Juggling

Like most rabbis, I do a lot of juggling. Being a rabbi is a 24/7 job with many responsibilities. But I also love to juggle in the literal sense. In fact, I hope to be able to master juggling four balls soon. I recently saw a video of a great juggling performance by performer Chris Bliss. He’s juggling three balls to the Beatles song “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End.” Enjoy!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rusted Root has Cantorial Roots

In July 2005 I saw one of my favorite bands, Rusted Root, in concert at The House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. Following the show, the members of the group signed autographs and met with their fans as they usually do. The first one to come sign autographs was Liz Berlin (in photo), one of the singers of the group.

I spoke to her for a few minutes and she signed a CD insert to “Rabbi Jason.” One might think that signing an autograph for a rabbi would prompt her to mention that her father is a cantor (a Conservative cantor no less).

I only learned that her dad was a cantor after getting a link to an article about her on the PittsburghLive.com website. I received the link in a Google Alert because the words “Jewish Theological Seminary” appeared in the article. Apparently, Liz Berlin’s dad, Rick Berlin, decided to attend cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1996. That means that we must have overlapped by a couple years since I started rabbinical school in 1998. I searched the Web for a photo of Cantor Rick Berlin (in photo) and sure enough… I remember him. He was ordained in 2000.

I’m not sure if Liz Berlin is Jewish or not (mother is Mary), but in the article she is quoted as saying that she realizes her wedding ceremony to her husband, Mike Speranzo, several years after the birth of their child was “not the Christian thing or the religious thing, according to standard religious practices, as far as the dynamics of the family, to do it that way.”

Here’s the section about her dad the cantor:

Before she could pursue music, however, she had to convince her parents it was the right thing to do. That turned out to be surprisingly easy. Rick and Mary Berlin attended the group’s second show — at the Graffiti Rock Challenge in 1991 — and realized Rusted Root was not a whim or indulgence.

“It was the first time we heard the band, and they’d only been together a week or so,” Mary Berlin says. “Sometimes you know something is special. I knew Rusted Root was going to make it. I just knew it. I had that intuition.”

“She was absolutely right in dropping out,” Rick Berlin says.

So inspired was Berlin by his daughter’s success — he calls Liz “my hero” — that he decided to change his career.

“It was because of her willingness to take a chance that I decided to take my risk in 1996,” says Rick Berlin, who shut down a business to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to become an ordained cantor. “There were risks, and it wasn’t easy, but her success was one of the things that made me take that chance.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Judaism and the Internet: What I’ve been saying all along

Yes, technology is increasingly more important in Judaism. Ten years ago when I wrote my senior thesis in college on “The Globalization of Judaism” focusing on how new technology has affected the global Jewish community, I predicted that in the future congregations would communicate with their membership via e-mail and that Jews would choose their spiritual communities by shopping on the Web.

That time is certainly here. Like many rabbis, I send out a weekly newsletter via e-mail to my membership. With over 400 subscribers to our Constant Contact subscription service, the list is growing and it gives me an opportunity to share my thoughts, words of Torah, and programming updates with our congregants.

Daniel With the launch today of ShulShopper.com by jewschool.com blog creator Daniel “Mobius” Sieradski (in photo), Jews throughout the world will be able to shop for the minyan/shul/community that best fits their needs. I’ve already registered my congregation, Agudas Achim, in the ShulShopper.com database.

Sue Fishkoff touched on the many benefits of shuls turning to new technology and communication in her JTA article yesterday. It was nice to read about the usual suspects – my colleague Sharon Brous’s Ikar minyan in LA and the archetypal Kehillat Hadar in NYC co-founded by Elie Kaunfer – but I was especially pleased to see that the Seattle-based Kavana was included even though its founder and my classmate Rachel Nussbaum was not interviewed.

Here are some selections from Sue’s article, the full text of which is available on the JTA website.


New congregations see ‘Net results in communication and cost savings
By Sue Fishkoff

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — When Ikar, a 3-year-old congregation in Los Angeles, wants to make an announcement to the 1,500 people on its mailing list, it doesn’t send a letter. It sends an e-mail.

“We’ve never sent out a piece of hard mail,” says Joshua Avedon, who is in charge of technology for the young, unaffiliated community that describes itself as “traditional yet progressive.”

That’s not all they use the Internet for.

“We get people interested in Ikar who don’t live here, who follow us” via the community’s Web site and then show up if they move to Los Angeles, Avedon says. “We have donors in New York and Jerusalem who have never been here.”

Keeping people virtually abreast of the group’s activities is “a way of creating a global constituency,” Avedon says.

For dozens of new congregations and minyans, or prayer communities, like Ikar, the Internet is not just a faster, more convenient communication tool. It’s a central organizing mechanism and community-building tool, filling the roles performed in more traditional synagogues by administrative staff, newsletters, membership committees, religious school, even rabbis.

The expected Feb. 15 launch of ShulShopper.com, an interactive tool that will allow people to find and rate local synagogues, aims to take the global Jewish conversation to a new level.

“The Internet is critical,” says Avedon, who also is communications director for Synagogue 3000, which works with emerging Jewish communities nationwide.

Without the Internet, many of these new Jewish communities wouldn’t even exist.

Kol Zimrah, an independent minyan in New York, has no building of its own but meets once a month at various locations. It sends out an e-mail to the 500 people on its list telling them when and where services will take place.

“All of our communication is over the Internet,” Kol Zimrah co-founder Ben Dreyfus says. “We don’t have a phone list or snail mail.”

In fact, he continues, the minyan was started five years ago by people “sending an e-mail around.”

Kol Zimrah posts the music it uses for people to download, learn and use at their own services.

“It’s a way of teaching people,” Dreyfus says.

The Internet also enables interaction with a congregation. Elie Kaunfer, a founder of Kehilat Hadar in New York, says members and other participants “sign up for programs, offer feedback and pay for events online.”

Not only is the Web convenient, it enables young, fiscally challenged Jewish communities to cast a wider net and “advertise” their activities for free. Hadar doesn’t spend any money on marketing, Kaunfer says. That’s crucial for the many communities that do not charge fixed dues.

Kavana, an independent Jewish community in Seattle, draws its members — or partners, as the community calls them — largely from young Jews who moved to the city to work in the high-tech industry.

The Internet “helps us assess how we are delivering our services, how we get retention of people,” notes Suzi LeVine, who used to work at Microsoft and Expedia.
Kavana maintains online charts to track how people move from attending one event to attending three, to finally joining the community.

A new tool is imminent when Daniel Sieradski, founder of the jewschool blog, launches ShulShopper. Sieradski pledges it will “provide the greater Jewish community with entirely free tools and resources conducive to independent Jewish learning and community organizing.” The launch was expected Thursday, but the site was not quite ready.

The site will post descriptions of congregations written by its members, and users can log on to look for the congregations that best fit their needs. They can search by various factors, including level of observance, denominational affiliation, size and interfaith friendliness.

ShulShopper will function like a wiki, allowing users to contribute to congregational profiles and “review” their worship experiences — something that makes several people who wrote to Sieradski’s blog nervous.

Sieradski says ShulShopper is “an experiment,” the hoped-for first step in a more extensive site called Jew It Yourself. That larger venture, he says, will host congregations’ social networks and provide tools for independent Jewish study.
One idea Sieradski has is an online beit midrash, or study hall, where “people in Jerusalem and Houston can turn the same page” of text on-screen. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

2 Rabbis walk into a Comedy Club

There have been a lot of comedy events lately and that makes sense. The Hebrew month of Adar, with the festive holiday of Purim in the middle of the month, is approaching and according to the famous phrase, “when Adar comes we increase our joy.” And that seems to be exactly what everyone’s doing.

Rabbi Jason Miller and Jewtopia (Bryan Fogel & Sam Wolfson)This past Saturday night, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield (a suburb of Detroit, Michigan) brought the off-Broadway show “Jewtopia” to their shul. I believe it was a more sanitized version of the show that I saw in New York City this past December with a group from my shul since the full version would not be appropriate in a synagogue. I thought “Jewtopia” was great and I even bought the “Jewtopia” book after the show which the writers/actors, Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson (in photo at right), graciously autographed.

Locally in Columbus, Ohio, it all started Thursday night when I had dinner with Israeli comic David KilimnickRabbi David Kilimnick (left). I was asked to take David to dinner and then to his performance at Tifereth Israel, the other Conservative shul down the street in Columbus. David performed his routine for about 180 USYers who were in town for a Central Region USY (CRUSY) Kinnus hosted by Tifereth Israel and at Agudas Achim. Unfortunately for David, his show was in the main sanctuary, which proved to be a poor venue but he did get some laughs from his funny perspective on making aliyah. David also performed Friday night for Ohio State University Hillel and then on Saturday night for the Main Street Synagogue (Torat Emet).

Rabbi Jason Miller & Rabbi Bob AlperI thought it was pretty funny that a rabbi was doing stand-up comedy at the Main Street Synagogue across town on the same night that my shul, Agudas Achim, was hosting a rabbi doing stand-up comedy as well. Rabbi Bob Alper (in photo to right) contacted me a few months ago about doing a Saturday night concert for us and I thought it was a great idea. Jake Kander, our program director, took care of all the arrangements and asked if I would be willing to be the opening act. I’ve never really done stand-up comedy before, unless you count introducing some comedians with a few jokes as I have done with some local comics from Detroit and for the Sklar Brothers (in photo to left). I also got some good laughs in October when I gave the “invocation” before “Boys Night Out,” a night of comedy hosted by my shul’s brotherhood.

So I agreed to warm up the crowd before Bob Alper took the stage. There were a couple articles about Bob Alper in the local Jewish newspapers in Columbus leading up to the event, including a great front page article in This Week Community Newspapers (Bexley edition). Some photos from the Bob Alper show are available here. Below are two video clips of my opening act. The first is my stand-up routine and the second clip is my introduction of Bob Alper.


Rabbi Jason Miller & Sklar Brothers (Randy and Jason Sklar)Here is the front page article from This Week Community Newspapers:

In keeping with a long-running Jewish comic tradition, two rabbis will perform stand-up comedy Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Congregation Agudas Achim, 2767 E. Broad St.

The 7 p.m. show, which is open to the public, features professional stand-up comic and rabbi Bob Alper. Alper, who has been performing for 20 years, was a rabbi in Buffalo and Philadelphia for 14 years before becoming a professional comic.

Alper performs for synagogues, churches, colleges and other venues as he travels the country. His tag line: “The world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand up…intentionally.” He is also the first Jewish person to earn a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

His comedy, which is sanitized for a family audience, isn’t totally preoccupied with religion.

“My comedy is half religious. You don’t have to be Jewish to get the jokes,” Alper said.

Alper’s career took off after he placed third out of 100 entries in a Philadelphia comedy contest. He was beaten by a chiropractor and a lawyer, he said. He travels across the country, performing about 100 shows a year.

He frequently performs with Ahmed Ahmed, an Arab Muslim stand-up comedian. They sometimes team up for college shows that are sponsored by the school’s diversity department or the Hillel and Muslim Student Association.

Rabbi Jason Miller of Agudas Achim will warm up the audience with a few jokes of his own. Laughter and fun, Miller said, are key components to the Jewish faith.

“It is important in life to be able to laugh at ourselves. It is a core concept in Judaism to have fun and enjoy life,” he said.

When Miller became the Agudas Achim rabbi eight months ago, his first column in the congregation’s newsletter addressed how important it is to have fun in the synagogue.

“One thing that not enough rabbis drive home is how important it is to have fun while they are in the building,” he said. “Both young and old should feel like this is a place to have fun.”

Miller even teaches a class about Jewish humor. Comics like Woody Allen, Larry David, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce are the public faces of the comic tradition in the religion.

The sometimes self-deprecating style of Jewish comedy recognizes that there is humor in being Jewish. Miller recently took some congregants to New York to see “Jewtopia,” a Broadway show that lampoons Jewish stereotypes.

“We were in pain from laughing so hard,” Miller said. “It’s healthy.”

Anyone interested in scoring free beer and learning more about the relationship between Judaism and humor can attend Rabbi Miller’s monthly class, Torah on Tap, at the Bexley Monk on East Main Street. The next installment is at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Elie Wiesel Assaulted by a Holocaust Denier

From Haaretz.com

Holocaust denier suspected in attempted U.S. kidnapping of survivor Elie Wiesel

Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says he escaped a kidnapping attempt at a San Fransisco hotel last week.

Wiesel, 78, whose novels deal with his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, told Haaretz he was grabbed by a stranger in an elevator at the hotel he was staying at for a peace conference and was ordered to follow at the risk of violence.

