Shofar So Good

Another “Day of Atonement” has come and gone. While Rosh Hashanah is the official beginning of the new Jewish year, it always seems that it is not until the conclusion of Yom Kippur that the new year really commences. So, I say “Bring it on 5770!” you can’t be any worse than the past year that brought us the Madoff scandal, Swine Flu, and the death of so many celebrities including Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon, Patrick Swayze, Teddy Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, William Safire, Farrah Fawcett, Paul Harvey, John Updike, etc. etc.

While, traditionally, there are 100 shofar blasts blown on Rosh Hashanah, the call of the shofar to end Yom Kippur always seems to make headlines. There certainly is the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the powerful “Tekiyah G’dolah” signaling the end of the fast day.

When the Detroit Free Press informed me they would like to take my photo to accompany an article in which I was interviewed, they of course requested that I blow shofar for the photo. I forgot to bring one of mine and I couldn’t locate a shofar at my synagogue since all of our shofar blowers bring their own (“B.Y.O.S.” I suppose). So, I told the Freep’s photographer to give me a few minutes and I headed over to the Jewish Community Center where I borrowed a brand new shofar from the Judaica display.
(The Photo by Patricia Beck of the Detroit Free Press is above.)

Much more interesting than the photo of me blowing shofar is NPR’s profile of Dizzy Gillespie’s goddaughter, Jennie Litvack (at left), who blows shofar at Congregation Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C.

The shofar player had a close relationship with the great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, who called her his goddaughter. As for her relationship with Gillespie, Litvack says she got to know him when she was 12 years old.

“We developed a very special relationship.” Litvack says playing the shofar is something Gillespie would do, but she never saw him or heard him do it. “He was a Baha’i,” she says. “We used to have great conversations about Judaism and Baha’ism and the oneness of mankind. But I do say when I play, I also feel Diz, I feel his connection with me, and that feels really special.”

In the Free Press article, I was asked what the themes of my Yom Kippur sermons would be about. The reporter, Niraj Warikoo, seemed interested in the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning about how we communicate with each other and ask forgiveness in the Digital Age. Using social media websites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the many people in our lives is fine to do, I explained, but when it comes time for performing teshuvah (asking forgiveness from our friends for our shortcomings) a personal connection is the ideal.

Right before Kol Nidrei services (the beginning of the Yom Kippur holiday) on Sunday, I noticed the following status update from one of my Facebook connections, Rob Kutner (former writer for the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and current writer for the “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien”):

Rob Kutner asks forgiveness of anyone he may have wronged unintentionally this past year, and wishes Jews an easy fast, and everyone else an easy Monday. Sun at 6:55pm

Seems like the “easy way out” rather than picking up the phone or sending a personalized, carefully-worded email message to the individuals he wronged unintentionally. (I actually wonder if he wants forgiveness from those that he wronged intentionally.)

With the recent attraction of the six-word memoir and status updating “tweets” limited to 140 characters, we are downsizing our communication. While I’m a fan of these social networking sites, I certainly hope we’ll take the time to actually talk to those closest to us… especially when it’s forgiveness we’re looking for.

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

William Safire

I remember when I lived in New York City seeing the commercial for the New York Times repeated several times a day on television. The young, metropolitan couple would be sitting on the couch on a lazy Sunday morning. She would comment that when the New York Times arrives she always goes straight to the “Arts and Leisure” section, while he goes straight for the Sunday Magazine.

For the past decade I have been the one to go straight for the Sunday Magazine too. Whether in print or online, I can’t wait to read “The Ethicist” and William Safire’s “On Language” column. I’m not sure I consider myself an etymologist, but I have always been interested in the English language. After falling in love with Mr. Safire’s “On Language” column I began to read his columns in the Times paper as well. I found him to be a brilliant, inspiring writer who always captivated my attention within his first paragraph.

I was therefore thrilled when it was announced that William Safire (at right with Chancellor Ismar Schorsch) was to be the keynote speaker at the 2004 Jewish Theological Seminary commencement when I graduated from rabbinical school and received a master’s degree from the William Davidson Graduate School of Education. In fact, one of my favorite photographs from graduation was the one posted below of me walking across the stage to shake the hand of Rabbi William Lebeau (Dean of the Rabbinical School) as William Safire looks on.

The most humorous moment of that commencement was while Mr. Safire was delivering his speech and his cellphone rang. Since he kept it in his breast pocket, the phone rang directly into the microphone and was thus amplified for the entire crowd to hear. Of course, everyone checked to see if it was their cellphone ringing. After what seemed like several minutes, Mr. Safire realized it was his phone, took it from his pocket, looked at it and deadpanned “I’m sorry, it’s the Whitehouse.” Everyone laughed. I’ll never know if it was actually the Whitehouse calling.

One of my teachers at the Seminary, Prof. Burt Visotzky, tells the story of getting to know William Safire in Washington D.C. when Rabbi Visotzky would serve as the guest rabbi at Adas Israel for the High Holy Days. Rabbi Visotzky asked Mr. Safire why he stopped coming to synagogue regularly during the rest of the year. Mr. Safire responded, “Because all the rabbi does is talk politics. I don’t need to come to shul to hear what Bill Safire wrote in the Times.”

William Safire died today at the age of 79 from Pancreatic Cancer. I will always remember his insightful columns on language and on the politics of the day. Indeed, I consider him to be one of my teachers. I will also remember that on the day he succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer, the same disease that took my uncle’s life seven months ago, I was taking part in a walk to support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).

May the memory of William Safire be a blessing to his family and all of his many fans.

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

Kosher Chain Restaurants

With Yom Kippur commencing this Sunday evening, I couldn’t resist blogging about food…

In June 2006 I wrote about the opening of the first kosher Subway restaurant in North America. I then had a chance to try it when I was in Cleveland later that year (with Rabbi Steve Weiss at left). It was delicious and a real treat to walk into a Subway and order a meatball and cheese sub (fake cheese of course!).

Now, Subway has quickly become the largest kosher restaurant chain in the U.S. according to an article in the JTA this past August. Subway recently opened its ninth kosher franchise in a North Miami Beach JCC. By the end of 2009 there will be eleven kosher Subway franchises and five more planned for 2010. Dunkin Donuts has some 33 chains that are kosher, but they do not serve full meals there (only coffee, donuts, and breakfast sandwiches).

In Metro Detroit, we have a kosher Dunkin Donuts, but no Subway restaurants. Rumors of a Subway franchise opening in the Jewish Community Center sprouted up several times over the past couple of years, but ultimately the deal fell through. Jerusalem Pizza, owned by Brian Jacobs, has taken over the space vacated by Matt Prentice Restaurant Group’s Milk & Honey kosher dairy restaurant in the West Bloomfield JCC. Brian’s new sit-down dairy restaurant at the Jewish Center is very good.

Through my kosher certification, Kosher Michigan, I supervise a bagel and cookie bakery that recently opened its second location. Marty’s Cookies and Bagel Cafe opened at the end of the summer in West Bloomfield. The two stores are the perfect synergy between the two owners. Josh Charlip, who owns The Bagel Factory, and Stacy Fox, who owns Marty’s Cookies. As Stacy likes to say, “A balanced diet is a cookie in one hand and a bagel in the other.” Stacy purchased Marty’s Cookies many years ago from the founders Joyce and Marty Herman, my parents’ long-time friends. Marty has since died (he was killed in a motorcycle accident), but I’m so happy that his name lives on through these delicious cookies.

While I’m not sure that Jerusalem Pizza or Marty’s Cookies & Bagel Cafe could quite be called a kosher restaurant chain, it is exciting that local kosher eateries in Detroit are expanding.

In the recent issue of the New York Jewish Week, there is an article about the “chain-ing of kosher food.” Is it a good thing? I think it’s great!

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

Stress Management

The High Holy Days really test rabbis’ ability to handle stress…

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

Rogue Media Minyan

During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner (right), came to me for some consultation. He knew I was tech savvy and interested in the Internet. It was 1998 and, as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (“the Law Committee”), he was working on a teshuvah (Jewish legal opinion) about whether it was permissible to convene a minyan (prayer quorum) in the virtual world. Specifically, could one recite the Mourner’s Kaddish while taking part in a minyan that was convened virtually, over the Internet or through video-conferencing?

I was very much interested in discussing the issues surrounding a virtual minyan with Rabbi Reisner — both the halakhic ramifications and the technological issues. A year prior, as a college senior, I had written about the globalization of Judaism as a result of the Internet Age, and this was no doubt one way in which the concept of “community” in Jewish life would change as a result of innovations in technology and broadband communications.

Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he concluded that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, an audio- or video-conference, or any other medium of long distance communication,” passed by a majority vote in March 2001. All teshuvot of the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee are only considered recommendations, and thus I’m certain there are some who are reciting Kaddish for loved ones in virtual minyanim.

In fact, my teacher Rabbi Hayim Herring (left), wrote an article in The New York Jewish Week detailing the story of a “rogue media minyan.” His article titled “Challenges Of An Open-Source Age,” could have just as easily been called “Davening in the Digial Age.” Much has changed since everyone got high-speed Intenet connections at home and work, text messaging and e-mail on our phones are as common as sneezing, and video conferencing with friends in other continents is no longer challenging. Hayim writes:

About three years ago I received a call from a stranger who had a heartfelt dilemma. He wanted my opinion about whether digital davening with a minyan would fulfill his obligation to say Kaddish for a parent who had just died. He was concerned that saying Kaddish at his synagogue every day was not feasible and wanted to dedicate some days to gather a minyan via the Web. If so, should he ask his synagogue for help to sponsor a digital minyan? I vaguely recall making a comment about the idea being worth exploring and referred him to his congregational rabbi.

So much has changed since that telephone call, and today’s open-source environment, where information is increasingly open, available and less controlled, has led to a big leadership dilemma. Let’s imagine how this digital davening dilemma might play out today. The rabbi who gets the call may be empathetic but may discourage the idea, explaining the high value of being together in a community. A week later, the ritual director, quite concerned, asks the rabbi if he has heard about “the rogue media minyan.” The rabbi is surprised to learn that after the congregant called him, he contacted 50 friends (Facebook, Twitter, texting — pick your social media method), inviting them to be a part of digital davening group, so that he can say kaddish a few days a week. Some of the congregant’s friends are members of the same congregation; others are from across the country. He is quickly able to form a minyan. He and his friends use an electronic platform which enables them to webcast the service so that everyone can see and hear one another.

The rabbi meets with the congregant, perplexed by his behavior. Didn’t the congregant believe in the value of community? Now the congregant is confused. He explains that it was precisely the rabbi’s comments about community that prompted him to contact some of his father’s friends from out of town to participate in a Web-based minyan in his father’s memory. He says it was particularly meaningful to him to also have fellow congregants volunteer, especially those who would otherwise never participate in the synagogue’s daily minyan. It was this expanded notion of what community meant to the congregant that motivated him to act.

Now let’s fast forward to a year later. Within the year, two other members of the bricks-and-mortar congregation, who are also members of the digital davening group, lose a loved one. They don’t remember to inform the rabbi because they are already a part of the digital minyan, a satisfying experience for them. In fact, other people from across the country who have no original connection to the group are participating in it because the digital davening story went viral, and digital davening groups sprang up across the country and also spread to other countries.

The synagogue community is divided over their value, but these media minyanim continue to grow. This illustration is about rabbis and synagogues, but you can imagine how it can be rewritten for any Jewish setting.

There really is so much potential for spreading Jewish education across the globe using the Internet. Esther Kustanowitz is helping promote the JewishTVNetwork.com’s live Kol Nidre service. It will be broadcast online this Yom Kippur for the many Jews who are unable to get to a synagogue (or due to the economy they can’t afford membership). By joining this Kol Nidre service online, through JewishTVNetwork.com, they engage in their Jewish identity and connect to the Jewish calendar in a way that is accessible, affordable, non-alienating and convenient. The service is broadcast from Nashuva in Los Angeles, and is led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. The service will be accessible (and you can view last year’s recorded service) at JewishTVNetwork.com/highHolidays. There is actually a live band for Kol Nidre.

In addition to serving those Jews who are home-bound or cannot afford High Holy Day tickets, it is also a valuable resource for those Jews who are merely interested in seeing a different type of service. Maybe they would never attend a synagogue in which a live band played Kol Nidrei, but they might like to watch it for the experience.

Judaism is a several thousand-years-old religion and culture that has evolved over time. In this multimedia, high-speed communication, open-source age we are now living in, we must allow Judaism to adapt to these times by embracing new modes of communication and new concepts of community. Open-source Judaism will bolster the global Jewish community through shared ideas, collaboration, and best practices. Additionally, it will no doubt alter the long-held notions we’ve had about what constitutes such things as a minyan. Just as the Jewish people have figured out ways to strike a healthy balance between the Tradition and the innovations of modernity in the past generations, so too our generation will strike the right balance today.

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

Shoes for Everything

New Yorker Cartoon - Blogging Shoes© The New Yorker
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller