Tweeting the Flotilla Attack

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Peter Beinart’s essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in The New York Review of Books argues that most of the mainstream American Jewish organizations have abandoned liberalism on the issues of the Middle East and are responsible for a generation of young Jews who hold no connection to Israel. He writes, “not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups.”

Beinhart’s essay has of course drawn much criticism and debate within the American Jewish world, both from the right and the left.

Perhaps the best way to see the divide in the American Jewish community over Israel is to look at the dissemination of information and the debate on the Web today following the IDF raid of the Mavi Marmara and other ships in a flotilla traveling to Gaza.

Here’s what happened today: American Jews woke up this morning — a vacation day from work and school in commemoration of Memorial Day in the U.S. — to learn that Israeli commandos raided a Gaza aid flotilla, killing nine and injuring dozens of others. Since American Jews didn’t head to work this morning, there was no water cooler at which to debate the issues. Did the Israelis act in self-defense? Who struck first? Was the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid workers or political demonstrators? Did the men on the flotilla have guns and knives or was it a peaceful transport to Gaza? Were the IDF soldiers stabbed and beaten when they boarded the ship? Did the crew of the Gaza flotilla try to lynch the Israeli soldiers?

So, with no water cooler by which to stand, no office coffee to share, and no bus on which to commute, American Jews took the debate to Twitter. On the social media site users tweeted their latest discoveries from their choice online news networks. With links from Fox news, the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times, etc., Twitter users included hashtags featuring the newly popular term “flotilla” — from the Spanish, meaning a small fleet of ships — and voiced their opinion on the controversial event. Some pro-Israel tweets included the hashtag #freedomflotilla with the word “not” included parenthetically.

Some users of the microblogging service complained that Twitter apparently censored the #flotilla hashtag in discussions about the convoy deaths. Charles Arthur at the Guardian explained that Twitter didn’t censor the #flotilla hashtag. Rather, as #flotilla began trending, users started using the #freedomflotilla hashtag in its place. Also, as Mike Butcher at Techcrunch points out: “This surely was a case of anti-spam filtering [as] there had already been a “flotilla” story in the past week – the anniversary of Dunkirk (for non-Britons: a dramatic rescue during the second world war of British and French troops from the Dunkirk beaches by small craft). And Gaza is frequently topical. So Twitter’s anti-spam algorithms – that is, the machines – likely decided that this was a spam attack trying to piggyback on old hashtags, and pushed the “#flotilla” hashtag out of the trending topics.

In addition to Twitter, YouTube also figured as a prominent player in today’s Flotilla debates. Tweets sent readers to the YouTube site to view videos from both sides of the attack — there was footage taken by the Israel Defense Forces of the  Mavi Marmara Passengers Attacking IDF Soldiers as well as video footage from Al Jazeera of  Israeli troops storming the Gaza flotilla after the white flag was raised.

On this lazy Memorial Day Monday morning in the U.S., Americans had no where else to go other than the Web with their views on the situation in the Middle East. Perhaps this virtual debate over the flotilla attack is the best litmus test for Beinhart’s assertion of how American Jews connect (or don’t) with Israel.

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

Glenn Beck Vs. Social Justice

Reform Judaism might have been the first Jewish movement to embrace social justice in the 20th century, but the first decade of our current century has seen a vast increase in the importance of Tikkun Olam in the global Jewish community.  There are few Jewish congregations in North America that have yet to embrace a coordinated social action initiative.

While there may be some rabbis who would prioritize the adherence to Jewish law, prayer, ritual, study, and worship above social justice work, there are not many rabbis who have the chutzpah to actually criticize synagogues or individuals for participating in such noble endeavors.

But that’s where Glenn Beck comes in. Back in March, the Fox News personality told his audience to leave churches and synagogues that pursue social justice as a value. I am not a regular viewer of Beck’s show, so when I heard this sound bite I thought I misheard him. But, no, he really said it.

Many church groups and Christian leaders fought back, but there was not a strong rebuttal from Jewish groups. Simon Greer, the President & CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, wrote in the “On Faith” column on Newsweek’s website that Glenn Beck is “a con man and America is not buying it. I exhort you to stop bottling your ideological agenda and labeling it ‘theology.’ Americans deserve and demand better.”

Greer went on to tell Beck, “You’ve told us what not to look for in a house of worship. But now I ask you, sincerely, what kind of house of worship do you desire? On March 23, you said, ‘Make sure your church puts God first and politics and government last.’ The question then is, how do we put God first?”

In response to Greer’s column Beck retorted: “This is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany” and that Greer, “a Jew, of all people, should know that.”

Here’s my simple take on this: Social Justice is an essential component of any Jewish theology. As Jews, we should use our hearts to pursue prayer, our heads to pursue the study of Torah and to seek to understand God’s Law, and our hands to assist God in the repair of this broken world in which we share responsibility. The same holds true for all people of faith. Caring about our fellow human and seeking to help them is at the core of being part of a just society.

Glenn Beck? He’s just a crazy man saying ridiculous things to anyone who will tune in and listen. Part of our job in pursuing peace and justice is to publicize just how incredibly wrong and hurtful Glenn Beck’s words are to humanity.

We should be grateful not only for the sacred work that Jewish Funds for Justice is doing, but also for the mitzvah of tochecha (reproachment) that its leader Simon Greer has demonstrated.

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

Rabbis Gone Virtual: From Facebook to Live Streaming Rabbinic Conventions

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

For me, it began a few years ago. That’s when I first heard the words: “Rabbis, you need to have a presence on Facebook if you want to succeed in the 21st century!”

I heard these words at a STAR Foundation (now defunct) retreat for rabbis. STAR’s former director Rabbi Hayim Herring stated unequivocally that in this Internet Age rabbis would be reaching their congregants through social networking and new media applications like Facebook and Twitter, and those who became comfortable using these new communications would be most successful in the future.

I had already figured this out. I was an early user of Facebook at the University of Michigan where I worked for two years at the campus Hillel following graduation from rabbinical school. There I employed the services of Facebook to post events, connect with unaffiliated Jewish students, and post photos of Birthright Israel trips and other programs. But early on, many rabbis were ambivalent about signing on to Facebook or tweeting their 140-character commentary to the week’s Torah portion.

Gradually an increasing number of rabbis have embraced social networking. Of course, Chabad rabbis (especially those on college campuses) have utilized these applications to promote their programs and to connect to potentials. After all, these social networking sites make the Chabad emissary’s job of keruv (outreach) all the more easier.

How are rabbis taking advantage of technology?

Darim Online has run seminars and webinars for rabbis to teach them how to blog for their congregations. Having served as a virtual panelist for one of Darim’s blogging webinars, I noticed that most rabbis introduced themselves with the words: “I swore I’d never start a blog, but…”

In Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis decided it was time to teach all the local rabbis how to use Facebook. So, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea led a workshop for the rabbis titled “The Well Connected Rabbi.” He covered such topics as why Facebook is useful for rabbis and how to determine what is appropriate to post.

Rabbi Josh Heller, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta has used Google Maps and Google Apps to create an application that plots each of his congregation’s member units on a map by zip code. This has allowed him to create geographically-based chavurot (small social sub-communities) within his congregation.

On Twitter, Rabbi Andy Pepperstone, a Conservative rabbi at Cleveland’s Gross Solomon Schechter Day School, tweets his take on the week’s Torah portion. In October 2009, Rabbi Pepperstone and six other rabbis self-published Twitter Torah, an anthology of their Torah-commenting tweets that were featured on their individual Twitter feeds. The effort was cross denominational and included both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Rabbis.

Rabbi Brad Artson of the American Jewish University has been podcasting his lectures and Torah commentary for years. Rabbis, from college campuses to large congregations, have realized that for some members it’s best to let them download the rabbi’s words of wisdom to their iPod so they can listen on the drive to work, on their flight, or on the walk across campus.

YouTube lectures, distance learning courses and webinars have all found their way onto synagogue websites where rabbis have broadened their reach.

At this week’s Rabbinical Assembly Convention in Manhattan, selections of the Conservative rabbi gathering were streamed across the Internet to guarantee more participation, including the ability for members of the assembly to virtually vote on resolutions. I asked Rabbi Ashira Konisburg, the Rabbinical Assembly’s technology guru some questions about the RA’s decision to go hi-tech this year.


Who’s idea was it to video stream the convention this year?

I think this idea came as a concept from Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (RA Executive Vice President) and I’ve been working on the development and implementation. We wanted to have a way for colleagues to take part in convention even if they can’t make it here in person.


How will the online voting work (technically speaking)?

We used webex which has a polls feature. Colleagues were able to vote and submit comments by email. It also had video hookup and many other features that we didn’t need for this event.


How many members does the RA Administration expect will attend the convention virtually?

We don’t know as it is still experimental. So far our experience is that there are between 20-40 people who watch it live (which is quite impressive considering the lack of advance notice). But the archives have between 100-250 views per video and they have only been up for a couple of days.


Have there been any technological problems in doing this?

Mostly just the quirks that come from doing things from the first time. The first session did not get recorded from the beginning, but was broadcast properly. There are of course things we would do differently next time, now that we have experience with this.


Was there any concern that more members will not attend future conventions in person now that they know then can attend virtually?

We discussed this at length, and decided that this time we’d experiment with this and see what the reaction would be. We have gotten lots of positive feedback so far. (from Israel, England, and far flung places in America) We hope that we enable colleagues to feel a part of what is going on here in New York even if they can’t make it, and that this will encourage them to come next year if they can make it. After convention we will evaluate and determine how to move forward. Also there are some parts of convention (collegiality,  networking, and some professional development seminars) that you just need to be at convention to experience more fully. I should say that there are lots of other ways that we are using technology including a Flickr stream, facebook updates, and sessions for participants (basic and advanced) on web resources, IT, social networking, etc.

Perhaps your rabbi still isn’t on Facebook or using Twitter, but rest assured this will change. While many rabbis were reluctant at first, there’s no question that for rabbis to be in touch and to be able to share wisdom in the marketplace of ideas, social media is a necessity in the 21st century.

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

What Elena Kagan Can Teach Us About Judaism

If Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the open seat on the Supreme Court, is confirmed there will be two Jewish female justices on the highest court in the U.S. and a full third of the bench will be Jewish for the first time in history. The rest of the justices are Catholic. A Supreme Court made up of six Catholics and three Jews will certainly be interesting.

But there is also a lot that the biography of Elena Kagan can teach us about Judaism today.

In a recent article in the NY Times, we learn that Kagan had the first bat mitzvah ceremony at Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what led up to that event, and Kagan’s Jewish identity in the decades since that event, shed much light on the post-denominational Jewish world of today and perhaps give us a glimpse of what is possible in the future.

Lincoln Square Synagogue started with a few Conservative Jewish families in the Lincoln Towers apartment complex in NYC. In 1964, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was sent by Yeshiva University to lead High Holy Day services for this group (essentially a “chavurah.”) They took a liking to Rav Riskin, dropped the “Conservative” label from their name, and in 1970 formed Lincoln Square Synagogue.

The Times article goes on to explain that a women’s prayer group began at the synagogue in 1972 and when Elena Kagan was approaching her twelfth birthday, she requested to have a formal bat mitzvah. It would become the first bat mitzvah that Rabbi Riskin would officiate.

“We crafted a lovely service, but I don’t think I satisfied her completely,” said Rabbi Riskin, who left the synagogue in 1983 to move to Israel, where he is chief rabbi of Efrat, a West Bank settlement. “But she certainly raised my consciousness.”

Since then, bat mitzvahs have evolved at Lincoln Square. Today a girl can choose to lead the service and read from the Torah, as long as the ceremony is held during a women’s service in an annex of the synagogue. There cannot be more than nine men in attendance, and they must sit behind the mechitza. (“If there are 10 men” — known as a minyan — “that becomes a men’s service,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who taught Ms. Kagan.)

Elena Kagan’s parents eventually left Lincoln Square Synagogue and joined West End Synagogue (now located next door to Lincoln Square), a Reconstructionist congregation. Today, Elena Kagan considers herself a Conservative Jew.

This means that the woman who is likely to soon be the newest Supreme Court justice was a member of an Orthodox synagogue that began as a Conservative “chavurah” with an Orthodox-trained rabbi who was willing to have women’s prayer groups, a glass see-through mechitzah (barrier between men and women), and organize a bat mitzvah ceremony at a time when most Conservative rabbis weren’t willing to do so. And from that synagogue, her family became Reconstructionists, and she eventually became Conservative (in her Jewish ideology, but not her political or judicial approach).

Modern American Judaism is at a cross-roads. It has become much more difficult to determine what it means to be a Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox Jew. On the one hand Orthodoxy has moved further away from center with increased strictures on everything from dietary laws to issues of family purity. But on the other hand, Orthodox rabbis like Riskin, Avi Weiss, Yitz Greenberg, Saul Berman, Dov Linzer, and Asher Lopatin (to name a few) are embracing an “open Orthodoxy” that sees challenging questions of Jewish law through a modern lens and allows for increased participation of women in the community.

Reform Judaism has moved quite far in the past half-century and many Reform Jews have found it possible to cling to traditional Judaism within a Reform setting. Conservative Judaism has shifted from a post-war period in which Jews had the Tradition but were in search of modernity and change. Today, Conservative Jews begin with secularism and are in search of Tradition (or at least their rabbis see the situation that way).

