully virtual. I am glad they were able to still convene the world’s best tech showcase, but virtually attending from home was vastly different than actually being in Las Vegas and being able to touch the cutting-edge tech gadgets and futuristic electronics.
Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association opens CES 2021, the first virtual CES

Surprisingly, this was one of my favorite CES experiences yet. That must sound surprising since it lacked the sights, sounds and feels of a typical CES. However, this year, I found myself much more available to sample the panel discussions, lectures and new product presentations (I also didn’t have sore feet from walking miles around the mammoth convention floor). Tech luminaries from around the world addressed the challenges brought on by the COVID pandemic and put forward their revolutionary solutions as we face an unpredicted future. I learned a new term from a leader at Procter and Gamble, who referred to the way tech companies have been forced to adapt this past year as “Constructive Disruption.” 

It was fascinating to hear some of the world’s most creative and innovative technologists explain how they were forced to shelve the products they had been working on for years in order to quickly create the new technologies our world required as we battled a global pandemic. I heard government leaders explain their role in helping to democratize high-speed internet and ensure the infrastructure was in place for 5G. I was intrigued by how rapidly the field of digital health has been growing and how new technology owes so much to space exploration. 

I remain in awe of how the Consumer Technology Association was able to pivot so quickly to a fully virtual show this year and I am grateful I participated. I learned a lot and truly experienced a different aspect of this phenomenal tech show. Hopefully, next year I will be back in Las Vegas and will be able to have a tactile CES experience once again.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

Monday, December 28, 2020

New App Enhances Prayer During Pandemic

Prayer in Judaism is an interesting concept. While there is nothing inherently wrong with one praying by oneself, there is certainly a preference for communal prayer. Worshiping k’yachid, or individually, satisfies the Jewish obligation for daily prayer, but there are several sections of the prayer service that can only be done when a minyan (prayer quorum of ten people) is constituted.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the strong desire we have for communal worship has posed a challenge to clergy. Certainly, technology has solved many of the inherent problems that occur when it is impossible for community members to congregate in person due to health risks. We have seen how video conferencing apps like Zoom have become commonplace for group worship. But we have also seen examples of what happens when technology fails, as it did for dozens of congregations dependent on the synagogue website company Shul Cloud, whose servers failed on Yom Kippur, the most heavily trafficked day of the year for virtual synagogue prayer.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Atoning Over Zoom: How Video Technology Will Connect Jews During High Holy Days

At the beginning of 2020, most people hadn’t even heard of Zoom, the video-conferencing application. By early April of this year, we were all using Zoom for work meetings, the kids’ school, funerals, shivas, Passover seders, Shabbat services, and to connect with family members during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a rabbi, I have officiated over a dozen bar and bat mitzvah services and two baby naming ceremonies using Zoom over the past six months.

Zoom has become the new normal for us as we learn how to best connect with each other virtually during the pandemic. Thankfully, 21st-century startups like Zoom have made tech advances making virtual meetings even easier than in prior years. Over the summer, knowing the High Holy Day season might arrive before synagogues were able to re-open, rabbis and cantors around the world began preparing for what would become the first all-virtual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season.

Some congregations will offer hybrid services with some participants onsite, while most congregations will be fully virtual. There will also be synagogues that have pre-recorded the holiday services and some that will offer a live-stream with some pre-recorded segments. In order for Zoom to work well with the needs of clergy for the High Holy Days, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller has been in direct communication with the video conferencing company to urge them to make some changes to accommodate congregations. I spoke with Rabbi Heller, who authored the teshuvah (rabbinic position paper) allowing synagogues in the Conservative Movement to offer virtual services on the Sabbath, about the changes Zoom has made as well as what he sees as the future of virtual prayer services. Rabbi Heller has a degree in computer science from Harvard, was the first full-time director of the distance learning program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a local Metro Detroit connection being married to Wendy Betel Heller, a native of West Bloomfield.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Learning New Tech Can Help Us Connect During Covid-19

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has expedited our adoption of new technology and forced us to put it to use to stay connected.

COVID-19 has affected people’s lives in tragic ways. The pandemic has also caused us to adjust to new realities like our kids being home from school for the final few months of the school year. There have been countless events canceled, including vacations, summer camp, concerts, fundraisers and sporting events. Our children have been disappointed because of commencements and graduation parties that could not take place.

However, there are “silver linings.” One of the unintended consequences of working at home for the past few months, in addition to increased family bonding time, has been an increased reliance on technology to stay connected. For many in our local community, that has been positive, allowing them to learn new skills and become more comfortable with virtual work technology. Some business owners have even questioned why they should continue to pay rent for their office if they can be just as efficient working from home.

“I saw firsthand how video conferencing technology like Google Meet was beneficial in enhancing the learning process,” said David Hack of Farmington Hills, whose son recently graduated from Hillel Day School.

“Watching my son use Google Meet and Zoom to have virtual interaction with his teachers prompted me to look into using Zoom to meet with my clients in my dental scrap business. When dental offices were closed at the end of March, I was able to connect with my clients and not miss any planned sales meetings. I’ve learned a lot lately about new ways of having meetings.”

For Jeff Dwoskin, a local standup comic from West Bloomfield, technology tools like social media and video conferencing have long been part of his communications arsenal. However, he learned new ways of utilizing mobile apps to shop for his family’s groceries.

“Our family went all in on Instacart. At the beginning of the governor’s ‘Stay At Home’ order, it was near impossible to get a time on Instacart, but I became an expert on figuring out the timing of placing our shopping orders online. We literally didn’t go anywhere for months and Instacart was our lifeline.” Dwoskin also used the time away from his office to launch his own podcast.

Risha Ring, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, said she has been grateful that the pandemic has forced her to push the organization to begin using technology like Zoom. “All of JHSM programming and our meetings (locally and throughout the state) are now on Zoom. That technology has saved our organization. In fact, now people from as far away as Iron Mountain and the Soo [Sault St. Marie], plus the whole west coast of the state, are now our partners in sharing Michigan’s Jewish history. That couldn’t have happened without our quick embrace of video conferencing.”

At Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, the entire catalog of programming and prayer services has become virtually accessible through Zoom. The congregation’s communications director, Susie Steinberg, explained that her unplanned move home from the synagogue office came with many challenges, but it has also expedited her dependence on the internet to do her job.

“I was thrown in headfirst to master new skills to effectively do the job at hand, which was to communicate virtually,” Steinberg said. “I learned how to fearlessly (and I started with great trepidation) use AnyDesk to remotely connect to my office computer, how to multi-task with only one computer screen and, most importantly, to Zoom.”

Steinberg added that now that the synagogue’s staff has moved back into the office, she and her colleagues have a “new bag of tricks, but, most importantly, a confidence that we can meet challenges and create new and often exciting outcomes.”

Some of the new technology adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic is specific to certain industries. Clio Software, a comprehensive case management tool for law firms, has been around for many years, but these months away from the brick-and-mortar office compelled attorney Jamie Ryke of Bloomfield Hills to become dependent on it. Ryke, a partner in the Probate Law Firm of Thav Ryke and Associates, said that he has fallen in love with Clio because it’s a “complete management system for lawyers. It has combined the most important things I use daily to be organized and successful, namely my calendar, email and billing software.”

Ryke added that he has never been as organized as he is now. “Learning to maximize the Clio application has made life easier. I also have appreciated being able to attend legal hearings from home on Zoom, since it means I don’t have to drive all over the state anymore.”

Technology will continue to make our lives more organized and allow us to feel closer to others, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has expedited our adoption of new technology and forced us to put it to use to stay connected.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Jewish Live, the 24/7 Festival of Digital Judaism

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us feel physically distant to each other because we cannot congregate at our synagogues, community centers, or summer camps. However, the Jewish community has not shifted away from community during the quarantine. Rather, we have been brought together virtually thanks to the Internet and streaming video conferencing. While we cannot pray inside the local synagogue buildings we are accustomed to, we are able to virtually “attend” just about any synagogue we want using applications like Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube.

