Johnny Carson

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

Kazakhstan — Great Place to Be a Jew!

From The Forward

Ali G’s Jokes Aside, Report Lauds Kazakhstan

By Rick Harrison

When Jewish organizations lobbied for a law requiring the U.S. Department of State to issue an annual report on antisemitism around the globe, they probably weren’t looking to do a favor for Kazakhstan.

The Central Asian country is a frequent target of “Da Ali G Show,” the HBO program in which British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen portrays the character of Borat Sagdiyev — a genial, mustachioed Kazakh reporter who paints a portrait of his homeland as a wild den of misogynistic dog-shooting Gypsy- and Jew-haters. Perhaps the most notorious Borat segment had the disguised Cohen leading patrons at an Arizona country music bar in a rousing chorus of “In My Country There Is Problem” — a catchy song that had the room clapping and singing along to such lyrics as, “Throw the Jew down the well/so my country can be free.”

The Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington has objected to the show, claiming it defames the country on many fronts and ignores its solid record of religious tolerance. And now, in its recently released Report on Global Anti-Semitism, the State Department has taken this Jewish question by the horns, as it were, releasing the former Soviet territory from claims of widespread prejudice against Jews. Apparently, in Borat’s country, there is no problem.

The government report, released January 5, mentions antisemitic leaflets distributed by a group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, but otherwise states that no problematic acts were reported during the observation period. In fact, in August the chief rabbi of Kazakhstan told an international religious conference in Brussels that he never had witnessed a single case of antisemitism in his decade living in the country. In September, Kazakhstan dedicated the largest synagogue in Central Asia, with the chief rabbi of Israel in attendance.

Roman Vassilenko, the press secretary of the Kazakhstan Embassy, said of the report: “It is a fair assessment of the situation on the ground in Kazakhstan and the efforts of our government to promote religious harmony.”

Baron Cohen was unavailable for comment when contacted through an HBO publicist.

Vassilenko said that he can laugh at the jokes, but wishes Baron Cohen had chosen to poke fun at an imaginary country, like Krakozhia, from Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal.”

“I do have a sense of humor,” Vassilenko said. “But it’s not quite helpful and perhaps harmful to portray a country where ‘Throw the Jew down the well’ is a famous folk song.”

The State Department report sheds no light on Borat’s assertions that Kazakh women are kept in cages and that the wine there is made from fermented horse urine.

Copyright 2004 © The Forward

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

Condi Rice praises Natan Sharansky

From the Jerusalem Post

On Tuesday, during her opening remarks at the Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice said, “The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the ‘town square test’: if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom.”

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

Tay Sachs almost eradicated

This is great news and how often do we hear about great news in the Jewish genetic disorder sphere?

From Haaretz Daily English Edition

Tay-Sachs, the `Jewish disease,’ almost eradicated

By Tamara Traubman, Haaretz Correspondent

The genetic mutation disease Tay-Sachs, a fatal inherited disease of the central nervous system that mostly affects Ashkenazi Jews, has been almost completely eradicated, experts say, who claim that a genetic illness has become extinct for the first time.

“Last year not a single Jewish baby throughout North America was born with Tay-Sachs,” says Prof. Robert Desnick of the Department of Human Genetics at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Prof. Desnick is in Israel as the guest of Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospitals. He said Monday that of the 10 babies born in North America in 2003 with Tay-Sachs, not a single one was Jewish.

Figures from Israel paint a similar picture. According to Prof. Joel Zlotogora, who heads the Health Ministry’s Department of Community Genetics, just one baby was born with Tay-Sachs in Israel in 2003. Insofar as is known, not a single baby in Israel was born with Tay-Sachs last year, but as the disease takes some six months to manifest itself, the figures for 2004 are not final.

Desnick says that the data for the past two years may stem from a coincidental fluctuation in the incidence of the disease, and that isolated cases may appear this year or the next. He stresses, nevertheless, that whatever the case may be, the disease appears to have disappeared almost completely from among the Jewish nation.

Prof. Gideon Bach, who heads the Department of Genetics at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, says the eradication of Tay-Sachs can be attributed primarily to the fact that the general public in Israel is advised to carry out, at the expense of the state, genetic tests to diagnose the disease before the birth of the baby. In the event an unborn baby is diagnosed with Tay-Sachs, the pregnancy is usually terminated.

