Monday, May 13, 2024

Israel's Memorial Day 2024

As I drove through Basel, Switzerland in my rental car yesterday, many thoughts raced through my head. Only a short five-minute walk from my hotel is the Stadtcasino in Basel, the location where the First Zionist Congress was held in 1897. This meeting was convened and chaired, of course, by Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionism movement. 

It was at this event they adopted the poem "Hatikvah" as the official anthem of the new Zionist Organization. Meaning the hope, it would later become the national anthem of the State of Israel. I often remark at bar and bat mitzvahs how fitting it is that the national anthem of Israel translates as "the hope" because that is what keeps us feeling optimistic for the future. We must remain hopeful to pass our Jewish heritage to the next generations.

As I drove I thought of how the city of Basel played such a prominent role in the story of the miraculous Nation of Israel. I also thought about how Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Day of Remembrance, would begin later that evening in Israel. Yom Hazikaron, a day in which we pay our respect to the fallen who died protecting the Jewish State, was built on the ashes of the Shoah. I smiled as I considered the irony of these thoughts while driving my rented Volkswagen.

As we honor those who defended the State of Israel today on Yom Hazikaron, I salute all those who serve Israel so that the Jewish people continue to have a homeland. At a time when anti-Semitism is once again permeating throughout the world and there are anti-Israel protests on most American college campuses, it is so dire that Israel be protected from its enemies on all sides. When the sun sets in Israel this evening on Yom Hazikaron, the Jewish people worldwide will celebrate Israel's 76th year of independence. We will sing Hatikvah with pride and be hopeful for the future. That is all we can ever do.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Norman Lear and Starbucks

With the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike meaning no Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Colbert Report (although the writers are putting funny stuff on YouTube), I've been forced to find other TV shows to watch.

One of my favorites has been the Iconoclasts series on the Sundance Channel. I first saw one of these programs several months ago when they featured Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and surfing icon Laird Hamilton. The other day I watched the Iconoclasts episode matching Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz (with me at below) and Norman Lear. The two men are very fond of each other, have much more in common than anyone would imagine, and have teamed up in some very lucrative ways. The combination made this a very Jewish episode.

Howard Schultz and Rabbi Jason Miller
I actually knew a great deal about Howard Schultz before I saw this program. I heard him speak about his upbringing, influences, and vision at a Jewish Federation event in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Earlier in the day of the event, I happened to be at a local Ann Arbor Starbucks having a meeting with a Hillel donor and Howard Schultz walked in. I observed him doing exactly what he says he does and what is portrayed in the Iconoclasts episode about him. He walked up to each worker ("partner") in the Starbucks store, shook their hand, patted them on the back, and told them that he genuinely was proud of their hard work. He then made his way over to our table, sat down, and shmoozed for a few minutes as if he wasn't the busy executive running a billion-dollar corporation that opens eight new stores per day. At the Jewish Federation event later that evening he remembered our conversation without any prompting.

Howard Schultz and Norman Lear

Schultz speaks openly that his Judaism influences his code of business principles and I have used him as an example many times when teaching about Jewish business ethics. Our nanny, who has become a part of our family, moonlights as a part-time Starbucks manager and has confirmed to me that it really is a great place to work (full health care benefits for all part-time staff).

How much I knew about Howard Schultz is how little I knew about Norman Lear, the Jewish creator of all those 70's TV shows (All in the Family, Good Times, the Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, etc.). As Norman Lear describes in an online interview with, Judaism has infused his life's work. In the interview, as in the Iconoclasts presentation, Lear explains the Talmudic story that he loves and and lives by:

There's a Talmudic story that I love, that seems to cover everything to me. A man should have a jacket with two pockets. In the first pocket there should be a piece of paper on which is written, "I am but dust and ashes." In the second, a piece of paper on which it is written "For me the world was created." That's mama loshon to me, real common sense. The person who can live between that ying and yang has it made.

The two men appear like a loving father and son that had been separated for years. They share similar ethics and have each revolutionized their own trade (Schultz by selling coffee in new ways and treating his workers in better ways, and Lear with racy TV characters like Archie Bunker to get Americans to think about racial and religious tolerance in new ways). Together, they have teamed up on entrepreneurial initiatives like selling music at Starbucks (the award-winning Ray Charles CD -- the last of his life -- being their first attempt) and on social and political issues (getting young people to vote).

The highlights of the presentation are in Lear's home, where he shows his original copy of the Declaration of Independence to Howard Schultz, and in their tour of the Seattle warehouse where Starbucks coffee is produced. Each man shows remarkable pride in the other and the Jewish people should take great pride in these men. It is their Judaism that has made them who they are.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Sam Woll - A Charismatic, Passionate Pursuer of Peace and Justice

“Rabbi, our Hillel needs to stop buying Coke products.”

This was the first thing Samantha Woll said to me when I started my new job at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in 2004. It was odd hearing Sam call me “Rabbi.” First, I had only very recently been ordained so I still wasn’t used to the title. And, second, I had known Sam since she was in elementary school – a classmate and friend of my younger brother – so the formality felt unnecessary and perhaps dramatic. But Sam was being respectful.

Ban Coke at Hillel? I thought the request seemed odd. I grew up in a home that never had Pepsi because that company adhered to a boycott of Israel when I was a kid. I seem to recall my mom telling me that Jews drink Coke and non-Jews drink Pepsi. Looking back it seems like she was getting her information less from Middle East politics and more from Lenny Bruce.

I listened to Sam’s impassioned arguments that the Coca-Cola corporation was complicit in human rights abuses and environmental violations in Colombia and India. She knew her stuff. I would come to learn that about Sam Woll – agree or disagree with her, she always knew the facts of the case. As Sam continued her argument about why not only Hillel should stop buying Coca-Cola products, but the entire University should suspend their contracts, my mind immediately went to the more than 100 two-liter bottles of Coke and Sprite in the Hillel basement. We put two bottles on every table for Shabbat dinner every Friday night, not to mention all the Coke bottles we served in our daily kosher lunch program and just about every event we hosted in the building. Weekly, we’d receive deliveries of pallets of these Coke bottles. I likely had a 6-pack of Diet Coke in my office at the time and I was most likely sipping on a can as Sam pleaded her case with me. Two thoughts crossed my mind after that conversation with Sam. One, this energetic young person was going to be an amazing congresswoman someday. And, two, what had I gotten myself into with this new job? 

I hadn’t planned to be a Hillel rabbi. After six years at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I had only looked for jobs at synagogues around the country. But, with a newborn baby and all of our family in the Metro Detroit area, when I got a call from the executive director I jumped at the opportunity. Looking back it was the ideal first job for me as a rabbi. Precisely because of students like Samantha Woll. 

Sam taught me how to listen. She would ride her bicycle with the wide handlebars to Hillel wearing her hippy-slash-Modern Orthodox chic clothing with a large scarf and a bandana in her jet-black curls. Sam was a regular at Shabbat dinners and holiday meals, often bringing her non-Jewish friends to join her. She had friends in just about every faith community on campus. She was involved in anything related to social justice. Sam was the chairperson of both the Tzedek (social action) group and the VIA (Volunteers in Action) group. She seemed to show up at every event. Usually at the tail end. And she’d stay long after most people had left, sticking around to engage in heated discussions. Sam was captivating when she spoke. She always spoke from her heart, but she was whip-smart too. What a combination! When you talked with Sam she would always look you directly in the eyes and her gaze stayed there throughout the discussion. She would let you talk and her active listening skills were evident as she nodded repeatedly to your every argument. But then she would take over and you had no choice but to listen. Our mantra at Hillel was that the students run the show and the staff was there in a supporting role. It was an important first stop for me in my rabbinate because it taught me the value of stepping back and letting the students develop their leadership skills. I learned to hear others' opinions and consider different ways of thinking about a myriad of important topics. I was the rabbi at Hillel, but Samantha Woll was my teacher there. 

Oftentimes, Sam and I would be engaged in a deep conversation at Hillel after Friday night dinner and she would want to continue the discussion so she'd join me on my walk home. I remember watching in awe as Sam debated with an Orthodox student about the Jewish view of abortion during a Passover lunch. From Muslim-Jewish relations to Israel to income inequality to the Coca-Cola corporation, Sam was always fired up. She was a Zionist. She was an advocate. She wanted to fix our broken world. This was Sam’s agenda on a daily basis.

I might not have always agreed with her opinion, but I respected it and I was always left in awe of how much she knew and how much she cared. She truly exemplified tikkun olam, which came from a deep place in her heart. In 2005, Sam was presented with an award at our annual end-of-the-year gala for her dedication to tzedakah (charitable righteousness) and social action.

In more recent years, I relived these discussions with Sam and that fire was still there. Whenever I saw her, she would ask me, "How's Jake?" She was genuinely interested to know how my brother was doing. We sat together at a Hillary Clinton event in 2016. We immediately became engaged in a discussion about the campaign, the impact of the upcoming election, and the issues with which Sam was involved. As Hillary approached our section, Sam handed me her phone and I took a photo of these two remarkable women. 

At the end of February 2020 (right before the pandemic), I was a guest rabbi at a synagogue in Lansing for Shabbat. Seeing Sam's friendly face in the congregation made my day. When I saw her walk into the hallway, I left the service and followed her out so we could catch up. Sam invited me to an Elissa Slotkin event the next day and explained why she found Elissa to be the type of politician she could back 100%. Again, Sam's passion was remarkable and her insight into so many issues was impressive. 

The past couple of summers, Sam and her parents and her sister's family have been at Camp Michigania during the same week as our family. This past summer, Sam eagerly told me about the renovation project of her beloved Downtown Synagogue, where she had been serving as the congregational president. She told me about the work she was doing with Dana Nessel, Michigan's Attorney General. And of course, she told me (with that same fire) about the many social justice initiatives she was working on in the City of Detroit. The revitalization of Detroit was one of Sam's righteous causes and her role as a change agent has been obvious.

Sam was such a kind and generous soul. Sam loved all people. She cared deeply about the livelihood, freedom, and fairness that everyone, from all walks of life, deserved. There’s a photo that’s been circulating on social media of Sam holding a Torah scroll close to her body on the Detroit River Walk. When I first saw the photo I immediately thought that Samantha Woll is literally holding the Torah close to her heart just as she has always held her own torah close to her heart. Her deeply held convictions and her sense of justice – those were the values that made up Sam’s torah

What happened to her is so horrific, so tragic and so terrible. Our broken world is even more broken now that Sam has left us. We've lost one of our globe's best and brightest. May the memory of Samantha Woll be for blessings and may her family and all who loved Sam find comfort during this time of shock and sorrow. 

Rabbi Jason Miller taught Samantha Woll’s 8th grade Mishna class at Hillel Day School as a substitute teacher and had the honor of learning with and from her at the University of Michigan Hillel. He is not the least bit surprised that the University of Michigan suspended its contracts with the Coca-Cola corporation in 2006 as a result of pressure from students like Sam. He also considers himself a better human being for having known Sam Woll, z”l.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Magen David Adom (MDA) Saves Lives in Israel with Advanced Technology

In the ever-changing medical industry, Israel stands out as a frontrunner in making significant technological strides in the field. Leading this advancement is Magen David Adom, an organization founded almost 100 years ago that has harnessed Israel’s advanced technology to develop faster ways of saving lives throughout the country. On a recent visit to Metro Detroit, MDA leaders spoke about the tech innovations that are helping the organization respond quicker to medical emergencies, both large and small. This tech innovation is also being shared with other emergency response organizations throughout North America.

Yoni Yagodovsky, senior paramedic and director of international relations, along with his colleague, Raphael Herbst, senior paramedic, and trainer, visited Midwestern U.S. cities to conduct life-saving training sessions called “First 7 Minutes.” The program’s name is derived from the first seven minutes it typically takes for first responders to arrive on the scene of an emergency. Yagodovsky and Herbst taught participants at local Metro Detroit synagogues how to remain safe and offer critical first-aid assistance during the hectic time following an attack. Rather than focusing on specific protocols, the training covered seven principles for the first seven minutes: safety, call for help, saving lives together, organizing the scene, bleeding control, reporting, and assisting EMS.

L to R - Richard D. Zelin (American Friends of Magen David Adom in Chicago MDA), Yoni Yagodovsky, Raphael Herbst, Rabbi Jason Miller, Jonah Miller, and Robert Rosenthal (American Friends of Magen David Adom in NY)
L to R - Richard D. Zelin (American Friends of Magen David Adom in Chicago MDA), Yoni Yagodovsky, Raphael Herbst, Rabbi Jason Miller, Jonah Miller, and Robert Rosenthal (American Friends of Magen David Adom in NY)

Friday, June 02, 2023

Snapchat’s Effect on Our Teens’ Mental Health

Co-authored by Joshua Miller

Parents are more concerned than ever about their children’s mental health. Studies show that social media use has a strong effect on our teens’ daily emotions and behavior. Rather than write yet another article lamenting teens’ social media usage, I invited my nineteen-year-old son, Joshua, to co-author this Jews in the Digital Age column with me to ensure it includes perspectives from both a parent and a teen. 

Parents of teens are familiar with and use social network applications like Facebook and Instagram. They have also, in recent years, begun to use TikTok, the popular video application. However, Snapchat is different since most parents do not use it and are generally unaware of their teens’ activity on the platform.

Snapchat’s own annual reports explain that it is used primarily by high school and college students. The mobile application allows users to share photos, videos, and messages. As of February 2023, Snapchat has approximately 750 million monthly active users, 63% of which use the application regularly, and more than three billion snaps are created and exchanged each day.

Snapchat causes negative mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, in high school and college students, making it an activity that should be high on the concern list of parents, teachers and mental health professionals. There exists a worldwide mental health crisis among teens and college students, and the use of Snapchat is prevalent among this age demographic. Studies have been conducted to show a causal relationship between Snapchat use and this mental health crisis.

Many teens will be enjoying a fun experience with family or friends, and then experience a sudden mood swing upon opening the Snapchat application on their phone. The phone screen will display photos of their friends' activities, who they’re with, and where they are currently located using Snapchat’s “Snap Map” GPS (global positioning system) feature. The teen who seemed to be happy and content is now feeling lonely, anxious and depressed thanks to the “fear of missing out.” Commonly known by the acronym “FOMO,” Snapchat contributes to this fear by making it appear that others in the teen’s peer group are enjoying life more. The teen often feels that they have not been invited or included in a competing activity even though they were satisfied with their situation prior to looking at the “Snap Map.” Seeing what others are posting on Snapchat, the teen loses focus and cannot be present with the people they are actually with in real life (“IRL”).

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.