Sacred Space

I’ve been thinking a lot about sacred space recently. Of course, I give much thought to the concept of what makes a place holy (or sacred) whenever I am in Israel. At each turn one encounters a sacred location from Jewish history.

However, what turns a place that is generally considered to be a secular place into a sacred one?

Last week, after I taught my monthly class on Jewish business ethics at a Downtown Detroit law firm I began to drive back uptown to the suburbs. When I turned to get on the highway I saw the old Tiger Stadium in the distance. While Tiger Stadium hasn’t been used as the home field of the Detroit Tigers since the Tigers last played there on September 27, 1999, it is still very much on the minds of Detroiters and Tigers fans. Seeing the vacant stadium (or what’s left of it since some of it was demolished earlier this year) standing there at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, I was lured to go pay a visit. I parked my car along the street where the Right Field wall once stood — the area where my favorite player Kirk Gibson used to defend the outfield. I got out and took some photos of the snow-covered park. I felt extremely nostalgic about the baseball stadium where I viewed my first Major League game (and many more after that).

There is much debate about what will become of the old Tiger Stadium, but no matter what it is used for (hopefully little league games) or how it is memorialized (hopefully a museum) there is no question that for me it is sacred space.

This is true of other places in my life as well. I’m sure that many years from now, the Palace of Auburn Hills (home to the Detroit Pistons for the past twenty years) will also become a sacred space to Pistons fans like me who have enjoyed watching them play there (even though I have fond memories of watching the Pistons play at the Pontiac Silverdome as well).

Some places have sentimental value because they haven’t changed much over the years. My oldest son is a preschool student in the exact same classroom where I was a preschool student at Adat Shalom Synagogue in the early 1980s. The classroom hasn’t changed much since then, so each time I walk in to drop him off for school I experience yet another flashback to my childhood. Of course, it has been transformed into a more modern classroom to keep pace with the educational advances of the past three decades. A few years ago I even taught a class in that same room for teenagers and found that to be a surreal experience (at least during the first class). That classroom is certainly a sacred space for me as it is the location where both my formal education and my first born child’s formal education commenced. Independent of the fact that it is in a holy place (synagogue), it still carries sacredness. It is sacred space.

In some cases, it is specifically the way in which a sacred space has been transformed that gives it meaning and value. In the case of the original location of the Detroit Holocaust Memorial Center (America’s First Freestanding Holocaust Memorial Center), the transformation is stark and conveys an interesting message. Several years ago, the Detroit Holocaust Memorial Center moved to a new location a few miles away leaving the JCC with the decision of what to do with the space. A new, state-of-the-art teen center now occupies the entire building where the Holocaust center was once located.

A couple days ago I was given a tour of the JCC’s new Beverly Prentis Wagner Teen Center (right) by director Lindsey Fox. It is a very impressive site with ping pong tables, foosball, Nintendo Wii spots, computer labs, a snack-bar, video games, and more. The fact that thousands of Jewish teens will now gather socially in a space once occupied by a memorial to the Holocaust was not lost on me. As soon as I entered the teen center I remembered the chill I felt each time I visited the Holocaust center. I remembered the buzzing sound of the lights above and the coldness of the brick walls. Certain things haven’t changed much in the space. The movie auditorium where I once viewed survivor testimonies looks the same — although now teenagers will watch High School Musical and Adam Sandler movies there. The small seating areas where I once watched films of the Nazi killing machine on small televisions will now be used for Jewish youth to play video games on flat screen monitors. And the conference room where Holocaust researchers once lectured will now be filled with Jewish youth group members eating pizza and socializing.

This is the best way to demonstrate that some sixty years since the end of the Holocaust the Jewish people have endured. This is a loud statement that the Nazi attempts to eradicate the Jewish people were unsuccessful.

A beloved baseball stadium left vacant that will soon be used for youth baseball. A nursery school classroom occupied by multi-generations. A Holocaust memorial center transformed into a Jewish teen center. Each of these is a sacred space transformed to preserve its sacredness.

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

Haredi Driver’s Licenses

There is a concept in Jewish Law that can have both positive and negative outcomes. Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages) opens with the idea to “erect a fence around the Torah” (“asu s’yag laTorah“). This metaphorical fence is intended to protect the Jewish people from even coming close to sin or violating a commandment.

Oftentimes, however, this fence can be “erected” too far from the original intent of the law. I see this all the time in matters of Kosher certification. One of my rabbinic colleagues tells the story of a Haredi man in Jerusalem who claims there are only three Kosher restaurants in Jerusalem. In actuality there are hundreds, however, this man’s fence is so far from the actual laws of Kashrut that he has self-limited himself to only a few establishments that meet his rigorous standards.

A couple years ago it was announced that the Ultra-Orthodox were forbidden from using the Internet – a fence erected to ensure they don’t deter into some unacceptable sites. An article in New Jersey Star Ledger referred to a man who relied on the Internet from his business, yet was still going to pull the plug because if he didn’t his children faced suspension or expulsion from their yeshivah.

In today’s Ynet News, we now learn that it is not just the Internet that is banned in the Orthodox community. Driving cars or even getting a driver’s license are now outlawed as well! Yeshivah students will be expelled if they get a driver’s license. Fortunately, one of the expelled students was later readmitted after the rabbis at the yeshivah learned that he got the license to help his crippled father.

Uri Gilhar writes:

Four students were expelled from the Tiferet Israel yeshiva in Jerusalem last week after it became known that they had obtained driver’s licenses in violation of the yeshiva’s rules.

After learning that some of their students might have taken driving lessons, the yeshiva heads conducted a thorough investigation and even contacted the Transportation Ministry on the matter.

“Anyone can call the Transportation Ministry, give an ID number and inquire whether that person owns a driver’s license,” one of the students explained.

Following the inquiry, the yeshiva heads convened to discuss the “problematic phenomenon” and eventually decided to immediately expel any student who is in possession of a license. The rabbis told the students that they could be readmitted once they have their license revoked.

Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose the notion of a haredi person getting a license. “It’s inappropriate for a person who defines himself learned in the Torah to have a driver’s license,” a prominent rabbi told the yeshiva director when the latter came to consult him on the issue.

The Tiferet Israel yeshivah may not allow their students to drive cars, but they do have a nice website. Too bad no potential students will be allowed Internet access to see it!

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

Throwing Shoes

By now everyone has seen the video footage of an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush. The public has treated it as an uproariously funny video clip perfect for YouTube. The president even laughed it off as something not unlike a heckler at a rally. However, the symbolism of the act is much deeper than that.

Enter my favorite Hebrew professor from my rabbinical school days at the Jewish Theological Seminary to bring some scholarly explanation to this act. Prof. Edna Nahshon (right), associate professor of Hebrew at the Seminary, is the author of a new book titled Jews and Shoes.

She is quoted in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, in an article humorously titled: “If the shoe fits, duck.”

[Edna Nahshon] said what appeared to be an impulsive caper was really a symbolic act of defiance. “The insult is of such magnitude that Muslims understand and Americans don’t want to,” she said. “It looks more like a prank, like a stupid thing to have done … I think it was intended as a very serious humiliation. It is understood as such.”

After all, there’s a reason why Muslims remove their shoes when they enter a mosque to pray. It was not initially a Muslim tradition until the Angel Gabriel reportedly appeared before the Prophet Muhammad and instructed him to remove his shoes while communing with God. Not to mention, shoes are downright dirty.

“Shoes are considered [by Muslims] the truly filthy, defiling item,” said Nahshon, an associate professor of Hebrew at Jewish Theological Seminary. “Anyone who has looked at images of the war in Iraq, shoes come up again and again.”

Remember images of Iraqis pelting the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes? And just a few weeks ago, an effigy of Bush was hung where the statue used to be. Iraqis didn’t stone it. They “shoed” it.

So, what appeared to be a funny prank (like Bill Gates getting a cake in the face) actually was a strong political message. Or perhaps the Iraqi journalist saw video of President Bush doing an African tribal dance without much rhythm and just wanted to provide him with some “sole”.

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

Chabad

Chabad Lubavitch has been getting a lot of press recently since the tragic murders of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg (z”l), the Chabad shlichim (emissaries) in Mumbai, India who were killed by terrorists. Their story underscores the important mission of these Chabadnik leaders willing to relocate their families to far-flung corners of the earth for kiruv (Jewish outreach). I’ve heard from several young people who stopped at the Chabad-Lubavitch Nariman House while backpacking through India only to be treated so warmly by Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife. I experienced similarly warm hospitality when I visited a Chabad House in Sumy, Ukraine a few years ago with students from the University of Michigan.

I have always been amazed and impressed by Chabad’s devotion to the Jewish people. Their marketing machine and political savvy are the envy of Jewish leaders everywhere. But I have also been skeptical at times about their approach and their agenda, especially on college campuses where the Jewish students are hyper-impressionable.

Due to their belief that Rebbe Menachem Schneerson (left) is the mashiach (messiah), many have cynically described Chabad Lubavitch as the closest religion to Judaism. Regardless of this belief, which is often denied by Chabadniks in large metropolitan Jewish communities where such a messianic tenet would not be well received, Chabad is doing important work throughout the globe.

In many Jewish communities, Chabad has taken on the important job of training young people to work with the developmentally disabled through The Friendship Circle. The program, now with over sixty chapters, matches teenage volunteers who become friends and mentors to children with special needs. Chabad has also pioneered important programs in the Former Soviet Union, including in the devastated community of Chernobyl.

If you’re interested in a fair and in-depth study of Chabad Lubavitch, I would highly recommend Sue Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army.

The most daring, insightful coverage of Chabad however can be found in last month’s issue of New Voices magazine. The young columnists of the New Voices journal demystify Chabad, answering questions like: Why, unlike most ultra-Orthodox, do the Lubavitch reach out to rather than reject secular Jews? What do they get when you put on tefillin? Are they Zionist or anti-Zionist? What do they think of mainstream Jewish movements and what do those movements think of them? Do all Lubavitchers even share the same views on these issues?

A blogger on the Moment Magazine blog writes: “Takedown or not, New Voices has done what no other serious Jewish publication has dared do: subject Chabad to the same journalistic scrutiny every powerful, religious movement deserves.”

The New Voices issue includes Chabad-related stories about the Agriprocessors Kosher meat scandal, an interview with a Reform rabbi about the place of Chabad in the religious life of secular Jews, a critique of non-Orthodox support for Chabad, and an exploration of the contemporary meaning of the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.

The interview with the Reform rabbi who shares his thoughts on Chabad is very interesting. The rabbi is Rabbi Rick Jacobs (left), Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. I met Rabbi Jacobs last year at a STAR Foundation PEER Alumni retreat and was extremely impressed. Rabbi Jacobs tells a funny story in the New Voices interview:

I was in midtown Manhattan, and I’m walking down the street and this wonderful friendly warm Chabadnik stops me and says, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I’m walking along, I’m wearing a grey suit. I don’t know, maybe I have curly Jewish hair. I said, ‘Yes, are you?’ And he looked at me and started to laugh and he pointed to his tzitzit and to his beard. I said, ‘You know, appearances are not always reality.

Rick’s story reminds me of another story: Two Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical students (a man and a woman) were walking by the main gate of Columbia in New York’s Upper West Side when a Chabadnik asked the man if he put on tefillin that morning. His response? “No, but she did!”

I’m not sure what the ultimate attraction to Chabad is for so many — not just the impressionable Jewish college students who flock to Chabad houses for the Rebbetzin’s homemade chicken soup and challah, whiskey shots with the rabbi, or hot cholent on Shabbat afternoon. For some college students it may well be that the Chabad rabbi looks, well, more authentically Jewish than his or her Reform or Conservative rabbi back home — which means more Eastern European and more pious.

The bigger question for me is the new fad of contemporary, progressive Jewish families joining Chabad congregations (in many communities called simply “The Shul”). I know this is driving many rabbis crazy. In some cases, rabbis are seeing their congregants attend Chabad congregations to complement their other synagogue membership. They may go to Chabad for a Shabbat service or even a holiday service (e.g., Simchat Torah), but wouldn’t think of not attending their ancestral synagogue for High Holiday services or to celebrate their child’s bar or bat mitzvah. But in other cases, Reform and Conservative congregations are seeing their membership numbers decrease to the benefit of the Chabad shul down the street. Again, this could be chalked up to the “authenticity factor” or it could be something deeper. Perhaps it is the warmth that the Chabad rabbis display in their outreach efforts much like the warmth that was a trademark of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, stationed in Mumbai and racking up all those “mitzvah points” through their generosity.

May their memories be for blessings.

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

Politicians and Kippahs

Using web applications like Google Analytics and sitemeter, I can track the web searches that have referred visitors to my blog.

Ever since the ’08 presidential election and President-Elect Obama’s nomination of Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff, there have been hundreds of searches for “Rahm Emanuel Kippah” that have landed web surfers to my blog. Apparently, a few mentions of the word kippah (or yarmulke) throughout my blog and a blog post about Rahm Emanuel are enough for search engines to put my blog in their search results listing. This tells me that there are many people out there interested in seeing a photo of Rahm Emanuel wearing a kippah. Well, sorry to disappoint but I haven’t seen one either!

Bill Clinton KippahPutin KippahHowever, I have seen many pictures on the Web of other politicians wearing kippahs (yarmulkes). There are photos of Jewish and non-Jewish politicians donning the Jewish headcovering — from Rudy Guiliani to Bill Clinton (left) and George Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left). But alas, no picture of a Rahm Emanuel under a kippah.

I asked my friend who attends Rahm Emanuel’s modern-Orthodox synagogue in Chicago who told me that when Emanuel shows up (not so often) he wears a black suede kippah.

But what’s interesting to me is not that so many people are jonesing for the pic of Emanuel wearing a kippah in the same skeptical way people reacted to Joe Lieberman’s claims of being an Orthodox Jew in the 2000 campaign, but rather that there’s an expectation to see politicians wearing Jewish religious attire.

I think politicians should wear a kippah if they are speaking in a synagogue, especially in the sanctuary. And maybe they should be expected to cover their head when they do the required photo op at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. However, the kippah photo op at Yad Vashem for politicians has always struck me as odd. I know I’m not the only one. In 2005, blogger Jonathan Rosenblum wrote:

I have always found something faintly ridiculous about the perennial photos of gentile politicians donning yarmulkes to wolf down lox and bagels in Jewish neighborhoods. And I would be hard-pressed not to vote for any gentile politician who refused a proferred yarmulke on the sensible grounds that he is not Jewish. Apparently my view is not universally shared, however. When the Turkish Prime Minister visited Israel last week, he was told Israel would take a dim view of his failure to wear a kippah on a visit to Yad Vashem. He didn’t anyway, apparently on the grounds that many of the voters of his Islamic party would take an even dimmer view of his being seen wearing a Jewish religious symbol.Isn’t this nutso? Some noted that Yad Vashem is not a synagogue, but even if [it] were what disrespect would he have been showing by not wearing a yarmulke? Is he expected to daven? Would a Jew be disrespectful if he declined to take communion in a Catholic Church? (Assuming he did not know it was asur (prohibited by Jewish law) to be there in the first place.)

Blogger Dov Bear essentially made the same argument earlier this year in a post about Barack Obama’s visit to Yad Vashem where he wore a white yarmulke (right). Adam Dickter, in a New York Jewish Week blog post in March, wrote about Republican nominee John McCain’s odd choice for a kippah during his visit to the Kotel. Rather than going for the cheap black kippah (favored by Bill Clinton), he sported an elaborately emroidered white kippah that cutely matched his traveling buddy Joe Lieberman’s kippah.

Perhaps one of President Obama’s first acts in office will be to set some clear rules on the kippah wearing expectations of politicians. Synagogues-yes. Holocaust memorial centers-no. Funerals-yes. Jewish or Israel organization fundraising events at hotels-no. Kotel-optional. Maybe congress could even pass legislation on a standard political kippah. Something like a navy leather yarmulke with a tactful embroidered American flag would be nice!

In the meantime, if anyone has found a picture of Rahm Emanuel in a kippah, please leave the link in the comments section. Emanuel wearing a tallit? Even better!

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

Obama Home was Yeshivah

Many homes have interesting histories and connections. I recall meeting Jewish professional baseball player Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers All-Star, who told me that his grandfather’s house once belonged to Jewish Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg (Braun lived in that house for a time during his youth).

Now, the father of my former camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Henry Bernstein, has co-written an article about the interesting history and Jewish connections of Barack Obama’s house in Chicago. Charles Bernstein, genealogist of the Chicago Jewish community and a founder of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, writes in the Chicago Jewish News that the construction of the Obama home was financed by a prominent Chicago Jew, was once lived in by a Jewish family, and was home to both a Jewish day school and a yeshiva.

President-Elect Barack Obama’s house, located on the South Side of Chicago at 5046 South Greenwood Avenue, is located across the street from the Reform KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation, Chicago’s oldest Jewish congregation. In fact, Secret Service agents who guard the Obama home enter the Reform temple to use the restrooms. The article adds that KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation members must identify themselves to Secret Service agents who verify them as Temple members.

The Hebrew Theological College (HTC), now located in Skokie, Illinois, had a branch located at the Obama home.

“HTC, known colloquially as ‘the Yeshiva,’ wanted to establish a South Side base to service [the] Orthodox community. A Milwaukee philanthropist, Anna Sarah Katz, donated $50,000 to HTC, which enabled it to purchase the 5046 Greenwood property. It obtained title from the First National Bank of Chicago, which had acquired the property by taking over the Foreman bank when it went bankrupt during the Depression… Hyde Park’s Orthodox population began to dwindle in the early 1950s, and in 1954, the Yeshiva sold the property to the Hyde Park Lutheran Church by a deed signed May 21, 1954. The purchase price was $35,000, based on the revenue stamps of $38.50 affixed to the deed. The deed was signed by Rabbi Fasman, who was still president, and Samuel T. Cohen, secretary”

So, the Obama family will be moving from one home with a rich history to a new home with a very rich history.

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