Happy Passover!

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

Around the Cyber Seder

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

As we approach the Passover Seder, here are a few cool sites and videos to enhance the Passover experience:

Bangitout.com – Seder Sidekick 2010
Isaac and Seth Galena, the brothers behind the popular Jewish humor site Bangitout.com have once again published a Seder Sidekick to help bring some levity to the Passover Seder. Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Harold Galena, the 38-page PDF document includes song parodies, top ten lists, silly jokes, quizzes, and funny pictures.

OurJewishCommunity.org – Online Passover Seder

The online Seder, created by Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr of Cincinnati’s Congregation Beth Adam, will take place on Tuesday, March 30 at 5 PM EDT and participants can sign up at on the Seder website. The online Seder will use the award-winning Haggadah, made by the congregation, that creates a Passover ritual that is meaningful, relevant, and appropriate for all modern-day Jews. It provides direction for beginners and comfort for seasoned participants as they celebrate Passover. Last year, Rabbi Baum tweeted two Passover Seders on Twitter. Baum and Barr’s OurJewishCommunity.org reaches out to thousands of unaffiliated Jews and others who are looking for a meaningful connection to Judaism, but had not previously found one.

The Open Source Haggadah – By Daniel Sieradski

The Open Source Haggadah allows users to assemble a personalized haggadah from texts and images that come from a diverse and inclusive array of Jewish sources, including — most importantly — user generated content. Launched in 2002, the site was a proof-of-concept for Open Source Judaism, a view which proposes that Judaism is not simply a religion to be believed in, but one to be considered, discussed, and evolved. Jewish texts and rituals are not closed, but open to commentary, disagreement, and even revision. Inspired by the values expressed in Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, the Open Source Judaism Project sought to advance public discourse around the use of technology in the reimagining of our relationship to Jewish texts and ideas. The Open Source Haggadah was the first in a series of experiments that illustrated the value of giving individuals the ability to “customize” their Judaism and Jewish experiences.

How to Perk Up Passover’s Plagues – Wall Street Journal

This Wall Street Journal article has some new ideas to make the Passover seder more fun and interactive using Twitter, Charades and “Jewpardy.” Rabbi Oren Hayon of Dallas thinks he has just the way to integrate “American Idol” into the ancient tale of the Haggadah. Building on a growing movement to add a bit of fun to the plagues and pestilence, he has recruited a handful of fellow rabbis to act out the Passover story in 140-character Twitter messages, accessible at twitter.com/tweettheexodus. Of course, you can also rely on the good old Plagues Bag.

The Passover Humor Files – Jacob Richman

Israeli technology maven Jacob Richman has compiled a list of links to various forms of Passover humor. He posted 70 Passover files ranging from jokes and stories to song parodies. Both kids and adults will find them entertaining (and sometimes educational). The Passover humor website includes the First Plague as reported on Twitter, Pesach Cleaning 2010, the Computer Engineer’s Haggadah, Dr. Seuss 4 questions, and An Adam Sandler Passover.

G-d Cast – The Passover Seder with the Four Sons
G-dcast is a weekly cartoon about the story Jews are reading in the Torah right now. A different writer explains the Torah portion (or Jewish holiday) in 4 minutes through stories, country songs or hip hop! Then it’s animated. Check it out:




The Jewish Robot – The Matzah Ball Olympics
Commissioned by the Manischewitz Company, William Levin (The Jewish Robot) created this wildly funny video:

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

Facebook Haggadah 2.0

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

After the success of his 2009 Facebook Haggadah, I predicted that Carl Elkin would say “Next Year on Twitter.” Apparently, that prediction didn’t come to be.

However, I am happy that after his brilliant Facebook Haggadah parody last year, Elkin is back for more. The creator of last year’s spoof has created a new and improved 2010 Facebook Haggadah, complete with a status update from the 1st sister Miriam who reveals the color of an article of her clothing just as her descendants do thousands of years later on the social media site for breast cancer awareness. In the new version, Elkin also makes comical references to Farmville and FourSquare. Woody Allen, Sarah Palin, and Albert Einstein all take part in the social networking seder discussion.

Even the prophet Elijah is a part of this haggadah. Clearly a technophile, Elijah updates his status letting us know about his latest gadget: “My new smartphone with Nav software and turn by turn directions is making this year’s rounds a breeze! Currently 350 households ahead of schedule.”

Elkin, a Boston-based computational chemist, also created an app called YesWeConserve.com to to help get people involved in fighting global warming. The app is designed to help people find and share popular energy-saving ideas.

I’m not going to hold my breath for a Twitter based Haggadah, but at the end of this year’s Facebook Haggadah Elkin does promise that next year’s version will be an iPhone app!

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

Our Tweeter in Washington

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Much has already been made of the social media posting habits of William Daroff. Whether on Twitter or Facebook, the well-connected director of the Washington Office of The Jewish Federations of North America (and its VP for Public Policy) isn’t afraid to go public with his whereabouts, upcoming speaking engagements, or even his drinking buddies.

Earlier this month, the JTA’s Ron Kampeas dubbed Daroff “The Fastest Tweet in the Jewish Organizational World” and the Fundermentalist (AKA Jacob Berkman) tweeted about Daroff that “the JFNA’s crackberry head has a serious case of the twitters.”

Some in the Jewish Federation network may think that this Washington insider tweets too much, but others appreciate the bird’s eye view that Daroff provides. His embrace of social media and lack of restraint when it comes to providing his daily schedule may lead to more transparency in the Jewish communal world.

Keeping up with Mr. Daroff’s professional life — knowing which D.C. movers and shakers he’s wining and dining, and which cities are on his travel itinerary — is a glimpse into the life of a Federation executive that most never had. Letting the world (or at least anyone who follows the @daroff feed on Twitter) know when he’s in a meeting with Israeli leaders on Capitol Hill or at the White House Hanukkah party removes much of the guessing game about the Jewish community’s political access in Washington.

Of course, it’s easy to take the tell-all nature of Twitter too far. There have been times when Daroff’s Blackberry tapping fingers took him into TMI territory.

A friend of mine, who’s a Jewish communal professional, found himself drinking Scotch with Daroff at the hotel lobby bar at this year’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) conference. (Single Malt Scotch is certainly one of Daroff’s own trending topics on his Twitter feed.) Before the first sip, the list of imbibers was tweeted around the Internet. Back at the office following the conference, a few eyebrows were raised following Daroff’s tweet and my friend had to explain to his colleagues that the bar tab wasn’t paid for with agency funds.

Adam Kredo, writing in the Washington Jewish Week, also noted the gray area in which Daroff navigates when he Tweets his opinion. This past Fall, Daroff tweeted that the left-leaning Israel group J-Street “stands with the Mullahs and the hard left at NIAC [National Iranian Action Council]” who are “opposed to sanctioning Iran.” That tweet might have gotten Daroff in some hot water, but as he aptly put it, “I have a cool job and get into cool places. You shouldn’t have to buy me a scotch in order to hear what I’m up to, and Twitter allows for that.”

Web 2.0, in addition to opening doors into new media, has also forced us to raise questions about the dissemination of professional and personal information. Is it appropriate for Jewish communal non-profit executives to divulge what they do when the workshops and plenary sessions come to an end at professional conferences? Is it unseemly for Jewish communal executives to fire off quick missives from their Blackberry before their communication department has a chance to review them? Is it wise for leaders of Jewish organizations, rabbis, day school heads, or foundation leaders to keep us up to date in 140 characters or less? Will social media help us gain a better perspective of what our Jewish communal leaders do on an average day?

My own sense is that William Daroff’s “tweeps” do in fact appreciate his candor. And with over 2,500 Twitter followers and about the same number of Facebook “friends,” he’s built quite an audience. Perhaps if more Jewish leaders follow Daroff’s lead and aren’t afraid to share their activities (and ideas) with the community-at-large, there will be more young Jews eager to connect to the organized Jewish community.

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

Marriage Ref Middle East

As tensions between the United States and Israel seem to intensify, it looks unlikely that President Barack Obama will be able to broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So, I was thinking of who might be the best negotiator to sit down with Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.

Jerry Seinfeld seems to have come up with a successful idea with his new TV show “The Marriage Ref” and that got me thinking…

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

Is Facebook Chametz?

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Is Facebook kosher? If so, is it kosher for Passover? I’m not posing the question of whether it is acceptable to log on to Facebook on the first and last days of Passover, when observant Jews refrain from using computers or the Web.  Rather, is Facebook activity allowed at all during the Jewish Spring festival?

In the early years of the Web, the recurring joke leading up to Passover each year was that Jews should remove their browser’s cookies before the holiday. Now, two rabbis have created a Facebook group named “Facebook is Chametz referring to the Hebrew word for leavened products which are forbidden during Passover.

Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit

It is true that Jewish people get a little more observant on Passover, so maybe it’s not a far stretch to assume that some of the less than virtuous aspects of Facebook may be put aside for the length of the holiday.The Facebook group created by Rabbi Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit, and later joined by Rabbi Ezra Weinberg, now has over 200 members. Its tagline is “I’m fasting from Facebook for Passover. You too, huh?” Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit (pictured) is a non-denominational rabbi, teacher, and musician. Ezra Weinberg is Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.

Referring to the more spiritual aspects of Passover, Feinstein-Feit explains on the group’s Facebook page: “The Chassidic masters teach that the leavening we avoid represents our over-inflated sense of self. Get your Face out of the Book and cross into the liberation of Exodus, movement of Jah people… (at least for a little while).”

This is certainly an original way to look at the culture of this social media application, which has grown exponentially in the past few years. It’s also a refreshing way to look at the Passover festival. Too often, the focus of the holiday is strictly on food concerns rather than the “chametz” that resides in our speech and interpersonal connections.

I posed some questions about the “chametz” that resides on Facebook to Rabbis Feinstein-Feit and Weinberg:

Why did you create this Facebook group?


SYFF: The Chassidic tradition clearly links chametz with an inflated sense of self, egotism, and narcissism. Dietary shifts alone do not necessarily touch the roots of our inflated self-interest. I’m a fan of Facebook in general, but have noticed that using the network not only can distract me from other more introspective or meditative pursuits, but it can also induce comparing mind — “so-and-so’s life is more interesting, meaningful, fun, etc.” I wanted to create awareness around how Facebook can actually serve to alienate us, and to find support in abstaining from something that is so common-place.


EW: As someone with a strong Facebook presence among my friends, I personally found the idea of abstaining from Facebook a meaningful way to digitally disconnect from some of the powerful habit that pervades our lives. I also know a lot of Jews who don’t keep kosher for Passover or don’t feel connected to that aspect of the tradition. The “Facebook is Chametz” would be a way to bring chametz out of the realm of food and into the realm of our laptops and handheld smartphones.

How are you using Facebook/social media to teach your “Torah?”


SYFF: I try to “walk” my Torah, so to the extent that I publicize my life through Facebook is the extent I teach anything. (I help other’s teach their torah by developing websites and pushing their content through social media streams.)


EW: I would say I have not taken full advantage of Facebook professionally. But having over 2100 friends, it is not something I take lightly.

Will you really abstain from Facebook for all 8 days? What about Twitter or other Social Media sites?


EW: I will probably abstain from Facebook and Twitter all 8 days, because my Twitter account is linked to my Facebook.


SYFF: I have abstained from Facebook [on Passover] entirely for the past two years, and will again. Isn’t it amazing Twitter wasn’t such a big thing only a year ago? I personally think Twitter is quite a different social tool and may still post Tweets, but I don’t think I’ll follow anyone during Passover.

Should Jews (or all humans) abstain from Facebook year round and not just on Passover?


EW: Refraining from chametz, in my estimation, is less about haughtiness and more about breaking routine and remembering the deeper connections we have to God, our fellow humans, and the planet. What I loved most about the movie Avatar were the spiritual elements of the Navi people. They didn’t need devices and machine technology to connect to each other and the other life forms on their planet. Sometimes you can connect more by disconnecting. That is the essence of spiritual technology. Refraining from chametz, just like refraining from work on Shabbat, connects us to something deeper by disconnecting us.

So, the bottom line according to these two rabbis is that while Passover is a certainly a time for putting aside the bread and the cereal, it might be a good idea to unplug from the chametz of Facebook as well.

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

The Shabbat Scooter

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

The other day I received a call from a reporter at the Detroit News.  She was just about to submit a story about a motorized scooter that can be used by observant Jews on Shabbat, but she wanted a local rabbi’s comments first. It was fortuitous that she contacted me since I am already familiar with the Israeli-based Zomet Institute, which partnered with the scooter company, but I have also seen this Sabbath-acceptable scooter in action since I know Michael Balkin, who owns one of these scooters and was interviewed for the article.

It truly is remarkable how modern technology can be used to allow those challenged by a disability to maintain the laws of Shabbat.  The article focuses on Balkin, whose “worsening neurological disorder has made walking more than a few steps nearly impossible.” Now, thanks to the “Shabbat Scooter” from Michigan-based Amigo Mobility International, he can get to synagogue on the Sabbath guilt-free.

According to the Detroit News article, Amigo, founded by Allan Thieme, “began making the Shabbat-approved scooters five years ago. It uses a module manufactured in Israel and certified by the Zomet Institute, an Israeli nonprofit that specializes in electronics that meet Halakhah, or Jewish religious law. The scooters, which cost $2,500 to $3,500, are sometimes covered by insurance.”

“Scott Chappell, the manager of the Amigo, said the company was approached by the local Orthodox Jewish community for a scooter model that could help homebound individuals to be able to get to the synagogue during Shabbat.”

Since the article was published yesterday, I have been inundated with questions on Facebook and Twitter about how this scooter actually operates so that it’s “kosher” for use on Shabbat. All agreed that it’s great that technology has removed this barrier for observant Jews with disabilities, but they wondered how it works.

The key factor in the scooter’s acceptability is the differentiation in Jewish law between a direct and indirect action on Shabbat. For instance, according to the laws of Shabbat, a Jewish person may not intentionally extinguish a flame, but if he opens the window and the wind blows out the flame he has not violated the law. In a 2005 article in the Saginaw News, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen of the Zomet Institute explains the need to apply this leniency. “The law does not allow Jews to intentionally carry out non-Sabbath activities under the principle, but it does provide exceptions for people in dire need. Health is among those needs. While not life-threatening, physical disabilities are a legitimate need that may allow a person to use the principle of indirect action for driving a scooter on the Sabbath.”

So, based on this principle, how does the scooter operate? I received an explanation from Mike LaBrake, Amigo Mobility International’s director of operations:

There is a Shabbat/Normal switch on the Amigo. It is spring loaded and the toggle lever must be lifted before it can be switched to a different position so the user cannot accidentally switch the Amigo back to Normal mode during the Shabbat period.

Once the switch is activated (and the key switch turned “on”), the software is designed so the start up signal goes through a timing circuit. The timing circuit is where the Gramma principle of an indirect action comes into play, thus the user is not activating the motor circuit directly. Once the timing circuit is complete the Shabbat module will close the motor circuit and the system is programmed so the Amigo “crawls” at a very slow speed without the user touching the throttle lever, we refer to this as “crawl speed”. During crawl speed the goal is to be able to stall the Amigo by turning the tiller all the way to the right or left. If the user feels that they are in physical danger at anytime they can depress an emergency brake switch and the Amigo will come to an immediate stop.

Once the Amigo is in the crawl mode, if the user wants to go faster they pull on the throttle lever and the Amigo picks up speed just like normal. I’m told that this action is approved because the user is not opening or closing a motor circuit, they are just modifying the amount of current going through it.

However, the user is not allowed to change direction by pushing the throttle lever in the opposite direction as this would require the motor circuit to switch. Instead the user has to depress the Directional Switch. When this switch is depressed the timing circuit is activated and after a couple seconds the Shabbat module sends a signal and switches the motor circuit so the Amigo runs in the opposite direction.

The Amigo can be turned off when the user reaches their destination because it will again go through the timing circuit when the key switch is turned to the “off” position. The Amigo cannot have its batteries charged during the Shabbat period as this requires a direct action of having to connect the battery charger to the wall outlet. Depending on the Amigo model the Amigo can go 15-30 miles on one charge so they should have enough power for the entire Shabbat period. When the Shabbat period ends the use can switch the Amigo back to Normal mode.

This technology has allowed observant Jews with physical disabilities to be part of a community on Shabbat without a dispensation from a rabbi. As new technological advances come about, we will continue to see how Jewish law evolves as a result.

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

Meatless Michigan?

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm has taken quite a bit of criticism over her recent “no meat on Saturdays” proclamation. Or, as Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press wrote: Gov. Jennifer Granholm is in “a tall vat of deep-fried tofu.”

Granholm reasoned that in Michigan, a state hit hard by the economic recession, it’s become more difficult to feed the family meat meals. Essentially, she was just trying to help Michiganders save money during challenging times. However, like Oprah Winfrey a few years ago, Granholm neglected to consider how a move to vegetarianism would affect the agricultural industry. Obviously, Michigan farmers were less than thrilled by the governor’s meatless idea, even if it was only intended for one day of the week.

But there’s another segment of Michigan’s population that Governor Granholm didn’t consider: The non-vegetarian Jewish citizens of Michigan who enjoy eating meat for Shabbat lunch on Saturdays. While kosher meat is certainly more expensive than the tofu the governor is recommending, there are a good number of Jewish people who enjoy a hot meat-filled cholent on Saturday afternoon.

I think Granholm’s intentions were good, but I’m just not willing to forgo cholent, chicken, or even a turkey sandwich following Shabbat services on Saturdays. And I can certainly understand how this weekly push for vegetarianism would hurt local farmers financially.

Maybe Brian Dickerson put it best when he wrote: “Granholm and other politicians should take note: No one likes being told what’s good for them — unless they’re paying a cardiologist for the privilege.”

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

Shabbat Unplugged

This morning at the JCC, I was checking my email on my phone when an elderly gentleman came up to me and asked what I do with that “thing” on Shabbos. I explained that while I am quite connected to my cell phone during the work week, I have no problem putting it aside for the 25 hours of Shabbat. He told me that he found that impressive and then told me what he remembered about his parents’ Shabbat observance when he was a child.

As connected as I am to technology, I find it healthy and refreshing to put it aside for one day a week. And that is precisely what Reboot, a nonprofit think tank, is encouraging Jewish people to do this weekend. In yesterday’s New York Times, Austin Considine explained:

The Fourth Commandment doesn’t specifically mention TweetDeck or Facebook. Observing the Sabbath 3,000 years ago was more about rest and going easy on one’s family — servants and oxen included.  But if Moses were redelivering his theophany today — the assembled crowd furiously tweeting his every sound bite — one imagines the frustrated prophet’s taking a moment to clarify what God meant, exactly, by a “day of rest.”  For starters, how about putting down the iPhone? 

Beginning at sundown on Friday, March 19 will be the first annual National Day of Unplugging. The organizers of this day will draw attention to Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto”, which seeks to fight back against the tidal wave of technology taking over society and our lives. They encourage people to put down the cell phone, stop the status updates on Facebook, shut down Twitter, sign out of e-mail and relax, as part of our National Day of Unplugging.

As a way to get people across the nation to reclaim time and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves for 24 hours, they have even created cell phone sleeping bags.

Following the launch of the iPad, Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons wrote: “Our love affair with technology is also about a quest for control. We’re living in an age of change and upheaval. There’s an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. But technology gives us the illusion of control, a sense of order. Pick up a smart phone and you have a reliable, dependable device that does whatever you tell it to do. You certainly can’t say that about your colleagues or families.”

I certainly agree with the concept behind this day of unplugging. On an average day, I’m Tweeting, updating Facebook, sending and receiving hundreds of emails, checking voice mail messages and returning calls, and taking photographs. Yet, from Friday evening through Saturday night, I am unplugged from battery powered communication and find myself spending much more time with my wife and children. It is also my sacred time to read books (as opposed to the other six days of the week when I’m reading articles, Tweets, and status updates on the computer).

I’m curious to know how many people who are not regularly Sabbath observant will unplug this Shabbat. Hopefully, those who do will share their experiences on the Sabbath Manifesto Website. I just hope they wait until it’s dark Saturday night to post!

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

Kosher for Passover Zingerman’s Challah?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the signs at Balducci’s, a New York grocery store, that advertised their ham as “Delicious for Chanukah.”

Today’s issue of the Detroit Jewish News features a full-page ad for the local Plum Market chains of grocery stores. In large print, the ad proclaims Plum Market as “Your Passover Destination” and features a challah (Jewish egg bread) from Zingerman’s Bakehouse above the words “We stock a full line of Passover products from Zingerman’s Bakehouse.” (Thanks to Rabbi Rachel Shere, of Adat Shalom Synagogue, for bringing the ad to my attention.)

First, Zingerman’s, based in Ann Arbor, is not a kosher establishment. Second, their products are not kosher for Passover.

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