Why Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Matters & the Celebrity Double-Standard

I’m hesitant to write about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky, who was raised in Conservative Judaism, because I want to respect the private lives of the bride and groom. However, when the bride is the daughter of the 40th President of the United States, I suppose she is classified as a celebrity and her wedding is fair game as a topic for discussion.

This marriage will spark conversation in the Jewish world about two main issues: How intermarriage affects the Jewish community; and, whether there is a double-standard in the Jewish community when it comes to the intermarrying ways of celebrities.

David Gibson, in his article in Politics Daily, brings to light the key points surrounding this wedding. The question of whether Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism is something that Jews wonder (from Jews who are vehemently against intermarriage and those who are accepting of it). This high-profile wedding will bring many of the implications of intermarriage to a more public forum, forcing the conversation about, among other things:

  1. whether a rabbi should officiate at an interfaith wedding;
  2. whether intermarriage really erodes Jewish continuity;
  3. whether a non-Jewish mother can raise Jewish children;
  4. whether conversion for the sake of marriage is genuine enough to count; and,
  5. whether there’s a double-standard in the Jewish community when a high profile person marries outside of the faith.

Gibson quotes my colleague, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe, who claims it’s his dream that Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism. Gibson also read the ongoing conversation at the InterfaithFamily.com website about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding.

In a lively discussion at the InterfaithFamily.com website, one commenter said that even if Chelsea does not convert, a rabbi should take part in the wedding “if the couple agrees to raise the children Jewish.” Another, however, cautioned that “this cannot be a Jewish wedding — a Jewish wedding is one where both people are Jewish, either by birth or by choice.” And yet another commenter gave what is perhaps a more characteristic answer: “I believe that Chelsea and her fiancé should do whatever will make them happiest.”

In real life, of course, questions about the role of religion often animate wedding planning, given that so many young people feel freed from old prohibitions against marrying outside the faith, if indeed they adhere to the religion of their parents or any religion at all.

Last month I was quoted in a Detroit Free Press article about interfaith marriage (“Do Interfaith Marriages Threaten Jewish Identity?”) and then took part as a panelist in a Free Press online chat on the subject.

After taking part in the online chat with Edmund Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, and an intermarried couple, I can only conclude that this is a very challenging issue because people’s lives, and children, and feelings of love and affection are in conflict with thousands of years of tribal law. It’s really about clubs and who can join and who can’t and who decides the rules.

Regarding the Gibson article in Politics Daily, my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula comments, “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

Some interesting questions surrounding the Chelsea Clinton wedding should make this even more interesting:

  • The wedding will take place on Shabbat (July 31, 2010), so how will this affect whether observant Jewish (shomer Shabbat) guests will attend. Even if they stay within walking distance of the Astor mansion, according to Jewish law weddings are not to take place on the Jewish Sabbath.
  • If Chelsea does convert before the wedding, will her conversion be disputed publicly by the Orthodox who will claim that a Conservative (or Reform) conversion isn’t “kosher.” And, many will question her commitment to Judaism — didn’t she do this only for the sake of marriage and how much preparation and deliberation did she put into this?
  • If Chelsea doesn’t convert, how many of the Bill and Hillary’s Orthodox friends will attend the wedding anyway? Will their attendance at an interfaith wedding (and on Shabbat to boot) signify an endorsement? And what about Conservative rabbis who are technically not supposed to attend interfaith weddings? Will some make an exception for such notable nuptials?
  • Finally, might this high-profile interfaith wedding turn the tides and lead to greater acceptance and sensitivity toward interfaith marriage? After all, as Gibson writes, “The main body of Conservative Judaism [CJLS] voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and in March, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hosted a two-day workshop “sensitizing” students to “issues of intermarriage and changing demographics.” There is even talk of allowing Conservative rabbis to attend the interfaith weddings of friends — and this just four years after the movement adopted an official policy emphasizing the importance of converting a non-Jewish spouse.

