Spielberg and the Olympics

Rabbi Or RoseNext Monday evening I am bringing my colleague Rabbi Or N. Rose (left) to Detroit to speak to Conservative Jewish teens about the important subjects of Tikkun Olam (social action) and Tzedek (justice). Rabbi Rose is the co-editor of “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice,” which was recently published by Jewish Lights. He is also the associate dean of the Hebrew College rabbinical school.

Rabbi Or Rose’s article published today at JTA.org about Steven Spielberg’s resignation as the artistic director of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games brings to light the necessity of persuading Summer Olympics host China to reconsider its support of Sudan.

Steven Spielberg JewishSpielberg wrote: “I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual… At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies, but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur. Sudan’s government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes but the international community, particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering there.”

In his essay, Rabbi Rose opines:

Ironically, the theme for the Summer Games is “One World, One Dream.” Does this dream include the nightmares of the people of western Sudan? As an American citizen, I would like to see President Bush demonstrate some of the courage and resolve exemplified by the celebrity activists, using his power to try to persuade China to change its behavior. If China does not cooperate, the president should reconsider his plans to attend the Olympics.

In so doing, Bush could rededicate himself to the cause. His record on Darfur is inconsistent at best, and he has done nothing constructive since pledging, ever so briefly, to tackle the issue in his January State of the Union address. What better way for a president to spend his last months in office than to help bring an end to the first genocide of the 21st century? In a culture where celebrities often gain attention for their poor judgment and bad behavior, Spielberg, [Mia] Farrow and the other high-profile activists – they include Don Cheadle and George Clooney — should be applauded for their justice efforts. Now we must join them in the struggle to save Darfur and to create a permanent anti-genocide movement.

Kudos to Steven Spielberg for doing the right thing by resigning this post. Hopefully his public act will put added pressure on the White House to persuade the Olympic hosts to change their tune on Darfur. And thanks to Or Rose for bringing this issue to a larger audience. With his essay, he certainly does demand a Jewish call for justice.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Israel’s Sushi Strike

According to a Reuter’s article, Israel’s Asian restaurants went on a one-day spring roll strike Tuesday to protest the Knesset’s new plan to rid their kitchens of foreign chefs. “The restaurants are angry at government plans to purge Japanese, Chinese and Thai eateries of Asian cooks and replace them with Israelis as part of a broader program to cut the number of foreigners working in the Jewish state… Israel attracts virtually no immigrants from Asia since anyone seeking citizenship here must prove they have Jewish family or links to the country.”

The restaurant owners threatened that sushi and noodles would be the next items off the menu. I would think they would strike hard and “86” the sushi in the beginning since it has become so popular in Israel. But apparently they thought it was best to go with the egg rolls first.

Personally, I think they should have taken soup off the menu just so every Asian waiter throughout Israel could say No soup for you!

Hopefully, a deal will be struck before Israel becomes sushi-free. Jews and Asians should be able to co-exist peacefully. There might be hope because a restaurant once existed in suburban Detroit during the 1980’s called “Shanghai Shapiro’s,” which was half Chinese and half Jewish deli. But then of course, that restaurant did close its doors.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbinical Assembly Speakers

Last month I blogged about Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, when he announced his retirement as a result of his being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Tom Lantos passed away this morning in Bethesda naval hospital. He was 80-years-old. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to meet Rep. Lantos this past March at the AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C.

Tom LantosTom Lantos was a real mentsch and an important voice for human rights in Congress, even if he would never have been allowed to speak at a Rabbinical Assembly convention. Since Tom Lantos was married to a non-Jewish woman (in photo), he would have been forbidden from addressing the Rabbinical Assembly during its annual convention. As a dues-paying member of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I was surprised this week to learn of this policy.

A JTA article explains the little known RA policy prohibiting intermarried Jews from being speakers at the RA Convention. Therefore, the article states, it was difficult for the RA to maintain a balance between speakers on the right and left of the political aisle at this week’s convention in D.C. So, while Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is speaking at the Convention, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (married to a non-Jew) will not be allowed to. The policy even applies to non-Jews who have married Jews making Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ineligible. Each of these men are married to Jewish women (to be fair, Reid’s wife converted from Judaism to Mormonism so I’m not sure why he’s still blacklisted).

I can understand the RA choosing not to invite intermarried speakers to address the Convention if they are only going to promote intermarriage as a virtuous decision, but I don’t believe that choice has to be crafted into a written policy. I wonder if the RA asks all speakers at the Convention to disclose the religion of their spouse when they are invited to speak.

This policy would preclude a lot of politicians, business leaders, authors, and entertainers from speaking at RA conventions. For instance, Christina Aguilera would not be able to perform at an RA Convention (I’d pay to see that!) or speak about what it is like raising her son in the Jewish tradition (married to the Jewish Jordan Bratman, the couple’s son recently had his bris). This policy would also prohibit Jon Stewart from speaking at the RA Convention since he married Tracey McShane, a non-Jewish woman.

As the Conservative Movement tries to reach out to interfaith families through edud (insiration and encouragement), it would be helpful for Conservative rabbis to hear from couples who are living in interfaith relationships. However, under this policy it would be impossible for speakers like Jim Keen, an outspoken gentile father committed to raising Jewish children, to be allowed to speak at an RA convention.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler rabbinical school in Los Angeles, said “It’s the right priority, but the policy isn’t the right policy for the goal.”

My sense is that this policy will soon be reversed. It is possible for the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative Judaism to stand firmly against intermarriage without barring speakers who happen to be married to members of another religion.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

eCamp Israel

I recently learned about a new program that merges three areas I am passionate about –Jewish camping, Israel, and technology. Israel has always embraced high technology and modern communication. Part of what has made the almost sixty-year-old nation’s economy flourish in the past two decades has been the success of its hi-tech sector. Now a new summer camping initiative is making the hi-tech experience available to Jewish youth who are interested in spending a summer in Israel and also interested in technology.

eCamp Israel is a technology summer camp based in Israel and open to American Jewish youth. As a member of the rabbinic cabinet of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Project Reconnect, I was asked to look into the feasibility of including eCamp Israel as one of United Synagogue Youth’s summer options in Israel. USY sends hundreds of teens to Israel each summer, and this program would allow some of those teens to specialize in a hi-tech track while in Israel.

I am very impressed with this new program. eCamp’s mission is to “help young people realize their highest potential, discover their talents, and reach for their dreams”. Their cutting-edge e-workshops will allow each individual camper to express their creativity, and the youth participants will work on their own projects in a collaborative environment (open-space computer lab).

eCamp, located in a residential educational institution near Caesarea, will not be a “computer camp” where kids sit in front of a computer all day. Rather, the camp will encourage the campers to go outdoors to do the normal summer camp activities like sports, swimming, and nature exploration. The camp will motivate campers to create a better world through the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) with each camper receiving a certificate for 5 hours of community service per session.

eCampers will meet with entrepreneurs including the founder of ICQ, now the originator behind the AOL Instant Messenger, visit leading Israeli research centers such as Intel, Microsoft, Google, Motorola, and train in the Israeli Air Force’s flight simulator. Participants will have experience theoretical developments by visiting leading academic centers such as the Technion and Weizmann Institute. Shai Agassi, a hero in Israel’s technology world and the founder of Project Better Place, will be eCamp’s Chief Scientist. When I spoke with Nir Kouris, co-CEO of ecamp and an Israeli entrepreneur, he explained that “As one of the global centers of technological innovation, it is time Israel gives back some of our know-how and share it with children from around the world.”

The idea of an International Technology Summer Camp in Israel is brilliant. Jewish youth already flock to Israel in droves each summer and many of them have to put their technology interests on hold during that time. So, while most Jewish youth won’t be able to use Instant Messenger while they travel in Israel this summer, the campers at eCamp Israel will be introduced to the hi-tech gurus who developed the infrastructure to run Instant Messenger. This program will open the gates for Jewish youth to the #1 success story of Israel – Technology Innovation.

eCamp is just one more piece of great news in the world of Jewish camping. Recently, the Jim Joseph Foundation and Foundation for Jewish Camping announced a $8.4 million partnership grant to create a Specialty Camping Incubator. The Incubator will create four Jewish specialty camps based on skills such as athletics, computers, and arts according to the successful model already established for Jewish camping.

It is truly remarkable to see the innovations taking place in the field of Jewish camping. It makes me want to be a kid again!

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

Mitzvah Children

There was a time when the Conservative Movement’s law committee (the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards) did not publish its teshuvot (Jewish legal responsa). Twenty-five Conservative rabbis would sit in a room debating and eventually voting on matters of modern Jewish law, and the only people who would be able to read their decisions were other Conservative rabbis.

Today, the teshuvot of the law committee are available for public consumption on the Rabbinical Assembly’s website. So when the CJLS passes what could be considered a controversial paper, one would think there would be much discussion about it. (Certainly no CJLS decision has garnered as much attention as the December 2006 teshuvot concerning homosexuality.)

However, a recent teshuva on a delicate matter co-authored by Rabbi Kassel Abelson and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and passed by an overwhelming majority of the committee, has received little attention. The paper, titled “Mitzvah Children,” was passed on December 12, 2007 and until today I had not seen any articles published about it.

The essense of Rabbis Abelson and Dorff’s argument is that Jewish couples who are able to reproduce more than two children should do so, and Conservative rabbis should counsel couples in this manner during pre-maritial sessions.

In yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Reuven Hammer (a CJLS member who voted in favor of the teshuva) wrote:

How many children should a Jewish couple have? Although that may seem like a strange question and one that impinges on the private and most intimate life of a couple, it has been addressed by Jewish law in the past and is now the subject of a new teshuva (responsum) issued recently by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the International Rabbinical Assembly of which I am pleased to be a member. Jewish law (Halacha) has dealt with this because the very first mitzva found in the Torah is: “And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and replenish it…'” (Genesis 1:28). It should be noted that this is not phrased in the Torah as a command in a negative sense and certainly not as a punishment, but as a blessing. To understand how to fulfill this mitzva the sages discussed and debated it. Who is responsible to fulfill it? How many children and of what sex are required? Without going into details, suffice it to say that the traditional answer has been that the mitzva is fulfilled when a couple has had two children, one boy and one girl. The Talmud, however, determined that two children are the minimum, but that Jews should continue to have as many children as they can (B. Yevamot 62b), and Maimonides codified this as law.

Even though the authors of the “Mitzvah Children” paper did a very good job explaining their position while remaining sensitive to those couples unable to reproduce or unable to reproduce beyond one or two children, many will still take exception to rabbis imparting their beliefs on such a personal matter (even though the Torah and Jewish law codes certainly enter this arena).

Rabbis Abelson and Dorff propose that Jewish couples who can have children and do not suffer from specific physical, mental or other problems preventing it should have one or more additional children beyond the two required by Jewish law. These children would be called “mitzvah children” as they would assure future Jewish existence.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff (right), rector of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has been preaching this idea for many years. During my second year of rabbinical school he was on faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary and spoke to my class about his views. While he was sensitive with his language, he nevertheless offended several of my classmates — specifically the single women over a certain age — when he argued that Jewish couples should start having children in their early 20’s and have more than just two offspring. As he does in the teshuva, Rabbi Dorff surmised that it was the responsibilty of the Jewish grandparents (as well as the larger Jewish community) to help financially support these children and their Jewish education. His theory was that Jewish women are putting off starting a family until after their prime childbearing years because of their desire to fulfill their academic and professional aspirations first.

The Holocaust also factors into his belief. As he writes in the teshuva:

The world’s Jewish community has not recovered numerically from the devastating losses during the Nazi era. Demographic studies point to a Jewish birthrate that will not maintain the Jewish population in the United States, with serious implications for the future of the American Jewish community, the Jewish people as a whole, and Judaism itself. It is essential that we encourage fertile Jewish couples to have at least two children in compliance with the early Halacha, and one or more additional children, who are mitzva children in the additional sense that they help the Jewish people replace those lost in the Holocaust and maintain our numbers now. Adopting children, converting them to Judaism, if necessary, and raising them as Jews helps in this effort as well.

This all makes good sense to me, but I maintain that the reaction will be mixed among Jewish couples. Everyone cares about the future vitality of the Jewish people, but among modern Jews I believe the response will be that rabbis should stay out of the personal family planning decisions of couples. And for that reason, the “Mitzvah Children” teshuva is a gutsy position paper.

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