According to San Francisco Police Sgt. Neville Gittens, a man approached Wiesel in an elevator and requested an interview with the author on the evening of February 1 at the Argent Hotel. When Wiesel consented to talk in the hotel’s lobby, the man insisted it be done in a hotel room and dragged the 78-year-old off the elevator on the sixth floor, Gittens said. The assailant fled after Wiesel began to scream, and Wiesel went to the lobby and called police. Gittens said police were investigating the incident as a crime.

A driver’s license in the name of Harry Hunt, a member of a Holocaust denial group, was found in a car parked near the hotel. Hunt has not been located since the event.

A posting on a virulent anti-Semitic Web site Tuesday by a person identifying himself as Eric Hunt claimed responsibility.

“I had planned to bring Wiesel to my hotel room, where he would truthfully answer my questions regarding the fact that his non-fiction Holocaust memoir, ‘Night,’ is almost entirely fictitious,” Hunt wrote on the site.

“I had been trailing Wiesel for weeks and had hoped to bring Wiesel into my custody, with a cornered Wiesel finally forced to state the truth on videotape,” the posting stated further.

Hunt also said on the Web site that Wiesel’s cries for help caused him to let the author go and flee the scene.

Gittens said investigators were aware of the posting and declined to comment further on the investigation.

The anti-Semitic Web site was disabled on Friday. It is registered to Andrew Winkler in North Sydney, Australia. According to media reports, no suspect in the attack has been interrogated thus far.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Florence Melton, Of Blessed Memory

Florence MeltonOne of the first things I knew I needed to do when I moved to Columbus to become rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim was to meet with Florence Melton. Florence was one of the greatest gifts to Jewish education in recent time. Sitting in her apartment, I was extremely impressed not only with her intellect and concern about Jewish education, but with her innovative ideas as well. I am grateful for that meeting with Florence and to my congregant Don Ruben, her neighbor who helped organize the meeting.

Florence Melton and Rabbi Jason MillerAt the time of our meeting, she was planning to leave the next day for her winter in Florida where she would celebrate her 95th birthday at the end of January and be honored in Boca Raton. Rather than prepare herself for the trip, she spent well over an hour with a young, new rabbi in town (and his wife). She asked about my own pedagogical philosophy, my view on day school education versus synagogue religious school, and what I thought should make up the curriculum of a Jewish high school student. She certainly didn’t show her age — she was sharp and witty. She was a beautiful woman with deep insight and a passion for the Jewish people. I am fortunate to have met her and to have taught in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Detroit.

Several weeks ago, I received a message that Florence would like me to call her in Florida. She was writing an article about her “Communiteen” educational program for high school students in Columbus and wanted my assistance. By the time I picked up the phone to call her, her son Gordy informed me that she had gone into a hospice program. I didn’t get to have that conversation with her, but I will be certain to make sure her article is published.

May the legacy of Florence Melton continue to be a source of inspiration and blessing for all who knew her. May her lifetime of work for Jewish learning continue to bear fruit for generations to come.


From the Columbus Dispatch

Florence Zacks Melton, successful inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and advocate for Jewish education, died tonight in Florida. She was 95.

Melton, formerly of Grandview Heights, had been living in Boca Raton, Fla., for the past couple years and had taken ill recently.

Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants, Melton grew up too poor to have dolls, she once said, so instead she imagined.

That creativity sparked practical inventions such as foam-rubber slippers and innovative Jewish education programs.

At R.G. Barry Corp., which she co-founded in 1947 with her first husband, Aaron Zacks, Melton invented a type of women’s shoulder pad that snapped into a bra strap, simplifying a popular fashion item of that era.

She also created a line of chair pads, adjustable car seat covers and neck pillows. A few years later, R.G. Barry would take off after the idea for foam-rubber slippers came to her.

By 1980, R.G. Barry was the world’s largest producer of comfort footwear. Her son, Gordon Zacks, was CEO at the time.

Several years after Aaron Zacks died, Florence married Samuel M. Melton. Together they helped establish Ohio State’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies in 1976, and also spearheaded other charitable efforts geared mainly toward education.

In 1980, she developed a two-year adult Jewish literacy program affiliated with Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, as it is known, operates in more than 70 communities in North America and Australia. Melton was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. She was preceded in death by both husbands and son, Barry Zacks. She is survived by son Gordon Zacks of Bexley.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Conservative Judaism on PBS

The PBS Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly program did a segment recently on Conservative Judaism and Homosexuality. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (left), Rabbi Joel Roth, rabbinical student Ethan Hammerman (right), and a gay couple with three children were all interviewed.

I was surprised by this quote from JTS Talmud professor Joel Roth: “Jewish law is clearly without ambiguity opposed to any sexual behavior, either between men or between women.” While I understand his argument, I’m not sure that it can be said that the Halacha is clearly without ambiguity with regard to the view on lesbian acts. However, each of these respondents were only given the chance for a quick sound bite, and Rabbis Roth and Dorff have both written and spoken so much on the subject that it is difficult to summarize their view in a sentence or two.

Both the transcript and the video are available on the PBS website.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Pimp My Purim Shpiel!

“Why isn’t your Purim Spiel funny?” asks Rob Kutner (pictured) on his ‘Shushan Channel‘ website. Kutner is a writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He continues, “Jewish people are the funniest people in the world. So why are most Purim spiels [their spelling… I use “shpiel”] so lame? We’re not sure, but we decided to fix the problem. Enter “The Shushan Channel.”

Rob Kutner (RabbiJason.com)The Shushan Channel offers to raise the bar on Purim by providing original, topical and hilarious Purim shpiels created by top comedy writers from New York and LA. These shpiels can be used by synagogues, Hillels or JCCs and are guaranteed to make people laugh.

From the website you can look at sample sketches and read reviews from congregations who have used The Shushan Channel in the past. I watched the sample sketches and they are pretty funny, but even with a good script it is still critical to have good delivery and comic timing. Most Purim shpiels are so bad, however, that at least with some professional comedy writers there is bound to be an improvement.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

On National TV

I was at the Detroit Pistons-Cleveland Cavaliers game yesterday at the Quicken Loans Arena. Here is a video clip from the nationally televised broadcast of me taking a picture with my son, Josh, sitting in front of me. Watch immediately after they first show Rasheed Wallace at the Free Throw Line.

Video:

Still:

Rabbi Jason Miller - Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers Game(Left to Right: Coach Flip Saunders, Josh Miller, Tayshaun Prince)
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Danny Nevins in the Detroit Jewish News

From the Detroit Jewish News
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman

Rabbi Daniel Nevins sees his new job as dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as “both an honor and a challenge.”

The rabbi has served Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills for 13 years. He will begin his new post on July 1, moving to New York with his wife, Lynn, and their three children. The move also will take him nearer to his family in New Jersey.

“As dean, I will recruit and direct hundreds of new rabbis as they begin their journey of serving God and the Jewish people,” wrote Rabbi Nevins, 40, in a Jan. 29 letter to congregants of the 1,050-family synagogue. “Without doubt, it is the great reputation of Adat Shalom that inspired the JTS search committee to ask me to serve as dean of our movement’s oldest and largest rabbinical school.”

Of becoming the dean of the school from which he received rabbinic ordination in 1994, he said, “I am honored and excited by the opportunity to serve as Pearl Resnick dean,” Rabbi Nevins said. “I have had an extraordinary experience as rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue. I have experimented in the ultimate laboratory of Jewish life, learning what works through the prism of countless pastoral, intellectual and spiritual interactions with my congregation. I will miss my community, but I will take what I have learned from them to benefit the next generation of rabbis.” […]

Communal reaction to Rabbi Nevins’ new post is bittersweet.

Rabbi Jason Miller, who grew up at Adat Shalom and now serves Congregation Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio, said, “Danny is a rabbi’s rabbi and always seems to just ‘get it.’ When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, my classmates would ask me to call Danny when they had questions.

“He is an academic and a spiritual guide. He is progressive and yet always guarding the tradition. This is a wonderful choice for JTS and for our movement. Together with Chancellor Arnie Eisen, Dean Danny Nevins will help get us to where we need to be.”

Rabbi Nevins succeeds Rabbi William Lebeau, who twice served as dean of the rabbinic school.

In a letter to his congregation, Adat Shalom President David Schostak wrote: “We are very sorry to see him go, but we take pride in the fact that he has excelled to the point that he has been asked to be dean of the rabbinical school, one of the highest and most important positions in our movement.”

In his congregational letter, Rabbi Nevins wrote: “As I reflect upon these years, I am filled with gratitude to God for allowing me to work with such an extraordinary community. These years have been ones of deep satisfaction. I feel truly blessed and cannot imagine being happier as a congregational rabbi.”

Praising his rabbinic colleagues, professional staff and lay leadership, he said, “I am confident that our congregation will continue to flourish.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller