Evangelical Zionists

“I had them at Shalom.”

These words are attributed to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein as he was on his way back to Chicago in a rented compact Chevy with author Zev Chafets after Eckstein addressed a group of Christian Zionists at the Family Christian Center in Munster, Indiana.

Zev ChafetsI’ve read every book that Zev Chafets has written. Zev’s books are hard to put down — they are witty, provocative, and informative. I’ve known Zev Chafets my whole life. He is a family friend who was once married to my mother’s best friend. His most recent book, however, I read not because of the author but rather because of the subject matter that intrigued me.

A couple years ago when I was directing the monthly Synaplex program for Adat Shalom Synagogue in suburban Detroit I needed to find an interesting speaker to follow Shabbat dinner. I put in a phone call to Zev in New York who graciously accepted my invitation to come to Adat Shalom (he is a native Detroiter who grew up in Pontiac). He told me he would talk about his current project — Christian Zionists and the Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. It was December 2005 and Zev was about to travel to Israel with a group of Evangelicals as part of his research for A Match Made in Heaven, his new book (a chapter in the book is Zev’s travelogue from his Christian pilgrimage).

Zev ChafetsZev spoke brilliantly at Adat Shalom about the phenomenon that is the passionate love that Evangelical Christians feel for the State of Israel (and how they back this up with their charitable commitments to Israel). I hadn’t previously given much thought to Christian Zionism, but like most Jews at the time I was fairly skeptical about the motivations behind Christian support of Israel. Following Zev’s talk, my interest was piqued. Over the course of the ensuing two years, I read as much as I could about Christian Zionism, I invited Pastor Glenn Plummer (Fellowship of Israel and Black America) to address my synagogue in Ohio, I was captivated by an emotionally charged speech by Pastor John Hagee at the AIPAC Policy Conference, I dialogued with Israeli tour guides Linda Olmert and Danny Ehrlich of Keshet Israel about their experiences guiding Christians through Israel, and most recently I completed Zev’s book.

Zev devotes an entire chapter to an individual who has committed his life to reaching out to Christian Zionists for the sake of Israel and Israelis. He characterizes Yechiel Eckstein as an Orthodox rabbi who “had become a televangelist.” Eckstein, who runs the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has raised millions of dollars from evangelical Christians and given that money away to Jewish charities. Zev spends much time with Eckstein — both on the road and at his headquarters in Chicago — and provides the reader with an in-depth perspective about Eckstein’s background and the motivation for his work.

Rabbi Yechiel EcksteinOne thing is clear in Zev’s evaluation of Eckstein (right), his popularity among Christians is unmatched among Jews. Eckstein has long had detractors in the major American Jewish organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League where Eckstein got his professional start. In Zev’s book, he quotes ADL executive director Abe Foxman “as accusing Eckstein of selling the dignity of the Jewish people by pandering to Christians.”

Israel’s political leaders have long appreciated and recognized the importance of Christian tourism in Israel (a point made several times by Zev in his book). Further, following John Hagee’s well received AIPAC speech in March, strong supporters of Israel among the Jewish community have learned how vital and reassuring the genuine Christian support of Israel is. And a major development this week may change the way the Jewish community views Christian Zionism.

The JTA reports that “thousands of evangelical Christian donors now have a powerful seat at the table of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the vanguard of the Zionist movement. The Jewish Agency announced last week it has forged a ‘strategic partnership’ with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that depends primarily on conservative Christian donors to raise tens of millions of dollars per year to help Israel and impoverished Jews in the Diaspora.”

In exchange for an annual $15 million contribution to the Jewish Agency, Yechiel Eckstein will be given a seat on the Jewish Agency’s highest governing committee. The article addresses the Jewish community’s ambivalence about financial support from evangelical Christians, stating, “the fear being that some might be motivated at least in part by the belief that the Apocalypse and the return of Jesus can take place only once Jews move back to the Holy Land.” [complete JTA article]

Perhaps this news will give Zev Chafets cause to pen a new epilogue to the paperback edition of A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Israel and the Christian support of the Jewish state. Hopefully, Zev Chafets will alleviate the concerns and cynicism the American Jewish community has about Christian support of Israel. As Zev eloquently puts it, the evangelical Christian Zionists in America are “not the enemy. They are the enemy of the enemy, and they want to be accepted and appreciated. In return they are offering a wartime alliance and full partnership in a Judeo-Christian America. It is an offer the Jews of America should consider while it is still on the table.” Well said.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Uganda Beit Midrash

Gershom Sizomu, Abuyadaya Uganda Jewish CommunityI met Gershom Sizomu, the leader of the Ugandan Jewish community called the Abuyadaya, when he visited New Jersey several years ago. Now Gershom is about to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

At the International Convention of United Synagogue Youth (USY) in Anaheim this week, it was announced that the Conservative movement will build an adult yeshiva for the Abayudaya. The 800 members of the Abayudaya, who had been living as Jews for years, were formally converted to Judaism in 2002 by a visiting delegation of Conservative rabbis.

The JTA reports that “the $15,000 gift was presented to Gershom Sizomu, the first member of the Abayudaya community to enter rabbinical school.” Gershom is a research fellow at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the gift of the yeshiva sustains the youth movement’s support of the Abayudaya Jews begun last year with a donation for a Jewish library.The library will be housed in the new yeshiva, which is expected to be completed by summer. Four or five students will begin studying next fall, Epstein said. Other students are expected to follow, some from “lost” African Jewish communities elsewhere in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and southern Africa.

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

Mohelim for the Goyim

The Forward reports that there are a growing number of gentiles who are hiring mohelim (Jewish ritual circumcisors) to circumcize their sons.

“When [a circumcision] is done by a mohel, you appreciate the gravity, the
beauty of the religious connotations,” Reverend Louis DeCaro Jr. said in an
interview with the Forward.

My feeling has always been that I am a rabbi who performs Jewish rituals for Jewish people. For instance, I am entitled to officiate at wedding ceremonies according to civil law because I am an ordained religious leader. This means that technically I can officiate at the wedding of two gentiles, however, I wouldn’t do this because I believe that my purpose is to serve as an officiant for members of my own religious tradition. The same could be said about the role of the mohel. Any physician can perform a circumcision procedure, but it is the task of the mohel to perform the religious ritual of circumcision (bris) — and that should be reserved for Jewish baby boys (but that’s just my opinion).

According to [two mohelim in Manhattan], non-Jews make up between 2%
and 5% of their clientele. Some are motivated initially by practical
circumstances, but others seem drawn to the mohels for spiritual
reasons, if not explicitly religious ones.

View the entire Forward article here.

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

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Yesterday’s NY Times published a great tribute to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Here’s a wonderful story from the beginning of the article:

In 1965, after walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was at the Montgomery, Ala., airport, trying to find something to eat. A surly woman behind the snack-bar counter glared at Heschel – his yarmulke and white beard making him look like an ancient Hebrew prophet – and mockingly proclaimed: “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her, until now.” She told Heschel that there was no food to be had. Heschel simply smiled. He gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?” Yes, she acknowledged. “Is it possible that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?” Perhaps, she admitted. Well, then, Heschel said, if you boiled the eggs in the water, “that would be just fine.”

She shot back, “And why should I?”

“Why should you?” Heschel said. “Well, after all, I did you a favor.”

“What favor did you ever do me?”

“I proved,” he said, “there was a Santa Claus.”

And after the woman’s burst of laughter, food was quickly served.

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

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee - Jewish CommunityMany Jews have made it a family tradition to eat Chinese food on Christmas. Of course, this is the case because there aren’t any other restaurants open on Christmas except for Chinese and Japanese restaurants. Well, according to the JTA Blog it turns out that presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee shares this Christmas tradition with the Jews. And this might just be the only tradition that Huckabee shares with Jewish people. JTA picked up on the story from the end of a MSNBC report about Huckabee and religion:

“The only thing that I know that for sure we’re going to do that we have always done is we’ll go to our church Christmas Eve service,” Huckabee said. “It’s a huge community-wide celebration, and we do that every year. And then we have an unusual tradition that after the Christmas Eve service we go out and eat Chinese food. Don’t ask me why.”

Asked if the tradition is intended to help him better relate to the Jewish community, Huckabee said, “No, it’s Chinese food.”

He was unaware of the Jewish Christmas tradition.

Well, if you were also unaware of this widespread Jewish Christmas tradition, you should check out Brandon Harris Walker’s hillarious music video “Chinese Food on Christmas” (below).

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

Jews and Trees

The title of this blog post might lead you to believe that I am jumping the gun on the Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) holiday. But actually I have been thinking a lot about Jews and trees after reading Gil Mann‘s wonderful article about Jewish people putting up Christmas trees. Gil’s article has been republished in several Jewish publications, but I read it first in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle today. Gil opens his response to “Should Jews Have Christmas Trees?” as follows:

Should Jews have a Christmas tree in their home? One thing is clear, quite a few do!

How many? In a list of 35 cities in the North American Jewish Data Bank, in most cities, 20% to 30% of the Jewish households say that they “always, usually or sometimes” have a Christmas tree. Here are a few examples: Washington D.C. 27%, Philadelphia, 23%, St. Louis 22%, Los Angeles 20%, and Detroit 15%.

A Christmas tree in a Jewish home has been one of the hottest topics in emails people have sent me over the years as a Jewish advice columnist on AOL and now on my own website, beingjewish.org.

Why so much interest in this topic? Jewish demographers ask because they want to know, in a Christian society where Christmas is pervasive, how Jews react to and assimilate into the larger culture. For these researchers, having a Christmas tree is something of a barometer of Jewish identity, assimilation and the impact of intermarriage.

The many people who have emailed to me asking about the appropriateness of having a Christmas tree are also essentially grappling with questions of assimilation and Jewish identity. Specifically, they are asking whether and how Jews should celebrate Christmas?

Gil MannI agree with Gil (right) that this is a hot topic for interfaith families. The litmus test interfaith couples seem to use in establishing whether their family has a “Jewish home” is whether they put up a Christmas tree. For Jewish people who have converted to Judaism from Christianity (or are in the process of converting), this is also a very delicate subject. While many converts are able to bid farewell to their Christian past and all Christian theology, it is often the Christmas tree that is the hardest tradition to forgo.

The statistics are revealing. Almost 30% of Jews have a Christmas tree? So many people see the Christmas tree as an innocuous, innocent holiday ritual with no religious significance. However, as Gil Mann points out in his article, “the star that adorns the top of these trees is meant to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem which marked the birth of the messiah Jesus. I see this as a very religious [symbol].” I have also heard that the actual tree is symbolic of the wooden cross.

Gil doesn’t address the issue of Santa Claus, but I think this is a separate matter. The Christmas tree is brought into the home and makes a statement about the religious values of the home during the holiday season, whereas getting your children’s photo taken on Santa’s lap is closer to being photographed with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. True, Santa represents Saint Nick, but he has come to be more of a cartoon figure in our modern society.

When I asked my son if he knew that his buddy and classmate at the Jewish Community Center Preschool was not Jewish, he responded that he did. I asked him how he knew that. He responded that his friend’s father had picked him up one day from school and told him to hurry because they were going to see Santa Claus at the mall. I didn’t have the heart to tell my son that his dad, the rabbi, sat on Santa’s lap too when he was a kid!

I like the way Gil Mann closes his article with advice from Joel Grishaver:

What Jews should accept and adopt from the dominant culture is at the root of the Christmas tree question. My personal response for myself and my children is advice I heed from Jewish educator Joel Grishaver. We have gone to Christian friends and celebrated their holiday with them in their home. In turn, they have come to our home to celebrate Passover and other Jewish holidays.

Going to a friend’s home for their holiday is similar to attending a friend’s birthday party. I can enjoy their celebration even though I know it is not my birthday party. In this case, they are celebrating Jesus’ birthday. My children understand this and respect our friends’ celebration of his birth.

We happily wish our Christian friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas in their celebration. In fact, I love Christmas, Christmas music and the holiday spirit. Still in our home, we do not celebrate this birthday or have a tree because this is not our party. That’s OK with me because as a Jew, I have plenty of Jewish holidays to celebrate and I am delighted to share our parties with my non-Jewish friends and neighbors.

Gil Mann has a lot of great advice about these thorny issues (he first tackled the Christmas tree issue five years ago). He has really made a name for himself on the Web with his candid responses to thousands of “Ask the Rabbi” questions (even though Gil is not a rabbi). His recent book, “Sex, God, Christmas and Jews: Intimate Emails about Faith and Life Challenges”, has proven to be a great resource for Jewish educators and rabbis like me. My review of his book can be found on my website.
Bottom line on the trees? No, Jewish homes should not have Christmas trees. Seems pretty simple, but nothing is simple anymore.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Mega-Shul

In my second year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my seminar leader (a congregational rabbi in New Jersey at the time) predicted the death of the large, high-church American synagogue. The 1,000-plus households synagogue with the vast, ornate sanctuary and a stadium-sized parking lot would soon see its demise he assured me.

I figured he was right. The trend, at least among the younger generation, was toward smaller, more intimate congregations. After all, in the larger cities young Jews were flocking to the do-it-yourself minyans rather than to the large, institutional congregations. At least that was true among Conservative Jews.

However, at the recent Reform Movement‘s Bienniel Convention in San Diego, the focus was on the Mega-Church. The JTA featured this in its article Reform finds inspiration in mega-church techniques”.

I first read of the Jewish interest in the mega-church philosophy back in 2006 when the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles reported that Pastor Rick Warren (right) spoke at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live. Jewschool then reprinted a press release from Jewish Women Watching about Pastor Rick Warren and Synagogue 3000 leader Dr. Ron Wolfson being strange bedfellows. Turns out that when Synagogue 3000 invited Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose Driven Life”) to speak about building a spiritual community, Jewish Women Watching was outraged because of Warren’s conservative views on abortion and homosexuality.

In November, the New York Times picked up on Synagogue 3000’s analysis of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church with Samuel Freedman’s article “An Unlikely Megachurch Lesson”. Freedman writes:

One Sunday morning in 1995, Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman braked to a halt in an oddly enlightening traffic jam. The line of cars was creeping toward Saddleback Church in Southern California, whose services were drawing thousands of worshipers. As two Jews, Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Hoffman had crossed the sectarian divide to try to figure out how and why.

As they inched down the road, they spotted a sign marked “For First-Time Visitors.” It directed them to pull into a separate lane and put on emergency blinkers. Bypassing the backup, they soon reached a lot with spaces reserved for newcomers. When Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Hoffman emerged from their car, an official Saddleback greeter led them into the church.

Those first moments on the perimeter of the church set into motion a dozen years of increasing interaction between a Jewish organization devoted to reinvigorating synagogues and one of the most successful evangelical megachurches in the nation, the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

This has not been a studiously balanced bit of ecumenicism. Synagogue 3000, the group led by Mr. Wolfson, an education professor, and Rabbi Hoffman, a scholar of liturgy, went to the church to figure out what evangelical Christians were doing right that Jews were doing wrong or not at all.

“To put it bluntly,” Mr. Wolfson said, “if there are thousands of people waiting to get in, I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what they’re doing that’s tapping those souls.”

Now after more than a decade of Ron Wolfson (left) studying Saddleback Church‘s success, the entire Reform Movement is looking to Rick Warren for answers. The JTA reports that at the Bienniel, “the mega-church influence was felt as well during Friday night prayers, where 6,000 worshipers gathered in a cavernous room on the convention center’s ground floor for a choreographed production of sight and sound. Multiple cameras projected the service on several enormous screens suspended over the hall. A live band buoyed a service that was conducted almost entirely in song.”

Rick Warren was a speaker at an evening plenary session at the annual Reform Movement convention. He explained how he grew Saddleback so large that he expects 42,000 worshipers to attend his 14 Christmas services next week. And two years ago he rented out Anaheim Stadium on the occasion of his church’s 25th anniversary so he could speak to his entire congregation at once.

I’m not sure that any baseball stadiums will be holding Kol Nidrei in the near future, but the idea of a mega-shul is intriguing.

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

The Facebook 1000

Today I added my 1,000th friend on my Facebook account. That’s 999 more friends than I have in real life.

As everyone knows, Facebook is addictive and a waste of valuable time. I considered closing my account now that I have 1,000 connections, but reconsidered when I remembered that I’m in the middle of four Scrabble games and that I just never know when I’ll want to discover which movies my long lost friend from 2nd grade likes.

But Facebook is a good resource and it allows us to stay in contact with many more people than we could have imagined last century or even just a few years ago. Facebook was a valuable tool for me to reach out to many Jewish students when I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel. And I am sure that Facebook will play a key role in next year’s political elections. Of course, Facebook is becoming increasingly more beneficial for charitable organizations as well. AOL founder Steve Case appears to be taking Internet philanthropy to the next level with his Case Foundation’s charity contest for Facebook Causes.

Facebook is definitely here to stay. And according to Bangitout.com Facebook is Jewish too:

Top Ten Signs Facebook is Jewish

10. Wall postings are something we’ve been doing for years at the Kotel

9. News Feeds, loshon hora made easy

8. Poking, the shomer negia way to flirt

7. $1 diamond rings!

6. Updating your status is better than your mom telling the world you are now single

5. Tagging photos brings Jewish geography back into the picture

4. Social networking; a nicer way of saying protectzia

3. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) vs. Tom Anderson (Myspace) … the last name says it all

2. Only colors: Kachol v’ Lavan [blue and white]

1. We are the people of the Book… we just got superficial

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

New York Post Mishegas

I’ve never been a reader of the New York Post… not even when I lived in Manhattan. But I’ve visited the New York Post website twice in the past few days to check out articles that were recommended to me by other rabbis.

The first article is about the crazy story on the New York City subway (Brooklyn’s Q train) where a man was beaten for offering a “Happy Hanukkah” greeting. Thanks to Conservative Rabbi Michael Friedland of South Bend, Indiana for bringing the story to my attention. Rabbi Friedland was able to use the story for a sermon about Jewish identity last Shabbat.

The story broke on December 11 in the New York Post, where it was reported that “a Hanukkah greeting among passengers on a Q train set off an altercation that resulted in ten people being charged with hate crimes yesterday… It began after the four victims exchanged Hanukkah greetings and one of the assailants made anti-Semetic remarks about Jews killing Jesus.”

Apparently these subway riders were beaten for responding “Happy Hanukkah” to a group who wished them a “Merry Christmas.” The story turns odd, however, when the facts come out:

1) The guy who beat up the “Happy Hanukkah” greeter on the train and is charged with a hate crime is Joseph Jirovec. He says that this couldn’t have been an anti-Semitic hate crime because… (ready for this?) his own mother is Jewish.

2) The person who instigated the altercation by wishing “Happy Hanukkah” is not Jewish at all. The other two people who were beaten up are self-described “half Jews” whose mothers are not Jewish (making them not Jewish according to the traditional Jewish legal definition).

3) The hero in this case is Hassan Askari, a Muslim from Bangladesh, who saved the victims from a more serious beating.

So, to recap we have a Jewish hoodlum instigating a fight with some non-Jews on a Brooklyn subway for wishing him a Happy Hanukkah in response to his Merry Christmas. After stating that “Hanukkah is when the Jews killed Jesus,” the Jewish guy beats up the non-Jews who are then saved by a Muslim. Happy Holidays everyone!

The other news item I checked out at the New York Post is an article titled “Rent-A-Rabbi: Execs Pay Big for On-The-Job-Religion”. Aish HaTorah has taken the concept of “Torah on the Go,” in which rabbis take their Torah study sessions into the corporate boardrooms downtown, and is profiting big time from it.

For guilty Jews who can pay as much as $250,000 a year, a rabbi from Aish New York, a nonprofit educational center, will get religious with you anytime, anywhere. Everyone from Kirk Douglas to executives at Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and major hedge funds are clients, the company says.

There is no set curriculum, and the only expectation is that the students contribute a minimum annual donation of $10,000. Clients use their half-hour to hour sessions to talk about Torah verses, relationships – even how to make Jewish bread.

Ten-grand to learn to make challah with an Aish rabbi on your lunch hour at Goldman? Seems a little steep. But if these money managers can sign up the Aish rabbis as clients it might be money well spent.

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

Tallis-Man at Romney Event

Mitt Romney TallisNo, there wasn’t a spontaneous mincha minyan at Mitt Romney’s religion speech last week at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station.

As Rabbi Amy Weiss reported on her blog, there was a mysterious man wearing a tallit and posing as a rabbi at Romney’s speech. The man was sitting in the section reserved for religious leaders. Well, since every Jew knows that the only time you see a rabbi wearing a tallit outside of a prayer service is on Seinfeld or when Rabbi Avi Weiss is protesting something, this guy probably wasn’t a rabbi.

Turns out it was investment mogul David Nierenberg (in photo at left by Ben Sklar-Getty Images), one of several Romney For President National Finance Chairs, who was wearing the tallit. Nierenberg runs Nierenberg Investment Management and a quick Google search also shows that Nierenberg and his wife Patricia made a $15 million donation to the Southwest Washington Medical Center (and a $25,000 donation for the John Kerry presidential campaign in 2004).

Rabbi Amy Weiss opined on her blog that Mr. Nierenberg is “not a rabbi, but a clearly ignorant Jew who thought that ‘dressing up as a Jew’ to show support for his Christian candidate would be helpful.” My sense is that Nierenberg is not an ignorant Jew at all (and some Christians would even say that Romney is not a Christian candidate, but I’m not going there). Rather he is a devoted Romney supporter who was wearing the most obviously Jewish garb he could find to show non-Jews that there are Jews who support Romney too.

Basically, this publicity stunt only comes off as kitschy. My sense is that Romney adviser Noam Neusner (son of Conservative rabbi and scholar Jacob Neusner) did not give Nierenberg his blessing to don his bar mitzvah tallis at the Romney event.

Next thing you know there’s going to be a picture of Mitt Romney wearing a tallis on the Web.

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