Another reason for the eradication of the disease, Bach says, is the work of the ultra-Orthodox association, Dor Yesharim. The association carries out tests on young individuals to check whether they are genetically “suitable.” The results of these tests are passed on to the matchmaker. If there is a risk that a designated couple may give birth to children affected with Tay-Sachs, the matchmaker will report that the match is unsuitable.

Bach, who works with Dor Yesharim, says that numerous intended couples have been split up in the wake of genetic testing.

Some 1,000 years ago a Jew developed the genetic mutation which, it turned out, causes the fatal inherited disease. It has since been passed on among the Jewish people through the generations.

Tay-Sachs is a fatal genetic disorder mostly found in children that causes progressive destruction of the central nervous system. In general, children affected by the disease do not live beyond the age of 4.

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

Natalie Portman at Hebrew U.

I keep getting e-mail updates from my students who are studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Inevitably, each of the e-mail updates ends with a story about how the student has run into Natalie Portman who is also taking classes at the Mt. Scopus campus. Here is an update on what she’s doing in Israel:

From the London Times Online

Profile: Natalie Portman: Not quite as innocent as she first appears

Portman is now preoccupied with a new project in Israel, which she considers her homeland. She is working with Amos Gitai, the Israeli director, on a film about a JewishAmerican girl’s attempts to discover her heritage. In the same spirit, Portman has been studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Living in Israel is really beautiful,” she said recently. “One of the most shocking things is how peaceful it feels.”

She could be in line for an Oscar, but the prospect leaves her unmoved. “It’s not important,” she says.

She was born Natalie Hershlag in Jerusalem to Avner, a Jewish fertility specialist, and Shelley, an artist from Ohio. At the age of three she accompanied them to New York, where they settled in the upmarket suburb of Syosset.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Jewish JTS Keshet Rabbi

RA May Expel Member

From the NY Times

A rabbi who has officiated at the marriage of gay and lesbian couples has been threatened with expulsion from the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association, though movement officials say it is not her activism that is at issue but her repeated defiance of the movement’s rules.

Ayelet S. Cohen, the junior rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a largely gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village, says she is being punished for her openness in performing the ceremonies. Officials of the association say it has nothing to do with the gay marriages. Rather, they say, she faces expulsion because she has repeatedly defied long-established rules for taking a job at a synagogue.

The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, with 1,600 rabbis, voted in 1992 not to ordain gays as rabbis and said that rabbis should not perform same-sex marriages. But the assembly stopped short of declaring the ban on marriage or commitment ceremonies a binding standard, tacitly allowing individual rabbis some discretion. Various rabbis within the movement have estimated that 20 to 40 rabbis have performed these ceremonies. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements ordain people who are gay and allow rabbis to marry gay people. Orthodox Jews neither ordain nor marry gays.

Rabbi Cohen said the assembly’s Joint Commission on Rabbinic Placement told her in recent days that it would recommend her expulsion from the assembly for taking a job at an unaffiliated synagogue without obtaining a waiver and, after getting a waiver, letting it expire. Officials confirmed that part of her account, and said her case would be heard on Jan. 25 by the assembly’s administrative committee and on Jan. 26 by the executive council, whose decision would be final.

Expulsion would make it virtually impossible for Rabbi Cohen to get jobs at 760 North American synagogues affiliated with the Conservative movement, or to use the movement’s pension and insurance plans. She could continue serving at Beth Simchat Torah, which was discouraged from joining the Conservative movement and has not affiliated itself elsewhere.

In an interview before leaving for a vacation in Spain, Rabbi Cohen, who is 30 years old and heterosexual, said she was being punished for her vocal advocacy on gay rights.

“It’s because I have performed same-sex wedding ceremonies,” Rabbi Cohen said. “I made it clear from the outset that I plan to do it, and I have done it.”

Rabbi Cohen, whose father is Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, has performed four wedding ceremonies for people of the same sex, having them exchange vows under a chupah, or canopy, and having them sign a ketubah, or marriage contract. Last March, she was interviewed by The New York Times after charges were brought against two Unitarian ministers for performing same-sex ceremonies in New Paltz for couples who did not have marriage licenses. She said at the time that she would “continue to conduct ceremonies, even if illegal.”

Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, denied that Rabbi Cohen’s activism on gay issues had anything to do with the charges against her, and added, “She’s no more public about it than other rabbis.”

Rather, he said, she is facing sanctions because of her repeated defiance of bedrock rules on how rabbis get placed, rules that prevent synagogues from poaching one another’s rabbis with lucrative offers.

Rabbi Cohen was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s fountainhead, in May 2002 and took a job at the unaffiliated Greenwich Village synagogue before being formally granted a waiver to do so. Rabbi Meyers eventually gave her a waiver for two years, but Rabbi Cohen let it be known that the time was insufficient. By July 31, 2004, she should have applied for an extension but did not, waiting two months beyond the waiver’s expiration.

“It’s painful and unfortunate,” Rabbi Meyers said. “Ayelet Cohen is a very good rabbi. She gets people to talk about her positively in terms of her work, and it’s a shame she’s raising this – trying to push this off on the movement and its gay and lesbian stance – rather than looking at her own actions.”

Rabbi Cohen has received a letter of support from eight colleagues, including Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel in White Plains, the former dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school, and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the West Side. Noting that the movement has lost gay members and their families, the eight rabbis wrote: “Surely the opportunity to have Rabbi Cohen serve a community of gay and lesbian Jews who seek a Conservative rabbi is too important to be thrown away in favor of punishing her for such a technical error.”

Whatever happens to Rabbi Cohen, the issue is not going to go away. The assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards is meeting in April and will revisit the issue of gay and lesbian unions.

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

It’s Summer Camp Stupid!

It may not be the only panacea for the Jewish community, but Jewish summer camping is where it’s at! (see my sermon “Looking to the Summer to Find Our Priorities“)

Here is a great article written by JTS Rabbinical Student Dan Ain about Camp Ramah and Jewish summer camping:

Summertime And The Learning Is Easy

Jewish camps a major ingredient in nourishing Yiddishkeit.

Dan Ain – Special To The Jewish Week

Jewish camping may improve a swimming stroke or a softball swing, but it also helps mold Jewish identity.

Illustrating the latter point are various surveys conducted by Jewish foundations like the Avi Chai, as well as the publication of the book “How Goodly are Thy Tents” by Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe.

And it’s been credited with helping to spur a dramatic increase in philanthropic donations earmarked for Jewish camping.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national Ramah director, said he has “definitely seen an increase in charitable giving over the last decade, over the last few years in particular. I think a lot of it has to do with more and more community exposure to the concept of camping.

“When I speak to businesspeople, they want bang for their buck, they want to see measurable results. Study after study is showing … that intensive Jewish camping, next to long-term programs in Israel, is probably the most significant predictor of strong Jewish identity.”

Rabbi Cohen added that Ramah in the past decade has received its first seven-figure gifts.

“The message is getting out,” he said. “If you look at the Conservative rabbinate, and philanthropists are going to have close ties with rabbis, … such a high percentage of Conservative rabbis and other senior educators and lay leaders have Ramah experience.”

Jerry Silverman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, agrees. His foundation was started in 1998 from seed money provided by Robert and Elisa Bildner after they looked “back on their own experiences and realized how important … and impactful Jewish camping was.”

Silverman said Jewish camping began with the concept of fresh air and getting the kids out of the city.

“As it evolved,” he said, “the whole opportunity of infusing Jewish education and Israel … was going on from a sense of isolated camps taking a leadership or innovative position in evolving their programs.”

The foundation, according to Silverman, was established to serve as an “umbrella entity that could provide resources and excellence from a sense of bringing all the camps together and convening to evolve camping into a movement.”

This was “an amazing investment by them, to look at the whole playing field and do something that was so overlooked,” he said.

“The quantifiable data that has come out so powerfully in the last 10 years talk about how 65 percent of Jewish professionals came out of Jewish camping,” Silverman said. “When you look at people who went to Jewish camps versus those who didn’t, the data is amazing and startling that supports that camping is one of the key experiences that we have to give our children.”

After spending 25 years in the corporate world, including a stint as the president of Stride Rite and Keds, Silverman decided to become involved in camping after driving his 9-year-old daughter home from Ramah.

“I’ve never seen such a glow before in my child,” he said, “and the whole way home, her comments were — ‘I only went four weeks, next year I can go eight weeks.’ ”

Camping, he said, “has that ‘wow effect’ and creates this compelling community that stays with you for a lifetime.” Silverman said he regularly talks to people in their 40s and 50s who are still in contact with their bunkmates.

However, according to the study “Limud by the Lake,” conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation in 2002, “more could be done to extend the attractiveness and feasibility of a summer at a Jewish camp.”

The study said that unlike Jewish day schools and Israel trips, which have been heavily subsidized, “Jewish camps spend only a small fraction of their budgets on scholarships and support a limited number of campers.”

One foundation attempting to address Avi Chai’s call for increased scholarship money is the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a philanthropy group based in western Massachusetts.

According to Program Director Israela Levine Kahan, the Grinspoon Foundation established a “campership incentive program” in 1995 to provide non-need-based subsidy grants “to get rid of any cost barriers and encourage [kids] to go to Jewish overnight camp.”

In its first year, the program funded 46 campers, giving $775 to first-time campers and $385 to returning campers. Last summer it funded 134 campers, giving $900 to first-time campers and $500 to returning ones.

Kahan said the foundation recently conducted a “survey and found out that one of the main reasons that people aren’t sending their kids to camp is because of monetary reasons.”

“From 2003 to 2004, camping prices have gone up approx 5 to 11 percent,” said Kahan, noting that a four-week session to the most of the popular camps costs from $2,500 to $3,625.

As a result of these studies, Kahan said, Grinspoon will put more money into its campaign program for 2005 and developed a new formula to make first-time campers eligible for 50 percent of the cost up to $1,500 and 50 percent for returning campers up to $1,000.

Kahan said the scholarships are important because “the experience that you have in camp is unlike any other experience you have. You are totally immersed in Jewish life, and the impact that you have can be greater than any other Jewish experience.”

Citing the book by Sales and Saxe, she said “the environment of camp is really intense … it really helps shape a child. You know how you come back feeling that much more grown up? The same is true in terms of your development as a Jew.”

“If price is the deterrent,” Kahan said, “then Harold Grinspoon wants to take that deterrent away.”

Rabbi Cohen also suggested a “snowball effect” with the increased giving.

“Thirty years ago, if you would’ve asked someone to give a 500,000 or a million-dollar gift to camping, they [would have looked] at camping as a whistle and a clipboard in the summertime with a kickball and said ‘what do you need my money for?’ ” he said.

However, he said that “when some people start to put their stamp of approval onto camping as a major source for philanthropic dollars in the Jewish community, the most effective source, I think other people look at that and say they want to stay with a winning horse.”

Another approach to raising money, according to Silverman, is to invite donors to camp and have them talk to the staff, some of whom are former campers now in leadership roles. They’ll see that it is the “best insurance policy that you can buy.”

An “insurance policy for continuity, for their spirit, and their celebration for being Jewish.”

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

Peter McPherson to Retire from Michigan State Univ.

From the Detroit Jewish News (December 31, 2004)

By Robert Sklar

“Editor’s Notebook”

Champion of Jewish Studies

“One of my proudest activities has been to help the MSU Jewish Studies program become firmly established in our curriculum both intellectually and fiscally,” [Michigan State University President M. Peter] McPherson said, causing a swell of approval to cascade through the crowd.

“Much of the progress in Jewish education at MSU, all that has been accomplished with the Jewish Studies program, including the new Hillel House, could not have happened without the support and leadership of President McPherson and First Lady Joanne,” Serling said. “It is a wonder that he would have had the time to work so closely with the Jewish community.”

McPherson understood having a strong base of Jewish students from Michigan and elsewhere, just as MSU had when he was a student 45 years earlier. Such a base not only provides diversity, but also draws more Jewish students, who collectively are high achievers, campus leaders and caring alumni. Affirmation of this understanding came in 1999 when, during the genocide arising in the former Yugoslavia, McPherson invited Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, to be MSU commencement speaker. For her part, Joanne McPherson has been a regular visitor and participant at Hillel House.

I was touched when Serling told the 71 guests at the Rans’ home about Peter McPherson’s heartfelt support of Israel. Serling, his wife, Elaine, and friends have endowed a chair for Israel Studies at MSU. Bloomfield Hills philanthropist Ed Levy Jr. has endowed a scholarship fund for study in Israel.

Serling told how McPherson, while waiting for a ride to Amman as he ended his four-month stay as part of the coalition reconstruction team in Iraq, spoke by audio feed to a largely non-Jewish crowd back at MSU. Yet he didn’t hesitate to say, “I have a vision of Iraq as a free, democratic country with a growing, successful capitalistic economy like Israel.”

Serling applauded McPherson’s foresight. “Through the seed that you planted,” Serling said, “we have now raised nearly $4 million for Jewish Studies and have much to show for it.”

Retirement aside, McPherson put the call out for another $3 million to enrich Jewish Studies, including a fourth staff position: Jewish Religious and Philosophical Thought. “We will continue to strengthen Jewish Studies as an academic initiative, raise its national visibility and expand its impact,” McPherson said. “President Designate Lou Anna Simon shares my commitment.”

Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the U-M Hillel, graduated from MSU in 1998 with a degree in international relations. “I owe much of my motivation to become a rabbi to the professors in the Jewish Studies program,” he told me on Sunday.

“There has certainly been a concerted effort to enhance and augment the state of Jewish life on the MSU campus,” he added, “and the Jewish Studies program has led the way along with MSU Hillel.”

The Jewish Studies program will forever be an integral component of Peter McPherson’s MSU legacy.

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

Darfur is a Jewish Issue

From the Detroit Jewish News (December 25, 2004)

by Sharon Luckerman

A Jewish Issue

Among those bringing attention to what the U.N. called “the worst preventable humanitarian crisis in the world” is the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. In special lectures and as part of information imparted by the center’s guides, visitors learn the mass murders in Sudan are akin to what Jews experienced and never expected to see again, said Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, HMC founder and executive director.

“Unfortunately, the United Nations makes resolutions but doesn’t have the courage to execute them in constructive ways,” the rabbi said.

“This genocide is certainly a Jewish issue,” added Rabbi Jason Miller, associate director of the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. He gave his sermon on the Shabbat of Conscience as guest rabbi at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield.

“Just as God gifted us the light of Torah, it is up to us to plant the seeds of Torah and spread the message of tikkun olam — repairing the world situation — and of righteousness to others,” he told the congregation.

“The phrase ‘never again’ must not be reserved for Jews alone. It is not enough to say that we will never allow our own people to suffer those atrocities again. As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity or religion.”

Rabbi Miller got a firsthand account of the problems in Africa from David Post, program associate at U-M Hillel and a recent U-M graduate. Post spent two months in Africa this summer helping displaced people in a slum in the capital of Uganda, Kampala. He also took a three-week tour of other countries.

“I was surprised by the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people,” said Post, who also has traveled to Asia and India. “Africans are among the most gracious I’ve met in the world. My optimism

for the region is not without

the recognition of the great tragedy there. But people should not be scared away from interest in the continent.”

Besides the important humanitarian reasons, Post believes there are mutual benefits in helping Darfur, especially for Israel.

“No one has taken the time to care about Africa, yet it’s going to develop in the next 10 to 20 years with democratic regimes and could be a friend and trading partner with Israel,” said Post, who met Israeli doctors in Uganda who already are building bridges between the two countries.

“It’s very inspiring to talk to the African people because they really want to help themselves,” he said. “It [a democratic society] can happen. The desire is there. But it’s the resources they need to start the process.”

For more information, visit the Web sites: Save Darfur Coalition and the American Jewish World Service

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

Making Theological Sense out of the Tsunami


Our lives are formed by what we choose to believe—even about natural disasters

By Marc Gellman


Jan. 8, 2005

Jan. 8 – The really big questions about life here on planet earth don’t normally flood into our lives the way they have after the Asian tsunami. Mostly we insulate and protect ourselves with puny questions like “Who’s gonna pick up the dry cleaning?” and “Do we have enough cheese?” Then comes a catastrophe and we return, broken and needful, to the big questions that really matter. This is what I have been thinking as I dried my tears, turned off the TV and put away everything that carried the picture of that crying mother on a beach surrounded by dead babies. If you want deeper wisdom than I can provide here you will have to consult your local prophet, saint or reborn Buddha. If you want one in your area code give me a call.

This is a mystery not a problem. The French existentialist (that’s two strikes) Gabriel Marcel wrote that there are only two kinds of questions we human beings can ask: problems and mysteries. Problems are questions that have answers even if we don’t know the answers now. Mysteries are questions that have no answers and never ever go away. Problems define something in the world. Mysteries define us. What is the cure for cancer and why does anyone care about Ashlee Simpson—these are problems. Why does an innocent mother have to sit on a beach surrounded by her dead babies—that is a mystery, and it will not go away with next week’s news cycle. The tsunamis have forced us all to confront again the mystery of suffering. The waves have not only crashed into the coastal towns of 12 countries, they have crashed into the faith of every religion and every sensitive soul who believes that in the universe there is a force of goodness/life/enlightenment/liberation/release that will set right the moral equilibrium of the universe so broken by the picture of that mother and those babies.

Of course you are spiritually free to conclude that we are totally alone in a cruel cold cosmos; or you can conclude that despite the wave and the picture, goodness and life still have an edge over evil, despair and death. The world is no help to you in making your choice. The world gives you ample evidence for both responses to this mystery. On the one side there is the picture of the mother and the babies, and on the other side the pictures of thousands of helping hands, and billions of donated dollars all produced by a humanity both touched and unified by this catastrophe. Our lives are formed by what we choose to believe. If confronting the ultimate mysteries of human existence is just too much for you to face right now, I understand. Call me after you pick up the dry cleaning and the cheese.

Jews, Christians and Muslims have got to admit that God cannot be let off the hook for this. The clergy guys and gals and the theologians (that’s usually a clergy guy or gal without a paying job), who try to make the case that this disaster was not God’s fault and that it was merely nature’s work do not understand point number one of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to wit, God made nature. Nature, for JC&I is not a separate god who can conveniently take the blame for hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and the humidity in Florida. God is on the hook for everything God has created nature to do. There is, of course, a defense of God as the author of natural evil but you have to decide if it works for you. It has two moves. The first is to remember that if planet earth was not a living belching, cracking, thrusting, tsunami-producing thing, we would not be alive in the first place. The moon has no tsunamis but it also has no water, no atmosphere and therefore no life. The trade off for being given a living planet that sustains life is accepting the dangers on that planet that take life. The second move is to remember that the reason God has given us such big brains is precisely so that we can figure out ways to predict and protect ourselves from natural disasters. Even so, it remains a sad and tragic truth that we will never be able to protect every child from every wave. That’s where theology ends and mystery begins.

Clerics who believe that this was God’s punishment ought to consider other employment. I know it is too much to hope that organized religions would impose a moron test on all potential clergypersons, but I remain hopeful. I am just stunned by the sheer cruelty and coruscating arrogance of those clergy who, in the name of love or salvation, would add a further burden of guilt to the already massive burden of grief crushing the survivors. I hope there is a special place in Hell for them. So let’s get this straight you moron clergy guys; you are in sales, not management so shut up! God did this, but God did not do this to punish people for wearing bikinis!


When the tsunami hit I was walking on the beach in Sanibel Island, Fla., with my two-year-old grandson Zeke. The island was still littered with huge piles of broken trees left by Hurricane Charley that devastated the island in August. Zeke picked up a perfect baby conch shell from the sand and held it up triumphantly to me and said, “Papa, this is very, very pretty.” It all comes down to this: You can either believe in the God of the broken trees or you can believe in the God of Zeke’s sea shell. It doesn’t matter which you choose today because tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or perhaps, if you are very stubborn, on the day after that, you will come to understand that both the broken trees and Zeke’s pink shell come from the same God. It is the God who spoke to Isaiah, who might also have learned this by walking on a beach with his grandson, “I fashion light, and I create darkness. I fashion peace and I create evil. I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) Even after that terrible wave, I still believe in the God of Zeke and his pink sea shell.

Gellman is the rabbi of the Beth Torah Synagogue in Melville, N.Y. With his good friend, Msgr. Hartman, he is half of The God Squad and is the author of several children’s books on religion.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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