Three cutting edge Jewish visionaries saw this 21st-century phenomenon as a prime opportunity to launch a website that is “one-stop shopping” for those interested in plugging in and learning or praying with a community of Jews anywhere in the country. Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg of the Judaism Unbound podcast linked up with Apryl Stern to create, which is a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future with funding from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.

JewishLive Website

The three out-of-the-box thinkers saw in early March that Jewish events were suddenly being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They wondered how they could help fill the void of in-person Jewish events taking place, like conferences, synagogue services, Jewish musical concerts, and lectures. These in-person events would have to migrate to the digital landscape, they realized. Libenson and Rofeberg were already familiar with this landscape because they migrated there when they launched their popular podcast.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Jewish Legal Matters in the Age of Coronavirus (Covid-19)

We are all learning what it means to live in communities in which we need to exercise social distancing and enhance our typical personal hygiene regimen to safeguard against the Coronavirus (Covid-19). Hillel Day School, the Jewish elementary and middle school I attended in the 1980s and the school two of my children currently attend (they will graduate in June), has suspended classes amid the positive Covid-19 test of a member of the faculty. In the Jewish community, the closing of synagogues has raised halakhic (Jewish legal) questions about how to constitute a minyan (quorum of ten individuals) so that those in mourning and observing a yahrzeit can recite the Mourner's Kaddish.

Thankfully, I just concluded my year of saying Kaddish for my beloved father, Gary D. Miller of blessed memory, so I don't have a personal need to recite Kaddish right now. This week, however, I have been asked by many people about the ability to have a "virtual minyan" (using video streaming services) because I have written on the subject in the past and helped my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, do research on the issue when he was drafting his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the Virtual Minyan in 1998 and 1999. I think that if there has ever been a time when it is acceptable to offer virtual minyanim, that time is now. The technology has advanced so much since Rabbi Reisner first began to look into the matter back in the late 1990s so that many of his initial concerns about lagging video feeds and buffering internet connections are no longer concerns. Further, with so many synagogues shuttered until at least after Passover and people being self-quarantined, it will bring much comfort to so many in the community.

I learned so much from Rabbi Reisner in my first year of rabbinical school and his interest in the halakhic feasibility of the Virtual Minyan on the Internet helped me to begin my own quest to look deeper into the intersection of Technology and Jewish law. Another teacher who taught me so much that first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary was Rabbi Robbie Harris. Rabbi Harris has written an important piece on how the Jewish community should proceed during this time when we're dealing with the implications of the Coronavirus (Covid-19). I think it's worthwhile to share his thoughts in their entirety below:

Pikuach Nefesh, Social Distancing and a Rabbi’s Case for the Need to Protect Life
Rabbi Robert Harris

A caveat before I begin:  I have hesitated from responding to the Coronavirus since news of it first broke, since I am neither a scientist nor a public health official, but now…  as a rabbi, a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary and as a former member both of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee, I want to say clearly and unequivocally:  we must take drastic action to enforce social distancing, in the absence of clear governmental directives. Now is not the time to debate, for example, the fine points of use of electricity on Shabbat, or other, now trivial, matters that typically divide us one from another; we are talking about pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life.

I share these sentiments — not quite a teshuvah, for there is no time to calmly research one, but more than just an op-ed — with a great amount of respect for the various ways in which people of all faiths are struggling to respond to the virus and its implications for our individual, family and communal lives.  But at the same time, I want to shout from the rooftops:  rabbis and clergy people of all faith:  E-services, everyone!!!  Social distancing!  Virtual congregations!  All public religious worship should be set aside until the crisis passes.  If the NBA is canceling basketball games, out of its concern for the sanctity of human life, then how much the more so should we follow suit for the purpose of gathering in worship.

For those of you unfamiliar with the rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh, let me describe it in the most general of terms:  the Torah states (in a context that has little meaning for the subsequent talmudic discussion or my purposes here): “you shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humankind shall live: I am the LORD (Leviticus 18:5).  A midrash, or rabbinic interpretation, teaches:  “to live by them — and not die by them!” (Babylonian Talmud, Treatise Yoma 85b).  The Sages considered many applications of the principle they found in verses like these; I will share just one of them here.  It is from the same section in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 84b: