Humor Jewish Prayer Ritual World Events

Oh! The Plane’s Gonna’ Blow!

This is a poem I wrote about the incident last week when a Jewish 17-year-old boy caused a U.S. Airways flight to be diverted because the flight attendant thought his tefillin (phylacteries) were a bomb. It’s based on “Oh, the Places You Will Go!” by Dr. Seuss.

Oh, the Plane’s Gonna’ Blow!
By Rabbi Jason Miller
(With Apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Mazel Tov!
On the plane you shall pray.
You’re off to Louisville!
Takin’ off from LGA!

You have tefillin on your head.
You’re travelin’ with New York Jews.
You can pray in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. If there’s turbulence, the Amidah you will forgo.

The flight attendant will see your odd boxes. Look’em over with care. Then she’ll say, “Hey Kid, whatchya’ got on over there.” With your arm full of leather and your shuckling feet, you’re too frum to take your seat.

She’ll tell the pilot the plane will go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head to a new town. Since your tefillin looked so silly, you’ll touchdown right in Philly. You’ll say, “The box on my hair? You really need not fear!”

Up there things can happen and frequently do, by people much more Middle Eastern than you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. They’ll soon realize you’re a Jew.

Oh, the Plane’s Gonna’ Blow!

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll let out a sigh!
You’ll soon join Bubbie for soup in KY.

You’ll be just fine because you’ll have prayed. The feds will say “Oops, Sorry!” for the mistake that was made. Wherever you fly, you’ll have learned quite the lesson. With tefillin no more will you be messin’.

Except when you do.
Fly El Al as a Jew.

Please promise us that you will no longer fear. These Hang-ups can happen when you fly U.S. Air.

You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant phlum. And the chances are, then, that you will still be frum.

Oh, the plane’s gonna’ blow! There is prayer to be done! You must say thanks to your Lord. You’ve done the right thing son. And the magical thing you do with a leather strap, will make you the most famous Jewish chap. No Shame! No one will think you’re just a rube, the world will learn about tefillin on YouTube.

They still won’t get it. But you shouldn’t fret it.

I’m afraid that some times you’ll pray sans phylactery. On a plane, in a train, or by that Ol’ Factory.

Daven Alone!
Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll do quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet people scared by your Jewish way. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that won’t know that a tefillin is what you lay.

Kid, innocent you are
And you’ll go far.

So… be your name Birnbaum or Schwartz or Levy or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Bevy, you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your Bubbie is waiting.
So… daven away!


  • Amidah = The central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, which is recited standing.
  • Shuckling = Yiddish meaning “to shake.” The ritual swaying of Jewish worshipers.
  • Frum = Yiddish meaning “religious.”
  • Daven = Yiddish meaning “pray.”
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Humor Jewish Ritual Tefillin World Events

Tefillin On Board

Most Jewish people have never heard of the word “phylacteries,” and yet according to Google, at current count the word appears in over 800 of today’s news articles on the Web. Apparently, a 17-year-old man wrapped in his phylacteries (tefillin in Hebrew) was treated suspiciously on a U.S. Airways plane from NYC headed to Kentucky. In fact the pilot rerouted the aircraft to Philadelphia.

For those who have never heard of tefillin, here’s an explanation from “Phylacteries is actually a Greek word for tefillin. Phylacteries loosely translates as ‘to guard, or to protect.’ In the Torah, they are referenced as something to be worn in recognition of God bringing the children of Israel to Egypt. A set of tefillin includes one for the arm and one for the head of the individual praying. They are typically a set of small cubic leather boxes, painted black and include parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Bible. They also have leather straps dyed black to help attach to the observant Jewish individual during prayer.”

I jokingly wondered aloud whether the pilot was just looking out for the observant Jewish teen and felt he’d be better served in Philly rather than Kentucky, which has a small Jewish population.

The news story reminded me of a story a friend told me that also involves tefillin and airplane security. He tells the story about a friend of his who took his tefillin on a flight (carry on) several years ago and the security agent saw the odd looking tefillin on the metal detector. He asked what they were and the guy couldn’t remember how to say tefillin in English (phylacteries) and said “prophylactics” by accident. The guard started to laugh and let him go through.

The bottom line here is that wearing two black boxes connected to some black leather straps should really not be considered a potential breach of aircraft security. In fact, after hearing about this, I decided to come up with a list of ten Jewish-related things that may actually pose a higher security threat on board an airplane (with apologies to David Letterman):

10. Waving a Lulav (eye poker)
9. Wrapping yourself in a Tallis (whip passengers with those fringes)
8. My Grandmother’s Chicken Soup (scalding hot, but it’s liquid so its already banned)
7. Wielding a Challah knife (obvious!)
6. Purim Grogger (Metal corners make dangerously sharp weapon)
5. Full Set of the Talmud (heavy enough to bring down an aircraft)
4. Using Jewish Sarcasm (it’s deadly!)
3. Giving a discourse on the history of the Jewish legal tradition (will put pilots to sleep)
2. Matzoh Balls (deadly as thrown object)

And the #1 Jewish thing more dangerous than wearing tefillin on a plane is…

1. Singing Shabbat song: “Bim Bom, Bim Bim Bim BOMB!!!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Israel Michigan Obituary Rabbi

Rabbi Efry Spectre

Even as a child I felt very comfortable in my family’s synagogue. I went to nursery school in the lower level of Adat Shalom Synagogue and would attend Shabbat services with my grandfather each Saturday morning. I looked up to the rabbi and the cantor of the synagogue, and considered them to be my mentors over the past three decades. After all, they knew me as a four-year-old tot and they knew me as a rabbi. They just always seemed to be a part of my life.

And then Cantor Larry Vieder passed away in October 2008 succumbing to Pancreatic Cancer. A part of the congregation seemed to die with him. Even in his retirement, he was a staple of Adat Shalom attending the weekday and Sabbath prayer services as often as he could. The other day, his long-time partner on the pulpit, Rabbi Efry Spectre, died in his Manhattan apartment where he had retired after leading Adat Shalom for 22 years.

I developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Spectre, as can be expected since I spent a lot of time around the synagogue — Saturday mornings with my grandfather, Hebrew High School classes, youth group activities, and working in the mail room for several years. He was my teacher in the classroom, and outside of the classroom too. In college, he encouraged me to work as a counselor at Camp Ramah before applying to rabbinical school. (He even called the camp director and told him to hire me.) He stood next to me at my bar mitzvah and officiated at my wedding a decade later. In between he spoke eloquently at my beloved grandfather’s funeral, choosing just the right words to bring comfort to my grandmother and our family.

But I really got to know Rabbi Spectre after he left Adat Shalom. A couple months after my wedding, he moved to NYC as part of a sabbatical that would lead directly into his retirement. He began teaching a course in homiletics (sermon delivery) at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was studying to become a rabbi. We enjoyed many lunches together in the cafeteria (with Cantor Vieder too when he came to town for meetings), and on several occasions he took my wife and I to dinner at different Kosher restaurants in Manhattan.

I recall one Saturday afternoon when he joined us for lunch at our small Upper West Side apartment. After lunch and nice conversation, I remembered that someone taught me how Maimonides always escorted his distinguished Sabbath guests home. I felt I should walk my rabbi back to his apartment. So, we spent the next hour walking through Riverside Park on a beautiful afternoon. I probably learned more from my teacher during that walk than I did as a 10th grade teenager in his classroom.

Little did I know that the following summer, in 2001, we’d have a lot more time together for me to learn from him. Rabbi Spectre would often ask me to come to his apartment and fix his computer (or set up his VCR, Fax machine, answering machine, etc.). He was one of the most brilliant rabbis of his generation, but when it came to electronics and computers he was a technophobe. One morning before heading to the gym, I came to his apartment to install some new software on his computer. I left my gym bag on the floor by his dining room table. While I was working on his computer, he went to get something from the other room tripping over the shoulder strap of the gym bag. He went flying to the ground and broke both shoulders. I called 9-1-1, rode with him to the hospital in the ambulance, and spent the next month at his bedside. A single man with no children, he depended on me and I felt honored to help. The experience had its “Tuesdays with Morrie” moments, but I also felt guilty that it was my gym bag that put him in the hospital (and later a rehab center). Thankfully, he recovered from the injury and didn’t seem to hold it against me.

Throughout the remaining years of rabbinical school and into my career, I continued to call upon Rabbi Spectre for his insight. He was a wonderful source of knowledge and advice on a vast array of subjects. He navigated the pulpit rabbinate better than most rabbis, always seeming to be there for his congregants and still finding time to visit Israel over fifty times.

I was honored to write his obituary for the Detroit Jewish News this week. I quoted his colleagues, past congregational presidents, and his friends. They all emphasized the same qualities about Rabbi Spectre: He was an unwavering Zionist, a champion for the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry, rigid in his observance of Jewish law, and highly regarded among other rabbis throughout the world. Many spoke of his artistic talents as a renown playwright and singer. He loved going to the theater, whether he was in New York, London, or Israel. He skillfully translated musicals into Hebrew to be performed at Camp Ramah.

Locally in Detroit, he was a trusted spokesman for Jewish concerns and an ardent supporter of the Jewish day school. Rabbi Daniel Nevins worked alongside Rabbi Spectre as his assistant rabbi. He told me, “He came to Adat Shalom at a time of deep crisis and, together with a group of lay leaders and gifted professionals, he helped the synagogue become a vibrant Jewish center. He was extremely perceptive, and few rabbis could match his passion and eloquence, whether at a funeral or in a sermon. He encouraged me to be independent on the pulpit and in the classroom, and he supported my rabbinic development.”

As I wrote in his obituary, I will always remember my teacher as someone fond of telling witty jokes, making puns, and dancing on Simchat Torah with a broad smile on his face. I will also remember him playing a pivotal role in my formation, from a nursery school child to a rabbi in the community. He gave so much of himself to the congregation. His commitment to his people and the State of Israel was felt throughout the world.

I am proud to call myself one of Rabbi Efry Spectre’s many children. May the memories I have of my departed teacher endure for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Jewish Judaism and Technology Singles

JDate Rabbi of the Month

Since I became a rabbi, I’ve found that there are two different ways that engaged couples respond to the question, “So… how did you meet?”

There is the long, detailed narrative married-couples-to-be provide about who set them up, how they began as “just close friends” and it progressed to something “more,” or how fate brought them together at that singles’ night at the bar or a mutual friend’s wedding. Conversely, there is the quick, one-word response that more than half of all couples give me when I ask how they met: “JDate.”

Most rabbis are realizing that JDate is having a positive effect on bringing young Jewish couples together. Close friends of mine who met on JDate (and now have two children) nominated me for the JDate “Rabbi of the Month.” I’m proud to be associated with this website and company (owned by Beverly Hills-based Spark Networks Limited) because they are using technology to do what Jewish matchmakers have done for generations — help Jewish people find each other.

Upon being told I was JDate’s Rabbi of the Month, I was asked why I encourage young singles to register on JDate. I replied: “JDate is the spark that single Jews need to find their Bashert (soul mate). There’s truly someone out there for everyone.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Charity Ethics Israel Jewish Medicine Tzedakah World Events

Proud of Israel

Israel often gets slammed by the media, so when there is positive coverage of Israel in the news, it is important to showcase it. Several major media outlets have lauded Israel for its quick and efficient aid in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union writes for the JTA: “The Jewish community, in its entirety, can be proud of its response thus far to the Haitian catastrophe. Rescue teams from the State of Israel and millions of dollars from the Jews of America are but examples of our response. Whatever the motivation for these responses, this has been a religious response, a Jewish response.” He explains earlier in his op-ed that the Jewish way of responding to natural disasters is to: “See. Feel. Act.”

Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to see how CNN was singing the praises of Israel’s response in Haiti. Even though the Israelis came from the other side of the world, the report notes that the Israeli army was the first to set up a field hospital in Haiti. One woman explains, “I’ve been here since Thursday and no one except the Israeli hospital has taken our patients.” When the reporter walks into the Israeli field hospital she says that it’s like another world because of the imaging technology and the operating rooms the Israelis have set up. Diane Sawyer also featured the quick response by the Israelis in Haiti on ABC News. Sawyer speaks with a correspondent who helped deliver a baby and then watched as another baby was delivered in the Israel Defense Forces field hospital. The baby was named “Israel.”

Here is the video clip from the CNN report:

In addition to the response by the Israelis on the ground in Haiti, other articles have praised the American Jewish community for the outpouring of aid through charitable gifts and medical supplies. The JTA reports: “By Tuesday, AJWS raised $1.8 million from more than 16,000 people via its Web site. The JUF-Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago raised $283,000 in five days from 2,200 donors. Almost all of it — nearly $260,000 – came in online, from 2,058 individuals. UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto raised $173,240 so far, much of it online. Those involved in the fund-raising effort say the Jewish community’s gifts to the people of Haiti stem from Jewish values.”

The New York Times today also featured an article praising Israel, but this time it had to do with the Winter Olympics. The article explained that Israel is hardly a winter sports powerhouse (no surprise!), but this year may prove differently for Israel in the Winter Olympics in downhill skiing and ice-skating.

I can only hope that this positive coverage of Israel by the media continues. At least the world is taking notice of Israel’s rapid response to the need for humanitarian aid in Haiti.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
God Jewish News Prayer Rabbi Theology World Events

Prayer for Haiti

I was in Israel staffing a Birthright Israel trip in 2004 when I learned about the Indian Ocean Tsunami while watching CNN in my Jerusalem hotel room. The following year, I was staffing a University of Michigan Hillel mission to Ukraine when the tragic news about Hurricane Katrina came on the news in my Kiev hotel room. I was therefore surprised that I learned of the devastation of the Haiti earthquake the other day while sitting in my own home, in the United States.

These natural disasters raise many challenging theological questions for us. The mere fact that we refer to these events as “acts of God” forces us to consider why God (whichever God we believe in) acts likes this — or why God allows these catastrophes to occur. Following the theology ascribed to Rabbi Harold Kushner, I would phrase the theological conundrum as: “How do we humans understand and relate to a God who doesn’t participate in these natural acts of devastation?” Because if these were really acts of the God in which I believe, I simply wouldn’t want that to be my God!

In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I found some comfort in a prayer that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote. I hope I also brought some comfort to others by reciting that prayer during that difficult time. Rabbi Sacks, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, has adapted that prayer for the recent earthquake in Haiti.

As an introduction to the prayer penned by Rabbi Sacks, my teacher Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of Clal writes the following on his Beliefnet blog: How does one pray in the wake of this week’s events in Haiti? Or does that really beg the question of how we pray on any given day in the face of equally painful, if less grand, tragedies? I am not sure, and frankly right now, am not sure that I care.

Prayer in Response to Natural Disaster
By Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi

Adon ha-olamim, Sovereign of the universe,

We join our prayers to the prayers of others throughout the world, for the victims of the earthquake which this week has brought destruction and disaster to many lives.

Almighty God, we pray You, send healing to the injured, comfort to the bereaved, and news to those who sit and wait. May You be with those who even now are engaged in the work of rescue. May You send Your strength to those who are striving to heal the injured, give shelter to the homeless, and bring food and water to those in need. May You bless the work of their hands, and may they merit to save lives.

Almighty God, we recognise how small we are, and how powerless in the face of nature when its full power is unleashed. Therefore, open our hearts in prayer and our hands in generosity, so that our words may bring comfort and our gifts bring aid. Be with us now and with all humanity as we strive to mend what has been injured and rebuild what has been destroyed.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, ve-nomar Amen.
May it be Your will, and let us say Amen.

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

Mark McGwire

Last week, former Time Warner head Jerry Levin, marked the 10th anniversary of his disastrous merger deal with AOL by finally apologizing and accepting responsibility. Levin issued his mea culpa on CNBC explaining that he “presided over the worst deal of the century” and how sorry he is for “the pain and suffering and loss that was caused.”

I thought of Levin’s apology the other day when I watched former baseball slugger Mark McGwire finally admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) as a player. Sure, McGwire’s is a different admission of guilt. He’s more of a guilt-ridden cheat than Levin, who made a horrible business decision. No one lost their job because McGwire took steroids to bulk up and hit more homers. Yet, both of these apologies came many years after the actual deed was done.

I’m not going to get into the debate about whether there was anything actually wrong with players “juicing up” during the steroid era of professional baseball. If you’re interested in an insightful discussion on the topic, I recommend the recent book Cooperstown Confidential, by Zev Chafets. The author explains the results of the Mitchell Commission and takes baseball purist George Will to task for arguing that the steroid era altered the very essence of the game.

The issue here is not only whether McGwire is truly contrite for using PEDs, but also whether he really feels remorse for his evasiveness and outright lying about his steroid use. While many of Mac’s fans (and Sammy Sosa’s) inevitably feel cheated knowing now that the famous homerun race of ’98 was between two ‘roid raging monsters, the real concern of baseball should be the unethical way McGwire handled the accusations over these many years.

The homer battle between Sosa and McGwire was actually a level playing field since both sluggers were juicing. Baseball purists will argue that McGwire’s numbers can’t be compared with the players of the past (e.g., Ruth, Maris, etc.) because of his unfair pharmaceutical advantage (Barry Bonds too for that matter). But these are debates to be had among stats fans and the history buffs of the game. The question of how the Hall of Fame will handle the stars of the steroid era is another thorny question, but not one that is germane to McGwire’s admission this week.

The question I ask as a rabbi is whether Mac’s confession should count as legitimate repentance (teshuvah). We’ve heard just about every form of “I’m sorry” from our sports stars throughout history (the philandering golfers, the wife-beating hoop stars, the drug-abusing baseball players, the gun-toting football players, the gambling refs, and on and on). But what exactly did McGwire apologize for? After all, he seemed to have plenty of excuses for his steroid use and even blamed the “steroid era” for what he did. He claimed he did it for his “health,” and not to be a better player. When asked if he could have hit all those dingers had he not juiced, without hesitation he said, “Absolutely. Look at my track record as far as hitting home runs. They still talk about home runs I hit in high school. I was given the gift to hit home runs.”

Doing real teshuvah and being contrite are not the same as regret or a confession. Whether he considers his juicing to be cheating or not, Mark McGwire still hasn’t owned up to his lying about what he did. It took him many years to finally admit that he used PEDs, but baseball fans everywhere are still waiting to hear him articulate that he understands how his evasiveness cheated the public. He must take responsibility for his actions.

McGwire returns to baseball this spring as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. There are, of course, many who believe this is the only reason he finally admitted his steroid use. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, his admission now is because keeping those demons in the closet makes it difficult to live as a man. But in terms of performing teshuvah, Big Mac still has his work cut out for him. And no drug will make that task any easier.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Camp Education Interfaith Israel Jewish Jewish Youth

The Decade in Jewish Education

A couple days ago JESNA (“advancing Jewish learning, transforming Jewish lives”) chose what it considers to be the best in Jewish education of the decade. At the conclusion of their top 10 (actually 11) list, they invited others to share their own lists. And so I have. First, here’s the JESNA list (in no particular order):

  • Taglit-Birthright Israel
  • Funding Partnerships
  • Consumer-centric Education
  • Rise of Innovation Sector
  • Congregational Educational Change Initiatives
  • Revitalization of Jewish camps
  • Online Jewish Learning
  • PJ Library
  • Jewish Service Learning
  • “Public Space” Jewish Education
  • Focus on Outcomes

And now, here is my list of the best in Jewish education for the past decade:

Jewish Camping – I may be biased as the rabbi of a large Jewish camping agency, but Jewish summer camps are just about the only thing working these days in terms of informal Jewish education (I’ll get to those 10-day free Israel trips in a moment!). Thanks to Elisa and Rob Bildner who had the foresight to found the Foundation for Jewish Camp and to mega-donor Harold Grinspoon, Jewish camps are on the rise. The euphoric experience that thousands of Jewish kids and teens feel for a month or two each summer is the Jewish education world’s home run.

Technology – From online distance learning to Jewish utilization of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), no one can dispute that modern technology and communication have removed borders and made the global Jewish community feel much smaller. Many Jewish organizations have figured out how to use Web 2.0 applications to their advantage and many more are just beginning to navigate the terrain. I have to single out Darim, who’s “committed to assisting Jewish organizations in their efforts to increase their professionalism and relationship-building capacity through the effective use of technology.”

Indie-Minyans – I was surprised JESNA didn’t mention Hadar, which I consider the decade’s premier example of do-it-yourself Judaism, albeit in a professionalized way. Hadar began the decade as a start-up minyan (in a cramped NYC apartment) and ended it as a dynamic community that includes a yeshiva, minyan, and think tank. Hadar is educating 20- and 30-something urban Jews in fresh ways, and the established synagogues and seminaries are certainly watching closely.

JDate – Yes, I’m including an online dating website as one of the best in Jewish education for the decade. JDate has 650,000 members worldwide making it a substantial community. While it may not be a traditional education website, its members learn a lot about Judaism while searching for their potential mate. It also forces many unaffiliated Jews to feel connected with a Jewish community, and to consider their own Jewishness (and their future Jewishness). It also helps “strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come” more than most educational initiatives.

Pro-Israel Groups – I’m always amazed at the level of involvement so many unaffiliated Jews have with organizations like AIPAC and StandWithUs. These groups are committed to educating the Jewish community about Israel’s history, culture, people, and politics, as well as its struggle to survive.

Jewish Service Learning – The past decade was all about a new form of tikkun olam. More Jews than ever combined Jewish learning with a zeal for pursuing justice. This one-two punch caused organizations like AJWS, Jewish Funds for Justice, and Avodah to flourish. Jews were able to apply their Torah learning to real life situations (business ethics to the Enron and Madoff scandals, ethical kashrut to the Rubashkin/Agriprocessors debacle, pursuing global justice to Darfur, pikuach nefesh to post-9/11 security systems, etc.).

Inclusion – Gay rights in the Jewish community came about through education. The Boston-based Keshet discovered new ways to educate the community about GLBT inclusion, while a gay Orthodox rabbi came out of the closet to help create and promote a film about homosexuality in the Orthodox world. The Conservative movement’s seminaries opened their doors to gays and lesbians, and the decade ended with the majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis willing to perform commitment ceremonies for same sex couples.

Informal Ed – In each decade, JCCs and Hillels have had to adapt to new trends. These are the community centers for the Jewish people and thus, have to offer everything the Jewish community seeks — whether in the suburbs, the city, or on campus. Learning Torah with a local rabbi under the same roof you can practice Yoga, swim laps, send your toddler to pre-school or your teen to high school, have a Kosher lunch meeting, go to the theater, and rally for Israel is truly impressive. It’s possible that our JCCs are the most underrated educational agency in our Jewish community.

Post-Denominationalism – I believe the last decade prepared us for true post-denominationalism in this new decade. The last ten years saw the rise of community day schools and high schools, and therefore the growth of Ravsak — the network of these non-denominational schools. It also became common for Reform and Conservative congregations to merge in an effort for both of them to survive. In most cases, these bi-denominational mergers proved flawless. Family foundations and federations created programs, fellowships, and new organizations that transcended the movements. With mega-money from the Bronfmans, Schustermans, Steinhardts, Wexners, Davidsons, Grinspoons, and Adelsons came programs that no one denomination could claim — the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex and PEER programs, Taglit-Birthright free Israel trips, PJ Library, Avi Chai, PEJE, etc. The growth of organizations like BBYO, Melton, and Clal also demonstrate a post-denominational, informal educational spirit.

Interfaith – Through the out-of-the-box education offered by the Jewish Outreach Institute and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the Jewish community began to consider interfaith families in new ways. While the Reform movement was quick to welcome the interfaith family, the more traditional movements need to be educated on why this is of paramount importance to the future of Jewish peoplehood.

Conclusion: The Jewish community is always changing and it is through education that we reach new heights. In the new decade, we’ll begin to see the impact of the young Hadar-influenced leadership on synagogues and temples across the country. New advances in technology will allow us to share Jewish wisdom across continents at lightning speed. We’ll see much more collaboration between synagogues, federations, camps, and youth groups to create community-wide endeavors that will save money and reach more Jewish people quicker. We’ll also begin to determine whether the mega-philanthropists and federations are really getting the bangs for their millions of bucks with the Birthright Israel investment. Because if we don’t see real results in the coming years, we’ll regret how much money was spent on middle-class 20-somethings for their free-ride to Israel at the expense of many other important educational initiatives. Finally, the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life will get smaller as we weed out redundant organizations, and support creativity and innovation — the hallmarks of Jewish education.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Diaspora Israel Jewish Orthodox Judaism Politics Reform Judaism

Israel, Diaspora Jews, Women, and a Wall

I’ve been following with much interest the incident at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem in which a Conservative Jewish woman was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). Nofrat Frenkel (pictured) was led away by Jerusalem police in November for the “crime” of praying with a tallit at the Western Wall. She is a member of Women of the Wall.

This story only highlighted what many have known about Israel for a long time. It is not a democracy when it comes to the religious practices of its citizens. Much has been written about this travesty since Frenkel’s arrest and the incident has only caused the Women of the Wall to be more active in their pursuit of religious equality.

The most recent development in the story is the police interrogation of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall yesterday. Hoffman was told that she is a suspect in a felony for not obeying a legal order and disrupting the peace. She denied the accusation, stating “the people who disturbed the peace at the wall were the men who protested out loud against the women of the wall and not the over 100 women who prayed together and celebrated the new month.”

I haven’t written about this on my blog since there’s just not much more to say. I wish the Israeli government would get its act together and allow for various interpretations of religion in the country. How many different ways can that be stated?

The reason I mention this now, however, is because of the way in which this ongoing conflict has been used by Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf (pictured) to describe what he calls Jewish Americans’ case of split personality disorder when it comes to Israel.

When I first stumbled on Sheizaf’s article (through a Google Alert) it was on a Pro-Palestinian website so I was skeptical about his perspective. However, the article originated on Sheizaf’s “Promised Land” website and is an intelligent essay about why most Jewish Americans are so hesitant to criticize Israel publicly.

The Maariv newspaper editor writes, “My friend noted that if some of the articles on the Israeli media – and not even the most radical ones – were to be printed in the US and signed by non-Jews, they would be considered by most Jewish readers like an example of dangerous Israel-bashing, sometimes even anti-Semitism.”

Sheizaf articulates very well the seemingly ironic position that so many liberal American Jews find themselves in concerning their views on Israel. Admittedly, I am in this category. I never criticize Israel or its government’s policies publicly, because, well, it’s Israel — my Israel, my homeland. The Jewish state has enough critics, I reason; it could use more people playing defense for the team. But when it comes to religious pluralism, I have no problem expressing my frustration for the control that the ultra-Orthodox wields in Israel. A monopoly by one denomination of a religion for all official religious acts is not democratic.

Sheizaf uses the recent incidents at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall to underscore his point:

Here is an example: as we all know, the Orthodox Jewish establishment has an official statues in Israel (unlike most Western countries, state and religion are not separated here, and the chief Orthodox Rabbi has a position similar to this of a supreme court justice). The same Orthodox establishment is very hostile to none-Orthodox Jews, which happen to make most of the American Jewish community. A few weeks ago, Fifth-year medical student Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel. I expected all hell to break in the States. After all, this concerns Jews’ right to practice their faith in the most holy place in the world. I wouldn’t say the event went unnoticed – I saw some blog posts and articles referring to the incident, and Forward published Frenkel’s account of the day – but it certainly wasn’t enough for people in Israel to notice. If American Jews spoke on this matter, it was with a voice that nobody heard.

Now imagine the public outrage if Frenkel was arrested anywhere else in the world for wearing a talit. For some reason, many Jews accept the fact that only in Israel – the same country which asks for their political and financial support – they are seen almost as Goyim. Very few of these Jews will admit that Israel is simply not a very tolerant place, to say the least.

What followed the incident in the Kotel was even more interesting: speaking at a convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren said that Frenkel was not arrested but just “led away” by police from the area after offending some people’s feelings there. This was simply not true – she did get arrested – and two weeks later Oren admitted to this fact and claimed he was given “incomplete information” from Jerusalem (even though the fact of Frenkel’s arrest was widely known and never disputed, both in Israel and in the US). Yet even then the ambassador didn’t provide any explanation for the arrest itself, and nobody seemed to demand it from him anymore. More importantly, if there was some discomfort felt in the Jewish community regarding the way ambassador Oren handled the whole affair, it failed again to reach the Israeli media or the Israeli public.

It is interesting that there hasn’t been more of a public outrage among Jews in the Diaspora about the way in which women are treated at Judaism’s holiest site in its holiest city. The fight waged by Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora on the Haredi monopoly in Israel has continued over the past two decades in a passive way. From the comfort of our Diaspora pulpits, we Conservative rabbis express our disdain that our conversions aren’t recognized in Israel and that we can’t hold a mixed male/female minyan at the Western Wall, but when we get to Jerusalem, we walk our group to the Southern promenade (the back of the bus) with our tail between our legs.

I believe that what Sheizaf is saying is that if American Jews would only “grow up” and formulate a more mature (and realistic) perspective on Israel qua nation-state, then there would be more advances in the realm of religious pluralism. I confess that I love to remind critics of Israel that the Jewish state is the only real democracy in that region. However, religious freedom must be a prerequisite for true democracy.

Sheizaf concludes with a recollection from when he staffed a 5-week American teen tour of Israel. He notes that “as far as politics and history goes, it was elementary school level, with the whole program avoiding any issue that might seem too complex or controversial… Sometimes I feel that with regards to Israel, the entire Jewish community never got off the Taglit bus. Jews are almost desperate to hold on to some sort of a naïve image of this country, its people and its institutions. This is most evident with the way they see the IDF. It’s not just that they don’t believe what the Palestinians are saying – they can’t even imagine the Israeli army doing bad things. The US army – yes; the IDF – never. More than ever, I wonder what role this naïve image of Israel – almost an abstract Israel, which has nothing to do with the actual Middle Eastern country – plays in the way Jews see themselves, and how are they going to look back on it ten or twenty years from now.

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

Coming Out as a Rabbi

There are times when rabbis might not be so willing to let others know they’re a rabbi. Apparently that wasn’t the case for Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, a Reform rabbi in Westchester, NY, when he was an audience member of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Geoff and I spent a couple of hours learning a piece of text from the Torah together this past November in the Clal offices in NYC as part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. A few weeks later, he posted the following on our group’s e-mail forum:

The reason I’m writing is because I thought you all might get a kick out of this — my girlfriend and I went to the taping of The Daily Show last night. Jon Stewart is actually QUITE Jewish (and is pretty knowledgeable about Judaism), and he does a Q&A with the audience before each show. I (of course) had to see if I could bring out any of his latent Jewish-ness, so I told him I was a rabbi and asked him what his favorite Hanukkah memory was… It was very cool.

Here is the clip from the beginning of the show which aired later that night:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Intro – Rabbi in the Audience (

Not all rabbis, however, would be so forthcoming about their profession (especially to a man about to broadcast to millions of people). In fact, Rabbi Mitelman’s posting led to an interesting conversation about when to fess up about being a rabbi and when to keep the cards closer to the chest. One female Conservative rabbi married to a male Reform rabbi explained that they had also been to a taping of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart a week prior, but chose to not disclose their professions.

She wrote that there are times when she has “not shared that I was a rabbi in order to avoid the inevitable shock, surprise, and ensuing questions. Usually when I am traveling, on vacation, or otherwise outside of my “normal” world, I do not advertise the fact that I am a rabbi, and have often responded that I was a teacher or social worker when directly asked my profession. I am now wondering if I am doing myself and our profession a disservice by doing this. Would it be breaking down more borders and opening up new opportunities to share my profession?”

There are certainly times when it makes sense for rabbis not to broadcast what they do. This would be more difficult for the Catholic priest who’s collar is a dead give-a-away. I know of rabbis who go grocery shopping many miles from their home so as to experience some privacy. There are also rabbis who wouldn’t think of exercising at the local Jewish Community Center for fear of being bothered with work-related questions. Personally, I enjoy working out at the JCC and find that most people are quite respectful of the reason that I’m there (to break a sweat and not play “Ask the Rabbi”).

For some rabbis, the setting might dictate whether they “out” themselves as a rabbi or not. Seated next to a fellow Jewish person on an airplane, for instance, if I say I’m a rabbi I could be in for a long flight listening to every reason why Hebrew School was a scarring experience for this individual. Why their childhood rabbi caused them to despise organized religion in general as an adult. Seated next to a non-Jewish individual on an airplane, I could explain that I’m a rabbi and then field endless questions about why Israel doesn’t just make peace with her Arab neighbors already, or why some Haredi rabbi was indicted for tax fraud. That would be like a Unitarian minister having to defend Catholic priests for the child molestation scandal.

This is the reason why Rabbi Joel Meyers, former executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, admitted to his colleagues at a convention in 2007 that he often tells the person sitting next to him on the plane that he is either a college professor or a therapist.

Ultimately, however, I recognize that I am always a rabbi. There have been times when I’ll tell someone that I am a rabbi and it leads to a wonderful and fulfilling experience. The opportunity to teach strangers (both Jews and non-Jews) often arises at the least likely times. I’m sure it’s no different than my friend who’s a pediatrician not wanting to volunteer her profession when she’s on an airplane for fear that she’ll have to give medical advice for every ailment that has ever afflicted the children of the woman seated next to her. But in the event of a child getting sick on the plane, I know she’d jump into action without a moment’s hesitation.

Last month, I was on an airplane returning home from New York. A Jewish man sat down next me. (I know he was Jewish because as soon as he saw I was wearing a kippah, he immediately told me that he’s Jewish and that he speaks a little Yiddish.) He spent the entire plane ride telling me about what he did for a living. And it was truly fascinating.

The man, Walter Arnold (pictured), is an extremely talented artist who works with stone. He’s designed beautiful fireplaces, breezeways, fountains, and sculptures for some of the most breathtaking homes and churches in the country. Trained in Italy, Walter told me that his art graces the White House, Washington National Cathedral, and the Capitol. He pulled out his computer and showed me dozens of pictures of his work. It was breathtaking.

At the end of the flight, Walter handed me his business card and asked for mine in return. Looking at it, he exclaimed, “Wait, you didn’t tell me you were a rabbi. I could have asked you so many questions.” I explained to him that what he does for a living is much more interesting to me than what I do. I thanked him for the enjoyable conversation. And we said goodbye.

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