I Didn’t Make the Cut

Well, at least I was never the kid in gym class who didn’t get drafted for the dodge-ball team!

Newsweek magazine has chosen to go into the “rabbi ranking” business and has listed their top fifty rabbis in America. I guess if Forbes Magazine can rank businesses and billionaires, why shouldn’t there be a list of Holy Rollers? Newsweek explains their process for ranking these spiritual leaders in an article posted on their website today.

The background of the list:

Last fall, Sony Pictures CEO and Chairman Michael Lynton got together with his good friends and fellow power brokers Gary Ginsberg, of Newscorp., and Jay Sanderson, of JTN Productions and started working on a list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America. They had a scoring system: Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally? (20 points.) Do they have a media presence? (10 points.) Are they leaders within their communities? (10 points.) Are they considered leaders in Judaism or their movements? (10 points.) Size of their constituency? (10 points.) Do they have political/social influence? (20 points.) Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career? (10 points.) Have they made a “greater” impact? (10 points.) This system, though helpful, is far from scientific; the men revised and rejiggered their list for months, and all three concede that the result is subjective.

Here is the list of America’s Top Ten Rabbis (the complete list is here):

1. Marvin Hier (Orthodox) Hier is one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head. He is the dean and founder of the SimonWiesenthalCenter, the Museum of Tolerance and Moriah Films.

2. Yehuda Krinsky (Lubavitch)

Krinsky has truly built a shul on every corner and brought the Chabad movement mainstream prominence. He is the leader of Chabad and its CEO.

3. Uri D. Herscher (Reform) Herscher has built arguably America’s most culturally relevant Jewish institution and his passion has already touched hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews of all ages. He is the founding president and CEO of the SkirballCulturalCenter.

4. Yehuda Berg (Orthodox)

Berg has made wearing the red string a popular phenomena in America and around the world and turned on everyone from Madonna to club-hopping young Jews to the power of the Kabbalah. He is an author and spiritual adviser at the Kabbalah Centre.

5. Harold Kushner (Conservative)

Kushner has written nine inspirational books including the international best seller that helped millions grapple with “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He is one of America’s truly gifted speakers and teachers.

6. David Ellenson (Reform) Ellenson is a trailblazer committed to bringing this generation’s Reform Jewish rabbis and teachers closer to traditional Judaism. He is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

7. Robert Wexler (Conservative)

Wexler has re-envisioned Jewish education and created the largest Jewish continuing-education program in America while building a premier rabbinical school and liberal arts college. He is the president of the University of Judaism.

8. Irwin Kula (Conservative) Kula is committed to “taking Jewish public” and reshaping America’s spiritual landscape. He is the copresident of CLAL, a public television host and the author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.”

9. Shmuley Boteach (Orthodox) Boteach has been called “the most famous rabbi in America” and his 17 books, TLC television series and celebrity friends help make that case. His book “Kosher Sex ” introduced this Hasidic rabbi as a cultural phenomena.

10. M. Bruce Lustig (Reform) Each year on Yom Kippur, Lustig has an audience that even the president of the United States would envy. He is the rabbi of the largest congregation in D.C.

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

JTS to Accept Gays and Lesbians for Rabbinical School

With the announcement a couple of weeks ago that the school formerly known as the University of Judaism (now called the American Jewish University after its merger with Brandeis Bardin) would accept gay and lesbian students into its Ziegler Rabbinical School, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor Arnie Eisen (right) announced today that JTS will follow suit.

I guess this means that my depiction of the new Jewish Theological Seminary building on Bangitout.com will be getting some more views. (Note: I’m very much in favor of this inclusive decision at JTS and the image should only be viewed as a joke.)

The official JTS press release can be viewed here. What follows is the beginning of Chancellor Arnie Eisen’s letter to the JTS Community. His very long letter also includes detailed paragraphs outlining the process, the decision, and the next steps.

To the JTS Community:

I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools.

This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement. For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves.

Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not as poskim, or legal adjudicators — that responsibility fell to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) — but as educators charged with setting standards for our unique academic institution. From the outset, as we set about considering what JTS should do on this matter, three steps seemed necessary.

First, our decision would be preceded by a deliberate and careful process in which the views of all constituencies would be respectfully heard and patiently considered. The positions of both sides would be thought through and the likely consequences weighed. This process is now complete. I will review its elements below.

Second, the announcement of JTS’s decision would lay out our thinking on the matter in detail commensurate with the gravity and complexity of the decision.

Third, the announcement would conclude one process while beginning another. We resolved to take action that would help bring our movement closer together. To that end, we have launched — and in coming months will help to lead — a full-scale process of learning and discussion among all constituencies of Conservative Judaism aimed at a reclarification of our principles and a recommitment to our practices. Its specific focus will be mitzvah: our sense of being commanded and how we exercise that responsibility. The first steps taken in this new process are outlined below.

For me personally, these questions about core principles and practices are at the heart of the discussion in which we have been engaged this past year. The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah, live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.

The decision, then, has for many of us been far from plain or simple. I say this despite my strong conviction that the decision I am announcing here is the right one. Let me now explain why I believe it to be so.

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

There’s Always Been Tech Support!

Since my father is a computer consultant and helps many technophobes and computer newbies with their technology problems, I found this video very funny. It just goes to show that there has always been the need for the “Help Desk.” Enjoy!

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

Quoted in the Wall Street Journal

I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal today in an article about the mechitza (the physical barrier that separates men and women in an Orthodox synagogue. Like many other times when I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper article, I spoke with this reporter for well over an hour on about three separate occasions only to have a few words actually attributed to me. However, it is a well-written article about an interesting subject. Based on the article, one might think that I had something to do with the decision at Agudas Achim to not use a mechitza, but I arrived on the scene years after that decision was made and the shul decided to affiliate with the Conservative Movement.

HOUSES OF WORSHIP

Prayer Behind the Partition
By LUCETTE LAGNADO
March 23, 2007; Page W13

As a little girl, I was both enamored of the women’s section at the back of my Orthodox synagogue and tormented by it. I lived for Saturday mornings, when my mother and I left our Brooklyn apartment and walked around the corner to sweet, friendly Young Magen David and the cozy partitioned area reserved for women only. It was its own world: intimate, charming, a place that encouraged friendship as well as prayer. Safe at last, I’d think, as I put the rough schoolweek behind me.

I’d take a seat next to my mother behind the wooden filigreed divider with clover-shaped holes. My immigrant congregation, made up of families who came from the Middle East, was so small that it was easy to follow the service from our area, and when the Torah scrolls were passed around you’d see women’s hands poking through the holes to touch the holy scrolls. Yet I also bristled at the divider and longed to escape to the men’s section. The men seemed to have such fun taking part in the sacraments and being counted as part of a “minyan,” or quorum of 10, necessary for the service.

The purpose of a divider — or “mehitzah,” as it is known in Hebrew — is to make sure that men aren’t distracted from their prayers. The custom of separate seating dates back to the Second Temple in Jerusalem, when congregants became so lighthearted at a Jewish festival that it was deemed necessary to segregate the sexes.

Fast-forward to 20th-century America, where the Reform and Conservative movements made a point of allowing families to sit together. The mehitzah all but vanished from their grand new temples sprouting in suburbia. With the rise of the women’s movement, the divider became almost a symbol of female oppression — antiquated and vaguely contemptible. Even some Orthodox shuls did without a formal partition, according to Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union in New York.

They’ve made an odd and tortuous comeback, these dividers, fueled in part by a resurgence of Orthodox Judaism. Some other branches of Judaism, including ones that did much to try to include women, are hurting — while Orthodox Judaism is booming. “People in this crazy world are looking to be anchored…they are looking for greater discipline,” says Rabbi Marc Schneier, who runs the Hampton Synagogue in chic Westhampton Beach.

In the past few years, the Orthodox Union, which oversees hundreds of synagogues in America, formally decreed that any congregation calling itself Orthodox must have a formal divider. The OU’s decision has been convulsive in some places. Congregation Agudas Achim, in Columbus, Ohio, thought of itself as Orthodox, yet didn’t have a mehitzah. When confronted on the issue by the OU it engaged in a passionate debate, according to its rabbi, Jason Miller, and ultimately refused to put in a divider. It even switched to the Conservative movement. These days, says Rabbi Miller, the thriving Agudas Achim is “100% egalitarian.”

Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore went in the other direction. Years back, when it relocated to the suburbs from downtown, the congregation decided on separate seating but no partition. The concern was that a divider might alienate young families lured by synagogues where everyone sat together. But the tide has turned, says Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, and a new, more observant, generation would have left if it were not for the partition. At the same time, he adds, congregants “didn’t want to see women move to the back of the bus.” The solution? A “tasteful” mehitzah made of glass, wood and brass.

Rabbi Wohlberg is impatient with complainers. “Many of the people who say they want to sit with their husbands and wives at services, they don’t play golf together, they don’t have weeknights together,” he remarks. “All of a sudden, they can’t live without each other when they come to service?”

The OU’s partition policy calls for women to sit apart from men with a “tangible, physical separation.” But debate rages: Should it be six feet tall, or four? Should it be opaque, or allow for some transparency? Meeting the requirements of Jewish, or Halachic, law, isn’t as daunting as it seems, says Westhampton’s Rabbi Schneier. His mehitzah is so discreet as to barely be noticeable.

Rabbi Raphael Benchimol, of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, points out that the partition isn’t only important for men: “Women shouldn’t be distracted either.” Yet I learned early on that dividers did little to stop flirting between the sexes and have often wondered if separation didn’t encourage romance. I mean, what is more desirable than a forbidden object, the person you glimpse beyond a divider?

These days, with no little shul around the corner, and no mother to lead me there, I have the choice to go and pray anywhere. I can go to one of those vast and fashionable egalitarian temples; yet I choose to attend the same type of intimate service I did as a child. I am always on a quest for the ideal women’s section. I may have found it in my little shul, Chabad of Southampton Jewish Center, on Long Island. A few plastic potted plants make up the divider. It’s Halachic, but not intimidating.

When I come in the Rabbi waves hello. I put the rough workweek behind me and begin to pray.

Ms. Lagnado, a Journal reporter, is author of “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” a memoir, to be published in June by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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

John Hagee’s complete AIPAC speech

Last week I posted a reflection after I heard Pastor John Hagee speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference and I included a link to a video of his speech. Apparently that was a shortened version of his speech. His entire speech is available for viewing here.

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

Chooters… Oy!

I just read that the chain Hooters is coming to Tel Aviv. Since it’s Tel Aviv there is really no surprise here — neither by the lack of modesty by the dress of the waitresses nor by the treif food.

Here’s some of the article below. The entire article can be found here.

Hooters heads for the Holy Land

U.S. chain to bring spicy chicken wings and Hooters Girls to Tel Aviv, says restaurants won’t be kosher.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) — U.S. restaurant chain Hooters, known for waitresses in low-cut blouses and short skirts, will open its first branch in Israel this summer, in the Mediterranean seaside city of Tel Aviv.

“I strongly believe that the Hooters concept is something that Israelis are looking for,” Ofer Ahiraz, who bought the Hooters franchise for Israel, told Reuters on Monday. “Hooters can suit the Israeli entertainment culture.”

At Hooters, scantily clad waitresses the company calls Hooters Girls serve spicy chicken wings, sandwiches, seafood and drinks.

Ahiraz said a specific location in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most cosmopolitan city, had yet to be chosen, but he said it would not open restaurants near large religious populations, and they would not be kosher.

He said his plan was to open as many as five Hooters restaurants in the next few years, including one in the southern resort city of Eilat.

The Tel Aviv version of Hooters is expected to mimic most of the chain’s other 430 restaurants in the United States and in 23 countries including China, Switzerland, Australia and Brazil.

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

Pastor John Hagee at AIPAC

I can’t believe it’s almost been two weeks since my last posting. Although it does make sense since I’ve been traveling so much lately. We spent a week in Florida right after Purim and then I was at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. for a few days.

AIPAC was a great experience with over 6,000 Israel supporters filling the Washington Convention Center. I heard from some great speakers, met with some very nice politicians, and networked with some important people. Overall, it was a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by so much pro-Israel sentiment for a few days.

The highlight of the 3-day conference was a speech given by Pastor John Hagee (left) of Christians United For Israel (CUFI). I had a chance to meet with Dr. Hagee following his address in a reception for rabbis. Like Pastor Glenn Plummer, he is genuine in his love and devotion to Israel. He represents 50 Million Christian Evangelicals. Here is a letter he wrote about his speech at the AIPAC Conference:

I was honored to be one of the plenary speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), annual policy conference. AIPAC is America’s largest and most powerful pro-Israel lobby. It was the first time a Christian Pastor was given the opportunity to speak to such an august group of Jewish leaders. The existence of CUFI and the vast support for Israel within the Christian evangelical community was overwhelmingly received by the over 5,000 attendees at Monday’s evening banquet.

The video of his speech can be viewed here.

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

Purim Newsletter

Each week I send a newsletter via e-mail to over 400 subscribers on my synagogue‘s e-mail list. Since the Jewish holiday of Purim is coming up this Saturday night, I decided to send a special Purim edition. Hopefully, this will be an annual tradition. The Purim newsletter can be accessed here.

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

Glenn Plummer in Shul and Zev Chafets on "The Colbert Report"

Pastor Glenn Plummer and Rabbi Jason MillerThis past Friday evening my synagogue hosted Pastor Glenn Plummer (in photo at left) as the keynote speaker for part of our Synaplex Shabbat. Glenn Plummer, a Black Evangelical minister from Detroit, founded the Fellowship of Israel and Black America (FIBA) in February 2006. FIBA is a partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

It is unfortunate that only 75 people were in attendance because Pastor Plummer was such a charismatic, energetic, and passionate speaker. I found him to be genuine in his love for Israel both in his public lecture as well as in our private conversations. Everyone was truly moved by his message and they haven’t stopped talking about how impressed they were with his presentation. He seriously loves Israel and he loves the Jewish people. Pastor Plummer explains that his commitment to Israel stems from the Torah’s message in Genesis 12:3, specifically that God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.

In what was the most intensely emotional moment of Pastor Plummer’s speech, he thanked all of the Jewish people on behalf of the Black community for the strong support provided by Jews during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. He explained that Black leaders should in turn bless Jewish people today, and supporting Israel is one way to do this.

The evangelical support for Israel is strong and yet we in the Jewish community remain skeptical of it. After listening to Pastor Plummer’s words and conversing with him privately, I have come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be skeptical of this support any longer. Jews certainly do not have to agree with everything Evangelical Christians believe – and we shouldn’t agree with everything they believe – but their support of Israel is genuine.

Zev Chafetz (in photo at right), a family friend whom I’ve known since I was a little baby, recently published a book about the Christian Evangelical support of Israel called A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. Zev is originally from Pontiac, Michigan and was at one time married to my mother’s best friend. He made aliyah to Israel in the late 1960’s and headed the Israeli Government Press Office under Menachem Begin, but he currently lives and writes in New York.

Last year, I invited Zev to speak at Adat Shalom Synagogue following Shabbat dinner for a Synaplex (“SYNergy”) Shabbat. Close to finishing his book at the time, Zev spoke about his adventures while researching the Evangelical Christian community. I was excited to see Zev on “The Colbert Report” Monday night (video below). It was one of the best interviews I’ve seen Stephen Colbert do, and Zev was both funny and cynical — true to form.


We’re going to be hearing a lot more about the Christian Evangelical support of Israel in the near future. I plan to attend Pastor Plummer’s session on the subject at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in a couple weeks.

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