Rahm Emanuel’s Son’s Bar Mitzvah & Religious Pluralism in Israel

As I was preparing to board a plane home at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago, I followed the news reports that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s son’s bar mitzvah would be moved outside of Jerusalem for security concerns. Rahm Emanuel and his Hollywood agent brother, Ari Emanuel, brought their families to Israel on vacation and for their respective son’s Jewish rite of passage. Apparently, protesters were heckling the Emanuel family’s delegation as they toured Jerusalem’s Old City because of the Obama Administration’s purported views on Middle East affairs.

Ultimately, Zach Emanuel’s bar mitzvah went ahead as planned at Robinson’s Arch, the archaeological site along the remaining Southern Wall of the Temple at which Conservative and Reform rabbis are allowed to officiate at bar and bat mitzvahs. The two cousins had their b’nai mitzvah on a Sunday, perhaps to confuse paparazzi, and it was officiated by each family’s rabbi –Rabbi Jack Moline, of Rahm Emanuel’s synagogue (Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia) and Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, of the Reform Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles where Ari Emanuel’s family belongs.

Having recently spent the early dawn hours of Shavuot at Robinson’s Arch, known as the “Masorti Kotel” since the Masorti/Conservative Jews can pray there freely, I was thrilled to read the op-ed in the Jerusalem Post by Masorti Movement CEO Yizhar Hess about the Emanuel boys’ b’nai mitzvah and the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, especially at the Western Wall (Kotel).

Hess took the opportunity of this newsworthy double bar mitzvah to focus on the Ultra-Orthodox control of the Western Wall, including the plaza. He writes:

The [Emanuel] family stood together, prayed together. There was no mehitza [separation between the sexes]. Some women donned a tallit [prayer shawl]. There was an abundance of Judaism, an abundance of Zionism and an abundance of love.

It is sad that one cannot pray in the same way at the main Western Wall Plaza. For a decade now, the Masorti Movement has been facilitating prayers at the Masorti Kotel. This is a forced arrangement. The majority of the world’s Jews pray without a mehitza, but when they come to Jerusalem, to the most symbolic site for Jewish prayer, they are forbidden from praying together. The Kotel, whose holiness has enthused Jews from all over the world, has been transformed into a haredi synagogue.

The Masorti Movement has never relinquished its right to pray at the Kotel, but has agreed, in compromise and with great pain, to hold its prayers at the [Davidson] archeological park.

With all of Israel’s international struggles right now, one would hope that it would strive to solve this matter of domestic disharmony. Here’s hoping that when Rahm Emanuel returns to Jerusalem for his daughter’s bat mitzvah, the family will be allowed to mark this rite of passage at any part of the Kotel they choose — and be free from protesters and paparazzi.

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

Synagogues Charging for Legroom & Desirable Seats

Stand-up comic and blogger Heshy Fried wrote on his Frum Satire blog yesterday that shuls (synagogues) “in the New York metropolitan area are going to be charging premium prices for premium seats, like those with more legroom” in order to raise more money in these challenging financial times.

This got me thinking that synagogues aren’t really all that different than the airlines in this regard.

  • Synagogues charge membership dues; Airlines have frequent flyer membership
  • Synagogues pass out candies during the service (throw candy at bar mitzvah boy after successful layning); Airlines pass out food during the flight (don’t throw peanuts at pilot after successful landing!)
  • Synagogues have Kiddush Clubs; Airlines offer Scotch too
  • People doze off mid-service; People doze off mid-flight
  • Synagogues charge more for good seats (by exit); Airlines charge more for good seats (by entrance)
  • People pray in synagogues; People pray on airplanes (use tefillin at your own risk)
I’m sure it won’t be long before synagogues follow the airlines and start charging for bags too (“Sir, that is an extra-large tallis bag and you’ll have pay $15 if you want to bring that into the shul”).

These comparisons really shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, both industries are hurting financially right now and are looking to reinvent themselves in a competitive market. Is it really any wonder that the airline named Spirit is currently on strike?

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

Armando Galarraga & BP

This afternoon I had the chance to watch Armando Galarraga go up against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. This was my first opportunity to see the Detroit Tigers pitcher live since his eventful, near perfect game ten days ago. Watching him on the mound, I kept thinking how graceful he acted following the perfect game that was taken from him by an umpire’s mistake and how other professional athletes might have reacted (or over-reacted) in the same situation.

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham (pictured) aptly characterized the level of maturity and class exemplified by both Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce in his editorial comparing Joyce’s behavior with that of the CEO of British Petroleum (BP), Tony Hayward. In “What an Umpire Could Teach BP,” Meacham writes:

There is no comparison between a baseball game and the nation’s worst environmental disaster, but there is a lesson to be learned from how Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga handled what was, in their world, an epic event. Be honest, admit mistakes, and keep moving. That is perhaps the only way to cope with tragedy of any scale.

Thank you Jon Meacham for helping me get started on my Yom Kippur sermon for this year. The comparison of Jim Joyce’s ability to admit error and apologize with BP’s series of gaffes in the gulf and lack of contrition sets the tone for a day of self-discovery and repentance.

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

Fauxtographing the News: From Herzl to the Flotilla

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Photoshop might not have been around a century ago, but the altering of images to change history has been around for a very long time.

A couple weeks ago I ventured into the basement floor of the Steimatzky’s flagship bookstore in the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem. The three-story store is located in the building that once belonged to the Stern family, who hosted Theodor Herzl on his one and only visit to Jerusalem and the basement is now a mini museum devoted to the founder of modern Zionism.

Looking at several photographs of Herzl with famous leaders in Jerusalem, my attention was directed to what looked like a Photoshopped photo from over 100 years ago. In the next display case, hung a series of photos that remind us that we can’t always trust photographs.

Here’s the story: On the morning of October 28, 1898 outside of the agricultural school at Mikve Israel, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, astride a white stallion and wearing a gold helmet, stopped for a moment on his way to Jerusalem. By the roadside stood Theodor Herzl, who considered the Kaiser’s recognition crucial for international approval of his plan to resettle the Jews in the land of Israel.

The original photograph of Herzl and the Kaiser was not acceptable as only Herzl’s left foot could be seen in the photo. Herzl, aware of the importance of the photo, ordered its reconstruction. A photo of Herzl was taken on the roof of the school and superimposed onto the photo after seating Kaiser Wilhelm II on the dark horse (instead of the original white stallion).

There are many examples of such photo manipulation. Time magazine’s website lists its choices for the Top Ten Doctored Photos and warns that “photographers have been manipulating imagery since the medium was invented”.

Doctored photos have been in the news lately following the Reuters scandal concerning its manipulation of photos from aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the flotilla that tried to break the Israeli/Egyptian Gaza blockade last week.

Reuters is claiming that doctored photos that it published, which fail to show individuals aboard the Mavi Marmara holding weapons are the result of an “editing error.” According to the Israel Matzav blog, the agency has said the absence of the activists holding knives in the pictures it originally published to its wire was an editing error.

In a statement given to Journalism.co.uk they said, “Reuters is committed to accurate and impartial reporting. All images that pass over our wire follow a strict editorial evaluation and selection process. The images in question were made available in Istanbul, and following normal editorial practice were prepared for dissemination which included cropping at the edges.”

The uncropped images have now been reinstated as part of the agency’s package of images from the aid ship attack.

The moral of the story is that while a photo may tell a thousand words, you might want to take those words with a grain of salt.

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

Rabbi Nesenoff’s 25,000 Pieces of Hate Mail

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Before this past weekend, Rabbi David Nesenoff was a virtually unknown rabbi who lives and works on Long Island. When his teenage son finished his high school exams and uploaded a 2-minute video of Helen Thomas expressing her anti-Israel views on the Whitehouse lawn, Nesenoff gained global fame. That 2-minute video on his RabbiLIVE.com website brought Helen Thomas’ long career in journalism to an abrupt and embarrassing end.

In addition to the media inquiries, Rabbi Nesenoff has also received some 25,000 messages of hate in the past few days since uploading the Helen Thomas video for worldwide consumption. Tonight, he updated the RabbiLIVE.com website to read:

RabbiLIVE.com reported a story from the White House lawn.

We received over twenty five thousand pieces of hate mail. Emails will be continuously posted TONIGHT.

“Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” 
-Elie Wiesel

Nesenoff and his son, the site’s webmaster, will post some of the nastiest, hate-filled email messages they received without concealing the sender’s name or email address.

The first posting to the site includes the text “Helen Thomas was right” followed by profanity and an apparent threat to the rabbi and his family. The sender also attached a photograph of death row inmate and convicted mass murdering cult leader Charles Manson with a swastika tattoo between his eyes.

This is undoubtedly not what Rabbi Nesenoff expected when he posted the now famous Helen Thomas video.

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

BP Oil Spill Hits Day 50

If BP was trying to make a Jewish connection to the oil spill off the Louisiana coast, they got it all wrong.

Yesterday marked the 49th day of the BP oil spill. Perhaps BP was going for the Hanukkah story connection, which is “The Oil lasted for 8 days.” Instead, BP got confused with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is 49 days of counting the harvest and the 50th day (Shavuot) is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Hopefully this environmental mess will be remedied soon as the effects on wildlife are certainly a violation of the Jewish principle of “tzar ba’alei chayim” — the responsibility to treat animals ethically.

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

Complete Helen Thomas Interview

Here is the complete video of Rabbi David Nesenoff (RabbiLIVE.com) asking Helen Thomas her views on Israel. Watching it, one gets the idea that Helen Thomas has always held these opinions, but can no longer keep them to herself now that the almost 90-year-old has lost her filter and says whatever she’s thinking. Listen carefully and you can hear the woman sitting next to her remark, “Helen is blunt.”

Perhaps that’s the understatement of the year!

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

The Rabbi Who Took Down Helen Thomas

In May 1996 I sat in the Breslin Center arena in East Lansing as I watched my then girlfriend (now wife) graduate from Michigan State University. A year prior I watched President Bill Clinton speak to the crowd at Spartan Stadium for MSU commencement. The speaker at this graduation was none other than Helen Thomas, former UPI and Hearst Newspaper columnist of Lebanese descent.

Fast forward more than a decade. A couple years ago I watched an interesting documentary on HBO about Helen Thomas titled “Thank You Mr. President.” It detailed Helen Thomas’ long career in the front row in the White House Press Corp where she always got to ask the first question.

This past Saturday night, my wife asked me if I had heard what Helen Thomas said about Israel. I tuned into YouTube to find an impromptu interview conducted by none other than my colleague, Rabbi David Nesenoff, a Conservative rabbi on Long Island (Temple Tikvah Synagogue of Hope in East Northport). At the White House for last week’s Jewish Awareness Month dinner, Nesenoff asked the 89-year-old Thomas what she thought of Israel and she responded that the Jews should leave Israel and return to Germany and Poland.

Nesenoff (pictured) runs a website called RabbiLIVE.com in which he posts various video footage of him interviewing people (sometimes undercover with a hidden camera). I’m sure when Nesenoff pointed the camera at Helen Thomas he wasn’t expecting that her recorded words would eventually bring about her downfall, but that’s precisely what happened.

Helen Thomas retired today and issued the following statement: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that Thomas’s comments about Israel were “offensive and reprehensible.” During his press briefing this morning, which Thomas did not attend, Gibbs said that though he hasn’t spoken with Obama about the her comments, they “do not reflect” the view of his administration. He added, “she should, and has apologized.”

Some might argue that it’s not the place of a rabbi to conduct interviews like the one Nesenoff conducted of Helen Thomas. However, Nesenoff’s video showed the world what Helen Thomas really thinks of Israel. It should be a wake-up call that someone with those views has not only been covering the news for so many decades, but has had such a high level of access to our nation’s leaders.

Even before Helen Thomas resigned, she had been dropped by her speaker’s agency, Nine Speakers, Inc for her comments posted on RabbiLIVE.com. Also, Craig Crawford refused to work with Helen Thomas on any future book projects and she was dropped from a High School graduation key note speaker position.

Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis, former White House counsel, both called for Hearst Corporation to fire Helen immediately.

Thanks to Rabbi David Nesenoff, Helen Thomas now ends her storied career on a very sour note. And deservedly so.

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

Miguel Cotto is Kosher & Promotes Orthodox Union (OU) with Tattoo

The Jewish boxer Yuri Foreman, who is originally from Haifa Israel and training to become an Orthodox rabbi, just lost in a TKO decision to the Puerto Rican fighter Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium.

While I was disappointed that Foreman lost his title, I thought it was funny that at the end of the fight while Cotto was being interviewed by an HBO reporter, it became apparent that he was sporting a tattoo on his right collarbone that looks like the kosher symbol of the Orthodox Union (OU).

As I posted on Twitter:
Yuri Foreman keeps kosher and apparently Miguel Cotto IS kosher. You’d think the OU would advertise with the Jew.

Update: Miguel Cotto got the tattoo as a gesture for a Jewish friend of his. Here’s the background story on Cotto’s kosher tattoo with video below courtesy of Elie Seckbach:

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

Perfection is Hard to Come By

While I often write about sports on this blog, I have always done so through a Jewish perspective. In fact, everything I write on this blog I write through a Jewish perspective.

So, why am I writing about last night’s Detroit Tigers baseball game in which pitcher Armando Galarraga had a perfect game until the 9th inning with two outs when 1st base umpire Jim Joyce blew an obvious call? Galarraga isn’t Jewish and neither is Jim Joyce. And yet, last night in my hometown of Detroit, as I watched Galarraga’s perfect game ended by a human error and all the emotional reactions to it, I found the entire episode to be full of Jewish lessons.

Perfect games in baseball are a rarity. (It is unusual that Galarraga’s would have been the third perfect game this season and we’re only a few days into June.) In Judaism, we understand that perfection is hard to come by. We’re taught that God created an imperfect world. The concept of Tikkun Olam urges us to be active participants in helping make the world perfect for future generations. But since no human is completely perfect, mistakes are made that constantly keep the world from being in perfect harmony. Umpire Jim Joyce made a mistake last night. His error had significant implications for another human being (Galarraga), but it also demonstrates that in our pursuit of perfection there will always be actions beyond our control that will keep us from attaining our goal.

The fact that Jim Joyce was so quick to admit his error and then apologize directly to Galarraga should not go unnoticed. Like every other Tigers fan, and indeed like any baseball fan, I was torn apart watching Jim Joyce ruin Galarraga’s perfect game last night. However, the umpire acted like a mensch in his contrition and apology. The Jewish concept of teshuvah (repentance) was brought to mind as Joyce’s admission was played repeatedly on ESPN Sportcenter. He admitted that he blew the call without any qualification (something umpires and referees rarely do) and then he admitted that he “just cost that kid a perfect game.”

There has already been much discussion and debate about whether baseball commissioner Bud Selig should reverse the call and give Galarraga the perfect game that he deserves, and there will be much more on this topic in the days to come. This will also serve as a platform for those who wish to see instant reply brought into Major League Baseball.

But what I wish to focus on is what transpired immediately after the umpire’s error. Galarraga kept his composure. He didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t lose his temper and push the umpire. He maintained his cool. After the game, he just shook his head and explained that he’d eventually tell his kids that he threw a perfect game on that night even if the record books didn’t record it that way. In an era in which we see professional athletes lie and cheat (see: the Steroid Scandal), get in opponents’ faces and taunt them, and hurl profanities at umpires and referees, it was refreshing to see Galarraga take the umpire’s mistake like a man — or better yet, as a mensch.

And the fact that Umpire Jim Joyce wasted no time after the game in asking to see Galarraga to offer his deepest apologies also serves as a good example for our children. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and offer your genuine forgiveness (mechila in Hebrew) no matter how severe the offense.

Whether Bud Selig does the right thing and reverses the bad call or not, this episode in one of the American Pastime’s greatest games will go down in history as an example of how human error makes perfection hard to come by… and why owning up to our mistakes and asking for forgiveness is such a noble deed.

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