Saying Sorry with Social Media

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Is tweeting teshuvah a cop out?

Last Yom Kippur, I delivered a sermon explaining how Jewish people have begun “doing teshuvah” — seeking repentance from others — through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. A week before Yom Kippur the religion editor of The Detroit Free Press, Niraj Warikoo, called to find out what I’d be speaking about on the Day of Atonement. My topic interested him and he wrote a cover story about how some people spend the week before the holiday asking acquaintances for forgiveness for perceived wrongdoings by offering blanket apologies in their Facebook status updates and tweets.

Several newspapers, blogs, and the AP picked up the story from the Free Press. Warren Riddle on Switched, AOL’s tech blog, wrote, “At least one member of the Jewish clergy, Rabbi Jason Miller of Michigan, is asserting that the rise of social networking is diminishing the significance of repentance. He believes that people are using sites like Facebook and Twitter to issue mass, unspecific apologies in order to eliminate uncomfortable, individual personal interaction. Miller said that, in order to protect the true meaning of Yom Kippur, ‘There should be an effort, a little challenge to go up to another person and seek forgiveness, to admit our wrongdoing.’ Incorporating technology into religious holidays and services is a hotly debated issue. Some groups welcome modern and creative ways of attracting new members, specifically young folks, while other religious leaders bemoan technological advances. Miller’s comments, though, should cross all denominations. Some sentiments and feelings are best and most effectively expressed in person — unless, of course, you’re comfortable with your failures being eternally stored for public judgment.”

Of course, I’m sure that when it became possible to send letters quickly through the postal service, there were rabbis who felt that it wasn’t appropriate to send requests for teshuvah through the mail. And when the telephone was invented, there must have been opposition to this impersonal way of seeking repentance. Just like several years ago when many questioned if it was appropriate to offer forgiveness in an email message. While face-to-face is undoubtedly the best way to seek true repentance from our friends and family, we must also face the reality that social networking and text messaging are how many of us communicate on a daily basis, and some will use those media to apologize before Yom Kippur.

My recommendation, however, is that if you are going to ask someone for teshuvah on Twitter of Facebook, at least make it a personal plea and send the message privately.

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

Dave Matthews to Play Kol Nidrei

In his song “Leave Me Praying,” Dave Matthews sings, “And then I will tell my son and my daughters to hold it so dear.” But I don’t think the singer-songwriter is talking about Yom Kippur that the next generation should hold dear. And in Chicago this Yom Kippur, many young Jews will not be singing “Leave Me Praying,” but rather they’ll be telling their parents to “Leave Me Alone” when they choose to go to Wrigley Field instead of Kol Nidrei services for a Dave Matthews Band concert.

Every so often, a conflict occurs for young people on Yom Kippur that tests their religious convictions and commitment to their heritage. One year when I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, Yom Kippur fell on a Saturday in which a home football game was scheduled. The attendance in the service I was leading dropped by about 80% an hour before kickoff. College Football 1, Day of Atonement, 0.

Rabbi Taron Tachman probably has his own stories about seeing Jewish college students struggle with Yom Kippur conflicts from when he served as the director of Eastern Michigan Hillel before he began rabbinical school. A Dave Matthews fan, Taron seems pretty upset about DMB’s concert date in Chicago.

On the OY! CHICAGO blog (for Jews in the Loop) Taron posted a column entitled “Dave Matthews vs. Yom Kippur: What Would You Say,” in which he uses Dave Matthews’ song lyrics to express his dismay at the concert date which conflicts with his Yom Kippur obligations. He writes, “Not since Sandy Koufax agonized over whether or not to pitch the World Series, has a choice this big been put before the Jewish people. Yom Kippur 5771: Should a Jew go to synagogue or to the Dave Matthews Band concert at Wrigley Field?”

While I’m a realist and recognize that the stands in Wrigley Field will include many Jewish young people who will skip out on Kol Nidrei services, I’m hopeful that they’ll drag themselves into synagogue the next morning.

I have to also give Rabbi Tachman credit for doing a good job of trying to convince them to choose Yom Kippur over the Dave Matthews concert. He concludes his post as follows:

And yet, after all this, if you are still debating over going to DMB on Kol Nidre or skipping Yom Kippur altogether, consider these important words: I call Heaven and earth to witness you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore that you and your descendant may live! (Ha, ha—how’s that for a guilt trip! Sweet you rock and sweet you roll!)

And finally…as everybody tells you, you pay for what you get and though High Holy Days tickets can sometimes be a bit more expensive than a single Dave Matthews Band concert (but not by much), what you will hopefully get by going to synagogue is a chance to seek up, with a renewed sense of purpose, meaning, inspiration and direction. You will be partaking in a tradition thousands of years old, joining friends, family and community, and at the same time supporting institutions that transform so many lives for the better.

Truly this decision is so right, and the best of what’s around. I mean really, what would you say?

All I can hope for is that young people realize they can go to the next town and catch another Dave Matthews concert, but Yom Kippur only comes once a year. And maybe Dave will play a few chords of Kol Nidrei… you never know!

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

Kotel: You’re Looking at the Man in the Mirror

For me, there is something mystical about approaching the Kotel — the Western Wall in Jerusalem. While this remnant wasn’t even one of the walls of the Temple (it was a surrounding wall), I recognize how full those stones are with the history of the Jewish people.

However, for many Jews today approaching the Kotel and praying there is like, well, sort of like talking to a wall. The area has become so enmeshed in political turmoil that there are discussions among some colleagues of mine to simply omit the Kotel on tours of Jerusalem. While the Southern Wall has been excavated and turned into a beautiful plaza (thanks to the late Bill Davidson, the Detroit philanthropist) where the progressive movements of Judaism are entitled to hold prayer services, it still lacks the prominence of the Kotel itself.

It was just announced that a “solution” has been proposed and accepted to respond to the complaint by women worshipers at the Kotel that they are unable to look over into the men’s section. Ynetnews.com reports, “The Western Wall Heritage Foundation management has decided to replace the existing partition in the Western Wall plaza, which separates the women and men’s praying sections, because it does not allow the women worshipers to easily look over to the men’s section. The foundation received many requests by women who frequent the Wall, claiming that during special celebrations held at the Kotel, such as bar mitzvahs, they are finding it difficult to watch the events through the partition.”

One proposed solution was to use one-way mirrors along the partition so the women could see into the men’s section, but not the other way around. This idea was nixed when the rabbis at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation discovered that one-way mirrors lose their effectiveness when they are exposed to the sun, and become visible from both sides.

Perhaps we should recall what Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Orthodox scientist and philosopher, wrote about the Kotel. In a scathing letter to Ha’aretz regarding the Western Wall becoming an act of idolotry with people praying to stones and pushing notes through the cracks, Leibowitz wrote: “Here is my proposal. The square in front of the Kotel should be revamped as the largest discotheque in the State of Israel, named the Divine Disco. This will satisfy everybody.” Ha’aretz printed his letter under the title “DisKotel” (From Tom Segev’s book 1967).

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

The Jewish Classroom, More Wired Than Ever

Also published in The New York Jewish Week’s Fall Education supplement and cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Many 30- and 40-year-olds will remember when a cart with a computer and monitor was wheeled into the classroom and students formed a single line waiting for a chance to use the device for a few minutes. Perhaps it was typing out a few lines of code in BASIC to move the cursor several inches along the screen, or perhaps it was creating an elementary art design.

Today, the Technology Age has entered the classroom at full speed and it is integrated in every subject and curriculum. Jewish day schools have recently added chief technology professionals to their management teams. Congregational schools have technology experts on the faculty. Synagogues have cleared away dusty books in the library from a bygone era to make room for student computer labs and SmartBoards.

At the Jewish Academy of Orlando, Apple iPods are not an unusual site. While the students are not allowed to listen to Miley Cyrus or Matisyahu in school, they can be found hooked up to their iPods to learn Torah trope (cantillation). One of the school’s Hebrew teachers has created a set of podcasts for the students to learn individually as she works with small groups. The school has also used blogs to connect with other Jewish schools on topics of interest. Digital photography mixed with the latest production tool was used to create a slideshow of the children in kindergarten using their bodies to form the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Linda Dombchik, the school’s director of technology, explains that middle school students used technology to create a virtual Holocaust museum using Keynote, Apple’s presentation creator, to teach their peers.

While many Jewish day and supplemental schools provide access to computer labs with dozens of computers, some schools have transitioned to ensuring that each student has access to a laptop computer throughout the day. Many schools struggle to keep up with the latest technology as students become accustomed to faster computers at home and the technology quickly moves toward obsolescence with each passing school year. Jewish federations and foundations, like AVI CHAI, work with day schools and synagogues to provide the newest computers and devices, including SmartBoards and iPads.

The AVI CHAI Foundation has engaged with classroom teachers through experiments in an educational technology grant program, in which 400 applications were reviewed and 30 allocations were made. Eli Kannai, who directs educational technology at AVI CHAI, notes that the field is now starting to use SmartBoards (“more than just fancy projectors”) in many classrooms demonstrating the shift to “interactive teaching.”

In the past decade, the Jewish classroom has become integrated with technology. What was once a stand-alone experience, technology is now a utility for all subjects in schools, from math and science to Hebrew and Torah study.
Students at Hillel Day School in Metropolitan Detroit use an interactive tool called Wordle to visually represent the concept of technology. These young students might type a descriptive paragraph about the week’s Torah portion, a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, or the words of a psalm. Wordle then generates a “word cloud” with the provided text. The words appearing more frequently show up comparatively larger in the word cloud.

Perhaps the single greatest technology integration into the Jewish classroom centers on Hebrew language learning. Kannai cites the enhanced use of audio and video devices to teach Hebrew. Rather than rely on the language labs of old, both day and supplemental schools are using the latest interactive software applications to make learning Hebrew fun and challenging. Students who are accustomed to playing video games at home enjoy the thrill of gaming at school to learn the ancient Jewish language.

TES, the largest Jewish software distributor, has released several applications focused on teaching children to read Hebrew, conjugate verbs, and master biblical Hebrew in an innovative way. Today’s children are more comfortable in front of a computer than any previous generation and the mode of learning must match the familiarity level.

Another trend is “user-generated content” in which teachers now create richer lesson experiences for their classrooms, and share these tools with other teachers. Each teacher maintains a webpage and blog that students and parents may access to complement classroom learning. Additionally, students are generating their own content by filming videos and uploading them to YouTube, blogging their research projects, and collaborating with their peers on websites and PowerPoint presentations to teach classmates.

These forms of user-generated content create a virtual classroom of sorts without formalizing the distance-learning approach.

As more students own personal devices that can access the Internet, we are near a situation when every student will have such a device in class, be it a Smartphone, tablet, or small laptop. The lessons of the past should prove helpful to a Jewish education system that needs to continuously adapt to the technology changes in this new world.

It is up to the educators to realize that before banning iPods, iPads and laptops from the classroom, they must seek out the ways to integrate this technology into the curriculum.

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

Social Media’s Role in Religion

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Sunday’s Detroit Free Press ran a cover story detailing how social media is being used by religious leaders. In his article “What Would Jesus Tweet?,” religion editor Niraj Warikoo looks at how houses of worship are using Facebook and Twitter to reach out to its membership and potential members.

He writes, “Religious groups are increasingly trying to harness the power of social media — from a Pentecostal church in Canton using Facebook to reel in new members to a Catholic priest in Plymouth [Michigan] who uploads podcasts of sermons to an Oak Park rabbi sparking national debates on his blog. And with its own particular rules and rituals, the world of social media has become, in a way, its own religion.”

Interviewed for the article, I explained, “The fact that I can disseminate my Torah, my Jewish wisdom, to so many people is a modern miracle of sorts.” The article ties in well to the current Jewish month of Elul when Jews around the world are pledging to improve in the coming new year and offering repentance to those we’ve wronged.

Miller argues that during the high holidays — a time when Jews are called upon to repent and seek forgiveness from those they’ve wronged in the past year — it’s inappropriate for people to apologize through Facebook or Twitter. And posting on Facebook isn’t the best way to convey your condolences to a close friend who has lost a loved one, he says.

Jews have long had religious laws that today have implications for social media. They include rules that prohibit inappropriate slander such as motzi shem ra, which refers to spreading malicious lies that harm a person’s name.

Read the entire Detroit Free Press article

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

Lenny Kravitz and His Tallis Make Cameo Appearance on Entourage

Photos of celebs, pro athletes and politicians wearing a kippah (yarmulke) aren’t unusual, but you don’t often see stars wearing a tallit (tallis or Jewish prayer shawl) on TV.


I’ve seen pics of famous Jews like Leonard Nimoy (Spock on “Star Trek”) and Bob Dylan rockin’ a tallit, but it’s unusual to see it in movies or television.

When I think about seeing the tallit on TV and in movies, I think of Ben Stiller wearing one in “Keeping the Faith,” the rabbi in Seinfeld famously wearing one while sitting at his office desk, and Krusty the Clown in a tallis at his bar mitzvah on an episode of “The Simpsons.”

Last night, in an episode of “Entourage,” in its seventh season on HBO, guest star Lenny Kravitz is seen in a synagogue for his niece’s bat mitzvah wearing a tallis (no kippah oddly enough). Super-agent Ari Gold (played by Jeremy Piven and based on Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari) calls Lenny Kravitz to see if he’s available to appear in a movie. Kravitz even speaks a little Hebrew to the rabbi while he’s on the phone with Ari. Piven, himself, wore a tallis on the show a couple seasons ago at his daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Kravitz is actually half-Jewish, as Adam Sandler sang in one of his “The Hanukkah Song” versions. Jeremy Piven also tweeted that Kravitz is half-Jewish before the premiere of this season’s Entourage. Lenny Kravitz, himself, posted HBO’s sneak peak at his appearance on the show on YouTube (see video below).

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

Miami Heat Look to 613

In Judaism the number 613 is a lucky number associated with the number of positive and negative commandments that can be found in the Written Torah (Bible). So, when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade line up to display their new Miami Heat jerseys, many Jews in the know can’t help but smile at the symbolic number.

Taryag is the acronym made up of the gematria (numerology) numbers that stand for 613. So, instead of the “Taryag Mitzvot,” here are the Taryag Heat. Now let’s see if these guys can play by the rules and win a championship.

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

LeBron’s Rabbi

I was interviewed by a reporter yesterday about this blog. He asked me how I decide what to write about. I explained that if it’s about a subject I’m interested in –like sports– and I can find a Jewish angle on the story, then I write about it. With some stories the Jewish angle is easier to find than with others, but when a pro basketball player hires a rabbi for spiritual guidance, well… not much skill is involved.

Perhaps I’m gaining a reputation for writing about Jewish connections to professional sports and athletes because in the past 24-hours when I didn’t have the opportunity to blog about LeBron James hiring Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto to consult him, I received no less than a dozen messages asking what I had to say on the matter.

TMZ, the Web’s main source for celebrity gossip, obtained the exclusive photo of LeBron James in a business meeting yesterday with Rabbi Pinto, who’s known as the “Rabbi to the Business Stars.”

LeBron has apparently hired Rabbi Pinto, at an alleged 6-figure salary, for spiritual guidance for a “big merchandising meeting” that took place on a private yacht somewhere off the coast of NY.

The best part of the story is that the 37-year-old Pinto only speaks Hebrew, which means King James may want a translator. Perhaps he’ll ask either Amar’e Stoudemire (who’s reportedly still in Israel leaning Hebrew) or Shaq (who wished a Shanah Tovah last week).

As for me, maybe someone like Larry Bird is hoping to stage an NBA comeback and wants to retain me as his Jewish spiritual guru. You just never know!

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

Jewish Silly Bandz

It didn’t take long for me to notice that this summer’s fad was Silly Bandz, the colorful rubber bands in various shapes worn on kids’ wrists. Wherever I went, I saw campers and counselors at Camp Maas, Tamarack Camps‘ residential Jewish camp where I work as the agency’s rabbi, trading all sorts of rubber shapes, but sadly I didn’t see anything with a Jewish theme in the collections.

So I went to the Web to try to find the Jewish version of Silly Bandz and landed on Rabbi Moshe Rabin’s site, JewlyBandz.com. A Chabad rabbi in Florida who runs a girls’ seminary, Rabin tapped into the latest fad quickly. He’s not the only one who has created a Jewish version of Silly Bandz, but I like his educational approach to the product. I called Rabbi Rabin to let him know that I was glad he was using Silly Bandz for Jewish education. After speaking for a while, we realized that we each had many connections to Jewish youth who would enjoy adding Jewish Silly Bandz to their collection, but these connections didn’t overlap. I work predominantly with Jewish youth in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, while Rabin is an Orthodox Jewish educator and Chabad Lubavitch emissary.

Jewly Bandz has produced a symbolic selection of Jewish Silly Bandz in the thematic shapes of the Jewish holidays with each holiday represented in elastic shapes kids everywhere will wear with pride and look forward to sharing and trading with their friends. Rabbi Rabin told me, “When I saw children so excited to collect the latest bands, I knew there was an opportunity here to teach Torah in a fun way.”

Judaism in the 21st century needs to keep pace with the current trends. If kids are crazy about collecting Silly Bandz bracelets, I want to see a shofar bracelet on every Jewish child’s wrist in the month before Rosh Hashanah.

Many organizations, like synagogues and temples, Jewish camps, JCCs, Federations, and Chabad Houses, are using Jewly Bandz for fundraising too. There is free shipping for Jewly Bandz orders over $25 and if you enter my special code (“Rabbi Jason”) you will receive 20% off if the order is placed on the Jewly Bandz website before August 31.

Monies raised selling Jewly Bandz™ will be used to fund educational scholarships for Jewish children. To purchase JewlyBandz, visit www.jewlybandz.com.

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

Yes, Orthodox Judaism Changes Too

With all the talk of the changing narrative in the intermarriage conversation, the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in synagogues, and the virtually across-the-board practice of egalitarian prayer in Conservative and Reform congregations, many Orthodox Jews claim that they are the only ones practicing “Torah true” Judaism and refusing to change course on any of these social issues. Of course, even saying Orthodox Judaism is misleading because it encompasses so many different practices and beliefs — from modern, liberal Orthodoxy to the Haredi (ultra-religious sect).

Judaism, like most religions is fluid. It evolves throughout time; the question is how quickly the changes materialize and when. In response to changes in society, the most progressive denominations evolve the quickest because, well, they are the most progressive. Take the issue of women rabbis for instance. The Reform Movement, Judaism’s most liberal branch, minted the first female rabbi in 1972 with the Reconstructionist movement following suit in 1974. The more traditional Conservative movement spent many years debating the change before finally ruling to allow women rabbis in the mid-1980s with my colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg becoming the first Conservative rabbi to be ordained in 1985.

A quarter century after the Conservatives opened its seminary to women, the more progressive Orthodox Jews in Centrist Orthodoxy are now debating the leadership roles of women in the synagogue. It was only a matter of time.

A few Orthodox women have already been ordained in some seminaries with the most well-known case being Rabba Sara Hurwitz, ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss (pictured) of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (New York). While her title was debated, there’s no question that she functions like a rabbi in Weiss’s congregation. And I have no doubt that Weiss will ordain more women in the future.

And Orthodoxy has begun to evolve on the case of gay and lesbian acceptance. Again, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements acted quickly with the Conservative movement taking years to study and debate the issue before opening its seminaries and allowing the movement’s rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies in December 2006.

Recently, 150 Orthodox rabbis issued a statement calling for the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community. The statement said in part that “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism… Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community.” At the Orthodox movement’s Yeshiva University in New York, there have been several conferences on GLBT issues. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an out-of-the-closet gay Orthodox rabbi has helped move Orthodoxy to a place of increased acceptance for gays and lesbians following the success of 2001’s film “Trembling Before G-d,” which explored the struggle of Orthodox Jewish homosexuals.

Many Orthodox Jews will say that the one place there cannot be any leeway is when it comes to davening (prayer). The dignity of the service is compromised when a woman leads, they’ll say. And yet, this seems to be the next big change in Orthodoxy — women prayer leaders. Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam prayer group in New York have allowed women to lead certain parts of the service and be called to the Torah for an aliyah honor for years now, but the major news was last Friday evening. Rabbi Avi Weiss allowed a woman at his Orthodox shul in Riverdale to lead the congregation in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. The New York Jewish week reported, “In Rabbi Weiss’ latest effort to push the boundaries of women’s roles in an Orthodox shul, he had a woman, Lamelle Ryman, lead a Friday-night service with both men and women in the pews. Rabba Hurwitz, who heads a seminary for Orthodox women created by Rabbi Weiss, made a few brief remarks, not even touching on the fact that no other Orthodox synagogue in the U.S. had apparently ever before had a woman lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service. But it was Ryman’s show, and according to those in attendance, the davening was beautiful.”

Some in the Orthodox movement are in favor of Weiss pushing the envelope and moving Orthodoxy into the future. Others feel that he’s making changes without any process or input from others. It’s possible that a censure from the Rabbinical Council of America is forthcoming, but Weiss is doing precisely what rabbis have done for generations — moving Judaism forward.

The Judaism of 2010, in any of the denominations, looks different than the Judaism of past centuries. That’s because the times change and the Jewish religion changes too, whether people like it or not.

Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on “Torah true Judaism.” If Judaism is truly going to be true to the Torah, then we must all embrace the Torah’s dictum that says the Torah does not reside in the heavens. It belongs to humanity and it is up to us to see that it remains vibrant and evolves.

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