Elena Kagan’s emergence on the national scene should demonstrate the fluidity that exists in our Jewish world. We have become a community less about denominational structure and more about comfort. I write this from Israel where I spent this past Shabbat at Shira Chadasha, a congregation that calls itself Orthodox, but allows for a great deal of liturgical participation by women. At Shira Chadasha, one immediately gets the sense that many of the Jewsthere are post-denominational in the sense that they don’t worry about which camp or category they fit into. Rather, they are comfortable being a part of that community, whatever it’s called.

Thanks to the nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, our American Jewish community can learn a little more about the direction in which we’re headed.

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

Technology and Summer Camp

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Just about every summer camp today has policies in place regarding the use of technology by campers. Rules governing whether campers can bring their cell phones, iPods, digital readers, and smartphones to camp (and if so, when they can use them) have been part of ongoing discussions as new forms of technology are introduced into the marketplace.

The most important thing to remember about these rules is that they are being created by people (AKA, adults) who know far less about these gadgets than the young campers. And where there is a will to use these devices at summer camp, the campers will find a way to use them.

Marjorie Ingall, who wrote a wonderful parenting column in the Forward newspaper for many years under the pseudonym “The East Village Mamele,” argues for keeping kids unplugged at summer camp in Tablet Magazine. She writes:

The most significant difference between my kids and me, though, is that they can’t imagine being unwired. I showed them a picture of Gordon Gekko holding his then-super-futuristic cell phone in the movie Wall Street, and they asked if it was a giant walkie-talkie. Josie recently quizzed me about Superman: What was a phone booth, and how did he change clothes in it? When I tell her we had to stand up and walk over to the television to change the channel and that we only had telephones attached to walls, she stares at me as if I’m speaking Urdu. I showed her Atari’s Pong, the antiquated video game we played on my TV growing up; she thought I was playing a joke.

So, is today’s sleepaway camp—with its lake, trees, cabins, chadar ochel, and drama and crafts bungalows looking exactly as they did generations earlier—an artifact, an artificial construct belonging to an earlier time, like some New World version of a Roman Vishniac photo? Is it ridiculous to expect kids to give up their iPods, handheld computer games, Facebook, Twitter, IM? Can we really trap them in this historical setting, like bug-spray-scented, cell-phone-less flies in amber?

My answer: We not only can; we should. Kids need unplugging… [I]n the summer—the last vestige of carefree childhood in a high-pressure, high-connectivity world—kids should be forced to interact face-to-face with each other, with their counselors, and with a sylvan world. It’s one of the last great communal spaces for kids. Every camp has its own rules about the use of technology, of course. Some allow cell phones but let kids use them only right before Shabbat or right before bed. Others allow iPods in the bunk only. (In my day, at rest time, we were allowed our giant, awkward Walkmans that seemed the height of techie cool.) But whatever a camp’s written rules, compliance varies. One Jewish website is rife with whispered tales of texting in bathroom stalls.

A June 2008 article in TIME Magazine by Nancy Gibbs titled “The Meaning of Summer Camp” also lamented the use of cellphones in what is supposed to be a euphoric environment for children. She wrote, “So I applaud the effort of traditional camps to pull the plugs: the ACA found in a 2007 survey that at least 3 out of 4 camps make kids leave their gizmos at home. It probably tells us something that the resistance often comes not from the kids but from Mom and Dad. Parents have been known to pack off their children with two cell phones, so they can hand over one and still be able to sneak off and call. Camp expert Christopher Thurber reports that parents grill directors about why they can’t watch their kids’ activities from a webcam or reach them by BlackBerry. Services like CampMinder and Bunk1.com do let camps post news and pictures to ‘help our families to feel as if they are with us at camp,’ as a Texas camp owner puts it. But that just invites inquiry about why Johnny looks sad or how Jenny’s jeans got torn.”

The problem is that children today are already wired to be, well, wired. The know about connectivity. They own the latest, greatest gadgets. Asking them to be stripped of their iPods and cellphones before boarding the camp bus is like asking them to board the bus naked. And yet, there’s so much to be gained from experiencing a summer unplugged. A summer in which a child cannot text Mommy and Daddy after every skinned knee or breakup with the boy in Cabin 3.

There is a slippery slope in the question of just how unplugged campers should be at summer camp. After all, if campers of previous generations were allowed to pack their boom box, and then their Walkman cassette player, and then their portable CD players, shouldn’t it follow that today’s campers should be able to listen to their Apple iPod on their bed during rest hour?

And if they are allowed to bring an iPod, what about the Apple iTouch with WiFi capability? What if the iTouch is used to surf the Web and email the parents back home?

And if books are allowed at camp (and of course, they are!), what about an Amazon Kindle? Or how about the new Apple iPad? What if the iPad is used to text friends back home?

Of course, the children who go to a day camp can return home each night to plug into their technological universe, but they are missing out on so much that the overnight camping experience has to offer. While there is something quite cool about little kids living in tents and wood cabins in “the middle of nowhere” still being able to connect to those satellites floating in outer space in order to download the latest songs, it’s just not right.

Even if the technology is now available that allows campers to open their iPads and watch each pitch of the baseball game in real time while chatting with Dad, they should still have to do what I did — Listen to the late Ernie Harwell calling the game over the transistor radio that was buried under my pillow while I wrote my “old man” a letter the old fashioned way… with a pen and paper.

Because, well, that’s Summer Camp!

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

Sending Social Networking Sympathies

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

The story was recently told to me about a Facebook user who updated her status message to announce the death of her grandmother and the grief she was feeling because of the loss. Her friend’s mother, a Facebook newbie, read the status update and clicked Facebook’s “Like” option. Was this a Facebook faux pas or a way to express condolences in the era of social networking?

We are all trying to make sense out of how to deal with death when it comes to Web 2.0. Here are some questions that arise with regard to social networking when a loved one dies.

What can Facebook teach us about grief?

In her Christian Science Monitor article, grief expert Diana Nash writes, “After the typhoon in Indonesia, after the deaths of Patrick Swayze and Michael Jackson, after school shootings, and in the wake of suicides, young people in mourning are now turning to social networking sites such as Facebook for support. This raises the question: Are social networking sites a better spiritual partner than a church, mosque, or temple? If you search for ‘In Memory of…’ on Facebook more than 100,000 results pop up.”

Clearly, young people are using social media sites like Facebook as an outlet for their grief. Facebook is a community populated by one’s friends in which those grieving can express themselves without censoring one’s emotions. Many people who were not comfortable talking about personal matters like grief and mourning feel comfortable sharing a few words on the computer to their network of linked friends.

What is the etiquette for announcing a death on Facebook?

Over the past couple of years, I have seen an increasing number of deaths announced through status updates on Facebook. When someone hears of a person’s passing and immediately updates his status by expressing his grief, the modern form of the condolence book has been set up. Others are now free to comment on that status update by offering their condolences to the bereaved, sharing a memory of the deceased, or expressing their own grief about the loss.

Certain questions arise before announcing to the Facebook community through a status update that someone has died. Perhaps the immediate family wants to make this announcement itself? Perhaps the survivors want to wait until certain decisions are made before informing the public (e.g., funeral arrangements)? If the death was tragic or unexpected, the delicate wording of the “announcement” is critical.

What is the status of the deceased’s Facebook page?

An October 28, 2009 article in TIME focused on this very subject. TIME reported that “In an Oct. 26 blog post, Max Kelly, Facebook’s head of security, announced the company’s policy of ‘memorializing’ profiles of users who have died, taking them out of the public search results, sealing them from any future log-in attempts and leaving the wall open for family and friends to pay their respects. Though most media reports claimed this was a new Facebook feature, a spokeswoman for the company told TIME that it’s an option the site has had since its early days.”

If this policy had been around, why did Facebook’s Max Kelly decide to publicize the memorializing of profiles in a blog post? When Facebook rolled out its new version a few days prior to Kelly’s blog post, a new feature automatically generated “suggestions” of people to “reconnect” with. On a personal note, I’m still receiving the automated suggestions by Facebook that I should reconnect with my deceased uncle. (Thank you Facebook, I try!)

Kelly’s explanation of how to put a deceased loved one’s Facebook page in the special category generated a lot of attention. To date, there are over 2,300 comments on his post.

Assuming that a family chooses to  not  put its deceased loved one into the Facebook memorial vault, what is the etiquette with regard to the ongoing maintenance of the deceased Facebook page? Should a family member gain access and manage the page? After all, what if someone posts a comment on the deceased’s Facebook that the family wants removed?

About a year after my uncle’s death, my cousin logged into his father’s Facebook account and accepted the “friend requests” that my uncle wasn’t able to accept in his final week’s on this earth. You can imagine the surprise (if that’s what it was) that some people felt when they were told that they were now “friends” on Facebook with a man who passed away a year prior. Maybe the ‘memorializing’ of profiles is the best policy after all?

And there’s an expert available who can help families create a Facebook obituary. R. Brian Burkhardt is “Your Funeral Guy” and his website describes the steps toward creating a Facebook Memorial.

Should we set up a Facebook page for the deceased?

As soon as a person dies (especially a young person), there is often a race to create the Facebook page in their memory. This can serve as a place to direct the community’s grief through sharing memories, posting photos, and disseminating information about memorial services, donations, etc. Before creating a Facebook page in memory of a loved one, it is important to check to ensure that there is not already one created. The administration of the page is also important to ensure that no inappropriate comments or photos are posted.

My teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, wrote about “Mourning and Consolation on Facebook” in his Windows and Doors blog on the Beliefnet site. He reminds us that “The safety which media like Facebook create is a crucial element in grieving process – the safety to say whatever we want without fear of repercussion and the safety of knowing that whatever we say, someone is listening. On the other hand, the care of one’s family while they mourn, the attention to details that can only be addressed by those among whom we live, and the likelihood that only in the context of a physical community bound together by more than he desire to share their grief, will such things be properly addressed should not be forgotten in the rush to Facebook mourning groups.”

Can visiting a shivah homepage be a substitute for visiting a shivah house?

No doubt, a new etiquette will form for offering condolences to mourners in the social networking age. Until there becomes an agreed upon protocol, however, common decorum should serve as the guide. When a mourner announces the death of a loved one in a Facebook status update, it is appropriate to offer condolences as a comment to the status update or as a wall post. Traditional forms of consolation toward the mourner should then follow, whatever one’s faith dictates (attendance at the funeral if possible, a tribute in the deceased’s memory to a charity, condolence call, etc.).

Rabbi Hirschfield writes, “There are also new possibilities including online visitation of mourners, saying Kaddish with a virtual minyan, the buying and delivery of virtual food to the homepages of mourners, just to name a few. While the latter is not physically nourishing, and that may be a crucial aspect of the tradition of feeding mourners, can we deny it’s value as psychological and spiritual nourishment?”

As I am writing this post, I logged into my Facebook account and saw that a friend had posted a photo of his father’s tombstone since today is his father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of the Jewish date of death). I hadn’t known that he lost his father (almost eleven years ago according to the date on the memorial stone) and neither did several of his other friends on Facebook according to their comments to the photo. This photo, simply captioned “Dad,” allows his friends to share their condolences on his father’s yahrzeit.

And yet, there’s something deeper at work here. Yes, there are friends from around Cyberspace who are offering their condolences or expressing surprise at not having known his father had died over a decade ago. But there are also those who are now finding relief in admitting that they too take photos of loved ones’ graves. As one commenter wrote, “I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who takes pictures at the cemetary [sic].”

No one has clicked the “Like” option for the photo. At least not yet!

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

Ernie Harwell – The Voice of Tigers Baseball

Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell died on Tuesday. He was 92. He had been battling cancer for over a year. It was his time to go and yet his passing has cast a pall over Detroit. Upon hearing of his death, I began to feel both sad and nostalgic. To paraphrase Ernie, “I stood there like the house by the side of the road.” Ernie Harwell was Detroit Tigers baseball and his legendary voice was the voice of my youth.

He looked frail the last time I saw him — at the Fox Theatre in Detroit sharing a conversation on stage with Mitch Albom in front of a packed house. He lived in a retirement community where my wife’s grandmother lives and she reported that he no longer ate in the dining room. Rumors spread that he was in hospice care, confined to his room at Fox Run in Novi. His death was expected. And yet, it stung the city and baseball fans everywhere.

My first inclination was to write about this loss and to pay tribute to the man. Yet, over the years I’ve only posted on this blog through a Jewish perspective. Where’s the Jewish angle in Ernie Harwell’s death, I wondered. He was a man of faith — he became a born-again Christian during a Billy Graham Easter service. He was even baptized in the Jordan River. He certainly wasn’t a Jew.

And yet, there was something about Ernie Harwell that strikes me as so-very-Jewish. He was the epitome of a mensch. No one had an unkind word to say about Ernie. The Emory University graduate was a gentleman and possessed a Southern charm. He was full of wit and wisdom. And he was more than charitable throughout his entire life. His foundation supports the arts and college scholarships. He also possessed what is known in Hebrew as a kol na’im — a pleasant voice. It was that memorable voice to which I would doze off as I listened to Ernie call Tiger games on the radio at summer camp. I listened to that voice on those long car rides Up North and as background noise when I did my homework in high school.

Mitch Albom wrote a beautiful tribute to Ernie Harwell in yesterday’s Detroit Free Press. I was moved to tears reading his account of how Ernie would welcome new broadcasters into the press box. “[Someone] would nudge the new guy and say, ‘Do you know who that was? That was Ernie Harwell. THE Ernie Harwell.’ No one ever earned a ‘THE’ more than him.”

It’s difficult to explain why so many people feel so heartbroken about a 92-year-old baseball broadcaster dying. I suppose it’s because the voice of baseball is gone and baseball is more than just the American pastime; it’s a religion too. A friend of mine remarked that when Ernie Harwell died, his childhood finally ended.

This evening at my son’s little league game, one of the players hit a foul ball that was caught by the opposing team’s coach. Without even thinking, I said: “A fan from Farmington Hills caught that one.” I smiled. So did everyone around me. It was one of his trademark phrases.

This morning at 7 a.m. fans began to pay their respects to Ernie Harwell at a public viewing at Comerica Park. At midnight there was still a line around the stadium. A fitting tribute indeed.

I’ll close with the words of my boyhood hero, Tigers slugger Kirk Gibson: “”He was an icon. The saying that you treat people the way you want to be treated, he represented that to its fullest.”

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

The Cap & Gown Section

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the Detroit Jewish News‘ “Cap & Gown Yearbook.” Started in the late 1980’s, the JN includes an entire section in one of its late-May issues devoted to the “best and brightest” high school graduates in the area.

Before I comment on this year’s change in the submission rules, allow me to explain the love-hate relationship I’ve had. [Full disclosure: I cannot include the Cap & Gown issue on my CV.]

I loved the Cap & Gown issue when I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. At the end of each graduating senior’s bio (AKA “Brag Paragraph”), it listed where they were headed for college. The vast majority were either going to Michigan or Michigan State with a couple handfuls of Ivy Leaguers. Each year when the Cap & Gown section was published, I immediately tore out the pages from the newspaper and marked the incoming class of Jewish kids at U-M with my yellow highlighter. These would be the first freshmen I’d welcome to campus in the fall. Their high school accomplishments were listed right there. I knew who the Jewish youth group leaders were and which of these 18-year-olds had volunteerism in their DNA. The Jewish News was doing my reconnaissance work for me.

Working with high school students is a different story. They are already under such pressure to succeed in high school that making the cut for the Jewish High School Academic Hall of Fame only adds to the stress. Over the past couple decades, the standards for inclusion in the Cap & Gown section have changed. When I was in high school (Andover Class of 1994 for those of you scoring at home), seniors needed a minimum grade point average (GPA) and had to be chosen by their school. That meant it was much more difficult to be one of the top Semites at predominantly Jewish schools like West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills Andover, and North Farmington than it was at say Birmingham Seaholm, Detroit Country Day, or any of the Walled Lake schools (this was the 90s after all). In fact, I remember one of my peers from West Bloomfield High School complaining to the Jewish News that she should have been included even though her GPA wasn’t at the newspaper’s standard. She was the editor of the school paper, president of her Jewish youth group, and had a handful of other notable credentials. The paper caved and printed her bio the week after the Cap & Gown issue alongside her irate letter complaining of the unfair selection process.

In the past decade, the standards have eased and there are a lot more graduates included in the Cap & Gown issue. Only 40-some Jewish teens were honored in the first Cap & Gown Yearbook in the late 1980’s, but last year’s section included 224. Even with that many star teens included, there are still many talented and accomplished teens who are left on the sidelines.

As the paper explained in a March 2010 blurb: “[E]very year, whatever criteria the newspaper used to determine eligibility would leave out many deserving students. This year, the Jewish News is inviting every Jewish student who is graduating from a Michigan high school to be part of our new Cap & Gown Yearbook. Publisher Arthur Horwitz said, “We’ve grown from several dozen entries to well over 200 of our community’s high school seniors who attained a qualifying grade point average. It has been one of our most popular issues and a keepsake.”

So, the question is: Why after 20 years of a competitive process (on varying levels), has the Detroit Jewish News decided to include every graduating Jewish high school student into the Cap & Gown Yearbook? Here are some theories:

1) It’s the Economy Stupid: It’s no secret that print media is in hospice care. Newspapers are ending home delivery and magazines are closing (Newsweek was put up for sale just yesterday). The Jewish News has laid off most of its workforce and reduced the hours of those who are left. The Cap & Gown issue generates a lot of money from proud parents, bubbies and zaydies who take out paid advertisements to congratulate their graduates. I’m sure the thinking was that the more teens who are included in the Cap & Gown Yearbook the more ad revenue. And that’s just business — plain and simple.

2) Everyone’s a Winner: In the 21st Century, we’ve become more politically correct and therefore uncomfortable to proclaim winners. The Jewish News simply doesn’t want to be put in a position to say that this young person is an achiever while this one is not. It’s not good for PR (or for selling newspaper subscriptions for that matter) when people perceive that the community’s paper has rejected their daughter.

3) Whose Standards?: I’m hoping that this was ultimately the reason the JN decided to let all who have graduated come and be recognized. Ideally, the Jewish News has realized what most employers realized a long time ago. A person’s GPA only tells part of their story. The many high school graduates who lacked book smarts but spent their high school careers volunteering with disabled children, working part-time jobs, and starring in school theater productions should be celebrated alongside the bookworms who carried 4.0 averages with little extra-curricular notches in their belts.

I’m sure that the Jewish News’ decision to not exclude any Jewish teen from this yearbook was based on a combination of all three of these theories (and likely others too). After all, this also put the Jewish community’s newspaper in the awkward position of deciding who is a Jewish teen. Of course, with every graduating senior being included, the Cap & Gown Yearbook will undoubtedly lose its clout. Will parents be as honored when they see their 3.9 GPA varsity soccer captain who’s headed to Penn listed in the paper next to a 2.0 GPA kid who’s off to Oakland Community College in the fall? We’ll see about that.

The paper articulated the mission of its new Cap & Gown section, explaining, “In recognition of the achievements of all of our high school graduates, this year’s Cap & Gown will be expanded. Think of it as a community-wide version of a high school yearbook. It will show the continuing vitality and promise of our community’s future generation, and the array of higher education choices they are making.”

I’m all for showcasing the promise of our Jewish community’s future generations. I’m just wondering if the lack of a selection process will make this issue too heavy to hold… which I guess is a really good thing for both our community and the Detroit Jewish News. Mazel Tov to all of this year’s high school graduates. You’re all winners!

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

Trope Tools – Learn to Read Torah on the iPad

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey and the techie behind the award-winning RabbiPod, has created his first app for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad family of Apple devices.

Garfinkel’s new app is called Trope Tools. It allows users to learn, teach, and review ta’amei hamiqra for Torah and Haftarah reading. As he advertises: “Do you want to know how to leyn the “yerach ben yomo” that appears in Parashat Masei? There’s an app for that!”

You can find Trope Tools in iTunes on a computer or in the App Store on your device. It costs only 99 cents. The website for the app states that it’s a perfect gift for anyone who wants to learn how to chant from our sacred texts and has an iPhone or iPad.

The app teaches the ta’amei hamiqra (Torah cantillation trope) and is recommended for bar/bat mitzvah and adult education students who are learning how to read from the Torah or haftarah.

What prompted the “RabbiPod” to create this app? He says he did it because his students all have these Apple devices. “I teach them trope, and in the beginning, they all need help remembering the melodies of the various notes. Now they have that information in their pockets.”

It took Rabbi Garfinkel (pictured) about a month to learn enough Objective-C programming and then another month to actually create the app.

This won’t be his last app either. He’s already completed a second app that will appear soon called Politicometer (rhymes with thermometer). A lot of people don’t really know why they vote the way they do. The Politicometer asks a series of 50 questions in ten categories. Based on the user’s answers to those questions, the app then advises how they should vote. The most conservative users receive a rating of “Tea Party or Reagan Conservative,” while the most liberal users receive a rating of “Progressive Liberal.” In between, there are ratings of moderate, mainstream Republican, mainstream Democrat, etc.

He also plans to write a basic Jewish knowledge quiz. It will have a hundred questions that cover material he thinks every Jew should know.

Finally, he’s also in the planning stages of what could be a controversial app. It’s called “Should I Marry Her?” and it will help guys figure out whether they should marry their girlfriend of the moment or move on. For instance, the app will ask “Are you and your girlfriend of the same religion?” If the answer is no, it will discourage the marriage. It will also ask, “Do you love her?” “Do you enjoy spending time together?” etc.

Back to Trope Tools. How does the rabbi plan to use the Apple app in his own synagogue? Every one of Garfinkel’s students who has a compatible device will buy the 99 cent app. (“If their parents can afford the device, they can afford a 99 cent app!” he adds.) They can use it to review the notes, and I can use it to quiz them.

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