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is sure to grab headlines because of the main actors and the supporting cast, but in the Jewish world this wedding might just be an interfaith “game changer” in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

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

The LeBron Decision From a Jewish Perspective

Aside from NBA star LeBron James leaving one Jewish NBA franchise owner in Cleveland (Quicken Loans and Rock Financial chairman Dan Gilbert) and going to work for another Jewish NBA franchise owner in Miami (Israeli-American CEO of Carnival Corporation Micky Arison), there are several Jewish themes and lessons in “The Decision” of which team the free agent would sign with.

Ne’emanut (Loyalty) – In the last couple of decades there has been very little loyalty among professional athletes. In a bygone era, a city’s fans could expect their star player to stick with the franchise from his rookie season until his retirement when he would be awarded a coaching or front office position. With free agency, loyalty is out the window. High profile athletes in free agency have their agents shop them around to the highest bidding teams. Last night, LeBron James decided he would leave Cleveland sans a championship ring and head down to South Beach, Florida because he wanted to win a championship and figured that the Miami Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be his best shot. I’m sure building a Shaq-like estate on Biscayne Bay or Millionaire’s Row had something to do with the decision too, not that I have anything against LeBron’s hometown and current city Akron, Ohio.

Anivut (humility) – Realistically, I don’t expect many NBA superstars to be humble — the few guys in the league who are humble are widely praised as anomalies in the sport. These are guys who grew up with very little and became millionaires with their first signed contract. They live glamorous lifestyles, their image is worth millions, and their endorsement deals add millions more to their net worth. However, the way LeBron handled his free agency decision was embarrassing. The hour-long ESPN prime-time special in which he announced he’d leave Cleveland for Miami had LeBron sitting across from Jim Gray, whom he chose as his interviewer, and in the background were rows of children from the Boys and Girls Club sitting silently. I fault his management team and agent for not using better judgment and letting their mega-star client know how badly this would look to the world.

Malachim (Kings) – We know from the Bible that kings are flawed individuals. LeBron had no problem coming out of high school, signing a mega-contract with the Cavaliers, and proclaiming himself “The King.” It was a title he had yet to earn in the NBA, but he made a personal franchise out of it. While other superstars helped their teams win rings, King James would earn no ring in Cleveland. Today, Dan Gilbert (pictured) issued a letter to Cavaliers fans and finally expressed his own long-held opinions about his franchise player. To the Cleveland fans he wrote, “You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.” He accused LeBron of giving up and tanking it in the playoffs this year (and also in last year’s post-season). Gilbert’s words lead us to believe that like the kings of the Bible, James is a flawed individual. He put himself before his teammates and the fans who supported him and paid for the tickets, souvenirs, and apparel that kept his stock high.

The people of Cleveland have every right to feel betrayed by LeBron. Superstar athletes may come and go, but the way LeBron handled this free agency decision was all wrong and hurtful to his fans (no fans, NBA; no NBA, no multi-million dollar contracts). Perhaps Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said it best and his words that transcend the NBA. I hope all pro athletes will take Gilbert’s words to heart.

He said, “It’s not about him leaving. It’s the disrespect. It’s time for people to hold these athletes accountable for their actions. Is this the way you raise your children? I’ve been holding this all in for a long time.”

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

Hebrew National Hot Dogs: Questioning Higher Authority

A 2004 article in the Jewish Daily Forward proclaimed that “Hebrew National became the unchallenged king of the kosher meat industry by marketing its product to non-Jews with the help of several catchy advertising slogans, including the famous, ‘We answer to a higher authority.’ But its success masked a bizarre twist: Most kosher consumers won’t eat the company‘s products.”

The article went on to explain that following the death of Hebrew National’s in-house Rabbi Tibor Stern and the decision to get kosher supervision from the Orthodox Triangle K, under the auspices of Aryeh Ralbag, the company is regaining the confidence of the Orthodox community.

In my final year as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, I sat in on a discussion of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ruled that it would approve Hebrew National meat products. The Forward article stated that “Members of the committee say the decision will have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food. Law Committee members said that the status of Hebrew National is one of the most common questions they field regarding kashrut. Due to the perceived significance of the question, the committee veered from its recent policy of not issuing statements on the acceptability of various kosher certification agencies for fear of law suits.”

Sue Fishkoff, in a New York Times op-ed (Red, White and Kosher) yesterday, took on the issue of Hebrew National’s kosher acceptance. Of course, Fishkoff’s timing was perfect since it is 4th of July weekend when millions of families will be grilling hot dogs.

What I liked most about her op-ed was her explanation of why Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry. She writes:

Today, a majority of Americans believe that kosher food is safer, healthier, better in general than non-kosher food. And they’re willing to pay more for it. Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry, with bigger sales than organic. One-third to one-half of the food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, representing more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales, up from $32 billion in 1993.

Given that Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population, and most of them don’t keep kosher, it’s clear that the people buying this food are mostly non-Jews. While some consumers probably aren’t aware that their pasta or cookies are kosher, many are folks who believe that “higher authority” promise.

I couldn’t agree more. This month, my kosher certification company, Kosher Michigan, adds several new businesses that will be certified kosher under my supervision. In addition to another bagel bakery (New York Bagel), Kosher Michigan will also certify Schakolad Chocolate Factory — a handmade European style chocolate franchise in Downtown Birmingham started by Israeli chocolatier Baruch Schaked. Kosher Michigan now certifies four production lines at Dunn Paper, a parafin wax paper manufacturer. Last month, we certified the bakery, pre-ordered fruit trays, and candy/dried fruit/nut tray department at a popular Metro Detroit supermarket, Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market.

My goal is to bring more kosher options to the marketplace. Sue Fishkoff articulates the delight that Jewish Americans feel each time another product becomes certified kosher. “It’s not just hot dogs. Every time a major American food product goes kosher, observant Jews are delighted. Coca-Cola in 1935. Oreos in 1997. Tootsie Rolls last year and two Gatorade drinks earlier this year. Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Smucker’s grape jam, Tropicana orange juice — every new item brought into the kosher pantry is a sign of fitting in the American mainstream while being observant.”

Just last week I was introduced to a Florida man who had never met a rabbi before. He confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about Judaism, but that only a few months prior he had eaten a “kosher dog” for the first time. Now that he’d had a “kosher dog,” he told me, he would never eat just a regular hot dog again..

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

The Virtual Simcha

The first time I heard about a “virtual simcha” was in the late 1990s. Detroit was hit with a massive snowstorm and the 8-day old baby boy’s aunt who was to play the role of rabbi was stuck at the airport in New York. The rabbi improvised and she officiated at her nephew’s bris via speaker phone.
Of course, if this happened in 2010 and not in the late 1990s the bris would have been officiated by the rabbi through Skype, and she would have seen the simcha and been seen by the attendees.
Using technology to add people to a simcha is becoming more common. An increasing number of grandparents and great-grandparents are attending their grandchildren’s wedding in the virtual world.
Just last month I officiated at a wedding that was being streamed live to Israel so that the bride’s elderly grandparents could “be there.” Through Ustream.tv, the grandparents felt like they were at the wedding even if it meant staying up late into the night in Israel.
Elicia Brown, writes in the Jewish Week about several of these simchas that would have otherwise been missed by family or friends, like the grandparents in Australia beaming themselves into their grandson’s Brooklyn bris. Or Conservative rabbis Erez Sherman and Nicole Guzik who married each other in January with the virtual presence of Rabbi Sherman’s brother Eyal Sherman, a paraplegic, and his sister Rabbi Nogah Marshall, who was nine months pregnant at the time. A $40 webcam was clipped to the ark; a laptop was discreetly placed on the bima of Temple Sinai, allowing Rabbi Sherman’s siblings to view the proceedings via Skype.
A week ago in suburban Detroit’s largest congregation, the Reform Temple Israel in West Bloomfield (3,400 member units), Rabbi Harold Loss and his wife Susie were honored for their forty years of service to the congregation and to celebrate the rabbi’s 65th birthday. Over 3,000 people joined together on the beautiful grounds of the temple, but the many who couldn’t be there in person felt connected as well. The Friday night service was streamed live on the Web for the elderly and infirm who couldn’t actually be there. The Temple Israel members who were on vacation that day also appreciated the live stream. Jim Grey reported that he and his family viewed the tribute service from their vacation home “Up North” and felt as if they were there without having to disrupt their family’s retreat.
Virtual technology is not only finding it’s way into Jewish simchas. It is also being used to help Jewish educators extend their reach. Julie Wiener’s Jewish Week article“For Hebrew Learning, The Skype’s The Limit” details how Internet tutoring is on the leading edge of use of technology beyond the classroom.
Skype-based tutoring — piloted last year and formalized this year at [Temple] Micah [in Washington D.C.] — is not only a convenient, inexpensive way to give kids personal attention in Hebrew, but it frees up time at the once-a-week school for other lessons, explains Deborah Ayala Srabstein, the temple’s education director. Micah is one of a growing number of congregations using technology to address two of the most vexing challenges facing supplemental, or Hebrew schools: how to teach Hebrew effectively and how to best make use of increasingly limited classroom hours. Whereas a generation ago it was not uncommon for children to report to Hebrew school three afternoons a week, today’s programs —which tend to serve overscheduled families and compete with an array of other extracurricular activities — often meet as little as two hours per week.
Virtual tools like Skype and live Web streaming are making the Jewish community feel smaller and allowing people to attend life-cycle events, from bar mitzvahs and weddings to funerals, that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend in earlier eras. These tools are also helping educate the Jewish future who are more overextended than any previous generation of young people.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Apps for Torah Study & Grace After Meals

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs
As the Apple iPhone has become even more popular and an increasing number of Apple fans have picked up the iPad, there has been a wave of new applications created for these devices. Some are good and useful, while others… well, let’s just say I’m not going to take the time to write a bad review.
Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, now calling himself “The App-ter Rebbe,” has announced the publication of a new commentary on the Torah for Apple’s iOS devices: iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.
Garfinkel, who previously published the well-received hard-copy Torah commentary “Mikraot Ramah,” for use at Jewish summer camps, now adds “Mayim La-Eidah” to the App Store. Mayim La-Eidah is a Torah commentary and discussion app to supplement the study of the weekly Torah portion. This current week’s installment includes 23 Divrei Torah (commentaries) on the Torah portion and 17 discussion questions to be used for sermons, adult education, and youth programming. If reading material on a screen isn’t your cup of tea, or if using these electronic devices doesn’t sit well with you on Shabbat, just tap the “Send Me A PDF” button in the lower-right hand corner. You’ll receive a printer-friendly PDF in your email, and you are free to photocopy it for educational purposes. The commentary includes material for laypeople and professionals alike. Installments only cost 99 cents and can be downloaded here.
Another useful app for the Chosen People is iBirkat. This is a Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) application for the iPhone. This app, created by the Jerusalem-based development firm appSTUDIO, is a free app without ads that is being released as a public service.
Currently this is the only benscher app that is on the market as the other apps for the Apple family of devices that include the Birkat Hamazon text are not focused solely on Birkat Hamazon, but rather include it along with other texts and features. With iBirkat there’s no need to navigate through an entire Siddur to find the Birkat Hamazon. iBirkat has an elegant scroll view as opposed to static page views and takes advantage of the accelerometer and adjusts the text to the adequate screen position.
This app was developed when members of the team realized that the only time they found themselves using an iPhone Siddur app was to recite the Birkat Hamazon. They saw the need for clean, convenient and quick access to the text of Birkat Hamazon. iBirkat is free and available for download at the Apple app store online.
A new app recently released for the iPad is Totally Tanakh, a joint project of RedleX and the Davka Corporation. Totally Tanakh lets you browse, search and study the Hebrew Bible and features crisp Hebrew text with precise placement of Hebrew vowels and cantillation marks, and verse-by-verse synchronization between Hebrew, English, and Rashi’s commentary. This app includes the Hebrew text and English translation of the entire Bible plus the Hebrew text of Rashi on Torah with vowels. This app has great search capability and easy navigation. I also liked the bookmarking feature and the ability to view the Rashi commentary and the Hebrew text in parallel columns.
Totally Tanakh sells for 9.99 and is available at the Apple app store.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller