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God bless the Bedouin People

Ten-and-a-half years ago I came to Mamshit Camel Ranch, a Bedouin Village, close to Demona in the Negev desert in Israel. I was a participant on USY Israel Pilgrimage (Group 3) and celebrated my 18th birthday in the Bedouin tent. To my young eyes it appeared to be a fairly realistic Bedouin experience complete with Bedouin food, sleeping in a tent, and camel rides. I wasn’t naive — of course I knew that the Bedouins who worked at Mamshit lived in the nice homes nearby and didn’t live as the Bedouins of ages past.

Now, as a staff member on a birthright israel trip with University of Michigan and Harvard students, I am sitting in the main office of Mamshit (Israeli owned) checking my e-mail and posting to my Blog on a high-speed DSL connection.

I’d write more but there’s a camel-riding Bedouin waiting to check his stock portfolio online!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Off to Israel on birthright (or am I?)

I am posting from the beautiful King David Lounge at the JFK International Terminal. It is 5:00 PM (EST) and about 3.5 hours after twenty-two of my U-M Hillel students departed on our flight to Israel. Due to some computer problems from Delta Airlines and some computer problems from Northwest Airlines, I sitting at JFK in New York trying to get on a standby flight to the new Ben Gurion Terminal in Israel.

So, hopefully this will be my last post for about 10 days while I am in Israel. I will give an evaluation of the trip when I return.

While I wait to find out whether or not I will get on this flight, some brief thoughts about yesterday’s Christmas holiday:

  • Yesterday (Saturday) there was no mail delivered to my house because it was a national holiday celebrating the birth of the man Christians believe to be the son of God. I am fine with the fact that our Christian nation (70% I’m told) has chosen to select one religion’s religious holiday to make a national holiday, HOWEVER, I never again want to hear that there exists a separation of Church and State in our country. There does not exist a separation of Church and State, nor has there ever.
  • My preference would be to not have everyone (e.g., my bank employees, hotel clerks, operators, customer service reps, and waitresses) wish me “Merry Christmas.” I don’t celebrate that holiday. I also don’t really want them to wish me “Happy Holidays” because they don’t wish me this greeting in the Fall during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Nor do they wish me that greeting during the Spring for Passover. So why do it now? I also see no reason to wish me a “Season’s Greetings” unless that will be standard practice during each of the four seasons we mark in this part of the world.
  • Finally (I think), if corporations, schools, offices, airports, banks, and the government would make the decision not to display expensive Christmas (or festive winter) decorations imagine how much money would be saved (from the electicity alone). I have no idea how much money the White House, Congress, and local government and cities spend on lights and decorations, but I’m sure it would be money well saved and then used for education.
  • Finally (for sure now), I really don’t see the need to put up the menorah (always smaller than the Christmas tree) just to placate the Jews. Yes, I understand that the mitzvah (commandment) for Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah (pirsumei nisa in Aramaic), but for some reason I don’t think that President George W. Bush had that mitzvah in mind when he orders the official White House menorah.

Okay, that’s all the post-Christmas ranting for me. Please don’t be offended, I’m just trying to get rid of my traveling angst (30,000 people have experienced the nightmare that is air travel so far this weekend — a number I wish I were not a part of). Thanks Delta and Northwest (oh, and Merry Christmas to you both!)

B’yom Habah Birushalayim — Next Day in Jersualem (or at Least Tel Aviv)…

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Jewish Medicine

Medical skill or miracle?

Study finds doctors take supernatural into account
By Chanan Tigay

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — In the 1980s, when Rabbi Leonard Sharzer was still working as a plastic surgeon, he treated a patient suffering from a debilitating neurological disease. Sharzer and his colleagues agreed that the man wasn’t long for this world.

“It was clear to everybody taking care of him that there was nothing more that could be done,” said Sharzer, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2003. “His family expected this. We didn’t know how long he would survive. He was on a downhill course and the outcome was clear.”

But then something strange happened.

“He just lingered and lingered and lingered for six or eight weeks — and he got better,” Sharzer recalled. “There was no way to explain that medically.”

“Looking back on it today,” Sharzer added, “I think I probably would have called it miraculous.”

As it turns out, Sharzer is not alone: According to a new survey, the majority of American physicians believe in miracles.

The study, carried out by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, found that 74 percent of U.S. doctors believe miracles have happened in the past, and 73 percent believe they can occur today.

Among Jewish doctors, 88 percent of Orthodox respondents said they believed miracles have transpired, as did 53 percent of Conservative respondents, 46 percent of Reform respondents and 29 percent of those identifying as culturally Jewish.

The numbers were approximately the same when the doctors were asked if miracles can occur today.

Like Sharzer, 55 percent of physicians surveyed said they had seen treatment results in their patients that they would consider miraculous.

The study also found that 55 percent of the doctors surveyed believe medical practice should be guided by religious teaching, and nearly 40 percent are convinced that the biblical miracle stories — such as Exodus’ parting of the Red Sea — are to be taken literally.

Among Jews, 53 percent of Orthodox doctors believe literally in the biblical miracles, as do nearly 12 percent of Conservative respondents, more than 4 percent of Reform and 2 percent of culturally Jewish respondents.

According to Alan Mittleman, the Finkelstein Institute’s director, the study indicates that the conventional sociological wisdom holding that religious belief declines as a person’s scientific education grows is false.

“The big picture was that doctors are really not less religious than their patients,” he said. “I was somewhat surprised by the overall religiosity of the physicians.”

The survey of 1,087 physicians — Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and 253 Jews — also found that 20 percent of Jewish doctors believe supernatural events or acts of God frequently influence treatment outcomes. Among Catholics that number rose to 35 percent, and jumped again to 46 percent among Protestants.

Among the Jews surveyed between Dec. 17-19, 94 identified themselves as Conservative, 93 as Reform, 49 as culturally Jewish and 17 as Orthodox. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Orthodox Jewish doctors, the study found, were closer to their Christian counterparts with regard to supernatural views than they were to Conservative and Reform doctors.

“Reform and Conservative Jewish physicians seem to be more focused on the medical aspects and their potential for outcome,” said Glenn Kessler, co-founder and managing partner of HCD Research, a private market research company in Flemington, N.J., that deals largely with pharmaceutical companies.

“Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Protestants appear to be more open to non-medical reasons for outcomes — supernatural, unexplained reasons.”

Sharzer, who as a surgeon performed reconstructive operations on people who had been injured in accidents, recalled a patient who arrived at the hospital in critical condition.

“He had a whole group of friends and colleagues come into the hospital, and they began chanting around the clock for three or four days, maybe a week, while he was in extremely critical condition,” Sharzer said.

“When he started to wake up he was aware that they were doing it. From an anecdotal standpoint — patients who are in very dire straits, their own faith and faith in their family certainly can have a beneficial effect.”

He added, “The longer you are in practice the longer you can see things that you can’t explain on the basis of your own actions and your own abilities.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Torah on Board

From Being Jewish
by Rabbi Jason Miller

It wasn’t the first time I traveled in a car with a Torah, but I’d never actually put one in my own car and driven with it. Awe-inspiring? Powerful? Confusing?

It’s an odd experience if you’ve never done it. Maybe it’s akin to giving a ride to a great Torah scholar, but at least the Torah scholar can request a seat preference.Nowhere in the law codes does it expressly state whether a sefer Torah gets “shotgun” or not.

On Shabbat morning, we parade the Torah around, but there was no ritual here. I was offended when a woman sitting in her car in the parking lot didn’t get out and stand at attention as I brought the Torah to my car. Then I wondered whether my car was clean enough for my guest? Is a shmutzy exterior sacrilegious when the holy Torah’s inside?

It was a simple enough task: Bring a sefer Torah to display at a Catholic college while presenting a Basic Judaism talk. I was nervous the entire time. I pondered what type of music I should play, if any. Howard Stern was an obvious no-no. Starting a conversation would only feel awkward. I opted for silence. The tailgating cars were the worst. Didn’t they know about my sacred passenger? Upon returning to the shul, mission accomplished, I returned the Torah to the ark with a sigh of relief. I was honored to share my car with such a revered passenger. It was undoubtedly the quietest passenger with the most to say.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Snap Judgment: A Conservative radical proposal


Calev Ben-David

Dec. 22, 2004

A few years ago I interviewed Levi Weiman-Kelman, the rabbi of Jerusalem’s Kol Haneshema synagogue, the Reform Jerusalem shul of which I am a member.

As I knew that Levi was the son of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a long-time leader of American Conservative Jewry, and was himself a graduate of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, I was curious as to why he had ended up founding a Reform congregation here.

In fact, he said, he had indeed first gone to the Conservative Movement, which told him they didn’t have the money to pay him a salary. He then turned to the former head of the Israeli Reform movement, Rabbi Richard Hirsch. “He took out a checkbook right there and asked me what I needed,” Weiman-Kelman recalled.

That was two decades ago, when there were only a handful of non-Orthodox synagogues in the entire country. Today, there are over 50 Masorti (as Conservative Judaism is called here) Israeli congregations, and a comparable number of schools affiliated with the movement via the Tali educational system (which also runs religious studies programs in state “secular” schools). The Conservative Movement has also recently invested heavily in expanding the campus of its Jerusalem headquarters, and continues to run the Solomon Schechter Institute.

Yet with all that, the president of the Israeli Masorti Movement, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, felt compelled to make a plea in the pages of The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday begging for greater support from its parent organization in the US.

“A medium-sized Conservative shul in the US has a larger budget [$2.4 million] than we do,” complained Bandel, who says his group has on occasion had to default salary payments. Fundraising trips to the US fall on deaf ears, although Bandel insists “I try to explain to them that the future of Conservative Jewry relies on their support.”

I don’t claim to have enough inside knowledge to judge the validity of Bandel’s pleas. And there is something to the response provided by US Conservative rabbinical leader Joel Meyers, that as an “extremely external-focused movement,” his peers contribute much more generously to other Israeli causes – including more pressing humanitarian needs – than they do to the goal of simply increasing their own flock here.

Still, as a born-and-raised Conservative Jew who today considers himself a “Masorti” Israeli (in spirit, at least), and shleps his kids halfway across Jerusalem many mornings so they can attend one of the city’s precious few Tali schools, I admittedly can’t be objective in this matter.

Whether Bandel is justified in his specific claims, he is surely correct in his general complaint. The US Conservative movement, to these eyes, is failing to provide the level of support deserved by its Israeli brethren. But even more important, it is missing a golden opportunity to reach out to unaffiliated Jews here on a scale now unimaginable in America.

HERE’S A curious twist: I would never have imagined the day when I would proudly declare myself a Conservative Jew.

Growing up in the US in a family that belonged to Temple Hillel of Long Island, the Conservative approach – driving to shul but parking around the corner from the synagogue (yup, my parents actually did that) – seemed to me emblematic of American Jewish wishy-washiness, nish ahin, nish aher, lacking both the authentic traditionalism of Orthodoxy and the bold revisionism of Reform.

Apparently, many of my American-born brethren agreed with me, as membership in Conservative congregations has been steadily declining from its high point in the 1960s (though that’s in line with the concurrent drop in the total number of American Jews).

Once I reached Israel, though, the Conservative philosophy – respectful of Halacha (Jewish law) but recognizing the need for it to both change through evolutionary means and tolerate the compromises individuals feel they must make in the course of daily modern existence – simply seemed the most common-sense approach to religious life in a reborn Jewish state.

After all, most Israelis already define themselves as “little m” masorti – Jews who observe in some degree Shabbat and the holy days according to traditions they don’t want radically altered – even if they have little awareness of the “big M” Masorti movement. These Israelis are ripe for the framework Conservative Judaism provides, as I’ve seen myself through my child’s attendance at a Tali school, but, as Bandel admitted, “We don’t have the funds to reach out to these people.”

This is not to deny the formidable obstacles the movement faces in breaking through the prejudices of both devoutly Orthodox and fervently secular Israelis, including determined resistance in the public sphere. Just this summer the Tali system required a Supreme Court ruling in order to get its fair share of the funding provided by the Education Ministry for school prayer sessions.

Yet I’m convinced – as is, obviously, Bandel – that the real future of Conservative Judaism is here, where it can serve as a bridge for Jews into their tradition, and not in its birthplace, where it too often serves as an escape route out of it.

That may not be an easy message to sell to the Conservative Movement’s leadership in America, which clearly has a vested interest in believing the opposite. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

Maybe the trick is simply to persuade “externally-focused” Conservative Jews that supporting their Masorti brethren in Israel constitutes a worthy philanthropic cause. That way, the next time energetic young JTS graduates want to build a congregation here, they’ll get the support they deserve. And while they’re at it, I wouldn’t mind if they would also fund the building of a Tali school a little closer to my side of Jerusalem.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Anna Quindlen on Christmas – "The Spirit of the Season"

The highlights from Anna Quindlen’s Newsweek article this week:

  • “After years of Jewish parents’ sitting through school concerts listening to the words ‘It is the night of our dear savior’s birth,’ maybe oversensitivity was inevitable, since any other kind of sensitivity had been in short supply.”
  • “Christmas is being observed exactly where it ought to be, at homes, in our hearts, among friends and families. The modern movement to exhibit it in town squares and mall food courts is precisely what has led to the secularization of one of our most solemn holy days. That’s why some Jewish leaders have been uncomfortable with reducing the Chanukah menorah to a dueling religious symbol, paired with a Christmas tree for the sake of equal time. Faith is not a photo op.”
  • “In the meantime, if the secularized greeting of the perfume spritzer in the department store affects your celebration of the birth in Bethlehem, you’ve really lost your way.”
  • “So if people are really worried about keeping Christ in Christmas, they might personally exhibit tolerance and charity, kindness and generosity. It is the ultimate exercise of style over substance to whine about the absence of ‘O Holy Night’ at public events. The real point is in taking the lyrics to heart[.]”

Read the article in its entirety here.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Humor Jewish Movies Music

Funny Jew Stuff

Funny selections from Jewsweek’s Jewriffic Awards.

Best reference to child molestation:
“Rabbi Feldman, stop touching me!”
— Adam Sandler on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno explaining what he was thinking when the director of his new movie, Spanglish, told him to channel a time from his childhood that would make him cry on cue.

Best rip-off of Fiddler on the Roof by a hot woman: Gwen Stefani riffs on Fiddler on the Roof on her new CD Love, Angel, Music, Baby with the song “Rich Girl,” a take off of Tevye’s “If I were a rich man”.

“Now that you’ve let the secret out that I’m not Jewish, I expect my career to be done. Thank you very much. I appreciate that. My career is officially over.”
— Jason Biggs thanking the women of “The View” for alerting the world to the fact that he’s not Jewish.

Best piece of political critique: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time when the party that controlled the Senate, the House, the White House and the Supreme Court was so out of sorts about how little respect they get. At a certain point you want to say, “OK, Goliath. Stop pretending.”
— Jon Stewart writing about the recent elections in Rolling Stone Magazine.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Great Year-End Article by George Will

2004—A Year For Witches

By George F. Will


In 2004 an IBM supercomputer set a world record with 36.01 trillion calculations per second. The U.S. electorate may have made its calculation the instant John Kerry, who is not a supercomputer, explained why Toy’s restaurant in Canonsburg, Pa., “is my kind of place”:

“You don’t have to—you know, when they give you the menu, I’m always struggling: ah, what do you want?

He just gives you what he’s got, right?… whatever he’s cooked up that day. And I think that’s the way it ought to work, for confused people like me who can’t make up our minds.”

This year some paleoanthropologists reported that our cousins the Neanderthals, who disappeared 30,000 years ago, had better minds than has been thought: on a plain in Spain there is a mass grave containing evidence of funeral ritual, which means that Neanderthals had a capacity for symbolism. This year Democrats stressed their superior brains. (Bumper stickers: SOME VILLAGE IN TEXAS IS MISSING THEIR [SIC] IDIOT; JOHN KERRY—BRINGING COMPLETE SENTENCES BACK TO THE WHITE HOUSE.) A campaign flier in Tennessee pictured George W. Bush’s face superimposed over that of a runner in the Special Olympics, and proclaimed this message: “Voting for Bush is like running in the Special Olympics. Even if you win, you’re still retarded.”

From an Indonesian island came evidence that as recently as 18,000 years ago—only yesterday, as paleoanthropologists reckon—there was a race of Hobbit-size (about three feet tall) semi-people. Their small brains probably were incapable of idealism of James Kilgore’s sort. In 2004 Kilgore, 56, was sentenced to six years in prison for his part in the murder of a mother of four during a 1975 California bank robbery that was supposed to help finance the Symbionese Liberation Army. Martha Stewart was sentenced to prison for lying about a crime she was not charged with. Scott Peterson was convicted of double murder—killing his wife, and killing his unborn child, a problematic idea given the current understanding of abortion rights. Before death tardily overtook another dispenser of death, Yasir Arafat, he received a letter from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—well, of animals other than people—asking him to stop using donkeys in suicide bombings. It was said that the death of this winner of the Nobel Peace Prize might make peace possible. [more…]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Israeli-developed leukemia treatment passes clinical hurdle

By David Brinn

December 12, 2004

A revolutionary Israeli treatment for leukemia using a stem cell-derived product has achieved remarkable Phase I and II trial results. Ten American patients with late-stage leukemia underwent the StemEx leukemia treatment developed by start-up Gamida-Cell and 50% confounded expectations by living past the first 100 days.

It appears to be the first successful human clinical test of a commercial product derived from stem cells.

Each year, nearly 27,000 adults and more than 2,000 children in the United States learn that they have leukemia, a malignancy of the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow.

Current treatments are based mostly on bone marrow transplants. When these transplants encounter the patients’ immune systems, severe side effects result. StemEx uses progenitor and stem cells taken from the patients themselves. The population of these cells is expanded, and they are then returned to the patient’s body. The results of trials on the ten terminal patients upheld Gamida-Cell’s expectation that the severe side effects of current treatments would be greatly reduced.

The trial was conducted at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the world’s most prestigious institutes.

Gamida-Cell CEO Ehud Marom said that the trial had taken 100 days, during which the treatment on patients had been monitored. Anderson Center principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Shpall presented the trial results last week at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH).

“Anderson is the best center for cancer in the U.S. and we wanted to work with the best center and the best principal investigator,” Marom told ISRAEL21c.

According to Marom, until now using conventional treatment, only 10% of patients managed to get through 100 days. With the StemEx treatment, 50% of the patients whose cases were extreme – and for which no other treatment were available -survived 100 days.

“The patients included in the trial were in the advanced stages of leukemia. However, in the future, the treatment can be used instead of bone marrow for any stage patient,” Marom said.

“Ten leukemia patients, many of whom had failed standard chemotherapy and other therapies, underwent StemEx transplants,” explained principal investigator Shpall. “StemEx combines ex vivo expanded cord blood stem/progenitor cells with non-expanded cells from the same unit. The net results of the Phase I/II study indicate that StemEx is safe, and no serious adverse effects were reported in connection with the StemEx transplant. We are very excited about the data from this study. It is very important research that we believe will contribute greatly to patient care in the future.”

According to Shpall, four standard parameters within the time frame of 100 days were evaluated. These included graft failure rate, transplant-related mortality, GvHD and time to engraftment. In all cases, StemEx scored well.

“The bodies of only 20% of the patients we treated rejected the transplant, compared with an average of 60% of current transplants. In addition, the time that patients required to rebuild their immune systems was shorter than for current treatments, which meant that they were less exposed to infections,” Marom told Globes.

“The results of the Phase I and Phase II trials mean that our product is safe, and apparently effective. The company must now prepare for a more extensive Phase III trial,” he added.

Marom told ISRAEL21c that Anderson would be used once again as a site for the trials, as well as a center in San Antonio, Texas, and other centers across the U.S. and possibly in Canada. He estimated that the next trials would begin in the first quarter of 2005, following the approval of the FDA to commence this part of the trial. “We are hoping for an FDA approval by 2007/2008,” he said.

Gamida-Cell develops products based on stem cells for treating cancer and autoimmune diseases, and for cardiac and pancreatic repair. The company was founded in 1998 based on technology for stem cell expansion licensed from Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. The StemEx is their first product which has moved past Phase II trials.

“In the development of biotechnology companies, Gamida-Cell is now a company with a product headed for Phase III trials. If these trials are successful, the drug can be registered with the FDA and marketed,” said Marom.

Gamida-Cell has raised $22 million to date from Elscint (Europe-Israel), Biomedical Investments, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (Nasdaq: TEVA; TASE: TEVA), Denali Ventures, Auriga Ventures, Pamot, and Comverse Technology (Nasdaq: CMVT). The company has also signed a conditional strategic agreement with Teva.

“The results of the trials have created great interest in the company on the part of large and medium-sized pharma companies, and also in the investment community. Our goal now is to bring StemEx to market as quickly as possible,” said Marom. He told ISRAEL21c that news of the StemEx success was received very positively at the ASH conference, “both from the clinical as well as the big pharma perspective.”

The combined market potential of Gamida-Cell’s stem cell expansion products is estimated at $40 billion worldwide. This includes umbilical cord blood stem cells as well as stem cells from the placenta, bone marrow, peripheral blood and adult organs like the liver and heart in addition to skin, neural and pancreatic tissue.

Israel is among a small group of countries that have developed their own stem-cell regulations that permit most types of work in the field. Israel’s carefully regulated but open atmosphere for research has helped catapult it into the front ranks of a field that many consider the next frontier of science.

Besides Gamida-Cell, other Israeli biotech companies on the cutting edge of stem cell products include Pluristem (PLRS.OB), which multiplies stem cells found in umbilical cord blood., Tissera (OTCBB:TSSR), which is developing cell therapy to treat harmed fetuses; and ProNeuron which has developed ProCord, a treatment for complete spinal cord injury.

“What Israel has done in the laboratory and in their oversight mechanisms is a model for other nations to emulate,” Georgetown University’s LeRoy Walters, an expert in the global dimensions of stem-cell research, told The Forward.

The work by Gamida-Cell was carried out with adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells which is at the heart of the controversy in the United States. That debate resulted in President Bush’s 2001 decision to cut off federal funding for research on stem cells harvested from human embryos.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

President Bush Celebrates Chanukkah in White House

The lighting of the White House menorah and an a capella concert by Kol Zimra at the White House. Click here for the video.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |