The Demise of the Conservative Movement

As a Conservative rabbi, a Jewish person raised in the Conservative Movement of Judaism, and one whose theology is well grounded in Conservative Judaism, I had absolutely no interest in the Conservative Movement’s Biennial Convention that took place earlier this month in Philadelphia. What’s more is that I didn’t even hear many people (rabbis included) talking about this convention. At least not locally in Metro Detroit; a city which once boasted some of the largest and most thriving Conservative synagogues in the country. The lack of interest was… well, actually interesting. I couldn’t even tell you one person from Detroit’s Jewish community who flew to Philadelphia for this convention.

Yes, I read a few articles from the national Jewish publications and websites about “The Biennial,” but there wasn’t much coverage of the convention on Twitter compared with the Reform Movement’s convention a couple week’s earlier, which had several times the participants and dozens of tweets each hour.

I don’t believe Conservative Judaism is dead. I just believe it’s stuck. I don’t blame Conservative Judaism as an ideology for this. Rather, I blame the movement. That is, I blame the institution. It has yet to prove that Conservative Judaism is meaningful in the 21st century to a new generation of Jews.

And now, as if anything could be less interesting than the Conservative Movement’s Biennial Convention, a two-day scholarly conference is taking place in Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute entitled “Conservative Judaism: Halacha, Culture and Sociology.” This academic conference plans to discuss the burning issues threatening to split the Conservative Movement, such as the ordination of homosexual and lesbian rabbis, the sharp drop in the number of young members and the challenge of intermarriage. Sounds like fun!

Perhaps, one person who gets it is my colleague Noah Zvi Farkas (right). In a Jewish Week op-ed, Rabbi Farkas lays out his own understanding of what ails the Conservative Movement. Titled “The Re-founding of Conservative Judaism,” he writes:

As a young rabbi who believes in the idea of religious movements, I note that Conservative Judaism is a grass-roots coalition that has lost two of its primary organizing principles: one was that Conservative Judaism and Conservative synagogues serve the need for Eastern European Jewish immigrants to become Americanized while holding on to their religious roots.

The other is the recognition that the scholastic trend to study ancient and medieval Jewish texts scientifically, known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, has not yielded a sufficiently sacred orientation for Jewish life.

Jews in my generation, that is, Jews whose great-grandparents or grandparents came to this country looking for the promise of the American dream and needed a connection to what was familiar, are no longer motivated by the same sorts of organizing principles that our ancestors were. For generations Conservative synagogues thrived on the complicity that Jews will, more or less, seek out a synagogue when they move to a town, and that they will join that synagogue and continue to give to that synagogue because that is what Jews simply do.

Exactly! Times have changed. The Jewish community has changed. Conservative leaders have spent decades deciding whether it’s kosher to ride to shul, whether a penis is a requirement for the rabbinate, and whether two men can commit to each other lovingly with the use of two glasses of wine, two gold rings, and an ancient Aramaic document transposed into a modern piece of artwork. While all this was being debated, the centrist Orthodox shuls grabbed the best and brightest in the Conservative Movement who didn’t become rabbis while the Reform outreached to those the Conservatives refused to inreach.

I think Rabbi Farkas hits the mark when he suggests a community organizing approach to re-found Conservative Judaism as a meaningful denomination for the 21st century. It needs a re-branding and an institutional overhaul. But it also needs to cease doing what hasn’t been working. And that includes these conventions and conferences that only prove that there is a growing majority out there who don’t care about these conventions and conferences. Plus, they’ll save a lot of money.

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

Private Jewish Tutoring

Last weekend at a wedding, I was approached by a lovely couple who were very excited to see me after many years. It took me a moment to recall they were Brian’s parents, but when I did, my excitement matched theirs. Brian was a student in the first class of Hebrew School I ever taught. I got my start as a Jewish educator as a young 18-year-old college freshman in East Lansing, Michigan. I taught the same group of students for three years in a row; from fourth grade through sixth grade.

After Brian finished sixth grade, his parents hired me as a private tutor to continue teaching him Hebrew and to train him for his upcoming bar mitzvah. For a year, I visited Brian at his parent’s home on a weekly basis where we went over his Torah portion, haftorah (selection from the Prophets), and worked on his bar mitzvah speech. Some thirteen years later, I still remember learning about the Nazirite Samson with Brian. I didn’t merely teach him to recite his Torah reading and haftorah; rather, we studied the biblical text with the commentary so that he understood what he was chanting to the congregation.

Brian’s parents shared with me how meaningful that experience had been for their son. As they walked away, I found myself feeling nostalgic about the one-on-one Jewish education I offered Brian, and also about the article I recently read in the New York Jewish Week about private Jewish tutoring.

The NY Jewish Week cover story explained something I quickly discovered upon moving to Manhattan for rabbinical school over a decade ago. Many families choose to hire private tutors in lieu of Hebrew School. Writer Julie Wiener explains:

As seemingly growing numbers of families in New York and other major metropolitan areas eschew Hebrew schools for the convenience and intimacy of private tutors, many in the organized Jewish world — particularly those active in synagogues — worry that tutoring’s individualized approach, part of a larger trend in modern American culture, poses a threat not just to synagogues, but to the very ideals of Jewish community.

The only thing that surprised me about Wiener’s article was that it took this long for the topic to make the headlines. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 90’s, I had quite a side-business with the various private tutoring jobs I amassed. There was an e-mail list sponsored by the Rabbinical School Student Organization (RSSO). Local Manhattan families would post blurbs about their need for a private tutor for their son or daughter who was too busy to attend Hebrew school at the temple or synagogue, had a learning disability that required an individualized approach, didn’t care for the Hebrew School teacher, or didn’t get along with the other kids in Hebrew School. In some cases, the parents didn’t want to join a temple or synagogue, preferring a do-it-yourself approach instead. In other cases, they didn’t want their child to commit to the several hours a week of Hebrew School that was required to become a bar or bat mitzvah because of extracurricular obligations like hockey, soccer, dance, theater, or other tutoring time.

The compensation was great for full-time graduate students in New York City. In most cases, I was paid $80/hour, but tutoring a group of students (i.e., three) was upwards of $125/hour. Many of the jobs were advertised on the e-mail list, but the best tutoring jobs were passed down from graduating rabbinical students to younger rabbinical students.

When my friend and next-door neighbor Mickey Stanger graduated from the Seminary, I inherited several of his students. There was the young boy with ADHD who I tutored weekly for four years. His parents didn’t want to renew their membership at the synagogue and the boy’s learning disability wasn’t handled appropriately by the teachers. In the first couple years, I taught him Hebrew and basic information about Jewish holidays and customs. When he turned twelve, we began to prepare for his bar mitzvah — an intimate Havdallah service that I created specifically for him (do-it-yourself Judaism).

Those four years created a wonderful relationship not only with the young boy, but also with his parents. He never would have learned as much in a structured classroom, but I was able to personalize the lessons to meet his learning needs. Of course, it could be argued that while this family got what they wanted — a personalized bar mitzvah ceremony that perfectly fitted their son’s needs — they did not gain a closer relationship to a synagogue community or a rabbi as they would have with the traditional Hebrew School and bar mitzvah path.

There was also the group of three rowdy boys I tutored weekly around the kitchen table. They would have been thrown out of their Hebrew School classroom each week for their disruptive behavior, but I was able to reach them through various techniques that would have been impossible for a teacher in a classroom. I also tutored a young girl in Hebrew reading. Sitting in her parents’ multi-million dollar brownstone, I became the family’s rabbi often finding myself counseling the parents through their bitter divorce. While I usually found myself walking into vast, beautiful Upper East Side apartments to a team of nannies, maids, and other tutors, it was not just the wealthy who engaged tutors. Some families, as the NY Jewish Week article explains, are either allergic to shul membership or found it was more cost effective to forgo Hebrew School tuition for private tutoring.

JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer is quoted in the NY Jewish Week article. He “wonders how well private programs can socialize young Jews to feel part of a congregation. One of the great advantages of Jewish children being educated in schools is that they are exposed to different types of Jewish role models. They see the rabbi, they see their teachers, they see other adults engaged in Jewish living. The private route limits the exposure of young people.”

In the article, Rabbi Laurie Phillips, director of education at Congregation Habonim, likens Jewish studies tutoring to private sports lessons. “You can learn to play soccer with a tutor, but it’s a different experience if you’re learning one-on-one versus being part of a soccer team. You’ll know how to play, but won’t know how to be part of a team.” I think that’s a fair assessment when it comes to tutoring in place of Hebrew School. Unfortunately, because of time constraints there aren’t many families who are supplementing Hebrew School with tutors. It’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition.

Along with the argument that these children are missing out on the community experience when they are only privately tutored, there is also the case of synagogue membership hurting. Many families join congregations so that their children can attend Hebrew School and become bar or bat mitzvah. When Jewish families in the metropolitan areas opt for private tutoring instead of Hebrew School, it also means they’re going the do-it-yourself Judaism route as well and forsaking synagogue membership. That clearly hurts the synagogues.

Nevertheless, it appears that the private Jewish tutoring business is thriving. Some educators have incorporated and run large tutoring businesses for groups and individuals who opt out of the Hebrew School track. Rabbi Reuben Modek’s website for his Hebrew Learning Circles program offers private bar and bat mitzvah preparation, as well as cultural and religious education. As if that alone won’t infuriate local pulpit rabbis, Modek also advertises that he’ll officiate at life-cycle events taking full advantage of the craving for do-it-yourself Judaism.

It’s only a matter of time before this coastal and big city trend of private tutoring for those who opt out of Hebrew School makes its way to the “heartland” Jewish communities. Already, in the Metro Detroit area, one former synagogue bar/bat mitzvah tutor has begun advertising in the Detroit Jewish News that he can be hired for private tutoring for those not wishing to attend Hebrew School. Yes, this hurts synagogues, but ultimately let’s hope it will make Hebrew Schools improve. Competition often does just that.

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

Basterds at the Seminary

JTA writer Ami Eden began his blog post about the showing of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” at the Jewish Theological Seminary as follows:

There are many wonderful things to say about the Jewish Theological Seminary, but let’s face it — it’s not exactly where all the hipsters meet. Honestly, how many times do you find yourself saying: I’m going to a really cool event at JTS tonight.

Important. Interesting. I’ll even give you provocative (sometimes). But, cool?

Well, to be fair, I guess I also wouldn’t characterize JTS as the hippest place in Manhattan. Sure, the six years I spent there in rabbinical school were some of the best and most exciting years of my life, but “cool” programs were not the Seminary’s forte. Recently, times have been tough on JTS with harsh financial woes, budget cuts, and the downsizing of its faculty and staff. They have even decided to close the Seminary on Fridays to save money. I do give Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor, a lot of credit for trying to turn things around and improve the image of JTS. Although, some might do a double-take at the recent programs the Seminary has hosted.

First, there was the event a couple months ago hosted by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Esti Ginzburg, and sponsored by Birthright NEXT and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents. The party for young Jewish New Yorkers was described as “an evening of fashion and passion.” However, having JTS (the academic center of Conservative Judaism) sponsor a party hosted by a bikini model didn’t sit well with many of my female rabbinic colleagues.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels wrote in the Forward, “An institution that trains clergy should probably stay away from events fronted by swimsuit models. People who learn, teach, and advocate for the highest values of our tradition are not going to increase Judaism’s appeal – or their own – through forcing an association with low-brow celebrity culture. The religious leaders who chase after celebrities in the name of kiruv -lo and behold! -often turn out to be using their Torah-for-the-masses public face as a screen for their own narcissism or social climbing.”

Well, I’m not sure the event demanded that level of criticism, but I too found it odd that JTS would host such an event. Hopefully, it achieved its mission of getting hundreds of professional, active, vibrant, young Jews to a party in which they could network (network, by the way, means date and then get married whereby they will produce Jewish offspring to repopulate the Jewish community).

The next event the Seminary produced could also be described as cool and controversial, although in a different way. When I received an e-mail publicizing the screening of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized it as the Seminary trying something new and different. When I read that Tarantino himself would attend the event, I booked a flight to NYC. I didn’t want to pass up a chance to watch a Tarantino film with Tarantino. I’ve been a big fan of the filmmaker’s for years, and Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill movies are among my favorites.

So, how does a Jewish academic institution like JTS come to host a screening and panel discussion of this violent, controversial, and profanity-laden film? Here’s the story:

Rabbi Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi in Alexandria, Virginia did what many rabbis (myself included) did on Yom Kippur this past Fall. He delivered a sermon based on the Holocaust film everyone was talking about — Inglourious Basterds. Moline tells his congregation that this is, in some twisted way, a feel good Holocaust movie for us Jews. He explains that it is cathartic to view the film, in which the Nazis die horrific deaths, as a revenge fantasy. His sentiments were not much different than the sentiments of many rabbis, including Rabbi Irwin Kula. In his articulate review of the film on the Huffington Post, Kula concluded, “Thank you, Quentin Tarantino. You have reminded us, whether you intended to or not, that we are never as powerful as our greatest fantasies and never as powerless as our worst nightmares.”

So, Jack Moline’s sermon makes its way to Lawrence Bender, the producer of the film. Bender also reads Irwin Kula’s review on the Web. He reports about both of them to Quentin Tarantino, who is interested in what rabbis think about the film. Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice-chancellor of JTS, suggests to Chancellor Arnie Eisen that the Seminary show the film and host a panel discussion including Lawrence Bender. Some calls were made, some Jewish connections to Hollywood utilized, and that’s how a Hollywood producer came to find his way to 3080 Broadway to sit on a panel moderated by the Seminary’s chancellor, and including Rabbi Jack Moline and Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky (a biblical scholar and self-proclaimed lover of gory films).

Following the 2 1/2 hour film, shown in Feinberg Auditorium on a large, rented HD screen with dynamic stereo sound, Bender announced to the dismay of the audience that Mr. Tarantino would not be attending due to a sore throat. While I was certainly disappointed that I traveled to NYC to see and hear Tarantino, the panel discussion (titled: “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge”) was very interesting nevertheless. It began with Chancellor Eisen reading from Irwin Kula’s impressions of the film (the crowd was obviously taken aback when Eisen didn’t censor himself in reading Kula’s words which included a profanity or two). Kalmanofsky then gave an exciting perspective on why she loved the film so much and had no problem with the violence or the revenge cast upon the Nazis. Moline said much of what he had spoken in his Kol Nidrei address, and explained that he returned to the pulpit the next morning on Yom Kippur day to give a different take on Holocaust memory and the respect deserved by the victims. All agreed that after so many Holocaust films had been produced, this one offers a much different take. And one that was a breath of fresh air.

Lawrence Bender spoke about traveling to Israel and Munich with Tarantino to show the film to audiences there. Everyone laughed when he recounted the story of his sitting down to lunch with the actor who played Hitler. The actor was in full makeup and sat alone during the lunch break. Bender recalled that he sort of felt badly for the guy and joined him. Perhaps, the highlight of the panel discussion was Lawrence Bender’s own father, who sat in the audience behind me and kept offering his own assessment of the film’s message (see video clip below).

All in all, it was a much different JTS-sponsored program than I remember attending as a student at the Seminary. Things have certainly changed at JTS and I’m glad the administration is trying new things. Chatting with Marc Wolf earlier that day, he dropped a hint about what could be his next big production at JTS when he asked if I’d seen the Coen Brother’s new film “A Serious Man.” “Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear them talk about that film here?” he asked.

Here’s a video clip of Lawrence Bender and Arnie Eisen talking about Inglourious Basterds:

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

White House Comedian Ari Teman Gets a Laugh Out of Obama

Ari Teman is having a great year. First, the Jewish comedian and founder of Jcorps wins the highly competitive Jewish Community Hero award. Next, he gets invited to the White House Hanukkah party. I’m pretty sure it was a legit invite and that he didn’t just crash an official White House party like Tareq and Michaele Salahi did last month.

Seth Galena, one-half of the Bangitout.com duo, reported on Facebook about Ari Teman’s White House experience. Apparently, he didn’t just shake the president’s hand in the receiving line, but actually used the time to tell Barack Obama a joke. The party was a who’s-who of Jewish D.C. including an assortment of Jewish leaders from across the nation.

Here’s the apparent conversation between Ari Teman and the 44th president of the U.S.:

Ari: Mr. President, I’m a comedian from New York —
Obama: Are you funny?
Ari : I tell jokes about you on stage every night, can I tell you one?
Obama: Sure.
Ari: I’ll say “Obama” instead of “Mr. President.”
Obama: Sure.
Ari: So, they’re calling Obama a Nazi —
Obama: Oh yeah (nodding)
Ari: Which I think is fantastic… because if you thought the Presidency was a tough job for a black guy to get!
[Obama starts cracking up.]
Ari: …Nazi… we have overcome! Mr. President, you have broken down color barriers.
[Obama, still laughing, shakes Teman’s hand again and gives him a hug]
Obama: That’s great!!

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

Impetus for Max Weinberg’s Mormon Song

When Tablet Magazine published the article about Senator Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song, Rabbi Jason Herman, who is part of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship with me, was quick to send the link to the article over our e-mail discussion list. Little did I know at the time, another RWB fellow, Rabbi Alana Suskin, was already thinking of a way to reciprocate Senator Hatch for his holiday song for the Jewish people.

According to the JTA, “Blogger Larry Yudelson posted a query to his fellow Jewschool.com contributors wondering if ‘there are any special Mormon holidays for which we can return the favor?'”

That’s when Alana, who is also Jewschool’s managing editor, suggested a holiday song for the Mormons. The problems was she couldn’t think of any special Mormon celebrations. Long story short, Rob Kutner (right) got involved. Rob used to write for The Daily Show and I’ve blogged about his hilarious Purim shpiels in the past on this blog. He now writes for the Tonight Show and thought this was a funny idea. So Kutner wrote the Mormon song that Tonight Show band leader Max Weinberg sings to “I Have a Little Dreidel.”

After the bit aired on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Kutner wrote on Jewschool.com: “It’s definitely an interesting moment when Jewish culture is mainstream enough to provide a window on another minority religion’s relative marginalization.”

And that’s the story of how the Jewish bandleader Max Weinberg came to serenade the Mormon senator Orrin Hatch on the Tonight Show.

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

Conservative Rabbis Must Exercise

Almost six years ago, when I became a Conservative rabbi, I knew there were certain expectations placed on me by my new professional organization, the International Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism (the RA). Specifically, they expected that I would follow the few rules they had or face expulsion from the Assembly. These rules were:

  1. Not officiating at a commitment ceremony or wedding between two members of the same sex;
  2. Not recognizing patrilineal descent (Jewish lineage from the father instead of the mother);
  3. Not officiating at an interfaith wedding;
  4. Not officiating at a wedding in which a divorced bride didn’t have a Jewish bill of divorce (get) from her ex-husband, or in which a divorced groom hadn’t given his ex-wife a get.

Well, with the acceptance of a religious ruling allowing Conservative rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies three years ago, it looks like #1 is no longer on the books.

Further, studies have shown that some 80% of Conservative Jews recognize people as Jewish who are the offspring of Jewish dads, but not Jewish moms (just as the Reform movement has officially done since 1983). My sense is that this will be the next significant change in Conservative Judaism, so rule #2 can’t be far from being passé too.

Privately, I’ve heard there are Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings under the RA’s radar screen. However, from my vantage point, most rabbis still firmly hold by rules #3 and #4 above.

The one RA rule I hadn’t foreseen when I became a rabbi is that I must agree to stay in good shape and maintain a healthy diet. So, I was surprised to get an e-mail earlier this week from RA executive vice-president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and two marathon-running rabbinic colleagues telling me to get to the gym pronto. Although, I must say that I do agree with the Shalem Campaign, urging us rabbis to make fitness a part of our daily lives and to eat healthy. The campaign, which is based on the President’s Fitness Challenge, was picked up by the JTA in an article titled “Eat right and exercise, Conservative rabbis told.”

At least now when I’m spotted at the gym in the middle of a workday, I can just explain that I’m following orders and trying to be a good rabbi.

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

Kosher Baskin Robbins

In time for Hanukkah, a few weeks ago my kosher certification initiative (Kosher Michigan) officially certified as kosher the new Baskin Robbins ice cream store in my hometown of West Bloomfield, Michigan. To show appreciation for becoming kosher, the store’s owner (Stella Stojanovic) created these new Hanukkah ice cream cup


Stella’s former Baskin Robbins location in West Bloomfield was about a mile from the home in which I grew up. Coincidentally, it was in the same strip mall as Marty’s Pizza, where the late Marty Herman started making his famous Marty’s Cookies thirty years ago. Those cookies are now certified kosher by Kosher Michigan too.

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

Max Weinberg’s Mormon Tribute

Last week, I wrote about the Hanukkah song that Senator Orrin Hatch wrote for the Jewish people. Well, apparently, Max Weinberg (of the E Street Band and the Tonight Show) was so taken by Orrin Hatch’s generosity that he wanted to reciprocate the favor.

On last night’s Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, the show’s only Jew, Max Weinberg, sang his Mormon tribute to the senior senator from Utah (with help from Conan and Andy Richter). The song is sung to the tune of “Dreydel Dreydel.” Here’s the video clip:

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

Details Magazine

I was disappointed a few months ago when I received the letter in the mail alerting me that my subscription to Condé Nast Portfolio magazine would be discontinued because the publication had gone bankrupt. But, rest assured, the letter informed me of my consolation prize: a subscription to Details Magazine.

To this day, I’m not sure how Details (a tabloid for the metrosexual?) is a suitable substitute for Portfolio (a source for “serious business journalism”), but anyway.

When the first issue of Details arrived in my mailbox with Adam Lampert, the odd-looking, American Idol guy on the cover, I placed the magazine directly in the recycling bin. I actually hadn’t heard of Adam Lampert (or his music) when the magazine arrived (I think I’m the only one who doesn’t watch American Idol).

When the next issue arrived with John Mayer on the cover, I figured I’d give it another shot since I’ve enjoyed his music for about a decade now. Before I even got to the John Mayer article, two items in the magazine jumped out at me.

One was this photo (click to enlarge) of what is apparently a metrosexual’s bathroom sink counter on which he seems to keep his toothbrushes (pink and black, so maybe his and hers?) in a “Heroes of the Torah” drinking glass.

I’m not sure what is odder: the fact that there exists a set of glasses devoted to the heroes of Torah commentary or the fact that one of these glasses is being used as a fashionable(?) holder of oral hygiene products. It was generous of Details to inform its readership that one can procure the “Heroes of the Torah” drinking glasses at Fishs Eddy, where Torah Heroes shot glasses and coasters may be purchased as well (including one bearing the face of the great 19th century Rabbi Hildesheimer, who’s name is misspelled on the drinking glass).

But the “Heroes of the Torah” toothbrush holder wasn’t the first thing that grabbed my attention and immediately made me question this magazine’s devotion to all-things-Jewish. It was the photo of the headless model wrapped in the Israeli flag directing readers to the article about “the rise of the hot Jewish girl” complete with the “Rise of the Hebrew Hottie Timeline,” dating back to Queen Esther, Betty Boop, and Barbra Streisand.

The article, which carries the headline (and I couldn’t make this up), “Naughty Shul Girls – Red-blooded American goys have found their new fetish: the smoking-hot Jewess,” could certainly be considered modern day Antisemitism. The only thing I learned from the article was that Emmanuelle Chriqui, the actress from “Entourage” and “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” comes from a Sephardic Orthodox family.

What I was left wondering was this: Why is Details magazine trying to compete with Heeb over Jewish satire. Oh, and also: Why was Portfolio the Condé Nast magazine that went bankrupt?

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

Hanukkah Lights

I once heard Rabbi Abraham Twersky tell a beautiful story that I found inspiring. As a young child, the rabbi explained, his mother would light one extra Shabbat candle for each child in the family. As his parents welcomed a new baby into the home, they would add another Shabbat candle. Rabbi Twersky recognized how warm it felt to know that there was more light in his home on Shabbat simply because he was alive. Certainly, his parents felt that the world was a little brighter because of their son, but this was a tangible way for him to embrace his importance and appreciation.

Similarly, on Hanukkah, many families participate in the tradition that each member of the household lights his or her own hanukkiyah. It is a way for each family member to contribute to the brightness of the Festival of Lights. Lighting the Hanukkah candles reminds us of the miracle told about the small cruse of oil that lasted for eight days in the Temple. When we each light the Hanukkah candles, we help keep this important story alive. Indeed, it is a story that is so much a part of our Jewish history and heritage.

There is something beautiful about the increased flames that illuminate from the Hanukkah lights on each successive night of the festival. A famous debate took place in Talmudic times concerning the order in which the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. The school of Shammai claimed that on the first night, eight lights are lit and then they are gradually reduced by one each night. The school of Hillel disagreed, arguing that on the first night one light is lit, and thereafter, the number is increased. Hillel explained that as we increase the light, we increase the holiness in the world. Of course, we follow the opinion of the school of Hillel.

The story of the Hillel/Shammai debate reminds me of the last night at the summer camp where I serve as rabbi and was once a camper. Once darkness has fallen on the lake, a torch is illuminated to kindle the large seven-branched menorah created by the late Irving Berg, long-time Artist-in-Residence of Tamarack Camps. The first candle is lit by the most senior staff members who “graduated” from their camper years in the late 1980s. The second candle is lit by those staff members who “graduated” in the 1990s and so on until last summer’s class of former campers approach the menorah en masse, arm-in-arm, to light their first candle as camp alumni helping the menorah to burn brighter. With each successive candle of the menorah, the holiness and joy of our camp community is increased. The burning flames remind us that our history is rich with the commitment of so many people at camp and within our extended community. We are reminded that camp is our heritage. And it is a warm and bright feeling.

During this Festival of Lights, occurring in the darkest season of the year, let us reflect on the brightness of our world. Let us remember that the world is a little brighter because we are alive. If we all keep that in mind, we will also remember to look for the miracles in our own time.

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