Monday, January 16, 2023

The Off-the-Derech Viral YouTube Star from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Jews and non-Jews alike were drawn to “Unorthodox” and “Shtisel,” the two popular Netflix miniseries dramas about Hasidic life. These voyeuristic deep dives into the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle of the adherents of Hasidism were the first exposure many had to these insular communities. “Unorthodox” is based on the book by Deborah Feldman, who cut ties with her ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg, Brooklyn community in 2006. Her insider’s perspective was candid and insightful, revealing much of the secretive culture of the Satmar neighborhoods.

I too was mesmerized by both “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox,” binge-watching them during the early months of the COVID pandemic. So when I was asked to take a guided walking tour of Williamsburg with tour guide Frieda Vizel, whose “Off the Derech” (the label for those who leave their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle behind) biography sounded a lot like Deborah Feldman’s, I was intrigued. 


I had planned to be in Brooklyn to officiate a bat mitzvah, so I scheduled the tour for a Friday morning, which is a wonderful time to walk around Williamsburg as men, women and children are hurriedly shopping to prepare for the Sabbath. My mother and my teenage daughter joined me as well. They had already planned to spend the weekend in New York, and I thought it would be meaningful for these two Jewish women in my life to see how Hasidic women live.

Frieda Vizel - Williamsburg Brooklyn NYC Jewish Tour Guide

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Seniors: Don’t Get Taken Advantage of Online

Did you know there is an actual law in Judaism prohibiting the theft of one’s knowledge? Known as geneivat da’at, the principle states that fooling someone and causing them to have a mistaken assumption, belief or impression leads the deceiving individual to be held responsible for the deceived person’s actions. 

In Judaism, geneivat da’at is considered to be a worse offense than lying or cheating. The repercussions often negatively affect many more people than only the original individual who was duped. 

In the internet age, I have seen many instances of geneivat da’at occur when innocent people are misled by fraudulent email messages, websites, text messages or social media posts. Many times, the result of these individuals being victims of geneivat da’at is that their identity is stolen, which is a nightmare scenario. Not surprisingly, it is usually older people who fall victim to this.

Facebook is certainly one of the most common places in which users over a certain age (we’ll call them “Boomers”) become deceived. Most of the duplicate friend requests I receive on Facebook are from fake accounts posing as older users. These illegitimate Facebook requests are part of a scam. The Facebook user often will post a legitimate message on their Facebook account letting their friends know that they shouldn’t accept any new Facebook friend requests from them because their profile has been duplicated, but they may not realize the seriousness of this act.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

5 Jewish TikTokers to Follow

TikTok has given rise to a new crop of Jewish personalities who are profiting from creating popular content for the Jewish community (as well as Jewish content for non-Jews, too).

Unless you’ve been hibernating for the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard of TikTok. It’s a social networking app that features short videos and has taken the world by storm. Today, you can watch the latest dance craze or see teens doing pranks and stunts. You can also watch actual video footage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shot on cell phones along with stay-at-home dads telling their favorite jokes and highlights of the latest sporting events.

The Chinese-owned TikTok only allows the upload of short (15 seconds to three minutes) videos and has gained in popularity since the demise of similar apps like Vine and (another Chinese-owned app that merged with TikTok). It became the first non-Facebook mobile app to reach 3 billion downloads globally this past summer. 

Like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, Jewish content is readily available on the TikTok platform. The app has given rise to a new crop of Jewish personalities who are profiting from creating popular content for the Jewish community (as well as Jewish content for non-Jews, too). A recent NBC News article interviewed several Jewish creators on the TikTok app who said they feel they have been subjected to a type of censorship, with the app regularly flagging and removing their content. Additionally, there have been many antisemitic slurs in the comment section of videos uploaded by these Jewish content creators. Nevertheless, these new Jewish internet celebrities have persevered and continue to churn out videos that go viral, even educating people about Judaism and dispelling myths along the way.

So, who are these Jewish TikTok content providers?

Crazy Brothers-in-Law (@JewCrazy)

Tommer and Yossi are brothers-in-law who must have looked at the typical dance memes on TikTok and determined that they could do those with a Jewish flavor. This duo has half a million followers, 10 million likes, and make money selling JewCrazy-branded merchandise. 

In one of their most popular videos, the two men appear to be getting into a fight with a gangster who tells them to come back to the alley strapped. Instead of returning strapped with guns, they reappear wearing the leather straps of their tefillin. 

Tommer and Yossi regularly answer questions from commenters in a cynical manner, but ultimately educate the public about what it means to be observant Jews. Many of the comments on their videos bring up millennia-old stereotypes about Jewish people (e.g., do Jews have horns, do Jews control the banks, etc.), but @JewCrazy responds to these misguided commenters by setting the record straight. 

Many of their videos just put a Jewish spin on viral TikTok dances and memes. For example, they remade the famous Island Boys video substituting the lyrics with “I’m a Menorah Boy.” Like other popular Jewish TikTok users, @JewCrazy has had Jewish- and Israel-related videos censored on the app and has even been banned for several weeks. The pair does not do anything more obscene or offensive than many other accounts on TikTok, but they have been targeted for their Jewish content.

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.