Charity Detroit Jewish Tzedakah


I’m sure that it is not uncommon for children to find themselves involved with many of the same charitable organizations in which their parents were involved. In that vein, I have followed my mother’s lead by making JARC one of my favorite local causes.

JARC enables people with developmental disabilities to live rich, meaningful lives as respected members of the community in settings of their choice; to access a Jewish way of life; to provide support to families; and to educate and sensitize the public about people with disabilities and their value to society. For the past forty years, JARC has been successful in fulfilling this mission.

As a toddler, I grew up in a home that was walking distance from the grocery store. I have fond memories of walking to the Farmer Jack supermarket where the kind gentleman who bagged our groceries was likely the first person with developmental disabilities that I encountered. I recall being curious about him and inquiring to my mother about his condition. Returning to that same grocery store as a teenager and watching him collect the stray carts from the parking lot, I recognized what a hard worker he was. I recall thinking how wonderful it was that he was so dedicated to his job. Everyone knew him. He was a valued member of the community.

It is certainly natural when seeing a person with developmental disabilities to whisper to oneself “There but for the grace of God go I.” One thinks, It could just as easily be my child with that condition. Yet that is not the reason I have become involved with JARC. Rather, I believe we owe it to these men and women, as well as to their families. They deserve to live in a nice home, to have jobs, to be creative, to be involved in the community. JARC makes that a reality for them.

JARC began forty years ago by a group of Jewish parents concerned about the future of their children with developmental disabilities. Today, JARC is one of the nation’s largest providers of community-based Jewish residential services, serving nearly 150 adults in its group homes and various supported living arrangements.

Tonight, hundreds of JARC supporters will come together for the annual fundraiser at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. It’s become a yearly routine. The young adults will gather for dinner at a pre-glow event that demonstrates that the future of JARC’s communal support is secure. We’ll then take our seats for a moving, tear-jerking video about the important work that JARC does. We’ll then enjoy the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde.”

JARC is a “feel good” organization. It makes people feel good to know that JARC helps the men and women it serves live better lives. I have seen this first-hand. A few weeks ago on the Sukkot holiday, several dozen people served by JARC came to our home for a sukkah party. It was a wonderful experience and very important for my children to be exposed to people with developmental disabilities. It is my hope that my own children will eventually follow in my footsteps and support JARC as an active volunteer.

Last week, JARC dedicated another home in the community. But this home is different. It is the first energy-efficient, barrier-free group home in the United States. As I stood at the dedication ceremony, all I could think was “Wow!”

The article in the Detroit Free Press explained the uniqueness of this home:

The 3,200-square-foot ranch is being used as a group home by JARC, a Farmington Hills-based nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities. Six women, ages 30 to 70, moved into the home on Minglewood last month, said Richard Loewenstein, chief executive officer of JARC.

The home has geothermal heat and bamboo flooring and uses recycled building materials and native plants for landscaping.

As two of the home’s residents are disabled, the home has features like wide doors and low sinks to accommodate wheelchairs. It has four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths.

It is great to see how this important organization has grown over its first forty years. But it is even better to see how it continues to push forward for the sake of the wonderful community of men and women that it serves.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Basketball Jewish Rabbi Sports

The Rabbi and the Referee

Sunday the rabbi ran on the court.

No, this is not the title of a new book in the Harry Kemelman series about the detective rabbi.

Last Sunday, during the pre-season exhibition game between the New York Knicks and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Maccabi Coach Pini Gershon was ejected from the game but refused to leave the court at Madison Square Garden.

I’m sure the NBA had some concerns about the substitute officials who have taken over during the referee lockout. But they were probably not expecting a situation like this to take place.

Coach Pini Gershon Maccabi Tel AvivLike most of these pre-season exhibition games with foreign teams, the Israeli team did not prove to be much competition for the NBA pros. The Knicks did not seem to have much difficulty on their way to their 106-91 win in Madison Square Garden. Maccabi’s Coach Gershon seemed to be irked by the referees all game. Ironically, what sent Gershon over the edge was actually a foul on New York. When the Knicks’ Al Harrington was whistled for an offensive charge, Gershon complained to the refs. He was likely upset that Harrington argued the call but didn’t draw a technical.

The referee didn’t much care for Gershon’s attitude and awarded him his second technical foul of the night. The officials had no choice but to follow NBA league rules and eject the coach from the court following his second tech.

And that’s when the rabbinic intervention occurred.

According to the JTA report:

[Coach] Pini Gershon delayed play in Madison Square Garden for 10 minutes Sunday after he would not exit following his second technical foul in the third quarter.

Security officials from the NBA and Madison Square Garden tried to lead Gershon off the floor. Rabbi Yitchak Dovid Grossman of the youth village Migdal Ohr, which was benefiting from the night’s proceeds, also tried to intercede, asking officials to let the coach stay.

Rabbi Grossman apparently tried to appeal to the NBA substitute referees’ sense of teshuvah (repentance). Several reports stated that he told the ref that if Coach Gershon is forgiven, it will be a wonderful example to the children in the crowd.

The NY Times article explains that the rabbi saw it as his duty to moderate. Not knowing that two technical fouls result in an automatic ejection, he attempted to persuade the referee to change his call and allow Gershon to stay.

“But he says that this is the law, that he must leave,” Grossman said, referring to the referee in broken English.

“What can I do? I tried. I tried to make peace.”

It was at that point that Gershon tried apologizing for his outburst, with Grossman behind him.

“This is not a regular game,” Grossman said he told the officials. “In a game for friendship, you forgive.”

Maccabi center Maciej Lampe, a 2003 Knicks draft pick tried to explain his coach’s behavior: “He’s a big person in European basketball, and he probably felt like he was being disrespected.”

Nevertheless, in the NBA, with all its Jewish team owners, Rabbi Grossman proved that not even a rabbi can keep a coach from hitting the showers early following a second technical foul.

The bizarre situation confused everyone, especially the Knicks’ Nate Robinson.

“I was over there just trying to figure out what was up,” said Robinson, who added that the coach and the rabbi “started speaking a different language… It threw me off. I needed a translator,” said the two time NBA slam dunk winner.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Holidays Jewish Jewish Law Kosher Politics Social Justice Tzedakah

Ethics of Justice

Listening to the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret this past Shabbat morning, my attention was focused on the hungry. One might think that it would have been on Yom Kippur that my attention was on the hungry as I spent the day fasting. However, I couldn’t help but think of those human beings without enough sustenance during the Sukkot festival and into the holiday of Shemini Atzeret.

On Sukkot, we move outdoors and dwell in temporary shelters. In the warm climate of Israel this is a nice custom — spending seven days outdoors eating meals in the warm sukkah. However, with the heavy rainfall that lasted the entirety of the Sukkot festival here in Detroit, how could one sit in the cold, wet sukkah and not think of those who must brave the elements each night on the street.

Many friends told me how their sukkah could not withstand the windy weather and it toppled over. It was easy to make the connection for them that during those rainfalls and wind storms, there were human beings sleeping on the streets of Downtown Detroit in empty refridgerator boxes. When one’s sukkah collapses from the inclement weather, one quickly returns into the safety of their sturdy house. This is certainly not an option for the men and women on the street.

We often say that the sukkah stands to remind us to be thankful for the safety and security of our homes — our shelter. We should be grateful that after the eight-day holiday we are free to return to our permanent dwelling place. However, the truth is that the sukkah is not analogous to the temporary shelter of a homeless person. We spend the holiday feasting with family and friends inside our beautifully decorated sukkah, and most of us then return to our comfortable houses to sleep safely through the night. A local rabbi in Detroit who owns a heating and cooling business even told me that he installed a heating unit complete with duct work in someone’s sukkah this year. That is certainly not an option for a homeless person, living in poverty, trying to brave the cold on the streets.

But it wasn’t just the sukkah that turned my attention to the hungry and the homeless during the Sukkot festival. Days before Sukkot, I attended author Mitch Albom’s event at the Fox Theatre in which he talked about his experience at homeless shelters in Detroit. Albom began flexing his philanthropic muscle to benefit the homeless a few years ago as Detroit was gearing up to host Superbowl XL.

To get a sense of what the homeless and hungry must endure, Albom found himself at a downtown shelter, a Christian rescue mission where he would spend the night. He waited on line for a blanket and soap. He was given a bed. At one point, in line for food, a man turned and asked if he was Mitch Albom. Yes, Albom said. The man nodded slowly. “So… What happened to you?” It could be any of us in that situation.

Albom’s book Have a Little Faith forces the reader to consider the lives of those who live on the streets and spend their nights in deteriorating church shelters in the dangerous neighborhoods of downtown. It certainly made me appreciate my house. I think my sukkah was in better condition than some of the homeless shelters I read about in Albom’s book.

* * *

My attention was also sharply focused on the less fortunate — the hungry and the homeless — during the Sukkot festival for another reason. The local Detroit kosher food pantry, Yad Ezra, hosted their annual dinner during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Yad Ezra must be praised for the holy work they do: They provide free kosher food, toiletries, and household cleaning items to low-income Jewish families in Southeast Michigan.

It would be considered blasphemy to criticize this important communal organization. And yet, I was left extremely surprised that during Sukkot they held their annual dinner at a local synagogue. The “strolling dinner,” which likely cost the organization over $20,000, fed their donors gourmet food while their beneficiaries were standing in line for dinner at shelters in the rain. Their mission is to feed the hungry in our community, and yet on that night it was the well-to-do donors that sustain the organization who were fed. It seems that their priorities were not in tune with their core mission.

I’ve been to many non-profit fundraising events that serve expensive, delicious meals. Of course, one could argue, it’s better not to wine and dine, and just allow all the donations to go to the organization’s mission and overhead. However, these events are part of the culture in the fundraising world. I take exception, however, with the Yad Ezra annual dinner because it is their stated mission to feed the hungry through their kosher food bank. To have an excess of food at this event and to spend the evening talking about feeding the hungry seems paradoxical to me.

I imagine a more appropriate event for this agency in which they encourage their donors to stay home, have a nice dinner in their sukkah with their family and then come to the event to help honor one of their most dedicated donors. They would be asked to bring a bag of non-perishables (even though many did just that before Yom Kippur). The agency leaders could then tell the donors how much money was saved by not serving a full meal or providing a strolling, all-you-can-eat buffet. The donors would be relieved and would not feel guilty eating excessively while talking about the needs of the hungry in the community.

* * *

Finally, my attention was directed at those less fortunate during the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret. Most of Deuteronomy chapter 15 is concerned with ensuring that there not emerge in the Israelite nation a permanent underclass (persons unable to lift themselves out of poverty). The Torah reading discusses the remission of debts every seventh year and the laws of lending to the poor. Five verses (15:7-11) in the chapter outline Jewish poverty laws requiring us to feed, clothe, and house poor non-Jews as well as Jews. The next verses promote a fair severance pay for workers.

This Torah reading gets to the heart of Jewish ethics and the ideal way in which we must treat our fellow human beings (be they Jewish or gentile, workers or the unemployed). We have a clear role to take care of those less fortunate — the hungry and the homeless.

As I listened to these verses being chanted, I thought about Nathaniel Popper’s harsh critique in the Forward of the Hekhsher Tzedek commission’s Magen Tzedek. He argues that Conservative Jewish leaders who support the “living wage” have done little to lead by way of example and emulate this ethic in their own synagogues. He quotes my colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who wrote a teshuvah (religious ruling) promoting a living wage and edited a book about pursuing social justice to benefit the needy. She said, “There’s somewhat of a reluctance to look inward and think and talk about our own employment practices.”

Fact is, Popper is correct. It is disingenuous for rabbis to call for higher wages and better working conditions at kosher food companies (e.g. Rubashkins) before ensuring that their synagogue’s own janitors and nursery school teachers are compensated fairly. It is easy to levy standards on other establishments, but much more difficult to attain those standards at home first.

What is most important is to work toward a society in which there is no permanent underclass. Not everything will be equal — or even close to it — because that’s not realistic. But we all must help those less fortunate and those who are currently struggling. Not only in the food industry, but in every industry. We should be a part of the process that allows for every working man and woman to earn a fair wage; one in which they can support their family. We rabbis must begin by ensuring that those men and women who clean our synagogues and teach our children are being paid adequately and treated fairly. Then we can branch out to the community-at-large.

Those are the ethics of hunger and homelessness. The ethics of fair rights for the working class. And those are the ethics by which we should strive to live.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Celebrities Detroit Jewish Yom Kippur

Calling it Right

I had the wonderful opportunity this past Wednesday night to see Detroit Tigers radio broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell interviewed by Mitch Albom at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. To raise money for several local Detroit organizations that help the homeless, author, sports journalist, and radio personality Mitch Albom hosted an event to launch his new book. “An Intimate Evening with Mitch Albom and Friends” featured Anita Baker, author Dave Barry, and Ernie Harwell.

Rev_Henry_CovingtonAlbom discussed his new book “Have a Little Faith,” and dialogued with Rev. Henry Covington (pictured at left), the former drug addict and ex-con who is now the Pentecostal pastor at Pilgrim Church and the founder of the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry to Detroit’s homeless, who is one of the subjects of Albom’s book. He also interviewed local Detroit rabbi Harold Loss, the spiritual leader of the mega-church-sized Temple Israel in West Bloomfield who filled in for the late Rabbi Albert Lewis, Mitch Albom’s rabbi from Cherry Hill, NJ who is featured in “Have a Little Faith” as well.

Ernie Harwell Statue at Comerica ParkFor me, the highlight of the evening was not meeting with the likes of Dave Barry and Anita Baker backstage during the pre-glow event, but rather sitting back in the audience and watching Ernie Harwell shmooze up Mitch Albom on stage. Ernie Harwell is a part of my life; much of my childhood was spent listening to Ernie Harwell’s voice as he called the Tigers games on the radio as I laid in bed on school nights.

In July, the 91-year-old Ernie Harwell was diagnosed with brain cancer. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. The Detroit Tigers honored him a couple weeks ago during a home game at Comerica Park, but he hasn’t made many public appearances lately. He wasn’t sure he could even make it to the Fox Theatre for Mitch Albom’s event, but he did. And he was amazing!

Albom, sitting on a living room sofa asked Harwell to speak about his faith and how he has come to accept the life-ending disease he now faces. He talked about finding faith as a young man and how it has helped him persevere through many challenges in his life, including his current sickness.

Mitch Albom described Ernie Harwell’s voice as being “what baseball would sound like if baseball could talk.” Albom also praised Harwell for having the patience to let the game of baseball move at its slow pace, and to allow the sounds of the game to be heard and appreciated by the radio audience. Harwell paraphrased Shakespeare by explaining “The game’s the thing.” “It can’t be rushed,” he said.

I enjoyed listening to Harwell talk about the days when baseball clubs couldn’t afford to send their radio guys on the road with the team. The play-by-play would come over a telegraph and Harwell, sitting in a broadcast studio, would call the game from the telegraph making sound effects to add some excitement. Some of the broadcast, Harwell admitted, he would make up since all he actually knew about the game were the stats coming over the telegraph machine. While waiting for the stats to come through, Harwell would make up a story, saying a dog just ran across the field or a fan fell out of the stands. Harwell also spoke nostalgically about the Tigers winning the World Series in 1968 and calling a play in which Jackie Robinson stole home plate (see the video below).

Through the several standing ovations on Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre, all I could think about was what a true mentsch Ernie Harwell is and how much he’s a part of the fabric of Detroit and of major league baseball. Long after Ernie’s left this world, I know I will still hear his voice in my head calling baseball games. He will forever be the “Voice of Tigers Baseball.”

* * *

And speaking about calling baseball games on the radio, I couldn’t believe what I heard about Mike Blowers, the former Seattle Mariner and current radio commentator for the organization. On the radio last Sunday, as Jews were in synagogue listening to the Kol Nidrei service and being released from the vows they’d make in the coming year, Blowers made a vow that something would happen in the upcoming baseball game. His prediction was reminiscent of Nostradamus.

Jeremy Moses, in a post on the blog titled “The Messiah Does Baseball Color Commentary,” writes:

You don’t believe in the Messiah? You don’t think the Apocalypse is coming? As of yesterday morning, I’ll admit that I was skeptical as well. But now, I believe it is fair to say that former Major League Baseball player, Mike Blowers, is Moshiach.

But before I prove my point, let’s look at some of the pre-conditions. According to [an article on Messianism on], the Messiah will not come on Shabbat. Good, because I believe he came on Sunday. Second, the rabbis believed the Messiah would come on the eve of Passover. Well, Sunday was Erev Yom Kippur, so I think it’s fair to say that the rabbis had the right idea, but got the wrong holiday.

Finally, according to Sotah 9:15, “In the footsteps of the Messiah, arrogance [chutzpah] will increase; prices will rise; grapes will be abundant but wine will be costly; the government will turn into heresy; and there will be no reproach.” That kind of sounds like today’s world, especially in this economy.

Well, I don’t know that Mike Blowers is the messiah, but this really is an unbelievable prediction. Blowers calls it perfectly. First, he says Seattle Mariners rookie infielder Matt Tuiasosopo would be the Player of the Game. Next, he predicts that Tuiasosopo would hit his first Major League home run. Not only that, but he guesses it will come in his second at bat, off a fastball on a 3-1 count and that Tuiasosopo would hit it into the second deck. Unbelievable call!

Watch the video below and then try to figure out why Mike Blowers didn’t spend his time at the racetrack instead of trying to play professional baseball where he journeyed from team to team including three stints with the Mariners.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |