My 99 Year Old Friend Benny

It might be unusual for a grandson to continue a friendship begun by his late grandfather, but that’s exactly what happened.

Ben Gurvitz and his late wife Sara were dear friends of my grandparents, David and Adele Gudes. The Gurvitzes were at all of our family’s life-cycle events. After my grandfather passed away in 1994 and Sara passed away in 1999, Benny and my grandmother became even closer friends, had meals together, and attended events together. I looked up to Benny and loved his humor. He always had a joke, pun or witticism ready to go for any occasion.

Benny Gurvitz & his wife Sara at my cousins bar mitzvah (1995)

Benny was born on 10-10-10. I, like thousands of others who loved him, was eagerly awaiting the tenth of October this year (10-10-10 again) when he would turn 100. Unfortunately, Benny passed away yesterday; just a couple months shy of triple digits.

The last time I saw him was two weeks ago. I was blessed to spend an hour with him at Henry Ford Hospital where he was being treated for an infection in his foot. I presented him with a letter from Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and an award recognizing him as one of the state’s “Older Jewish Americans.” I nominated him for this award, but he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony in person. Presenting it to him myself, in private, meant more to me than watching the governor present it to him in a room full of strangers. Sitting with him in the hospital room, I saw that his infectious smile and witty personality were still there.

Benny was a fixture in the men’s health club locker room at the West Bloomfield Jewish Community Center and he held court there telling jokes. In the past year, after he stopped driving himself, he would get a ride to the “Center” for a shave and a whirlpool bath. Everytime I saw him there he would inquire about my children like they were his own great-grandchildren (that’s Benny with my oldest son Josh in the photo). He’d ask how my wife, parents, and grandmother were doing. Last year, as my uncle battled pancreatic cancer, Benny and I would hug each other for support with tears in our eyes. He knew my uncle as a little boy.

When I was two-years-old I would pretend shave with a plastic razor in the men’s locker room at Hamilton Place Country Club with Benny and my father watching with delight. Twenty-seven years later Benny and I would watch my son pretend shave with a plastic razor in the JCC locker room.

Seeing Benny everyday in that locker room made me remember my papa. They admired each other. Benny always spoke so highly about my grandfather; especially to other people in my presence. Benny was a mensch.

It’s no doubt that Benny lived as long as he did because of his sense of humor. As his locker neighbor at the Center, Dr. Steven Ceresnie, told me yesterday, “The world’s humor quotient declined sharply today.”

Benny had some funny lines that I heard over and over, but I laughed each time. He would always tell me, “At my age, there’s no more peer pressure. Heck, I have no more peers!” And, “When I was a kid, the Dead Sea was just sick.”

Whenever I asked him how he was doing, he would respond, “I woke up this morning. That’s better than the alternative.” And on occasion he’d tell me, “This is a strange week. Friday the 13th is on a Tuesday.”

Benny also used to say that at his age, God is just a local call. Well, I have no doubt that God will be enjoying Benny’s conversation and laughing at his jokes as much as I did.

In Judaism, on people’s birthday we wish that they live to the age of 120. But let’s be honest, that’s pretty far-fetched even with modern medicine. I think from now on, rather than 120, on birthdays I’ll just wish that my friends live as long as Ben Gurvitz and have as rich and fulfilling a life as he had. Oh, and if they can make those around them laugh even a fraction as much as Benny, the world will be a much better place for all of us.

Here’s a video of the 99-year-old stand up comic. May the memory of Ben Gurvitz (Berel ben Herschel Shlomo v’Sara) endure for blessings.

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

Israel, We Have a Problem

In the summer of 1998 I was a madrich (Hebrew for counselor) on the Michigan Teen Mission to Israel. This was the second teen Israel trip coordinated by the Metropolitan Detroit’s Jewish Federation. I helped lead a bus of Conservative Jewish teens from Congregation Shaarey Zedek and we traveled through Israel with a bus of teens from Adat Shalom Synagogue — another Detroit’s Conservative congregation.

One teen on the Adat Shalom bus was Hillary Rubin. I had been friends with her older sister Kim in high school and quickly recognized Hillary as Kim’s sister. I remember talking with Hillary at a Bedouin village in the Negev and immediately realizing that she was infatuated with Israel more than the other Jewish teens on the “mission.” So, it was no surprise when I learned a couple years ago via Facebook that Hillary made aliyah (immigration to Israel).

This morning I awoke to Hillary’s picture in a front page article on Haaretz.com — the Israeli newspaper’s online edition. Turns out she has gotten a first-hand experience of what many Israelis go through when they want to get married in an official Jewish ceremony in the Jewish state.

I know of many Israelis who board planes to nearby Cyprus to tie the knot so they don’t have to deal with the Israeli chief rabbinates (there are two: one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi). The Haaretz article explains that Hillary is, ironic enough, the great-niece of a prominent Zionist leader with a street in Israel named for him. Today, she and her husband, Craig Glaser, are finding it impossible to register for a Jewish wedding in the JEWISH state.

Letters from four Conservative rabbis and a Chabad rabbi are not sufficient to prove Hillary’s Jewishness. The daughter of divorced parents whose divorce was officiated by Conservative rabbis has probably complicated the situation. Her mother remarrying a Catholic man won’t help matters. But the ultimate insult is the Herzliya rabbinate’s demand that she provide ketubahs (wedding contracts) from her grandparents whose ketubahs were curiously not returned to them after they fled the Nazis during the Holocaust. Other relatives of her’s were gassed at Auschwitz so the death certificates never existed.

I can’t imagine this is what Theodor Herzl had in mind when he envisioned a Jewish nation. The great niece of Nahum Sokolow who lives in Herzliya (named for Herzl) cannot get married in Israel. This is a travesty. It seems that there is no longer one Judaism. The Judaism of the chief rabbinate(s) in Israel is just not my religion. They have corrupted it out of recognition.

So, in a week when all eyes in the Jewish community are on the high profile intermarriage of Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea who is marrying the Jewish Mark Mezvinsky, I would recommend that Jews throughout the world turn their attention to this Hillary. She might not have the Secretary of State for a mom or a past U.S. president for a dad, but she’s become an example of everything wrong with the way Israel is handling religious matters. Something’s got to change.

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

New Name for Conservative Judaism?

It’s not unusual for a company to change names following a high-profile scandal. Philip Morris famously changed to Altria, Blackwater became Xe, ValuJet became AirTran, and Andersen Consulting became Accenture following its involvement in the Enron scandal. Cingular became AT&T, and the WWF became the WWE. I wouldn’t be surprised if BP changed its name after the recent disastrous oil spill in the Gulf.

Other companies have changed names to better explain what they do or to improve their image. I’ve long held the belief that the Conservative Movement of Judaism needs a name change and a brand re-imaging. It now looks like the titular head of Conservative Judaism, Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen, agrees. While there’s no scandal in the Conservative Movement, the number of adherents has dropped significantly and the name doesn’t resonate with people.

The term “conservative” has been appropriated by the political conservatives, not to mention it doesn’t fit well with the middle-of-the-road Jewish denomination anymore.

The Forward reports that Eisen “acknowledged that the movement’s name is now being debated” at a recent meeting with its editors and reporters. Eisen told the journalists that he was open to a name change when asked about that possibility. “Leaders of Conservative-affiliated organizations want to find a name that will better capture what they want the movement to represent,” he said.

In typical fashion, the movement’s leaders are not all on the same page. The Forward article goes on to quote Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, “who said that this is not the time for his movement to be discussing a name change.”

Eisen said that “The leading candidate right now, I think, is just to go with the name ‘Masorti’ (traditional), which captures things better than the word ‘Conservative’ captures them. So I am open to suggestions; I am open to a name change.” Masorti is the name used by the Conservative Movement in Israel and outside of North America.

The Forward solicited suggestions from a wide range of people as to what new name they think the Conservative movement ought to adopt, if any. Comedian Judy Gold suggested it be renamed the “I Eat Treyf Outside the House” movement. The Orthodox spokesperson Rabbi Avi Shafran (director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America) urged that the Conservative movement “not change its name, which is an important reminder that its foundational raison d’être was to conserve Jewish observance in the face of Reform.” Rabbi Shaul Magid, a former JTS professor of Jewish philosophy who is now a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, proposes that the movement now be called “Historical Renewal,” to reflect both its roots and its desire for spiritually focused growth.

Personally, I like my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe’s suggestion that the movement change its name to “Covenantal Judaism.” But if I had to come up with my own suggestion it would be “Evolving Judaism.” The name doesn’t have to sum up everything for which the movement stands. That is the purpose of a mission statement and guiding principles. For me, I have embraced Conservative Judaism because it acknowledges that Judaism is fluid and always evolving. Yes, the Tradition is conserved as it evolves, but to speak to people’s modern sensibilities the emphasis should be on change. For an accurate Yiddish name, I’d recommend nisht ahin, nisht aher (neither here nor there) to underscore that Conservative Judaism is neither Orthodox nor Reform.

I appreciate what branding guru Rob Frankel said when asked by the Forward for his opinion of a name change for the Conservative Movement: He said that there was no point in changing the Conservative movement’s name if the movement does not first decide what its essential message is.”

I suppose that the hard work is figuring out the message for a middle-of-the-road brand of Judaism in the 21st century. If it’s just about a cool, new name, I’d recommend “Google” — even if it’s already taken, it would guarantee a lot of visits to the website.

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

Is Amar’e Stoudemire Jewish?

Amar’e Stoudemire’s official Twitter account name is @Amareisreal but it mind as well be AmareIsrael. From his Twitter feed we learn that the basketball star is now in Jerusalem, Israel searching for his Jewish heritage. The 2003 Rookie of the Year has apparently learned that he has Jewish roots (born in Lake Wales, Florida his father died when he was twelve and his mother Carrie was in and out of prison during that time).

I met Amar’e Stoudemire in Miami Beach in January 2003 during his rookie year with the Suns. He was with his teammate and fellow NBA rookie sensation Joe Johnson and another friend riding mopeds around South Beach. My dad and I also rented mopeds and drove around with the three men. Of course, at the time he had no idea about his supposed connection to the Jewish people.

Earlier this month, Stoudemire joined the NBA’s New York Knicks as a free agent. So, perhaps moving to the heavily Jewish populated New York made Amar’e curious about his own Judaism?

According to Haaretz and JTA reports, Stoudemire, a power forward formerly of the Phoenix Suns, was heading to Israel for a voyage of discovery after finding out he has a Jewish mother. According to an Israel Army Radio report, Stoudemire plans to spend time in Israel learning Hebrew.

Stoudemire’s most recent tweet lets us know that he’s eating a late lunch at a cafe and learning a lot of Hebrew. In an earlier tweet he posted, “The holy land. Learn about it. Ze ha’halom sheli” (Hebrew for “this is my dream”).

If Amar’e Stoudemire’s mother is indeed Jewish then he has just become the greatest Jewish NBA player of all time! Good luck on your search Amar’e… or should I say “Behatzlacha!”

UPDATE: Okay, so it turns out that Amar’e Stoudemire is not Jewish. His agent was interviewed for an article on the NBA Fanhouse website. His agent also gets the award for quote of the week:
“I haven’t checked to see if he’s circumcised, but regardless, it’s a stretch to call him Jewish at this point.”
–Happy Walters, Amar’e’s agent

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

Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Co-Officiated by Rabbi & Methodist Minister

I have it on good authority that Chelsea’s wedding this Saturday night at Astor Mansion in Rhinebeck, NY will be co-officiated by both a rabbi and a Methodist minister. But who’s officiating at their wedding should really matter a lot less than how they will be as a married couple. At the first meeting with a couple before their wedding, the first thing I explain to them is the difference between a wedding and a marriage. The wedding is only one day in their lives; the marriage is the rest of their lives (God willing).

There has been so much discussion about the upcoming nuptials of the former First Daughter, Chelsea Clinton, that I don’t remember this much attention to a wedding since JFK Jr. married Carolyn Bessette on September 21, 1996 and before that it was the weddings of the British Royal Family that made headlines. The focus for Chelsea and her beau Mark Mezvinsky should be on how they make a home together, how they raise their future children, and how they will work through the same hurdles that face every married couple (whether they are of the same religion or not; of the opposite sex or not; from similar socio-economic backgrounds or not).

My teacher, Irwin Kula, poignantly writes in this morning’s Huffington Post (“From the Cathedral to the Bazaar: What Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Says About Religous Sycretism”) that this high profile wedding is our society’s welcome to the new world of religion in America.

Chelsea’s parents were an interdenominational marriage of a social justice Methodist and a Baptist, which would have been unheard of 50 years ago. Chelsea grew up proudly within mainstream Protestantism, while Mark was raised clearly identified in a mainstream Jewish denomination. Their marriage is the next generational step in crossing borders — from Methodist-Baptist to Christian-Jew. What is unprecedented — wonderful for some and horrifying to others — is that in this era no one needs to reject his or her identity to cross these century-old boundaries. Multiple identities — in the example of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, at least three different traditions being brought to bear — is the new reality.

I agree. This is the new reality. What matters more than the Mezvinsky’s Jewish heritage and the Clinton’s mixed religious background is whether this couple will be able to live life together, share happy moments, raise moral children, weather difficult storms, and make each other laugh.

I’m a Conservative rabbi forbidden by the Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, to officiate at Chelsea’s interfaith wedding. But I’m not blind to this new reality. The borders are much blurrier than they once were and more religionists are opening their eyes to this new reality.

I echo Rabbi Kula’s congratulatory words: “Mazel Tov, Mark and Chelsea!”

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

Planting Trees at Summer Camp

In addition to providing kosher supervision for Camp Mass, a Jewish residential summer camp in Michigan run by Tamarack Camps, I also run several informal educational programs. One of my favorite programs is planting trees with the campers and their counselors. I wrote the following article about the importance of trees for the camp’s online newsletter:

Planting Trees

Shimon bar Yochai taught that “if you are holding a tree in your hand, and someone says that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the tree and then go and greet the Messiah.”
(Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b)

Tonight, as I watched the Second Night Show, my mind focused on the beauty of trees. The entire camp gathered at the Zaks Amphitheatre as each village staff took to the stage to showcase their talents and demonstrate what makes their village special.. I thought of the thousands of trees on our vast camp acreage and how each tree has its own personality just like each village. I thought of the unique gifts that each camper will share this summer at camp and how each tree shares its own gifts with us.

At Tamarack, our campers and staff live on 1,500 beautiful acres of land dotted with trees as far as the eye can see. The campers remind me how important those trees are to our camp on a daily basis. Each village has a chance to plant a tree in one of our lush fields as a way to give back to camp. Before the digging begins, I ask the campers what trees provide for us. Oxygen, paper, fruits, nuts, shelter, shade, and wood for fires are some of the common responses I hear. Some campers have reminded us that chewing gum, medicines, maple syrup, and chocolate also come from trees.

In past years, each camper and counselor has planted an individual tree. This summer, however, as a true sign of community each village will be planting a big pine tree to serve as an enduring reminder of the magic of the summer of 2010. God willing, in the future, the campers will return to Tamarack with their own children to visit the tree they planted this summer.

After the campers have planted their village tree we gather in a circle and listen to the personal dedications. Everyone in the village – campers and staff – share the names of the individuals for whom they planted their tree. Some dedicate it to their parents, siblings, friends or pets. Others have planted the tree in memory of a beloved grandparent. Many campers have dedicated the tree to their counselor or their bunkmates. One camper dedicated his village tree to everyone at Tamarack.

After each camper fills out a keepsake tree certificate, we join together in the Shehechiyanu blessing, acknowledging how grateful we are to partner with God in making our camp look even more beautiful. This is truly a wonderful way for us to give back to our camp. The website of the Jewish National Fund is listed on the tree certificate so families can plant a matching tree in Israel when their camper returns home at the end of the session.

Just as the trees throughout our camp grow and blossom, may our hundreds of campers grow and blossom this summer and may we reap the wonderful gifts they give.

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

LeBron, Circumcisions, Al Kaline, Tisha B’Av & Auschwitz Dancing

Admittedly, the title of this blog post might seem odd and perhaps you’re wondering how I’m going to tie all of these things together. However, this is what has been circling in my head over the past couple days. Allow me to explain.

The other night during a rain delay in the ninth inning of a Detroit Tigers-Cleveland Indians baseball game, I watched a half-hour tribute to Al Kaline. I had the pleasure of meeting this living legend a month ago at a local charity golf outing. Kaline, known throughout Detroit as “Mr. Tiger,” is more than a Hall-of-Famer. He’s a legend and is regarded for his generosity as well as his dedication to the Detroit Tigers’ franchise. He began his baseball career with the Tigers’ ball club on June 25, 1953 as a highly sought after 18-year-old outfielder from Baltimore who bypassed the minor leagues. Fifty-seven years later, Mr. Tiger is still with the organization, working in the front office as a special assistant to the president. He’s never left the team. Now that’s dedication!

I grew up watching Tiger baseball games on television with Al Kaline doing the color commentary to complement George Kell’s play-by-play so I felt nostalgic watching this tribute to him. But what I couldn’t get out of my head — and maybe it was because the Tigers were playing the Cleveland Indians at the time — was Kaline’s long-standing devotion to his team as contrasted to the way LeBron James handled his departure from the Cavaliers only a week prior.

The LeBron controversy continues. Aside from Miami Heat fans, LeBron James has very few fans left. The way he arranged for a one-hour ESPN special to announce his decision to leave Cleveland and sign with the Miami Heat as a free agent has soured his image. It has also led to a more accurate portrayal of LeBron’s on-court and off-court personality. The allegations that he devised a plan a couple years ago for his friends and fellow 2003 draftees Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade to all be on the Miami Heat for the 2010-11 season only highlights his lack of devotion to his former team. In his open letter to the fans, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert accused his star player of tanking it on several occasions (and in the playoffs no less).

Basketball, like baseball, is a team sport. For LeBron it was always about LeBron and not the team. Dan Gilbert is now free to explain that LeBron was difficult to deal with, maintained special privileges, placed demands on team management and the coaching staff, and didn’t return the owner’s phone calls or text messages. Jesse Jackson took issue with Gilbert’s letter and accused him of thinking of himself as a modern day slave master. Jackson’s accusation is laughable since, in actuality, Gilbert was never in charge; LeBron was always calling the shots. (Although, it is funny that LeBron left Gilbert’s team after seven years, which is the mandatory time after which a slave is allowed to leave according to the Torah proving free agency is actually an old concept!)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, writing about the LeBron James decision, looks to New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning as an example of a pro athlete who was so devoted to his team but never won a championship. Perhaps even better than winning a Super Bowl, Boteach opines, was that Manning got to see each of his sons lead his respective team to a championship. Manning didn’t run from the Saints in search of a team that would be a sure bet to win the ring. When it’s a team sport, the team must take precedence. For LeBron, it was never about the team. Coincidentally, Al Kaline and LeBron James were the same age when they were rookies, but Kaline was (and always has been) a mensch – a gentleman who followed authority and worked as a team player to achieve victory. He allowed his teamates to shine. When he talks about the Tigers’ 1968 championship season, he talks about it in terms of the team effort and the team’s accomplishments.

Yesterday I attended a “bris” – a Jewish ritual circumcision. There is no religious ritual act in Judaism that demonstrates more dedication to the Tradition and to the continuity of the people than a bris. This tribal ritual links hundreds of generations together. The Jewish people are a tribe — like a team — and while there has been some objection to the bris or brit milah from within the tribe, the majority of Jews have held firm and continued this practice which began with Abraham, the first Hebrew thousands of years ago.

At the bris yesterday, I heard my colleague Rabbi Aaron Bergman, say something that truly resonated with me. The bris took place on Erev Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, but he said that the timing was perfect because it demonstrates the eternal optimism of the Jewish people. While Tisha B’Av marks the many calamities that took place on that day including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem twice, the bris reminds us that the Jewish people have endured. The Babylonians destroyed the first temple, but they are gone. The Romans destroyed the rebuilt temple and they too are no more. The Jewish people, dedicated to the team throughout the generations, has survived. And a baby boy being brought into the covenant of the Jewish people is a sure sign of optimism and continuity.

And this brings us back to the Auschwitz Dancing video that has stirred so much controversy. This video of a Holocaust survivor dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s version of Donna Summer’s song “I Will Survive” is a beautiful expression of Jewish survival. It does not diminish our commemoration or respect for the six million who perished in the Holocaust, but it does remind us that human beings who were marked for death by the Nazis are able to return to those death camps with their grandchildren and proclaim their triumph.

Now that’s true dedication.

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

Mayor of the Minyan

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Every synagogue minyan (daily prayer group) has the one person who always seems to be there. In some congregations, this might be the gabbai (a ritual director of sorts). In other shuls it might be the rabbi. And in others it might be a lay person who is very dedicated and wants to ensure there is always a minyan (quorum of 10) so others can say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Some minyans have a group of dedicated individuals who make it a point to always attend — regardless of rain, sleet or snow.

With the mobile application FourSquare (a cross between a friend-finder, social city-guide, and game), it is now possible to find out who attends the minyan the most. While the most active minyan attendees in many communities are older, retirees who may have never even heard of Foursquare, it would still be fun to see who “checks in” to the synagogue the most. In the FourSquare world, the user with the most check ins at a venue gains the mayorship of that venue, so it would be interesting to see who becomes the “mayor” of the shul.

Many local businesses offer specials (10% off at some restaurants and coffee shops, for example) for a check-in or for being the mayor of a venue. Perhaps in the future, synagogues will offer incentives for the most check ins at the morning minyan or for children at Hebrew school. I can imagine a synagogue discounting the dues of the mayor of the minyan or presenting the mayor of religious school with an award.

Jewish non-profits can also utilize FourSquare to reward volunteers. The mayor of the kosher food bank for instance might be featured in the monthly newsletter.

Thanks to FourSquare, in the future you might see a sign next to the rabbi’s parking space in the synagogue lot that reads: “Reserved Parking for the Mayor of the Minyan.”

Modern Tribe has some great Jewish Gifts for all occasions

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

Dancing at Auschwitz

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Detroit, Michigan is the nation’s first Holocaust memorial. It was originally located in a building connected to the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. It was this Holocaust museum that I toured with my grandfather when I was twelve-years-old and listened to him explain that many of his family members — my relatives — perished in the Shoah.

Several years ago that Holocaust museum moved to a new location a few miles away in Farmington Hills. The space that was originally occupied by the Holocaust Center is now a teen center where Jewish youth come to watch movies, play video games, eat pizza, and compete in pool and ping-pong tournaments. It is also where hundreds of Jewish teenagers come to dance to loud music.

The symbolism is not lost on me. This space was originally dedicated as a museum to pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah and to memorialize the six million souls who perished. It was a solemn space to educate about the Holocaust so that history wouldn’t be repeated. But today, it is a space where Jewish young people (many the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) can celebrate that “Am Yisrael Chai” — the Jewish people have endured. Hitler and the Nazis were not successful because the Jewish people are alive today and our children sing and dance at the Jewish Community Center and in the location originally consecrated as a museum of memory.

It is in this spirit that I embraced the YouTube video of a Holocaust survivor dancing with his grandchildren to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” in front of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. The original video, which was viewed over 500,000 times in one day, has since been removed from YouTube for a copyright violation. However, it was likely removed due to the controversy it created. The reposted video is below.

Australian Jewish artist Jane Korman filmed her three children and her father, 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Adolk, in the video clip “I Will Survive: Dancing Auschwitz.” The clip depicted the Korman family dancing in front of Holocaust landmarks in Poland, including the infamous entrance sign to Auschwitz death camp reading “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a Polish synagogue, Dachau, Theresienstadt, and a memorial in Lodz.

Her father at one point in the clip even wore a shirt on which the word “Survivor” was written. During a recent family visit to Israel Korman said that she thought of the idea after she encountered hatred toward Israel and Jews in Australia and added that she wanted to give her concerns presence during the heritage tour of Poland she recently took with her family, and take a different approach to the matter.

Haaretz newspaper reported that “Many Jewish survivors have reacted gravely to the video, accusing her of disrespect. Yet Korman told Australian daily The Jewish News that ‘it might be disrespectful, but he [her father] is saying ‘we’re dancing, we should be dancing, we’re celebrating our survival and the generations after me,’ – the generation he’s created. We are affirming our existence.'”

This is clearly a work of art, but it is also a powerful message that no matter how horrific and catastrophic were the acts committed by the Nazis in the last century, the Jewish people are still having children and grandchildren, and we are dancing together in joy all over the earth. Even on the land that buried millions of members of the Jewish faith, the Jewish people are still rejoicing with our future generations.

What do you think about Holocaust survivors dancing with their grandchildren at Auschwitz?

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

Woman Arrested for Illegal Use of Torah

I work as the rabbi at a Jewish summer camp. We have eighty campers from Israel join us each summer. Many of these young campers, like most Israelis, are not familiar with liberal, alternative forms of religious expression in Judaism. In Israel, Judaism is black and white. You either do it or you don’t – secular or religious. Even the Israeli youth at camp who have heard of the Conservative and Reform movements still don’t really understand what it means to be a Conservative or Reform Jew.

This morning, a 12-year-old Israeli boy approached me and asked, “You’re not an Orthodox rabbi, right?” No, I responded wearing my cargo shorts, t-shirt, and shortly cropped hair with a knitted kippah. I told him that I’m a Conservative rabbi. He said that’s what he figured but he wasn’t sure. He then said something that caught me off guard. In Hebrew he asked, “That sefer Torah (Torah scroll) that you read from on Shabbat morning at services here at camp isn’t kosher, is it?”

I explained that the Torah is most certainly kosher, but I understood immediately where his doubt came from. I told him that our camp actually owns two kosher Torah scrolls and that this particular one we’ve been using this summer was on loan from a local synagogue. Based on the Judaism that he sees in his native Israel, he found it difficult to believe that a non-Orthodox rabbi could possess a valid Torah scroll.

In Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) establishment is calling the shots when it comes to religious law. Israelis like to boast that their country is the only true democracy in the Middle East, but when it comes to matters of religion, Israel is beginning to look more like one of those backward, primitive religious states in the Islamic world at which we roll our eyes.

Each month, on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month), the Women of the Wall gather in Jerusalem for a women-only prayer service. These prayer meetings have been turned into a media circus ever since Nofrat Frankel was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) a few months ago. Yesterday, Women of the Wall leader Rabbi Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll from the Western Wall women’s section to the Southern Wall area where the Chief Rabbinate and the police both agreed that women could read from the Torah.

My colleague, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, was part of this group and witnessed Anat’s arrest. She detailed the incident in a jewschool post. She writes:

We finished Hallel and began to proceed, according to the terms of the Israeli High Court (Bag”tz) decision, to Robinson’s Arch to read Torah, with the intent to preserve the continuity of the service by escorting the Torah in song. Now, it should be noted here that WoW has had a hard time lately getting the Sefer Torah into the Kotel area, even though Bag”tz permitted it in its ruling. I won’t reveal how they got it in this time around, but it took some maneuvering.

It is perfectly kosher, according to the Bag”tz ruling, to take the Sefer Torah out of its bag, as Anat did this morning, by the Kotel, to carry it to Robinson’s Arch. It is not permitted to read from the Torah in the women’s section, and we did not. We were singing and escorting the Torah, and things got more and more tense, with police trying to physically push Anat out of the women’s section and she (and those of us holding on to her) was trying to walk out, but at a more dignified pace. Eventually there was a skirmish involving the police trying to physically take the Torah out of her hands (we were now out of the women’s section and on our way over to Robinson’s Arch) and somewhere in all of that, they arrested her, and she was taken into custody (as was the Torah).

Many Conservative and Reform rabbis have written articles recently expressing the notion that the real enemy in Israel is us. Often the greatest threat is from within.

Just today, a law called the Rotem Bill is moving closer to final passage in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). This law began as a proposal by the Yisrael Beitenu party to streamline conversion for Russian immigrants, but it has been twisted into an attack on non-Orthodox Jews. This bill will vest all authority for conversion in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and guarantee that only a particular Orthodox approach to defining Judaism will become the guideline for determining who is recognized as a convert to Judaism. The Rotem Bill would overturn earlier protections for non-Orthodox converts and threaten the legitimacy of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other converts to Judaism who wish to become citizens or be otherwise recognized by the state as Jewish.

I’m proud of my Jewish heritage and I feel blessed to be a rabbi. However, the notion that a woman can be arrested in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish homeland, for holding a Torah scroll is infuriating. I believe that it is healthy to have differing viewpoints and expressions of Judaism, but the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel must cease. The video footage (below) showing the police brutality toward the Women of the Wall is disgusting.

In a week on the ninth of Av, Jewish people around the world will fast for a full day in commemoration of the destruction of the temples that once stood in Jerusalem. Tradition teaches that the Temple fell in the year 70 CE on account of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred among Jews. The complete arrogance and disrespect shown by some Jewish people toward others in Israel demonstrates that 2,000 years later the lesson has yet to be learned.

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